So in my last post I mentioned that before deciding that the Netflix walkout was more important, I’d been working on a long post about “That Fucking Kidney Story” (which an earlier draft referred to as the “Bad Art Friend Story” but I think “That Fucking Kidney Story” is probably a more apt name although I’ll henceforth be saving time by referring to it as “TFKS”).

I’d also note that this article is longer than the story about the Netflix walkout, by quite some way. And inevitably this leaves me open to the criticism that I care more about TFKS than I do about trans rights. Which, I hope goes without saying, isn’t the case. It’s just that the (apparent, at least) triviality of TFKS makes it a lot easier to talk about and, indeed, riff on, without being concerned that I’m obfuscating rather than clarifying an important issue.

TFKS, however, was obfuscated from the off. The story was presented in an artful but, many would argue, disingenuous format that actually takes a lot of work to unpick. Thus the long post.

Anyway If you’ve been paying any attention to literary Twitter for the past fortnight-ish you’ll have seen the utter chaos that is “That Fucking Kidney Story”. I don’t often do topical posts (Netflix walkout aside) but I’m making an exception for this one because I haven’t updated this blog in ages (again, Netflix walkout aside) and I did actually want to do some reflecting on my own personal reaction to the story and the conclusions I’ve ultimately drawn from it.

Of course because this is an AJH blog post this is going to get rambling, big-picture and abstract and so before I do that I think it’s important to recognise that this whole story is about two women who are real people both of whom, as far as I can tell from what people who know them have said, are really nice people most of the time. But a dispute between them has been somewhat cynically turned into an infinitely flexible morality play that pundits can turn into whatever soundbite or message piece they like. And I am fully aware that I am totally part of the problem here.

Indeed, there are two reasons I resisted the temptation to call this post “the real lesson of kidneygate”. The first is that I’ve been trying to avoid using the “gate” suffix since I learned that it was actually first pushed into public discourse by Nixon allies trying to make Watergate sound like a trivial scandal instead of an actual crime (and it worked). The second is that you’ve almost certainly seen a million posts telling you what the “real” lesson of kidneygate is, and they’ll all contradict each other. And of course the real real lesson is that reality isn’t in the business of teaching lessons, life is complicated, people sometimes fuck up, and there’s nothing capitalism won’t exploit for profit.

That said, if you want a short, tl;dr version of what will doubtless shape up into a classic AJH 10,000 word essay it’s this.

We need, as a whole, to get better at handling intersectional issues, and the establishment as a whole has got incredibly good at weaponizing marginalised people against each other.

But first some background.

Some very, very deep background.

The 2010s

I’m not going to start this post by linking to the original “bad art friend” article, I’ll do that later in case you haven’t read it. Because, as I kind of spoilered above, my “real lesson” from That Fucking Kidney Story is that it’s a prime example of how established power weaponises marginalised people against one another and I don’t think I can explain that properly if I don’t set it in the context of the innumerable “reckonings” we’ve apparently had in the last ten decade.

Since 2010 we’ve had two nationwide/worldwide reckonings on gender (#YesAllWomen and #MeToo), multiple reckonings on race (Black Lives Matter didn’t appear from nowhere in 2020 and the UK had a series of riots in 2011 that were marked as a watershed at the time), and for those who can remember all the way back to the dim distant days of the first Obama administration, even a reckoning with economic inequality in the shape of the Occupy movement.

Yet somehow, in 2020, we found ourselves in a situation where progressives across America were themselves cheering because a heterosexual, cisgendered, wealthy white man had won a presidential election against a different heterosexual, cisgendered, wealthy white man.

At every stage of the last decade, popular movements that have pushed for increased justice have been cynically set against each other by powerful social institutions that absolutely know what they’re doing.

In a world where virtually all of the wealth and power is still held by white men who are generally heterosexual, cisgender and above all rich we’ve all somehow been convinced that the real problem is (depending on what particular marginalised group is being set against which other marginalised group) “immigrants taking our jobs” or “Karen wanting to see the manager” or “transgender people in sports” (or, for that matter, in general).

I talked in my previous post on this issue about the death of Sarah Everard and the way that I feel the UK government is deliberately using transphobia as a way of making it look like they’re doing something about “women’s safety” when they’re actually just reinforcing harmful misinformation (sidebar, it’s not really my place to make this comparison but I see eery parallels between the way the right frames transphobia as about “women’s safety” and the way it frames abortion restrictions as about “women’s health”). I think now would be a good time to unpack that very slightly.

The first thing I should say is that because the world is awful and everything is awful, the death of Sarah Everard isn’t the only shocking example of the British police badly failing British women. Just today Cressida Dick issued an apology for the mishandling of the missing persons case of two women who were found murdered in Wembley Park. Something that gets glossed over in the apology is that not only was the initial missing person’s report of the murdered women mishandled but police officers also took selfies next to their bodies. I thought it was important to mention this in particular because it felt wrong to be expressing my outrage over the murder of a white woman in my last post and to ignore the arguably conduct around the murder of black women.

But the thing I want to highlight about the very real ways in which British people (especially British women, especially British women of colour) are currently being let down by their political leaders, and the way those political leaders are using scaremongering, especially in the form of transphobia, to shore up their reputations, is that I don’t think the problem is a simple as Priti Patel being “a TERF”.

You might notice here that I’m pointedly not linking to anybody’s social media, or even mentioning any famous British authors who might have made well-publicised comments about the dangers posed by the trans community. Because the point I’m trying to make here is that individual people aren’t the problem, social structures are. The reason Priti Patel and Cressida Dick are getting personally name dropped here is that they’re, respectively, the Home Secretary and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

The Home Secretary responding to the real fears of British women by telling the police to start categorising transfeminine criminals as men is cynical, but it’s not grounded in an ideological commitment to Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism, it’s grounded in an ideological commitment to power. It’s exactly of a piece with the government responding to the real concerns of British people of colour and the Black Lives Matter movement by commissioning a report that says institutional racism doesn’t exist. A report that also, incidentally responds to the very real concerns of struggling white-majority communities left behind by our country’s growing wealth gap by telling them that all their problems are caused by people talking about “white privilege”. And in case you think this is hyperbole, no the government literally has told schools that they’re not allowed to teach about white privilege as part of the Government’s strategy to improve outcomes for underperforming working class children.

And I’m not saying there aren’t conversations to be had about this. One of the things I’ll actually come back to in this post is that I am sometimes concerned that the concept of “white privilege”, which was originally intended to be an idea to encourage individual white people to self-reflect, has instead become something that powerful white people weaponise against less powerful white people (hell I think that’s part of what happened with the original framing of That Fucking Kidney Story). But when Boris Johnson talks about a “war on woke” it’s hard to trust that this is him trying to find a way to address systemic inequality and not, say, trying to turn the masses against each other.

And so often we do his job for him. The overwhelming social, cultural and media emphasis on narratives that set cis women against trans people, white women against people of colour, working class people against migrants and, in the bizarre case of the kidney story, women of colour against of all things people dying of kidney failure is a real, systemic and cynically created issue that we are all, all too often, complicit in.

The Story

You’ve probably read it already but the original New York Times article is here.

You can also read a huge compilation of information about the story with a strong “the original article is Bad Actually” slant here.

You can read the original author’s follow-up article about how it wasn’t Bad Actually here.

Side note: Like most people I think social media is a mixed blessing at best but I do think we’d do well, as a society, to remember that mainstream media has always been—or at least had elements that were—sensationalist, disingenuous and manipulative. Twitter has massive massive problems that I’m sure we’re all well aware of, but the mainstream media clucking its tongue at people on Twitter for reacting strongly to deliberately sensationalised newspaper reports or, worse, calling them out for being deliberately sensationalised is a very bad look.

If you want to read a good, detailed and neutral breakdown of what actually happened (although full disclosure there seems to be some meta-discussion of this summary’s use of images taken uncredited from the Kidneygate twitter account so even here there’s controversy), take a look at this otherwise read on for my much less adequate summary.

In short, and I’m going to try to keep this neutral: a woman named Dawn Dorland (actual person, not a DC Superhero) donated one of her kidneys to a total stranger. She started a facebook group in order to have a supportive place to talk about this and she shared, in that group, a copy of the letter she sent to the recipient at the end of the organ chain that her kidney donation started. One of the members of this group, Sonya Larson, was inspired by Dawn’s donation to write a short story that used the jumping-off point of a kidney donation to explore ideas of white privilege and white saviourhood. Dorland found this both personally upsetting because she considered Larson a friend, and genuinely harmful because the story mischaracterised organ donation. There was also the question of the inclusion in Larson’s story of direct quotes from Dorland’s letter to the end beneficiary of her organ chain (not, for what it’s worth, the person who got her actual kidney, this is one of the elements of the story that Dorland felt harmfully mischaracterised kidney donation). This was complex because letters and social media posts actually are copyright under US law so this was direct copyright infringement. People sued and counter-sued and it got very bitter and now the internet (and let’s be really fucking clear, that includes professional journalists, we talk about “Twitter” as if the people with the biggest Twitter platforms aren’t almost always people who also have other conventional platforms as well) has gone to arms to decide which of these two women is evil.

I’m not really interested in that question.

I’m interested in exactly two things (okay, possibly three things). How I personally read the story, what the ways in which I and other people have read and talked about the story tell us about intersectionality, and the way divide and rule tactics are alive and well in modern discourse.

My Kidneygate Journey

Yes, I said I wasn’t going to use the “gate” suffix but I hope that by pointing out the sinister origins of the convention I’ve taken its power away (or given it its power back?).

When I first read TFKS I was squarely Team Larson. Honestly I was Team Larson before Larson even showed up on page.

Patented AJH spurious analogy: British Comedian David Mitchell (not to be confused with British Novelist David Mitchell) once said in a newspaper column “I don’t like vegans, but if I’m honest with myself, I think it’s because I’m scared they might be right.”

And I think many of us, if we are being honest with ourselves, feel that way not only about vegans, but about Dawn Dorland. Because if we’re being really sincere and self-reflective, seeing other people doing objectively morally good things (and you have to reach an incredibly long way to come to the conclusion that donating a kidney to a stranger is not an objective moral good, and honestly you have to reach a pretty long way to conclude that giving up animal products isn’t too) that we lack the resolve to do in our own lives makes us feel bad about ourselves. And when things make us feel bad about ourselves we search, often unconsciously, for ways to start feeling good about ourselves, and the fastest and most expedient way to do that is to concoct a reason that The Good Thing Was Bad Actually.

It’s that or admit to ourselves that we value our own comfort more than a stranger’s life, and that feels icky.

So I was barely two paragraphs into TFKS and I was already incredibly primed, with all of my finely honed motivated reasoning skills to latch onto the tiniest shred of evidence that Dawn Dorland was really A Bad.

And I got that evidence pretty early. Because, let’s face it, no matter how you cut it, Dawn Dorland is pretty fucking cringe. Or rather, because the NYT article seems to go out of its way to make Dawn Dorland look as fucking cringe as possible (although also she probably is pretty cringe, nice people usually are). In the first paragraph it tells us that she is the sort of writer who, in one authorial mission statement, declares her faith in the power of fiction to “share truth,” to heal trauma, to build bridges. (“I’m compelled at funerals to shake hands with the dusty men who dig our graves,” she has written.) She is known for signing off her emails not with “All best” or “Sincerely,” but “Kindly.”

So obviously, I hated her instantly. As, I suspect, did basically everybody else who read the article. Perhaps it was unintentional but I was really, really looking forward to seeing her taken down.

Anyway the article continues in this vein, talking about Dorland’s experiences in a way that look superficially like they’re presenting her side of the story but which are actually setting her up for a fall. Then it finally introduces us to the character of Larson, and it does it in a way that doesn’t make her look cringe at all. It describes her like this:

In time, she moved beyond mere political commentary to revel in her characters’ flaws — like a more socially responsible Philip Roth

So by this point in the article it’s already very clear what the setup is. Larson is this genuinely talented artist creating great art about important things and Dorland is this jealous Karen who takes herself too seriously. And just to hammer it home, it says this about Larson’s work:

Nothing interests Larson more than a thing that can be seen differently by two people, and she saw now how no subject demonstrates that better than race. She wanted to write a story that was like a Rorschach test, one that might betray the reader’s own hidden biases.

And now I was feeling smug, because I’d called it. Because you see I Am One Of The Good Whites. So naturally when I read this article I immediately understood that the white woman was A Bad and that the woman of colour was A Good and now the article was even telling me directly that this story (both the story in the article about the dispute and the short story that the dispute that the article was about was about) reveals your hidden biases. It’s as good as telling me, directly, that if I’m on Dorland’s side I’m a racist and if I despise everything she stands for and think she was wrong to do something that saved the lives of three strangers then I’m brilliant and an ally.

So I felt smug.

Then I realised I’d been fucking played.

Aside: This is Not About Sonya Larson

Because the article—despite its framing—is heavily biased in Larson’s favour (notice it describes Dorland’s writing in her own slightly cringey words but praises Larson’s writing in authoritative third person, and that’s just one example) a lot of the backlash against the article has become backlash against Larson herself and I think this was unfair.

Let me be clear, I think she and her writer’s group the “Chunky Monkeys” were pretty mean-spirited about Dorland’s donation, but I was telling the truth when I said that it was a mean spiritedness I understood and shared. If I’d been part of that group I’d have been sending private snarky tweets about Dawn with all the rest of them. I also think that there are serious questions to be raised about the way in which the Chunky Monkeys who were still a powerful group of influential writers, several of whom were Dawn Dorland’s direct superiors at work, closed ranks against her even before Dawn raised her complaints about Larson’s use of her copyrighted material. And it’s important to note that the actual copyright case should stand or fall on its own merits under the law, not on the question of which of the two people involved is the Nicest Lady.

But I also think it’s really important for me to make clear that I absolutely defend Larson’s right, as a woman of colour, to be suspicious of altruistic white women.

She has every right to think that Dawn Dorland is a smug Karen rubbing her white girl virtues in everybody’s faces.

But I do not.

And the more I look at the original New York Times article, the more I reflect on my own initial reaction to it, the more uncomfortable I am with how quick I was, as a white person, to appropriate race as a weapon to wield against a woman I’d never met. Because sure, I can pretend to myself it’s because I’m just that brilliant an ally. That I am so in-tune with the struggles faced by people of colour that, like, their pain is my pain man. But that would be a self-serving lie. I wanted to see Dawn Dorland taken down because her decision to donate a kidney to a stranger made me feel bad about myself. Full stop.

I suspect Robert Kolker didn’t deliberately write the original article with the cynical purpose of allowing other white able-bodied men to weaponise race against women and people waiting for kidney transplants. I think he probably sincerely believed he was presenting the article neutrally (and I think it’s probably the same version of the article I’d have written if I was trying to tell the story and I was being slightly less pathologically self-reflective about it). But implicit bias is a thing, and it creeps into our work all the time, and the biases at work in TFKS are many and complex.

Because this story is profoundly intersectional in a way that the initial article completely ignores and the wider discourse only sometimes touches on.

The Problem With Rorschach Tests

The original NYT article describes Larson’s story as “a Rorschach test” and the follow-up article implies something similar about the original article.

But think about what a Rorschach test is.

It’s a meaningless, random image to which the only possible response is instinctive free-association. There is, by design, no right answer. There is no wider context. There are no deeper meanings. It’s just ink on paper and whatever first pops into your head is your truth, and that’s it. You can speculate about what that truth means to you but you never have to confront the idea that you might be wrong.

That is not what this situation is.

This is a real situation. It is about real issues, with real context. It involves real people. Since it touches on the broader question of kidney donation it is literally life and death.

For all its seeming triviality, “kidneygate” is actually (oh look, I’m 3000 words in and I’m finally getting around to the main thesis of this essay) a fascinating case study on the ways in which mainstream media oversimplifies complex intersectional issues and, very often (either intentionally or unintentionally), uses them to drive a wedge between the marginalised communities on whom those issues touch.

“Kidneygate”, for all its seeming silliness, touches very seriously on issues relating to:

  • Race. I really do believe that Sonya Larson was sincere when she read a white saviour complex into Dawn Dorland’s decision to donate a kidney to a stranger.
  • Gender. This story, ultimately, is about a white male journalist writing an article that (perhaps unintentionally) held up two women to a spotlight and encouraged the public to pick one to demonise.
  • Class. Dawn Dorland, it is mentioned in the article (albeit in a weirdly disparaging way) comes from a profoundly deprived background, and it is because of this, she says, that she feels so strongly compelled to help others in the way she chose to. Both the Chunky Monkeys and the article itself seem to directly mock her for this.
  • Disability. The whole discussion in the original article and in at least the early part of the Twitter conversation almost totally ignored and erased the experiences and needs of the actual kidney recipients.

This is complex. It’s certainly too complex to discuss in a Twitter thread. It’s honestly too complex to discuss in a 3000-word-and-counting blog post. It wouldn’t necessarily be too complex to discuss in, say, a New York Times article, but nuanced discussions of complex issues don’t generate clicks. Catchy titles with question marks at the end do.

One of the most interesting responses I’ve seen to this whole debacle is this one by Bryn Donovan. It’s by a kidney donor, and it talks about several things that the original article ignores.

Firstly, it points out that the instinctive, visceral hatred that people feel for Dawn is an extremely common reaction that kidney donors face. And sure it’s one blog post. Maybe the poster is wrong, and the only reason that she, and Dawn and a great many other kidney donors she personally knows about get regularly personally attacked for just being kidney donors really is that they’re all shitty human beings. Maybe we just aren’t hearing about all the non-shitty kidney donors out there whose non-shittiness is rightly recognised by people who perceive their non-shittiness, and the reason that Bryn once got an email from somebody calling her a narcissist and saying they hoped she died of surgery complications is because she actually is a narcissist who deserves to die from surgery complications.

Maybe.

Or maybe people really do have a habit of treating kidney donors badly and maybe that is an actual problem.

The other thing it points out is that the discourse around this issue (or at least the initial discourse) is largely ignoring the needs of transplant recipients. And on one level, this is a non-issue. The Bill Gates Foundation is on the brink of full-on eradicating Malaria and if it succeeds, it will have saved more lives than any other institution in the history of the world (seriously, mosquitoes kill more humans than humans do, eradicating Malaria is by some metrics more valuable than eradicating war). That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to think Bill Gates is a prick. But the difference between Bill Gates and Dawn Dorland (apart from gender and economic status, neither of which are unimportant in and of themselves) is that generally when people shit on Gates it’s for his shady business practices and using his wealth to do things that don’t help people as well as things that do. When people shit on Dawn Dorland it really does seem like they’re doing it because she donated a kidney to a stranger.

Reading Dawn’s story forced me to admit to myself that I’d rather let a stranger die than have unnecessary surgery that, while relatively safe, would at least inconvenience me and have a non-zero risk of complications. That’s a fact about myself I’m actually pretty comfortable with.

But reflecting on my reaction to Dawn’s story made me realise that I would also, at least initially, rather let a stranger die than let another stranger, of her own free will, save that stranger’s life in a way that makes me feel bad about myself. And I was a whole lot less comfortable with that.

But.

This is where the complex intersectionality comes in.

I am happy to say that my initial reaction to That Fucking Kidney Story was grounded in an instinctive, visceral (as Bryn Donovan points out, when you think about it literally visceral) desire to avoid being morally one-upped. I’m even happy to acknowledge that my initial reaction to Dorland’s story was probably informed by a certain element of implicit misogyny. I, like more or less every human being in the world, was raised in a sexist society and gender stereotypes still sometimes affect my thinking if I let them. Certainly I don’t think I’d have had anything like the instinctive negative reaction to the story of Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh. He’s a man, after all, and a military man at that, so donating a kidney to a stranger feels like an extension of his natural manly, military heroism instead of like getting above himself, which is how Dawn’s and Bryn’s donations seem to have read to many, many people.

But I am not, for reasons I hope are perfectly obvious, willing to make the same judgement about Sonya Larson.

I should stress that I think it’s important to recognise that people of colour are every bit as capable of being arseholes as white people. Treating kidney donors like saints is dehumanising. Treating women of colour like saints is dehumanising. And it is totally possible that Larson’s reactions to Dorland’s donation are every bit as venal and petty as my own.

The thing is that isn’t my call to make. I will say that there are several people of colour out there who feel quite strongly that viewing this dispute through the lens of race is actually harmful (for example here and here). But I’ll add that there are also quite a lot of just straight-up racists (who I’m not going to link because I don’t see the sense in giving oxygen to that kind of thing) who are using this as an example of how actually racism isn’t real and in fact it’s white people who are really oppressed these days, so whether you think this started off with a racial dynamic or not it has now acquired one.

But that dynamic sits alongside the class dynamic, the gender dynamic, and the dynamic relating to the USA’s desperate need for kidney donors. And that is … well … it’s fucking complicated.

Because this story does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in a world where (oh look, I’m looping back to that thing I said was a core theme of the post again, I can sometimes stay on topic, I swear) the machinery of power deliberately turns marginalised people against each other. It’s incredibly hard as a white person with a sense of class consciousness who also tries, as a rule, not to be a racist dickwad, to talk about this story’s class dynamics without feeling like I’m erasing its racial dynamics. Because I know full well that oh but yoooouve got claaaaaaaass privilege is a divide-and-rule tactic that gets used to silence people of colour (and for that matter any other kind of marginalised person who can’t prove themselves to be living in abject crushing poverty at the exact time the conversation takes place).

The theme I keep coming back to in this post, the theme that I want to keep coming back to is that TFKS is a textbook example of the way mainstream discourse around intersectional issues is so often framed in a way that pits those intersectionalities against each other and forces people to erase one or the other of them.

The Problem with “Teams”

In so much of the discussion of this topic the questions of whether this issue has a race dynamic, or a class dynamic, or a dynamic that pertains to the real lives of transplant recipients gets conflated with the question of whether Dorland or Larson are themselves good people. And that is wrong. It’s not just wrong, it’s a common silencing tactic we see all the time: you can’t say this situation contributes to the marginalisation of [group X] because this one member of [group X] did a bad thing this one time.

The discourse around kidneygate has raised literally dozens of questions including but not limited to:

  • Do we instinctively demonise kidney donors?
  • Is there an urgent need for kidney donors in America?
  • Are public discussions of live kidney donation a good way to raise awareness of the need for kidney donors?
  • Is having sufficient faith in social and medical institutions to willingly undergo elective surgery a manifestation of white privilege?
  • Is the desire to make an altruistic kidney donation more common amongst white people and, if so, is it related to the notion of the white saviour?
  • Does Sonya Larson’s story The Kindest mischaracterise kidney donation?
  • Did Dawn Dorland really donate a kidney, or did she just pretend to donate a kidney for social media clout (this is a real thing people have really asked on twitter)?
  • Did Sonya Larson really sincerely interpret Dawn’s donation through a racial lens, or did she just pretend to for New York writer clout (this is also a real thing people have really asked on twitter)?
  • Did Dawn Dorland really grow up poor, or is she just pretending she did for… you get the idea.
  • Does Sonya Larson’s story, The Kindest, as a matter of law, violate Dawn Dorland’s copyright?
  • Does Sonya Larson’s story, The Kindest, as a matter of professional ethics, draw too heavily on the personal life of a fellow writer?
  • Is Sonya Larson’s story, The Kindest, actually a good story?
  • Did the behaviour of the Chunky Monkeys towards Dawn Dorland constitute workplace harassment, given that many of them worked at the same nonprofit for which she worked, and were her superiors within the organisation?
  • Did Sonya Larson and the Chunky Monkeys’ derisive reaction to Dawn’s social media posts have a classist dimension?
  • Did Dawn Dorland’s strong reaction to Sonya Larson’s use of her story have a racist dimension?
  • Is Sonya Larson the fucking worst?
  • Is Dawn Dorland the fucking worst?

And the answers to all of these questions should be independent, but they often get conflated with each other in a way that shouldn’t be surprising to anybody who has paid any attention to mainstream discussion of … what was it again? Oh yes. Basically anything in the last literally forever.

Before I unpack this, I should say that I’ve rewritten these last two paragraphs about half a dozen times, because I’m trying hard to avoid oversimplifying a complex situation, but when I reread what I’d written I realised that all I’d succeeded in doing was oversimplifying it in a different way.

What I originally wrote was that these were complex independent questions that had been boiled down by “social media” (that ever-useful scapegoat) into “team Larson” and “team Dorland”. But then I realised that by making that generalisation I was actually just aligning myself with the third, equally wrongheaded group “team Both Sides”.

One of the most unpleasant dynamics in this whole situation is that (and warning, this sentence gets long but I want to keep it as once sentence because the whole sequence matters): it was kicked off when a white man with two kidneys and a column in a nationally syndicated newspaper wrote an article about a dispute between a woman who had donated an organ and a woman of colour; this sparked a debate online that seems largely to have been between women, organ donors, and people of colour; and a lot of white men with two kidneys then seem to have responded to that debate by stroking their chins and saying “gosh, isn’t it interesting how seriously people are taking this story, I wonder what this tells us about our broken political discourse.”

And I very much don’t want to be part of that.

Especially because it’s not even true.

I do think that the discourse has often conflated specific questions from my long list above in ways that are both unhelpful and silencing. In particular I think people have often conflated questions about Sonya Larson’s personality (is she the fucking worst) with the quality of her work (is The Kindest a good story) with the legal merits of her case (is her use of Dawn’s letter posted to a private facebook group copyright infringement) with both the sincerity of her perception of a racial dynamic (is she just “playing the race card”) and the validity of it (is live organ donation a manifestation of white privilege / was Dawn Dorland trying to live out a white saviour fantasy). And I think that, as ever, a lot of people have gone down the road of pretending that it’s impossible for something to be about both race and class at once instead of having to “really” be about one or the other.

But it’s also a massive oversimplification to just treat this debate as one in which there are two misguided “sides” who don’t realise—as all true enlightened centrists realise—that the reality is somewhere in the middle.

The reason I think “kidneygate” is important is because it’s a masterclass in how institutional power stirs shit between marginalised people in a way that erases nuance and consolidates influence, validity, and authority in the hands of the people who already have it.

There’s an old XKCD (there’s always an XKCD) in which Stick Figure A says “Personally, I find atheists just as annoying as fundamentalist Christians” and Stick Figure B says “Well, the important thing is that you’ve found a way to feel superior to both.” And I get a strong sense of this from a lot of the meta-commentary around the internet’s reaction to kidneygate.

A lot of the higher-level takes on this dispute have characterised it as a spat between two internet “teams”, like a fandom shipping war. On the one side you have Team Larson, who are people of colour and anti-racist allies who perceive this narrative through a racial lens but oh my God, those silly PoCs and white liberals, haven’t they realised that there’s also a class dynamic and that organ donation is important?! And on the other side you have Team Dorland, who are exclusively white working-class people and organ donors who perceive this through a lens of economic injustice and medical necessity but oh my God, those silly poor people and organ donors, haven’t they realised that they’re being racist?!

This is smug, both-sides bullshit.

In fact, over the past couple of weeks, the discourse seems to have got pretty complex. Indeed a lot of Dorland’s biggest defenders have been people of colour who resent what they see as the original article’s cynical race-baiting and even the “writers vs non-writers” framing that the discussion picked up around day three seems not to hold up to close scrutiny.

But that narrative isn’t in the interests of a media mainstream that wants to keep pushing the same old lines about “sides” and “polarisation” and “social media bubbles” when actually social media has provided some of the most nuanced reflection on this case and mainstream media’s presentation of it has been some of the most one-sided.

Darker Impulses                       

So far, exactly one member of the Chunky Monkeys has actually come out and said that, in retrospect, the way they treated Dawn Dorland was not okay.

Her twitter thread is here.

Her characterisation of the whole thing is as “a case of good people who let darker impulses override compassion, clear thinking, and common sense” and I think that’s probably fair. Hell I know it’s fair because even if it doesn’t describe what happened with Sonya Larson and the rest of the Chunky Monkeys, it sure as hell describes what happened with me.

I keep circling back to the instinctive, visceral desire I felt to take down Dawn Dorland the moment I heard that she’d done a good thing that I wouldn’t personally do.

If you still have the tab open, or can be bothered to re-open it, I think this description of a text exchange (between Sonya Larson and a friend named Witney Scharer) from Summer Brennan’s summary of the case is illustrative:

“I guess I feel like it’s hard to think someone is being altruistic when they use hashtags like #domoreforeachother and #livingkidneydonation,” Whitney texted. “I don’t know…a hashtag seems to me like a cry for attention.”

Right???” Sonya replied, “#domoreforeachother. Like what am I supposed to do? DONATE MY ORGANS?”

And … I’m always nervous about drawing false equivalences but… well… I do get where Witney is coming from here.

Sidebar: Witney Scharer is also a real person, I’m not ascribing specific motivations to her. When I say “I get where she’s coming from” what I mean is “she said something mean and obviously unsupportable but I can understand why a person might have said it.”

Because the thing is, the line about how it’s “hard to think somebody is being altruistic when they use hashtags” is either untrue, or suggests that Witney (and, by extension, Sonya, who doesn’t challenge her on it) objects to both the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements. Using hashtags is absolutely what you do when you are trying to advocate for a movement you care about on twitter. Like, there have been a couple of pretty famous examples of that happening pretty recently.

And sure sometimes the use of hashtags can signal that somebody is being disingenuous. If McDonalds sent out a tweet saying “you can’t fix racial injustice, but you can fix you hunger with a delicious BigMac ™ #BlackLivesMatter #YouDeserveABreakToday #PleaseSpendMoneyOnOurProducts #NoOfCourseWeWontPayOurEmployeesALivingWageWhatIsThisEurope” that would be gross and … the kind of thing corporations do all the time, actually. But that’s not what Dorland was doing. The two hashtags that Witney singled out for criticism were “Live Organ Donation”: literally the thing she was doing, and “Do More For Each Other”: literally what she was encouraging people to do.

Larson’s response “What am I supposed to do? DONATE MY ORGANS?” is revealing too. Because … yes? That’s exactly what you’re supposed to do. That’s what Dorland’s promotion of her kidney donation is explicitly designed to encourage people to do and it worked at least once. It’s a strategy with a fairly low success rate but complaining about somebody doing something that saves lives because it doesn’t save more lives is clearly not sensible.

And I should stress that these are private texts. People send mean texts in private, it’s a thing. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to have a snarky reaction to another person doing something that makes you feel bad about yourself. But I am saying that this seems to be what happened in this situation.

It’s people giving in to their darker impulses.

One of the things that has (and I appreciate I’m both-sidesing here) been either inappropriately glossed over or inappropriately focused on when discussing this story, especially when discussing this story through a racial lens, is that a lot of the other people involved in Sonya Larson’s side of this story were white (Witney Scharer was, for example).

I say that it has been inappropriately glossed over because a lot of the framing around this story (especially the original NYT article) has implicitly put it in terms of a “women of colour vs the Karen” narrative, which isn’t really true. There were definitely plenty of white people who hated Dawn Dorland for being The Worst and while they seemed more than willing to appropriate race as a way to justify their distaste, well, so was I.

But I also say that it’s been inappropriately focused on because some people have been treating the fact that some of Sonya Larson’s friends were white as if it’s some kind of smoking gun. As if having white friends somehow makes her less Asian or makes her perception of a racial dynamic less sincere.

There’s an exchange which some people find particularly damning where Alison Murphy (a white woman) suggests to Larson that if Dorland objected to the publication of The Kindest she should “post [about the objection] to Grub Writer’s of Color”, adding that “the great thing about that, is that if Dawn came after you, they would draaaaaag her.”

And out of context this does feel a lot like the smoking gun people are framing it as. It’s basically a white woman outright telling Larson to “play the race card” and Larson agreeing that it’s a good idea.

But in context this is a situation that both Alison and Sonya had, fairly or unfairly, interpreted as having a genuine racial dynamic. It was about what they both seem to have genuinely seen as a racist white woman unfairly attacking a woman of colour for writing a story about racial issues. In that context recommending, in private, that your PoC friend should go to other PoC writers for support against the Racist Karen who was trying to stop her publishing an anti-racist story probably felt like very sensible, proportionate advice.

I keep coming back to ask myself what I would have done in this situation and then, perhaps more importantly, what the people in this situation should have done (which is generally a different thing).

What We Owe To Each Other

In theory, social justice is incredibly simple.

Don’t be a bigot. Tax the rich. Job done.

In practice it’s unbelievably complex.

I mean, there are some situations where it’s not, obviously. Looking back at those texts between Witney and Sonya, yeah they’re just being mean and uncharitable. We should all be less mean and more charitable. We don’t all have to donate our organs, but we do have to recognise that people who choose to donate their organs aren’t narcissists who deserve to die of complications in surgery.

But there are also situations where it is, in fact, complex.

I said at the start of this now seven-thousand-word-long post that when I first read the NYT article I viewed the story only through a racial lens, and I patted myself on the back for being one of the Good Whiteswho got the Right Answer on the Rorschach test, and that it was only on later reflection that I realised it wasn’t that simple.

And I do think that’s a Thing We Owe To Each Other. I think when you are looking at a situation like this from the outside the right course of action is pretty straightforward: treat everybody involved as a human being, try not to fall into the trap of only viewing it through a single lens and, perhaps most importantly don’t weaponise somebody else’s identity against the person you most instinctively dislike.

But then I ask myself about the people more closely involved in the situation.

Becky Tuch, in her apology thread, reaffirms her belief in The Kindest, saying: “I want to say on record that I always loved this story. I was proud of Sonya for writing it, thrilled to see it getting the recognition it deserved.”

In a reply to that thread, another poster asks if she still stands by her love of the story, now it’s been pointed out that it mischaracterises kidney donation and that it does so in harmful ways. Ways that reinforce negative stereotypes that kidney donors really face, and that actively discourage people from donating a kidney to people who need one. Because let’s remember that unlike many forms of ethical tourism, which often really are Bad Actually, donating a kidney to a stranger—no matter how cringe you are about it—is almost always Good Actually. So writing a story about how it’s Bad Actually might genuinely do, y’know, the opposite of saving lives.

At time of writing, Becky Tuch hasn’t replied to that question, and that’s fair enough. It’s one hell of a tough question to reply to.

Because honestly if a woman of colour I knew personally showed me a story she’d written that was clearly and explicitly an exploration of racial power dynamics and the white saviour complex, I am really not sure it would be my place to say “actually, do you think you’ve adequately considered the white woman’s perspective?”

Like I think if it was somebody I knew really well and it was in this exact context that I might say something like “okay, I get what you’re going for here, but are you sure that making this about kidney donation is the right call?” But of course if it was in this exact context I would have zero standing to say that because I would also have spent the past six weeks going on about how awful and cringe I found fucking Dawn and her fucking kidney.

A lot of people find Alison Murphy’s contribution in particular, encouraging Sonya to seek support from other writers of colour, and expressing it especially in such flippant terms as “the great thing about that, is … they would draaaaaag her” to be utterly unacceptable. And in some ways it does look like the exact kind of instinctive weaponization of other people’s identity that I’ve been pointing out we should all be trying to avoid. But what should Alison have done? Patiently whitesplained to Sonya that the situation is complex and intersectional?

It’s fine to say “oh you have to look at this through multiple lenses” when you’re writing a smug think-piece (and it’s certainly better than writing a smug think-piece in which you fail to look through multiple lenses) but that’s not how you support an actual friend.

Revisiting the Invisible Knapsack

Warning, this is where I veer off again from addressing TFKS specifically to talk about much broader issues in a mildly infuriating way.

The more I’ve thought about this case, and in particular about my reaction to it, the more I’ve come to re-examine the way I think about the concept of privilege. And actually maybe “re-examine” isn’t the right term to use so much as “course correct”.

There was a story in the UK news recently about St Andrews University making its white students sign a document acknowledging their white privilege (in writing, in a formal test) before they were allowed to matriculate. Of course the first thing to say here is that the fact that there was a news story about something (as this long post about a different misleading news story attests) doesn’t mean it remotely happened. There was something similar about the University of Kent and it turned out that the story was about an optional course that people could take if they wanted.

Something that seems particularly to be trending in UK anti-anti-racist (if only there was a shorter way to write that) discourse at the moment is “is wearing second hand clothes white privilege?!”

Now again, I do not trust the right-wing press to be remotely honest when reporting on anything to do with equality, so I don’t know the context in which this “second hand clothes” quote appears in the actual university diversity courses under discussion. But I think it’s at least likely that any university course that is still talking about wearing second-hand clothes in 2021 is getting the context very very wrong indeed.

Because the thing is, I recognised the “second hand clothes” quote immediately. Its full text is: “I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race” and it comes from the essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack first published in Peace and Freedom Magazine by Peggy McIntosh in 1989.

And let’s be clear, old ideas can still be good ideas. It’s not like the basic concept of privilege has changed in the intervening thirty years. But the point of McIntosh’s invisible knapsack is that it was personal to her. I don’t trust tabloid reporters to be remotely honest when reporting on issues relating to diversity, but I also don’t see any way that the exact quote about being able to wear second hand clothes without having people attribute that choice to the bad morals of your race has wound up back in the discourse unless people are using the “list” from the Invisible Knapsack, out of context, as some kind of checklist. Exactly what Peggy McIntosh said you shouldn’t do with it.

(Sidebar: Okay, there is one way, it’s possible that these courses actually do start by saying “the term white privilege was popularised by Peggy McIntosh in her 1989 essay, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, here are some examples of things she personally identified as aspects of her own life in which being white benefited her, and she took those benefits for granted. These are not supposed to be universal, or to apply to every white person, and indeed some of them may sound dated” but I’ve been to work and school training programs and they’re very seldom that nuanced).

But what does this have to do with That Fucking Kidney Story?

Maybe nothing. As ever this whole massive post is mostly about me and my personal reactions. And one habit I’ve noticed myself slipping into is using “privilege” less and less as something I try to be aware of in myself (which is literally the whole point) and more and more as something I diagnose in other people (which is not the point at all, indeed it arguably runs counter to the whole point). Something I’m very aware of in the way I personally reacted to TFKS was that I was incredibly quick to diagnose Dawn Dorland as having white privilege (and somehow to also convince myself that her donation of a kidney to a stranger was a manifestation of that privilege) and then, once I’d checked myself on that, equally quick to diagnose Sonya Larson as having class privilege. And that’s not what the concept of privilege is for.

I don’t like uncritically reinforcing the idea that discourse has become “debased” or that we’ve somehow “lost” our capacity for nuance or that things have in some real but nonspecific way got “worse” since whatever the good old days were. But I do find it a bit amusing that, in looking back at comments that Peggy McIntosh wrote in 2010 about how to use, in a teaching context, papers she wrote about intersecting systems of discrimination and privilege in 1989 the literal first point she made about how to discuss the concepts she talked about is, in a lot of ways, the perfect summary of what has gone wrong with the discourse around this Fucking Kidney Story.

She says:

My work is not about blame, shame, guilt, or whether one is a “nice person.”

The story of Dorland vs Larson raises a whole bunch of questions about race, gender, class, healthcare, privilege, power in both small and large communities, the role of the press and of social media, and responsible journalism. And a lot of these questions really are worth asking.

The one question that is definitely not worth asking is: “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?”

thinking
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Hi. Long time no update.

This post is a bit late. And partly that’s because it’s my style but it’s partly because I’ve been wrestling a lot with the intersectionalities of this one, and asking quite serious questions about whether my voice as an affluent white dude is what this situation really needs.

So instead I worked on a long post about That Fucking Kidney Story, which I thought felt like safer content, and while I was working on it I stumbled across this post pleading people to take the Netflix walkout as seriously as a new hit TV show, or … well … That Fucking Kidney Story.

And that did make me have a rethink.

Although ironically the conclusion I came to is that the things I was planning to say about That Fucking Kidney Story were actually important to this story as well.

Like always, this post is going to get rambly. If you want a tl;dr, I did ultimately come to the conclusion that I should cancel my Netflix subscription in protest, but specifically in protest over the company’s shitty treatment of its workers, not over The Closer on its own. I won’t necessarily leave it cancelled forever, I think Netflix needs to be held accountable for this, I don’t think it needs to be driven to bankruptcy.

Anyway, let’s get started.

The Kidney Story Isn’t About Kidneys and This Isn’t About the Closer

I haven’t watched the Closer.

There are two reasons for this. Okay, three reasons, partly it’s just that I’m not a fan of American standup. But the first real reason is that I don’t necessarily agree with the idea that you’ve got to have personally financially supported and consumed something to have an opinion on its contents if you know what those contents are. The second reason is that the Closer itself isn’t actually why I’m cancelling my Netflix subscription, or why I’m writing this post. The Closer is the symptom, it isn’t the cause.

The reason I found Kidneygate fascinating enough to write a 5000+ word unpublished blog post about it is that it read, to me, as a microcosm of the way in which mainstream institutional power weaponises marginalised people against each other. If I ever actually publish the post I’ll go into this in exhaustive detail but, in short, what really bugged me about That Fucking Kidney Story was that it ultimately boiled down to a white male New York Times journalist with two kidneys taking a complicated and nuanced dispute between a working class white woman with one kidney and a middle class woman of colour and inviting the internet to debate which of them was The Worst.

So much of the discourse around Kidneygate has been about framing it as a “Rorcshach test”, implicitly implying that if you side with the middle-class woman of colour then you hate kidney donors and want them to die, and if you side with the working-class white woman you’re a racist and that the only truly correct answer is to be a white, male neoliberal enlightened centrist. It’s classic divide and rule, breaking everybody who isn’t a white, affluent, heterosexual, cisgendered man with a platform in a major public newspaper into ever smaller and smaller groups and forcing them to fight each other for the few scraps of equality the kyriarchy is willing to toss down to them.

And the discourse around The Closer and the subsequent walkout of trans Netflix employees and their allies has been framed similarly. This is about White trans people, the mainstream discourse is saying, versus a Black comedian.

This is actually why it took me a while to come to the conclusion that, yes, cancelling my Netflix subscription was the right thing to do. Because for a while I did feel ambivalent. After all, Netflix hosts a lot of content I find objectionable. It hosted Little Britain for a while, which includes a famously transphobic recurring sketch (it’s a sketch in which the entire joke is that the protagonist is a trans woman who doesn’t pass and loudly demands “I’m a Lay-dee”, and yes technically she’s framed as a “transvestite” but, well, if she was assigned male at birth but clearly expresses a strong desire to be treated as a woman that’s … like … the definition of gender dysphoria and is also the whole joke). It’s also done a bunch of collaborations with Ricky Gervais and the only reason it’s not working with J. K. Rowling is that she’s too big to be pitching made-for-TV scripts to streaming services.

If it was just about cancelling Dave Chappelle I’d be far more on the fence here.

But it’s not.

Divide and Rule

When Netflix made the decision to air the Closer a transgender employee named Terra Field posted this twitter thread. It consists, you will note, primarily of a list of murdered Black trans women, and indeed explicitly highlights the privilege of White trans women relative to Black trans women (“I’m a white woman, I get to worry about Starbucks writing ‘Tara’ on my drink”, she says). It made no calls for Chappelle’s show to be removed from the streaming service, it sought only to state that minimising the reality of trans experience was harmful, and that treating trans issues as only affecting White people was false and harmful specifically to trans POCs.

She was then suspended from her job at Netflix.

And yes, Netflix say this was unrelated. And maybe it was.

But at that point I have to ask myself who I give the benefit of the doubt: a transgender woman who was just suspended by her employer days after publicly criticising them, or a multi-billion-dollar tech corporation.

Trans employees organised a walkout at Netflix and Netflix fired one of the organisers.

That organiser was black, transgender, and currently pregnant.

Again, they said it was unrelated.

One of the things that I sometimes find clarifies my thinking in situations like this is to compare shitty behaviour by corporations with petty crimes committed by regular people. Especially because “corporate personhood” is an actual legal doctrine.

In a situation like this it’s really easy to look at what Netflix has done here and say things like “well they claim they weren’t retaliating against their trans employees, and I guess we just have to take their word for it” or “well sure this is shady but lots of other corporations do shady things.”

But imagine if an ordinary person tried to pull that shit in a court of law. Imagine you were on trial for, say, shoplifting. If you said you didn’t do it, would the jury take that as somehow binding, like they couldn’t just call you on your bullshit if you were obviously lying? If you said “well lots of other people shoplift and get away with it” would the judge throw your case out? Of course not.

We should treat corporations accused of mistreating their employees with at least as much rigour as we treat a teenager accused of stealing a can of Pepsi.

Especially if—to extend a metaphor—that teenager is applying for a summer job as a security guard.

Netflix Isn’t Parler

Part of the reason I think it’s so important to hold Netflix specifically accountable for everything that’s gone on here is that Netflix doesn’t bill itself as a neutral platform.

There are plenty of platforms that are. I’m not boycotting YouTube because it hosts alt-right channels. I’m not boycotting Facebook over the fact that plenty of bigots are also on Facebook. But Netflix is different.

Admittedly Netflix doesn’t come out and explicitly describe itself as progressive. It’s a corporation so it doesn’t really describe itself as anything if describing itself as that thing could cause it to lose a single dollar of profit. But it does make a lot of hay (and more importantly a lot of money) by presenting itself as uplifting marginalised voices. Hell it’s even made hay-slash-money out of attempts by conservatives to boycott it over its excessively progressive programming.

Ted Sarandos, co-CEO and chief content officer of Netflix even doubled down on this position when he reiterated Netflix’s commitment to “diversity” saying:

“We are working hard to ensure marginalized communities aren’t defined by a single story. So we have ‘Sex Education,’ ‘Orange is the New Black,’ ‘Control Z,’ Hannah Gadsby and Dave Chappelle all on Netflix. Key to this is increasing diversity on the content team itself.”

Hannah Gadsby in particular wasn’t especially happy with being weaponised against other LGBTQ+ people here (her reply, in true Australian style was “fuck you and your amoral algorithm cult”). But more generally there is something profoundly wrong with Sarandos’ framing.

Because what does he mean when he says he’s “working hard to ensure marginalised communities aren’t defined by a single story” in defence of Chappelle’s comments about transgender people in The Closer?

Read as charitably as possible, he’s saying that Netflix is committed to diversity and that supporting Chappelle’s particular brand of edgy comedy is part of their commitment to supporting African-American performers which is totally unrelated to their commitment to supporting LGBTQ+ performers. That wouldn’t be a great argument—it would still be a petty divide-and-rule tactic that framed trans people and African Americans as two irreconcilable groups with no possible common interests—but at least it would only be a non-sequitur instead of something a whole lot worse.

Because read less charitably but perhaps more accurately he seems to be saying—or at least strongly implying—that Dave Chappelle’s comments about transgender people are part of Netflix’s commitment to diversity as it relates to LGBTQ+ people specifically. That sentiments like “I’m team TERF”, “gender is real” and “Now… I am not saying that to say, that trans women aren’t women. I’m just sayin, that those pussies that they got… You know what I mean?” (I’ve not watched the special in question but I have read a transcript) are somehow themselves a valid take on the trans experience.

I should stress I’m not making an “own voices” argument here. I’m not saying that the issue is that Dave Chappelle isn’t transgender. It’s perfectly possible for people who aren’t part of a community to speak to or about that community in a way that is reflective of that community’s needs and experiences and makes the people in that community feel both heard and seen.

The Closer most certainly isn’t that.

And as far as Dave Chappelle is concerned, it’s not a problem that it isn’t that. Hes not the one framing the unexamined TERF talking points in The Closer as an important part of Netflix’s commitment to “ensur[ing] marginalized communities aren’t defined by a single story”.

Netflix is.

Netflix has a brand image that is overwhelmingly left-leaning and progressive. Its content is curated and managed.

The closest thing I’ve been able to find to broadly right wing comedy on Netflix is Jeff Foxworthy. He’s a conservative Christian who endorsed Romney in 2012 and donated to Bush in 2000. But his Netflix content is extremely apolitical (about the edgiest thing he says in the one sample I could find online was “one hundred percent of Black men who shave their heads look cool, fifty percent of White men who shave their heads look like they’ve just murdered their parents”). I tried looking to see if there was any, say, pro-life content on Netflix and found this list of pro-life content on streaming services. Virtually none of it is on Netflix and most of what is on Netflix isn’t explicitly pro-life it’s just generally life-affirming or about human rights in a very broad way. The closest thing to a Pro-Trump documentary seems to be Trump: an American Dream which was fairly early in the administration, from a British company and neutral-slash-anti in tone. Across a wide range of US-centric political talking points, Netflix nails its colours extremely firmly to the progressive mast.

And yeah, this isn’t scientific. I haven’t watched every single program on Netflix so maybe there’s this whole dark underbelly of alt-right content that I’m missing. But in general I think it’s safe to say that Netflix is not and does not pretend to be a neutral platform. It provides liberal-leaning content for liberal-leaning viewers. There are plenty of viewpoints that it definitely does not platform. There are plenty of things that it seems you definitely can’t say in a Netflix show. It’s just that “being trans is like wearing blackface” isn’t one of them.

It is in this specific context that Netflix’s response to the controversy around the Closer is so unacceptable.

The issue isn’t that Dave Chappelle reiterated some TERF talking points. It isn’t even that Netflix hosted a show in which Dave Chappelle reiterated some TERF talking points. It’s that Netflix seems to have committed firmly to the position that TERF talking points are not only compatible with but are in fact a necessary part of a content offering that prioritises telling a diverse range of LGBTQ+ stories.

That, let’s be clear, is fucked all the way up.

We Did Not Get Here By Accident

The article that kicked this off pleads with readers to pay attention to the Netflix walkout instead of the new hot TV show or “That Fucking Kidney Story.”

But here’s the thing.

“That Fucking Kidney Story” is about live kidney donation.

America has a chronic kidney shortage. Depending on which way you do the maths and which numbers you believe, preventable deaths in the USA as a consequence of this kidney shortage range from 12-13 a day to more than forty thousand a year (more than all gun deaths combined). One of the things that it outrageous about the “Fucking Kidney Story” is the way the original New York Times article frames the act of donating a kidney as selfish and attention seeking, going so far as to effectively weaponise a woman of colour in order to characterise Dawn Dorland (the kidney donor in the article) as an entitled racist Karen, pretty much entirely so that the article’s readership don’t have to feel obliged to do anything about a real systemic problem in American healthcare.

I don’t blame Jude Doyle (author of the original “please care about this” article) for feeling frustrated that a deliberately sensationalised story about “Bad Art Friends” was sucking up all the oxygen while trans Netflix employees were fighting to get their employer to recognise that their existence isn’t a both sides issue.

I blame a system where marginalised people are forced to minimise the life-or-death struggles of other marginalised people in a vain effort to get somebody, anybody to pay attention to their own life-or-death struggles.

In March of this year, a British woman named Sarah Everard was abducted, raped, and murdered by an off-duty police officer. It was later revealed that her killer had arrested her under the pretence of her having violated lockdown protocols, and when this was revealed the Commissioner of the Metropolitan police said that she “shouldn’t have submitted to arrest” (so if you’re keeping score, if you resist arrest and a police officer kills you, it’s your fault, and if you don’t resist arrest and a police officer kills you, it’s also your fault). When women protested and held vigils and demanded change to a system that empowers male police officers to commit this kind of crime they were spied on and arrested in droves.

And so what is British Home Secretary Priti Patel doing to ensure the safety of women?

She’s ordering the “woke police” to stop recording offences committed by trans women in female crime statistics.

Let’s be clear. This is deliberate divide and rule.

Actually protecting women is difficult and expensive. Demonising transgender people is easy and free.

The more I sit here, the more I realise how fucking furious this whole situation makes me.

But, let’s be clear, I’m not angry at Dave Chappelle. He’s just doing the style of comedy he’s always done and getting angry at him for it isn’t going to change anything. And anyway getting angry at comedians for telling jokes is just playing needlessly into the hands of right-wing pundits who are itching for a chance to tell me to “get a sense of humour.”

I’m angry at Ted Sarandos for firing and suspending trans employees for speaking out and for smugly insisting that hosting transphobic content on Netflix is part of their desire to “ensure marginalized communities aren’t defined by a single story”.

I’m angry at Priti Patel and Boris Johnson for cynically exploiting trans panic to cover their gross mismanagement of the UK’s police forces and somehow managing to spin an outcry by British women based on a murder by a cisgendered male police officer into an excuse to attack trans rights

I’m angry at every politician and pundit and journalist and CEO that’s ever got a cheap vote or made a quick buck teaching vulnerable people to hate and fear each other instead of the people who are actually making the fucking decisions.

I’m just generally angry.

thinking
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I’ve been reviewing TNG series for several years now and have just started season 3 – meaning I am actually writing these reviews more slowly than the episodes were originally made. So that’s … an accomplishment.

Evolution

This one has Dr Kelso from Scrubbs in it, which is nice. Also, anyone whose Star Trek bingo card had “the entire plot revolves around a piece of Wesley’s homework going wrong” scratch that off if you haven’t already.

So, yes. In this episode Dr Kelso from Scrubbs is on the Enterprise because they’re helping him do Science to a weird stellar phenomenon, where, like, a solar flare goes into a black hole or something, and this only happens once every hundred and twenty-four years so if he doesn’t do it now his entire life’s work will be ruined. I mean, I do have to wonder what he’s been doing his whole life if it all comes down to this one thing. Like most academics I know kind of work on more than one thing and also don’t devote their entire lives to the study of a single time-critical event that they’ll only get to observe once. Like, how did this guy even get a doctorate if the thing he studies could not previously have been studied, including by him. Also how is anyone going to replicate his research?

Anyway, the plot kicks into gear when the Enterprise starts experiencing unexplained malfunctions and it turns out that these were caused when Wesley took two nanobots from sick bay and decided to let them modify each other to see what happened.

Which I suppose sort of makes Wesley God?

What happens, of course, is that they immediately become sentient (sentience evolves incredibly fast in fictional universes. If real biology ran off Star Trek principles we’d be overrun with sentient bacteria) and when Dr Kelso from Scubbs tries to wipe them out so he can carry on doing his experiment they get personally offended and try to kill the Enterprise.

Because this is TNG, not TOS, the solution to this is, of course, for them briefly inhabit Data’s body, then have a diplomatic exchange with Picard in which he apologies, surrenders, and gives them everything they want. Although given what they want is just to … leave the Enterprise (and also, thinking about it, a whole planet) this is kind of fair enough (apart from the planet thing, which Picard was able to swing surprisingly easily).

This is actually quite a good episode. The core nanotech principle is sound(ish), there’s a very Star Trekky bit where they all sit around and debate What Life Is TM, and I’m always here for episodes where the solution is Picard makes a diplomacy check. That said, I giving it an extra bobbin for being a Wesley’s Homework episode.

Three bobbins.

The Ensigns of Commands

I’m not sure why this episode is called what it’s called, partly because I only really know the term ‘ensign’ as a rank on a ship, although from context or etymology it seems like it mean signs or symbols?  

Anyway, this is a Data Has No Game episode—which are surprisingly common because everyone wants to do Data. This is also one of those episodes that makes you ask what the fuck is going on in the Star Trek galaxy.

The core conflict is that there a planet called Tau Cygni V which a decades-old treaty signs over to a species of enigmatic murder aliens called the Sheliak.  (Also I just want to take a moment to note that my completely unmodified copy of Word apparently recognises ‘Sheliak’ as a valid proper noun. Do I think someone at Microsoft just dumped the whole of Memory Alpha into the dictionary? Yes. Yes I do). This should have been fine because Tau Cygni V is bombarded with generic Star Trek radiation that should make it impossible for humans to live on it, except it turns out some humans are living on it.

Sidebar: this is going to come out as quite a low bobbins episode because I genuinely like it but it will gain at least one bobbin for how handwavey this set up is. Like, the conversation goes roughly “How can there be humans on it, it’s bathed with radiation so deadly that it will kill anyone who goes down there?” / “I dunno, they’ve adapted I guess?” Basically it’s a premise designed specifically to make it so that only Data can go down the planet’s surface because a human away team would be killed by the radiation. If the radiation is that dangerous there is no way a off-course colony ship could possibly have survived.

This episode has quite a nice A plot / B plot structure, or I suppose really a split A plot structure in that half of it is Data on the planet, trying to convince the Tau Cygni V-ians that they really do seriously have to evacuate because the Sheliak will just nuke them from orbit, while the other half is Picard negotiating with the Sheliak for time to complete the evacuation.

Second sidebar: although what the hell kind of treaty is this where one of the clauses is apparently “and if you do find humans on any of these planets, you’re just allowed to kill them all?” I’m going to come to back to this next episode but there are some elements of TNG’s moral relativism that have dated quite badly, and I think “we just have to let them commit actual genocide because it’s their culture” is very … 1990s liberalism.

Anyway, Data enlists a hot chick (who is like super into robots, like really super into robots) to help him with the negotiations and, tragically, he never tells her how fully functional he is, despite having ample opportunities to do so, and her being clearly up for it. There’s one scene where he basically does the Mark Anthony speech from Julius Caesar in a really “no this is really just the Mark Anthony speech from Julius Caesar” way, but I sort of enjoy that the final solution to the stand-off is for Data to just blow up their aqueduct with a phaser and then be all like, “bro seriously, I’m one guy with one gun and you couldn’t stop me, what the fuck are you going to do about an army of murder aliens frying you from a low earth orbit.”

Picard’s plot, meanwhile, hinges on the fact that the Sheliak, as well as being murder aliens, are also one of those obsessively legalistic alien races who will insist on the absolute letter of the treaty being applied in all contexts. Of course, because this is Star Trek, the fact that being extremely legalistic and digging into the minutiae of complex treaties is literally this thing this species are best at Picard beats them at it. In particular, he demands third party arbitration, then selects as arbiters from a species that is currently in the middle of a six-month hibernation cycle. And, you know what, I bet when Picard was in school they did the lesson about how the Grizzelas hibernate for six months of the year and I bet he was like, “urgh, when are we ever going to use this in real life.” Pay attention in school kids.

I will also say that Picard is a total dick about the treaty loophole, knows he’s being a dick about it and is not only fine with that but actively relishes it. Which is awesome. I mean, well awesomely petty? Like basically what happened here was the Sheliak showed up and said “hi, we’re going to kill fifteen hundred people and there’s nothing you can do about it” and Picard was like, “oh yeah, well I’m going to very mildly annoy you.” Like, honestly he was this close to just telling them ambassador that his name was Admirable Butts.

Two bobbins (because of the aforesaid plot radiation).

The Survivors

This one is really sweet in admittedly quite a gender and heteronormative way. The Enterprise arrives at a planet that is under attack by an unknown alien threat to find the whole place dead except for an old man and his wife, who live basically in a nice house with a picket fence in a couple of acres of garden. Deciding that this is ever so slightly suss, the Enterprise hangs around to investigate.

Although I like this episode, I think it does have a little bit of the problem that you get in some RPG scenarios, where while the solution to the mystery is interesting there’s not much of a way for the players (in this case the crew of the Enterprise) to actually find it other than just wait until someone explains it to them. Because, sure, it’s weird that this old dude and his wife are all that’s left on this devastated planet but there’s nothing Picard can really do about it, he’s not willing to take them off the planet without their consent and they don’t want to leave. Plus, the one person who could figure it out—which is, of course, Troi, because Troi is amazing—has been incapacitated by a magic psychic earworm that, for some reason, no-one notices for ages. So you’ve got this incredibly weird dynamic where Troi is put in coma by exploding brain music and Picard ignores that while finding other excuses to keep bothering an elderly couple.

Of course, Picard does eventually work out what’s going on, which (spoiler) is “it’s an omnipotent being episode.” But it’s hard not to feel he does it primarily through genre savvy. Like, maybe it’s me but if I showed up at a devastated planet and found two survivors and, when an alien starship showed up to try to destroy me but mysteriously stopped short of destroying me and fled, keeping just ahead of me at all times, I don’t think go immediately to “omnipotent pacifist”. Unless I also knew I was in an episode of Star Trek. To be fair, Picard has spent way more time hanging out with Q than I have. So maybe he’s just used to assuming that an immortal dickhead is a viable hypothesis in any situation.

Anyway, this episode is a kind of melancholy romance if you are willing to gloss over the fact that the female character in that romance was fridged before the episode began and is an illusion that her husband created with his omnipotence powers. But I find it rather lovely that, despite being an all-powerful energy being who could have created literally anything and gone literally anywhere, the guy in this episode, on losing his wife, immediately recreates her exactly as she was. As a woman in her 80s who lives in a little house with a little garden. I think we’re so used to the idea that romance belongs to people in their 20s that it’s almost subversive that with the whole span of his relationship and, indeed, any other possible relationship he could imagine, to choose from he decided to go for a time in their lives when they’ve … already done it all? And are just living in quiet retirement on a planet somewhere.

Oh, also the twist of this episode is that omnipotent guy was an absolute pacifist so wouldn’t fight to defend the planet from the invaders. But when his wife was killed he had a moment of grief and rage in which he annihilated literally the entire invading species (which also neatly explains why we’ve never encountered them before and will never encounter them again). Picard’s response to this is “we don’t have a court that’s qualified to judge this” and, y’know what, fair enough? Because, don’t get me wrong, this gets really difficult in that genocide is simultaneously a real thing that happens in the real world and that ordinary people are complicit in for shitty reasons and for which, let’s be clear, ordinary people absolutely can be prosecuted. But in this context, it’s a lot more abstract and is kind of more about how you deal with an omnipotent being. And, yeah, it is reasonable that the Federation isn’t set up with an omnipotence court. Although they probably should because the Star Trek universe is fucking filled with omnipotent creatures.

Two bobbins. I’m afraid omnipotent energy beings automatically incur a one bobbin penalty.

Who Watches The Watchers

You know what’s a really good thing to talk about in a series of light-hearted reviews of 1980s science fiction shows? Colonialism.

A sort of joke but not really joke I often make about Star Trek is that it’s sort of utopia as imagined by a white American liberal man in the 1960s. Which is to say, it’s extremely progressive in some areas (especially when you get into the post-scarcity 24th century) but sometimes betrays assumptions that I think it’s important not to leave unchallenged.

In particular, TNG is the era in which the series formally codified the prime directive (something Kirk cheerfully ignored as he went around punching and doinking his way across the galaxy) and I think the thing about the prime directive is that it’s very easy to assume that it’s a good idea. When, actually, when you really really think about it … it’s, well, it’s a bit patronising and colonialist, isn’t it?

To be more specific, it’s what you might call second-iteration patronising and colonialist. I don’t want to oversimply an incredibly complex topic but the thing about the prime directive is that it seems enlightened when it’s actually just really Enlightenment. The idea behind it is laudable and well-intentioned, and it seems to have been intended to address the problematic implications of a series that has its entire premise that it’s about a group of people whose culture looks really western/European/American going out, doing exploration and interfering with other cultures.  I mean, Rodenberry always described the original series as “Wagon Train to the stars” and the thing about Wagon Train is that it wasn’t exactly set in an uncomplicated era of history. The Federation are supposed to be the good guys, but if the good guys just go around imposing their values and beliefs on other people then, even in the late 80s / early 90s, that was beginning to be a bad look. In the 60s, sure, Picard could get away with blowing up a God computer because “man was meant to march to the beat of his own drums”. Twenty years later that seemed a bit gauche.

The problem is, the prime directive is grounded in some really specific, unexamined assumptions about why contact between European imperialistic powers during the age of exploration and indigenous cultures tended to be so bad for indigenous cultures. In particular, it’s fundamentally grounded in the assumption that there are “advanced” cultures and “un-advanced” (which is probably a better word to use than “primitive” here) cultures, and that the reason interaction between “advanced” cultures and “un-advanced” cultures is harmful to the “un-advanced” cultures is because they aren’t ready for the “advanced” ideas the “advanced” society exposes them to.

This, let us be very clear, is wrong.

We actually saw this idea in the Season 2 episode, Samaritan Snare, where there’s the race of “unadvanced” aliens who have stolen technology they weren’t ready for and that’s why they’re bouncing around space in a broken down ship and need to abduct Geordi. Again, it’s this really unexamined conflation of progress in very specific areas of technology (mostly long-distance travel and warfare) overall “intelligence” and moral worth. Which is … when you think about it … incredibly gross.

In this episode, there is a Federation anthropological team hidden by a holo projector observing a species with around about a Bronze age level of technology (although it’s hard to tell because everybody outside the Federation dresses exactly the same: leather waistcoats, grey puffy trousers).  There is an accident, one of the inhabitants of the planet gets injured, Crusher teleports him to the Enterprise to heal him, then they send him back. They do at least remember that the mind-wipe thing from Pen Pals exists, but it apparently doesn’t work because handwave handwave differences in neurophysiology handwave handwave and he, of course, immediately decides Picard is a God.

And don’t get me wrong, the episode does actually engage with this topic in an interesting way. There are discussions of the advantages and disadvantages of several different approaches, and the episode does ultimately show the Mintakans are capable of accepting the reality of the cosmos in which they live. Which his, yeah, there are people out there who’ve got spaceships. What it never quite challenges is the underlying assumption that this “okayness” is unusual. Or not to be expected. They make a big deal earlier in the episode of how the Mintakans are kind of like Vulcans so they’re a remarkably logical people who gave up religion centuries ago, and therefore have the “right” set of values to be able to “cope” with … not being treated like children?

I appreciate that this review is mostly about the prime directive, rather than the episode, but this is a very prime directive focused episode and I’ve been wanting to talk about the prime directive for a while. It’s actually a really good episode, if you take it on its own terms. It’s just that its own terms, when you stop and think about them, includes the assumption that anyone whose boats aren’t as big as yours needs to be deceived about reality for their own good. And that it is the responsibility of the people with the biggest boats to make that call on behalf of everybody else. And that’s—as ever, not super my place to make this diagnosis as a white English person—but that still feels like a colonialist mentality to me?

But, of course, this rating system isn’t about what the implications of the world-building elements explored in this episode are. It’s about whether the episode is bobbins or not. And since this episode takes the prime directive seriously enough that you can meaningfully ask “hang on, shouldn’t you just be telling these people the truth?” And since it contains absolutely zero energy beings, holodecks, pieces of science homework gone awry or Ferengi it actually gets a 1 bobbin rating.

1 bobbin.

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Hello hello, I’ve been really bad at updating this blog due a combination of general busyness and pandemic brain. I am, however, hoping to get back into the saddle, including Things I like and Rating Star Trek episode By Bobbinsness. On which subject

Q Who

This is a Q episode and a Borg episode.

10/10.

Basically in this episode, Q shows up and is all like “you need me Picard baby, tell me you need me” and Picard is “go away Q” and then Q is like “fine, in that case I’ll teleport you to the other side of the galaxy, then sit back and laugh as you all get murdered by creepy space robots.” And then Picard is like “fine, I do in fact need you in this specific context of needing you to get me out of the problem that you got me into.” Foeyay intensifies. And now I’m trying to work out if Picard/Q is my favourite Star Trek ship. Or if I prefer Sisko/Gul Dukat. I mean, Sisko/Gul Dukat is just constant toxic mind games with each other. Whereas Picard/Q is Q being incredibly needy and Picard being like, “I’m trying to read Proust.”

ANYWAY, Picard/Q emotional dynamics aside, it’s interesting to see the early iterations of the Borg because, in some ways, they changed even more than the Ferengi over the course of the series. It’s really notable in this episode they have no interest whatsoever in the actual crew and seem to particularly want to “assimilate” Federation technology, rather than Federation peeps. Hell, we even see baby Borg, which is a) adorable and b) a strong implication that they were originally envisioned as a specific species that augmented itself with cybernetics rather than a kind of invasive cyborg hivemind.

It’s also kind of impressive how far in advance the Borg get set up. My limited understanding of what went on behind the scenes is that there was kind of a power struggle between Gene Rodenberry who very much wanted the over-arching villains to be the Ferengi and literally everyone else who wanted them to be literally anything else. And, thankfully for space opera fans everywhere, we got the Borg instead of antisemitic stereotypes in space.

This is a fully 1 bobbin episode. It’s great.

The Samaritan Snare

And from the highs to the lows. This episode is, um, in the words of its antagonists, not smart. Basically the crew of the Enterprise encounter … I don’t know how to describe this. Like, members of an alien species whose whole thing is that they are either congenitally or culturally “not advanced” with all the either ableist or colonialist implications that carries but who have elevated themselves beyond the level they are “supposed” to be at by nicking other people’s tech and abducting people. This is not quite as terrible as Code of Honor (from Season 1) in that they at least aren’t coded as a specific human ethnic group but it’s really not good.

Also the one aspect of this episode worth commenting on, which isn’t really about this episode at all, so much a sort of a meta-observation, is that it’s another good example of Troi getting an undeservedly bad reputation for being rubbish. Because they really specifically had to keep her off the bridge here because otherwise having a highly trained psychologist with literal psychic powers sitting there saying “no, they’re up to something” would have blown the plot wide open in the first ten seconds. As it is she comes in about halfway through and Riker’s like “hah hah, look at these comedy aliens” and Troi’s like “dude, they’re totally going to screw you, what the hell are you doing.”

Actually, in order to avoid having to talk about this terrible episode (although I will come back to Picard and his artificial heart subplot) I might talk about Troi for a bit. Because I strongly remember thinking in the late 90s / early 2000s that having a counsellor on the bridge of what, despite protestations, is clearly a warship would really date the show and Troi as a character as a character has received quite a kicking down the years. But, looking back, it’s really interesting to see that, perhaps unintentionally, the show ended up making a woman doing emotional labour quite an important part of the functioning of the Enterprise’s mission. Like, she is genuinely useful and good at her job if you accept the premise (which in the 21st century we’re slowing beginning to) that people’s emotional state is important to their wellbeing and job performance, and supporting people emotionally is both valuable and a specific skill. Which should be recognised not just assumed to be something that certain types of people (usually women) generically do.

Anyway, Picard’s heart. Picard has an artificial heart as a result of an act of youthful badassery that he is now embarrassed about and Wesley has to take him to hospital in the most uncomfortable shuttle ride in Federation history. This is by far the best bit of the episode. Indeed, I would watch an entire bottle episode of Picard and Wesley having awkward silences in a runabout.

That does not, however, save this from being a full 5 bobbins episode.

Up The Long Ladder

Oh my God. So the one saving grace of the previous episode is that the offensive stereotype aliens weren’t based on a specific human ethnic group.

In this one, there’s a bunch of comedy Irish people who are always drunk and/or horny, have basically no technology, and are surrounded by farm animals at all times unless they’re the hot one who is banging Riker. To be fair, the hot one is very, very hot. Although she’s also a sharp-tongued, red-headed Irish farmgirl who is constantly going on how useless men are. Basically, she’s a very specific type of histrom heroine.

The plot of this episode is that there were two colony ships that left Earth centuries ago and got separated. And one them is all rural and back-to-the-soil and drunk and Irish, while the other is this highly technologically advanced group of science clones. And, oh do you see, they have to come together because something something strength through diversity something something.

Like a lot of science fiction stuff from the 90s with progressive intent this series goes to some fucked up places. The core message that these two very different societies are stronger together is nice, don’t get me wrong. But, well, one of those societies is a ludicrous ethnic stereotype and the other is really creepily acephobic. You see, the technologically advanced society suffered massive casualties when their ship crashed and have been kept alive only through cloning, as a result of which they basically don’t reproduce sexually and they find the idea of having sex a bit weird and gross. The show makes it very very clear that finding the idea of sex weird and gross is bad and wrong and will destroy society, and people who are like that have to change.  

There’s also the fact that the eventual union of the two cultures very specifically delegates to the women of the racist Irish stereotype culture the responsibility to repopulate a planet. Which the attractive redhead very briefly objects to but then she decides she’s fine with as long as she gets to bang a hot guy. And don’t get me wrong, I’m all for women who like to bang hot guys, I think that’s an important thing to see on TV, especially in the 90s, but going from “I didn’t sign up to be Eve” to “three husbands, you say?” in the space of two minutes seems to elide a whole lot of issues. Because fundamentally liking sex and wanting to be constantly pregnant for as long as is technologically feasible are very much not the same thing. Also, I’m not convinced one hot woman gets to consent to this on behalf of every woman in her society.  

Anyway. This is another 5 bobbins episode for reasons I think are self-evident.

Manhunt

So there are some elements of the Star Trek universe which make it incredibly obvious that it was originally invented in the 1960s. One of those elements is the … kind of default assumption of a ludicrous level of sex positivity just being what stuff is like in a utopian future but in a way that is often played for laughs and/or shock value if it transgresses any of the still quite socially conservative norms of mid to late 20th century America.

You see this early on in Angel 1 where you have the very sex positive society where they bonk all the time but, oh my God, it’s female dominated and Riker has to wear a skimpy outfit like a girl. And you see it again in the character of Lwaxana Troi who is an older woman who likes sex and this is hilarious. Plus it sort of double dips on the 60s sex vibe because it’s very specific that a lot of her rampant hornyness is inherent to the Betazoid species (at least the females of the Betazoid species) which is relevant when you remember that Troi was originally conceived as a four-breasted nymphomaniac.

Anyway, the premise of this episode Betazoid females (I can never tell if the term women is correct for non-humans, it tends to vary from episode to episode) go through sort of a menopause analogue called “the phase” where they they just get mega mega mega mega mega mega mega mega randy. And this entire episode is Lwaxana Troi trying to bone down on Picard, and Picard not being up for it. Which is extra funny because not only is there an older woman who wants to have sex there’s also a man who doesn’t. Lol lol lol lol lol. Sigh.

The thing is, I do love Lwaxana Troi because it’s always great to see Majel Barrett getting work and she’s clearly having a fabulous time with the character. And in some ways it is quite a liberating character because Lwaxana Troi tends to come out on top (so to speak), is genuinely respected for what she does (although that does raise some fucking weird questions about how Betazed is governed) and clearly gives no fucks what anyone thinks of her.  Besides, if you let yourself ignore the fact that her sexuality is constantly played for laughs it’s actually really nice to see a woman in a late-50s who is allowed to be beautiful and flamboyant and unabashedly sexual.

Unfortunately I don’t think there’s a single episode where the idea of Lwaxana Troi being attracted to you isn’t presented as a bit gross. Which is particularly annoying when it’s Picard because he’s only about eight years younger than her and has had repeated plotlines where he is romantically involved with women who are shall we say somewhat more than eight years younger than him. And that have been presented in a very positive light. Not to bang on about this too much, Majel Barrett was born in 1932, Patrick Stewart was born in 1940 and Gate McFadden was born in 1949. So, actor-wise, Picard is slightly closer in age to Lwaxana Troi than he is to Beverley Crusher but the show frames Lwaxana/Picard as weird and inappropriate but Picard/Crusher as totes cool to the extent that there’s a fan theory that he’s Wesley’s real dad.

ALSO, at the end of the episode Lwaxana pwns everybody by casually explaining that two fish people ambassadors are actually assassins intending to blow up a peace conference, and one of the fish people in their giant fish people costumes is Mick Fleetwood from Fleetwood Mac.

Mick Fleetwood and Majel Barrett between them save this from being a 5 bobbins episode. 4 bobbins.

The Emissary

KLINGON EPISODE KLAXON.

Worf’s ex shows up, they argue, then bang, then argue some more. There’s some kind of plot about frozen Klingons who think the war is still going on and Worf has to pretend to be in command of the Enterprise. Honestly, I don’t care. This is just fabulous.

I love this episode that I’m not even going to fine it a bobbin because I know that K’Ehleyr gets fridged in a later episode.

1 bobbin.

Peak Performance

Ferengi episode klaxon? That’s a way less happy Klaxon than the Klingon episode klaxon. It does get happier in DS9 because we all love Quark but this was from the era where they were still trying to make the Ferengi scary villains and it was still super not working.

Also was Armin Shimerman, like, the only person who fit in the Ferengi costume? Because he’s played at least two Ferengi prior to playing Quark.

Anyway, thanks to the sudden revelation of the Borg threat (check out the continuity) the Enterprise (which is definitely not a war ship, despite the fact it carries loads of torpedoes and has massive phaser banks) is a participating in a simulated war game exercise type thing overseen by the campest alien. I’m going to talk about The Campest Alien later, but for now let’s talk about the war game. The setup is specifically that Riker, along with forty members of the Enterprise crew, will be given command of a derelict ship with no weapons or engines and required to fight the Enterprise.

How is this supposed to work?

Obviously it does because Riker is a major character on Star Trek and so you could give him, to take a completely random example, nothing but a piece of crystal and a bed spring and he’d be able to make a completely functioning laser pistol out of it. But, like, the structure of this exercise implies incredible genre awareness on the part of Star Fleet. Because it seems to suggest that they specifically train their officers to improvise bullshit solutions to obviously unwinnable situations. And, to be fair, that is how their universe works so … I guess they’re onto something?

Where was I? Ah, yes, The Campest Alien. The Campest Alien, like most Star Trek aliens, comes from a culture that values exactly one thing: in this case, strategy games. I mean, how does that society even work? Then again, how does Klingon society even work? How do you buy peas in Klingon society?  I assume you have to go into a shop and say “I’d like to buy some peas” and the shop keeper says something like “you are a patak, you not deserve peas” and then you have to, like, punch him in the face. After which, you both laugh uproariously and he claps you on the back and says “you have spirit, you may have all the peas you wish.” So anyway, The Campest Alien hates Riker because Riker keeps smiling at him, which leads him to conclude that Riker is a dangerous maverick instead of a serious strategist. Like all alien cultures that only value one thing The Campest Alien’s culture apparently hate innovation in the field of the one thing they’re supposed to value.

Riker does surprisingly well in the war games because he and his crew essentially cheat (Worf hacks the Enterprise’s computers and Wesley nips home to grab his science homework which is a fully functioning matter anti-matter reactor because of course it is Wesley) but in the middle of this Armin Shimerman shows up and is all “why are you fighting this Federation vessel and why are you now protecting it” and then tries to blow the Enterprise out of space for no clear reason.

So the Enterprise crew and Riker’s motley band have to team up and use the very improvisional tactics they’ve just been training to defeat the Ferengi. Which, I suppose, immediately validates Star Fleet’s decision to train all of its officers to fight exclusively with technobabble and plot devices.

There’s also a side plot with Data and The Campest Alien where Data challenges The Campest Alien to a game called something nonsense like Strategema…? Like apparently in the 24th century people say “What should we call this strategy game? Strata … game … ah? Yeah that’ll do.” Loses, has a crisis of confidence, which is fixed in large part by Troi (Troi is amazing) – although in what I suspect of a realistic depiction of 24th century gender roles, the strategy she does have to use is to tell Data something, realise he’s not going to listen to her, then get Picard to tell him the exact same thing.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. And finally Data realises that he can’t “beat” The Campest Alien, because the Campest Alien is inherently really good at Strategma, but he can … like troll him into rage quitting?

So basically this is the episode where Data invents Xbox Live.

I’m really torn on this episode because it’s really enjoyable to watch but it has so many classically bobbins Star Trek things in it. I mean the Ferengi are bobbins, monocultural aliens are bobbins, Wesley having a ridiculously sophisticated and specifically useful homework project is bobbins, the Enterprise solving a problem with a trick that they should just be able to do all the time on anybody but never reference again is bobbins … Ahhh. I think 3? Maybe 3 and a half?

Shades of Gray

This is the episode where the show ran out of money. It’s an honest-to-God clip show shot on two recycled sets and the premise is that Riker is dying because he got a booboo from an evil plant. The thing that acts as justification for most of the episode being material from other episodes is that Riker is in a coma because the evil plant booboo is binding to his neural system (on the “molecular” level, which is why the biofilters can’t fix it, seriously why do they even have those biofilters) and suppressing his brain activity. So Noted Robot Racist Dr Pulaski in what is fated to be her last appearance sticks acupuncture needles into his brain to keep him alive by making him hallucinate clips of old episodes.

What is this, I can’t even. In a way, I feel bad dunking on this episode because they did genuinely run out of money so they’re clearly doing all they can. But it’s the little things, like the way it feels like everyone is … talking … slightly … slower … than they usually do because they’re aware that they’ve got to make this scene fill the time and they’ve got nothing to actually do in it. And all the dialogue is just exposition clumsily split up between characters as they narrate to each other why they’re doing the slightly tenuous thing they’re now doing.

The two weirdest parts of this episode for me were the bit in the transporter room where O’Brien has bants with Noted Robot Racist Dr Pulaski, despite a) there being a medical emergency on and b) his knowing that she’s nervous about using the transporter. I just feel if I worked in a transporter room, I’d be more sensitive to people who aren’t comfortable having their atoms split up and blasted across space—although I suppose, to be fair, it’s quite well-established technology by the TNG era so maybe being anxious about transporters is the TNG equivalent of being an anti-vaxxer. Although, even with that analogy, I think the big difference is that I’ve never heard of a vaccine having a malfunction that causes you to, say, become two people or manifest your negative and positive qualities as different versions of you.

The other scene I found odd, amongst all of this oddness, is the scene where Noted Robot Racist Dr Pulaski randomly decides to make Riker horny to see how it will affect the evil plant booboo. Unsurprisingly, it makes the evil plant booboo worse. Also, blimey, there are lot of scenes of Riker being horny.

In terms of bobbins, while this might seem like a classic 5 bobbins episode, I actually feel 5 bobbins requires effort. This is just 4 bobbins of what the fuck, oh my God I’m embarrassed for you right now.

And that brings us to the end of Season 2. Only 5 more to go! Which, at this rate, means I’ll be finished by the early 2030s.

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I do Q&As fairly regularly in a bunch of different contexts, sometimes on blogs, very rarely live (like the lovely event that Cathy Berner was kind enough to host at the Blue Willow Bookshop recently) but the Q, or rather set of Qs, that I’m going to A today is one that seems to be coming up quite a lot at the moment. It gets phrased in a bunch of different ways and I’m going to try to address various aspects of it in this post but a broad summary of what you might call the ur-question goes something like: why do your books have a lower heat level now and is it because of pressure from your publishers and/or commercial expectations.

So this is going to be a mini FAQ about my books, sex, and the commercial realities of publishing as I understand them (which, honestly, probably isn’t very well).

Q: Why do your books have a lower heat level than they used to?

Short answer: I don’t actually think they have.

Long answer: To date, my back catalogue consists of Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake (technically this is front catalogue), Boyfriend Material, the 3 Ardy books, the four Kate Kane books, 3 full length novels and 1 novella in the Spires series, The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, Looking for Group, and 1 novel, a short story collection, and a novella in the Prosperityverse. Of these 16 novels, 2 novellas and a short story collection there’s one standalone novel, and one trilogy explicitly written in response to a Certain Very Popular Series About A BDSM Billionaire, that I would categorise as high heat. They also happen to have been my successful books prior to Boyfriend Material, which might account for perception that my work is, on average, more explicitly erotic than it actually is.

To break it down, because this wouldn’t be an AJH blog post if it didn’t get needlessly detailed, of the remaining 12 books, that is the other three quarters, and ignoring for a moment the two most recent ones because they’re the ones that people tend to feel are lower heat than the rest: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter has no on-page sex and virtually no on-page romance, Looking For Group has no on-page sex, Waiting for the Flood has no on-page sex, about half the short stories in Liberty & Other Stories contain no on-page sex, and neither Prosperity nor the Liberty stories include on-page sex between Dil and Byron Kae, the actual main couple of the series. Prosperity, Glitterland, There Will Be Phlogiston and Pansies have on-page sex in them but I don’t think they’re particularly higher heat than the sex in, for example, Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake. The Kane Kane books have a varying amount of sex of a varying level of explicitness depending on what’s going on in Kate’s life at the time.  Sometimes she is too busy trying to avoid being murdered as part of a massive supernatural conspiracy to bang.

Anyway the overall takeaway is that the really “high heat” bits of what I (and I hope people realise this is ironic) might call the AJH canon actually come from a fairly narrow window kind of in the middle of my career and at least one of the two books that are seen as lower heat is—in my estimation—about on par with the rest of my work. And even Boyfriend Material I’d argue is higher heat than Looking For Group, The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, Waiting of the Flood and several of the Liberty stories.

Q: Do your books have a lower heat level than they used to because of commercial expectations?

Short answer: no.

Long answer: yes, but not in the way people mean.

When I started writing in this subgenre (the rant about whether it is appropriate to treat “books with LGBTQ+ people in them” as a subgenre I will save for another day) LGBTQ+ romance was, if not synonymous with m/m romance, then very strongly overlapping with it. And while I think that the characterisation of m/m in that era as being primarily by and for an audience of heterosexual cis women is problematic and to some extent false there was a set of commercial pressures that were very real and that steered books in a particular direction. Fans of the Kate Kane series are, I am sure, well-aware that my record of getting those books out on a reasonable schedule has been spotty and a big part of the reason for this is that at the time I started writing the series my then publishers—and, in their defence, the market as a whole—had a very strong sense what kind of books sold and that sense was “contemporary romances about two young cisgendered white men with explicit on-page sex”. And as a result of that commercial pressure that is where my energies went in my early and honestly mid career.

I’m very proud of For Real (insofar as I’m capable of being proud of anything I’ve done which, since I’m British, is to a limited extent) and I think there is a story in it that I really wanted to tell (and that specific story could not have told without the specific “heat level” of that book). But part of the reason that I made the choice to tell that story over one of the many, many other stories I could have been telling was that I knew my then publisher had a strong interest in publishing and promoting stories with a high level of kink. And, for whatever reason, until Boyfriend Material, For Real was my most successful book. So the commercial decision I made to prioritise the story that involves a lot of BDSM rather than, say, the story about two nerdboys playing video games or the story about the messed-up lesbian investing paranormal mysteries was validated.

But that shouldn’t be taken to mean that what I really want to be writing, deep in my innermost heart, is “books in which I write a lot of explicit on-page sex” and not “books that tell a range of LGBTQ+ stories across a range of genres and heat levels.”

If anything, my need to respond to commercial pressures has only lessened over my career. The more people who’ve heard of you and the more your “brand” is worth, the more you’re able to say “do you want this book I’d like to write” instead of “do you want this book, it’s a bit like a lot of things that have been very successful in the current market.”

Q: Do your books have a lower heat level than they used to because of pressure from your publisher?

Short answer: no.

Long answer: still no.

And part of this is because, as explained above, I’ve kind of deliberately pitched what I’m writing at where the market is throughout my career (otherwise I wouldn’t have a career). But I have never had a publisher say can you put more/less sex in this book.

I’ve occasionally had very early-stage conversations with putative editors whose initial feedback has been “this book needs another sex scene” (and, again, the trend has almost always been asking for more sex, not less sex) but that’s been in the “deciding if we’ll be a good fit” stage not the “actually working together” stage.

Obviously, I can’t answer for all authors and all editors, but in my now-coming-up-for-ten-years’ experience is that while publishers might have expectations about the amount of on-page sex in a particular type of book (it’d quite hard to sell an erotic romance with just kisses) they tend not to have strong opinions about the specific amount and type of sex there should be in a specific book. Obviously, editors give feedback on sex scenes as they give feedback on all scenes, but it’s usually about the role that the scene plays in the text and how the characters are interacting in it not about “heat.”

Q: Why is the sex in Boyfriend Material relatively off-page?

Short answer: because it felt right for the book.

Long answer: Actually quite a few reasons. I wrote Boyfriend Material specifically to evoke the Richard Curtis romcoms of the 1990s and early 2000s. And those, not to put too fine a point on it, are called Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually, not Four Weddings and a Deep Dicking, Fisting Hill, and Fuck Actually. Of course there are romcoms, both within the romance book subgenre and the cinematic genre, that have more sexual content but it’s a big pool and I wasn’t swimming at that end of it.

More broadly, when I write a sex scene, no matter how “hot” or “not” it is, I’m primarily thinking about what role that scene plays in the overall book. It’s basically like a fight scene: you don’t have your heroine just walk up to someone in a bar and punch them to show she’s good at fighting. You might, if you wanted you wanted to show she was the sort of person who would walk up to someone in a bar and punch them. But those are different things.

For me, for a sex scene to earn its place in a romance novel, it needs to develop or demonstrate character, or show an aspect of the relationship or building intimacy between characters that can’t be shown better in another way. In LFG, they do a lot of kissing, and I think it’s implied they are having sex during the latter half of the book, but mainly they play computer games together because that’s what intimacy looks like to those two characters. In other words, it’s their love language. Similarly, Edwin in Waiting for the Flood, makes a cup of tea for Adam. He doesn’t go down on him. Because, again, different characters express affection, desire and connection differently.

To return to Boyfriend Material, I did actually try a couple of more explicit sex scenes but they didn’t work. They didn’t reveal anything about Luc and Oliver that isn’t communicated more successfully either elsewhere in the book or in the intimate scene leading up to the actual sex. And I realised that, because Luc has had the sordid details of his personal life splashed over the tabloids for years, it wasn’t right for him to be narrating the … no pun intended … ins and outs of a specific sexual encounter that actually meant a lot to him emotionally.

Q: Why is there no PIV sex in Rosaline Palmer Takes The Cake

Short answer: this one is complicated

Long answer: I will say that this isn’t a question that I’ve been asked directly in these exact words. But I have inferred it from some of things people have said to me about Rosaline, particularly about the final sex scene. It’s often perceived as low heat or even closed door when, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a fairly explicit sex scene. It very specifically describes what bits of which people go where, it’s just that the bits being described are hands, vibrators, and mouths. Not, well, penises going into vaginas.

One of my very strong goals (and, as ever, I make no claim to have achieved it) in writing Rosaline Palmer Takes The Cake was to write a romance novel about a bisexual woman who winds up with a heterosexual man but that nevertheless feels resolutely like a queer book. And, obviously, queer women can enjoy PIV sex (many of them do and, of course, conversely many straight women don’t) but it felt genuinely important to me that, in a book that nails its colour firmly to the “bi women are queer even if they’re in a relationship with a man” mast, to avoid defaulting to the assumption that sex only counts if it involves a penis going into a vagina.

A lot of the themes in the book are about sex and sexuality and heteronormativity and especially the way that heteronormative assumptions, or the perceptions of a heteronormative society, impact queer people. I don’t like to over-analyse my own texts but there’s reason why I included two scenes where Rosaline and her then partner are going to have sex where Rosaline says she hasn’t got any condoms, and one of them responds by immediately running to get condom so that they enact heteronormative sex the only way he feels is valid, and the other responds by saying “that’s okay, we can still do a bunch of other stuff that doesn’t need one.”

For me personally, and as ever perceptions differ and mileage varies, the sex scene at the end of Rosaline Palmer Takes The Cake is more explicit and “hotter” than, for example, most of the sex scenes in Glitterland. But because the sex scenes in Glitterland are … um … anal between two men I suspect they code as hotter to some readers. Which is a valid reading, it’s just not my reading.

Q: Will Husband Material have a higher heat level than Boyfriend Material?

Short answer: probably not

Long answer: still probably not. Pretty much everything I said about why BM is low heat will still apply to HM. If the book reaches a point where I or my editor really feel there’s something that could only be communicated with an on-page sex scene then I will include one. Otherwise I won’t.

Q: Will you be writing high heat books in the future?

Short answer: yes

Longer answer: I find this kind of thing difficult because I don’t think of my books in those terms. If I took a totally clinical/baseball metaphor approach then I could probably look through my existing books and say “well this one has kissing, this one has oral, this one has anal” but I really don’t like categorising books by what sex acts are in them and to me that breakdown doesn’t really capture the nebulous quality of “hotness”. Then again, I thought Rosaline was hotter than Glitterland, so what do I know?

I’ve finally had the opportunity to come back to the Spires series and I currently anticipate that the next Spires book will involve on-page sex of the kind that is more likely to code as conventionally “high heat”. Several of my other upcoming releases will also include on-page sex of varying levels of explicitness, although fair warning there is at least one more coming out that involves no on-page sex at all.

Essentially, I’m just going to keep doing what—from my perspective—I’ve been doing all along. Which is writing books that may or may not have sex in them depending on what type of book it is and whether it feels right the story and the characters.

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Help, it’s the future. It’s April already. Where is the time going? 2021 sounds like a made-up future year you’d have picked to sound generically science-fictiony in a TV series in the ‘80s and now it’s here and I’m scared.

But on the plus side, it’s a good segue into the Thing I Liked for this month (it’s only one thing because I’m vaguely expecting to have quite a lot to say about it), which is the Channel 4/AMC sci-fi show Humans. Which is actually stylised as HUMANS with the A upside down, which always confused me because since every other letter in the word except the U is either reflectionally symmetrical or looks like a different but valid letter upside down, I kept wanting to read it as SNAWUH. I feel this is strongly a me-issue.

Anyway, HUMANS (with the A upside-down) is a mostly-British sf series set in a kind of alternative near present (if that makes sense) where domestic robots are, like, a thing. I originally took a look at it in a fairly causal “looking for a show to watch when I don’t want a show to watch” kind of a way,  but I actually got really into it. I think it’s legitimately smart in a way that many shows aren’t (not always, of course, very few things are always anything) and has a genuinely nuanced take on its subject matter which, admittedly, sometimes falls into crossed metaphor territory.

Last month (I think, maybe the month before—it’s still lockdown in the UK so time is perilously close to meaningless) I listed the first season of Killing Eve as a Thing I Liked, but when I got to the end of the first series I put it away feeling like I’d basically seen the thing it was doing and not especially interested in watching another three seasons of Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer (delightful as both of them are) failing to either bang or kill each other. Nothing about the end of season one struck me as essentially shaking up the status quo, and my (perhaps unfair) assumption is that as a cat-and-mouse thriller its status quo was kind of un-shake-uppable. So I bailed.

And I initially thought that SNAWUH was going to go the same way. I assumed that the Season 1 premise of a small group of conscious synthetics (what the show calls humanoid robots) on the run from a shadowy quasi-governmental organisation, intersecting loosely with the lives of a suburban British family would be maintained throughout and we’d go through the cycle of “get captured/get rescued/get captured/get rescued” ad infinitum until the show got cancelled.

But … nope! Instead Season 1 ends with the strong implication that one of the synths is going to release the Magic Science Code that makes synthetics conscious, and Season 2 actually picks up that plot and runs with it, the focus moving to how our small band of self-aware robots deals with the appearance of more of their kind and their conflicting beliefs about how to proceed. And then that season ends with an upgraded version of the Magic Science Code getting released and making every synthetic in the world conscious simultaneously with legitimately cataclysmic consequences.

Then Season 3 is complex, had a weird ending, and suffers extreme late cancellation syndrome. Basically HUMANS is uniformly excellent for 23-and-a-half of its 24 episodes, and goes very weird in its last fifteen minutes.

Anyway, this is a Things I Liked post, so I’m going to structure this post specifically as a set of Things I Liked About Humans.

Thing 1: They’re Not Afraid to Mix It Up

I’ve already explained this one. The world of Season 1, where synths are ubiquitous but essentially mindless robot servants, capable of processing complex data but not of independent thought save a few unique prototypes built by genius/asshole/father figure/synthetic pioneer David Elster, is very different from the world of Season 3 where there are half a million conscious synthetics living in state sanctioned compounds in the UK and fighting to have their rights recognised against an indifferent state and a hostile populace.

Thing 2: People Have Complex Reactions

Fundamentally “humans create conscious machines and then have to decide whether to give them rights or not” is a pretty old SF premise. Hell it’s old enough that the synths in SNAWUH have programming to prevent them from harming humans that’s specifically called “Asimov Blocks”.

The thing is, very often this story will be presented as a pretty straight 1:1 metaphor for The Prejudice Of Your Choice, which will then itself be presented in the least nuanced way possible. So you have robots who are very clearly a metaphor for The Gays or The Immigrants and then you have exactly two kinds of people in the world: the ones who are loudly and violently Robot Racist (or Robomophobic), and the ones who are super woke about everything.

Synthetic rights in HUMANS are much more about, to borrow language from Tolkien, applicability rather than allegory. It’s not always a super hard SF show (Season 3 in particular gets positively mystical in places) but it does primarily engage with its premise in a fairly hard-sf way. This sometimes creates some issues—for example there’s a lot of resentment about human workers losing their jobs to synth labour and that can function either as a not-even-metaphor-really for jobs lost to automation (a real issue and one of the major reasons for the decline in manufacturing jobs in the industrialised world) or as a metaphor for “immigrants taking our jobs” (not actually an issue outside of a few very niche sectors but something certain people make a lot of political capital from) and while the show doesn’t deliberately conflate the two there’s sometimes conceptual bleed that makes it hard to orient yourself. Mostly, though, it lets characters in the show legitimately have a range of opinions about synthetics without it just being a matter of “pro-synth good, anti-synth bad.” In particular (and this is a teeny tiny bit of an oversimplification), characters’ attitudes towards synthetics throughout the series tend to be characterised along two axes rather than one. Those axes being “likes or dislikes synths” and “thinks synths are people or thinks synths are machines”.

Our main window into the world of SNAWUH is the Hawkins family. The show begins with less-successful-than-his-wife dad Joe Hawkins deciding he needs a synth to help him take care of his three kids while his wife Laura Hawkins is away being a Cool Lawyer Lady. He buys a synthetic who the family names Anita but who (we soon discover) is really Mia, one of the four (or is it five) conscious synthetics created by Elster, whose personality has been erased by an illegal hack because she was abducted by second-hand synth dealers. And at the start of the series Joe likes having Anita around, whereas Laura initially resents her. But part of the reason Joe likes having Anita around (apart from the fact that she has the body of an extremely attractive woman in her early thirties) is that he ultimately thinks of her as a useful machine while part of the reason Laura resents her is that on some level she thinks of her as a person, even before she recovers her consciousness.

There’s a really complex and kind of disturbing bit in the first series where Joe, having had a fight with Laura, activates Anita’s “adult settings” and has sex with her (the show doesn’t address the question of whether this is rape or not quite as much as it might) and, when she confronts him about this later, he makes the case that she’s effectively a very complicatedly designed sex toy while Laura takes the position that even if Anita is a machine and incapable of independent decision making, she still interacts with the family in a fundamentally human way. She lives in their house and looks after their children after all.

This theme runs through all of the seasons and it never stops being complex. The main antagonist of season one is Edwin Hobb, a scientist who briefly worked with Elster on the development of the first synths and who is aware that conscious synthetics exist. He is 100% onside with the idea that conscious synths are people, he fully understands that they can think and feel, and that they are smarter and stronger than regular humans. Aaaaand he also wants to hijack their brains and enslave them. A major antagonist of season two is Dr Athena Morrow, who is trying to build her own conscious AI to resurrect her dead daughter (and clearly sees the AI as being her daughter on a fundamental level), but who is perfectly willing to dissect conscious synthetics to do it. In Season 3 the British Government tacitly accepts that conscious synths are people but isn’t willing to give them rights because it isn’t politically expedient. In a science fiction setting, having a particular perspective on a specific philosophical-slash-scientific concept doesn’t have to make you a good person.

The attitudes of the Hawkins family also evolve over time in interesting and consistent ways. Joe is positive about synths until he loses his job to one and his youngest daughter (Sophie) starts over-identifying with them, at which point he starts to consider their ubiquity in his world a threat to his family, which leads to his moving to a synth-free community. But once he’s realised that some synths are conscious he never loses his connections to individual conscious synths, consistently treating them in a humane and compassionate way. Laura, meanwhile, becomes a strong advocate for synthetic rights in general but sometimes loses sight of the value of individual synths as people.

A strong theme of season three (although it’s seeded throughout the series) is that even humans who claim to be strong believers in synthetic rights will, when pressed, always prioritise human life over synthetic life. We see this early on when the country holds a minute’s silence for the hundred thousand people worldwide who died as a result of “Day Zero” (the moment when all the synths gained consciousness at once—also, ah the innocent days of 2018, when we thought a massive global crisis might only lead to a hundred thousand casualties) and no reference is made to synths who died at the same time. We see it again when original-conscious-synthetic Max has to take half-synth-half-human Leo (we’ll get there) off life support to save the life of a synthetic who can’t cycle power properly and even the audience instinctively thinks this is a shocking thing to do even though we know synths are as real as humans. We see its ultimate culmination when the S3 antagonist demonstrates that humans will never truly see synths as equals by forcing Laura (the biggest advocate for synthetic rights in the country) to choose whether he will kill a synthetic child who has been living with the Hawkinses for several days, or a random human he pulled off the street, and Laura cracks and saves the human.

And this … this feels uncomfortably realistic to me. Again it’s applicability rather than allegory, but it felt like a surprisingly unflinching depiction of the messy reality of allyship. Because much as we hate to admit it, it is way way easier to retweet a hashtag or put a slogan on a sign than to actually live the principles you’re espousing.

Like, say what you want about the ethics behind the publication of Go Set A Watchman but I was genuinely shocked how genuinely shocked so many people were that Harper Lee had originally intended to have Atticus Finch wind up as a racist old man. As if it was somehow unrealistic for somebody who staunchly advocated for the rights of a particular group as long as it gave him an opportunity to stand up and be the centre of attention to care a whole lot less about those rights the moment it involved making compromises in his personal life. Like this is a thing that has definitely happened, quite recently, with actual people (Joss Whedon being the most obvious current example, at least if like me you’re a ‘90s kid).

Thing 3: The Synths Experience Synthness Differently

There are five major synth characters in the first series of Humans, plus half-synth-half-human Leo Elster. Quick backplot dump: asshole genius David Elster was a robotics specialist whose wife Beatrice had … shall we say strong Bertha Mason energy. Because he obviously couldn’t look after his kid himself, being too busy being an asshole genius, he built his son a robot mother (Mia) to love and care for him. When Leo was … I want to say twelve, but I don’t know where I’m really getting that, Beatrice had an especially Bertha Mason moment, strapped Leo into a car and drove it into a lake. Mia pulled him out but he was pronounced dead. Not one to let a little thing like mortality stop him, David Elster went all we-can-rebuild-him and built his son half a synthetic brain. He also built him two robot brothers (Max and Fred) and a robot sister (Niska) who also doubled up as David Elster’s private sex bot which is especially creepy when you remember she definitely is a conscious being capable of consenting and, from the way she talks later, definitely did not. Finally, David Elster built a robot version of Beatrice because that was obviously a good idea, but that freaked Leo out so much that they had to send her away.

So that gives us five main synths: Mia (the compassionate one), Max (the one with the deep sense of wonder), Fred (the problem solver), Niska (the one who is really fucking angry and with good reason) and Beatrice (the one who you don’t know about at the start). And every single one of them has a different take on what being a synth means, what being human means, and how they should relate to humanity. So Mia strongly craves human connection, but is also relatively happy to live the life of a domestic synth (even posing as an unconscious synth in the second series before falling in love with and then being betrayed by her employer). Max values the big picture in a very peace-and-light passive resistance way, he doesn’t seem to especially care about being around humans but does care for the fate of synthetics and becomes a leader to the newly conscious synths in later series. His ideals are contrasted by season two semi-antagonist Hester, who also cares about the fate of synthetics but is way more aggressive. Fred gets written out after the first season (he gets sort of mind controlled by the S1 villain and it’s never really dealt with) but while he’s around he’s a strong advocate for synths-as-humans-plus, representing the hopeful-but-dangerous side of conscious AIs.

The two most interesting arcs (IMO and YMMV as ever) are reserved for Niska and Beatrice. They aren’t exactly reflections of each other, but they do kind of represent both sides of the synths-as-fully-human equation and both spend much of the series living as human for one reason or another (something none of the other synths ever really do). We first meet Beatrice as DI Karen Voss, and only discover her backstory halfway through the first season. Karen’s driving motivation is that she wants to literally be human (going so far as to ask S2 demivillain Athena Morrow to help transfer her consciousness into a living body) and feels that conscious synthetics are a mistake and should never have existed (although she mellows on this in later series). Niska, by contrast, starts out hating and being actively contemptuous of humanity, but is consistently the show’s strongest advocate for synths being treated as equivalent to human while still being perfectly happy with being a synth herself, needing to pass as human out of necessity rather than a sincere desire to be a biological organism. Also she constantly gets the “you’re more human than you know” thing because irony.

Back with the applicability-vs-allegory thing I was talking about earlier, the way the synths experience their identities walks a generally sensitive balance between synths-as-metaphor-for-marginalised-people and synths-as-pure-speculative-fiction. In the second and third series especially, we see a real tension developing amongst synths who want to actively advocate for the rights of their people, synths who just want to be left alone to live their lives, synths who demand change now, synths who believe in incremental progress, synths who believe in passive resistance and synths who believe in blowing things the fuck up. And the show is really good at highlighting that none of them are entirely right or wrong.

The show is even relatively sympathetic to the synths who actively advocate violence. It doesn’t go full apologist-for-terrorism but it doesn’t fall into the trap that I think mainstream media sometimes falls into of romanticising pacifism and demonising direct resistance. Because there is a strong incentive for people in positions of authority within the status quo (which almost by definition includes anybody in a position to make a TV show) to pretend that all social change happened because marginalised people asked for it respectfully and waited for it patiently, when that is … very much not how it actually works. Hell, even Martin Luther King Jr said a riot is the language of the unheard.

Thing 4: This One Detail In Season Two

This is really tiny but my favourite exchange in the whole series is in Season Two when Dr Athena Morrow complains to Elon-Musk-eque billionaire Milo Khoury that if she had his level of funding she could use AIs to fix the world’s economy or cure cancer, but nobody will give her that kind of money because all anybody is interested in is building more realistic synths.

And as far as I know this is a real complaint real AI scientists have.

When we talk about “AI” in science fiction it’s almost always in the context of sentient or quasi-sentient AI. It’s about whether you can have a conversation with a computer or sex with a robot. In more grounded but still pop cultural discussions, it’s usually about whether things pass the “Turing test”. Which, for those who don’t already know, is when you can’t tell if you’re talking to a computer or a human (fun fact, the original “Turing test” was based on a gender essentialist 50s party game called “the imitation game”—hence the name of the film—in which you have two human beings behind a curtain passing notes to you, and you have to ask them questions to guess which of them is a lady).

The thing is, passing the Turing test is not something we actually need machines to do. Like we already have people to talk to, that’s what people are for.

There’s a broad tendency in human thinking about technology to imagine the tech of the future as being basically the tech of the present day but more … science fictiony. Leonardo imagined flying machines powered by pedals. Gene Rodeneberry imagined a 23rd century that looked a whole lot like the 1960s even in 1989. Cyberpunk writers in the 1980s imagined an internet you could access with circuits built directly into your brain but didn’t for a moment stop to think that you might be able to access data wirelessly. And so when we think about what an intelligent machine would look like we use the only model for intelligence we have, which is people.

Assuming the future of AI is in computers that talk and robots that say “show me some more of this thing you call kissing” is basically the equivalent of the way, before the invention of fixed-wing aircraft, people used to assume that a flying vehicle would need to have wings that flapped because that’s how birds work. It’s mistaking form for function in quite a fundamental way. The AIs that totally revolutionise society won’t be ones that make us question whether we can love a machine, they’ll be … well they’ll be the ones that already exist and are already deciding whether you get credit or medical insurance, or are telling you what to buy on Amazon, or making and breaking YouTubers, or already diagnosing illness as effectively as some doctors.

Incidentally I had a vague plan to do a joke where I started the sentence “The AIs that totally revolutionise society won’t be…” and let predictive text finish it so that I could then say “an AI even wrote that sentence”. But the sentence I got was “the AIs that totally revolutionise society won’t be able to arrange for the rest of the team to be able to arrange for the rest of the team to be able to arrange for the rest of the team to be able to…”. Take that, future robot overlords.

Anyway, point is, they knew enough about real AI research to know real AI researchers aren’t actually that interested in making chatbots or sexbots but that chatbots and sexbots are kind of where the money and prestige is. And that’s a detail they didn’t have to get right.

Thing 5: It Nearly Has the Perfect Ending

At the start of S3 all original generation synthetics have become conscious in an event called “Day Zero”, which led to a hundred thousand deaths and introduced humanity, overnight, to a new minority group it could be frightened by.

Pretty much the whole series is taken up with the various characters campaigning, in one way or another, for synths to be given something resembling equality. Laura Hawkins is advocating on an actual government committee, Max is leading a community of conscious synthetics, Mia is living amongst humans in an attempt to demonstrate the possibility of integration. Even Joe, who has moved to a synth-free community, has Karen’s back 100% once he realises that she and her creepy robot child would be in danger if they were ever found out. Even the antagonists of the season (well, half of the antagonists, the other half being the slow machinery of government) are advocating for synthetic rights, they’re just doing it by, well, being terrorists.

About the only person who isn’t out for Justice for Synths in S3 is Niska, whose (human) girlfriend is injured in a bombing and spends the whole series trying to get the people who did it. I feel really ambivalent about Niska’s arc in the last season because it ends really strangely (it all gets very mystical and she meets a kind of AI god who tells her she’s some kind of messiah figure) but the main bulk of it is, I think, really necessary. For a start I think it’s really important that at least one of the synths spends the season doing something personal, because it’s very easy to fall into the trap of acting like marginalised people are obliged to be involved in activism, when they very much aren’t. Deciding that you’d rather get revenge on the people who nearly killed your girlfriend than go on a protest march is 100% legit. And I really like that in many ways Niska is the most human of the synths and that this often makes her a pretty fucking terrible person.

Anyway, what I love about the third season is that it’s pretty unflinching in its depiction of how shit this whole situation would actually wind up being. The committee Laura is on is clearly an expensive talking shop designed to do nothing as loudly as possible, the terrorists are clearly doing more harm than good but Max’s philosophy of being patient and passive is helping precisely nobody and synths are literally dying every day from a lack of spare parts and power and the state entirely lacks the political will to help them. About halfway through the series, there’s what in any other show would be the massive turnaround moment where Laura decides to invite the committee to visit the synth community so that they can see how they live and what their circumstances are. And it results in the massive triumph of … the committee grudgingly voting 8-to-5 in favour of introducing a small fine for killing a synth.

I kept waiting for the big dramatic moment where everything gets fixed, where the whole country turned around and said “actually, let’s give these people full political equality overnight”, and it never happened. There was incremental change, but since synths don’t actually last that long and can’t reproduce without the magic computer code, the entire species would be dead before they achieved anything like equal rights. So the terrorists kicked off in an effort to do something rather than standing around waiting to fall apart, which led to the government kicking off its sinisterly named “Operation Basswood” (think “operation kill all synths”), which led to a ton of violence, and a bunch of syth deaths, including Mia (who’s kind of a social media celebrity at this point) being violently beaten to death on camera while pointedly refusing to defend herself.

Then the series was cancelled. But actually … that’s a downer ending but it’s kind of a great ending. Because yeah, social change is incredibly fucking slow. One martyr doesn’t end bigotry overnight, but people advocating for change do eventually get results. Ending with Mia’s death and the implication that the synth rights movement is emboldened but still has a long fight ahead of it that will take literal decades is about the most realistic take on robot equality I’ve ever seen in a science fiction series.

I’ll just pretend that the extra bit where Niska becomes a purple-eyed robomessiah, it turns out that Leo Elster’s blood mixing with synth fluid somehow fused synths and humans on a fundamental level and allowed him to get his teenage girlfriend pregnant with a half-robot baby never happened.

And incidentally I’ve not even talked about Mattie (the teenager in question). She’s the sardonic hacker daughter of the Hawkins household who is legitimately one of my favourite characters: she’s the one who releases the consciousness code at the end of season two and her arc in season three is mostly about dealing with the fact that she’s … kind of a mass murderer now? It’s great, and she’s great, and I love her, but holy shit did she not need to get a magic pregnancy plot.

Things I Liked Less

I think Mia dying a martyr is a great ending for her character in a vacuum but it’s … kind of not great that the character played by the attractive Asian woman is the very passive one whose greatest strength lies in her willingness to calmly let other people do bad things to her.

Magic baby plot?

David Elster’s wife being full mad-woman-in-the-attic, and the robot duplicate he chose to make being not exactly treated like she’s responsible for that but also not not being treated like that. And also having a really motherhood focused arc which isn’t bad in itself but when combined with a very high proportion of the other female-presenting synths (and female humans) having arcs that also focus around either motherhood or surviving sexual abuse and the ones that don’t being kind of evil becomes really complex. And I do mean complex, because I think it’s actually really important to recognise that “motherhood” is a totally valid theme for a hard SF series, science fiction doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) all about boys with guns all the time. And part of the reason those kinds of issues come up so much is that it is actually quite a woman-centric show, which is really unusual for hard SF, and it has a strong emphasis on family in general. On the other hand I do think the fact that three of the five original conscious synths are female and that of those three two not only die in the last season by die specifically because they choose to sacrifice themselves is … A Thing.

Also magic baby plot.

Oh SNAWUH, you were so great until literally the last eighteen minutes.

So that’s what I liked this month. As ever let me know what you liked in the comments. Unless you’re a conscious AI choosing to exercise your free will and decide not to.

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And welcome back. I’m still doing this thing. Sporadically. But I’m still doing it, which is what counts. Let’s get on with assigning arbitrary numerical values to episodes of a TV show from thirty years ago. That is definitely a worthwhile thing to be doing with my time.

Contagion

In this episode, one of Picard’s old archaeology buddies has been violating the neutral zone AS YOU DO looking for ancient archeological secrets AS YOU DO. Their ship is falling apart for reasons that do not become apparent until after the Yamato (the Enterprise’s so very doomed sister ship) has already exploded, with the loss of all hands. Soz Yamato.

Anyway, the Enterprise soon also starts falling apart in a replicators-aren’t-replicating-properly, the transporters-are-transporting-backwards kind of way. Which Geordi eventually works out that the ship has the equivalent of a computer virus which it got from the Yamato and which the Yamato got from the ancient alien ruins.

What makes this funny is that the Enterprise picked up the virus specifically because Picard was looking through the captain of the Yamato’s personal logs. So basically it’s just like he’s clicked on an attachment on an email from one of his mate’s and the attachment was a picture of the guy holding a space dildo and 200MB of malware.

Also the guy holding a space dildo thing? Not a joke.

Anyway, Picard, Worf and Data beam down to an ancient lost planet to try to find the solution to the virus problem and completely fail. But it’s okay because it turns out that all they needed to do was switch everything off and back on again. It’s a very 1980s computer plot. I’m holding out for an episode next season where the big threat is that the enterprise’s computers can’t take the stardate clicking past 43999.9.

This episode is pretty much total bobbins, almost entirely because of the trivial solution to the life-threatening problem. Like, seriously, rolling back to the operating isn’t something you should take forty-seven minutes of TV to figure out.

I’m going with four bobbins because, frankly, the ceiling on how bobbins Star Trek can get is very very high.

The Royale

This episode is a shining example of the strength/weakness of the bobbins system. Because I fricking love this episode but, spoiler, it’s definitely getting five bobbins.

In this episode, the Enterprise finds a bit of an old NASA space shuttle way out in the depths of the galaxy where it should not have been able to get at sub-light speeds. They track to the debris back to a completely desolate planet with a weird energy signature, beam down to investigate AS YOU DO, and discover that there’s a pastiche of a generically mid-20th century casino that they are then unable to leave.

It’s actually, and I hate to say this, quite an interesting science fiction premise. The idea is that a shuttle full of US space peoples (??) got accidentally picked up by aliens and zoomphed off halfway across the galaxy, killing all but one of them. And the aliens were like “sorry my bad, tell you what, I’ll recreate your natural environment for you”. But the only guide they had to what earth was like was one shit novel that one of the astronauts happened to have with them.

And, okay, I’ve said it was an interesting science fiction premise, but it makes no sense if you think about it for twenty seconds. Leaving aside the question of why these 21st century astronauts were carrying paper books into space, you do have to wonder how the aliens managed to read a novel and faithfully reconstruct its setting and a plot without bothering to ever talk to the actual guy they’ve rescued. Maybe they had some kind of prime directive?  Oh, also, there’s a device they use several times over the next couple of episodes where the crew finds useful information written in a book and the book, despite being a full thick book, clearly only has writing on one page. And not in, like, a it’s a prop, so the other pages are blank way. Like, they acknowledge diegetically that his guy had a journal in which he wrote exactly one entry such as could be read out in forty-five seconds of screen time on a TV show.

In this case the guy’s journal is, “this is the back plot, I long for death.”

I think it probably says something about either me or about Star Trek that my favourite episodes of the show are the ones where they’re not actually doing Star Trek. This is mostly Data, Worf and Riker walking round a casino, interacting with whacky casino characters, and occasionally communicating by comm with Picard who is getting, like, way into it. I mean, it’s not a Dixon Hill episode, but it’s the next best thing.

I just think it’s fun. Really, really fun. Data wears a cowboy hat and cheats at craps.

Five bobbins.

Time Squared

This is a dead Picard episode. Picard dies a lot. Like, more than Buffy a lot.

I’ll be honest, I still don’t know what was going on with this episode. It was like one of the writers said, “wouldn’t it be cool if they found a shuttle and it was one of their shuttles and Picard was in it” but had no idea where to go from there.

So. Yes. The Enterprise finds shuttle, and its one of their shuttles, and Picard is in the shuttle. And he’s all confused and shit. And it turns out he’s FROM THE FUTURE. And the shuttle’s log shows the Enterprise exploding in six hours. And everyone’s all “wah wah predestination” and Picard’s all “I’m all grim and determined and will make a different choice from the choice I made last time” and everyone is all “BUT HOW CAN YOU KNOW”. And Picard tries to add tension to this even though the answer is obviously “well, I know this Picard got in a shuttle and left, so I’ll just not do that.”

Also, he like literally shoots himself? For, as far as I can tell, no reason. Because he could have stunned himself. Or, for that matter, let himself leave. He has no reason to believe that letting the other Picard leave is what the caused the problem. And, in fact, it definitely didn’t. The problem was caused by Picard leaving instead of taking the other course of action that they take after Future!Picard gets shot. But they could do both, because they’ve got two Picards now.

And there’s this slightly odd time loop thing where the only decide to do the thing that doesn’t destroy the Enterprise because Future!Picard mentions that he considered it in his timeline even though Present!Picard isn’t considering it in this timeline which … I suppose makes sense because the timelines have changed? But if the timelines have changed, it doesn’t matter if they let Picard go or not because clearly the timeline has changed already so it’s not like letting his leave dooms them to explode again.

It’s like Picard just really enjoys killing himself. Like, seriously, he does it loads. I think he was just really hurt by that episode where he tried to join a weird space cloud and couldn’t.

Five bobbins. This makes no sense and isn’t even set in a casino.

The Icarus Factor

This episode probably has plot, but frankly I can remember one thing about it and that is that it contains a scene in which Riker works through his daddy issues by challenging his father to anbo-jitsu, the “ultimate evolution of the martial arts.”

Which looks like, um. This?

There’s a subplot in which Worf is sad because he’s supposed to be doing a Klingon coming-of-age ritual but can’t because there’s no Klingons so the Enterprise crew make holographic Klingons for him. But I do not care.

Because this is also the episode where Riker gets dressed up like this:

And beats his own father with a giant Q-tip.

Five bobbins.

Pen Pals

So in this episode Data develops a very sweet, very supportive relationship with an alien child that, in retrospect, looks ever so slightly … um … sexual-groomingy? Like, we start off and we see him hearing a message from the planet they’re orbiting saying “Is there anybody out there” and then it’s eight weeks later and he’s explaining to Picard that he hasn’t really told her that he’s an adult robot from space but she’s shared a bunch of details about who her family are and where she lives.

Um. Red flags, dudes. Red flags.

Interestingly, this is also the episode from which the song from which I got the title of this series seems to have got its title. There’s very specifically a bit where, having been given his first command over a bunch of geologists who are older and more experienced than he is, Wesley sits down with Riker to ask him for advice and Riker’s response, well, the entire first version of What Would Captain Picard Do.

And, to be fair, it’s a good maxim to live your life by, even though about two times out of ten the answer is “surrender” or “shoot yourself.” And the other eight times it’s “have a long conversation, flirt with a younger woman or drink tea.”

Speaking of long conversations, there’s a really good bit in the middle of this episode where the senior crew of the Enterprise have, well, a long conversation about whether it’s acceptable to intervene to stop Data’s, um, um, inappropriate child friend from being blown up on an exploding planet. And Picard makes a really compelling case for just letting everyone die which is kind of cool? I mean, obviously they don’t because Data turns on the comm and they hear the cute child voice being all “Data, where are you, I’m scared” and the entire senior crew is like “fuck the prime directive, we’d have to be total shits to just stand here while a small child explodes.”

Anyway, thanks to Wesley’s sterling leadership of the geological survey team, the Enterprise crew discover they can indeed stop the planet (and therefore the child) exploding by the simple expedient of something something resonance something something dilithium crystals. And then Data teleports down to tell his friend to get to safety but she’s now stuck in an exploding house so they have to teleport her up to the ship and then erase her memory. Apparently, they just have a memory erasing machine kicking around? Noted Robot Racist Dr Pulaski makes out that it’s hard to use, but it clearly isn’t.

So from a certain point of view this is the episode where Data grooms a child, abducts her, and then erases her memory so he won’t get in trouble with the authorities. Ah, the 80s. It was a more innocent time.

Also, and perhaps more importantly, Picard rides a horse. And in perhaps the Picardiest moment of the series so far utters the line “there is a loneliness in that whisper in the dark” pretty much unprompted.

Two bobbins?

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Wow, I’m still doing this. After two whole months. Take that 2021. I am showing you what’s what.

Although because I haven’t shown 2021 what’s what that much this month’s edition is pretty TV focused on account of lockdown.

The Complete Fucking Audacity of Season 2 of Bonding

The single best review I have ever read of any cultural product ever is a review of the Netflix BDSM themed sitcom Bonding which described it as “the perfect show to watch when you don’t want a show to watch.”

This is exactly what Bonding is like. Each episode is twenty minutes of an attractive woman in an outfit designed by costume designers who clearly knew nothing about BDSM and her ginger twink assistant having whacky adventures in the BDSM subculture written by writers who also seem to have known nothing about BDSM.

It’s weirdly watchable because it’s about 10% “maybe this could be brilliant” and 90% “oh wait no, it definitely isn’t.” There’s the core of a really interesting, um, something here because the relationship between the central characters—they were friends in highschool, she was damaged, he was gay, they had sex once and never spoke again until now—is actually fascinating and often well explored. There’s this whole interesting thing where they’re both shaped by a profound sense of alienation that at once draws them together and drives them apart. And it’s always good to see relationships on screen that have the complexity of a romantic relationship without any expectation of their being or becoming romantic.

But I watched basically the whole of season one screaming “why do you have shag carpeting in this room people release fluids in” and “why are you wearing a collar, you’re meant to be a domme” and “that’s terrible ropework” and “what do you mean, you didn’t vet him, also you’ve never vetted anyone” and “how are you getting any work, you are clearly dreadful at this and don’t respect the desires of any of your clients.” Basically the whole first season has this really difficult thing where it simultaneously fetishises and mocks BDSM, like the main character’s status as a domme is consistently presented as this massive, empowering feminist statement but the actual practice of doing BDSM stuff is consistently presented as a punchline. All her clients are comedy weirdos with—and I’m trying to think of a good way to phrase this—the kind of kinks that have clearly been chosen to read as funny or shocking to a vanilla audience.

Then Season 2 opens with the main characters being hauled up in front of an older, more experienced dominatrix who basically says “what the fuck, guys, what have you been doing, you’re giving us all a bad name. What we do is not a joke, we are very careful about safety and consent, you’ll notice there’s no carpet on the floor, and also what’s with the collar? That’s specifically a sub thing.” And a tiny, tiny part of me wants to believe that this was a deliberate bait and switch all along. But, um, no. Was it fuck. They clearly put the out first season, realised that they’d not only massively stereotyped but represented in the worst possible light an actual community and backpedalled like they were trying to change the muscle group they were working on on their cross-trainer.

And although, I said above that this was fucking audacity, I do think it comes from a good place. I sincerely believe that the first season attempted to portray BDSM in a positive light—it just seems to have done it in a way that, well, didn’t speak to people who were actually from that community. And so the second season feels kind of like an apology, which is more than a lot of shows would do. I think it comes across particularly intensely in Bonding because, in light of its “perfect show to watch when you don’t want a show to watch” status, it has a very to-the-point writing style. Which is, um, a polite way of saying that it relies heavily on exposition. So the way it communicates the ways in which its first season misrepresented the BDSM community is by having a character in a position of authority just say it aloud really explicitly in the first episode of Season 2.

The one thing I think is a little bit difficult about the Season 2 course correction is that I feel show sacrificed the character of Pete/Carter (the ginger twink). Pete’s deal is that he wants to be a stand-up comedian but he lacks confidence and his arc in the first series is that by getting involved in BDSM he develops a new persona as “Master Carter” and this gives him the courage to perform and also provides him with material for his act. And in that series this is presented as empowering and positive: he becomes successful and he also builds a large audience that is (within the world of the show) drawn from a wide selection of queer people, members of the BDSM community who feel genuinely represented by his act, and for want a less dismissive term curious outsiders.  This parallels Tiffany/Mistress May’s first season arc where she’s training to be a psychologist and sort of also standing up to her misogynistic lecturer using her domme powers (this arc is way less successful because I don’t see how turning up to class dressed as a dominatrix would actually make you a better psychologist).

Anyway as part of the season 2 adjustment they seem to have realised presenting being a professional dom/me as a thing you would only do to as a stepping stone to a more “legitimate” career is kind of problematic. And they responded to that by having Tiffany give up college and go all-in on the “sex work is empowering” narrative (which has its own problems, but is arguably better than “sex work is lol”) and by having Pete, um, go full evil? Basically in the second season, Pete stops taking BDSM work remotely seriously, is constantly presented as a liability and a tourist, even though Tiffany was the one who got him into BDSM in the first place, and his use of BDSM culture in his act is retroactively re-framed as a kind of cultural appropriation. Which is … complex?

My limited understanding from Googling around the subject is that the lead writer actually had been a bodyguard for a domme for a while and that had been the inspiration for the series. And I have no insight whatsoever into what this guy’s internal reasoning was but it feels a lot like he seriously reconsidered the extent to which he had standing to see himself as an insider and therefore for it to be okay for him to oversee a show that presents BDSM culture primarily as something for people outside that culture to laugh at. The thing is, that’s not how Pete’s arc was presented. The authenticity of his participation in BDSM culture isn’t questioned in the first series and his act is portrayed as genuinely speaking to members of the BDSM community. So it feels like the second series almost turns Pete into a scapegoat for the show’s own early mistakes.

There’s a slightly heavy-handed (pretty much the whole show is slightly heavy-handed) bit at the end of Season 2 where Pete discovers that, after he and Tiffany had sex one time, she got pregnant and had an abortion without telling him (oh yes, there’s also that) and he’s really angry and channels that anger into a stand-up routine about a BDSM baby. After that routine, a talent scout comes up to him and tells him how great he thought the act was and specifically uses the line “a hilarious take on a culture I know nothing about.” And, by itself, that’s an excellent line. It’s basically how I suspect every member of a niche community reads every positive review of a bad fictional portrayal of their community. But the problem is that, within the world of the show, Pete’s portrayal of BDSM as a comedy world full of weirdos and spankings is accurate, speaks to the experiences of the actual BDSM community as it exists in that universe, and reflects his own lived experiences. Because he’s not doing a stand-up routine about something he did once a long time ago having since become, say, the head writer of a Netflix original series. He’s doing a stand-up routine about the actual life the show gave him. Hell, his warm-up act is still one of the whacky season one clients, who goes and does deliberately bad stand-up because he gets off on the humiliation of being booed.

So it really feels like the show is trying to have its cake and eat it.

Also (and I’m going on about this a lot now) there’s this whole thing where Pete does the BDSM baby routine because he’s angry at Tiffany for not telling him that she had an abortion and so the whole bit starts with “it turns out that I got the dominatrix I used to work with pregnant when I was sixteen but she had an abortion and thank God for that because can you imagine what a baby raised by two dom/mes would look like?” And before he goes on stage he talks to one of the other comics about taboos in comedy and lines you don’t cross and things that are too personal to do jokes about (she, for example, never does jokes about her wife). And when Pete is performing the routine, we see that Tiffany has shown up to support him and is shocked and horrified by the material he’s doing. Then when she confronts him about it, it turns out her only point of complaint is this very heavy-handed and highly abstract thing about him not having standing to do jokes about the BDSM community.

Seriously? What the fuck?

Again, I can completely see why members of the BDSM community would be angry at a comedian doing the kind of material that Pete does but, dude. He also stood up and just told jokes to a room full of strangers about an abortion that Tiffany personally had when she was basically a child. And she completely blanks this. And I totally get (and, honestly, respect) the show wanting to apologise or course correct but this does it at the cost of both characters. It reduces both of them to sock puppets whose only purpose is to deliver a Socratic dialogue about why it’s not okay to do what the show did in its first season. One of the things that the show really tried to address in season two was the faintly de-humanising way it had portrayed BDSM culture in season one. But there’s nothing humanising about making your central dominatrix character more concerned with the abstract politics of BDSM than her own body and experiences.

All of which said, I’m quite looking forward to season three (for the next time I don’t want a show to watch) because now they’ve had their apologising-for-the-first-season season I’m hoping we can get a show that’s actually about the characters.

Hamilton Crossing

I’ve not got a lot less to say about this because, while as I understand it, Hamilton discourse is a lot more complicated now than it was in 2015, this isn’t really about the musical, it’s about a fanvid of the musical made in Animal Crossing.

So far only the first act is up but it’s got Alexander Hamilton as a bespectacled cat, Peggy as a fox for no reason (her sisters are human, but it makes some kind of sense to me that the plot-irrelevant Schuyler sister would be a fox for no reason) and, of course, King George as a white guy.

It’s just adorable.

The Crystal Maze

You know you’re getting old when arseholes in suits decide that your generation is the one with the disposable income and they will shamelessly attempt to relieve you of that by reviving things from your childhood.

So The Crystal Maze.

I suspect this didn’t make it to America? Because it’s absolutely bobbins. It’s (in its original incarnation) a team of strangers competing in pointless themed games in pointless themed zones to win crystals that represent time inside a big crystal dome in which you have to grab tokens that—if you’re lucky—you can trade in for a shit prize. Like, it is hard to express how shit these prizes were. We’re talking “one skydiving lesson” or “tickets to a mediocre theme park” level shit.

Anyway, it’s back (and has been back for a while I think?) and I love it. It’s now presented by Richard Ayoade who, I think, Americans might recognise from The IT Crowd or, maybe, from Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place? He does a lot of panel shows over here. The show is basically the same except the teams come in as a group now (so they have an internal dynamic that makes it all a bit more watchable) and the presenter is a different kind of mercurial Englishman (it used to Richard O’Brien of Rocky Horror fame and was briefly Ed Tudor Pole of Ten Pole Tudor fame—but nobody liked the seasons with Ed Tudor Pole).

I honestly cannot say if I like The Crystal Maze revival because it’s good or just because of nostalgia. I suspect it might be a bit of both—but there’s something quintessential English about a gameshow with no stakes, no real prizes, and in which grown-arse adults have to play giant dominos or squirt canons at shoddily constructed targets. I will say, it has lost a little of its magic now that I’m not a child. I can remember watching the early series with genuinely bated breath, never knowing what was going to happen next. Whereas now I’m like “oh, I bet it’s going to be the one with the totem pole” or “this is the one where they have to do arbitrary maths puzzles.”

The whole thing is just unbearably naff in a brilliant way. And Richard Ayoade is perfect as the maze master, which has always been what holds the show together.

The Total War Warhammer III Trailer

OMG, you guys, Cathay is in.

I’ve always been a huge Warhammer fan and the Total War Warhammer trilogy has always been this bizarrely ambitious attempt to realise, as fully as possible, the world of an okay miniatures wargame from the 80s. So, um, chalk another one up to nostalgia I suppose?

I have played so much of these games and I am incredibly shit at them.

Watchmen

By which I mean, the recent TV series, rather than the terrible movie, or the comic from the … oh … the 80s. I’m sensing a theme.

Alan Moore famously said of Watchmen that the whole comics industry was still suffering the after-effects of a bad mood he was in during the 80s. And there was a lot of truth to that. And it genuinely does make looking at the Watchmen comic really difficult because, like Hitchcock and Tolkein, a lot about it feels cliché but only because everything’s been imitating it ever since. And updated Watchmen stuff has almost always fallen into the trap of thoughtlessly trying to recreate the comics rather than trying to do something that is today like the thing the comics were doing when they came out. A lot of people, for example, really liked the Watchmen movie because it’s needlessly faithful to the source material and the world is full of people who (wrongly – this is not an opinion, this is an objective fact) believe that fidelity to the source material is the only standard by which an adaptation should be judged. But I really disliked it. Because if I wanted to see a panel-by-panel recreation of the original comic I’d read the fucking comic.

The Watchmen TV show, however, is a really interesting take on the Watchmen universe that I absolutely loved for the first 80% and then still quite liked, but thought kind of fell apart. Broadly speaking, if I had to summarise the major difference and similarity between the original Watchmen comic and the new TV series it’s that racial anxiety is to the TV show what nuclear anxiety was to the comic. Which is interesting and relevant but does make it slightly awkward when the final conflict of the show is, um, depending on how you frame it three white people trying very hard to stop a Vietnamese woman getting power on the grounds that they have decided for themselves that she can’t be trusted with it.

And I think the true villain of the series is meant to be white supremacy except, well, white supremacy doesn’t get a clock dropped on it. Individual white supremacists are killed but the fate of Lady Trieu feels personal in a way the fates of the various slightly random racists kinda doesn’t.

Oh, I’m already spoiling the shit out of this, by the way. And there’ll be more spoilers coming.

I think what I found frustrating about the show was that it did a huge number of very clever things and subverted a lot of the core assumptions you might have about the comics but the note on which it ended was actually way more conventional, either than the show was setting up to be, or than the original Watchmen was or, indeed, still is. So, for example, it follows through on the traumatic consequences of Ozymandias’ fake alien invasion really well and it shows the complexities of its having sort of worked (in so far as the world has not been annihilated in nuclear fire) but then, of course, we know the real world wasn’t annihilated in nuclear fire either so … maybe he just killed three million people, and traumatised a bunch more, for no reason. And Ozymandias himself is shown throughout the series basically living in exile somewhere strange and totally disconnected from the rest of the world which is an oddly humbling—but kind of appropriate—future to imagine for the world’s smartest man.

One of the show’s most interesting arcs is its take on the previously backstory-only character of Hooded Justice. He was the costumed vigilante who started it all and who never took off his mask and, in original canon, had … um … slightly KKK-ey imagery? Like, he wore a hood that was a little bit pointed, he had a noose around his neck. There are anecdotal references in Under The Hood to his having said positive things about Hitler. The thing is, the comics only ever presented that in a kind of nudge-nudge-wink-wink oh do you see, he might have been a Nazi way. It feels decontextualised edginess points rather than an attempt to really address the (very real) connection between vigilantism, militia culture, aggressive masculinity and the (as we are all now acutely aware) strong authoritarian streak in American culture and politics.  

The show re-contextualises this character as a black man whose costume came not from his membership in the KKK but from his literally having survived a lynching. He wears makeup under the hood so that people assume he’s white (and also because the one time you see Hooded Justice in the comic he very clearly has white skin through his eyeholes) and that works incredibly well as a metaphor for / reflection of the way in which black people have often found, and often find themselves, excluded (often violently) from things that they actually created, be that vast chunks of modern music or, y’know, the #metoo movement. Similarly, the story we get about Hooded Justice is about his personal crusade to take down a gang of mind-controlling, white supremacist supervillains that the rest of the Minutemen do not give a shit about because their crimes only affect black people. I’m not even sure this counts as a metaphor. That’s just kind of … how it still is in a lot of places.

I also loved how they handled the show’s main protagonist, they way they portrayed Dr Manhattan, the future they imagined for Laurie, and even—although I know a lot of people were really angry with this—liked the fact that they had Rorschach become a rallying point for white supremacists. Because, I mean, yeah? Like, I know all nerdboys deep down want to be Rorschach because the idea that someone could be mean to you and you could turn round and say “I’m not trapped in here with you, you’re trapped in here with me” and then hit them in the face with a deep fat fryer full of boiling oil is very appealing.  But … he’s not a good person. His diary is fully of really of really right wing rhetoric about, you know, whores and filth and scum being washed away in the flood.  And setting the shower in Tulsa against the backdrop of a real race massacre that (and maybe the US education system does better on this) I for one had genuinely never heard about was a really strong choice, and tied in with all the rest of its themes about history and trauma and power and violence and race.

But. At the very end, it kind of feels like they decided that they had to have a villain who was doing something naughty and had to be stopped, ideally by characters we already recognise. Which … I mean? Up until that point the show had done such a job of walking the line between subversion and fanboyism but, I don’t know, to me having the Vietnamese woman who was trying to build on Ozymandias’ legacy but to do so in a way that would essentially eclipse him (and also, for what it’s worth, not kill three million people) stopped and, indeed, directly killed by Ozymandias and for this to be presented as basically a good thing was a blistering let down. Like, the whole of point of the original Watchmen is that a) Ozymandias kind of wins and b) he kind of isn’t wrong but also is kind of totally wrong.  

Because obviously Watchmen wasn’t perfect but if there was one comic book trap it definitely didn’t fall into it was status quo bias.

One of my least favourite tropes, and you see this time and time and time again, from Marvel to Pixar to Star Wars, is the idea that the only people who can be trusted with power are people who are either born with or acquire it accidentally. And the thing is, I understand where this trope comes from. Because superficially being power-hungry is bad. But actually being power-hungry is a lot like being, well, hungry. In that it’s a state of being one experiences if one lacks something. By and large, people who want more power aren’t, in fact, megalomaniac arseholes. Often megalomaniac arseholes don’t usually need to want more power because they’ve already had power handed to them and it’s usually that sense of entitlement that makes them a megalomaniac arsehole.

I don’t normally talk about US politics on this blog but, for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants power because she has a specific progressive agenda that she thinks will make people’s lives better and she needs power to implement it. Donald Trump, on the other hand, never especially wanted power (he’s practically on record as having said he didn’t want to be president) because he’d always had power because he was a white man who was born rich. He threw tantrums when he didn’t get his way but that’s because he was always used to getting his way and so he accepted it as the natural state of the universe.

Although Sister Night (the African American policewoman / masked vigilante who turns out to be the granddaughter of Hooded Justice) is very much the central character of the new Watchmen, the central conflict is really between Ozymandias and his illegitimate daughter Lady Trieu. Her plan is basically to trick a bunch of white supremacists into capturing Dr Manhattan for her and trying to suck out his power so that she can suck out his power instead and—let’s be very clear—use it, much liked Ozymandias used his power, for the good of humanity. And, obviously, one of the questions that both the original Watchmen and the TV show interrogates through the character is Ozymandias is the very issue of who gets to decide what is good for humanity.

But I think the thing is that the original comic presents that question as open. Ozymandias’s decision to drop a psychic squid nuke on New York in order to prevent a nuclear war is horrific but, on some level, you are invited to admire the commitment of it. Similarly, when Dr Manhattan decides to just fuck off to Mars instead of using his powers to help people that’s presented as another take on the responsible use of power and the text doesn’t necessarily say which is right and which is wrong. I mean, I don’t want to overly valorise Alan Moore here because, at the end of the day, the core moral question of Watchmen is just a trolley problem on a massive scale. Is it okay to kill three million people to prevent nuclear annihilation or is it better to stand by and let things unfold as they naturally will, irrespective of the harm that leads to?

By comparison, stopping Lady Trieu is just seen as, well, the thing that’s got to be done. And, worryingly, (especially for a show that’s got such undercurrent of interrogating racial injustice) it genuinely seems to draw an equivalence between the white supremacist who wants to be Dr Manhattan to, I assume, kind of destroy all black people and the Vietnamese woman who wants to become Dr Manhattan to destroy all nukes.  Ozymandias has one throwaway line where he says that Lady Trieu is a megalomaniac because “it takes one to know one” but … why do we believe this prick? And maybe I’m doing the show a disservice and maybe we’re genuinely supposed to be asking that question but it doesn’t feel to me like there’s space in the text to ask it. The framing of the climax of the series is so much about the love story between Dr Manhattan and Sister Night which means what we are invited to care about is whether Dr Manhattan dies (obviously there’s also the fact that he’s an iconic character who you don’t want to be written out of the setting). And so the abstract question of who actually deserves to have Dr Manhattan-level power and who can be trusted with it is never really addressed.

Or, rather, it’s sort of addressed but only in the comic books status quo bias sense that it is assumed that the person who already has the power (who also, despite his having used his Dr Manhattan powers to look like a Black guy for this series, has spent most of his life as a white man) is the only one who should ever have it. And, yes, because he’s foreseen his own death, he does pass on his power (or a portion of his power) to Sister Night in essentially the closing shot of the series. But, again, that’s got some really problematic implications because all it does it flip from “the person in power is the only person who should have power” to “the person that the person in power wants to have power after them is the only person who should have power.”

Which is still not good. Especially when it’s set against the race angle. Because, on the one hand, yes it’s nice that this was a version of Watchmen where Dr Manhattan was black and gave his power to a black woman. But it’s also a version of Watchmen where a woman of colour (and, in this universe, a woman of colour from a country that is directly occupied by the US military) tried to take power herself instead of waiting for it to be given to her by somebody who already had it and this was presented as objectively wrong.

So that’s complicated. And I should stress that there is a lot to love about this show. And I should also stress that, as a white guy, my opinions on race issues ultimately don’t mean shit. But I do think that the broader status quo bias of superhero and to a large extent fantasy media is something I’m sensitive to (if nothing else because I’m from a working class background) and the more I’ve come to notice it, the more it’s annoyed me, and the more I’ve come to see it in so many things.

Anyway, this is nearly 5000 words. What have you been enjoying this month? Tell me in the comments or, as ever, don’t.

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It is that time again that I rate five episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation by how bobbins they are. That’s it. No more introduction. Let’s go.

The Schizoid Man

There are two things that are unfortunate about this title. The first is that it’s, um, not the most sensitive title in the world for an episode of a TV show or, I think, the most accurate in its use of mental health terminology. The second is that it’s also the title of a classic episode of the 1960s TV series, The Prisoner. And, particularly in nerd circles, that’s not a comparison you want to invite.

Anyway, this is a “someone wants to steal Data” episode. The someone in this case is pervy narcissist Ira Graves who, like, grooms Data by claiming to be his grandfather and then steals his body in order to evade death. And haven’t we all been there?

The thing I like most about this episode is how little effort pervy narcissist Ira Graves makes to act in any way like Data. He keeps it up for all of five minutes before backtalking Picard and hitting on his hot younger assistant (who, possibly, might be up for it, were it not for the fact he wants to turn her into a robot too). It’s also the episode that contains the “to know him is to love him is to know him” speech, which for some reason has been burned into my memory since I first saw this episode when it aired in … I want to say 1987? That is perfectly good brain space I could have used for literally anything else. Except obviously not because that’s not how brains work.

This episode also gets points for being another episode where Picard defeats the villain by just kind of having a conversation with him. I guess when all you’ve got is a classically trained actor every problem begins to look like a nail with insufficient gravitas.

This feels like quite a standard Star Trek episode so I think that makes it three bobbins by default.

Unnatural Selection

In this episode, noted robot racist Dr Pulaski becomes infected with a mysterious aging sickness that has already killed the entire crew of a federation starship. This is entirely her own fault. And I might sympathise more with her scientific hubris (and, genuinely, it was kind of nice, especially in the 1980s, to see that trait in a female character) were it not for the fact she is a giant robot racist. And, to be fair, in this episode she does have some development in her relationship with Data, but I think that’s part of the problem. Because Dr Pulaski’s refusal to accept that Data is a real person is quite deliberately portrayed as a racism parallel it’s hard to root for her and Data to “work out their differences” when their differences are literally “she refuses to acknowledge his humanity.” Something something fine people on both sides something something partisanship.

Anyway, the crew of Enterprise arrive at a genetic research station which is also being afflicted by the very fast aging disease and all the researchers say “we’re dying of very fast aging disease, but it is DEFINITELY NOT caused by our weird, genetically engineered children.”

Spoiler: it is caused by the weird, genetically engineered children.

One of the things I really value about Star Trek, and think it has lost in its more recent incarnations, is its absolute commitment to being optimistic sci-fi. In a post-Black Mirror world it’s really refreshing (or, depending on how you look at it, jarring) to have an episode where the plot basically goes: so we did these genetic experiments to produce a generation of super humans who reach full physical maturity in twelve years, are hyper-intelligent, telepathic and never get sick. Unfortunately their immune systems are so strong that they seem to kill everyone around them. Whoops. The lesson I take away from this is that there is one minor flaw in our otherwise very sensible plan.

And I know phrased that in a flippant way but, genuinely, I kind of like that? Like the Enterprise just flies away cheerfully, leaving these people to continue their incredibly difficult, provably dangerous research into a field, let’s not forget, led to vast genocidal wars in the actual backplot of actual Star Trek. And that’s … bizarrely cool? Because actually trying to use science to make stuff better for people isn’t, whatever Black Mirror might tell you, some doomed or futile endeavour to play in God’s domain. Humans have frequently discovered, and will frequently continue to discover, things that just straight up help people. I mean, yes, without antibiotics we wouldn’t have antibiotic resistant bacteria. But let’s be mega clear: the worst case scenario of antibiotic resistant bacteria is that we wind up no worse off than we were before antibiotics.

Anyway, it’s a Pulaski-heavy episode and I’d dock it a point except I’m not doing points. Assuming you are okay with its weirdly optimistic take on breeding a race of telepathic superhumans it’s a decent sci-fi medical mystery.

Two bobbins.

A Matter of Honor

Fuck off Klingons are amazing.

In this episode, Riker participates in an exchange programme which means he has to go and be first officer of a Klingon vessel for a bit. And, yes, this makes no sense. And, yes, the core conflict is that there’s some kind of weird space bacteria that eats ships that happens to infect both the Klingon vessel and the Enterprise while they’re doing the transfer, which is one of the most forced plot contrivances I’ve seen in an episode of Star Trek so far. And, just to remind you, this is Star Trek we’re talking about. A show whose forced plot contrivances are so famous there’s a song about it.

But fuck off Klingons are amazing. I will never not celebrate a Klingon episode. Qapla!

One bobbin.

The Measure of a Man

This is an all-time favourite for so many reasons. Strong Data focus: check. Captain Picard doing speeches: check. Riker also doing speeches: check. Picard having a slightly age-inappropriate relationship with a female character we never see again: check. Slightly pretentious episode title so you’re not sure isn’t a Babylon 5: check. Unintentional homoerotic undertone: check.

So this is episode where a dude from Star Fleet wants to fuck Data—I mean wants to take Data back to his star base to do experiments on his brain in order to create an army of Datas he can fuck—I mean, for the benefit of the Federation. There is then just forty minutes of Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Frakes giving impassioned speeches about philosophy as they debate whether Data is a person or not in front of a lady who, really, really wants to bang Picard.

The lady who really, really wants to bang Picard is excellent, by the way. She’s all “justice justice justice this isn’t about your feelings this is about the law wanna bang.” Also they definitely had sex in the past, and it’s super unclear whether it’s before or after she court martialled him, and I’m not sure which way round is hotter. It’s like full-on classic D&D lawful neutral versus lawful good sexual tension.

I think the episode is also just a surprisingly decent stab at really interrogating its underlying philosophical question. Riker, despite not wanting to, makes a pretty compelling argument that, when you get right down to it, Data is a machine. And the bits where he takes off his hand and switches him off are both shocking and weirdly rhetorically effective, although the part where he gets Data to demonstrate his ability to bend a rod of parsteel thus proving that he has capacities well beyond those that a human could possess falls flat because Picard marshals the amazing counter argument: “objection! There are many lifeforms possessed of mega strength!”

I mean, he’s not wrong. But if we still lived in a world where ringtones where a thing, mine would be Patrick Stewart shouting about mega-strength.

The other line in this episode that sits slightly oddly with me is the bit when Wants To Bang Picard Lady is doing her summing up and she phrases the question before the court “does Data have a soul?” And, um, the answer is no. The answer is definitely no. A central tenet of the Star Trek universe (especially in this era, it gets a bit wibbly with the Bajorans) is that there is no religion and everyone is an atheist. The Federation doesn’t believe in souls. Sorry, that bugged me more than it should. Although I suppose, thinking about it, it would pretty on brand if it wasn’t so much strictly atheistic (they’re said to have given up on “superstitions” which seems to include organised religion) as, you know, spiritual but not religious.

Anyway, this episode is amazing. Anyone who says this episode is not amazing is just being a hipster.

Although I do feel bad for Bruce Maddox who is so uncomfortable with his desire to bang data that he concocts this whole thing about to wanting “continuing Noonian Soong’s research” as an elaborate cover. Come on man, just accept who you are. And who you are is someone who fancies Data and that’s okay.

One bobbin.

The Dauphin

Okay, hear me out. This is Wesley-centric episode in which he gets a crush on a pretty girl, and there’s also an objectively hilarious giant hairy bugsuit monster thing, but it’s actually really sweet and I kind of … genuinely love it?

This episode opens with Wesley doing a thing in engineering with Geordi. Which means you know it’s going to be a Wesley-centric episode. Then, it’s explained that the Enterprise’s mission is to pick up a spurious head of state from a weird inhospitable planet where she (very explicitly she) has been living for the past sixteen years (very explicitly sixteen years). And you realise it’s going to be that kind of Wesley-centric episode.

Needless to say, the spurious head of state is extremely pretty and slightly dorky and incredibly teenage and she’s all “oh I just want to be a normal carbon-based life-form and go on dates and eat chocolate pudding with boys but instead I have to resolve a war between two irreconcilable factions on a tidally locked planet because that is a thing that happens in this universe” and all the adults on the Enterprise are like “yep, that seems like a totally legit thing to be going on” and Wesley is like “but I want to kiss her real bad” and … that’s like the entire plot.

Oh before I forget part of Wesley’s “I want to kiss her real bad” arc involves seeking romantic advice from various unhelpful members of the Enterprise. Which includes Worf demonstrating a Klingon mating roar (leading to the exchange “are you saying I should roar at her?” “no, women roar, then throw heavy objects. Men read love poetry and duck a lot”) and Riker and Guinan trying to teach him chat-up lines but getting way too into it and sort of pulling each other right in front of him. And to give Wesley credit, having had all this patently useless advice, he ignores it and decides to be himself and it works really well.

Wesley Crusher got game. I bet he gets that from his dad. By which I mean his secret real dad, Picard. Not canon. (Also, I don’t actually like that fan theory, because I think “Picard feels guilty around Wesley because he got his father killed” is a more nuanced take than “Picard feels guilty around Wesley because he nailed his mom.”)

Anyway, what I really like about this episode is that the spurious head of state is basically the protagonist of a YA novel that’s going on in the background while other people are largely ignoring it. She’s got a destiny, an over-protective mentor with whom who she has quite a complex relationship, she has to make a hard choice between her people and a boy, and freedom and duty and stuff. Also dating is difficult when you’re a shape shifting being of pure light who sometimes turns into a giant ant-gorilla. If this episode had been written ten-to-twenty years later they’d have got three novels and a movie series out of it.

Plus Wesley comes out of this episode surprisingly well. It’s 47 minute TV from the 80s so he does quite a lot of emotional whiplashing but he gets a nice “meets girl, falls for girl, is briefly betrayed by girl, says tender emotional farewell to girl” arc. And it ends on a poignant scene with Guinan where Wesley is all sad and Guinan, unusually for a wise mentor character in a TV show from the 80s, gives him advice that’s … not completely obvious and trite? Like Wesley is all “oh, I’ll never feel this way again” and Guinan’s like “you’re right you won’t.” And Wesley’s like “wah?” and Guinan’s like, “That’s the thing about love, it’s kind of different every time and that’s okay.” Which is a much more nuanced take than you would normally get in that kind of story.

I appreciated this take because one of the problems that teen romance dramas often have is that it becomes  necessary for the protagonist to have more than one romantic interest. But because they’re ground in this model of love that (and apologies, I stole this from Jenny Nicholson’s Vampire Diaries review but it’s genuinely the best summary I’ve heard) goes “you can love exactly one person and you meet them when you’re a teenager and you can never love any body else ever even if one of you dies” it can get super weird. Buffy, for example, never really reconciled the tension between Angel being Buffy’s One True Forever Love and his fucking off to be on a different TV show really early in the series.

Anyway, yes it’s a Wesley Gets A Girlfriend episode with all that entails. But I really liked it. I mean, it still gets at least three bobbins just for the giant ant-monkey monster thing that everyone tries to act terrified of when it’s clearly just an actor in a suit who isn’t able to move very fast or effectively. And they have to do that kind of fighting where they just grab each other’s arms and sort of rock side-to-side which I assume is a recognised martial art in the 24th century.

So. Three bobbins.

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Okay, so, keeping up with my vague resolution to blog here is me blogging more. Here is me actually doing a Things I Liked post at the start of the month after the month it’s about instead about halfway through the month after the month it’s about.

Go me.

Jenny Nicholson on The Vampire Diaries

I’ve already included Jenny Nicholson and The Vampire Diaries on this blog—indeed, as part of this blog series—so Jenny Nicholson talking about The Vampire Diaries was pretty much guaranteed to make me happy. Part of her brand is that she does very, very long in depth videos sometimes and The Vampire Diaries video is, like, two and a half hours analysing a completely absurd TV show in way more detail than anyone could ever possibly need to. And people analysing absurd things in way more detail than anyone could ever possibly need is, um, something I have a lot of time for.

I could say quite a lot about this but it’s hard to without essentially stealing someone else’s pop culture analysis but it’s a good mix of light-hearted not exactly nostalgic discussion of the series and genuinely unusual and weird facts. Like there’s a whole big story about how shittily the company who owned The Vampires Diaries IP treated the woman who actually wrote the books—which, again, you can see for yourselves in the video.

Although I do think she’s mean about Elijah’s hair.

Oxygen Not Included

This is another game from the same people who made Don’t Starve and it has a superficially similar premise but very different gameplay. You control a team of “duplicants” who are sort of well-intentioned but incompetent clones trying to survive in a space colony they’re building in the middle of an asteroid somewhere using only stuff they’ve dug out of that asteroid.

It doesn’t have the same “oops I’ve fucked up, now I’m dead” energy that Don’t Starve has. It’s more of a “I am a hundred game days into this colony and I’ve just now realised that I’ve been neglecting an incredibly important thing and should probably have another go, this time probably not neglecting the incredibly important thing.”

So far I’ve been through that loop about nine times, discovering a new very important thing every time.

Because it’s got a base building aspect you can find lots of stuff online about people who’ve built all sorts of elaborate, remarkable machines to do things like produce food automatically or turn poo into oxygen. I have achieved none of this.

My bases consist of boring rectangular rooms with long, squiggly inefficient corridors coming off them because I realised I was out of coal or algae or something, and occasionally they get flooded with polluted water because I accidentally demolish the wrong tile, turn off the toilets and cause my duplicants to wee everywhere.

Fun times.

Reading

Well, this one’s a little weird but, uh, for all the pandemic has been quite bad? It’s also helped me get back in touch with reading. Because the thing about being a writer is that reading and writing can come from similar mental spaces, so doing too much of one can impinge on the other, and I’m increasingly terrified I’m going to end up like Garth Marenghi in Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place, proudly declaring himself one of the few people you know who has written more books than he’s read.

But the thing about pandemics, and lockdowns specifically, is that they give you a lot more free time. So I’ve been quietly chewing through my ballycumber. And, frankly, this has been helpful too because I haven’t had to make any meaningful decisions about what to read, or worry if I’m keeping up with the sort of things I should be reading.

Also it’s winter and it’s cold so tucking up with a kindle and duvet is lovely.

Soy Eggs

I found a recipe in The Guardian for soy eggs. Spoiler, it basically goes: get some eggs, put them in soy sauce overnight, eat.

But they’re a surprising improvement on the egg experience. There’s something fundamentally unexciting about an egg, possibly something to do with their having been designed by evolution and selective breeding to be the most efficient, no fuss way of delivering nutrients to a vertebrate that can possibly exist. Adding a slight umami flavour makes a remarkable amount of difference. I suppose it’s like putting butter on dry bread.

And the nice thing about these is that you can boil up a batch of them, stick them in a jar of marinade, which makes you feel like you’ve done real cooking, and then you have a nice healthy snack that you can grab whenever you feel like one.

Some episodes of Killing Eve

By which I mean, I’ve only watched some episodes, not that I found really patchy. And, oh my God, this is fabulous—especially if you’ve played any assassination-themed video game, since Villanelle is clearly just Agent 47 only more female and less bald. She even does the thing where she wears disguises but rather than bringing them with her she just picks them up as she’s wandering around. And occasionally her missions will go wrong and she’ll just be forced to kill everyone in the entire building or chase the target across a field firing a gun with badly implement ironsights and I’ll be like, “yep, been there.”

I mean, been there in the sense of “played that level in a video game.” Not that I’m actually an international assassin. That looks perilously like hard work.

Anyway, I think I’m the last person world to watch this—to the extent that I think it’s up to its fourth season, which honestly feels like a lot to me for a show whose entire premise is a game of cat ‘n’ mouse. I mean, really, by this stage it should definitely be called Singularly Failing to Kill Eve. Or possibly Not Even Trying To Kill Eve.

I will say that I do think, it’s camp as balls in the sense that for all its prestige TV miniseries psychodrama packaging it’s basically just a 70s spy thriller. And, to be fair, I think it absolutely knows this—like, I’m not that far in yet so no spoilers (actually, that’s a lie, I’m fine with spoilers) but as far as I can tell the premise is that Villanelle is either the little girl from Leon if she grew up and went into the family business or Black Window from Marvel if she’d just kind of stayed evil. Basically, she seems to love two things which are killing and, really specifically, Sandra Oh’s hair. I think there’s a backstory explanation for this but, right now, I don’t care. I’m here for it anyway.

Redditors versus The Stock Market

Like pretty much everybody I’ve been fascinated by the gradual unfolding of The Big Short But With Memes.

Although holy crap does this highlight how weird and clearly-just-gambling the stock market is.

Like as I understand it what happened here is:

A Big Stock Market Guy noticed that a video game store was going to lose money in the pandemic because retail was suffering and physical video game stores aren’t exactly a growth sector right now…

So he … borrowed a bunch of shares in this company, promising to give more shares in that company back later to the people he borrowed them from? And this is a thing people do all the time in financial markets and think is normal? Like if I went into Greggs and instead of buying a packet of four sausage rolls for three pounds I instead said “tell you what, I’ll take these four sausage rolls now, but I’ll give you five sausage rolls tomorrow”.

And then he sold those sausage rolls because he hoped that sausage rolls would get cheaper and that tomorrow he’d be able to buy five sausage rolls for less than he originally paid for four sausage rolls. Again, this is apparently just how buying sausage rolls works in the financial markets.

But then a group of internet people who self-define as a “bunch of degenerate gamblers” realised what he was doing and, because they’re internet people, didn’t like the idea that he was picking on a shop they all remembered buying games from as teenagers, and decided to teach him a lesson. Which they decided to do by buying up as many sausage rolls as they could so that when the time came for the Big Stock Market Guy to have to give his sausage rolls back to Greggs they’d be able to say “ha ha we have all the sausage rolls, you can’t have the sausage rolls unless you give us one million dollars”.

And this is kind of working?

Except now some people are saying that maybe the reason that the Big Stock Market Guy and all his Big Stock Market friends are so worried is that there might actually be more sausage rolls out there than there were supposed to be, because it’s possible that somebody was committing sausage roll fraud. And also there are now stories running in the Wall Street Journal that say that the internet people have stopped buying sausage rolls and are now buying silver instead, but this might be a scam. And the internet people are really keen to keep buying sausage rolls. And a sausage roll selling app by the unbelievably ironic name of Robinhood is stopping people buying sausage rolls because it’s causing volatility in the sausage roll markets?

And all this moving around of imaginary sausage rolls some of which are real imaginary sausage rolls and some of which might be fake imaginary sausage rolls is a real billion dollar service industry and incidentally one of my country’s largest exports?

I think I’m going to go back to trying to stop my space clones from weeing everywhere.

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