Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Top Ten Trek Episodes for Halloween

Star Trek and its iterations have produced many kinds of shows -- adventures, romances, mysteries, action thrillers, spy dramas -- but  its horror episodes are particularly memorable. Since we're nearing Halloween, I thought it would be fun to share some the more appropriate episodes.  This isn't an objective list compiled from a survey; there are just episodes I remember as being creepy or appropriate, and naturally there's a bias toward Deep Space Nine given that it's my favorite.

"Catspaw", TOS (02x07)
Although I don't find "Catspaw" particularly scary,  it's gotta be here considering that it was deliberately filmed for and aired on  Halloween.  After losing contact with a landing party, Kirk and his senior staff beam down to find a fog-covered arena of mystery, apparitions of witches  warning them away in a threatening chant, and a gloomy gothic castle shrouded in the mist.    Inside the castle, their lost landing party waits for them in a dungeon, under the control of a malicious "wizard".

"Macrocosm", ST-VOY (03x12)
Captain Janeway and Neelix return to a Voyager which is strangely empty, except for occasional noises deep in the interior, and see evidence that the crew left their stations abruptly.  But there is something else on the ship that's alive...

"Night Terrors", ST-TNG (04x17)
The Enterprise-D is caught in a spatial anomaly that denies the crew the ability to really sleep. As they sink into hallucinations and violence,   Deanna Troi -- who keeps hearing the voice within her head intone "EYES IN THE DARK, ONE MOON CIRCLING" -- tries to find an answer to what is happening. A nearby ship adrift, filled with the bodies of a crew that murdered itself, is an ominous reminder of what will happen if she doesn't.

"Whispers", ST-DS9 (02x14)
"Whispers opens with Miles O'Brien escaping from...Deep Space Nine, where his friends and coworkers have inexplicably begun treating him like an enemy in disguise.  One of the many "abuse O'Brien" episodes of DS9,  viewers witness poor Miles suffering cold distrust from first both his wife and his command, and then everyone -- even children.  After using his engineering know-how and knowledge of the station's innards to escape, he looks to Starfleet Command for reprieve. In a related episode, "The Assignment", Mile's wife is possessed by a malevolent alien who wishes to attack Bajor...and if the chief doesn't assist the creature, it will kill his wife and daughter.

"Distant Voices", ST-DS9 (03x18)
Shortly after being physically attacked by an alien in his lab,  Dr. Julian Bashir wakes up to a seemingly abandoned and crippled station. What's more, he's aging -- rapidly, and hears faint voices all around him. When he finally finds a few scattered members of the crew,  they're acting  uncharacteristically. When Bashir's failing faculties seem to align with the crew being killed by a monstrous assassin, the doctor realizes he is fighting for his sanity within his own head.

"One"/"Doctor's Orders"  ST-VOY/ST-ENT (04x25 | 03x16)
An effective enough story that it was recycled between shows, "One" features Voyager entering an area of space dangerous to most of the life on the ship.  Seven of Nine and the Emergency Medical Hologram are immune to the effect, but everyone else must be put into medical stasis.  At first, matters go smoothly...but then the EMH is compromised, and Seven is left alone to battle both technical problems and the creeping terror of being alone for weeks on end. ENT re-used the story, but Seven's status as someone still establishing her own identity apart from the Borg collective made the original  far more compelling, with Borg hallucinations driving Seven's panic. The filming of "One" used a lot of perspective shots that made it look like Seven was being followed or stalked.

"The Haunting of Deck Twelve", ST-VOY (06x25)
Voyager, for reasons undeclared to the viewer, is shutting down all engines and drifting through a nebula more mysterious than normal.  While Starfleet's finest will be at their stations during the darkness, monitoring something Very Important, Neelix is assigned to take care of four children whom Voyager rescued. To entertain them, he tells them a "ghost story" about why it's important that the ship is powered down and at full alert, which mixes fact and fantasy and keeps the kids and viewers alike spellbound. There are comedic elements as well, because one of the children is older and keeps asking about the plot holes.

"Schisms", ST-TNG (06x05)
The Enterprise crew is overtaken by creeping paranoia, flashes of memory from a terrible place, and feelings of being out-of-time. When Crusher and Troi begin comparing notes,  they realize there are common points of reference, and begin to suspect that the crew are being abducted in their sleep.

"Empok Nor", ST-DS9 (05x24)
A sudden crisis aboard Deep Space Nine forces a small team to raid an abandoned Cardassian outpost for supplies. Because the outpost is booby-trapped,  mysterious Cardassian exile Garak comes along to watch for and disable any traps.  But the station isn't quite abandoned, and as members of the team begin to be murdered one by one, a psychotropic toxin turns friends against one another. The experience is harrowing enough that a season later, a survivor's behavior is influenced by it while in another tense situation.

1. "Frame of Mind",  ST-TNG (06x21). Commander Riker wakes up in an  asylum, accused of having murdered a man. He has no memory of the event, and everyone treats him like he is insane. What's more....he is.    What Riker experiences and the reality around him constantly conflict, and even when members of the Enterprise crew show up to check on him, they prove only to be part of the delusion. The episode is a complete mindscrew,   keeping the viewer and Riker completely unsettled.   "Frame of Mind" is the reason I made this list to begin with, and I went ahead and made it number one before anything else.

Back in the early 2000s, a guy named DarkMateria did three remix songs, using TNG clips and music -- one for Picard, one for Worf, and one for "Frame of Mind". I'm including a fan-made vid above using the music.

The Prince

The Prince
© 1532 Niccolo Machiavelli
100 pages

Italy, circa 1500, was a rough neighborhood. Divided between powerful city-centered states and frequently threatened by outside empires,  few rulers could rest on their laurels and enjoy a prolonged peace. Even if someone outside didn't want to take over, someone inside might want to effect a little regime change.  In such an environment, Nichola Machiavelli chose to present his newly-acclaimed ruler with a gift of advice. The Prince is a brief, grimly realistic review of how states work and how best to manipulate them, drawing on Italian or Mediterranean  history for case studies.

I've grown up to associate the term Machiavellian with sinister calculation, usually of the wheels-within-wheels kind, and especially with cold-blooded calculation that doesn't hesitate to burn bridges, step on toes, and secure pointy knives in the back of friends who have outlived their use.  The Prince doesn't quite do that reputation justice,  but it's easy to see where it lies.   Most of the beginning advice is analytical, as Machiavelli reviews different types of states and ways to rise to power --   He argues that a feudal state like France is relatively easy to compromise and invade, but nearly impossible to consolidate because of the heavy local  basis of government.. An autocratic regime, on the other hand, where the weight of the state is on the ruler's shoulders and not supported or drawn from civil society, is harder to invade  because of the central power but relatively easy to subdue thereafter.   He appraises different sources of effective defense, from the best (a native, professional army) to the worst (foreign auxiliaries).   It's later on, though, that things get....interesting.

Machiavelli argues that morality has little place in politics;  politics is about what is rather than what should be. He does not equivocate: men are wicked. You cannot account on their affection, because it evaporates quickly. You cannot count on loyalty, because  everyone looks instinctively to their own interest  in the pursuit of power and wealth.   It is better, then, to be feared rather than loved -- so long as one is not hated.   Rulers should make and break their word with the same ease of a mechanic breaking down equipment to replace or mend its parts.  This should not done flippantly or obviously -- it's always important to maintain the appearance of virtue if not the substance of it --  but a prince is judged by his results and nothing else.  The best way for a prince to solidify his power,  in fact, is for him to make himself indispensable, a man whose fall would cause more trouble  than his continuing in office.  In weighing the virtues of generosity and parsimony,  Machiavelli concludes that it is far better for a prince to be faulted for stinginess than liberality:  recipients of gifts are never as grateful as they should be, and  the giving of gifts and favors only spurs resentment among those who do not benefit,  induces greater expectations for future, more fulsome giving, and empties the state's coffers. In a worst case scenario, the liberally-giving prince can earn the hatred of the people by taxing them to give them gifts they do not regard as favors but rather as entitlements. All  this advice is not intuitive: while one might expect advice to a dictator to urge disarming the rabble so they don't protest, Machiavelli instead maintains that keeping the population armed is a wiser choice. A ruler who disarms his subjects broadcasts his distrust of the people, and so cultivates their contempt. The strength of the ruler lays in his ability to defend against threats, and an armed populace is the best means of doing so.

The Prince has all kinds of related advice in it, from choosing wise-but-not-too-wise counsel, to squelching conspiracies. Some of the advice has modern application which anyone would applaud, like the avoidance of  sycophants and foreign auxiliaries (how much money did DC waste in Afghanistan trying to create a native security force?).  Some of this is material which I think we all suspect but rarely want to admit -- like the necessity for leaders to appear decisive and strong even if they are internally conflicted.  That can easily lead us into folly if leaders focus too much on appearances rather than reality, but it is possible to change one's mind in light of growing evidence and still appear decisive.  None of us would want to live in states where leaders lie and manipulate the people, but judging by the popularity of shows like House of Cards,  we suspect we do already.   Although I would not advocate The Prince as a way to government -- I put personal stock in virtue, honor, truth, all that dated and impolitic stuff --    I suspect even good, well-intentioned people who come into power find themselves enacting its lessons as they settle into office.  The Prince has enormous value for me in its naked view of man the political creature, admitting as it does the limitations of building societies from the crooked timber of humanity.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette

Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account of a Small Town's Fight to Survive
© 2003 Bill Kauffman
206 pages

Bill Kauffman, as a kid, went places. Starting from a little town in upstate New York, he journeyed as far afield as Los Angeles and D.C., for a time serving on the staff of a Democratic senator. Then, disillusioned,  he returned home and  started lobbing colorful grenades at those very places,  becoming an ardent champion of local cultures and places over homogeneity and the politics of Big.  Although much  of his writing has concerned localism within America in general -- celebrating regional literature, for instance, or chronicling with joy the history of self-rule movements in the US - he often makes allusions to the place he has called his home, and in Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette he looks at it fully.

Batavia, NY, is not Mayberry. From Kauffman's writings both here and elsewhere, it's a place whose downtown was gutted by "Urban Renewal",   whose businesses were shuttered after the big box stores arrived in the periphery, and it's had its share of ethnic conflict between Italians, English-types, and a few black immigrants.  But when Kauffman looks at Batavia,  he looks at through eyes of love: "It ain't much, but it's better than nothin.'"  "Nothing" is what prevails today -- in rootless politicians and tycoons  whose detachment makes it much easier for them to  act like brutes in power. Distanced from the consequences of their actions, they deal in ideas and abstractions. Consequences, whether they be blown-up weddings in Yemen or dead towns in Ohio, are a far-off notion. Within these Dispatches, Kauffman celebrates local figures,  some of whom are known abroad, like John Gardener. Kauffman also recounts the decline of Batavia's downtown, shares quirky stores from its past like a sudden rush of anti-Mason hatred,   and hails its locally-owned ballclub. All this is not just flavor or local color,  because mixed within the recollection is reflection.  Kauffman values his local team not for some sentimental attachment to baseball (though there is that),  but for the fact that his town owns that team. When so much of Batavia has been lost to the bulldozers of progress ("progress" is always a four-letter in a Kauffman book), the ball club is a locus for continuity, tying generations together.  Young attendees become older players and then -- in their maturity -- may sit on the board that manages the team. Kauffman himself served as a president. Likewise, in the chapter on a few local politicians, Kauffman ruminates on the vast gulf between local voting and national voting. Politics matters at the local level, and elections can swing on a single vote, and the people put into office are close enough to keep accountable. ("Close enough to kick", as GK Chesterton put it).

Although a book like this only seems to be of interest to those who live in Batavia, or at leas Gennessee County, I don't think that's the case.  Batavia's is an American story; I've never found a town yet whose downtown wasn't riddled with shuttered buildings or proud buildings reduced to yet another parking lot,  and cookie-cutter sprawl  camped  nearby.  All Americans are affected by the distance of DC, even those with the misfortune of living near the Virginia-Maryland border, and estrangement and frustration with  the system seem to increase every year.    Even if we can't fix the system -- and I know of no polity in history  which has passed into empire and then restored itself -- we can still within the span of our lives re-turn our attention to what matters -- our places, our families, our quirks and histories.  It may not be much, but it's better than nothing.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Memory of Old Jack

The Memory of Old Jack
© 1974 Wendell Berry
223 pages

"Now Old Jack, who was the last of that generation that Wheeler looked to with such fililial devotion, is dead. And Wheeler is fifty-two years old, as old as the century, and younger men are looking to him. Now he must cease to be a son to the old men and become a father to the young." p. 163

For years, Old Jack Beechum has been a fixture on the porch of Port William's downtown hotel, where he sits staring into the distance until the arrival of a friend or the call to supper  disturbs him from his reverie.  Old Jack is a widower whose daughter long abandoned him for the bright lights of the city, but he's far from a man alone, instead being a source of admiration for most of the men in town. Jack is the last of a generation which can remember the Civil War, the last of the men who were the true husbands of their fields and not merely the drivers of machines. He is notoriously stubborn, careful, and devoted -- and The Memory of Old Jack takes readers on a journey both through his life and his final day as he is lost in memories while approaching that final rest.

As Jayber Crow noted in his own account of the town of Port William and the membership thereof, "telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told".  That is ever the case with any Port William story,  for they are richly interconnected with one another and with the town's story through time. The passage of time is a theme in every Berry story that I've read -- considering as he does the maturation or degradation of characters and the community itself --  and that, combined with the fact that we encounter the same characters and some of the same stories from different angles in different books, means this is a fulsome fictional experience. Berry affects me like no other author in taking me through the full gamut of human emotions -- youthful romance,   debt-induced desperation, deep satisfaction in work well done,  sadness and estrangement over an ill-considered marriage,  rage and regret, and the deep sorrow of a parent whose child has become a stranger to them.  I've encountered Jack in other stories, and was entranced by him here.  As with any Port William story, this is not one of saccharine and happy endings; tragic things happen, and life goes on, characters making the best lives they can for themselves, and -- fittingly -- the story does not end with Jack's death.  He lived within a community, within a family, and their response to his death is just as important as its happening.  One of the more touching moments of this particular novel is when a few of Jack's younger friends, silver-haired men who he had mentored, gather after the funeral and swap their favorite Jackisms.

Berry's fiction is exquisite, and The Memory of Old Jack easily ranks among my favorites along with Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist
© 1837 Charles Dickens
447 pages

"Please, sir, I want some more."   I had never read or otherwise encountered Oliver Twist before this month, but I immediately recognized that quote. Something about little Oliver sticks in the minds of other readers, just as it stuck in the mind of many characters who encountered him.  Oliver Twist is the story of an orphan who seems to escape and again from the clutches of uncaring or malicious adults, only to find himself right back in trouble. It was trouble that started before his birth, for as this narrative follows young Oliver's birth until he is about eleven or twelve,  its happenings eventually reveal a more elaborate family drama.  While Oliver is passing in and out of the hands of hostile adults -- first uncaring taskmasters, then criminals, who capture him after he escapes --  the arrival of a man with a mysterious past heightens the mortal danger to the boy, far beyond that of ordinary neglect and abuse.  The novel is replete with memorable characters, particularly Nancy --  a teenage girl associated with a gang of criminals, who helps them kidnap him for labor but regrets her actions, later laboring to atone for them.  Although this story is more grim than anything else I've read of Dickens, I appreciated the earn-your-happy-ending type conclusion, in which Oliver finally finds happiness but at the cost of a dear friend.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Very Good, Jeeves

Very Good, Jeeves
© 1930 P.G. Wodehouse
304 pages

This past Saturday I had a very happy surprise. Taking a break from a day of  sacking my closet, wardrobe, and bookcases to donate to charity and get me closer to my simple-living ideal,  I grabbed a tale of Wodehouse stories to re-read during lunch. Imagine my delight to realize...this was a collection I'd purchased to read one April, then forgotten that I hadn't already read it.  (I have quite a bit of Wodehouse, and they all blur together in the imagination.)

Now, I've reviewed other Wodehouse story collection before, and he like Bernard Cornwell is so consistent that my comments, both descriptive and appraising, would only copy past reviews.   With a few adjustments, I could literally paste-in my review for Right Ho Jeeves, as the difference lies in one being a novel and the other (this) a collection of stories.   In short, Wodehouse has a brilliant way with the English language, which is never funnier than in his hands,  and he tells amusing stories about a society wastrel and his Machiavellian butler, who works endlessly to keep his young master out of trouble,  i.e. marriage and useful employment. Jeeves' solutions also have a way of destroying tacky articles of clothing and art that Bertie insists on dragging home. In a full-length novel there are multiple schemes from different people afoot, sometimes conflicting with one another and sometimes complementing one another.    What one values most (language aside) from a Wodehouse novel is how innocent they are, providing  mirth and drama without a hint of malice.  (A few months ago, an article called "P.G. Wodehouse: Balm for the Modern Soul"  made me especially appreciative of this.)

There's a full run-down of the stories on Wikipedia if you're curious. 

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Shining

The Shining
© 1977 Stephen King
447 pages

A recovering alcoholic and recently fired schoolteacher has taken a short-term gig as the winter caretaker of a luxury hotel nestled in the Colorado mountains.  The hotel is forced to close for the season every fall because of unpassable roads and frequent blizzards, but someone is needed to ensure that the howling winds don't compromised the building and expose it to the elements. But the real danger of the Overlook Hotel isn't outside...it's inside.   It is a building with a dark past, with a history of murders and suicides -- and even from outside it strikes its three new residents as ominous.  Jack, the caretaker, his wife Wendy, and their son Danny are in for a long, harrowing winter. Whatever lurks in the hotel is awakened and strengthed by the presence of the family, and especially by the son Danny who has some ability to read thoughts and receive impressions about the future.

Imagine a haunted house that can't be escaped from, a house where the haunts are not transparent figures rattling dishes and moaning,  but rather persistent voices in your head driving you to madness, and frightening images invading your mind --  images of the past, howling laughter and screams,  blood and bodies from long-disappeared crime scenes suddenly seeming as if they've just happened.  When the story begins,  Jack and Wendy are optimistic: this will be a way to get back on their feet financially, an easy source of income, and a quiet space for Jack to finish working on his play and continuing his recovery from alcoholism. They can mend the fences in their relationship, and give their troubled boy the attention he needs.   But as the winter progresses,  both Jack and his son come under increasing mental and emotional stress,  one of them losing his mind completely.  The long descent into madness ends in horror, bloodshed, and desperate flights from mortal threats both physical and fantastic.

The Shining is an excellent story of creeping terror,   allowing readers to experience the unraveling of  sanity from multiple perspectives,  at least until one character is completely possessed by the hotel and becomes another malignant force.  What makes this effective is that the horror is not overt  -- no ghosts, no wailing. It's a smothering feeling, a corner turned to see something that shouldn't be there -- like fresh blood from an  decades-old crime scene, the shadow of a body in a tub that should not be there. As unsettling things accumulate, the characters are still going through mundane activities -- exploring the past of the hotel,  working on  a play, putting up shingles -- until there's an over-the-edge point and it descends into a more outright thriller.

Friday, October 12, 2018

The Wisdom of Whimsy

Just spotted a podcast about the importance reading whimsy in the modern age -- definitely giving that a listen tonight!

Source: "The Wisdom of Whimsy"

"The world can feel awfully grim these days. My news app makes me nervous. But here's the thing: Binge-watching the world burn will not make us able to save it. First, we must learn to love all the ordinary goodness of life, fill our souls with friendship, beauty, virtue. Before we can fight darkness we must be acquainted with the light.
This is why I think whimsical art is so important. 
Some people say lighthearted art isn't worth our time. That the world is too dark and difficult to focus on lighthearted things. However, we have to love what is good before we're brave enough fight for it. Whimsical art teaches us to love goodness, to celebrate innocence and kindness and loveliness. And that love of goodness energizes us to do defend it."

Thursday, October 11, 2018

An Iron Wind

An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler
©  2016 Peter Fritzsche
376 pages

That crowds that cheered Neville Chamberlain's return to England with a promise of peace in his hand are easy to condemn in hindsight. But no one in the 21st century experienced the Great War that loomed in that crowd's mind -- the war that emptied villages, destroyed families, and snuffed out millions of young lives before their time.   Modern technology promised to complete what the Great War had started: military strategies, aviation experts, and the common chatter of civilians were uniform in their belief that mass bombings would obliterate the continent.  Those fears were both new and rational: World War 2 was the first time the general populace looked at the prospects for war and realized that THEY would be the target, not just the men at the front lines.  But while civilians would be the greatest casualties in the war to come,  the conflict would be much different than expected,  nothing like a twenty-year-old re-run.   What Hitler sought was less a return of the German Empire, and more of the imposition of a new world order.  In An Iron Wind, Peter Fritzsche  uses the letter and literature written during the war to experience the first attempts to create this malicious order.  

An Iron Wind is definitely not a conventional history of World War 2, and not only because it focuses on society rather than politics and military movement.  The book often seems like a gathering of esoterica, at least until the Holocaust-heavy second half, because Fritsche  covers sundry topics like the imposition of German time zones in France,  patterns of graffiti throughout the war, and the spike in popularity of Tolstoy's War and Peace  which followed Hitler's invasion of Soviet Russia.  Fritzsche often emphasizes, however, Hitler's break with the past and his desire to create a new vision of the state.  Hitler mocked Switzerland as a museum antique, a fragile artifact of Victorian democracy that needed to accept the new way or prepare to be crushed by it.  Fritzsche offers a view of the Holocaust that its atrocities were a deliberate baptism in blood for the new way Hitler wanted to create; to  kill millions by cold, efficient bureaucracy --  with deliberation and a vast array to dedicated infrastructure – was to forcefully reject all the mores of the past, and particular ideals like universal brotherhood. While fascism in Italy and Spain could coexist with the church, linked by common enemies like communism,  Nazism regarded Christianity as enfeebling.   Hitler and like-minded ideologues promoted a view of Germany as being encircled by enemies and riddled from within by others;  his mission was to awaken and mobilize German to the threat, marshalling them for combat, with victory at any cost.  Fritzsche  also suggests that when Hitler launched his invasion of Poland,  it was for him less a battle between states than a fight between tribes, as the conflict allowed him to target not just the Polish state (which he methodically disassembled), but diverse groups like the Romani ("gypsies")  which he held in contempt. 

Although this is by no means essential reading for World War 2,  it does explore topics that are obscure enough to have not been mentioned much elsewhere, but still have relevance for understanding the plight of people who were trying to make sense of what was happening both at home and across the continent.