11 Star Trek Pet Peeves

Maybe you haven’t noticed, but I’m kinda into Star Trek. Moreso now than I was when I was a kid; I was more of a Star Wars fan in my youth, and I think there’s probably something telling about the two franchises that I’ve gravitated more toward Star Trek as I’ve gotten older, but that’s a topic for a different post.

I needed that disclaimer so you know I’m not hating on Star Trek. I love Star Trek. And like anything you spend an inordinate amount of your time thinking about, I’ve come to notice some things about Star Trek that grate on me as I continue watching my way through the universe.

I don’t know if these pet peeves are universal, but I imagine at least some Star Trek fans feel an eye-roll coming on every time they see…

1) Enterprise’s opening theme
The fact that it has lyrics is weird enough. Every single other Star Trek theme (to date, at least) has been instrumental, and they shared a mood that made you aware you were entering the Star Trek universe. Instead of that, the Enterprise theme sounds like a track from a Bryan Adams album that wasn’t good enough to be a single (keep in mind Enterprise ran from 2001-2005).

The show’s creators even realized it was bad; they changed the theme song for season 3. Instead of actually fixing it, though, they turned into the skid and added a faux-folk beat and some meaningless synth backgrounds—and this just when you’re starting to finally get used to the old version, making sure your viewing of the opening remains equally unbearable the whole way through the series.

2) The Universal Translator’s inconsistency
It’s widely discussed that everyone using the UT should look like the characters in a badly-dubbed Kung Fu movie: their lips would still be speaking their native tongue even though you hear English. But okay, reasonable suspension of disbelief—if the UT can alter your hearing of the words into their language, maybe it alters your perception of their lips, too, etc. etc.

But there’s another problem I find even more befuddling. In every series after Enterprise, we can assume each species is always speaking its own language. So why are some words left untranslated? Is there a “I’m conducting a religious ritual” setting on the UT that lets you temporarily turn it off? What about when one of the Klingons greets each other with “Q’Plah!” or angrily shouts a curse?

From a storytelling perspective, the answer’s probably one of atmosphere—the speaking of the alien language gives the scene a specific flavor (also when you’ve got a pretty toy like the Klingon language laying around, it’s hard not to play with it). Still, though, technologically speaking, it’s an annoying inconsistency.

3) The obligatory ladies man
It all started with Kirk: the handsome, charming spaceship captain, as charismatic as he is powerful, seeking out new life and promptly fucking it. In subsequent series, the role was shifted away from the captain, to the First Officer in TNG (William Riker) and the Chief Engineer in ENT (Charles “Trip” Tucker).

Enterprise is one thing. Humans are just getting their space legs; of course there’ll be mistakes. But for any series from TOS on, why the hell does Starfleet still allow this to happen? Considering that inter-species mating is possible, you would think Starfleet would want its senior officers, especially, showing a bit more discretion on their travels. This is aside from the plethora of STDs you could pick up on another planet; Kirk probably Space Herpes across half the Alpha Quadrant.

And it’s not just a matter of whether they have sex or not. When the Enterprise-D encouters the androgynous J’naii (TNG Ep. 05.17 “The Outcast”) Riker falls in love with Soren, one of the rare members of their race who identifies as a gender (female, in her case). As a result of this, Soren is outed and sent to a “re-education” camp. This interaction at least went better than when Enterprise NX-01 encountered the tri-gendered Vissians (ENT Ep. 02.22 “Cogenitor”), when Trip’s interference causes one of the third gendered Vissians to kill itself.

All of the sexual encounters show in Star Trek are with warp-capable species, so I suppose the Prime Directive doesn’t strictly apply, but Starfleet’s policy of non-interference seems to hit a major snag as soon as romance is involved.

4) Worf’s love triangles
The long-burning flame of Troi’s relationship with Commander Riker added some depth to their characters; the emotional bond between Troi and Worf over Worf’s son, Alexander, made a certain amount of sense. Bringing the two together, though, just felt awkward and forced. The whole plotline is ultimately unnecessary, besides, considering both Riker and Troi had their fair share of other sexual encounters—some of them very emotionally charged—that explored their previous relationship and lingering emotions.

Worf’s relationship with Dax makes slighty more sense from a character perspective than his relationship with Troi; it’s Bashir’s consistent unrequited pining—extending past Jadzia’s death to Ezri, once she joins the crew—that makes the unnecessary third leg of this love triangle. There’s plenty going on with Bashir in later seasons of DS9, and no reason to keep him stoking that flame even after she’s been first married and then killed.

5) Anything in the mirror universe
The first instance of the mirror universe was in TOS, and was—as many TOS episodes are—an extended allegory describing the dark potential of humanity. The problem with this kind of allegory is that its continuity doesn’t stand up in repeated viewings because it doesn’t make sense with itself, problems that grow more pronounced the more time is spent in this setting.

If the people in this universe are the opposite of those in the main universe, the same individuals shouldn’t exist in both. There’s no Jake Sisko, for example, in the mirror universe, so why wouldn’t that have happened in previous generations, leading to others of the DS9 crew not existing? The problems of difference would be compounded with each successive generation until the mirror universe world is no longer recognizable. And for that matter, why do transporter malfunctions, anomalies, etc send people only to this one alternate reality as opposed to any others?

If this were any other series I wouldn’t be as bothered, but it’s Star Trek, and in DS9 every instance of the mirror universe feels like a silly gimmick that simply doesn’t stand up to the rest of the series.

6) The “are they dead?” fake-out
Star Trek isn’t Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead; it is not a show with an established history of killing off major characters. Exactly two senior officers die in the course of all the TV series combined: Tasha Yar in TNG and Jadzia Dax in DS9 (who only half-counts, anyway, because the Dax simbiant survives in Ezri).

So while you can’t blame the characters in the show for being concerned for their comrades when something goes awry, the dramatic up-playing of dangerous situations for the major characters feels a bit like crying wolf. It doesn’t take long until you stop believing it.

7) The cross-season “To Be Continued…”
In general, I like the concept of the multi-part episode that allows a story arc a bit more time to breathe—except when that “To Be Continued…” (TBC) spans across the seasons. To me, that kind of cliffhanger feels like a trick to make the viewer keep watching the show the next season.

TNG does its first cross-season TBC between seasons 3 and 4—and then does it at the end of every season that follows. It becomes predictable, and it’s unnecessary. By the late seasons, the show’s viewers are already committed; they don’t need to be enticed to come back for more. Voyager also has 4 TBCs between seasons (2-3, 3-4, 5-6, and 6-7) following TNG’s example. By the time Enterprise came around, the writers seem to have realized the device was played out; there’s a TBC at the end of the first season, but not at the end of the second or third.

8) The anomaly
Spacial anomalies, subspace anomalies, temporal anomalies—every time something super weird happens (that’s not caused by the Q) it’s an anomaly. It reaches the point Starfleet should probably find a different term for anomalies, because they don’t seem nearly as anomalous as the term would suggest.

I reserve a special ire for the types of anomalies that set up “it was just a dream” episodes. The prime example of this is the Enterprise episode “Twilight” (Ep 03.08), in which Captain Archer picks up subspace brain parasites after being hit by a spatial anomaly in the Delphic Expanse. The episode fast-forwards 12 years through the destruction of Earth by the Xindi—only to reveal at the end that eliminating the parasites wipes out those 12 years, taking the show back to the moment Archer was infected, the science-ish version of “…and then he woke up, and none of it had really happened.”

9) The unhelpful analogy
These typically involve conversations with chief engineers and go something like this:

Geordi: If we adjust the shield’s resonating frequency to compensate for the warp field we should be able to navigate directly through the subspace anomalies.
Riker: Just like filling a balloon with air to make it float to the top of a lake.
Geordi: Exactly!

…which it’s not like that; not at all. Obviously Star Trek isn’t the only offender on this front; space-themed documentaries do this, too, using analogies and metaphors the human brain couldn’t possibly comprehend, that don’t even sum up the point all that accurately to begin with.

10) The Federation’s smug utopia
From the Kirk era onward, humanity has developed to the point we no longer use currency and our world is free of poverty, war, discrimination, and pollution.

Which is fine—more than fine, in fact; we can only dream of a time that our world is so peaceful and prosperous. What bugs me is when members of the Federation treat other civilizations who are not quite so “advanced” with the exact same kind of condescending superiority the Vulcans show toward the humans in Enterprise. The Ferengi in DS9 are constantly criticized by members of Starfleet for being so profit-driven; in that same series, the Bajoran religion is discounted even though they consider Captain Sisko their Emissary. Any one-off species encountered who are more violent or divided than our big happy Earth family are given the same speech, about how humans used to be that way but are now better. For all their talk of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” (IDIC), the Federation seems to have a somewhat limited perception of just what that diversity should mean.

 11) The human exceptionalism
Speaking of IDIC, it’s subverted by the human characters in another way throughout the series. Humanity is shown as the standard against which all other species and worlds are judged. I wrote about this a bit in my post about Star Trek and AI, but it’s not just artificial life that’s urged to be more “human.” Captain Picard at one point compliments Worf by saying he has a lot of humanity—as if he’s a good individual despite his “Klingon-ness,” rather than because of it. The Ferengi are treated the same way. Rom and Nog are the most sympathetic because they care more about human values (equality, justice, etc) than Ferengi ones (profit); Quark’s character development shows him becoming more sympathetic the more “human” he gets.

It’s that way across species: Spock and T’Pol are praised when they defy logic in favor of emotion; Odo is the only good guy changeling because he likes the solids; Garak and Ziyal are the only consistently “good” Cardassians because they’ve eschewed their own cultures to be more like us. This feels like the galactic equivalent of the current attitude in the US—praising diversity as a concept, in the abstract, but when it comes down to practicalities, still supporting the idea that there is one correct way to exist.



The Princess Bride: Book vs. Movie

Though I saw The Princess Bride for the first time when I was a kid, I only recently got around to reading the book. The film is one of the rare movies from my childhood that stands up to repeated viewings on the basis of more than just nostalgia; I was curious how the experience of reading the book would compare.

The Princess Bride is a magical, wonderfully quirky novel, and the movie adaptation stays very true to the text in terms of plot, character, and tone. The differences between the two are subtle, but each version has its own unique strengths.

What the book does better:
1) Character backstories. In the movie, all we truly know about Fezzik, Inigo, and Vizzini is that they’re a band of roving miscreants; nothing is explained about how they come together, and though we know Inigo’s father was slain by the six-fingered man, we know very little about why or when.

The book fills in all those details for you. You get to see Inigo’s life, starting in his childhood, get a filled out origin story for Fezzik, and know more about how this rag-tag trio came together. The book also gives more space to Fezzik and Inigo after Vizzini’s death. Each of them is used at times as a viewpoint character, allowing insight into their thoughts and emotions that makes them more fully realized. This same expansion happens with other major players: Count Rugen and Miracle Max don’t receive their full due in the movie, but are fabulous and detailed characters in the book.

2) The world is richer. One of the most heartbreaking cuts for the movie is the elimination of the Zoo of Death. It’s an absence you never notice until you read the book; I understand why it was cut, because the story still makes sense without it and the novel had to be condensed into a couple hours of film. Still, it would have been cool to see all of Prince Humperdinck’s dangerous critters portrayed on the screen, and its inclusion in the book helps to shape Humperdinck’s character, showing his pride in his hunting prowess in a way the movie can’t convey.

The book has a generally richer world beyond the Zoo of Death, as well. It gives the details of the political interplay between Guilder and Florin, providing more context for Princess Buttercup’s abduction. These world details push The Princess Bride a few notches closer to a true fantasy tale and out of the kid’s book fairy tale type territory.

What the movie does better:
1) The frame device. There’s a whole long (fictional) explanation in the beginning of the novel about William Goldman’s connection to The Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern: how the book is actually this long treatise on Florinese history, and the story Goldman loved as a child was really a condensed version his dad had created by reading him “just the good parts.” This frame is continued throughout with parenthetical asides where Goldman comments on or elides Morgenstern’s “original manuscript” which are clever but ultimately overplayed (IMHO).

The simpler frame device used in the movie (a grandfather reading a story to his sick grandson) captures the quirky spirit from the book without taking it to unnecessary levels. The interjections are well-timed, pulling you from the story in a story at just the right moments, uncluttered by unnecessary details.

2) The humor. The delivery of the dialogue gives the humorous moments an extra pop, whether it’s Billy Crystal’s portrayal of Miracle Max or Vizzini’s speech when he’s figuring out which goblet Westley poisoned. The physical humor is another thing that doesn’t come across as clearly on the page as on the screen. The success of this element in the film is largely thanks to the movie’s impeccable casting. You’ll find no truer Vizzini than Wallace Shawn, and I can imagine no one else except Andre the Giant as Fezzik—and both of their attitudes and delivery are key in building the mood.

Watch or read first:
Watch. The aspects of the plot that are cut from the book version to fit the movie’s time constraints aren’t especially major points, and missing them won’t hinder your enjoyment in the least. The casting for the film was so incredibly spot on that having those actors in your mind while you’re reading is in no way distracting or contradictory. In a very meta way, the streamlined version of the story for the movie is analogous to the way fictionalized William Goldman cuts the “original” Morgenstern book down to its essential parts, keeping the excitement and slicing out the lengthy details. If you like the movie, going back and reading the book gives you enough extra stuff to enjoy that it won’t feel repetitive, and nothing happens that’s so surprising it can be spoiled by knowing the outcome when you go in.

The Epic of Gilgamesh: A World-building analysis

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I read The Epic of Gilgamesh for the first time only about a month ago. It’s not long; about half of the 125-page book I borrowed is scholarly background and analysis. The actual myth is around 60 pages—and it casts a massive shadow for such a small text. It’s the earliest surviving epic, believed to date from around 2,100 BC. For context, The Odyssey was written in the 8th century BC, and theologians believe the earliest Bible books were written between 1,500 and 1,000 BC.

Whether you realize it or not, a lot of the Western cultural myths that endure today owe their origin to Gilgamesh, either directly through plot points (e.g. the Bible’s story of the Flood) or indirectly thanks to the idea of the heroic epic. If you’re a genre writer, especially, Gilgamesh should be required reading at some point in your life. I’ve broken down what I found to be some of the most unique aspects of the world and tale below.

Gilgamesh and the Raglan scale
The Raglan scale (also called the Rank-Raglan scale, after the name of its two developers) is a list of traits common to the stories of most heroes and epic figures, including ancient ones like Buddha and Odysseus, as well as modern heroes like Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker. It covers strange convergences in the origin stories of a variety of heroic and legendary figures (here’s a link if you want to see the specifics of the 22 points).

It’s a bit tricky to determine Gilgamesh’s score on the Raglan scale, only because nothing of his life before becoming king is included in the epic (which is, itself, one point on the scale). But he scores at least an 11, possibly up to an 18, depending on who you ask. For comparison, this puts him in the same range as such epic heroes as Perseus (18) and Hercules (17), and religious figures like Jesus (18) and Buddha (15).

Why does this matter? The simple answer is that this pattern is a part of our sub-conscious understanding of heroes. They have a mysterious origin, often with a godly (or otherwise supernatural) parent; their rise to power is almost always balanced by a fall and mysterious death. That it applies to Gilgamesh—widely acknowledged as the oldest known hero—demonstrates that this pattern of the hero’s journey has indeed been a part of the human consciousness since the earliest instances of literature.

The oral tradition
Many of the ancient epics were composed originally as poetry as opposed to prose, in keeping with the fact that they largely originated from an oral rather than a written tradition. These epics were then put to paper (or stone tablet, as the case may be) many years after the story’s initial creation. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of these stories.

There is a unique cadence to epic poetry, the emulation of which gives stories the mythological feel familiar from religious texts. Repetition was the device that most stuck out to me in creating this feel. I noticed this most in the fourth section, “The Search for Everlasting Life,” in which the description of Gilgamesh’s face as looking like one who has made a long journey, “burned from heat and cold,” is repeated twice with each new figure he meets. His great deeds are also listed in full with each new person he encounters—again, a repetition that makes more sense in an out-loud recitation than a from the page reading.

Emulating this style is one way to give modern works—especially fantasy or science fiction epics—that same mythological feel. A notable example of this is the recitation of titles after characters are introduced on Game of Thrones (Danaerys Stormborn, Queen of the Andals, Mother of Dragons, the Unburnt, etc. etc.). It’s a device that can get tedious rather quickly, so one to use sparingly, but it’s a more subtle way to infuse that feel into the works than the Ye Olde English used by some fantasy writers trying to accomplish the same thing.

While Gilgamesh is a similar king/hero to others found in countless epics (as the Raglan scale exploration above demonstrates), the character of Enkidu is a far more unique figure and—to me, at least—infinitely more interesting.

Enkidu is created by the gods as a companion to Gilgamesh to stop him from raping and pillaging his way across his own country (no really, here’s a direct quote from section 1, “The Coming of Enkidu”: “No son is left with his father, for Gilgamesh takes them all…His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the noble”). The goddess of creation, Aruru, made an image in her mind and created Enkidu out of clay. His description marks him as a beastly creature, with a hair-covered body and long hair on his head; he also knew nothing of cultivation or culture, “ate grass in the hills with the gazelle and lurked with wild beasts at the water-holes.” Enkidu is sent to a harlot who teaches him “the woman’s art” and civilizes him enough to take him to Gilgamesh. The two men wrestle and subsequently become besties until Enkidu’s untimely death.

That origin story is interesting enough in and of itself, but it’s Enkidu’s role in the narrative that really caught my eye. Enkidu helps Gilgamesh to kill the Humbaba that guards the Cedar forest, then later also assists him in killing the Bull of Heaven; these two acts earn him the ire of the gods, who give Enkidu the sickness that kills him in retribution. Which is fucked up, if you think about it, since it was because of Gilgamesh Enkidu did these things in the first place. Gilgamesh recognizes the fucked-uppedness of the situation and is overcome first with grief and then with the realization of his own mortality, traveling to the underworld to search for everlasting life.

It is interesting that to tame Gilgamesh’s wild side the gods give him an even more wild companion. In Enkidu, Gilgamesh finds a warrior who is his equal. Enkidu becomes his closest friend because he is able to provide a challenge that was missing in all the other warriors of the land. In this, I see a message of recognizing and confronting one’s duality to achieve the level of self-awareness and competence that makes one worthy of ruling. Also interesting is the fact that it is sleeping with a woman that instructs Enkidu in the ways of civilization enough that he can be presented to Gilgamesh at all. Though mortal female figures are as notably lacking in The Epic of Gilgamesh (as they are in many ancient epics) this recognition of the role of the feminine in shaping masculine identity is a window into the Sumerian beliefs on gender roles, otherwise absent from the male-dominated narrative.

Enkidu and Gilgamesh had the original bromance. Like many of the Greek heroes, their bond of mutual respect and admiration is depicted as stronger and more pure than most romantic relationships—in fact, no attention is given in the epic to either man’s love life beyond their early sexual conquests, while on Enkidu’s death Gilgamesh grieves for him as he would for a lover. This emphasis on the friendship-love bond as opposed to the romantic-love bond is refreshing for a modern reader, since there is almost always some kind of love interest for the hero in more recent epics. It’s proof that such storylines are in fact not necessary to create an emotionally charged story.

Gods and monsters
The mythological figures in The Epic of Gilgamesh were not nearly as familiar to me before reading as those of other cultures, like the Greeks and Romans—or I should say, I didn’t realize where the figures had been drawn from, because they are equally prevalent as references in sci-fi/fantasy worlds. There are many of these figures (obviously) but I’ll point out the two I found most recognizable on my reading.

If you watch Ancient Aliens, you’ve heard of the Anunnaki, who are the offspring of the god Anu (the Sumerian/Babylonian god of the sky, and rough Zeus equivalent as father of the gods). They have only a brief appearance in Gilgamesh during the Flood narrative, portrayed as the seven judges of hell who light the land on fire as a preface to the arrival of the storm.

The Humbaba is a familiar name to players of RPGs, notably Final Fantasy; a monster by this name appears in III, VI, VIII, XII, and XIII. In Final Fantasy it is almost always a Behemonth-type enemy, strong and difficult to kill. In the epic, the Humbaba has the face of a lion, the claws of a vulture, and the horns of a bull. He also breathes fire and has a snake’s head at the end of his penis, because when the Sumerians set about to create terrifying beasties, they didn’t fuck around. (Enkidu and Gilgamesh also make prominent appearances in many of the Final Fantasy games, where Gilgamesh is a great swordsman, and Enkidu his faithful dog).

The relationship between gods and mortals in the Sumerian/Babylonian mythology is similar to the relationship in Greek mythology. The gods are mostly removed from mortal concerns, but can be appealed to in times of need; whether or not they intervene is, of course, up to the gods, and they are equally as likely to punish those who annoy or insult them as they are to help the loyal believer. The Sumerian gods are capricious and fallible. In “The Story of the Flood,” Enlil (the god of the earth) orders all humanity to be killed because—and I quote—“The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel.” Basically the equivalent of having noisy neighbors and deciding to burn their house down instead of just asking them to shut up. After the flood passes, though, many of the gods are pretty salty with Enlil for his over-reaction, and Enlil himself feels some remorse for his actions, giving Utnapishtim (essentially Sumerian Noah) eternal life as a reward for having survived the catastrophe.

The Sumerian pantheon is not explored in depth in The Epic of Gilgamesh. The way it’s sprinkled in assumes some pre-knowledge of these figures, which of course makes sense, given that the target audience was probably other Babylonians that knew damn well who Anu was, meaning he needed no introduction. This in and of itself is a lesson to world-builders. It never bothered me that I didn’t know the gods’ backstories. I looked them up later (because I’m that kind of gal) but the lack of explanation doesn’t impede understanding—whereas a break for explanation would have destroyed the flow. You need to know all the details of your world, but your reader doesn’t (necessarily). Sparing details, name-drops, and hints can do as much to shape a vast history and culture as pages of description—and are way easier to read.

Let’s Talk Rejection

It’s been a pretty amazing summer for me, publication-wise. It started with Novella-T publishing McBurglar and the Man O’War, officially the longest thing I’ve gotten in print. A couple weeks after that came out, I got an acceptance from Wraparound South for my short story, “Lucky Devil.”

Both of those were very exciting—don’t get me wrong—but neither one of them had been on the market for very long. McBurglar never even got a rejection (partially because there’s only so many places you can send novellas) and “Lucky Devil” was rejected only 4 times before ultimately finding its forever home.

This is not true of my latest two short story acceptances, “Game Misconduct” (forthcoming from Rind) and “Shards” (just released in the Summer 2016 issue of Menda City Review). Both of these stories started as part of my Master’s thesis, though they’ve been edited so much since then they’re hardly recognizable. Both stories started out with different titles (“The Back-Up” and “Knowledge is Power,” respectively).

And both stories got rejected. A lot. Between the first time I submitted it in August 2011 and its acceptance in August 2016, “Shards” was rejected a whopping 35 times. “Game Misconduct” has better numbers (22 rejections between April 2011 and July 2016) but only because I had slightly less faith in it as an entity (it’s a hockey story, if the title didn’t give it away) and as a result submitted it less.

Many of these rejections came from journals I have no business submitting to but continue to submit to anyway: GlimmerTrain, Tin HouseCarve, Mid-American Review, all the usual suspects. Others came from journals with higher acceptance percentages for whom the stories weren’t a good fit for one reason or another. Almost certainly, a good 50% of those rejections happened because I sent the stories out too soon, before they were really ready. I’m more grateful than you’d probably believe for those rejections, because it gave me a chance to edit both stories into forms I’m proud to have in print.

In the 5-ish years I’ve been sending out work, I’ve received 190 rejections and 14 acceptances. Included in this was a publication dry spell that lasted almost 2 years (November 2013 to October 2015). As I understand it, these are not unusual statistics. Not that my normalcy was any consolation for those 23 months I spent wondering if my writing had become unpublishable.

Rejection is a part of a working writer’s life. It’s so much a part of our lives that we get excited when we get a particularly nice rejection. A friend of mine recently received a personal rejection from One Story and was thrilled, as she should have been, because personal rejections from elite journals are worth as many self-confidence points as some acceptances.

Submitting work is a numbers game. I think of it like playing poker: you won’t get far without skill, but you won’t win without an equal share of luck. The more you submit, the greater your statistical chances of acceptance. Whether your story has 10 rejections or 20 or 200, keep editing and sending, and never give up. Eventually it’ll find the eyes of an editor who has just as much faith in that story as you do. When that acceptance comes, it’ll taste ten times as sweet for every time someone told it “no.”

The Power of Suggestion

I think my favorite thing about season 1 of Netflix’s Jessica Jones was the villain Kilgrave. And yes, partially that’s because he’s played by David Tennant (oh Doctor my Doctor), but his mind control superpower also makes him one of the most nefarious villains in the Marvel universe. Kilgrave robs his victims of their free will. When he tells you to do something—like cut your own arm off, or shoot your parents—you do it, and it doesn’t matter how much you don’t want to.

Another recent comic adaptation I’m fully obsessed with is AMC’s Preacher. The titular Preacher, Jesse Custer, gains a mind control ability very similar to Kilgrave’s after being possessed by a cosmic being known as Genesis. This “Word of God” forces others to obey his commands. The details of the two abilities are different. Kilgrave’s is caused by a virus, meaning it’s possible to become immune, as Jessica Jones is in the series; Jesse’s power is so far undefendable, even working on vampires and angels. Jesse can choose when to use his power, while Kilgrave’s is on all the time; Kilgrave’s commands expire, while Jesse’s seem permanent. At the basic level, though, the two abilities are the same. They speak, you obey.

There’s a point in the Jessica Jones plotline where she wonders what could happen if Kilgrave’s powers were used for good. She experiments briefly with being his moral compass, ultimately finding that he’s too far gone. This is a failing on Kilgrave’s part as an individual, not necessarily of the powers. In Jessica Jones, the question remains: what could happen if mind control abilities were given to the good guys?

Preacher answers that question. Well, sort of. In theory, there’d be no more moral figure to imbue with the Word of God than a preacher. In practice, Jesse Custer is not your typical holy man, but he’s a generally good guy who means well most of the time. Since no well-rounded character is ever fully-good or fully-evil, we’ll call him an apt foil to Kilgrave, if on no other basis than his role in the narrative (he’s our hero, and Kilgrave was the villain).

The first thing that happens when Jesse uses God Voice: he tells one of his parishioners to “open his heart” to his mother, and the parishioner goes to her nursing home and cuts his heart out. So unintended consequences—that’s one inherent down-side to mind control, but we can write that off morally to Jesse’s inexperience with his new ability. He was trying to help; he just didn’t get the words right.

A more troubling example is what happens to Eugene. Jesse at one point uses his powers on Eugene’s behalf. When Eugene protests this, calling it “cheating,” Jesse is offended. They argue, Jesse gets angry, and in an emotional moment he tells Eugene to “Go to Hell”—with God Voice. Eugene vanishes.

This is a grayer area of unintended consequences. Jesse knows about his God Voice, now; he knows what will happen when he uses it, even if he instantly regrets it. Like Kilgrave complains about at several points in Jessica Jones, having mind control means constantly keeping a tight rein on emotion, being conscious of every word you speak (and largely eliminating metaphoric speech, especially things like “go fuck yourself”). With the possible exception of Buddhist monks and Vulcans, no mortal could be expected to maintain that kind of control all the time.

Beyond that, even, is the source of Eugene’s initial protest. Jesse didn’t ask Eugene if he wanted divine intervention. Jesse used his own moral standards to make a decision that affected other people at a deeply personal level: he forced one human to forgive another. Forgiveness that isn’t earned is cheapened, and inherently unsettling. The possession of free will is, for many, one of the basic aspects of sentience, an important facet of humanity. Taking away a person’s free will robs them of their autonomy. It’s one thing when Jesse uses his power in self-defense—in terms of basic human needs, survival trumps free will by most people’s accounts. But when he uses it to impose cognitive states, like forgiveness and faith, it’s harder to justify his intrusion.

It’s probably for the best Jessica Jones couldn’t reform Kilgrave, as much as I loved his character and would’ve geeked the fuck out watching that partnership. I trust Jesse Custer with God voice slightly more. His in-born morals are strong enough to avoid the most blatant abuses, and he’s got Cassidy for an external moral compass (because what else are vampires good for?), but he’s at best chaotic neutral when he uses his power, however much he tries to be good. Even the best of men couldn’t be trusted with the ability to change how people feel and think—or perhaps I should say, by using it, they’d no longer be the best of men.

Stranger Things: Through the Eyes of Children

I cut my literary teeth on Stephen King. I was that weird kid lugging a 5-pound copy of The Stand around in my backpack to read on the bus, and I still can’t truly trust clowns after viewing It (unbeknownst to my parents) at the tender age of six. I say this for the sake of full disclosure, because anything that pays as much homage to Stephen King as Stranger Things is automatically going to rank high on my geek-love radar.

And it’s definitely a story that could fit right in alongside the best of King’s catalogue. Set in the early 1980s in a small, working-class town, the horror is of a psychological bent, focused more on suspense than gore. Also like King, though, it’s got one hell of a monster, and (to paraphrase the horror master) it doesn’t hesitate to jump out and go ooga-booga. It’s like the unholy love child of the Cloverfield monster and that creepy eye-hands guy from Pan’s Labyrinth, with a cross-dimensional travel pattern that lets it be pretty much everywhere at once and almost impossible to track and kill—in short, a nearly perfect beast to inspire pure terror.

There’s a lot to love about Stranger Things but from a genre writer’s perspective, the thing I found most uniquely masterful was the way they integrated the Dungeons & Dragons tropes without them feeling gimmicky. I’ve only ever seen the “game becomes reality” idea executed well in comedies, never in a dramatic or true horror setting (which often then becomes a comedy, if for all the wrong reasons). The way Stranger Things integrates it so seamlessly is the same way Stephen King handles some of his most bizarre and terrifying creations: by showing it first through the eyes of children.

Here’s some context, for those who haven’t seen the show. The monster’s presence in our world is made possible through the accidental opening of a portal to another dimension—a place identical to our world in general form but dark and mostly lifeless. This is referred to in the show in many ways, but the kids first wrap their heads around this realm as the Vale of Shadows—a region described in their D&D source texts as a shadow world that’s dark “even in the brightest day, and some of the shadows walk, carrying their burden of hatred and hunger with them.” It’s the first explanation of any kind the viewer is given for the shadow world. Though we eventually do get the more scientific description, the Vale of Shadows is both more apt and far more interesting than the stock explanation of multiple dimensions.

If adult characters—even avid D&D players—whipped out a description from a Dungeonmaster’s Guide, I can’t picture that succeeding on the screen. Not with the same deadly seriousness the kids in Stranger Things use. An adult character who did read from D&D would have to present the information tongue-in-cheek, or with a sense of extreme skepticism, even in the context of supernatural weirdness.

When the adults regard the monster’s realm, it’s treated as science fiction: a strange portal opened up by a force that, though not understood, could potentially be explained following the in-world rules and science. When the children interact with it, though, the realm is fantasy. It doesn’t need an explanation. Their quest has brought them to a dangerous place, and their task is only figuring out how to survive. Ultimately, this gives the kids’ version of the world a more visceral emotional flavor, uncluttered by the need to define it.

A child character is naturally going to have a more fluid conception of existence than your standard adult. They’re difficult to write well (at least for me) but they can be a useful tool, allowing you to play more with the boundaries between reality and fiction. Stephen King’s child characters use this advantage to full effect. Stranger Things admirably follows his example, as it does in so many other wonderful ways.

Becoming human: The AI in Star Trek

Star Trek consistently takes a humanist approach to science fiction. There are a multitude of species and worlds but the focus always stays with Starfleet and its largely human-crewed ships; advanced technology is certainly present and often plays a major role in the plot, but it’s a tool, a setting, more than it is the focus.

Take the android. In Star Trek’s version of Earth’s future timeline, humans don’t create the first android until 2330 when Dr. Soong creates Lore, Data, and his other prototypes. This is relatively late on the technology timeline—about 300 years after the invention of warp drive, and more than 200 years after invention of the transporter. Compare this to Isaac Asimov’s future Earth in I, Robot, where robots are common in the 21st century. Or Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep/Blade Runner, where there are not only androids in the early 21st century, but models so sophisticated they can pass as humans. The android or robot is a common character in sci-fi worlds, but Star Trek downplays its role, choosing instead to keep the focus primarily on organic life forms.

Even more telling is that most artificial lifeforms in the Star Trek universe want nothing more than to be human. That’s Data’s driving mission throughout TNG. His brother, Lore, is an exception; he thinks androids and other artificial lifeforms are superior and tries to use some renegade Borg to overthrow humanity (TNG Ep. 6.26, “Descent”). But Lore is clearly established to be the villain in this saga, getting Data to join in on this plan only by shutting down his ethical subroutines. Data and Lore are more advanced than humans in many ways. They’re stronger and more precise, possess vastly more knowledge and better computational skills, and are more durable—theoretically immortal. The idea that such a creature would long to be human reinforces the idea that the intangible human spirit is more valuable than strength or intellect.

The Borg convey a similar message. At the most basic level, they’re technologically-enhanced biological organisms. These enhancements make their perceived advantages and short-fallings similar to those of an android, though the hive mind aspect also means they lack individuality—another quality valued by humans. Whenever a Borg is given its individuality back, it gladly gives up the strength and protection of the collective in order to be its own entity. This is seen in both Hugh (first introduced in TNG Ep. 5.23 “I Borg”) and the recurring Voyager character Seven of Nine, who—like Data—spends most of her series on a quest to discover her humanity.

Where Star Trek deals most uniquely with the idea of artificial intelligence, though, is in the realm of the hologram. Whereas both androids and Borg have corporeal forms, a hologram is nothing more than a projection of light waves. An android still exists when you turn him off; a hologram ceases to exist when you end its program. A self-aware hologram that’s on a quest to become more human faces an entirely different struggle than that of an android. The hologram has the intangible—the personality, the emotions, the individuality. What it lacks is physicality.

The nature of holograms changes a lot from 2364-2378 (the timespan collectively covered by TNG, DS9, and Voyager) and there is, fittingly enough, one self-aware hologram on each of these three series. TNG gives us Professor Moriarty—a program of the Sherlock Holmes character who is accidentally made sentient when Geordi asks the computer to create a character capable of outwitting Data (Ep. 2.03 “Elementary, Dear Data”). Like the character he was created from, Moriarty ends up taking the role of genius antagonist, both in this first appearance and when he’s accidentally reactivated four years later (Ep. 6,12 “Ship in a Bottle”) though his devious plots have an understandable goal: he wishes to be able to leave the holodeck and live a normal, human life. Though the Enterprise crew experiments with using the transporter to give him a corporeal form, their efforts are ultimately unsuccessful; they store his program and promise to work on technology that would allow him to exist outside the holodeck.

Considering how easy it was to create Moriarty completely by accident, it’s I suppose not surprising that sentient (or at least self-aware) hologram programs become seemingly widely available by the 2370s. It’s not clear whether Moriarty’s accidental creation led to these developments or whether they were in the works before. In 2373, Dr. Bashir buys a program for a self-aware hologram named Vic Fontaine, a 1960s era jazz singer program that also serves as a kind of counselor for the crew aboard DS9 through the toughest parts of the Dominion War. Unlike Moriarty, Vic seems relatively content to remain within the constraints of the holodeck (though the DS9 crew does keep his program turned on more than normal so he can “live” normal days). Even so, Vic continues the show’s trend of having AI admire humanity. At one point, the Ferengi character Nog is traumatized by a battle injury and goes to live with Vic on the holodeck while he recovers. Vic’s role in this scenario is to coax Nog back out into the real world and convince him that the holodeck is nothing more than a fantasy. Vic recognizes the constraints of his environment and that he is, by extension, inherently lesser than a corporeal being.

When the USS Voyager embarks on its mission in 2371, they are equipped with a holographic emergency medical program (EMH), which they rely on exclusively after their medical staff is killed in the first episode. The Doctor is made in his creator’s image physically and without much in the way of personality. Though his program has both self-awareness and the ability to learn, he was intended for short-term use; he developed as much as he did only because of the extenuating circumstances of his ship. By 2373, he exceeds the memory capacity of his program, which was never intended to run long enough to form interpersonal relationships. The Enterprise crew finds a work-around that maintains the core of his personality rather than take the easier route of re-initializing his program, which would wipe out all his memories. In doing so, they acknowledge his accumulation of memories as a self. It’s later in that year he acquires his holo-emitter, allowing him to leave the confines of sick bay and the holodeck. With both his physical and psychological limitations exceeded, the Doctor officially becomes the first holographic projection that could arguably be called an individual.

Perhaps the ultimate message about humanity that can be discerned from Star Trek’s various plays with AI is that our flaws make us human. The Borg—the ultimate enemy—are on a quest for perfection. That perfection takes the best from various species and eliminates the rest, in the end serving to make them all the same. When individual drones are extracted from the collective, they become sympathetic. Lore also sees androids and Borg as more perfect than humans, that trait that differentiates him from his brother Data, who admires the aspects of humanity Lore views as flaws. Though Moriarty is placed in the role of villain, we nonetheless respect his motivation and see him as sympathetic because his goal is to become more like us. The Enterprise crew feels the same way, storing him so they can help him on his quest rather than deactivating him as they do with Lore. Ultimately, the primary function of the AI in Star Trek is to explore what humanity means, admirably serving as foils to the human characters, whatever the specifics of their creation.