Fun/Entertainment: February 2009 Archives

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I was really looking forward to the eleventh Star Trek film, due out in a few months now. Casting Zachary Quinto as young Spock was brilliant, and I'll have to see the movie for that even if for no other reason, although I think loyalty to the franchise would be sufficient grounds to see it anyway. But I'm no longer holding my breath about whether it will be a good movie. If it is, I'll be pleasantly surprised, but I'm not expecting as much as I had. I was already a bit skeptical about a script written by the writers responsible for the recent Transformers movie, which was fun but was certainly not interesting script-wise. It was fun mostly because of the visuals. The main human character was painful to watch, and the storyline wasn't all that interesting given the richness of the Transformers material available in the comic books.

It was this interview with script writer Robert Orci that put a full stop to my optimism, though, for two reasons. The most important is that the assurances of producers that I've been seeing that it will be faithful to Trek canon for the fans while still doing something new for newcomers turn out to be a mere facade, given Orci's explanation of why he says it's faithful to canon. But I think the theory of time travel he endorses will also make the movie painful for me to watch, even if it won't be as painful as most Trek time travel stories are.

First, this is how Orci understands the time travel in this movie to work. He recognizes that there's a problem with any time travel theory that allows changing the past, although I don't think he makes it clear exactly why it's a problem. The real reason it's a problem is because if the past happened, then it follows that it didn't get changed, so when you go back you can't change it. If you can change it, then it's not the past. He gets into grandfather paradox issues, but I think those are derivative problems. The main reason is that it just makes no sense to think of changing the past. You can't make something that already was one way no longer be that way but be another way.

There's only one plausible way to interpret time travel stories that seem to change the past (other than the people didn't know what really happened and thus thought they changed something but actually only did what had already happened). If I travel back in time and do something that didn't happen, I must have traveled somewhere other than my past. If I ended up in an alternative time line somehow, then it makes sense to do what seems like changing the past. But the past of my time line doesn't change, and that time line continues on without me. The time line I entered always had me entering at that point and thinking I'd changed the past. This is the only way to make changing-the-past stories internally consistent, but it's still not a genuine change of the past, which the authors of those stories would usually not want.

So I applaud Orci for preferring this to the usual time travel approach. It's an improvement. There are still big problems with it, though. It would seem odd if time travel that doesn't change the past goes to our past and time travel when you do seem to change things ends up at other time lines. So a plausible version of this view must have every instance of time travel involve going to a similar time line, where it can generate a change that makes it diverge from the original one. The unwelcome consequence is that there isn't really anything that we can just flat-out call time travel. It's all Sliders-like world-jumping but with time travel too. You can never just time travel. That's an odd result.

Also, it does disastrous things to the fabric of a narrative in a fictional work that takes years and even decades to weave. Little did we know that the Star Trek canon time line isn't a constant world at all. Every time there's been time travel the characters have moved to a different world. We have no idea what happened after the events of City on the Edge of Forever in the time line that our characters began in. With such a view, it's not surprising that Orci wouldn't mind completely revising Star Trek history, because Spock of the TNG period going back to pre-TOS times and changing things would result in a different time line. That it violates canon is perfectly ok, even if the changes are drastic and far-reaching. It's a way to destroy the canon of Trek history while insisting that the original time line is untouched. It's crazy to think this won't anger fans who see Trek canon as something to build on, not to alter with impunity. It seems Orci wants to go by the letter of his time travel theory in good Pharisaical fashion to ignore the spirit of observing Star Trek canon while technically allowing it to remain in a time line that the movie doesn't follow (except to show that Spock and Nero will presumably never be in that time line again).

Worse still, Orci acts as if this theory of time travel is based on hard science, which just isn't true. The many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is certainly held by a handful of scientists working in the philosophical end of theoretical physics. It's a far cry from being the majority view, as far as I've been able to tell, though, and it's certainly nothing in the area of being demonstrable by experimentation. I think, in fact, that it's in principle completely impossible to verify or falsify it. There are several other interpretations of quantum mechanics, and the only reason I know of for preferring the many-worlds interpretation is that it avoids the most plausible fine-tuning arguments for an intelligent designer, not a very compelling scientific reason. If Orci is willing to reinterpret all of Trek canon because of misinformation about what science teaches, that's unfortunate. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm hardly confident with the future of the franchise resting partly in his hands, judging by what this interview reveals. I thought maybe they would finally have an odd movie better than some of the even movies. I'm not so sure now.

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The outstanding revival of Doctor Who will soon be retiring another incarnation of the Doctor. David Tennant, who I think has been the best Doctor of the whole franchise, is going to move on to other things after several TV movies that also finish off the tenure of head writer Russell T. Davies, the man behind the series' revival. Steven Moffat, who is taking over the head writer's spot, happens to be my favorite writer of the bunch, having written three episodes that I'd put in the top ten of all time and one that unquestionably occupies the top spot. But there's been a bit of worry about who would become the eleventh Doctor. Rumors circulated that they might pick a woman or a black man. I'd be very surprised if they picked a woman, but I wouldn't have been surprised at all if they'd found a black man who could capture the essentials of the Doctor very well. They've certainly made great efforts to be racially inclusive in the revived show, marking a stark contrast with the very white casting of the original episodes.

It's strange, however, to see some of the response that I've seen now that they've finally chosen the eleventh Doctor, and he turns out to be white. It strikes me as affirmative action absolutism. To be clear what I mean, here are a number of different things people call affirmative action:

It can mean (1) outright quotas, where you guarantee a certain number of spots for whatever group you're extending affirmative action toward. This was originally what happened at the college and university level until the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional for state and federal funding to be used that way.

It can mean (2) idealized quotas, where you lower the usual standards to try to reach a ballpark figure, but you don't do it by the numbers. It's effectively a quota, but because you're not an absolutist about an exact number of spots, the Supreme Court allowed it in 2003 as long as you don't use strict numerical criteria in letting race affect your calculations.

Then there's (3) what George W. Bush calls affirmative access, which is to go out of your way to find qualified candidates but not to lower your usual standards very much, and if there aren't qualified candidates in the target group or aren't as many as you'd like, then you don't lower the standards more to fill up the spots more.

The third policy has always struck me as the best, particularly for this sort of situation. You're casting for an iconic character with a history dating back over 40 years. You want to produce the best artistic product you can, and the choice of the lead role on such a show is huge. It would do a lot of good in the world to cast a black actor for the part. However, there are considerations more important than race, and those should never be put aside if it turns out all the black actors who audition are enough away from what you think the role needs to be like compared with a candidate who just stands out as perfect. According to all reports from the producers, they chose someone who does exactly that. He seemed exactly what they wanted. If they had a black actor who'd auditioned who could do the job passably, it seems to me that it would be immoral to hire him instead of the guy they went with. If they had someone who would have been great for the job if the guy they hired had never appeared, who perhaps might have otherwise been their first choice, then it becomes a harder question. It depends entirely on how much better their first choice is. It didn't sound like anyone was close from the way the producers were talking, though.

So it seems like this sort of complaint relies on a very strange moral premise, which I'll call affirmative action absolutism, a view that becomes very strange when applied to the case of there being only one spot. Somehow the idea is that whenever you've got an ongoing role where the actor can be replaced and not have to look anything like the previous actor, and all the previous actors were white, you've done something bad by not choosing a black one at the next opportunity. Such a view strikes me as completely crazy. Race is an important consideration, but it's not the only one, and there are other ones that can be more important. You have to know that none of the more important considerations are determining the decision to complain that something bad has gone on in the selection of a white actor to play the Doctor.

I can't see how anyone but the producers can flatly say that they've failed at some moral responsibility by choosing a white actor, because only those present at the auditions and casting decision meetings can know enough to assert that the producers are lying when they said Matt Smith stood out so far above the other auditioners that it was hard to consider anyone else. I very much doubt they're lying, though. Steve Moffat isn't out to cater to higher-ups in the BBC. He's a long-time fan who has a very good understanding of the essence of the character. He's a storyteller who wants to tell the best story he can with the best cast he can. Why would he choose someone and then lie about the reasons? It's extremely implausible. Besides, claiming that you know they're lying is stronger than wondering if it's true. Claiming you know it requires having been at the auditions and knowing that there are black actors who tried out who would have done just as good a job or almost as good a job as the Doctor. I very much doubt that's true of the complainers, since they almost certainly weren't present for any of that.

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