Thursday, 13 June 2019

The Outcast

We've been rewatching Star Trek: The Next Generation recently, and we've reached The Outcast, an episode which I'm sure has been discussed in more depth by more qualified people than I. Nonetheless, here is my Hot Take.

On the face of it, The Outcast is about a member of a gender-neutral alien race who expresses a gender identity, and deals with the consequences - persecution, potential abuse, and a "cure" for their condition. Which is all fine and interesting as far as it goes; it sounds like a startlingly prescient subject for a network show from the early 90s, boldly tackling such topics as gender-neutral pronouns ("it doesn't really translate," they say, and diligently avoid them throughout).

Here's the thing though: I'm pretty sure it's not actually about gender. In the context of the period, gender dysphoria was not a thing that was being discussed in any sort of a way. From the language and imagery used, from the "bashing" anecdote to the courtroom address about "how we love" to the "cure" itself, it seems more likely to me that it was intended as an allegory for homosexuality. It is, I believe, pure coincidence that they choose as their sci-fi metaphor a real thing that would, twenty years later, be much more commonly-recognised and topical.

(Quite aside from anything else, if gender dysphoria had been a thing of which they were aware, the network would almost certainly not have allowed then to do an episode so directly about it.)

Frustratingly, the decision to frame it as a gender issue serves to undermine the sexuality discussion, because to build the story around Soren's relationship with Riker, they have to have this moment where she says, "I am attracted to you, which means I must be female." This is how Soren comes out as female, and it's the primary argument in her people's case that she is female: she kissed a man. There is at no stage a suggestion that a gender-neutral person (or, heaven forfend, a male person) could possibly be attracted to a male person. I can imagine that this ties into the same reason that a gay episode had to be an allegory in the first place ("not on our network!") but dang if it's not a thorn in the paw.

It's not a bad episode per se - it does a decent job of expressing the relationship, and it has a couple of powerful monologues about not persecuting people for being different that work regardless of the context. I even rather like the ambiguity of the ending, with the "cured" Soren expressing a preference for their new condition. Certainly it's a downer ending for Riker; the audience can make their own decision on whether this is (as presented by her people) the Best Thing for Soren or (as implied by the direction and performance) a tragic abuse with no real ethical fix. After all, this is genuinely an alien species. Was Riker wrong all along in applying his culture's principles? Was he in fact taking advantage of a vulnerable adult in the throes of illness? The episode does not provide a firm answer.

Anyway. A well-intentioned, confused, confusing, and deeply flawed episode. Probably still worth watching, if you can get past the ham-fistedness of the central metaphor, and go in prepared for that ending.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

The Justice League

The air in the Hall of Justice rippled horizontally, like water down a sheet of glass, and two figures stepped through as if from Nowhere.
  "--was a difficult one," Danu was finishing as she appeared, "I don't want to make a habit of coming here."
  "That's okay," said Dane, looking around at their grand surroundings through the red tint of his goggles. "If we get the thing, that shouldn't be a problem."
  "Alright, your world, your rules," Danu shrugged. "Now are you going to tell me how we steal this?"
  "Oh, we're not," said Dane with a faint smirk. "Don't even try. No, I'm pretty sure they already know we're here - my plan is to --"
  A bow string released with a snap. Dane whipped out a hand and a blast of force surged out to deflect the arrow before it reached Danu - it hit a wall and exploded into a tangle of nets.
  As Danu stepped back through her portal, Dane turned around to see a green-clad bowman, a second arrow already notched and leveled at the intruder.
  "Woah, woah, time out," Dane yelped, holding his hands out towards the emerald archer, before thinking better off the gesture and instead raising them in surrender. "I'm not here to fight - we didn't have a good way of getting in touch with you so --"
  "So you decided to break in?" said the man with open hostility.
  "Hnnnng," said Dane.
  "Stand down, Arrow, I know this man," came a new voice - confident, resonant, immediately inspiring. Before he looked, Dane already knew he'd see the familiar form of Superman floating down into the room. Green Arrow grunted and reluctantly relaxed his bow.
  "Repulse," Superman said with a frown. It wasn't quite a greeting as much as an acknowledgement and a question.
  "You remember," Dane glowed.
  "I try to keep tabs on all the young heroes of Metropolis," replied the alien. "May I ask what you're doing here?"
  "Right, right. Well it's a long story - and I will fill you all in - but starting at the end, I kinda need a favour. I need to borrow a Mother Box..."

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Fic: At the Gates of the Underworld

Thor frowned at the flowers on the path, at the cryptic inscription, and at his fellows, each disappearing in turn through the forbidding gates.
  They'd explained the way in, yes; eat the poison flower, die. Or something. But there'd been talk about the meaning of the second verse, an antidote to allow your return to the living. Those who'd understood it had gone on ahead and the solution had not been passed back to the group with any great clarity.
  He was not afraid of death, he'd demonstrated that enough. Nor was he afraid of what lay ahead within the underworld, though surely many of the denizens of Hel's realm would bear him a grudge. However ... it was not his wish to be separated from his love, so soon after finding her, for the want of a flower or a whimsical rhyme.
  Looking back on the path, he saw one other - the skald, Scheherazade, standing proud and alone with a golden arrow tucked in the folds of her cloak.
  "I shall remain to protect the lady," declared Thor, and she smiled; her Robin nodded in appreciation, and passed on.
  The god and the word-weaver stood at the gates, in silence for a moment. He rocked forward on the balls of his feet. She looked around, regarding their surroundings. As a master storyteller, perhaps she was aware that they had not been described in particular detail by the narrative, the reader's mind left to conjure their own image of Hell's antechambers. If she was, she chose not to draw attention to it.
  Nothing continued to happen.
  "So," said Thor after a time. "How did you first meet Robin?"
  "Ah, well there is a tale to that," Scheherazade said with a smile.
  "We appear to have time," he shrugged.
  "Very well, then," she began. "It is related that there was, in ancient times, a King of the countries of India and China..."

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Fic: Identity

James wrapped his hand around the hammer's handle, and his world exploded.

"Thumper," said Officer Haynes, and James' sullen demeanour was split by a reflexive grin. Almost nobody used his real name, these days, bar the few local coppers who'd got to know him in their professional capacity, Haynes among them. It was always an obscure pleasure, but the thrill only lasted a moment before his frown returned. Smiling made his bruised eye ache.
  Haynes crouched down outside his patrol car to address the fourteen-year-old ragamuffin in the back seat. "What was it this time?" he asked.
  "They said I wasn't real," James replied sulkily. "They said I didn't have a mum."
  Haynes clicked his tongue and looked over at the other boys, being tended by his partner and a first-aider. Between the four of them they had something like a decade and four hundred pounds on James, but they'd somehow still come off worse. Picking on a kid, though? They were asking for it.
  "It would be inappropriate of me to say they were asking for it," the policeman said carefully, with a stern nod. "Come on then, you scamp, let's get you home."

In the milliseconds before it lit up he felt the atmosphere charge around him, and his perception of time slowed to a crawl. His hand was fused to the strange metal, almost magnetised. It fit like it was made for him.

"I just - I don't think you're as invested in this relationship as I am," said Fiona.
  "Um," said James, staring back at her with that benign expression that she wanted to hug and slap at the same time. It wasn't that he didn't care, she knew, he just hadn't quite worked out what she was saying and knew that if he waited she'd explain it better, or it would become apparent, or it wouldn't matter any more.
  "I like you, I really do," she continued. "But we're both young and - it feels like you're somewhere else. With someone else. Like, I don't know, an ex, or...?"
  "I don't think so," he said brightly, and she immediately felt bad for suspecting, or even for pushing. Of course he would never run around on her. He was too ... loyal. Too trustworthy. And besides, he didn't have the imagination. She wanted to take it back and melt into his arms all over again. Instead she laid her hand affectionately on his face and looked into his eyes one last time. He looked back at her, but as always, she felt like he was seeing someone else.
  "Goodbye, James," she said.

Twin white snakes slithered up his arm. A third leapt directly for his chest. His life flashed before his eyes.

"No, but if I'd wiped out my memories, and became - I don't know - Frank the bartender," said Robin Hood, "And then we brought back Robin, what happens to Frank? Does he die?"
  "I don't know," replied Scheherazade. "With my memories gone, I was still myself, only with parts I could not remember. Restoring them filled in the blanks. To remove a whole persona ... is it right?"
  She glanced over at James, who smiled back. He wasn't really following the conversation. It sounded important, but his mind kept slipping off the big concepts. Nobody seemed to immediately need any help, so he was content to simply listen.
  "It may be necessary," said Lindy, firmly. "You heard what she said, he has to remember who he is..."

The energy surged upwards, through his body, lifting him off his feet.
  A bolt of lightning has, broadly speaking, two stages: First the invisible leader, a charged pathway formed of ionised air. Then the visible discharge, the white-hot energy that surges along that path.
  The return stroke.

"I don't know why we're bothering," said the weird boy who smelled of childhood as they walked towards the testing ground. "We all know it's going to be the dickhead from the Civil Service."
  James looked around. Was there someone else here from the Civil Service? Surely he'd have been told.

His eyes caught fire and his brain lit up. He remembered: a childhood in the forests and mountains of home. A beloved sibling, a father and mother. A land of gods and monsters and a woman with hair of gold. A life of adventure and, ultimately, sacrifice.
  And he wondered: What happens to James? Is this the end? Is he cast aside like an unwanted stand-in? Was he only ever a god, dreaming he was a man?
  But as he arced through the air, as his life poured in, nothing faded. The life of James Foster was still a part of the whole, the latest chapter in this hero's journey. He remembered every Avengers movie, the show with the dogs, the stupid, overlong jokes he could somehow never get straight. Only now he remembered all of himself, filling in the blanks.
  Thunder echoed in the air, and Thor Odinson fell to Earth, whole once more.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Fic: A Summer Storm

There was a tension in the air.
  James Foster navigated the baking, crowded streets of London in June with an ease borne of decades of experience. Of course, it helped that he was a man over six feet tall and notably broad, and even in this notoriously self-involved city the crowds naturally parted before him. Not that he was particularly aware that this was unusual. As far as James was concerned, this was just what crowds did when you walked towards them - this bubble of personal space into which nobody would dare trespass. That's simply how crowds work! Otherwise people would be walking into each other all the time.
  As the sun beat down on the crowds James could feel the familiar pressure of a building storm, the clouds gathering above the tower blocks determined to reach critical mass and turn the winding roads into a mess of new rivers. It was always a distraction, like the clouds were gathering inside his head, squalling and clamouring for attention. He squinted up as one of them excitedly brushed the edge of the solar disk. He wasn't sure exactly how far it was back to the office but he knew, as much as he loved the breaking of a summer storm, as much as it cleared the air and his mind, he didn't actually want to sit the rest of the afternoon in a soaking wet shirt, and was fairly sure this would be his immediate future if it started raining now.
  "Not yet," he said quietly, shielding his eye from the sun with one big hand. It wasn't quite a prayer, certainly not a plea. Just a thing he said.
  Quite by chance, at the same moment, the clouds rumbled with frustration, but no rain fell.
  James smiled, satisfied, and resumed his walk.