Review – Star Trek Beyond

Once again, I missed a golden opportunity. I saw the latest installment of Star Trek on the very first night and then neglected to write my review for a whole week.

Star Trek, Beyond is the third in the series since the “reboot” which changed the Trek timeline and replaced the original cast with fresh new faces. I’ll admit that I was appalled at first, but I’ve grown fond of the new cast. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto do Kirk and Spock really, really well. And tragically, just as we were getting to know him, Anton Yelchin, a.k.a. Chekov died in an accident shortly before the movie’s release.

This story was similar in formula to the previous two post-reboot movies, but a bit better, perhaps because Simon Pegg (who plays Scotty, and also created the brilliant zombie spoof Shaun of the Dead) wrote the screenplay. The pace is less frenetic than its predecessors, and that’s a good thing. It gives the characters more time to spout quotable lines, none of which I happen to remember at the moment. There are of course relationships carried over from previous shows: Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are on the outs, and their improbable relationship drives much of the story’s interpersonal dynamic. There’s a scene in which we learn that Ambassador Spock (young Spock’s other-dimensional self) has died, probably more of a nod to Leonard Nimoy’s passing than an actual story element.

I’d like to note that Sulu’s character (played by John Cho) is portrayed as gay, no doubt an homage to the original series’ actor George Takei. This fact didn’t affect the story in any way, and the choice struck me as a bit too PC. I’d have preferred they’d selected some other random character to carry the rainbow flag into the 23rd century.

As with the last two Star Trek movies, Beyond opens with one or more of the primary characters doing Something Important. In this case, Kirk is presenting a peace offering from one warring race to its adversary. Unlike the over-the-top volcano incident in Into Darkness, this seems more like something a Starfleet captain would actually do. By the way, the scene is quite funny, as well as relevant (to say how would be a spoiler) to the rest of the story.

The plot revolves around the Enterprise’s mission to answer a distress call from a ship that’s crashed on an isolated planet in the middle of a nebula. This nebula is not the dense, electrically charged cloud as these things have been portrayed in classic Trek. It’s more like Saturn’s rings in spherical form; a huge field of rocks, boulders and dangerous space junk, reminiscent of the classic “Asteroids” video game. I’m no astrophysicist, so I can’t say which of these views is more realistic.

Kick-ass women are a staple in sci-fi these days, and Beyond has one, of course, the black-and-white-skinned Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), the only survivor of a crash on this isolated world. I liked the way they emphasize her intelligence as her primary strength, and the fact that she’s survived on this world for years, which is a more satisfying explanation of her expertise than innate talent. (You guessed it; I’m pointing to the egregious example of Rey in Star Wars The Force Awakens.) Jaylah is also an aficionado of late-twentieth-century earth music; I had to laugh when one of the characters referred to Public Enemy as classical music. This is setup for a battle scene that’s so ludicrous that it becomes ironically cool. I like the Beastie Boys, but to see their music being used as a weapon? I can’t decide whether it’s brilliant or idiotic.

The villain, Krall (Idris Elba) is at first quite intriguing. He’s powerful, evil, and conniving, with a look reminiscent of G’Kar from Babylon-5, and a Road Warrior kind of presence. However, I found his back-story (which I won’t reveal here) to be an enormous letdown. I suspect that the writers were trying a bit too hard to surprise the audience.

In conclusion, I’d say Star Trek Beyond is well worth seeing for any sci-fi fan with a reasonable sense of humor. This was not the most outstanding of the Trek movies, but it was a definite improvement on the previous one. In these last couple of years the movie business has been plagued with sequels and franchise entries that ranged from disappointing (the aforementioned Star Wars, which I’ve seen) to terrible (Ghostbusters – considering the reviews, I’ll wait for that one to come to Netflicks, OK?) It was good to see a decent one for a change.

Denialism: Conspiracy’s Rabbit Hole


Above: the classic illustration by John Tenniel from Alice in Wonderland.

The word denial conjures up many images in our minds. Besides its association with Twelve Step philosophy, which is not the subject of this article, it usually refers to the refusal to believe in certain events or phenomena, such as the Holocaust or climate change. The latter is not my subject either, as it refers primarily to the future. I am talking about the delusional rabbit hole of historical denialism, of which Holocaust denial is just one example.

Although I agree that Holocaust denial is offensive, I oppose all laws that criminalize such speech. It’s better to counter a lie with truth, rather than to censor speech, which the crazies will spin as proof of the “worldwide Jewish conspiracy.” Holocaust denial is wrong, and not just for its anti-semitic implications. Hitler’s regime also murdered gypsies, gays, and the handicapped by the millions. Denial is cruel because it is because it fails to recognize the suffering and death of the victims, and marks the survivors as liars, adding insult to injury.

Here in America, denialism was a fringe form of lunacy until after 9/11. Then, along with the more mainstream conspiracy theories about possible government foreknowledge of the attacks, there were rumors that the passengers of some or all of the doomed planes didn’t die. Supposedly they were whisked away an unknown location. Or perhaps the planes themselves were holograms, projected on the Twin Towers to draw attention away from the explosives planted within.

These ideas were so loopy, they didn’t get much traction, but they gave support to politicians who claimed the 9/11 Truth Movement was disrespectful to the families of the victims. This claim is, of course, false, since it was victims’ families who pushed the government into doing an investigation. Truthers do not deny the attacks happened. Rather, they question the official story, which has some pretty improbable elements of its own. See James Corbett’s brilliant short video, “911, a Conspiracy Theory.

Denialism reared its ugly head again after the Sandy Hook school shootings. People began claiming that the whole event had been faked by the government as an excuse to carry out gun confiscation. Not only is this argument delusional, it is needlessly cruel to the parents of the victims. Furthermore, it gives the false impression that Second Amendment advocates have no valid arguments against gun control.

What about the possible role of psychiatric medications, which have been a factor in so many recent mass shootings? The media, which receives millions in advertising revenue from pharmaceutical companies, is loath to raise this issue. By embracing the lunatic notion of denial, Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists let them off the hook. Another interesting story says that the shooter, Adam Lanza, was diagnosed at Yale University as “profoundly autistic” with “isolationist and anti-social tendencies.” This begs the question of whether Lanza’s mother, knowing that her son was mentally ill, was irresponsible to keep guns in her home. These are difficult questions, not cut and dried like the mindless claim that “it didn’t happen.”

More recently, I’ve heard these same denialist notions raised in relation to the mass murders at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. “Where were the bodies?” say the on-line trolls. There’s a simple explanation for this: the media holds back pictures of victims, out of respect for the feelings of the families. Again, the allegations of fakery side-step more important issues. Was the shooter, Omar Mateen, taking psychiatric drugs? Why did the FBI, who interviewed him twice about extremist statements, conclude he was harmless? Did his parents’ Islamist ideology cause him to attack fellow gays out of self-hatred?

The problems with the denialist mindset are not just cruelty and misdirection from real issues. It’s irrational as well. Occam’s razor states that the simplest explanation is usually the best. Yet elaborate theories about events being faked are much more complex than the more straightforward conclusion that “it happened, let’s find out why.”

Perhaps the most ironic aspect of denialist theories is that they deny evil. Are we to believe that Hitler, a brutal dictator who invaded his neighbors without provocation, was actually a nice guy who would shrink from mass murder? Were the 9/11 terrorists (or the US government, take your pick) too ethical to kill four plane loads of people? Was Adam Lanza just a mixed-up kid set up as a patsy? Was Omar Mateen the innocent victim of Islamophobic prejudice? None of these alternate explanations make any sense. If the powers behind these conspiracies are so bad, why stop at deception? Any government that has ever gone to war has killed civilians or allowed innocents to die for the cause. Furthermore, companies have knowingly put out dangerous products that have killed people. Could the irrational theories of denial be the work of trolls and their innocent dupes, to make conspiracy theorists look foolish, or to draw attention away from the holes in the official stories of these tragedies?

Denialism is not just cruel to the victims of the denied events, it’s foolish and counter-productive of the denialists’ professed anti-government ideology. As always, truth is the answer, not censorship. Those of us who research conspiracy theories must expose these denialist narratives as the toxic nonsense they are. The rest of the public, who may not agree with our interpretations of recent history, must understand that these people do not represent us. As always, the events in question are far more complex than they appear.

Kiznaiver, or “I Feel Your Pain”


Kiznaiver, one of the spring 2016 offerings of the Japanese animation studio “Trigger,” just aired its final episode last weekend. It was better than I expected; I’d rate it at least 4 stars out of 5. Trigger is most famous for the cult favorite Kill La Kill, an over-the-top satire featuring lots of gratuitous (near) nudity and violence, the premise being a bizarre conspiracy to rule the world through malevolent clothing. Kiznaiver is nowhere near that edgy, but it maintains Trigger’s characteristic quirkiness in a show that has a much broader appeal.

The story takes place in the fictional Sugomori City, which was founded years earlier to advance the utopian goal of the elimination of war and violence. Though this idealistic vision seems to have been forgotten, a small group of scientists continues to conduct psychological experiments on unknowing, unwilling subjects. They select seven high school students to receive the “Kizna” (Japanese for “connection”) surgery, which leaves no visible sign except a strange mark on the arm. Its purpose is to connect the study’s participants, so that if any of the seven feel pain, they all do. Furthermore, the sensation is divided in intensity as it is distributed among them all. A side effect is to lessen any injury that one of them suffers. In the first episode, one of the seven falls head-first down a long flight of stairs and suffers only a minor concussion.

Despite its weird science-fiction premise, the show’s intriguing characters save it from being dry and contrived. The seven test subjects begin as anime stereotypes: Yuta the playboy, Tenga the thug, Chidori the nice girl, Nico the cute lolly, Honoka the ice-cold bitch, Hisomu the eccentric freak, and Katsuhira the blank-slate protagonist. Though they are classmates, they have nothing else in common. The Kizna experiment forces them to associate and to overcome numerous trials together. In the process, they share their hopes and fears and reveal the true depths of their personalities. The eighth major character is the beautiful, enigmatic Sonozaki, a fellow teenager who acts as their handler. The show hints at her past association with Katsuhira, which he remembers only through disturbing dreams. Both were involved, as small children, in an earlier experiment that had tragic consequences.

As for the seven test subjects, there’s a constant tension between those who crave acceptance and companionship from the group (Nico), those who reject it (Honoka) and those who just don’t care (Katsuhira.) While the teenagers deal with the burden of shared physical and emotional pain, they become involved in a complex romantic polygon, in which everyone’s love interest is focused on someone else. The most prominent character arc is that of Katsuhira, a boy who feels little emotion and no physical pain, who learns to rediscover his humanity.

For all the heavy moral and ethical questions that Kiznaiver explores, it is never preachy. No one is totally good or evil. The emotionally damaged Sonozaki has a good reason for her lack of empathy. Even the experiment’s ringleader, Sugomori’s scheming mayor, and the two high school teachers who serve as his bungling hench-people, seem to have good intentions. As with most anime series, the show has comic elements, including the omnipresent mascots called Gomorin. These anonymous city workers wear suits of bizarre lumpy creatures whose distorted faces resemble the “Kizna” mark. The show’s worst feature are its groan-worthy episode titles, including this gem: “Wahoo, It’s a Training Camp! Let’s Step in Deer Poop and Have Pillow Fights! Go, Go!”

At times, Kiznaiver borders on melodrama, but somehow the show maintains a balance between message and entertainment. I see it as an allegory about what it means to be human, the importance of community, and the ways people deal with loss. Political animal that I am, I couldn’t help drawing parallels to political and economic systems. The Kizna project, by forcing people to share both physical and emotional pain, is a lot like socialism. Both ideas have noble motivations that seldom work out as intended. As for the show’s actual message, that’s for the viewer to decide.

Kiznaiver can be seen on and numerous other anime websites. Kiznaiver promotional image is from