Note: Spoilers abound for all things Traks.
A rabbi, a priest and imam walk into a bar…wait. Hold on. Do we have any rabbis in the room? Priests? Imams? No? Ok, I guess I can tell this joke. Right? Maybe?
Back in my 20s, I don’t know how many times I witnessed (or said) variations on that line, especially after I joined the military. That sense of “Yeah, we’re not supposed to say this, but hey, it’s funny, we’re drunk, let’s just make sure there’s no one here who might be bothered, then we’ll be fine.” As the grey hair in my beard multiplies at a horrifying speed, I’ve witnessed a growing culture change that increasingly looks at this sort of humour and says “Hey man, that’s not OK.” On the flip side, there’s also the counter-argument along the lines of “Free speech! Anyone who’s offended is just too sensitive! It’s just a joke, man! Chill!”
Full disclosure, I’m Canadian. For whatever that’s worth. We don’t have ‘free speech’ defined in a constitutional amendment, we have protected speech under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I guess the reason I bring it up is because on the various online communities I frequent, I notice that our humour and the politics around it vary quite a bit based on country…with certain countries maybe being a bit more divided than others on the subject. Also, so you understand why I spell words like colour and honour the way I do. Don’t correct me, I’m using the Queen’s English, thank you very much.
I’m also speaking from a position of privilege: I don’t make my living with comedy. I fell in love with Alan’s Star Traks stories twenty years ago, and it’s been just about that long since I started writing for the Nexus. But my audience is tiny, I make no money off this, and if someone decides to get really angry over one of my jokes…well…it’s not going to explode into a PR nightmare of Dave Cheppellian proportions.
So why do I care about whether or not a joke is in bad taste? More specifically, whether or not one of my jokes is in bad taste? I could say that the re-launch of the Nexus was an opportunity to revisit my old work and consider my old humour in a new light…but that would only be part of the story. The truth is, it’s been increasingly difficult for me to write things that I think are funny. I look back at the first few seasons of Star Traks: Silverado, and I’m struck by how carefree my writing seems compared to what I tried to do in later years. Jeffery as a BDSM submissive? No problem. T’Parief eating beloved pets? Why not. Flagrant workplace harassment and abuse? That’s funny, right? I mean, it must be, how many of our TV sitcoms are variations on the workplace harassment theme? But after being in some very unpleasant workplaces, some of this just doesn’t seem funny to me anymore. It was years after I left a certain workplace before I could go back and turn their Quality Assurance department into a certain race of anal-retentive villains and laugh about it. Even today, there is a certain former superior officer who has really poisoned how I view, shall we say, unprofessional behaviour in the workplace. And that certainly has impacted my ability to write Traks.
But that’s entirely on me and how my own sense of humour has evolved over the years, in part due to my own experiences. I look back at some very cringe-worthy moments in my own Traks writing that…well, I’m not sure what to say about them now. The straight Steve Steiger on the gay Klingon planet in Drink Sometime?, or Lt Comd Johnson in Interplay and Choices. At the time, I though Steiger’s fish-out-water plotline and Johnson’s insistence on speaking in jargon-heavy Ebonics (or African-American Vernacular English, if you prefer) could be funny, as long as they were done respectfully. Steiger’s plot was inspired by my own experiences with cis-het friends in LGBT-friendly locations, while I had a POC friend write Johnson’s dialogue. I thought I was covering all the bases…but were either of those ideas actually funny? Looking back at them now, these stories make me cringe, not laugh. Where they ever funny? No idea. What about the Yynsian Lt Wyer in Halfway to Haven? I originally though that him having a bunch of terrorist past-lives who had met untimely ends would be funny as hell…but I barely squeaked a couple of stories out of that before it become uncomfortable. And Howlers…well, we’ll get to Howlers.
But perhaps nowhere else has my thinking changed more than when it comes to sexism, gender discrimination and sexual misconduct. And this has largely been due to external events. Over the past few years we’ve seen the MeToo movement and a growing chorus of voices who will not be silenced. We’ve seen a growing list of past offenses being brought to light, whether it’s domestic abuse, assault, harassment, or a systemic culture of abuse in certain (cough) federal institutions. We’ve seen a growing awareness of the importance of consent with regards to sexual activity, we’ve seen more and more young people embracing more open-minded approaches to gender expression and identity. And we’ve seen a bigoted, sexist, lying mad-man come to power by riling up the masses. There has been good and bad, no doubt. But it also means I’ve had to re-evaluate a lot of my thinking on these topics, my relationships with friends and family members, and the question of what is and isn’t funny to me.
Fortunately, although I’ve included a fair bit of sexual humour in my stories, I think consent has been handled well. In Are We Having Fun Yet, Jeffery spikes Wowryk’s drink in an effort to get her to ‘loosen up’, which 2022-me now knows is just a tiny fraction of the date-rape danger that women face. But his actions resulted in a one-way trip to the brig, full stop. And on the lighter side, Lt Comd Stern had sex with an alternate universe version of himself. Stafford slept with his alternate self’s wife. Fifebee had regular sex with Crewman Grant, as well as with one of the Hazardous Team members who…uh…couldn’t get his mind back on his work without some relief. All of these were consensual, if not necessarily in good taste. But honestly, looking back at Stafford being told he was his alternate self’s wife’s ‘pity-fuck’…that still makes me laugh. Yanick and T’Parief having to use hockey equipment to have sex because of his fangs and claws? Yeah, that mental image still makes me giggle. And I’ve learned that there is no shortage of people into far stranger things than sports gear.
But there are still some problems. As I wrote this piece I almost forgot to mention the character of Dr. Wowryk, despite her probably being my most problematic female character. Probably because I had figured that out by Silverado’s third or fourth season and was already taking steps to make her less one-dimensional and less of a stereotype. I don’t know about anyone else who’s read my stuff, but I find later-seasons Dr. Wowryk a lot easier to read, while early-seasons Dr. Wowryk certainly makes me cringe. Depicting the female crew of the USS Stallion as man-hunters…well, OK. So Jeffery consented, but I would consider that story to be in poor taste, even if I still think it’s funny. And it can be argued that the scene where Colonel Abela flogs Lt Stoneryder is non-consensual…though in his case it was corporal punishment, not sexual. (Does that make it any better?) Stoneryder himself is somewhat problematic…since I created the character of a former porn star turned security officer, I’ve learned more about sex work and the struggles that sex workers face. I still think Stoneryder can be funny; he’s his own character, and not everything I write about Haven’s resident man-whore is a reflection on how I view porn stars, sex workers, or even men in general. Sometimes a character doing something silly is just a character doing something silly. Especially on a parody site like the Star Traks Nexus. Still, although I want to re-evaluate how I write that character, I don’t think I crossed any lines with that him, and ‘poor taste’ is a matter of, well, taste.
I’m reminded by something YouTuber Natalie Wynn of ContraPoints once said, roughly along the lines of: “It’s not that trans people have a problem with trans jokes. We love trans jokes. We just don’t think cis people tell any good ones.” This was in reference to one of the many controversies over comedians saying offensive things about trans people as part of their acts. And I think she makes a valid point. As a gay, military, farm-grown, Ukrainian-background Canadian I enjoy gay, military, farm, Ukrainian and Canadian jokes. If they’re good, if they’re funny, and if they’re trying to make me laugh instead of insulting me. Jokes about Canadians going to school on dog sleds aren’t stupid because they mock Canadians, they’re stupid because they’re so far off the mark there just isn’t anything funny about them.
OK, I guess I have to break here for a minute, because this blog post is starting to feel like a lot of doom and gloom. I’m going to continue to focus on my own work, because I don’t want to seem like I’m judging Alan or Anthony’s stuff. But a lot of Traks has aged very well, in my opinion. The absurdity of Yanick laying an egg in a dance club while security goons set each other on fire with water guns full of liquor? Yeah, I still think that’s pretty funny. The dancing brains in Boldly Gone’s second season? Funny. The Flarn advertisement for a human Happy Meal in The Vexed Generation? Dark, but funny. The Multeks? Hilarious! The Secondprize Five accidentally triggering the end of the universe? Funny. (And I’m avoiding blatant spoilers here, but Alan’s climactic scene there was positively brilliant.)
OK. Feel-good break over. I’ve mentioned the changes we’ve seen in the world, and my own changing opinions about gender-based discrimination and harassment. So let’s address the big elephant in my writing room: the Matrians. The race where the men were biologically inferior, before being engineered to be equal, then the whole race wound up having a big, messy, ‘us-vs-them’ gender war and nearly destroyed themselves. Whooo-boy.
I think my biggest regret with the Matrians, having done some tweaking with Silverado Season 1 prior to the Nexus relaunch, isn’t that they aren’t all that funny. I’ve always tried to balance the funny with the serious, certainly more so as the series matured. The problem is that they were the first big villains of a very inexperienced writer whose mental processes were somewhere between “Ha-ha, bossy lady funny” and “Well, bigots always seem to want to claim discrimination has a biological base…what if it really did?”. When first introduced, they weren’t intended to be an ongoing race…hell, Silverado was originally only going to be one story! (Then two…then three…and so on.)
I obviously still think the Matrians are an interesting idea, as many of my later seasons dealt with them directly or indirectly. And I like to think they went from a one-dimensional villain to something that hopefully readers found interesting. But man, if I could go back in time and give myself a smack upside the head? I wouldn’t tell myself not to use the Matrian idea, but I would tell myself that I needed to do a lot more research and a bit more growing up before I tackle that sort of idea. For example, the me of 2004 had no knowledge of gender fluidity, people identifying as non-binary, people born intersex, and barely any understanding of the relationship between biological sex, gender roles, gender expression and gender identify. The me of 2010 knew that a lot of pieces of Matrian history and culture were missing. I knew I had to make them something more than the sexist aliens, turn them into allies we wanted in the Federation, and I tried to fill that in with Silverado Season 5. But to the me of 2022 looking back at these past stories, I really missed the mark on the Matrians. I created a very binary race with a very monolithic culture, though to be fair I’m not the first writer (Traks or Trek) to make that mistake. And I will admit that in later seasons, I wasn’t even trying to make the Matrians funny. I was trying to explore their history, to try to better understand how they might have gone down the galactic conquest path they went down. I think some of the Season 5 stuff is the closest I’ve gotten to trying to write actual Trek instead of Traks.
So yeah. I don’t regret using the Matrian idea that 23-year-old me came up with. I just wish I’d done a better job of it. And found some way to inject them with a bit more humour, too. And I’m still jealous of how hilarious Alan made the Multeks!
So looking back at all this, at what I still find funny, what’s not funny to me anymore, with the changes in the world and our cultural ideas around humour vs free speech…where does that leave me?
My Howlers mini-series hit a brick wall, in part because that whole storyline was built from dark humour. I’ve written many dozens of Traks stories, and I’ve never had such bad writer’s block. I mean, the idea of a security team made up of werewolves seemed pretty funny when I first started it, but the dark humour takes its toll. And real-world events like police responses to the Black Lives Matter protests, the George Floyd murder, the bodies of residential school victims being found in Canada …how do you make a mini-series about extra-judicial killings funny after things like that hits the news? Waving my hands about classified black ops and implying that Section 31 is behind it all doesn’t really feel like it’s that great a justification anymore. What’s really scary is that a lot of online far-right or alt-right personalities would probably think a group like the Howlers are a wonderful idea, a hilarious way for the Federation to clean up the dregs of society. And that is an idea that terrifies the ever-living shit out of me.
OK. We went to another dark place. Deep breaths.
My story output has been slow the past five years, and I think this issue of “what do I find funny” is a big part of it. COVID sure hasn’t helped. I’ve still been a very active member of the Star Traks team, though my contributions have been towards redesigning and rebuilding the Nexus, updating the Forums, and finding a better way to convert our material into ebooks. But I do want to start writing again. I have a sixth Howlers story complete, and it may even be up by the time of this blog posts. (edit: It’s not.) I have some work done on a seventh, and will hopefully finish the mini-series soon and move on other things. I’m also hoping I can find some stories to tell with either Silverado or Halfway to Haven that will make people laugh, and that hopefully won’t be cringy-worthy down the road. So how do I find that same care-free attitude, that ability to find humour around me and translate it into Star Traks? I don’t know. I’m working on it. I guess time will tell. Maybe Lower Decks will give me some good ideas. (I love that show!)
On the bright side, I’ve had a couple ideas that I hope I can do something interesting with:
- Dr. Wowryk as an asexual. Honestly, this is one of those things that seems incredibly obvious in hindsight. Like, brick-to-the-face obvious. How did I not realize this?? Because I didn’t know people could be asexual until sometime around 2015!
- Why is Fifebee female? Or any gender, for that matter? As a hologram, she literally can change her sex and gender every day if she wants. This one might be a bit difficult to do without getting controversial, though. But the possibilities are endless!
- A nonbinary movement on Matria Prime. If any race has a reason to reject binary gender norms, it’s them.
- More Laarthi and Boxer! I’ve had a cat for a year and a half now, and she’s reminded me that cats are more lovable than some people give them credit for. And that Laarthi needs to sleep much, much more than she does now.
- Why don’t the Howlers question their missions more often? Why haven’t they tried to escape? I’m not giving this one away, but these are questions I’m asking myself going into Howlers 7, and I have a few ideas about the answer.
Hopefully you’ve found something worth reading in this steaming pile of drivel I’ve delivered. If you’d like to make a comment we have a thread open at the Star Traks Forum, or you can post something on the Star Traks Facebook page. Let me know what you think!