Laughter Lines

In late 2015, after physically healing an injury I’d sustained in midsummer, I was looking for some psychological healing experiences. Laughter, of course, is often called ‘the best medicine’ and there seems to be some truth in this. I discovered laughter yoga, which I found an excellent tonic.

What’s the medical evidence for this? Somewhat inconclusive it seems. We know laughter produces endorphins, and seems to involve the limbic system, specifically the hippocampus and the amygdala. In other words, it’s ancient, something laid down early in our primate evolution, and indeed laughter has been observed in other primates.

On the other hand, there’s some evidence the cortex is involved: there’s a cognitive component. This makes intuitive sense. I’ve been told I have a very sophisticated sense of humour. I will laugh or smile along with the rest of humanity at funny cat videos, but I also laugh when others do not. For example, I recall watching the 1995 Judge Dredd movie, in my view an underrated film, and finding it hugely funny in the way it uses American cliches and mythologies to satirical effect. You can’t find that funny without a certain level of cognitive sophistication. My co-watchers were confused as to what I found so funny, while I found the film a fresh look at America. Christopher Hitchens was inclined to consider irony one of the consolations for the losing battle we are all fighting, and something he couldn’t live without; I’d agree irony and wit are precious jewels, producing such satisfying smiles.

Laughter seems to have evolved as a survival strategy for both individual and social health. There’s evidence it relieves stress, boosts the immune system, helps keep a healthy heart and blood flow, and even reduce allergic reactions. It may extend life. It also has social benefits, improving relationships amongst humans. It can also be used to reinforce social isolation of particular humans while improving bonding amongst those who join in the laughter, thus reinforcing shared social norms. The object of the laughter thus plays an important role in those relationships.

In these times, anything that can help our health, particularly the immune system, as well as improve social relationships, has a value that perhaps should not be understated. So I thought I’d share with you three videos that have made me laugh a lot recently.

Thinking about the first example, I guess this is a case of laughing at someone else’s expense, in this case Liam Gallagher’s. And who better? Here’s Sacha Baron-Cohen, on an American chat show, with a very funny story about him:

Chat shows, in amongst the tedium, can provide some spectacular moments of wit and humour. I’ve always been an admirer of Graham Norton. His early forays into the chat show format on Channel Four I thought constituted a quiet revolution in the chat show format. The way he re-focused the format away from the guests and onto the audience, facilitating their participation in the conversation, was very clever. Using early internet humour to widen the tired chat show format into something that could comment on our wider culture, stands as a genuine advance in the form, and he’s partly responsible I think for bringing internet culture to the mainstream.

Here are two examples of humour, again at someone else’s expense. Peter Capaldi and Tom Hanks seize a golden opportunity to make fun of David Walliams, who runs with it beautifully.

My final example is an example of self-deprecating humour, but also perfect timing. Lee Mack tells a very funny story of how he got sacked from Pontins, so perfectly told it even has John Cleese doubled up. Mack apparently regarded this as one of the proudest moments of his career:

laughing buddha

Laugh every day, even if you don’t want to. One thing I learned from my laughter yoga experiences is that simulated laughter brings many of the same health benefits as the ‘real thing’, and can easily lead to ‘real’ laughter in ourselves and others.

Laughter, in fact, has been called one of the most contagious things known to humanity, and usefully is transmittable over a distance of more than two metres. Along with orgasm it’s also one of the most effective natural analgesic mechanisms available to us. Perhaps in addition to collectively clapping for those on the front line, we could engage in collective laughter at those responsible for the current crisis, as a way of excluding them from society, and improving social bonds amongst the rest of us?

We have nothing to lose but our pains.

This post’s featured image is copyright Amauta Fotografia, used under license.

The Picard Manoeuvre

In Review: Star Trek: Picard

I want to review CBS’s latest Star Trek series, Star Trek: Picard. But first I have to set the scene, about my relationship with Star Trek, and a potted guide to its history for those unfamiliar.

Prelude: Star Trek in a nutshell

When I was born, the BBC were three-quarters of the way through their first-run British broadcasts of the original Star Trek series, some two years later than their US broadcasts. Apparently a big hit in Britain, the series was repeated often through the 70s and early 80s. That success, now I come to think of it, may have influenced the commissioning of Blake’s 7, the BBC’s adult-oriented space opera, in 1978.

While I was an avid viewer of Blake’s 7, I never took much to Star Trek. The vision of a multi-national crew, represented by multi-ethnic Americans, nevertheless remains admirable for the times, and it was certainly politically engaged. The series stands as a curious and pioneering attempt to smuggle somewhat cerebral, literary sf concerns into a mainstream show, with a character-based warmth at its heart. It’s a good recipe, with some great ingredients. It addressed very American concerns of the late 1960s, but maybe felt a little bit dated for my generation.

Meanwhile, in the US, Trek also became a big hit in the 70s, re-run in syndication, bigger than it ever was during its original late-60s run on NBC. It grew not only its mainstream audience, but generated a qualitative change in the nature of audience itself, with the emergence of Star Trek fandom. The idea of an organised television audience, with their own voice and ideas, was so far outside of their reality tunnel, the story goes, that industry representatives, on seeing the much larger than expected numbers at the first fan convention, simply left the event, unable to deal with the implications and potential shift of power. The significance of this event for the changing nature of media audiences over the past 50 years bears consideration, as fannish cultural practices slowly, insidiously some might say, became mainstream. These days everyone binge-watches, over-analyses, reviews and makes their own fiction about their favourite TV show. That’s pretty much our culture now. But once, it was a sub-cultural sociality known as fandom.

The success of Star Trek: The Next Generation proved the importance of audience. The idea that Star Trek was a very liberal and progressive – and even in some areas a radical – enterprise, isn’t especially valid for the original series. Many of the ideas we associate with this interpretation of Trek derived from the fan culture of the 70s and 80s, who saw in Star Trek the potential for a radically inclusive and progressive futurism. The idea that poverty, hunger and racism have been eliminated in the future, within an enlightened, yet Earth-centred galactic federation, simply isn’t present in the original series. Indeed, it’s implied Earth is a colonial power. It’s now thought Roddenberry saw these more Utopian, progressive ideas emerge from the fan audience, and adopted them. The development of Star Trek was led by the remarkable creativity of its fan audience. The Next Generation also seems to me influenced by new age culture, surging in late 80s California, where as Dennis Potter once remarked, ‘every nut rolls’ sooner or later. By 1987, Paramount was still making $1 million per episode in syndication. The arguments for a new series were overwhelming.

Star Trek The Next Generation’s cultural influences can be read into the initial decision to dispense with a regular Chief Engineer, but insist upon a regular Counsellor character on the bridge of the new, pastel-shaded and softly furnished USS Enterprise. This reflects the caring, sharing, person-centred, eco-conscious culture of liberal America of that time.

Next Gen had a hard job convincing fans of the original series attached to the idea that Star Trek could only incarnate in the Kirk-Bones-Spock triumvirate. Indeed that idea had been established early in Star Trek fandom’s literature, that the heart and essence of the series lay in the interplay of these three characters. Mr Spock representing the emotionally repressed, logical, thinking element, Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy representing its counterpart, the emotional, feeling man. According to this theory, Kirk represents the perfect integration of feeling and intellect in a man, and thus is fit to both mediate between the forces represented by Spock and Bones, and lead them as their Captain.

The characters of the Next Generation were developed by Gene Roddenberry and DC Fontana, and thankfully don’t attempt to replicate this formula precisely. However, we have a female Doctor, hilariously named ‘Crusher’, and the android Data, who acts as a mirror of Spock in some ways. Unlike Spock, Data has no emotions to repress, so his desire is to become more human, not less. And so we come to Picard, who is presented as an idealised, integrated man. Cultured, intelligent, an explorer interested in poetry and drama, inclined towards the diplomatic and consensus solution, but entirely able to use maximum military force with ruthlessly effective tactics when necessary.

This triumvirate is backed by a slightly larger regular ensemble cast than the original series. By accident or design, the cast assembled had genuine chemistry with each other, forming close real life bonds which persist to this day, and this factor had a lot to do with the success of the series.

After a shaky couple of years, but with a base level of quality and moments of brilliance, Next Gen’s third season, with the writing drastically improving by the week, established the series in its own right. The events of that third season had genuine weight, affecting the characters, Picard in particular, in ways that are still being explored, most recently in the 10 part CBS series Star Trek: Picard that aired earlier this year.

There were times when Stewart had me crying my eyes out as Picard, most notably during the season 6 episode Chains of Command, in which Picard is tortured by David Warner. Picard gives an incredibly sensitive performance, informed by research undertaken with Amnesty International into people’s experiences of torture. Here’s a great Picard moment, from the best Star Trek movie, in which Picard reveals the extent to which his traumas still motivates him several years later.

The state of Trek

After the 2009 cinematic reboot, the Star Trek Universe split into two parallel universes. The new movies occur in the ‘Kelvin’ timeline, while the original universe maintains its existence as the ‘Prime’ timeline. As if mirroring this, the film and television rights split apart when Paramount Pictures’ parent company Viacom dispensed with CBS, who hold the television rights. It was in this environment CBS decided to return Star Trek to television, some 12 years after the last Star Trek TV show, the prequel Enterprise, ended after four seasons. The commercial circumstances were remarkably similar to those that conditions the return of Star Trek to TV back in 1987. The audience for genre film and TV had expanded, fandom now enjoying the kind of relationship with the industry which would have been a mad dream in 1972. Moreover, the back catalogue was finding a new audience on streaming services, just as the original series had found a new audience in syndication back in the 70s, increasing the commercial pressure for new content.

CBS hired Bryan Fuller, who’d worked in his younger days on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and who’d now made a name for himself as the showrunner of the Hannibal Tv series, to develop new Star Trek shows. His winning idea was to create an anthology show which would start in the years before the original series, but progress through the Prime timeline, giving fresh takes on different eras of the show. While there were creative tensions between Fuller and CBS, it seems his early departure from the production of Star Trek: Discovery was more down to scheduling conflicts, with CBS and Netflix keen to get the series quickly while Fuller was tied up on prior commitments to adapt Neil Gaiman’s American Gods for television.

CBS brought in Alex Kurtzmann, who’d worked on the new movies, to oversee Star Trek for them.

I’ve never seen Star Trek: Discovery, although I have seen a couple of the Short Treks anthology show that spun off from it, a show which seems to fulfil Fuller’s vision of a show that can explore any bit of Trek it likes. And Star Trek: Discovery, having explored and reinvented the back story of some of the original series characters (like Christopher Pike, Kirk’s immediate predecessor as Enterprise Captain, and Spock), has now been flung forward to a century after the time of Next Generation, much as previous prequel series Enterprise brought in a plot elements from the far, post-Next Generation future too. This also fulfils Fuller’s plan to have the early seasons set before the original series, and later seasons set in advance of the later spin offs. But much of this has passed me by. I gave up on Star Trek sometime during Voyager, a show with a lot of unfulfilled potential, and saw little of Enterprise. But a little bit of Star Trek, thanks in large part to Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard, stayed with me.

And so the announcement last year that Stewart would be reprising Picard, in a new TV series focused on that character’s life 16 years after the end of the Next Generation, excited me. I figured if Stewart was involved, that suggested quality, and the potential for surprising quality.

So what’s Star Trek: Picard like? Was it a joyful reunion, or a disappointing afterglow? Join me next time to find out.

This post’s featured image is by JD Hancock, and used under license.

Philip Martin

The writer Philip Martin has died. Probably best known for the 1970s TV play and later series ‘Gangsters’, which was set and filmed in Birmingham, ‘Gangsters’ stands up today partly as social commentary and partly as an exemplar of non-realist TV drama somewhere between Patrick McGoohan and Dennis Potter.

He subsequently wrote two rather idiosyncratic, very political and satirical Doctor Who stories of the mid-1980s, and in a strong field was probably the best new writer for the series in that decade. Martin, while taking Doctor Who in new and bravely uncomfortable directions, impressed fans at the time as a possible successor to Robert Holmes. Certainly of the 80s writers he was closest to Holmes’ style and approach to the series. Vengeance on Varos, his first Doctor Who story, satirised reality TV years before it was even invented, and features outstanding guest performances from Nabil Shaban and Martin Jarvis. Its sequel a year later seemed to inspire director Ron Jones to create some powerfully surreal, dramatic and moving moments of television, with strong performances from Nicola Bryant, Brian Blessed and Colin Baker. Nicola Bryant tweeted her tribute:

Martin went on to write for the excellent 1987 sf drama series Star Cops with the episode This Case To Be Opened In A Million Years, which gave us some of the best character moments for the protagonist Nathan Spring battling his demons – and the mafia – in Venice and on the Moon.

Philip Martin was a visionary, offbeat writer and deserves to be remembered as a legend for his contribution to British TV drama.

RIP Philip Martin 1938 – 2020