Thursday, June 21, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Re)Watch 5.4, "Kral Zera"

Read the previous entry here!
Read the next entry soon!

Fractiousness among the Galra becomes outright war, and the Paladins find themselves pulled into intervention as Voltron: Legendary Defender continues.

5.4, "Kral Zera"

Written by Mitch Iverson
Directed by Chris Palmer

Synopsis

A Galra fleet begins to assemble, and the Blade of Marmora works against the assembly, raiding a dock. The raid moves clandestinely, infiltrating ships within cargo. An inside agent assists them, and the Blade operatives overhear talk of an archivist inhibiting the beginning of a ceremony.

It is a common tactic.
Image taken from the episode, used for critique.
At the Castle of Lions, Lotor continues to plead his case for aid in participating in the transfer of power among the Galra. He notes the imminent fracturing of the Empire in advance of the Kral Zera--upon which he expounds: it is the ascension of a new Galra to the throne, held on an early Galra conquest. More details follow, with likely candidates described and their strengths compared. Haggar's involvement is noted as likely and quiet--and she represents a continuation of Zarkon's reign. Shiro asserts the position that Lotor should be supported, citing the danger of a fracturing Empire--and Lotor suggests being escorted by Voltron. The motion is rejected, and concern about Shiro's behavior is expressed.

Galra forces continue to assemble, with the Kral Zera drawing nearer. The Blade purpose to intervene and overthrow the Empire at the event, at which the likely candidates for the throne assemble and begin to bicker. The ceremony begins, with a recitation of rulers and history preceding the call to relight a sacred flame, and candidates begin to attempt the task, to declare themselves--and to kill one another. And Haggar presents Sendak as a candidate, obviously intimidating the others.
It's understandable.
Image taken from the episode, used for critique.

A fracas ensues, during which the Blade begins to sabotage events. They are unmarked--even as, far away, Hunk and Pidge work on the local technology before noting Shiro's odd behavior. He is soon marked as absent--along with Lotor and the Black Lion.

Sabotage continues as Sendak secures his victory and makes to relight the Galra flame. More challenges come, and Sendak defeats them handily, forestalling others--until the Black Lion arrives and disgorges Lotor, who claims the throne. Keith marks the arrival and calls for a halt to the Blade's action--which cannot come.

The man who would be king, or something like that.
Image taken from the episode, used for critique.
Lotor declares his intent to rule, which Sendak rejects--and Haggar disqualifies him based on his blood, which Lotor rejects. A fight ensues as Keith works to disable the charges, and the Blade intervenes, saving Lotor from the blast that takes many other Galra. Sendak claims it as a betrayal, and the conflict expands, with Shiro taking a hand as a general melee erupts. Amid it, one of Lotor's lieutenants saves Keith, and Haggar declares the Empire fallen. The other Paladins arrive and assist Shiro, and Voltron is formed. The melee ends shortly after, with Sendak escaping Lotor at the expense of other candidates. In the end, Lotor lights the flame as Voltron observes.

Hail to the chief, because he's the chief and he needs hailing.
Image taken from the episode, used for critique.
His reign is legitimated, but it begins in ruin.

Discussion

Although it mixes and muddies some characters' resonances to make the assertion, there is something like the selection of Arthur as the "rightwys kynge borne of all Enlond" in the events of the episode. Fractious, belligerent rulers all gather at a ceremonially important location and contest with one another for the right to rule in both, and in both, the not-wholly-legitimate child of the previous ruler emerges un-looked-for and seizes power--which occasions no small amount of violence and the withdrawal of other rulers, presumably to plot their own ascensions to overall power. If the series will follow the Arthurian, then, there will be more fights among the Galra to come, with Lotor having to subdue the rest--and what the Paladins do alongside him will be of interest, as it appears to force them into a difficult ethical position. Lotor is hardly a "good" character, so by aiding him, they are aiding the wrong. Yet he is also the least bad option available--as was demonstrated in the previous episode and discussed in the current, attacking Voltron and the coalition around it serves to cement power and stature among the Galra. They will be forcibly involved in any event.

Too, the question remains about influence on Shiro. That Haggar can use him as a listening device is suggested in the previous episode; if it is the case, then Shiro's out-of-character action to deliver Lotor to the ceremony without aid or support bespeaks her more overt influence upon him. Yet she speaks against Lotor as he makes to ascend to the throne. It seems a convoluted game she plays, one reminiscent of popular depictions of Morgan le Fay (and of more "literary" ones, as well). More to trace out the relevant antecedents of her own work in the series would be welcome--as will seeing how her influence on the second Black Paladin continues to manifest.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Review: The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination by Paul Sturtevant


Paul B. Sturtevant, The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film and Medievalism. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2018.

Full disclosure: Paul is a friend and colleague; we work together at The Public Medievalist. Nevertheless, I have endeavored to be as objective as possible in this review.

One knee-jerk tendency for medievalists when confronted with pop-culture medievalism is to pick it apart for accuracy. We tend to look for how well the film portrays medieval battles. Whether the armor that SCA member is wearing follows known production methods and uses only materials available in the 12th century. Whether that TV show accurately exemplifies the socioeconomic factors of 11th century Britain. And then we follow fans of such things around yelling “No!” at them.

But whether these pop culture texts are “wrong” or “inaccurate,” people learn from them and create an idea of what the Middle Ages looked like. And they do so through all sorts of medievalist and neomedieval texts, from Disney princess films to Game of Thrones. Frequently, this is the only exposure people have to ideas about the Middle Ages. In The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination, Paul Sturtevant has tackled the big question of how people take in these ideas and integrate them with previous views of the Middle Ages or reject them.

He begins with an analysis of the malleability of the medievalist “Middle Ages”—those popular ideas we have about the historical period and the fact that those ideas change when we’re faced with new information. In order to explore this tendency, he created a study designed to explore the intersection of popular culture and historical consciousness.

The first chapter examines (and gripes about) the way historical consciousness has been studied so far. Mostly, it’s been journalists and politicians breathlessly complaining about how Millennials (or Gen X, or Gen Y, on back and back) know nothing about history and they’re obviously stupid idiots with no sense of culture and it’s amazing they can put their pants on in the morning. But, as Sturtevant points out, they get their “data” from scientifically invalid surveys that treat history like a bullet-pointed list of names and dates. Instead, he argues, this sort of study needs to focus on how people understand the past and what they do with it. This chapter also includes the methodology for his study—19 students at the University of Leeds were recruited and placed in one of three groups. Each group was interviewed about their existing ideas about the Middle Ages, then watched three films (Beowulf, Kingdom of Heaven, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) and were debriefed afterward about whether they felt these films were “medieval.”

Chapter 2 kicks off the study with the description and analysis of what the students thought of as “medieval.” Interestingly, it turns out that they don’t think “medieval” and “the Middle Ages” mean the same thing, and they have slightly different ideas about what traits and keywords would go with each. (Side note: while writing my dissertation, I had a fellow grad student tell me that I couldn’t use “medieval” and “Middle Ages” interchangeably because they weren’t the same thing and “real medievalists” would get mad at me if I mixed them up. I was baffled. My director made A Face. I’m less baffled after reading this chapter.) Of course, their ideas about the Middle Ages were pretty much what you’d expect—a blend of knights in shining armor, dirty peasants, feudalism, hardly any travel, no culture to speak of, pretty much exclusively European, etc. In fact, one student admitted that when she thought of the Middle Ages, everything outside Western Europe was fuzzy in her brain; she knew that it existed because of course it did, but it might as well have been on the moon. This chapter is incredibly important not only for establishing a baseline for the study, but also for medievalists and medievalismists who have worked in the field for so long that we might forget that other people honestly don’t have the knowledge about the era that we do. Nor should we expect them to.

Chapter 3 provides more context for the way that the public in general views or approaches films considered “medieval.” The public’s ideas about historical films of any kind tends to be muddled; they are aware that the filmmakers’ primary concern is entertainment (well, that and money) before any kind of historical accuracy, and thus tend to not trust films, yet that appears to be where they get most of their ideas about the Middle Ages. Therefore, this chapter introduces some important psychological concepts regarding learning and cognition: the sociological nature of knowledge and schema theory, in particular. Sturtevant also examines how historical films can be used for good—to illustrate certain eras, people, or concepts in the context of a classroom or other setting in which an expert can guide the students. Otherwise, people who encounter these films “in the wild” tend to be far less critical of them.

In chapter 4, we get a bit more specific with the history/film thing, looking particularly at films coded “medieval,” whether historical or high fantasy (which tends to be pre-industrial and therefore lumped into the blurry watercolor of “the Middle Ages”). This chapter tackles some film theory as well as examining what traits cause a film to be considered “medieval” and how the perception of the “medieval” in popular culture has changed over the decades (spoiler: it’s gotten darker and grittier. See Game of Thrones). This is also where Sturtevant drops the Big Question at the heart of the study: “do the ways in which the Middle Ages are depicted in film today (with an aesthetics and politics that freely mixes the medieval, the medievalist, and the hypermedieval) actually influence viewers’ ideas about the period?” And if so, how?

Chapters 5 and 6 detail the students’ experience of watching the three films and their thoughts about how they were more or less medieval. Chapter 5 is pretty close to raw data, while chapter 6 collates that data to discuss major trends and themes in the way the students discussed the films and the Middle Ages. These are the chapters that will make medievalists unleash their inner pterodactyls and shriek in frustration at the students’ ideas—Beowulf isn’t medieval enough because there are no knights. Orlando Bloom is too pretty to be a medieval hero—but it’s important to, again, remember that these students are reacting entirely on instinct and pop-culture fueled versions of the Middle Ages, not a formal education or even informal historical research.

Several more such studies could be incredibly useful to the field, especially with different demographics. For example, how do American students’ view of the Middle Ages differ from these English students’? What about history majors? Middle Eastern students? Older adults who remember the pre-9/11 world?

Somebody get on that.

But read the appendices first.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Re)Watch 5.3, "Postmortem"

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Into the power vacuum left by the defeat of Zarkon, many Galra seek to go--and other forces seek to manipulate events.

5.3, "Postmortem"

Written by Todd Ludy
Directed by Steve In Chang Ahn

Synopsis

On the Alcari homeworld, construction continues as the Alcari leader, Pidge, Matt, and their father look on. The Alcari leader explains the construction as the emergent capital of the Voltron-allied coalition, and Pidge's father notes the rapid changes. Noted are that the conflict with the Galra is not yet ended and that the Alcari defenses are not yet fully in place.

Among the Galra, news spreads that Zarkon has fallen and that Voltron is on the Alcari homeworld; it is to be the next target. On that world, Lotor and Allura confer about recent events; Lotor is not thrilled to have slain his own father. Not all are pleased to see Lotor in place as he notes the looming contest for leadership of the Galra--and his desire to participate. Doubts are expressed about the plan, although Shiro notes the utility of placing Lotor on the Galra throne. Shiro asserts his authority as the leader of Voltron over the objections of the others, growing increasingly angry.

Haggar observes events from afar, seemingly through Shiro, and clearly longing for her son before interrupted by an assassination attempt she is able to thwart with ease. The assassins are sent back in shame, and Haggar enacts her reprisal. She also frees Lotor's erstwhile lieutenants, conscripting them to her own cause.

This is another not-good sign.
Image taken from the episode, used for reporting.
Meanwhile, a Galra commander attacks the Alcari homeworld as a tactic to secure power over the other Galra. The attack makes planetfall as a weapon of mass destruciton, and Voltron is summoned to aid; Shiro responds first, finding the Alcari biotechnology suborned by the attack.

Haggar lays out her concerns to Lotor's former lieutenants. She is not out to secure her own position, but the Empire.

Lance, conducting target practice, finds himself overwhelmed and unlocks strange new abilities. Allura notes the similarities to her father's performance, and the two confer about Shiro's difficulty. Lance offers such counsel as he has. And Pidge explains her accomplishments to her father, who exults in them--and the need to fight on is noted, to her father's sadness.

Shiro continues his investigations, a new horror arising before him and attacking. Shiro summons the other Paladins, and the Galra advance slowly as their plans proceed and the Alcari suffer. Matt and Pidge's father confer with Corran as the attack continues with difficulty. The nature of the Galra attack begins to become clear, and Pidge enlists her family to analyze the attack as the whole of Voltron is deployed--and swiftly trapped. The attack proceeds toward the Alcari capital, draining power from the Alcari. Matt and Pidge's father work to overthrow the attack as Voltron struggles against capture by the Galra--and Corran realizes who has attacked.

The Paladins other than Shiro appear in a strange communion. Lance receives an odd, partial vision before Voltron breaks free; he returns to himself amid the ongoing battle as the Galra are thwarted. The ongoing attack is halted and the Galra weapon overthrown--by Lance.

Guess who's back...
Image taken from the episode, used for reporting.
In the wake of the battle, Pidge's father notes pride in his children. He will return to Earth, though he commends his children's dedication. And Lance confers with Shiro; matters ease between them somewhat, although Lance is still concerned. And Lotor's former lieutenants, now Haggar's agents, return to her with Sendak, retrieved from his unceremonious ejection into space.

Discussion

There is much going on in the episode, a number of plots working simultaneously and in some relation to one another, but with participants not necessarily aware of one another's actions. The parallel to the braided narrative typical of such romances as Malory's prevalent throughout the series is therefore particularly prominent in the current episode--as is the parallel to early passages in Malory, when an appointed tournament to determine who will next hold the throne is in progress. (Admittedly, the Galra exercise is likely to be more vicious than even medieval tournaments; even prior to the Arthurian Round Table Oaths, there were codes ostensibly observed, as seems not to be the case with the "victory or death" ethos promulgated by the Galra.)

The nature of the power struggle itself also seems to ring of prevailing concepts of medieval history--namely that a bunch of belligerent warlords rush to fill a power vacuum, with one of them having the imprimatur of organized religion. The Holy Roman Empire comes to mind as a possible antecedent, perhaps in the late ninth century or in the run-up to the Hohenstaufen dynasty. (Given the reforms occasioned in the latter case, it seems a more likely antecedent.) That is, admittedly, a first-blush impression, and more work would need to be done to confirm or deny it--if a neat historical parallel can be drawn, which may well not be the case. But even if there is not a single underpinning event, the episode seems to be borrowing from the ideas at work, and that is worth more consideration.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Getting Ready for #Kzoo2019

โ„‘t is, perhaps, a bit early to do much to prepare for the 2019 International Congress on Medieval Studies on the campus of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Still, "not doing much" is not the same as "doing nothing," and, as many of the Society teach, we ought to model the behaviors we ask of our students--and do we not tell them to start on their work early? Thus, the text sent to the Congress in asking for two sessions for 2019, so that all of us can get started on putting things together for it:

The first session, a paper session titled The Legacy of Tolkien's Medievalism in Contemporary Works, will examine the continuing influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on conceptions of the Middle Ages and medieval prevalent in academic and popular cultures. As has been amply attested, Tolkien’s medievalist work in his Middle-earth corpus has exerted an outsized influence on subsequent fantasy and medievalist popular culture, and, following Paul B. Sturtevant’s assertions in The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination, it is largely or chiefly through popular cultural engagement with the materials that people—both the general public and those who become the students and scholars of the medieval—develop their early understandings of the Middle Ages. Decades on, Tolkien’s influence on popular culture—books, yes, but also movies, tabletop games, video games, television series, music, and other elements of popular understanding—continues to be felt, and continued examination of that influence is therefore warranted.

The second session, a paper session titled Afterlives of Medieval Religion in Contemporary Works, will look at how the post-Tolkien works that are the Society's focus appropriate and misappropriate medieval religious constructions. That formal religion was a central element of the European medieval, broadly conceived, is a conventional wisdom that is reflected both in the typical programming of the Congress and in the pages of Speculum, among others—yet many medievalist works, particularly those in mainstream popular culture, neglect or shy away from overt religiosity, or else they invoke it partially and only to specific effects, and in ways that do not appear to align well to the functions of the medieval church. Untangling the uses, misues, and avoidances of a key element of medieval culture in works that purport to be medieval or medievalist in their intent bears examination, and papers in the proposed session would be directed to those ends.

There'll be more information to come, of course, but having something of an advance will help. (And we mean to make the second the nucleus of a book, anyway, so ideas for it will be a good thing to have around.) We'll look forward to reading!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Re)Watch 5.2, "Blood Duel"

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Concerns of family loom large as the fifth season of Voltron: Legendary Defender carries on.

5.2, "Blood Duel"

Written by Joshua Hamilton
Directed by Eugene Lee

Synopsis

The Castle of Lions hangs in orbit over a rocky planet, sending a shuttle down to it. Shiro and Pidge bring Matt to a pre-arranged location to meet with Zarkon, who had offered to trade Lotor for Pidge and Matt's father--though there is no trust for Zarkon on the part of the Paladins. Shortly after, a Galra shuttle arrives, delivering Zarkon--and earlier comments from Lotor are presented, in which Lotor offers to ally with the Paladins, and they (pushed by Pidge) express doubt of his sincerity as he presses upon Allura and reminds them of Zarkon's perfidy.

Lotor makes his case to the Paladins.
Image take from the episode, used for commentary.
Zarkon demands Lotor, only to be countered by a demand for Pidge and Matt's father. The latter is presented, and Lotor demanded again.

Elsewhere, Haggar works a strange ritual, recalling the difficulty of her pregnancy with Lotor and moments from his infancy and youth. The visions recall her maternity to her, even as a bound Lotor is produced to Zarkon.

As the Paladins watch from the Castle, they fret about circumstances as the prisoner exchange commences. Shiro remains wary, as well, as the exchanging prisoners pass one another. Pidge cannot restrain herself and rushes forward--only to find a hologram where her father should be. He remains in Galra captivity--which prevents the Paladins from acting against Zarkon.

Haggar questions Zarkon's motives and moves to interdict him as Zarkon tries to press his advantage--and Lotor attacks. A melee ensues between the two, and the Paladins attempt to retrieve Pidge and Matt's father while it goes on. The Galra attempt to flee, and a broader fight begins to develop. Shiro, Pidge, and Matt confront Lotor's erstwhile lieutenants as Lotor and Zarkon continue to fight, and the two trade barbs and hateful words amid their fight. Lotor fares worse than the others as the rescue attempt continues.

Lotor is able to land a telling blow, however, staggering Zarkon. The rescue attempt succeeds, leaving Lotor's former lieutenants stranded and Pidge and Matt's father with the Paladins--and Lotor defeats his father.

Discussion

There is something of Mordred in Lotor. Both present themselves as representing advancement and forward thinking--Mordred's followers are condemned by Malory for being "new fangill," and Lotor is decried for trying to change the patterns Galra society had followed for millennia. Both are products of illicit unions (although Mordred's origin is far less savory than Lotor's, which only became illicit later), both are elevated to their father's positions while their fathers yet live (though Lotor always refers to himself as a regent while in power, rather than as the outright ruler), both are born of users of unpleasant magics--and both run their fathers through in battle, leaving them gravely wounded but not yet dead.

As the Paladins are moderations and modernizations of their chivalric romantic forebears, though, so is Lotor one of Mordred. As noted, his origins are less sordid than Mordred's; Arthur's nephew-son was conceived outside marriage and, in Malory, by machinations of his mother (admittedly, with problems inherent to the transmission of the story through Malory), while Lotor emerged from what had been an evidently loving marriage and, presumably, a consensual and knowing intimate encounter. Too, his thirst for power is not as pronounced as his antecedent's; Mordred falsifies reports of Arthur's death in Malory and attempts to take Guinevere as his own queen, while Lotor retains at least the fiction of Zarkon's overlordship and makes no marital overtures toward Haggar. And, at least on the surface of things, Lotor's governance is more inclusive and gentler than Zarkon's, while Mordred but replicated the power structures of his own father--with all of the problems thereto appertaining.

There are other points of interest in the episode, to be sure: the flashback structure and Haggar's sudden recollection of maternity are examples. The latter, particularly, invites attention--though I am not a specialist in such things and so not the person to give that attention; I welcome it from others. And how each develops in the succeeding episodes, as well as Lotor's own Arthurian overtones, will be worth examining.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

About Travels in Genre and Medievalism in 2018

๐”‰our years ago today saw the beginning of this blog, and at a couple of points (here and here), I have stopped to comment on the status of the blog and of the Society for which it is and remains a mouthpiece. In those earlier status updates, I've noted the number and frequency of posts; it is fitting that I do so again:
  • Since the last update, it has been around two years, some 104 weeks, during which there have been 151 posts, some 1.45 posts per week.
  • In total, there have been 235 posts (including this one) across 208 weeks, an average of 0.89 per week. 
Where it all began...
 Owing to some series of entries, posts have been at least more regular since the last status report than leading up to it. Shiloh's excellent Game of Thrones Re/Watch, which emerged from and perhaps contributed to her successful book-writing efforts and work with The Public Medievalist, accounts for no small part of it; I flatter myself that my Voltron: Legendary Defender Re/Watch is at least keeping things going. And the work of a few other contributors--Society founder Helen Young and member Brian Brooks stand out as examples--have added to our richness.

Work to improve upon the format and layout of the blog continues. Aligning the reading series has been of some help, making it easier to explore how ideas on the blog relate to one another. Increased attention to paratextual features has also, I think, helped; it is at least the case that the Society is taking more care with what the materials look like that it posts for people to see.

Some concerns remain, of course. We are always happy to accept new members; simply email us with your name and let us know you want to join. We're also happy to accept submissions of short-form scholarship, commentary, or rewatches from members; email us to send along your ideas or full pieces. Member news and CFPs are also things we'd love to post; in either case, send stuff along, and we'll see about getting it in front of people!

We look forward to hearing from you, and we thank you for your continued reading!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Re)Watch 5.1, "The Prisoner"

Read the previous entry here!
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Following a short fourth season, the series presses on with the continued fight against the Galra--and the promise of a difficult decision to come.

5.1, "The Prisoner"

Written by Eugene Son
Directed by Chris Palmer

Synopsis

The Paladins of Voltron assail a sinister-seeming Galra installation in orbit around a dark world, one manufacturing new matรฉriel; success will hinder Galra efforts for months to come. Initial stages of the assault proceed well until a piloting error occasions problems and alerts the facility to the Paladins' presence. The Paladins improvise and successfully complete their mission, destroying the facility in spectacular fashion.

After, during debriefing, the Paladins question their good fortune and propose pressing their advantage. Doing so involves interrogating Lotor, taken at the end of the previous season, who works towards manipulating the Paladins--Allura, particularly. He lays out his grand plans for reorganizing the Galra Empire along the lines of clean energy--in Machiavellian fashion. It is not a pleasant conversation, and Lotor sues for fair judgment.

Is this the face of a penitent?
Image taken from the episode, used for critique.
Later, Lance comes in on Allura preparing for a meeting. After a brief exchange, Allura proceeds to the meeting, updating the coalition on current affairs. Bonds are reaffirmed, and, afterwards, the Blade of Marmora reports on its own progress. Pidge notes the impending changes to Galra procedures, and Allura notes the possibility that Lotor plots against them--something seemingly confirmed when Lotor offers additional information, data noting Pidge's father's location.

Pidge and Matt confer with another member of the coalition about updates to their technology. They are reached there by the Paladins, who note the information to them. The two rush off before they can be assisted by the other Paladins; others of the coalition accompany them as they proceed to their father's last known location and reconnoiter the facility--attracting attention as they do. A fight ensues, with the Green Lion acquitting itself well and dropping Matt and the coalition forces onto the facility. Matt has equipment trouble, from which he is extracted as infiltration continues.

The infiltrators find the ground forces of the facility quiescent--although air forces are not, as Pidge continues having to fight them. They find workers toiling over machines and are discovered; the workers are fearful and note a "scary lady" who had threatened them; the presence of other prisoners is noted, and Matt investigates, searching for his father. Extraction is delayed by continuing air action, and an alternate egress is found--which is delayed by Matt, who returns without his father. Escape is treacherous, especially given the continued aerial fighting, but it is accomplished successfully. In its wake, Matt reports his failure to Pidge, and the two sorrow over their continued loss.

Amid the Galra, Lotor's erstwhile lieutenants begin to plot their return to the Galra. Soon after, Zarkon sends the Paladins a message, offering to trade Matt and Pidge's father for Lotor.

Discussion

There is something medievalist in Lotor's situation. The decree of outlawry that attends on him rings of the medieval, and connections could be drawn between him and various heretical movements that sought to reform and reinvigorate medieval Europe, particularly those that sought to foster diverse coalitions rather than those that worked with disaffected nobles. Similarly, his imprisonment in the Castle of Lions has a medievalist feel to it; Shiro and Allura are depicted as descending--insofar as such a term has meaning in space--to speak with him, and his cell is isolated amid darkness, alone.

Deep and dark, indeed.
Image taken from the episode, used for critique.
As has been remarked in many other places, the carceral experience looms large in medieval European thought. The ostensible grounding of the European medieval in Christian holy texts demands it; the Epistles are, themselves, carceral writing. Too, major works of the European medieval thought are products of incarceration--Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur is an easy example, but far from the only one. And many such works make much of imprisonment--again, Malory offers an easy, but not an exclusive, example. (My training's in Malory, in case you were wondering.) The expectation for such things, fueled by the kind of pop culture background Paul B. Sturtevant discusses in The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film , and Medievalism, is that noble prisoners will be held in deep, dark dungeons, waiting either to extricate themselves or to be extricated by their fellows--and while Lotor is in something like a deep, dark dungeon, and his carriage is one that bespeaks a certain nobility (albeit one tempered by his Machiavellian speech and earlier actions), but there are no comrades to extract him. (Escaping on his own is far from out of the question.) The situation is itself something that he would not be wrong to lament--the more so if his protestations of intent are sincere.

That he looks to face a return to the unmerciful hands of his father does not improve matters for him. Indeed, it may well put the lie to Malory's contention that sickness is the worst of a prisoner's travails...

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Re)Watch 4.6, "A New Defender"

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The short fourth season of Voltron: Legendary Defender draws to an end with a crisis narrowly averted and a change of allegiance looming.

4.6, "A New Defender"

Written by Tim Hedrick
Directed by Steve In Chang Anh

Synopsis

Immediately after the events of "Begin the Blitz," Corran reports Galra forces moving on Voltron's position. Alliance efforts to seize territory continue, and Matt attempts to use one of the seized weapons emplacements to intervene, but he is prevented by the emplacement shutting down--as is that held by the Blade. Voltron's fight continues, however, and Shiro is confident in Voltron's success--with some justification. The incoming cruiser, however, is commanded by Haggar, which bodes ill.

The escaped Lotor proceeds along his own course, although he is tracked, and a newly armored and isolated Zarkon pursues him. An attack ensues, which Lotor is hard-pressed to evade. He flees, and pursuit continues through dangerous space, but Zarkon does not waver. The superior capabilities of Lotor's craft are evidenced, however, and Lotor is able to make an escape.

It's never a good sign.
Image taken from the episode, used for critique.
Haggar calls for a halt towards Voltron's position, confusing her own lieutenants. She proceeds through the corridors of her vessel, demanding not to be disturbed until the planet where Voltron fights is destroyed. She begins a ritual to enact her will, gathering dark power and releasing it through the ship in an unholy conflagration that resonates with the world. The dark energy surrounds the world, affecting Allura before paralyzing Voltron under crushing gravity. An escape attempt fails.

The Paladins disembark from Voltron and seek to fight their way to where Pidge and Hunk can work to disrupt the devices holding them on the planet. their process takes them deep into the world, where Allura identifies Haggar as the source of their trouble. She seeks to interdict Haggar's work, but she cannot, and the Paladins come back under attack. The nature of the threat is made clear--and it is a substantial threat, indeed, one that will eliminate the alliance if it succeeds. Alliance forces begin to recognize that something is wrong, and Keith moves to investigate, taking a seized Galra fighter and picking up Matt along the way.

Lotor observes as the search for him continues. He hears about Haggar's impending action--the world where the Paladins struggle is set to explode spectacularly, taking whole systems with it. He proceeds thence.

The Paladins return to Voltron, finding themselves isolated and disabled. They attempt escape again, the ground beneath them crumbling and dumping them in a crevasse. Lance exhorts Allura to exercise her power, and she endeavors to do so. Voltron is empowered and clears the planet, reestablishing contact with the alliance and asserting the need to interdict Haggar. Corran is ordered away; he complies reluctantly. Keith makes a suicide run on Haggar's ship; before he can complete it, Lotor arrives and disables Haggar's vessel, ending her ritual. Haggar orders withdrawal, and Lotor offers to treat with the allied forces.

Discussion

As in the previous episode, there seems little overtly medieval about "A New Defender." Indeed, throughout the season, the series has appeared to move away from the medievalist tendencies of early episodes as it has taken a darker, more somber tone. How much of the motion stems from the idea that medievalist work is principally fit for lighter tales is unclear, but some of that idea seems to be at play--despite the popularity of the decidedly dark work of George R.R. Martin and its derivatives, or the well-received and generally better medievalist fantasy work done by Martin's contemporary, Robin Hobb. And that does not even begin to treat the enduring appeal of medieval literature, with its often "adult" themes, or of nonfiction that treats the period.

While medieval and medievalist material does pervade work meant for children (which I have addressed in small measure), that does not mean it ought to be restricted to it and bowdlerized as is the overwhelming tendency with things given to kids. (Note that I am not saying a four-year-old necessarily ought to be given a detailed explanation of, say, the Miller's Tale or the gory minutiae of the conditions faced by such knights-prisoner as Malory, but circumscription reminiscent of the Comics Code Authority's dicta are also unhelpful.) Conversely, "growing up" should not mean setting aside the medievalist, and, while Voltron: Legendary Defender seems to be trying to grow up, it seems to try to do so partly by shedding the medievalist as childish--which seems a strange thing, given the franchise concerned.

Even though I make such a complaint, however, I did enjoy the season, and I look forward to continuing to look at if and how the series plays with the medieval.

Friday, May 18, 2018

About a Piece by David Graeber

๐”„s I've noted elsewhere:
On 6 May 2018, David Graeber's "Are You in a BS Job? In Academe, You're Hardly Alone" appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. The article--a longer one--opens with a plain statement of intent (to write about bullshit academic labor) and a clarifying definition (bullshit labor is work known by the worker to be pointless). Graeber works to establish his ethos for conducting his discussion before suggesting that perhaps half the work being done could be eliminated as bullshit, noting that the increase in bullshit labor is detrimental across fields of endeavor--especially academe. He explicates the degree of bullshit-spread throughout academic institutions, noting that marked increases in administrative staff have prompted the increasing proportion of bullshit labor being done by academics. A case study focused on "Chloe, the nonexecutive dean" is used to exemplify the problem, and Graeber takes pains to note the prevalence of the problem not only in Europe, but also in the US, as well as commenting that the interaction of fields promoted by academic establishments conduces to the peculiar proliferation of bullshit work in academe. He adds that workable solutions are likely to come from neither academic management nor academic labor, but from outside academe--although he expresses hope that such may happen, citing earlier intellectual movements and reformations as examples and shifting into the claim that a universal basic income is one of the more effective potential responses to the spread of bullshit throughout academia.

(Clearly, I have permission to use my own stuff. Who's going to tell me no?)

While I respond in that "elsewhere" to the bullshit aspects of Graeber's piece (and, yes, enjoy the opportunity to write "bullshit" more than a few times), there is something else to treat in the article: Graeber's misuse of medievalism. The article repeatedly invokes the medieval; for example, Graeber comments about "the university...in its original medieval conception as a guild of self-organized scholars." He also notes a "managerial feudalism" in which "Rich and powerful people have always surrounded themselves with flashy entourages....[and] the accumulation of the equivalent of feudal retainers often becomes the main principle of organization," with those surrounding the mighty being "officious armies of functionaries than the kind of feudal retainer a medieval knight might employ ton tweeze his mustache or polish the stirrups on his saddle before a joust."

While Graeber has grounds to make the first statement, the one about the medievally born self-organized scholarly collective, there are problems with the rest. For one, the use of the medieval as a repeated referent yokes it to the bullshit labor that is the thrust of the article;the repetition cements the connection, suggesting strongly the misguided notion that the medieval is bad--more so than the present. Additionally, most of the invocations of the medieval come alongside more explicit disparagement. The "retainers" described are couched in terms of their uselessness, once again connecting the medieval to being less worthy than right-thinking modern ideas--or the Enlightenment ideals contrasted with the "corrupt, pedantic, moribund, and medieval." It is hardly a glowing description, and one that medievalists can certainly be forgiven for finding distasteful.

Additionally, the repeated assertions of a feudal relationship between management and staff suggest a misunderstanding of feudal structures. The traditional conception of feudalism is that a royal or noble offers land to other nobles in exchange for precisely defined services to be provided--typically military and financial. The relationship can extend laterally at titular social levels, as well, with kings in their own right being feudal vassals of other kings. As it tends to be expressed, the feudal retainer retains particular rights in the relationship, partly through recourse to outside agencies (the Church for much of the High Middle Ages), and there is an expectation of reciprocal loyalty. Such is, admittedly, more an aspirational standard than an enacted one, but it is still the perceived dominant paradigm for the medieval European feudal.

The comparison breaks down when applied to contemporary corporate and corporatist culture at three points:
  1. The European feudal relationship could exist within titular levels of authority. A crowned king could, in fact, be a vassal of another crowned king, as the relationship between England and France between the Norman Invasion and the end of the Hundred Years' War demonstrates--among many others. In contemporary corporate and corporatist culture, such is not the case; the retainers are always hierarchically lower than their ostensible lords, their lower status denoted by titles, facilities, rates of pay, and other factors in plenty.
  2. The modern "retainer" does not have nearly so many rights as the feudatory. Without pretending that medieval Europe was anything approaching egalitarian, there were explicit limits on the authorities of feudal lords over their retainers. Military service, the primary obligation, was bounded--traditionally forty days, and able to be offset by scutage. In England, Magna Carta sharply restricted the rights of the highest feudal lord of the land. And over all hung the threat of clerical censure or punishment, the efficacy of which would vary, but which still appeared to have no small influence on the actions of those in the system. In modern corporate and corporatist culture, with the expansion of right-to-work jurisdictions and the releases of employers from terms of their contracts (notably pension obligations), as well as the increasing waiving of rights in employment agreements and an increasingly deregulated labor market, the "retainers" are far more subject to abuse and exploitation than might otherwise be assumed--and certainly more than the noble-born retainers of a noble-born lord would have been.
  3. The modern "retainer" generally does not and should not expect reciprocal loyalty. Again, the medieval European feudal relationship imposed obligations on the lord as well as the vassal, and feudal compacts typically expressed lifetime if not generational commitments. Modern corporate/corporatist culture benefits from increasing numbers of right-to-work jurisdictions, making dismissal of employees easier--particularly given the increasing tendency in the academy and elsewhere to rely on "just-in-time," contingent, temporary, part-time workers--who are expected in many cases to offer full availability to their employers while accepting either limited compensation for unstable hours or, as in the case of the "zero-time faculty" proposed at Southern Illinois University, no compensation for unstable hours.* Such things are hardly loyalty pledges, and they should hardly be expected to elicit loyalty--although there still seems to be an expectation that people will "ride for the brand."

This is not to say that ideas cannot be applied across time, of course. The whole point of the Society is to look at ways in which the medieval is (mis)appropriated, and a paper I presented some years back looks at how an idea deriving ultimately from contemporary corporate practice offers a rubric for examining at least some medieval literature. But, as has long been held by the Society and evidenced in this webspace, accurate understandings are essential to doing such work. Graeber seems to be working outside of such things, and, given the platform on which his article appears, those other-than-optimal representations of the medieval do not help the case of those of us who study that part of what came before and what we still do.

*It does not escape notice that the proposal, voiced politely but tending towards the abuse of those who would accept it, enacts a form of bullshit, itself--that articulated by James Fredal in a 2011 College English article, brought to mind by the older presentation referenced.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Re)Watch 4.5, "Begin the Blitz"

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Tumult among the Galra opens an opportunity for Voltron and the Paladins' allies--and they seize upon it to great strategic effect.

4.5, "Begin the Blitz"

Written by Rocco Pucillo
Directed by Eugene Lee

Synopsis

The Paladins and the Blade of Marmora confer regarding recent developments; the attention of the Galra Empire is on the search for the outlawed Prince Lotor. Shiro suggests a plan to capitalize on the Galra internal disorder. He notes a critical location to cut off a large part of the Galra empire and outlines a strategy for taking it, and small units are assigned to the individual tasks needed to accomplish it. The strategy is risky, but the potential rewards are great.

The green is what it gets the alliance.
Image taken from the episode, used for critique.


As Shiro's strategy proceeds and forces are marshaled and directed towards their assigned ends, Lotor and his lieutenants proceed to a new location. There is internal dissension among them as they make their way to the broken Galra homeworld. He reports that the rift in the Galra homeworld remains open--and that he has the means to traverse realities and harvest raw quintessence. He enacts his plan to do so.

The forces arrayed against the Galra confer, Allura broadcasting across their alliance to coordinate events. Their assault begins, with Pidge and Hunk infiltrating a communications station and taking it handily. Other teams take on massive Galra weapons emplacements, encountering some difficulty in doing so; one of the emplacements falls quickly, the other, less so and at great cost, a deed accomplished only through the intervention of the taken emplacement.

Voltron itself descends upon the critical location, soon stumbling into a minefield. Allura contrives an escape, and Voltron's assault continues.

Meanwhile, Lotor considers his unsuccessful efforts. His three remaining lieutenants confer, their dissension showing, and they take him captive, thinking to return him to the Galra in exchange for clemency. He is, however, able to make an escape, stranding the erstwhile lieutenants.

The alliance's plan falls into place, its disparate parts succeeding in their objectives as the Galra communications station comes back online. The success of the alliance is reported to Haggar--to her expressed approval.

Discussion

The present episode continues the series's tendency towards multi-threaded narrative, and the amount of attention given to Lotor and his surroundings suggests an increasing focus upon him. It is sensible enough, since he is now a proclaimed enemy of the Galra despite being the son of Honerva--now Haggar, whose approval of the alliance's success against Zarkon's empire makes sense in that context.

If there is medievalism being invoked in the episode other than in the long-identified use of Paladins and the Arthurian overtones of several characters, or in the outlawry of Lotor noted previously, it may be in a couple of things. One is a certain nostalgia for a somewhat imagined past, with Lotor looking back to the founding of the Galra empire for his own inspiration in a manner not unlike a return in thought to an imagined Classical era by Western European medievals in the High Middle Ages. Another is in the clear turnings of the Wheel of Fortune--not the game-show icon that evokes some of the same nostalgia as the current series, but the philosophical construct articulated by Boethius and present in the medieval mind in Latin and in many translations, including Chaucer's Boece. It must be admitted, however, that tying the trajectories of the various characters in the present episode explicitly to Boethius or overt translations or editions of his work is tenuous at best; the episode more addresses the kinds of thoughts that give rise to such texts more than the texts themselves. And a 22-minute cartoon cannot do much to make any connection overt, in any event. Still, the episode does continue at least to pass forward what the medieval passed forward, and it is worth looking into what it does with what, and how.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Kalamazoo 2018 Report

๐”“er §5.1 of the Society Constitution, an Annual General Meeting of the Tales after Tolkien Society was held during the 2018 International Congress on Medieval Studies. The meeting happened at 5:15pm local time in Bernhard 213 on the campus of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Geoffrey B. Elliott presided and recorded minutes; present by signature were Matthieu Boyd, Shiloh Carroll, Rachel Cooper, Dimitra Fimi, Andrew Higgins, Kris Larsen, Jewell Morow, John D. Rateliff, Luke Shelton, and Kris Swank.

The meeting offered two agenda items: panel proposals for the 2019 International Congress on Medieval Studies and elections for officers (per §4.2.2 and subsections in the Society Constitution). After discussion and refinement, and as accepted by the present membership, the panels to be proposed are
  • The Legacy of Tolkien's Medievalism in Contemporary Works, which will examine the continuing influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on conceptions of the Middle Ages and medieval prevalent in academic and popular cultures; and
  • Afterlives of Medieval Religion in Contemporary Works, which will look at how the post-Tolkien works that are the Society's focus mis/appropriate medieval religious constructions (and which will help to undergird the collection proposed during the 2017 AGM).
More formal CFPs will be forthcoming.

Elections were conducted by Social Media Officer Luke Shelton. Three of the four offices up for election had a single candidate nominated; per accepted motion from the floor, the ballot was accepted. The fourth office was elected from the floor. Results are
  • Geoffrey B. Elliott, President 2018-2021
  • Andrew Higgins, Vice-President (At-large) 2018-2020
  • Luke Shelton, Vice-President (USA) 2018-2019
  • Rachel Cooper, Secretary 2018-2020
The meeting was adjourned at approximately 5:45pm local time.

The Society thanks those whose terms have ended for their service and congratulates its new officers.

Updates to related pages are forthcoming as of this writing.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Re)Watch 4.4, "The Voltron Show!"

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In a welcome bit of silliness that pokes fun at many animation tropes, the Paladins find themselves putting on shows within their own show.

4.4, "The Voltron Show!"

Written by Joshua Hamilton
Directed by Chris Palmer

Synopsis

The Paladins confer regarding their current status, noting that matters are improved and the rebellion against the Galra empire is increasing. Part of the upswing has resulted from the parades the Paladins have been doing across space, and Coran is tasked with seeing to the logistics of the next such event.
Image result for The Voltron Show!
No, not going well.
Image taken from the episode, used for purposes of critique
It does not go well, and in its wake, a trader known to Coran offers him assistance in the form of a consciousness-altering medicament. When another of Coran's events goes poorly, he avails himself of the assistance--which takes the form of a parasite that attaches it to his brain.

Changes to his personality are immediate and noted--but they have the result of producing improved performances from the Paladins in their recruitment drives. Despite some complaints from the performers, the shows go over exceedingly well--until Shiro reminds Coran that their tour has a definite end and the Paladins need to go back to the overt, direct fight against the Galra. Coran rages at the seeming betrayal and engages local megafauna in a parasite-induced rage. A fracas ensues, although it takes some time for the danger to become clear; it begins amid the Paladins' last show, and they believe it part of the festivities--until the parasite is extracted from Coran and he warns them of the threat. It is swiftly dispatched--to the acclaim of the crowd--and the debriefing that follows is a relatively pleasant one.


Discussion

The referentiality of the present episode is delightful, with call-outs to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and to the various anime series that precede Voltron: Legendary Defender both in the overall Voltron franchise and in popular US conception, generally. While many of the jokes were doubtlessly lost on the expected primary audience of current children, the presumed secondary audience of those who were (nerdy) children in the 1980s and whose nostalgia for such media can be counted upon doubtlessly got most or all of them.

More to the point, while complaints about "spit and polish" likely go back as long as soldiering itself, it seems odd that the Paladins--most of whom are not much more than children and few if any of whom actually trained as warriors (Allura is the likely exception)--would chafe at an ultimately useful respite from active combat. That they are affected by their experiences is clear; Shiro's seeming PTSD is a recurring element of the series, after all, and even for those who are not drastically impacted by such concerns, the physical tolls of combat demand occasional rest. Too, as noted in the episode, the parades and performances have actual, useful effects on the numbers of recruits to the cause of overthrowing the Galra regime. It may not be particularly medieval, but, as has been noted before, a series that borrows from the medieval and medievalist cannot be expected always to adhere to them.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Re)Watch 4.3, "Black Site"

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Matters turn darker for the Paladins and one of their adversaries as an old threat returns to the forefront and makes itself known.

4.3, "Black Site"

Written by Tim Hedrick
Directed by Steven In Chang Ahn

Synopsis

Aboard the Galra flagship, Haggar faces herself, revealed as an Altean, before she is summoned to an interrogation in progress. She intervenes in it, beginning to puzzle out Lotor's involvement in affairs.

Elsewhere, the Castle of Lions returns to the Alcari world, delivering personnel and materiel to the continuing war-efforts against the Galra. Pidge returns from the events of the previous episode and is greeted warmly--along with her brother, Matt, whom she introduces to those he doesn't know. He is smitten by Allura--and Lance grows immediately jealous. Shiro, Matt's old friend, greets him warmly, as well.

Back aboard the Galra ship, Zarkon is outfitted with armor and resumes his throne. Haggar reports events to him, and he chastises her before purposing to relieve Lotor of duty.

Matt receives a tour of the Castle of Lions and a frantic explanation of events. He is clearly pleased to see his sister at ease. Hunk asks after Matt's activities--he had been an intelligence agent after being freed from Galra prison. And Matt commends Pidge.

Inspecting work on his comet-made craft, Lotor receives a summons from Zarkon. That Lotor has plans independent of his father's throne is noted; he takes one of his lieutenants, Narti, with him to answer the summons.

In something of an aside, Allura and Corran address a cow that had been acquired in the Paladins' earlier adventures. Their confusion about the animal is clear.

Haggar greets Lotor and escorts him to Zarkon. Lotor greets his father and is relieved of command by him, utterly dismissed--to his quiet delight. Haggar notes oddities about him, but Zarkon discards them. Haggar, however, works on Narti in some strange way before she and Lotor return to Lotor's own plots.

Matt and Pidge continue to reconnect, and Matt ingratiates himself to the other Paladins, offering information to facilitate better reconnaissance. Lance, meanwhile amuses himself with trifles until interrupted by Corran and Allura--with the cow. He shows them how to handle the animal, scandalizing them utterly.

Upon his return, Lotor reports events. His own plans, however, have been proceeding apace in his absence--of which Haggar is now aware. The comet-craft are reported to Zarkon--and Zarkon's counter-plans begin, with Lotor now their target.

The Castle's Galra-detection network is enhanced, and new intelligence arrives. Pidge, Hunk, and Matt decode it, finding that Zarkon is returned and a massive troop movement is underway. The Paladins move to investigate before intervening in what is ultimately the attack on Lotor by the Galra. Lotor makes to flee as Voltron approaches under its new cloaking ability. Lotor realizes that Narti is the source of the Galra intelligence on his location and kills her without hesitation--and he escapes. A fight ensues, with Voltron making a quick escape as Lotor's forces do--and Zarkon declares Lotor outlaw.

Discussion

While Zarkon does not use the word "outlaw" to describe Lotor in his episode-ending message, the label applies--not in the sense American audiences might typically know from Westerns, but in the medieval legal sense. In that sense, the protections of the law do not apply to the person declared to be an outlaw--and the distinction is one that matters. Typically, a criminal who is not an outlaw is still entitled to some protections. That is, there are limits on the use of force against that person, and that person may still be entitled to some due process and acceptable penitence--a trial, by jury or by combat, to prove innocence, or the opportunity to pay a wergild to make restitution, or else an at-least-symbolic attempt to fulfill the terms of banishment, or outright imprisonment. Outlaws, however, have no such protection, no such expectation; as Zarkon declares of Lotor, no force applied against them is excessive, no clemency is to be extended them, and their deaths are not accounted murder or manslaughter, but of no more moment than the extermination of vermin.

It is of such things that rebellions are made--in the medieval imagination as well as in the world that does the imagining. The Robin Hood mythos centers around the title character being an outlaw, for one, and while Lotor is not so romantic a figure as Sherwood's archer, he does seem to represent a more sympathetic figure than his tyrannical father. The present episode may well be setting up such a notion--although it is decidedly thwarted by Lotor's ruthlessness towards his own lieutenant, which must make her comperes nervous about their own possible fates at his hands, even as they must fear what will befall them if the Galra forces find them. But that is also not unlike the medieval and its prevalent dynastic upset, with warriors finding themselves amid shifting loyalties and needing to be suspicious of all.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Reminders about Kalamazoo 2018

Just to remind everybody, the Annual General Meeting of the Tales after Tolkien Society will be held on Friday, 11 May 2018, at 5:15pm local time on the campus of Western Michigan University in Bernhard 213. Agenda items will be planning for future conferences and the election of new officers.

Nominations are still open for the President, Vice-president (At-large), Vice-president (US), and Secretary. If you're a member and would like to take an office (it's good CV-building!) or retain one, or you know a member who would, please let us know!

We hope to see our members there!

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Re)Watch 4.2, "Reunion"

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Amid the darkening aspect of the early fourth season, there is a spot of light and hope as one of the Paladins finds a measure of closure.

4.2, "Reunion"

Written by Mitch Iverson
Directed by Steven In Chang Ahn

Synopsis

In a clear flashback, Pidge sits in a classroom lecture about information storage, commenting on it and drawing the ridicule of her classmates. She later vents her frustration prior to her brother--from whom she has the nickname Pidge--entering to comfort her and to announce his acceptance into space service alongside their father.

The reminiscence ends with Pidge, saddened, tracking down her brother and father--going alone despite Shiro's objections. She arrives on and begins to search a run-down urban planet, following intelligence received earlier. Melee ensues, with Pidge winning handily and seizing the needed data, proceeding in her search. Pidge, however, is being followed by an imposing, cloaked figure.

As Pidge pursues her lead, she finds her objective under Galra attack; she intervenes triumphantly. The locals advise Pidge of events, and Pidge is about to get needed information when the Galra attack resumes--with less fortunate results. Pidge counterattacks angrily and is forced to intervene in the medical mission the locals had been undertaking. Pidge receives a connection to her brother from her objective and proceeds with the contact's mission.

The medical mission achieved and more useful contacts established, Pidge continues on her own pursuit, following her brother's presumed location. She recalls another interlude with her brother and the family encryption as she approaches the location--and finds trouble.

Investigating further, Pidge comes across a memorial and believes her brother interred within. Her search grows frantic, and she recalls her brother again--only to fall to her knees at what appears to be his grave. She bewails her brother--but recalls the earlier comments about the family encryption to reveal coordinates at which she can find him. She continues her pursuit, unaware that she is pursued, herself.

Proceeding, Pidge arrives at the established coordinates. Investigation continues, revealing a hidden installation. Pidge enters it and is attacked. The attacker is Pidge's brother, and their reunion is a happy one--until interrupted by Pidge's pursuer. Melee ensues, and the siblings fight superbly in tandem, leaving their reunion happy.

Discussion

After the somber tone of the previous episode, having a clear success for one of the Paladins is decidedly welcome. And the early gesture towards the pain of nerdiness in school is a clear gesture towards the expected audiences of the series; those of us who still watch such shows (and even more, who write blogs about them!) are nerds of one stripe or another and suffered such taunts and censure as Pidge recalls--and worse.

Aside from such notes, however, the present episode is one that hearkens back to the chivalric narratives that inspire much in the series. One of the Paladins goes out on a quest alone, encountering danger and rendering aid along the way. And the Paladin does not set out to have to fight, although offered battle is joined without hesitation and with success.  In that, the episode is almost prototypical of the "traditional" concept of knight-errantry (with the "tradition" largely inherited from Victorian bowdlerizations of Arthurian and other chivalric stories), a welcome touchstone for a series that borrows from medievalist tropes.

As it does so, as it aligns with the Victorian bowdlerization and its derivatives, it thwarts what might otherwise be an expected plot development--one voiced by Malory in his recounting of Balin and Balan, brothers who, separated by circumstance and in livery unfamiliar each to the other, die at one another's hands. Given that the series does make some use of Malorian tropes and that the fourth season starts off somewhat darker in tone than the previous seasons, it would not have been out of line for such a thing to happen. And given the broader cultural contexts in which the series and its audiences exist, in which fratricide is a familiar thing, it might not have occasioned much comment--its unwittingness making the event more tragic and thus making its participants more sympathetic. But the psychological exploration that would have had to follow would likely have gone beyond the scope of what the series could permit--even Shiro's obvious PTSD is evidenced less and less as the series goes on, the show moving away from it--explaining why the "sanitized" version of the narrative arc would be deployed by the present episode rather than the older narrative that informs it.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Re)Watch 4.1, "Code of Honor"

Read the previous entry here!
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Following a brief third season, the series begins to take on a more somber tone, and there are hints of the dirty work that must be done to overthrow a multi-millennial empire.

4.1, "Code of Honor"

Written by Joshua Hamilton
Directed by Eugene Lee

Synopsis

Galra forces descend on an aquatic world, coming to berth beneath the waves to make a high-level delivery. The Blade of Marmora has infiltrated the facility and reconnoiters the facility; the Galra have access to more energy reserves than expected, and the Blade investigates. They are revealed and exfiltrate under fire, escaping narrowly--with Keith drawing rebuke despite his performance.

The intelligence collected by the Blade is delivered as Keith returns to the Castle and is dispatched by Shiro--under some protest. His tardiness with the mission is noted by the other Paladins, who also rebuke him. Shiro and Keith confer about how matters stand, Keith still having difficulty with Shiro's having stepped aside and trying to work as both part of the Blade and the Paladins. Morale-building missions are treated, with the Blade summoning aid to investigate an oddity in the Galra movements; Keith is dispatched to aid the Blade--and to return in haste.

The morale-building mission ensues, hindered somewhat by the absence of Keith. Complaints are noted--but Keith's mission proceeds apace, with a daring mission to plant a tracker on a Galra ship turning out to be a trap. One of the Blade falls to the trap, and Keith is cast adrift with a compromised environment suit. As the Paladins parade, Keith strives to recover, again narrowly escaping harm.

When Keith returns to the Castle, Allura confronts him. She seeks to force him to choose: the Blade, or the Legendary Defender. Keith's tension between the two groups continues, with him evidently preferring the work of the Blade to that of the Paladins.

Lotor, meanwhile, is rebuked by Haggar. He rejects her bluntly.

The division of Keith's attention becomes a problem as the Galra attack a convoy and the Paladins move to intercept--without Keith. The attack quickly becomes a trap for the Lions. Shiro approaches the Black Lion again to try to intervene. At length, the Black Lion accepts him again, and battle is joined. Voltron returns, and victory is achieved in short order.

After, Keith returns to face censure. He resigns from the Paladins, noting the progress of the Blade in their investigations and pursuit of Lotor. Shiro accepts it gracefully and asserts his continued friendship.

Discussion

The new season seems to mark a shift in the tone of the narrative, one that seems to go into a darker and less happy place than previous seasons of the series. This is not unexpected, of course; any ongoing narrative arc must at least consider doing so, both in response to outside events and to the presumed development of its primary audience. (The tonal shifts in the Harry Potter books come to mind as a recent predecessor.) And a medievalist work such as Voltron: Legendary Defender often is should be expected to do so, as well; the Arthuran legend from which it borrows extensively does so repeatedly, particularly in Malory as the narrative moves through and past the Grail Quest--although not seldom elsewhere.

Indeed, the present episode seems to borrow the fragmentary nature of the Malorian narrative for a bit, focusing largely on the exploits of one character--the redoubtable Keith--as he grows apart from his comrades, even as they increasingly serve more as symbols than as front-line fighters. There is some parallel to the development and aging of the Round Table Knights in Malory; while some of the more notable continue to go out on their own adventures, not always happily, the group as a whole seems to become more an emblem than a largely active force for good. This does not mean in either case that the group becomes inert or ineffectual, but it does mean that there is less a sense of unified drive as matters progress--and more of individuals striking out from the still-gleaming core to do work that remains needed.

It must be noted that this marks the end of my rewatching in favor of watching. It's not the first time this has happened with series write-ups in this webspace, though my break-off reasons aren't nearly so visceral as Shiloh's (about which more here, and if you've not read her treatment of Game of Thrones, you're missing out). No, with me, it's a matter of having a young daughter and two jobs; finding the time for this is not as easy as I would hope. But I mean to press on, in any event, and what I see in the present season gives me hope that I'll enjoy the ride. I hope y'all will, too.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender Rewatch 3.7, "The Legend Begins"

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In what amounts to a simultaneous flashback, much of Voltron's early history, the history of the Galra belligerence, is revealed.

3.7, "The Legend Begins"

Written by Tim Hedrick
Directed by Eugene Lee

Synopsis

Haggar attends upon Zarkon, using magic to enter his mind. When she does, she sees a series of images from his history--and her own.

Meanwhile, the Paladins confer regarding Lotor's location and activities. They encounter difficulties in doing so and ask Corran for background information. He begins to relate the history of Voltron.

The original Paladins were leaders of their respective peoples, entered initially into formal alliance and soon into friendship. Their combined efforts resulted in a spreading peace across their space, and they are meeting to celebrate that peace when the initial comet--the material from which Voltron was made--strikes the Galra homeworld. Investigation of the comet ensues, albeit with some difficulty; initial reports note the emergence of quintessence, and the Altean king, Alfor, summons Honerva to aid in the research.

The research proceeds, and the Paladins grow closer as they continue to work in concert, spreading peace further. Additionally, Zarkon and Honerva wed, and progress on the research continues. Quintessence is revealed as a mighty energy source, and the implications for peace and war are examined. As the research continues, however, Honerva inadvertently summons quintessence beasts; they are contained, although the containment is recognized as temporary. The Lions are built as a response to the threat, and the Paladins assume their roles.

In time, the expected breach of containment happens, and Voltron forms for the first time to defeat it. In the aftermath of the battle, Zarkon and Honerva purpose to press on with research despite Alfor's objections, and Alfor relents. Voltron is used to expand the peace even as Zarkon's world suffers from exposure to the quintessence--and its unnatural effects on life are noted.

Honerva falls ill, and Zarkon engages the Paladins in an attempt to cure her--deceitfully, claiming that they will seal the interdimensional rift through which quintessence is entering their reality. Passing inside the rift, Zarkon exposes himself and Honerva to the quintessence directly, attracting the attention of more quintessence beasts. The latter empower and taint Zarkon and Honerva; Alfor retrieves them and escapes, sealing the rift with the destruction of the Galra homeworld and mourning his friends as evidently dead.

They are not, however, or they return from death, and Zarkon orders war against his former comrades in an attempt to seize control of Voltron and return to the interdimensional space whence quintessence comes. In that revelation, Lotor's plan is made evident--and Haggar remembers who she is.

She calls to her husband, and he wakes...

Discussion

Much is made clear in the in medias res episode, which lays out the underlying tension that informs the series. Zarkon and Haggar are made somewhat sympathetic along the way; Zarkon emerges as a husband who goes too far saving his wife and corrupted by forces he cannot control, while Haggar is a researcher gone too far in what is otherwise a worthy quest. And there are implications that 1) the stuff of which Voltron is made is necessarily related to the terrors of the quintessence beasts and their eldritch-abomination existence and 2) quintessence itself is actually an infernal energy, which would make "life itself," to which Honerva equates it, similarly evil. In all, the episode works well to convey the fraught beginnings of the current conflict, as well as the stakes involved in its resolution.

What is less clear is how the episode makes manifest the medieval, other than the standing tropes of the Paladins and the Druids that Haggar/Honerva leads. Perhaps the subtle yoking of life to inherent evil is such a manifestation, given the typical medieval conceit of the fallen world, but that seems tenuous at best. Too, it is not the case that a series which employs the medieval as source and reference material always remain embedded in that material; the present episode seems to do so less than many other places in the narrative (although I would welcome other opinions on the matter; I would be happy to have my own understanding expanded). It does enough else that the series seems to need that its general separation from the medieval--although not the fantastic, since the "we have to fight evil spirits invading from another realm" plot is a commonplace in medievalist literature--is of no great moment or concern.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender Rewatch 3.6, "Tailing a Comet"

Read the previous entry in the series here!
Read the next entry here!

The ramifications of a once and future leader returning begin to play out as the Paladins continue their fight against the Galra Empire.

3.6, "Tailing a Comet"

Written by Mitch Iverson
Directed by Chris Palmer

Synopsis

The Paladins launch an assault of a Galra facility. Allura proves herself remarkably adept as they clear the facility for the Blade of Marmora. Later, aboard the Castle of Lions, Shiro debriefs to Keith; the two try to suss out recent events, making their chronologies align. Recovery for Shiro is slow, however, although he does return to the bridge of the Castle and resumes command. Pidge reports on ways to track Lotor, both through tracing his recent appearances and through developing a detector to scan for the comet Lotor had previously acquired.

Shortly afterward, Lance confers with Keith about how to proceed in the wake of Shiro's return. He offers to step aside, citing the superior skills of the other Paladins; Keith reassures him that that will not be needed, at least not in the moment.

Not much later, Pidge's detector goes online, and the Paladins follow a signal to what they believe is Lotor's location. As they advance on it, leadership conflicts emerge between Shiro and Keith, and, as the Paladins move into action--springing a trap--the Black Lion refuses Shiro. He remains on the Castle as Keith leads the operation.

In the event, the Paladins find themselves counter-raiding a Galra installation that is already under attack--by another faction of Galra. The installation stores part of the teleportation device the Paladins had used to thwart Zarkon, and its commander is being used--hard--as a patsy by Lotor, the theft meant to cover Lotor's appropriation of the device. And, to make matters worse, the comet Lotor had stolen has been incorporated into a ship of substantial capability--which is deployed against the Paladins and Voltron. The ship deploys to force a choice for the Paladins: allow the teleporter to escape by engaging the ship, or suffer from the ship while taking out the teleporter. Keith and Shiro come into conflict over the matter as Shiro commands the Castle into the fray. In a moment of clarity, Keith destroys the teleporter--but Lotor's ship and the lieutenants piloting it are able to escape.

In the wake of the battle, the Paladins confer about how they will proceed. And the hapless commander of the Galra facility that was raided suffers for his failures.

Discussion

Of particular note in the episode is the way in which Shiro's foreshadowed return is thwarted. Instead of returning to command of the Paladins in Voltron, he is relegated to the same kind of support and coordination role that Corran has carried throughout the series and that Allura was able to leave behind earlier in the season. While it does make some sense--Shiro is still recovering from his travails, and his seniority means that positioning him outside the main battle affords him the advantages of greater perspective--it also marks another blow to the character and subverts what would otherwise have been the expected course of the narrative. After all, the introductory sequence to each episode continues to show Shiro as pilot of the Black Lion, and children's shows (of which it must be admitted Voltron: Legendary Defender is one) prize the status quo; it would make sense that Shiro return to his former position without trouble.

That he is not able to do so--at least, not at this point--suggests that the promised return of Arthurian figures would be similarly problematic, something conveniently ignored by much of the medieval material that informs popular culture. (It also foreshadows a similarly problematic return to power by Zarkon.) Arthur may be the once and future king, but a future that he could rule well seems a strange place and an inhospitable one; if Shiro could not return to command after the span of a year or less, how much less could the mighty leaders of old to now--or even later? While the problem presented is something that other works have considered, to see it appear in a show directed at the audience Voltron addresses is an interesting shift and one that reminds us that, even though we may well prize what has gone before, we do not well to cleave too closely to it.