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Heroes...and Compassion:
"Flashpoint" and the new "Star Trek"


This was actually going to be a part of another essay I was working on, but I realized it was long enough, and sufficiently focused on its own point, that it was worth just posting on its own.

Often with Canadian productions there seems to be two directions a project can be pulled in: one is to simply mimic Hollywood productions in themes and ideas, right down to being set in the US, the other is to go the opposite, to often be self-consciously the anti-Hollywood, where the filmmakers are quick to dismiss concepts such as pro-active heroes as being too “American”, too “Hollywood” (yeah…tell that to Doyle, Haggard, and other pre-Hollywood British adventure writers!). And in making such films, they are quick to claim they are making distinctly “Canadian” cinema…even if, um, most Canadians don’t actually flock to their films! But such films rarely seem to reflect that elusive thing called Canadian “values” -- at least, positive values. And what are such values? Hard to say. Different people might have different perceptions of them. But often the cliché of Canadians, as expressed by others, and by Canadians themselves, is a culture of “nice” people, tolerant, compassionate.

So in watching the TV cop show, “Flashpoint“, you can’t help but wonder if -- rarity of rarities -- there are hints of a self-confident Canadian “vision” peaking through.

Despite being a US co-production and airing in the US on CBS, the creative reins for “Flashpoint” remain in Canadian hands, and the series even throws in (minor) Canadian references, or phrasings. No one can accuse it of being an Anytown, North America series. And what’s intriguing is its blatant, heart-on-its-sleeve liberalism. A fast-pace suspense series about a police tactical squad, it features flak jacket wearing cops who can, and do, shoot people dead. Yet the underlining message is: they would rather not if it could be avoided. And the stories are crafted as “dramas” where the villains aren’t simply “evil”…or at least, those that are, aren’t the focus of the plot. They’re there to crank up the suspense, but are generally peripheral to what the story is about. The heroes meanwhile get frustrated, they argue the merits of their actions (or inaction), they sweat and suffer with angst…but in the end, there’s no taking a suspect into the back room for a little “one on one” while another cop runs interference with a snivelly lawyer, no shooting someone just ‘cause they deserve it. All staples of most US cop shows. And, indeed, most previous Canadian cop shows.

In fact there was a scene in “Flashpoint” where lead cop, Sgt. Parker (Enrico Colantoni) is getting frustrated with a possible informant, and you know he’s really mad ‘cause he…he…he leans in close to the guy. Gasp!

While characters on “24” regularly torture people for info, the most Sgt. Parker does is violates someone’s personal space! (Actually, maybe that is bad -- I once heard about a US briefing pamphlet advising US state department officials on the quirks of the international delegates at a conference…and it defined Canadians as prizing their personal space, and advised delegates to be careful to stay a few inches away from them so as not to offend).

In a sense, it’s not so much that the idea of the, nominally, liberal hero is unusual, even in American pop culture, so much as the underlining theme is more often…he’s ineffective. The noble hero talks the good talk…but it’s his anti-hero, gets-his-hands-dirty, partner who gets the job done. But in “Flashpoint,” when Parker explains to a new team member that things aren’t black & white, we understand he’s not spouting Pollyanna platitudes…he’s explaining a simple truth.

If young people are inspired to enter certain professions by virtue of emulating fictional roll models, one wonders if the no nonsense-but-sensitive heroes of “Flashpoint” will have any influence on the next generation of real world police officers.

People often write about Canadian movies/TV versus American ones, trying to identify cultural differences -- but “Flashpoint” is one of the few times I’ve seen a show which really does seem to have a tone to it that is A) different than a lot of US series, B) fits neatly into a Canadian archetype, is C) sincere in them (unlike, say, “The Border“, or earlier, “Due South” which was both tongue-in-cheek…and endorsed the “bad cop” antics by virtue of the Mounty’s US partner) and D) still makes for pulpy, thrilling entertainment (as the solid ratings, in both countries, indicates).

Reflecting on the nature of the liberal, compassionate hero (as Sgt. Parker and his team are meant to be) -- one can’t help but think how little we seem to value, or even deign to recognize, that characteristic as being a part of heroism. And I should clarify that I’m thinking in the context primarily of adventure series and cop shows, series which expect a certain hard edge to the protagonist, as opposed to, say, “The Ghost Whisperer” with Jennifer Love Hewitt tear-ing up at the end of every episode.

I was thinking about this (stepping away from the “Canadian identity” question for the moment) in reading about the new “Star Trek” film by J.J. Abrams that has re-imagined the franchise. A commercial hit, the movie has received almost universal acclaim and, funnily enough, every time I read a gushing review of the film…my interest in actually seeing it drops just a little more. The fact that Abrams and others involved in the film have bragged about how they were bigger “Star Wars” fans than “Star Trek” is ironic if you know your pop culture history and know how for many years the “Star Trek” people were quick to argue (perhaps pompously so) that Trek was the thinking man’s alternative to “Star Wars” -- “Star Wars” was about special effects and space battles, they argued, “Star Trek” was about people and ideas. On some level, one can’t help but see the new “Star Trek” film as analogous to the scene in “A Christmas Carol” when the sign over Fezziwig’s shop is pulled down, the defeated idealist Fezziwig having finally sold out to the “vested interests”.

And, hey, I’m not a complete stick-in-the-mud. I’m sure I’ll get around to seeing the new “Star Trek” and I’ll probably enjoy it on some level. But hopefully I’ll feel a little guilty about that. Because apparently (according to the GOOD reviews) the new Trek is devoid of those supposedly annoying staples of earlier Treks like “weighty themes”, “character arcs” or “moral dilemmas”, and is just a big summer action movie -- which (according to critics who liked it) makes it the gosh darndest bestest Star Trek EVER! (Whether this lobotomizing of the franchise is true or not, I don’t know -- but I’m going by the comments of people who are praising the film!) And the definition of the movie’s Capt. Kirk is that he’s an “arrogant sonofabitch” who’s “always right.”

Now, growing up watching the original TV series, what I kind of thought defined Kirk, and distinguished him from many TV heroes, wasn’t that he was smart, or tough, or cocky -- though he could be all those things -- it was his compassion, both as written and as played by William Shatner. Watch as the camera lingers on Shatner’s reaction as he stands over (yet another) dead red shirted security guard, or think of the episodes that climaxed, not in a phaser battle, but Kirk with his arms spread, imploring the “villains” to let him help them (in one episode Kirk claimed that in his 23rd Century future, an author would cite “let me help“ as the most important phrase in history). And Shatner was a hammy actor and he didn’t mind playing mushy emotions to the hilt. Like the SRU team in “Flashpoint”, Kirk could meet a fist with a fist…but was just as eager to meet an open hand with an open hand (even if that open hand had been a fist moments earlier).

Now what became interesting about my focusing on this aspect of the character, aside from the fact that most people didn’t focus on it (preferring to see Kirk as a parody of a Lothario or, more disturbingly, as their vision of the ideal hero -- a glamourized martinet) is that some years later I read an excerpt from Gene Roddenberry’s original proposal for the series. And in his characterizing of the hero, he specifically cited the character’s defining trait as his compassion. Which meant: I didn’t imagine it. It was there…it’s just most other people chose to ignore it (at least going by how Kirk has been characterized over the years in articles, essays, and comic book and paperback novel interpretations). And in case we’ve further missed the “fascists are way cool, kids” sub-text, then (at least going by the commercials and publicity stills) the new movie has replaced Kirk’s original beige tunic for Gestapo black. Because apparently being a touchy-feely, compassionate guy isn’t what we are supposed to look for in macho heroes. (And by compassion, I’m not just talking about how one treats friends or loved ones, but how one treats strangers and adversaries).

Compassion is really not seen as a paramount trait in many TV shows -- oh, sure, heroes usually want to see the innocent protected and the guilty punished. But they’re not compassionate with a capital “C”. Heck, in the hit medical drama “House”, the point is the doctor hero is something of a fascist and an unfeeling misanthrope.

Viewed in that context, “Flashpoint” becomes even more remarkable -- a little fish of Canadian compassion swimming against the school of reactionary conservatism, but by virtue of its ratings, proving there’s an audience out there in both countries looking for macho heroes…who just want to help.

Just don’t let J.J. Abrams make a movie based on it!

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

May 18, 2009

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