El Ministerio del Nacionalismo

I’m currently living in Barcelona. I moved here a few weeks before a referendum vote declared illegal by Spain’s central government. The vote was to decide whether Catalonia might secede from the rest of Spain. Part of me viewed this with flippant disdain for what I saw as the narcissism of small differences; part of me knows better, knows the history of Spain, its varied states, their stories of violence and oppression, minor and major in their degree. This post is not about the secession of Catalonia. I still don’t have a definitive opinion on the matter, and being neither an EU citizen nor in a position of power or influence, I feel no need to. (I’m sure my friend Pablo a, has an opinion, b, has an opinion about what my opinion should be, c, has an opinion about my lack of opinion and d, would absolutely never tell me because his ethical principles do not discriminate in size; politics between nations and between friends are equally subject to sticking to your guns. Frankly, that sounds exhausting).

But, I bring this up because it has me thinking quite a lot about Spanish nationalism. Well, this internationally relevant debate and a recent TV binge. Netflix put up all three seasons of El Ministerio del Tiempo, or The Ministry of Time, and feeling that since it was at least in Spanish, I wasn’t merely being a couch potato spending many uninterrupted hours watching it. The much eye-rolling I received from Spanish friends in response to my excited discovery of a Spanish sci-fi show along with the tepid concession that “well, yes, surprisingly they’ve done a show in the American style, and it’s at least decent” nearly wrecked my proud feeling of passive education. But, I was being educated alright, educated in a definition of “Spanishness.”

The premise: The Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, along with their many accomplishments (consolidating Spanish rule on the Iberian Peninsula, supporting the discovery of the Americas, purifying their kingdom through the expulsion of all the Jews and Muslims), found the Ministry of Time, which houses a series of doors that act as portals across the vast time and space of the Spanish Empire. Lest this particular accomplishment remain without blood on their hands, the man who discovered the portals, who worked out and wrote down how they function, is one Rabbi Abraham Leví, condemned in season 1 episode 4 to relive the same day of his burning by the Inquisition behind the only door in the whole Ministry stuck in a time loop. (Applause Isabella. Applause.)

The unremitting goal of the Ministry of Time is to preserve Spanish history. This includes things like ensuring Cervantes gets the Quijote published, Adolfo Suarez’s  ancestor isn’t killed, Lope de Vega doesn’t die and that the Rabbi does. (The Rabbi is based on an actual person, and, curiously, in real life, he was not torched by the Inquisition nor was he the bumbling, wise-man pet of Isabella). There are whole episodes dedicated to making sure a bunch Velázquez paintings are destroyed when a castle burned down and even to preserving the circumstances of Franco’s reign. The Ministry is plagued with people trying to rewrite time, and the show at least gives cursory space to asking why this is so necessary.

So, what does all of this have to do with Spanish nationalism? Though a couple of friends of mine from Madrid tried to shout me out of the belief that a crappy TV show could be telling them what it means to be Spanish, after watching one of the protagonists give a speech from the Siege of Baler about what all these soldiers from “Andalusia, Catalonia, Extremadura and the Basque Country” have in common in an episode that aired in April 2016 (the increased buzz about Catalan independence started in 2014 if not before), my conviction was renewed. We are one Spain, the show seems to say, and this is our history. A mutual history, a mutual time and space along with a shared conception of it, is paramount to citizens’ sharing what Benedict Anderson calls an “Imagined Community.” The necessity of a mutual concept of past, present and future predates this critic’s seminal weigh in on the matter. It probably even predates Ernest Renan’s 1882 speech at the Sorbonne, “What is a Nation?,” in which a shared timeline in the form of a shared history is central to nurturing budding nations.

So, El Ministerio del Tiempo is a purveyor of Spanish nationalism. The doors only go to Spanish territories, which, in watching the show, we are reminded were once vast. The cell phones which mysteriously have coverage in time periods long before satellites, only have coverage in Spanish lands (i.e. when the Treaty of Paris is signed, poor Julián loses his life line from one day to the next, and the very sexy, 16th century soldier Alonso has to save him). If the highlight tour of Spanish territory is not enough to convince you, consider this, the entire show/ministry is dedicated to showcasing/preserving Spanish history! Protegemos la patria!

Narratives of citizenship aside (though not totally aside, I still have so many questions: what is the definition of Spanishness being purveyed? How are they rewriting different historical figures? How do they portray other countries and Spain’s relationship to them? For example, the American version of the Ministry is a bunch of bumbling capitalists with great tech and zero scruples. I could keep going), the show is highly enjoyable…if you suspend some of your needs for consistency within a fictional world. But, hey, it’s a Spanish show “done in the American style,” so just enjoy your kitsch and stop whining.

Set Design for a Plausible Near Future

I am still trying to figure out what makes for a futurescape that we actually believe could exist.  Not just get lost in, suspend our disbelief long enough to enjoy the movie, or the show, or what have you.  What makes it so we go, “hmmm, yeah, it could totally look like this”?

Some of this comes from the spatio-temporal context. For example, anything setting itself at a distant place and time might not even conjure such questions.  If it’s “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” this introduction might cause us to debate between peeing ourselves and simply crying from the excitement, but we’re not going to be asking, “hm, I wonder if our robots will have British accents?” (God, I hope all our robots have British accents).  Another example might be the Shannara Chronicles.  Set so far into the future, it reenters the mythscape.  The presence of, you know, magic obviously helps.  No one asks themselves if the future will look like this when they’re wondering why those characters’ faces look like vaginas, whether the elves are going to get it on and how satisfying it will be based on how much of that Spike TV is allowed to show.

Some of it is production quality.  I can’t imagine that anyone watched Logan’s Run (even in the 1970s) and thought “maybe the world will look like that.”  Well, maybe if you thought that in the future everything would be mostly naked women and malls (insert one of my favorite Latin American critical references to Beatriz Sarlo’s Scene’s from Postmodern Life). But if a diorama of Las Vegas is not your vision of the future, then you didn’t buy this depiction.  Too much CGI has the same effect. One of the many reasons the new Star Wars reboots are doing better than the first round is because of the use of real sets combined with CGI.  Or, think of Avatar, Pacific Rim or any of the Transformers movies after the first one. Those of course present other obstacles, aliens principal among them. Yet, Arrival still feels possible.  Well, not the feel-good ending where we actually get along with the Chinese, but even on the alien ship, I think, “maybe.”

The Expanse…UN building and all.

So, some of it is plot.  The Expanse looks plausible.  Colonizing Mars and mining asteroids while still managing to start wars and economically enslave large swathes of the population, plausible.  Definitely plausible.  But some of it is in what the actual set looks like.  Part of the reason I think the UN office belonging to Deputy Secretary Chrisjen Avasarala could be real is because it combines old and new.  The window has all the future feel of soaring glass buildings bent into physics mocking arabesques, but on the floor, there’s a Persian rug, an object whose presence points to opulence and its two thousand year history at the same time. Here, there’s a combination of traditional with things just on the cusp of new, yet still recognizable.  There’s a sense of continuity between past (Persian rug), present (an institution like the UN), and future (buildings that are one step past Dubai or Shanghai). 

Although, who could be dejected in front of an Apple product?

Very near futurescapes do this well.  Her basically looks like an Apple ad. (The isolation and ennui of modern life lived in constant contact with operating systems are also fairly familiar).  Logan is convincing, but mostly because it looks almost exactly the same as now with some self-driving 18-wheel trucks.

The same principle is at work when we see the decrepit or decaying with the new.  Think of the fallen water tower that Professor X lives in in Logan or some of the street scenes in Minority Report that show dead and rusted out versions of cars from the period in which the movie was actually shot (early 2000s) interspersed with high-speed, sideways highways.  The former lend credibility to the latter even though these highways do not comply with the need for backdrops that don’t look like they were rendered in 3DS Max.  When the decrepit remains of our time showing up in these movies are iconic, this can work to even better effect (though, not always, see, again, Shannara Chronicles).  The Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes (the 1968 original, obviously) is a powerful, and somewhat harrowing, example.

Minority Report brings me to my last point, as I’ve heard a lot of discussion about its interfaces.  (This is mentioned in a great episode of 99% Invisible).  Before the future came to fruition in full-force love of touch screens, we wondered how we would interact with ever-advancing technology.  Minority Report seems crafted with quite a lot of attention to how humans would actually live in the environments being depicted, and while Tom Cruise’s crime fighting begins with the rather romantic yet unreasonable notion that life in front of a computer screen will one day look like conducting a symphony, we sort of buy this depiction.  This is because we perceive the detailed consideration of the points of contact between human and computer.  The people who worked on this film clearly thought about what it would be like to inhabit this space, how data would be transferred, accessed and saved.  Even the traces different products would bear of their manufacturers.

Perhaps it’s merely a question of well-assembled art.  This means quality (which can simply be a matter of consistent production design) but also thorough but grounded imagination.  Future scenarios that tend to have success and longevity reflect something about now.  Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica (the new one, not the chintzy 1970s one, which is frankly, unwatchable) did so well because they’re also about the period in which they were made.  Now must also connect to the past.  In our day to day lives, we see the past in our present; we live in it: buildings constructed a long time ago, furniture design that was popular decades before pops up again (nothing, not even my mother, will get me to part with my mid-century modern).  So, continuity is a large part of a plausible near future.  The other thing to keep in mind is that we (theoretically? hopefully?) will be in that near future.  If in a film maker’s orgiastic love of pretty design, he or she neglects to imagine what it would actually be like to physically interact with that environment, then we won’t buy it.  Perhaps this will change as we  inhabit virtual worlds more and more, but I’d like to think that we’d like to think, we’ll keep one foot on the ground.

Literary Credit in the Final Frontier

I recently met a woman of my age who described a girlhood crush on Data, from Star Trek: The Next Generation.  (Cue theme credits.  Feel free to listen as we embark).  Leaving aside that this was a sentiment that made perfect sense to me (though I think I may be more of a Worf girl myself), her confession brought back countless hours sitting on my parents’ bedroom floor watching that show with my Dad.  Thinking of it now, it’s logical that my father should love this show.  It’s a rerendering of something he’d loved in the 1960s.  It had attractive women in tight onesies.  It boldly went where no one had gone before and showed technology that really did come to be.  (Seriously, my Dad still calls his cell phone his communicator).  The kicker may have been Jean Luc Picard.  An erudite and measured leader who steered his crew with an invested but circumspect attitude.  A respected older man…who was also a credibly attractive, non-macho heterosexual male with the same haircut conferred on my Dad in his early 30s by genes and fate.

But, I think there was another reason he liked the show.  It was good.  It was literature, popular literature.  Yes, I mean this in the obnoxious, high-minded way.  It was a mix of this, clever marketing and some level of acquiescing to 1990s feel good standards (combined with acceptable, liberal subversions of the status quo) that made it the phenomenon that it was.  (It spawned three spin offs and several movies).  So, what makes Star Trek: The Next Generation good, engaging literature?

Each episode is an attentive short story, generally with a foolproof structure and an intelligent yet innovative mind to its literary forefathers. (Of course I’d like to be equal here.  Forefathers, foremothers.  But honestly, I’m talking about some old, dead, white men).  Generally, it doesn’t introduce details or themes that it doesn’t later address.  Data (an android) gives himself a beard and he wants Jordi LaForge and Deanna Troi to opine on if this makes him look like a different kind of man.  There are previous episodes with the same “I want to be a real boy” sort of theme.  You set this opening scene aside and then by the middle, Data is possessed by the spirit of a real man and everything’s gone awry.  (I’m thinking here of “The Schizoid Man,” season 2, episode 6.  Not because it’s a particularly good episode.  It’s just where I am in my binge cycle).  The structures are also fairly reliable and capitalize on the whole parable quality of the show. (Mythical place, distant in time…familiar patriarchal chain of command continually put in situations meant to test their morality and their mettle).  Each episode will be a mystery and a lesson, opening with a problem,then a search for clues, often in the form of or followed by a trial-like exhibition, and then a resolution.  Usually a just one.  Ask yourself why you’ve seen so many episodes of Law and Order when they’re pretty much all the same.  This structure.

(Ok, wrong Star Trek, but really wonderful).

Now my favorite.  Intelligent homage to literary forebearers.  Picard quotes Shakespeare constantly, and well.  In the same episode from above, a super scientist downloads himself into Data because he does not want to die, have the world miss out on his genius and be separated from the young blonde he’s into.  He puts his consciousness and his life’s work into something that will live forever, making of himself a document that cannot die.  The last couplet of Sonnet 18, which Picard quotes once he figures out what’s going on, ends a poem largely about aging by saying that this piece of writing will immortalize the woman to whom it’s dedicated.  “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see/ So long lives this.  And this gives life to thee.”  Something produced by man could seal a person’s memory, protect that person against death.  Oh snap, Picard.  Don’t even get me started on a well-updated Moriarty (see “Elementary, Dear Data,” season 2, episode 3).

Yes, the show is treacly at times, but it has more than its moments.  So, go to your Netflix and pat yourself on the back for your binge choices.  I invite you to make it so.