Welcome to 2010, dear readers. I think at this point I’ve slapped your collective asses enough with all my mushy words of thanks, so I’ll skip the requisite pandering and get directly to the good stuff.
I pondered for some time what I was going to write about today; some part of me thought perhaps I should cover something serious and meaningful because it’s a brand new year, and the rest of me figured I ought to write something pleasant and entertaining – because it’s a brand new year, and I don’t want to overload you good people so early into your second day back at work.
Thankfully, in the end I found a story that satisfies both desires.
Those of you who know me personally have a better handle on this little factoid than many of my regular readers, so for the benefit of those readers let me come right out and say it: I am a bona fide, dyed-in-the-wool Star Trek fan.
(I’ll pause here for your collective gasps of astonishment as you deal with the fact that someone otherwise so cool and charismatic could harbour such a stereotypically nerdy fascination. Done? Good.)
Yes, as I’ve said before, my childhood gave no warning that I would become the paragon of social interaction you see before you today. No, I was an introverted, socially-stunted child with few friends and a penchant for losing my emotional composure at the slightest negative provocation (provocation I encountered day in and day out for the first ten years of my life). As a result, I took refuge in the rich science fiction universe as imagined by Gene Roddenberry. And when I say “took refuge” I mean “totally immersed myself to the exclusion of all else”. It got to the point where my parents started directing me to write, draw and otherwise talk about something – anything – other than the crew of the USS Enterprise.
I couldn’t help it, though. It’s difficult for me to describe the kinship I felt with that group of people, especially given they were fictional characters in a fictional world. But those characters were infinitely preferable to the company I kept in my life outside my family home, and that world was so utopian and well-designed that I found myself wishing I could wake up there, in that possible future, rather than continue to beat my head on the wall of social interaction as it was (and still is) defined by today’s morally fluid standards. On the Enterprise, I wagered, I would be unequivocally accepted for who I was, and applauded for my skills and talents – which would be put to use serving the greater good of the United Federation of Planets. For those reading between the lines, yes – I identified strongly with Wil Wheaton’s controversial character Wesley Crusher, though I’d never admit it in daylight. They’d make me turn in my Nerd Membership if I did, you see, because nobody liked Wesley. Not even Wesley.
But I digress. Little Crusher aside, the character I most wanted to know (presuming he existed of course) was Captain Jean-Luc Picard, brilliantly portrayed by veteran British actor Patrick Stewart. One of the fundamental defining arguments of nerd culture revolves around which captain was better – Kirk or Picard – and my vote was always with the Frenchman. A lot of people decry him as being some kind of pansy compared with Kirk’s hard-drinking, fighting and screwing approach to space exploration, but that kind of alpha male bravado never appealed to me, for obvious reasons. I always respected Picard’s ability to calmly and collectedly deal with any situation that might arise – he almost always turned to diplomacy to solve conflict rather than Kirk’s “shoot first, ask question’s later” mentality. Of course, he was no stranger to throwing down either – he single-handedly took on the Borg Collective, survived weeks of Cardassian torture, stared down the Klingons and the Romulans with impunity, and perhaps most important, he got stabbed through the heart and laughed about it. Badass? I think so.
And yet, Picard was a Renaissance man – he played the flute, had an intense fascination with archaeology, regularly quoted high literature and dug hard-boiled detective fiction. Unlike Kirk’s one-dimensional cowboy persona, Picard was a dense, interesting character a young man like me could look up to, precisely because he wasn’t the run-of-the-mill action hero – or at least, not just that.
I know I’ve spent the last few paragraphs making a fictional character out to be a personal hero, so in order to save some face after all that nerdy gushing, I’d like to note I knew then as well as I know now that Picard was a character, and behind that character was a real guy, the aforementioned Patrick Stewart.
I genuinely believe nobody else could have brought that kind of depth to a character like the famous Captain. Stewart comes from a long, distinguished acting background that includes a laundry list of prestigious lead roles in theatre productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company, his personal adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (in which he played all forty-plus characters himself on stage), not to mention his myriad television, film and voice work credits. His portrayal of Captain Ahab in the 1998 made-for-TV movie Moby Dick is a personal favourite of mine, mostly because it highlights his dynamism as an actor, especially when compared to his better known roles (Picard and Professor Charles Xavier of X-Men fame, for example).
Which is why, when my Correspondents informed me the Queen of England had turned regular old Patrick Stewart into Sir Patrick Stewart at this year’s Royal Honours List, I was nothing less than ecstatic. You may not have gotten the point yet, but I think Stewart is a tremendously underrated actor who deserves recognition for his contributions above and beyond playing the balding French captain of an iconic spaceship. I’m glad for him and – Patrick, if you happen to be reading this (which I sincerely doubt), I extend to you on behalf of State of Affairs our heartiest congratulations on a job well done.
Unfortunately, as regular readers of this blog already know, I am completely incapable of leaving well enough alone. Thinking about this event led me to do a little research into what it takes to get knighted in the British tradition, and I turned up some interesting facts.
Knighthood is a tradition that obviously, to anyone not living under a rock with absolutely no access to culture of any kind, extends back a good long time – to the tune of about a thousand years. Originally it was awarded to landowners and military folk and the like, and was considered a largely political honorific. These days it’s a little different: knighthoods like Stewart’s are known as Order of the British Empire (OBE) and are awarded largely for public service.
What kinds of public service, you might ask? Other newly-knighted Sirs from this year include Andrew Patrick Dillon for service to Health Care, Erich Arieh Reich for service to Charity, and Graham Robert Wynne for services to Nature Conservation.
These all sound like valuable public services to me.
Now, here’s the rub. According to this list, twenty men were awarded Knights Bachelor knighthoods this year: while many of them were awarded to the likes of the aforementioned public service workers, in addition to Patrick Stewart there were two others awarded for “service to drama” and one for – and I’m not kidding – “service to Rugby”.
Wait a minute. I appreciate the importance of sport and especially of the arts for both culture and entertainment, but did Ian Robert McGeechan really warrant a knighthood for services to kicking a ball across a field? (Ed. Note: I know dick about rugby; I assume kicking a ball is part of the game. Feel free to lecture me on this subject. Or don’t. Actually, don’t.)
In fact, if you check out the list of celebrities who have garnered the same honour as my man Patrick, you’ll probably come to the same conclusion that I did – apparently they give away OBEs like candy across the pond. Some of them I can agree with – it’s difficult to find fault with knighting guys like John Lennon, Ian McKellan or Anthony Hopkins, not to mention Stephen Hawking. I’ll even give Bono a pass, no matter how much it pains me.
But David Beckham? Gordon Ramsey? Kylie Fucking Minogue? Kind of detracts from the importance of being a “knight” (or “dame” in Kylie’s case), doesn’t it?
I spoke with Brent at Two Assholes about this issue, and he made the point that knighthood hasn’t really meant anything in a long time, if it ever did: traditionally the Order was awarded purely on the basis of family lineage – what Brent referred to as an “incestuous circle-jerk”, and more recently the honour seems to be given out like the prize in the Cracker Jack box (note that almost every single British actor of note has some kind of honorarium attached to his or her name).
I guess it becomes a question of priorities. I’ve spoken before about the strange cult of personality that seems to revolve around celebrities, especially those who are primarily known as entertainers. Obviously actors and musicians fall into this category – people whose skill sets are fundamentally based in public entertainment. An argument could also be made for athletes in this category as well; despite the patriotism and local pride wrapped up in sports, they’re still the “very best” at accomplishing essentially useless tasks like kicking balls or running very fast over a short distance – and watching somebody complete the hundred-meter dash in less than ten seconds is nothing more than entertaining in my estimation. That’s what I mean though: the unasked question is “how important is entertainment?”
To me the idea of knighthood is wrapped up in honour and dignity and service to one’s nation. And when I say “service”, I’m talking about humanitarian efforts – stuff that helps people. The image of the knight-errant in literature is rife with good deeds done for no thanks, with truth and justice and integrity held up as pinnacles of the heights to which a man could aspire. I know it’s fiction, but as with Captain Picard, I take a certain amount of comfort and inspiration from those ideals as they were portrayed.
That said, I’m torn on whether I can really accept contribution to the arts as a viable method of “helping people”. Believe me when I say I’m a staunch supporter of art in all its forms, but where do you draw the line? I mean, it’s so subjective, isn’t it? There aren’t too many people who will disagree that John Lennon was extremely influential and important, so knighting him seems logical. With a guy like Elton John there might be more disparity, mostly because of all the fuss over his sexual orientation. And I can’t think of a single person I know who would stand behind making Kylie Minogue a Dame of anything, but somebody obviously decided she did something worthwhile.
If this is our barometer, what constitutes excellence in the arts? Record sales? Television ratings? I think Patrick Stewart is one of the great actors of our time, but for others (like several of my Correspondents, who only knew him as Captain Picard) his ascension to Knighthood doesn’t make any sense. So who gets to decide?
The Queen, apparently, and her troupe of advisors, though I find myself questioning whether they’re even paying attention anymore, or whether they’re just rubber-stamping everyone who comes along.
Maybe it’s like Brent says: knighthood is the equivalent of having your own parking space at your place of employment. Wonderful when it’s wintertime and you don’t have to trudge through the whole lot in the snow to get to the door, but otherwise it’s just a perk that, outside of work, nobody really cares about.
That said, I still think Sir Patrick has a nice ring to it. Insert puerile fanboy Star Trek reference of congratulations here.