Monday, December 05, 2016

50 Years of Star Trek - Plus a Couple of Weeks

Star Trek didn't have much of an effect on my development as a science fiction fan. I wasn't one of the first generation of people to watch the adventures of the starship Enterprise and her crew when the show debuted 50 years ago — well, 50 years ago plus a couple of weeks — so it didn't explode into my consciousness as something completely new. But coming into it as part of the second generation of fans — the syndication viewers — it has been there all of my life, so as someone who loves sf in general, I was pretty much destined to become a fan. With the 50th anniversary of the original show having come — and gone! — I thought I'd reflect on what Star Trek's various incarnations have meant to me over the years.

When I was a little kid in the late 1970s, there was a lot of science and fiction and fantasy (especially aimed at kids) in pop culture. It wasn't necessarily good, but there was a lot of choice. By the time I was 4 in '78 (and possibly even a little earlier than that, though my memories are a bit spotty going back that far), my parents let me have free reign of the TV on Saturday mornings, throughout the daytime, and even into the early evening if they didn't want to watch something else. There was Starblazers (or Space Battleship Yamato if we're going by the original Japanese name for this anime classic), with the image of the Argo tearing free of the rocky seabed being one of my first clear memories of watching TV. The Superfriends featured prominently among Saturday morning cartoons, and reruns of older superhero-inspired animated shows like Spider-Man and The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure aired throughout the rest of the week. For the afternoons, there was more anime: Battle of the Planets (Gatchaman in Japan; or "G-Force" as we called it, for the name of the feathered team of heroes). In the evenings, we had Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers. Oh, and then there was a little thing called Star Wars — not on TV, but deeply ingrained in the zeitgeist. For its part, Star Trek was just another name on the roster of rerun syndication alongside The Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants, and Bewitched. Even Gilligan's Island had the occasional speculative fiction-heavy episode. So, with its spaceships and aliens and ray guns, of course I watched 'Trek as a little guy. I didn't love it, but it was sf and if it was on and if there was nothing that I liked better, I'd pay attention.

That is, until I saw the episode "A Private Little War." It scared the shit out of me, and after seeing it, I wouldn't go near Trek for a long time. No, it wasn't the Mugato that upset me (Come on, really? A white gorilla suit with a horn? The Horta and the salt vampire were scarier than that!). It was what happened to the hill witch, Nona. Remember how Nona decides her husband, Tyree (the chief of the hill people) is weak, and steals a phaser when she fails to seduce Kirk, and tries to bring it to the Klingon-allied townsfolk to exchange for a position of power? It doesn't work. Instead of welcoming her, or haggling over the price of the new superweapon, the bunch of townsmen Nona encounters decides to gang rape her. Now, this was 1960s television, so the scene wasn't as intense as say Lieutenant Thorne's assault of Boomer in the new Battlestar Galactica episode "Pegasus," but the group of men passing Nona around their circle, grabbing her and forcibly kissing her sends a loud and clear message about what's going to happen. As a little kid watching this on a Saturday afternoon or whenever, I didn't understand the exact implication. I only understood that some bad men were being mean to this lady, that they were pushing her around (and it was already a hard and fast rule for me and my little friends at that age that you absolutely did not push or hit girls), and that they were kissing her and she didn't like it. It didn't matter that Nona herself was a kind of bad guy in the story. Even without understanding the specifics of what the scene was foreshadowing, I knew that what was happening was really, really wrong, and I found it deeply frightening, and I din't want to see any more. I turned the channel and avoided Star Trek like the plague for years.

The only exception would be when Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out: I didn't watch the movie (my parents had no interest in Trek or science fiction of any kind, really, so they certainly wouldn't be taking their 5-year-old to that film), but I did pay attention to the trailers on TV. Most of the teaser scenes went over my head, but, despite my wariness of Trek, I was fascinated by the shots of the Enterprise in the orbital dock yard. I still have very clear memories of that part of the TV spots. But I didn't want to see the movie and I still steered clear of the show.

There wasn't even the possibility of easing back into it with the animated Star Trek TV series of the 70s. None of the stations our aerial tower was able to pick up back then ran it. I didn't even know it existed until the late 80s when we'd moved out west and the new house had cable, and even then, toon-Trek was only running dubbed en francaise on a French language station. At that point, it was a moment's curiosity; nothing more.

Fast forward to early 1985 and the golden age of the VCR. My dad came home from work one day with a couple of tapes he'd rented at the local independent video store (in those days, in a small city like Cambridge, Ontario, little indie video stores were the only places you could rent, aside from some of the big department stores like Sears or Eatons or Hudson's Bay, which had movie rental counters in the sections where they sold VHS and Beta machines), including Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Again, my folks had no interest in sf, but they knew my little brother and I liked the stuff, so Dad picked it up thinking we'd enjoy it. Now, as an 11-year-old who'd braved the library ghost scene in Ghostbusters, I was a long way from that 4-or-5-year-old who'd been freaked-out by the depredations of the townspeople of the planet Neural, but I still had to think about whether to break my self-imposed Trek taboo. Since Dad had gone to the trouble of renting it for us, and (call me shallow if you like) since the illustration on the case looked kinda cool, I figured I'd give it a shot. And I loved it. The Enterprise looked detailed and high-tech and cool, and (with its battle scars) looked like it had some history to it. This new ship was a far cry from the bland tubes and flat surfaces and simple switches and fat lights that dominated the 1960s model and sets, which looked like stuff we'd build in our basement out of cardboard appliance boxes. There were palpable emotions running through the scene of Enterprise limping back into Spacedock at the beginning, and excitement as it fled from Excelsior later on (a space chase that was actually funny, with the new flagship sputtering to a stop like an old Model-T). There were the big stakes of David coming to terms with his mistake (and then getting killed), Kirk losing his son, and everyone hoping against hope that they could bring Spock back to life. Let's not forget the ship battles. The destruction of the Enterprise still raises the hairs on the back of my neck. As on-screen spaceship deaths go, it set the bar. Only the destruction of Babylon 5 and the wreck of Serenity are its equals. The final flight of Galactica and its fleet into Sol at the close of the new Battlestar Galactica series failed to have anywhere near the same emotional punch (and the real failure was that it should have!). TSFS also had a whole planet tearing itself apart in spectacular fashion — this wasn't like Star Wars where there was just a flash of light and a world seen from a distance was gone, we got to see Genesis wracked by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions for a third of the movie before it finally blasted itself into interplanetary ruin. But what impressed me most of all was the Klingons. Thanks to the writing, direction, and the acting skills of Christopher Lloyd (in a huge step away from the Reverend Jim I'd watched on Taxi), these Klingons were nothing like their 1960s predecessors. In the old show, the Klingons were scheming, grumpy braggarts. There was nothing really unique about them, certainly nothing alien. They were just assholes. With goatees and Trump-like tans. But these new Klingons felt like a different species. Lloyd really gives the impression that he's thinking in a different way than a human would, along the lines of a different set of values and feelings. They had their own language and a rough, inhuman (while still humanoid) look and manner of dress (all building off the new foundations laid down in the opening act of TMP). And they didn't just make threats: they blew shit up (and choked weird mutant space worms) without a second thought. Commander Kruge even had a creepy pet alligator-wolf to add to his badass appearance. The Trek III Klingons demonstrated that the people behind the films were thinking hard about putting on a good show. I decided that it was time to give Star Trek another chance.

A couple of months later, as my family was moving out to BC, I had the chance to watch The Wrath of Khan. We were staying in a hotel just a couple of days before the flight, and luckily the place had Superchannel, and one night when my parents were out at a farewell party, TWOK aired. Again, I loved it. How could I not? Interstellar high stakes with serious discussion about whether the Federation was doing the right thing by pursuing the Genesis research, Kirk coping with reuniting with a family he'd never known he'd had, Khan going crazy with the need to get revenge for his wife's death, an ongoing slugfest between two huge ships (Reliant's ambush of Enterprise, and the subsequent carnage aboard NCC 1701A still raise the hairs on the back of my neck), and the death of Spock (which still gets me a little weepy). It's not only my favourite Star Trek movie, it's the pinnacle of the franchise, in my opinion.

Not long after, once I was in BC, I started rewatching the original series. There were two reasons behind this. First, because in the mid-late 80s, there wasn't much in the way of science fiction or fantasy programming on TV that was any good and so I was at the mercy of whatever the UHF stations across the border in Washington would air. Second, because the kids at my new school called me "Spock" — their local slang epithet for nerd, geek, or anyone who made and effort to study and enjoyed learning — and I figured I'd better get more familiar with the original source material if they were going to force this crap on me. So, with reruns of Star Trek coming on every weekend, it wasn't long before I'd watched the entire series and decided that for all of its faults (cheap sets, over-the-top acting, and sometimes lack of subtlety), it was pretty good. The crew was diverse, and they were smart enough that their first option in a crisis was to try to reason their way out of it. Regardless of the intent of the bullies at school, I started to wear the nickname "Spock" with pride. Hell, when we had to draw pastel pictures in grade 7 art class, I drew a pretty good likeness of Mr Spock.

While devouring everything sf at the video store, I came across Star Trek: The Motion Picture and finally got to see what those TV spots years before were all about. And it was... well... it was one of those films that once you've seen it, there's no need to watch more than the first 30-45 minutes ever again. I loved the opening act where the Klingons get their asses kicked by V'Ger. Having watched the films out of order, I'd already seen the new style Klingons in TSFS, but I thoroughly enjoyed seeing more of them, hearing more of their language, and watching a trio of their cruisers waste no time unloading on the strange visitor in their space (as opposed to the Klingons of the old series, who probably would have postured and threatened for half an hour before firing their first shot) — only to have things go very wrong for them very quickly. This let us to see the closest thing to Klingon panic we'd get until the opening of The Undiscovered Country. Then there was Kirk's (and the audience's) introduction to the refitted Enterprise in the orbital dockyard. Accompanied by that soaring Jerry Goldsmith music, the unveiling of the ship took my breath away as much as it did Kirk's. Until that scene, I'd never thought of Enterprise as beautiful. But she was. And grand. And there was a grandeur throughout the movie as a whole, both physically, in the portrayal of of the ships (transports pulling into Enterprise's hanger!), space stations, the Vulcan temple, and most especially V'Ger in all its too-big-to-comprehend cloud-shrouded bulk, but also in the characters striving to be bigger than their circumstances, and the overarching theme of transcendence. And for all of that, it was also a film about everything having consequences, from Kirk rushing the launch of the Enterprise, to Decker and Ilia working together again, to Spock's answering the call of an unknown entity (and the call of his old life), to V'Ger's quest to become something more. In some ways, for being so cerebral, TMP was the epitome of Star Trek. But the movie was also deeply tedious. As much as the original Trek was about discussing the big questions and exploring the nature of who we are, there's no denying that action was an equally important part of the overall story. Kirk had to punch someone or order Sulu to fire the phasers every other episode or it just wasn't Trek. Neither V'Ger's route of the Klingons in the opening act, nor the torpedoing of the asteroid, nor the disintegration of Ilia was enough to break up the long bouts of soulful staring or the endless wannabe-2001 plunge through V'Ger's cloud (incidentally, "V'Ger's Cloud" should probably have been the name of a drink at Quark's bar on DS9). TMP is an important part of the Star Trek canon, but it's not the best instalment.

Right around that time, Trek made a resurgence, and there was an avalanche of entries into the franchise. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home got things rolling in '86 when it hit the theatres and, because it was funny, appealed to the general audience enough that for a little while the "Spock" jabs stopped at school. Just for a little while. Double dumb ass on them. If nothing else, this instalment picked up where "The Doomsday Machine" episode of the original series left off in the quest to try to prove that a roll of aluminum foil could be a frightening opponent... and, like its forebear, didn't really succeed. But you had to like the twist at the end where a woman walks out on Kirk for a change.

Then a newer, bigger, uglier, heavily pixelated Enterprise D lumbered onto the TV screens for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Looking back, the first season is nearly unwatchable (with the exception of a couple of episodes like "Conspiracy" or "Skin of Evil," or anything with Q that might otherwise have been terrible but was tolerable because of John de Lancie's deliciously intentional, unapologetic, balls-to-the-wall moustache twirling combined with childish mockery of the crew), but I and all of my fanboy friends were glued to it because there still wasn't much in the way of sf TV shows at that point (sure, the War of the Worlds TV series would launch in a year, but that had limited appeal). Over time, it got better, but it remained a niche show followed only by a few other geeks in my junior high and high school. By the time it started to find its stride somewhere in season 2, the stories were getting better and were starting to draw people in (Especially with "The Best of Both Worlds" 2-parter cliffhanger bridging seasons 3 and 4 — no-one could forget Picard being assimilated by the Borg. In fact, I remember a local news story at the time profiling a man who was dying of some disease, who said that one of his regrets was that he wouldn't live to see the second part/premier episode of season 4 — that's sf entering the zeitgeist!) but as good as some of the stories were becoming, I'd read enough science fiction by that point that nothing on the show was particularly new. Ultimately, I think the real value of Next Gen was proving that spinoffs of Star Trek were not only possible, but that they could (occasionally) out-do the original. It paved the way for other, better TV spinoffs.

This was also the time when I started reading the Star Trek novels. They were kind of like cotton candy I'd snack on, on the side, while devouring other, more intellectually nutritious, science fiction and fantasy. But let's give credit where credit is due: some of them were fun! Vonda N. McIntyre's novelizations of TWOK and TSFS were pretty entertaining, and among the media tie-ins, I enjoyed Diane Carey's Final Frontier (a story about Kirk's father joining a mission aboard the brand new Enterprise in the Romulan neutral zone), Margaret Wander Bonanno's Strangers from the Sky (about a secret Vulcan-Human first contact on Earth), and Diane Duane's Spock's World (which had a wonderful line to the effect of "Vulcan didn't have a moon, it had a nightmare"). With the exception of the movie novelizations, the media tie-ins had no place in the official Trek universe continuity, but let's face it, the various franchise movies and TV series played so fast and loose with continuity, the concept was more or less irrelevant.

But even as TV was taking the Trek universe 80 years into the future with different crews and new challenges, the movies kept throwing the aging original cast into the interstellar meat grinder again and again. And, at this point, a pattern began to emerge: every other Trek movie was a complete disaster. TMP was flawed, but II through IV were pretty good. The Final Frontier (under Shatner's direction) in '88, was like a "marsh melon" that had fallen off its stick and rolled in a pile of fresh dog crap. Things got back on track in '91 with The Undiscovered Country, which kicked all kinds of ass. Some really great performances, especially between Nimoy and Kim Cattrall, and Christopher Plummer bestrode that flick like a god. His performance during the trial scene especially was a work of genius ("Don't wait for the translation! Just answer the question!" is still one of my favourite lines of the entire franchise). But things took a nosedive again in Generations. The old series-Next Gen crossover had only one redeeming scene: Kirk's first death (okay, "disappearance" if you want to get technical) aboard Enterprise B. The great hero finally succumbs to something he's seen (and sometimes caused) again and again, but has never touched him until this point: a redshirt death — a quick, almost anonymous and at-the-time unlamented death in the line of duty, just trying to keep the ship running so the captain can steer her to safety, with no posturing or grand last words. And then the flick got down to the serious business of sucking. First Contact, on the other hand, was a solid, exciting story, with some good performances by the Next Gen cast, and some excellent supporting moments by Alice Krige as the Borg queen ("Watch your future's end."), Alfre Woodard as Lily, the intended co-pilot of the Phoenix ("You broke your little ships."), and James Cromwell as a drunken anti-hero version of human warp speed pioneer Zefram Cochrane ("I built this ship so I could retire to some tropical island... filled with... naked women. THAT'S Zefram Cochrane. THAT'S his vision. That other guy you keep talking about, this historical figure? I never met him."). Even if this Cochran doesn't entirely square with the guy Kirk met in the original series (again, that old fast-and-loose approach to continuity in the Trek universe), it's great to watch his character develop through the story. Insurrection? Part of the low patch again. Then onto Nemesis, which had its ups and downs, but certainly wasn't a bad film. I just wish the Next Gen instalments could have ended on a higher note.

Meanwhile, in the TV world, there was Deep Space Nine. The show was unique (for the franchise) in a number of ways: the lead character, Commander (later Captain) Benjamin Sisko was African-American; a family man who brought his son, Jake, with him; he was dealing with the loss of his wife; contrary to the usual Star Trek lead, he (initially) didn't really want the job, and certainly wasn't comfortable for a long time with being the Bajoran messiah. DS9's pilot was also interesting because it bucked the usual "one big happy family" feeling that Trek tended to foster within Starfleet, with Sisko doing little to mask his grudge against Picard for the death of his wife, Jennifer, during the battle of Wolf359 against the Borg — led by Locutus/Picard. The show was also different from the rest of the franchise because of its frequent meditations on religion and how it interacts with a modern, scientific society and different cultures with different beliefs. Other Trek series touched on religion in episodes every now and again, but in DS9 it was a regular fact of life that had to be dealt with because of the beliefs of the local Bajoran society, and especially the station's Bajoran first officer, Kira Nerys. While there were badguys of the week, the show differed from the others in that one of its regular themes was living under the threat of a known enemy — the Cardassians — and dealing with the personal and societal effects of that race's previous conquest of Bajor. Last but not least, DS9 was set on a space station. It didn't go anywhere, so, initially, adventure had to come to it. Until the Klingon and Dominion wars, that is, when things really got interesting. Despite suffering from the usual rocky first season that seems mandatory for Trek shows, in many ways DS9 was the best and most mature of the Star Trek series. There were deeper explorations of the characters, darker moral challenges and murkier motivations, and, for the back half of the series, the prolonged study of the brutality of war and the difficulty of overcoming existing prejudices and old ways of doing things. In part, the credit for this higher quality of the show goes to the writers, actors, and directors who crafted it episode by episode. But that alone wasn't enough. What made DS9 so good was that it was pushed: It was in direct competition with Babylon 5, another show about life aboard a frontier space station beset by all manner of political intrigues and threats from out of the darkness. And Babylon 5 was a better show. Despite having a lower budget, B5 was better written (smarter, funnier, sadder, more frightening, more prescient, and, in its portrayal of its characters and their highs and lows, more real), more mature, and had a complex and complete overarching series plot. DS9 may have had the Trek legacy and popularity behind it, but it constantly had to work to be the best it could be to stay respectable in the eyes of fans who had another option. And while it didn't quite match up to B5, DS9 became one hell of a good show that I enjoyed throughout my university and broadcast school years, and much of it is worth rewatching ("The Way of the Warrior", "Trials and Tribble-ations", "By Inferno's Light", "Far Beyond the Stars", and "In the Pale Moonlight" being my favourites). The only thing that really bothered me was the series finale, where Sisko leaves his family — with his new wife, Cassidy, pregnant — to go off with the wormhole aliens and become a god. Now, if time doesn't have any real meaning to the "Prophets", why was it so imperative for Sisko to go with them right away? When they make their demand of him, his response should have been something like "Time is meaningless to you, so you can sit tight for about 17 or 18 years while I support my wife through the rest of her pregnancy and childbirth, and raise my kid to an age where she/he can deal with dad moving out for a while." But no. He makes a token resistance and then goes along with their illogical demand. Hear that sound? It was the ball getting dropped. But that wasn't enough to ruin my overall enjoyment of the series.

Round about this time, my friend David introduced me to Star Fleet Battles. With this table-top strategy game, we weren't limited to watching the occasional ship-to-ship or fleet battle on DS9; we could stage them ourselves! Gathered around the hex board with our other buddies, JP and Jim, we'd spend afternoons or evenings over the summer breaks in university slugging it out between the Federation, Klingons and all manner of other major and minor interstellar powers. I usually chose to play the Gorn, since "The Arena" was one of my favourite old series episodes (maybe it was because the Gorn reminded me a little of Godzilla, who I've loved ever since I was a little guy) and more often than not took their dreadnought into battle. And, more often than not, I got my scaly reptilian ass handed to me. The Gorn dreadnought was a solid capital ship, with lots of power, an impressive phaser suite, a nice complement of shuttles (I used them as fighters), and those big nasty plasma torpedoes. But it was slow, and those plasma torpedoes took far too long to arm and fire, and they were treated like missiles or drones and so took forever to track their targets around the board (unlike photon torpedoes or disrupters, which were treated like energy weapons and hit or missed their targets instantly — a section the rules I still think is completely unfair, and not just because the rule worked against me). My opponents would usually just outrun the plasma torps, and, because the other guys enjoyed playing Klingons, lob drones (each with their own nasty weapons packages) at me until I was a charred hulk adrift in space. Still, the game was a lot of fun, especially with those guys, and I miss those days.

The mid-90s also saw the launch of the new series: Star Trek: Voyager. Focussing on the adventures of a Federation scout ship lost in the Delta quadrant during the Next Gen era, the show differed somewhat from the usual franchise formula. Led by a female captain, the crew was a hybrid of Starfleet personnel and Maquis raiders (freedom fighters by their own assertion, though rebels and possibly terrorists from their actions in some episodes of DS9), along with others picked up from around the quadrant along the way. And while the crew of Voyager did explore many strange new worlds, the show's focus was on their efforts to get home to the Alpha quadrant, trying to avoid threats like the Kazon, Hirogen (ripoffs of the hunters from Predator), and the Borg along the way. The first season was, in keeping with the Next Gen Trek pattern, weak, but the show did improve. While it did have some great episodes, like the two-parter "Year of Hell", "Prophecy" and "Endgame", the writing rarely reached the level of maturity and intelligence that DS9 did.

By 2001, Paramount was at it again, winding the clock back and giving us the prequel series Enterprise. This addition to the franchise (about a starship sent out by Earth in the years before the Federation to explore the galaxy — without the Vulcans holding them back... much — and try to make new friends) has taken heat over the years for being the weakest series. While I can't say that I loved it, I'll give STE credit for bucking the the franchise trend and starting out with a strong first season. Season 2 started to decline though, and by season 3, I'd dropped it. I finally punched it up on Netflix a couple of months ago to go back and watch a few key episodes of the final seasons.

Then came the reboot movie series. Eeesh. All style and no substance. Not even Star Trek, really. I'll give JJ Abrams credit for the first one, Star Trek, because it was fun, despite its stupidity. The opening battle where the Kelvin is destroyed is both exciting and touching. And, as much as constructing the Enterprise in a corn field in the middle of Iowa made no sense (except perhaps as an argument that the entire reboot series is nothing but a hallucination of Ray Kinsella as he has a complete mental breakdown after the supposed events of Field of Dreams, probably due to some exotic fungus on his corn), it's a beautiful image on-screen. But the plot's dumb and the lead characters are strident idiots who spend more time arguing with each other like that drunken-resentful-middle-aged-couple-on-the-downslope-of-a-marriage-that-you-try-to-avoid-at-a-party than they do actually trying to figure out a way out of their predicament or discuss what's at stake. And that's what's at the heart of real Star Trek stories: an examination of issues. There may be aliens and fighting and explosions and redshirt deaths and even some laughs, but Star Trek has always been about talking about different sides of important issues. And Abrams' follies had none of that. That's why they're not 'Trek.

Into Darkness was even worse: a brain-dead, self-indulgent mockery of The Wrath of Khan. We only saw it in the theatre because my wife is a Cumberbatch fangirl. I vowed I would never do it again — not if Paramount was serving up any more Abrams-style reboots, anyway. So we took a pass on Beyond this past summer. I may watch it when it comes on Netflix just for the sake of saying I've seen the reboot farce all the way through, but from what I've heard from friends who did see it, I'm in no hurry.

Now, looking ahead to 2017, there's a new TV series on the way: Star Trek: Discovery. I haven't really been following the gossip about the show, and while I have to say the design for the new ship looks like the bastard child of a Constitution class heavy cruiser and a Klingon D7 battlecruiser, I'm willing to give it a chance. After all, Star Trek has always been there, and even if it falters sometimes,  it eventually comes back around again, usually with pretty good results. May it continue to boldly go...

Monday, October 03, 2016

VCon Day 3 - Tourists and Turkeys and Lovecraft, Oh My!

Ah, lazy Sunday. Say what you want about a con's opening Friday taking time to gear up, but the closing Sunday, despite being a full day, always feels like it's drifting along half-asleep (as many fanboys and fangirls are after Saturday night's round of parties), determined to finish out the day as a point of honour, but not making any kind of real effort to get to that finish line in any hurry.

I showed up early in the afternoon, not because of any late-night partying, rather because of late-night blogging and, in all fairness, I never show up before noon. Sure, there were a couple of sessions in the morning that I'd wanted to attend, but, you know, morning. I started with the usual round of the dealers' room to see if there was anything that would catch my eye at the last minute, and ended up wrestling with myself over whether to buy a battered used hardcover anthology at one of the stalls. It was only a buck, but I resisted temptation and wandered off in search of a panel session to take my mind off of it.

I started with the "Science Fiction Tourist in Japan" presentation by one of this year's Guests of Honour, Stan Hyde. I've never been there before, but Japan's on my list of places to visit in the next couple of years (probably as a side trip the next time my wife and I visit my mother-in-law in Hong Kong), so I thought it would be helpful to get some tips from a geek perspective. And the presentation was definitely worth while. In addition to notes about culture and the do's-and-don't's, and recommendations for traditional places to visit, Stan tempted the audience with photos and stories about cool sf-related places to visit. The ones that grabbed my attention were the Studio Ghibli museum (which, from one angle, looks a lot like a freshly-opened box of plasticine) and the Godzilla-themed Hotel Gracery Shinjuku. Apparently, there's a room at this hotel where if you hit a button everything starts shaking, the lights flicker, and a simulated breaking news flash comes on the TV warning that the king of all monsters is on the rampage and coming close. While I can see us sticking mostly to the traditional sites when we eventually go, I think a couple of Stan's recommendations will find their way onto the agenda.

Next it was time for the suffering. No VCon weekend is complete without testing one's mental mettle (and the capacity of your wallet) against the horror known as The Turkey Readings. The session involves a panel taking turns reading from a selection of truly awful sf novels, accompanied by audience volunteers who act out the scenes as they unfold. People in the audience can make bids to end the torture (with the money being donated, I believe, to the Canadian Unity Fan Fund to send fans to conventions in different parts of the country to foster closer ties between the various sf communities throughout the provinces and territories), but they can also counter-bid with higher amounts to have the reading continue, with the back and forth bidding between the two sides raising the stakes, increasing the amount in the donation pot, and prolonging the "literary" torment. The first selection was hell, but I stayed out of the bidding war. The second was a different story... literally and figuratively. The panelist read a selection from an old Leigh Brackett novel, and while it wasn't one of her best stories, it certainly wasn't bad. I couldn't figure out how it had gotten tossed onto the Turkey Reads pile. So, after the first minute or two when someone in the audience offered a buck twenty-five to make it stop, I pounced immediately with a counter offer of a buck-fifty to keep it going, because Leigh Brackett, people! Show some respect! Sadly, after another minute or so, someone else raised the stakes to end it, and I didn't have enough change left to press the issue. The third story selection that came next was back to the usual standard of sub-standard writing, and after a few minutes my brain had endured all it could and I bailed out...

...And went from the madness of the Turkey Readings to a panel discussing HP Lovecraft and those influenced by his work. I've never really been a fan of Lovecraft, and have only read a couple of his short stories, but there's no denying his influence — both in terms of those inspired by his world and those reacting against many aspects of the author and his creations (I recently finished Matt Ruff's excellent Lovecraft Country, so the conversation with and repurposing of the legacy of HPL was fresh in my mind) — and the panel discussion was fairly interesting.

Afterwards it was time for the Closing Ceremony with the final thoughts from the Guests of Honour, a few last laughs, and various announcements. Nice to hear VCon will be hosting the Aurora Awards in 2018.

Then it was time to go. Admittedly, I was tempted to stick around for the Dead Dog Party, but it was getting time for supper, and I wanted to get home to my wife to hear about her day at the Lego convention/tour/thing Downtown and then binge-watch the last few episodes of season 2 of Detectorists before starting Luke Cage.

So long, VCon. It was fun. See you next year!

Oh, and before I sign off, the con photo of the post: someone's idea of an earthquake safety device, hanging on one of the doors near registration and the hall leading to the art room and dealers' room. I'll have to use this next time I teach an emergency preparedness class.


Sunday, October 02, 2016

VCon Day 2 - Can We Talk?

A lot of people talk about "barcon" when they share their science fiction convention experiences: spending more time yacking with people and/or doing business in the hotel/convention centre bar than attending or participating in panels. Sometimes not even going to any panels at all. If that's your thing, that's fine, though I've always enjoyed taking-in panel sessions. Today was different though: I probably spent as much time down in the bar as I did going to panels, and thoroughly enjoyed the change of pace. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

Saturday's usually the busiest day at VCon — hell, at any con that sprawls across a weekend — and while it was bustling when I arrived early in the afternoon today, I got a feeling that it was a little smaller than it has been in the past. The halls weren't quite as crowded as they have been. There weren't quite as many people cosplaying. The bar wasn't as consistently full. The ups and downs of the convention scene from year to year? More people staying at home because the Lower Mainland started its winter rains early? Everyone's glued to Netflix binge watching Luke Cage? Who knows. What matters is that the con still had a good vibe.

I started by taking in the back half of the "Justify the Science Flaw" panel. The session's a long-standing tradition at VCon, gathering a squad of scientists and authors to grasp at every last straw they can get to use science as we understand it to explain apparent impossibilities (or problems that only exist because basic solutions are ignored) in sf movies and TV shows. One of the science flaws wrestled with this time around: why did the salt monster in the Star Trek episode "The Man Trap" need to kill people to get salt, when sodium and chloride are common enough in the universe that the creatures of M-113 ought to be able to make it? I enjoyed astronomer Jaymie Matthews' excuse, er, theory that maybe  "salt" in the show didn't refer to actual salt, but rather it was "S.A.L.T." — some kind of acronym for an exotic substance that had to be siphoned out of living victims. Lots of other wacky science flaws and equally wacky explanations before it wrapped up. Always one of my favourite panels to attend at the con.

Afterwards, I hung around the room for the next session, where a panel reflected on the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. Interesting to hear each of the panelists reflect on why the show was/is important to them and how they were introduced to it. It took me back to the late 70s when Trek was running in syndication and I watched it as a little kid — at least until the episode "A Private Little War" scared me away (and no, it wasn't the Mugato that did it). I didn't come back to it until Star Trek III — The Search for Spock came out, but once I started watching rebroadcasts of the old show again, I was hooked.

Next it was down to the art show (again, it seemed smaller this year). Lots of interesting stuff, but, as with previous years, I was entranced by Stephanie Ann Johanson's paintings, especially her picture of an astronaut standing on the edge of the Valles Marineris, entitled "Mars".

And then for something completely different, it was time for a Beatles sing-along. Science fictiony? Nope. Just a bunch of fans at the con who like John, Paul, George and Ringo getting together in one of the rooms and jamming to the Beatles' song book. Don't worry, folks, I didn't inflict my voice on the crowd — it's far too unreliable these days, especially after my early September bout of bronchitis. No, I was there to meet up with author Spider Robinson (who was playing a mean guitar up front with a couple of others) for an interview afterwards. As ways to kill time before an interview go, this one was pretty good. The musicians had a lot of heart, and even if some in the audience couldn't quite carry a tune, they had just as much heart themselves, and the overall good will in the room levelled things out until it all sounded good enough. That said, there was one woman sitting up front beside Spider whose voice was simply magnificent. It was worth it to go to that session just to hear her.

So then my mini barcon started. Spider and I adjourned to a quiet corner of the hotel bar/restaurant so I could interview him for an episode of the Invaders From Planet 3 podcast to air during season 2 this coming winter. Even though we'd prearranged the interview yesterday, I had to talk to Spider on the fly today due to some question about his con scheduling. But he's a great guy and was kind enough to sit down and chat for a bit, covering a wide range of topics. We probably could have gone on for a couple of hours, but his next panel was looming, so we made due with 30-odd minutes. The formatting for this episode will be a little different from the others, but I'm looking forward to sharing it with you early in 2017.

Another season 2 episode you'll want to keep your ears open for is my interview with author and editor Silvia Moreno-Garcia. In addition to writing her own stories, she's also the editor of Fractured: Tales of the Canadian Post-Apocalypse, which I think is one of the best anthologies not only of 2014, but of the past several years. When I saw that she was going to be a panelist at this year's con, I had to line-up an interview with her, and Silvia was kind enough to say yes. So, not too long after Spider and I wrapped things up, Silvia and I sat down in the bar to tape a discussion about her fiction, re-reading authors like HP Lovecraft, the state of Mexican and Latin American speculative fiction, and lots of other topics. I'll be posting it this winter.

After a break for supper, I went up to watch the Costume Contest. Again, it didn't seem to have as many entries as I remember from years past, but maybe I'm wrong. That said, hats-off to those who did come out to show off their costume-making talent. My favourite moment was when an entrant was menacing his way across the stage in his Kylo Ren costume and one of the judges pointed and said "I think you still have a little Han on there."

I was tempted to hang around for the 10:30 panel about dragons, because, as a dragon fanatic, it's a rare session about these beasties that I don't like. But I wanted to get home to spend some time with my wife and relax, so I decided to call it a day.

The question for tomorrow: do I dare brave the dreaded Turkey Readings?

Saturday, October 01, 2016

VCon Day 1 - Second Chances

They say "third time's the charm" but this year, the second time's the charm for me, at least when it comes to science fiction conventions.

A few weeks ago, I was in Ottawa taking care of my folks after my dad had knee surgery, and, by the time the old man had recovered enough to get around on his own again, it turned out that by coincidence I was there when the local con — Can-Con — was being held. It looked like they had a pretty good line-up of panelists/guests and when in Rome... or, Bytown, anyway. I set up a couple of interviews with some cool authors for episodes next season of Invaders From Planet 3, had plans to meet up with some friends, and was really looking forward to spending a Saturday seeing how the fans in Ottawa put on a con. Until the Friday night, that is, when I got bushwhacked by a kaiju-sized flu. Even if I'd been capable of dragging myself out the door (which I most certainly wasn't), I didn't want to show up sick and wind up being "patient zero" for con crud, so I had to bail on those plans.

Since I came home (on the infamous #AirIguana) — and finally kicked the bug — I've been looking forward to attending this year's VCon, and so far it's been a lot of fun.

I got off to a bit of a late start, wandering in around 4, but hey, it's Friday, the first day, and while there's programming, there's no real rush. Registration was slow as the volunteers were still figuring things out. One of the guys beside me in line got a little impatient, but I just shrugged and said that at a Worldcon, there'd be 200 people ahead of us in line (and probably more at some of the truly monster events like Comicon) and waiting in line is part of the con experience. Nothing to do but take it easy and watch the whirl of other con-goers going by, many in costume, all of them looking happy to be home. There are certainly worse ways to spend part of an afternoon. Besides, this year's registration package included a free book! What's better than getting a free book as a reward for waiting patiently? Nothing. Except maybe a free book and a unicorn. That would be cool.

Name tag finally in hand (or, clipped to my vest, anyway), I prowled around the hotel for a bit to get my bearings, and checked out the dealers' room. Not a bad gaggle of merchants in there this year, and I spent a fair bit of time browsing at the book dealers' tables and checking out the interesting finds the antiquarian dealer/replica jewellery maker had hauled in.

Up next was the Opening Ceremonies. This is one of those events that I feel a certain obligation to attend... it's the con's formal welcome to all of us attendees, the introduction of the guests of honour, and the occasional bit of info about what's in store. Lots of people skip it, but I figure that since the con organizers and the guests are putting it on, the least some of us can do is come out to listen to them. This year's opener was quite funny (especially when Neo-Opsis editor — and Editor Guest of Honour — Karl Johanson got up, donned a golden Star Trek command jersey, and belted out a 'Trek-themed cover of "I wanna go home"), at times touching, and, surprisingly, mercifully short. The perfect way to kick things off.

Then it was time to violate one of my prime rules of con attendance: never buy anything from the dealers' room on the first day. Because there are always exceptions. This time it was to hit one of the publishers' tables to snag a copy of this year's edition of the Tesseracts anthology (#19 — Superhero Universe — edited by Claude Lalumiere & Mark Shainblum) before it sold out. I'd have been pretty bummed if that one didn't make it home to my collection. Mission accomplished, I adjourned for supper...

...And made it back in time for the truly excellent "Minions" panel. Not "minions" in reference to the movie about the little yellow pill-looking guys from the Despicable Me franchise, but science fictional minions in general, like Otis, Doctor Watson, Darth Vader, or Beaker. Lots of great discussion from panelists Rick Sutcliffe, BJ Allan, Stephanie Johanson, Randy McCharles and Donna McMahon about what a minion actually is (versus a sidekick), what the different kinds of minions are, whether minions are exclusively evil or whether good guys can have them, and other henchman (henchperson?) related issues. Really good audience participation in this session too. It probably could have gone on another two hours, but it ended on time and on a high note.

Speaking of high notes, I can't talk about the Minions session without mentioning the man of the hour: the guy in the loud orange Star Wars cantina Hawaiian shirt! I had to get a picture of it, and he was proud to pose. This piece of nerd couture was truly magnificent! It's too early to say this was the best piece of attire of the con (Saturday, after all, is when the cosplayers come out in force), but at the very least, this cat was the best dressed today, hands-down! This IS the shirt we're looking for! In fact, when I came home, I immediately checked online to see if I could buy one. Sadly, the Disney store has sold out of it in the larger sizes. Depression over being denied an awesome aloha shirt is a path to the Dark Side. Must... construct... a red light sabre...



Friday, September 09, 2016

A Harvest of Mini Reviews for the Fall

Harvest season: fat, orange moons lumbering along the horizon; a crispness in the air that warns no matter how hot the days may still be, winter is coming; the crackle of leaves of a million colours underfoot; and the bounty of the fields coming in. What better time to collect a bushel of books read over the summer and serve up a feast of mini reviews.

On the table for your consumption:

League of Dragons by Naomi Novik
The Dinosaur Knights by Victor Milan
Enter the Janitor by Josh Vogt
The Dragon and the Stars edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi
Thunderbird by Jack McDevitt
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
Saint's Blood by Sebastien de Castell
Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay


As always, the spoilage warning is in effect.


----------------------------

League of Dragons
by Naomi Novik

The closing chapter of the Temeraire alternate history series, League of Dragons, opens with Napoleon's army in full retreat from Russia, but the British-Russian-Prussian-Chinese allied forces are still unable to capture the French emperor. As if dealing with food shortages and battle isn't enough, Laurence and his dragon, Temeraire, have to contend with duels with cruel nobles, challenges to Laurence's authority by other British officers, and the imminent hatching of Temeraire Junior. But the question of dragons' rights (spearheaded by Temeraire) becomes the pivotal issue. Napoleon may still gain the upper hand because of his policy of extending full standing as citizens to his dragons. He already has the unswerving loyalty of his own dragons and those of the Inca (through his marriage to that empire's leader), and many feral dragons as well. And his league of dragons may soon win over other powers, including the Tswana in Africa (who succeeded in pushing European colonizers and slavers off of their continent), Japan, India, and some First Nations in North America. The equality issue even threatens to undermine the loyalty of dragons in the UK. As Laurence and Temeraire try to organize a final decisive attack against Napoleon, their hopes are pinned on dragons winning equal rights in Britain in time to gain enough support to win the war in Europe.

Like the other Temeraire novels, League of Dragons is a lot of fun and a good, fast read (if you have the time, you could probably get through it in a day or two). Novik's characters are well-rounded and believable (I know Temeraire is probably supposed to have an English accent, but for some reason, right from the start, I've always imagined him sounding like Henry Gibson as Wilbur in the 1973 animated version of Charlotte's Web), and she's done a good job of portraying British and European societies of the early 1800s.

My only problem with the story is that in the final act, Novik denies the audience the chance to see the head-to-head fight where Napoleon is at last captured. One minute, Laurance, Temeraire, and their air crew are closing on Napoleon and his rogue Chinese dragon, Lien, and the next the battle is over and everyone's preparing to bundle the former emperor off to his exile while they decide how France will be run. For several novels, Novik has been building towards the collision between Temeraire and Lien: the white dragon has launched schemes and intrigues, insulted and threatened Temeraire and Laurence, helped Bonaparte enhance his air corps and recruit feral dragons, and forged his army into a nearly unstoppable juggernaut. The whole time, Temeraire has fretted about her threat and set himself on a course for revenge. And then 'League comes along, with plenty of blow-by-blow bloody scraps with other dragons throughout the plot, but no account of the final reckoning between the opposing Celestial dragons. It's one thing to tease the audience; it's one thing to leave the audience wanting more; but to give us nothing of what the series has been building towards, that's a mistake — no, a failure — that even the 2014 Godzilla avoided (and that flick was bogged-down with dragon-sized plotting mistakes). Does this omission ruin the novel? No. But it does take away some of the lustre from what should be a gem of a story for any dragon-lover's hoard of books.

-------------------------------

The Dinosaur Knights
by Victor Milan

When The Dinosaur Lords hit the shelves last summer, I couldn't get through it fast enough. It was a savage, fun mashup with interesting characters, great action, a cool world (well, pretty hot and muggy, actually), and wonderful yet simple art accompanying the chapter headings. I tore through it like an allosaurus slicing through a duckbill haunch. And I wanted more.

A couple of months ago, volume two, The Dinosaur Knights, finally arrived, and I giddily gorged on it, and it was every bit as sticky sweet tasty as the first book.

'Knights picks up more-or-less where 'Lords leaves off: Voyvod Karyl continues to gather and train an army to defend the territory of Providence — ostensibly run by a commune of "Gardeners" dedicated to beauty and truth — from attacks by cruel neighbouring nobles. This, despite the fact that some of the ruling council of Gardeners are becoming increasingly strident and narrow in their definitions of beauty and truth, undermining their leader, putting Karyl on trial, and taking a greater degree of control over the lives of their region's citizens. Dinosaur master Rob Korrigan continues to support Karyl, acting as spymaster even as he tends to his stable of monsters — whose ranks are swollen by the arrival of a squad of huge triceratops and their fighting crews. Soon the army is joined by imperial princess Melodia (still fleeing the brutal intrigues of the court), who has to survive the hidden dangers of Garden politics, as well as the challenges of becoming the leader of Karyl's light cavalry. But fending-off scheming Gardeners and attacks from local nobles is the least of Karyl's worries: the imperial crusade, under the command of Melodia's lover, Jaume, has now been ordered to scour Providence of the Gardeners. To do this, Jaume has to deal with fanatical priests, the presence of his court rival, Duke Falk, and the on-site supervision of his unpredictable emperor. And it gets worse: one of the feared Grey Angels of legend has re-appeared, raising an army of mindless servants to raze humanity as punishment for supposedly sinning against the gods. Karyl, Melodia, Rob, and their people are caught between the hammer and the anvil as they flee the growing, ravenous horde towards the imperial army.

I really can't say enough about how much I loved The Dinosaur Knights. As popcorn reads of science fiction and fantasy go, this is a huge popcorn ball covered in bourbon-spiked caramel with chunks of toffee and macadamia nuts dipped in fine chocolate. Great characters, a lush, well-built world, and fucking knights riding fucking dinosaurs!!!

This book was so enjoyable that it pains me to say something bad about it. But it has to be said. While there's nothing wrong with the story, the proofreading job done in this book was a mess: glaringly obvious mistakes all over the place that show the proofreader really wasn't paying attention. The problems were so bad that they frequently pulled me out of the story. And a story this good shouldn't suffer because the editing staff dropped the ball (and let it roll right off the court and into the grease catcher beneath the chip wagon in the parking lot).

That said, Victor Milan has told one hell of a tale with The Dinosaur Knights, and I'm waiting eagerly for the next instalment.

------------------------------------

Enter the Janitor
by Josh Vogt

Is it wrong to review a book when you've only read less than half of it? Some might say so. Not me. If the book was bad enough to make me give up on it after 14 chapters, I ought to be able to tell you so. And I will.

Think of Men in Black, or RIPD, or any other science fiction or fantasy story using the trope of the kid who doesn't know what's really going on with the world who suddenly has the curtain pulled back, signs up for the Weirdness Law Enforcement Bureau or whatever it's called, and is taken under the wing of the crusty veteran. Hijinks ensue. Evil is defeated. Add hints of "the chosen one" plot device (or, at least, I was picking up a little of that vibe by the time I got as far as I did), and wrap the goodguys in the guise of janitors fighting evil/chaos/whatever-is-represented-by-dirt-grime-and-all-that-is-gross, and you've got Enter the Janitor.

In this case, we have Dani, a college student who is nearly incapacitated by her germ phobia, in the role of rookie/chosen one, and Ben as the gruff, wizened master. Who lives in his van. And is depicted on the book's cover as looking somewhat like Bruce Campbell, but within the pages is more reminiscent of Scruffy Scruffington, the janitor at Planet Express on Futurama. Dani's in the vicinity when Ben slugs it out with a drain clog demon or whatever in the library washroom and then, well, you know the rest because the plot (at least as far as I got) is standard fare, more-or-less.

In short (because it's just not worth while to go long with ETJ), the story's boring inside its well-trodden concept, the characters are uninspired, it tries like hell to be funny but fails completely, and it comes off as prissy when it (frequently) makes reference to the fact that the characters aren't allowed to swear. Dani tries, but rather than allowing her to get in some cussing in italics to show what she's thinking rather than saying, we're treated to a row of asterisks. It's not like this is the Victorian era, where swearing just wasn't allowed in print. Unless this is a YA book (and I don't see any such branding on my copy), we're all adults here and I think we can handle a "fuck" or "shit" or two. Worse, for some reason it takes Dani a couple of pages before she realizes that nothing's coming out of her mouth when she tries to swear, which makes no sense. I don't know about you, but if I was good and mad and launched into some creative metaphors, I'd realize right away if the desired foul language didn't actually make it out of my mouth when everything else did. Characters should either be allowed to swear or not, but don't go dancing around the issue in chapter after chapter like some smarmy brat needling the kid next to him in a Sunday school class.

Maybe Enter the Janitor cleans up its act in the rest of the book, but with the first 120-odd pages being as lacklustre as they are, I can't be bothered to find out.

------------------------------------

The Dragon and the Stars
edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi

Six years ago, this is the book I'd thought I'd wanted to read. I've mentioned previously that I love short story anthologies showcasing talent from a given country or cultural group. They provide a window into the minds of a people, allowing us a glimpse of their history, the issues that are important to them, and their dreams, aspirations, and nightmares. Ideally, you also get to read some cracking good science fiction and fantasy stories, some of which may have perspectives you haven't considered before. Back in 2010, my wife and I were travelling in Asia — we had to attend a friend's wedding in Bali, and since we were flying all the way over there, we scheduled a couple of weeks in my wife's home of Hong Kong, and tacked-on an extra week to see the sights in Beijing. The whole time we were in Hong Kong, I scoured every bookstore we came across that had an English section to see if it had any anthologies of translated Chinese sf short stories. After all, if we were going to be travelling in the region, it would have been nice to read its particular flavour of nerdity. Sadly, I was out of luck. I was only able to find the usual American and British sf offerings in English. Nothing from the home team (the stores might have had stuff in basic or traditional Chinese text, but that wouldn't have done me any good — my Chinese is limited to speaking a few words and phrases in Cantonese, nothing written).  Fast-forward to 2015, where I stumbled across The Dragon and the Stars at a bookseller's stall at a convention. An anthology devoted to showcasing authors from the Chinese diaspora? I thought it would be exactly the kind of collection I was looking for!

Unfortunately, it didn't meet my expectations in terms of quality.

To be fair, there were a couple of very good stories in it. Tony Pi sets the bar high, starting the collection with the excellent "The Character of the Hound", about a man who allows himself to be possessed by a dog spirit (although perhaps "possessed" is too strong a word, it may be more accurate to say that he plays host to, and partners with, the entity) to help him chase down a thief. "Threes", by EL Chen, is about a woman feeling somewhat adrift in life in part because of the disappearance of her mother years before, who comes home to a pair of squabbling sisters and a father who may be losing his mind — or who may just realize that his lost wife may be returning in an unusual way. A sensitive, well-crafted story that's worth the read. Brenda W Clough's steampunkish "The Water Weapon" was funny and had some punch. And Ken Liu's "Beidou" was a smart, solid read.

That said, the bulk of the contributions to the anthology were mediocre and forgettable, and two entries were flat-out terrible — so bad that it's not worth any time complaining about them in detail.

I'd really hoped for a stronger collection, but The Dragon and the Stars just didn't deliver. And so, while I won't say I'm back to square one where I was six years ago, my search for a really good anthology of Chinese sf (whether it's from people of Chinese heritage from around the world, written in English, or whether it's something that's been translated from contributors living in China) continues.

-----------------------------------

Thunderbird
by Jack McDevitt

Several months ago, I was sent an ARC of Jack McDevitt's Thunderbird to review for SF Signal. While I read the book soon after receiving it, admittedly I procrastinated on writing the review and didn't send anything to the 'Signal before the site took its final bow. So, now I'm finally getting around to it.

Thunderbird is the sequel to McDevitt's 1996 novel Ancient Shores, about the discovery of an ancient boat — and then a star gate — of unknown origin in North Dakota on traditional First Nations territory. In Thunderbird, the local Sioux band council has maintained a tight control over the star gate, even as pressure mounts from the US government and the rest of the world to gain access to the device and the planets it's linked to, while others are calling for its destruction. While the Reserve's chairman recruits scientists (and a local talk show host) to join his people on their explorations of the garden world Eden, the tunnels of the Labyrinth, the derelict space station adrift beyond the edge of the Milky Way, and the other destinations each of these connects to (some of which prove to be inhabited), residents of a couple of surrounding communities begin to have encounters with a mysterious, telepathic cloud creature that's made its way through the gate to Earth.

I'm on the fence about Thunderbird. Didn't love it. Didn't hate it.

On one hand, it kept me reasonably interested and entertained during a six hour plane flight at the end of November that had no seat-back TV/movie service. The story has a solid opening that piqued my interest, and it wasn't hard to get up to speed in a world and set of circumstances already set in motion by a first novel that I hadn't read. In terms of characters, Sioux Chairman James Walker is a thoughtful, even-keeled, personable guy who's so well crafted that he reminded me a lot of a couple of Chiefs, elders, band councillors and treaty negotiators I've met over the years. I also liked the detail that McDevitt puts into his worlds, and the fact that not all of them are safe to just walk into. And there are what look to be a couple of quick references to Farmer's Riverworld and Clarke's Childhood's End that work nicely.

On the other hand, there's a lot about the book that's problematic. The dialogue is often clunky. There are also frequent references to the amount of security staff guarding the stargate site and escorting the exploration teams, but we don't see any signs of decontamination procedures when people come back from their expeditions, or security monitoring of the departure room, or even cameras taken to document the trips to other planets. There's a lot that could go undetected and undocumented, and if the worst that happened was that Louie the cloud creature managed to slip through from the Labyrinth world and cause a few car accidents, these people got very lucky.

Aside from the lack of even a cheap GoPro camera on the expeditions, the staffing is a little weird. Sure, I can understand that April the chemist, who's been the Band's go-to scientist for a while, might be kept on as the scientific lead for a while, but you'd think that when the bridge was discovered on Eden the team would pull back until they could get an anthropologist on board to take over. Especially when the bridge leads them to a first contact situation with the "gorilla" aliens (let's call a spade a spade: the author's brought Big Foot into the story, so now all we need is either Steve Austin or Wild Boy to make an appearance) and their culture.

In terms of the science teams, I was disappointed that on a couple of occasions, McDevitt describes two of the scientists as being overweight and unhealthy. Fat shaming? Really? Just because someone's overweight, doesn't mean they're unhealthy. Describing one character this way would be fine, because not everyone carrying extra weight is capable of going on a hike, but both heavy characters (when only two people in book are described that way)? That's unfair, ignorant, and just plain lazy writing.

Speaking of lazy writing, the story could have done without the President's Chief of Staff, Admiral Bonner. Sure, this is a story that, in some ways, suffers from a lack of antagonists, but Bonner is more of a caricature than a real character: a stereotypical, narrow-minded military man who's only contribution to the stargate discussion is to insist that everything has to be blown up just to be safe. While his role was limited to brief walk-ons to harass the President about the need to make things go kablooey, he was just so ridiculously single-minded as to be unbelievable, and that detracted from the overall believability of the story.

Then there's Brad Hollister, the local radio talk show host. I have no problems with the way Brad is portrayed as a person — as the non-expert on the off-world expeditions, his character is perfect for the reader to identify with. But the descriptions of Brad as a professional broadcaster just don't match with the real world. There's a section where Brad is described as feeling out of place when acting in a news capacity, and doesn't think of himself as a journalist. As a former radio news journalist, I've met several talk show hosts in my time, and none of them would ever feel out of place gathering or presenting the news — or anywhere near a mic, story, or potential audience for matter — and they certainly wouldn't think that they weren't journalists, especially if they were involved with an event as significant as a stargate and exploring other worlds. Talk show hosts are a pretty confident bunch when they're doing their jobs. There's also the bit where Brad returns from an off-world expedition and proceeds to hold a news conference outside the stargate building. Um, no. No self-respecting reporter — or talkshow host, for that matter — especially one working for the local radio station, would ever come back with that kind of a scoop and just start sharing with the other media outlets. A real reporter, anchor, or talkshow host would step off the stargate pad, go to a corner, take out his/her cell phone, and file live to his/her own station first, before coming out and dealing with the competition — and dealing with the competition would at best involve giving details only after first filing for his/her own station, and, at worst would be to smile and say "You'll hear everything on our 4:00 (or whenever) newscast on KLYM!" because being a nice guy is fine as long as your station gets the story first, or you won't be working for that station for very long. Given the attitude of Brad's boss, this approach should be as true in the book as it is in real life.

Then there are the problems with Chairman Walker. For starters, he seems to do a lot of unilateral decision making. Now, I know, different First Nations have different governance policies and traditions, but you'd think he'd consult with his Band Council or a few elders before making half the decisions he does over the course of the book. Especially when it comes to his final choice (super mega ultra spoilage here) to permanently disable the stargate by tossing one of its components into Lake Superior. I just don't buy it that he'd do something that drastic on his own. But, really, I don't believe he'd do something like this at all. Right from the start, Walker is written as a smart, careful guy who makes sure he has a good sense of what's going on around him. The reality is that with a technology this advanced, important, and controversial, the stargate and Walker (and probably everyone else involved with the artifact and science teams) would be heavily monitored by human surveillance teams and electronics (including spy satellites) from every intelligence gathering organization within the US, as well as by other governments, and probably more than a few corporations and other NGOs. Walker wouldn't be able to sneeze without it being documented in detail by several agencies. So there's no way he'd be able to get a piece of stargate equipment out of the artifact, off the Reserve, and into the lake without it being known and without his every movement being tracked to within a metre. He might be able to dump the thing in the lake — for about a day until a recovery expedition was mounted by someone else. And the thing is, until the end of the book anyway, Walker's smart enough to know this, so he wouldn't waste time on a corny and ineffective scheme like this. Again, lazy writing. The book also says at a few points that Walker is feeling a lot of pressure to do something about the stargate, but it doesn't do a very good job of showing the reader how that pressure is manifesting. Sure, there are a few phone calls/enounters with the President, but the President is such a nice guy about it that there's no feeling of urgency to back up his words. There's a single meeting with the Band Council, and a meeting with a corporate CEO, but that's it. There are a lot of better, more visual and thus visceral ways that "pressure" could have been illustrated: new people suddenly showing up in town and following Walker and other Band members around, something to show that his phone was being tapped, or that his email was being intercepted, or government helicopters patrolling the local airspace constantly, or any number of things that would do a better job of illustrating an increasing level of attention from outsiders and an urgency about the future than simple complaints from the Chairman.

And that's a problem with the story as a whole: there really isn't any urgency to any of it. Maybe for a moment when one of the science expeditions runs into a scary creature on a desolate planet, but only for a moment. Then the pacing eases back to its normal, gentle flow, and the plot continues to meander back and forth between different characters and different situations that are interesting without being compelling. In essence, the story wanders like Louie the cloud creature, and, like it, may generate a little excitement from time to time, but mostly is just inoffensive and just kind of there. I certainly didn't mind reading Thunderbird, but I just can't see myself ever picking it up again.

------------------------------------

Dark Eden
by Chris Beckett

I stumbled across Chris Beckett's Dark Eden entirely by accident back in 2014. Apparently, it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2013, but I didn't see it at any of my local bookstores. In '14, I was in London for WorldCon, and one night, after having dinner with some friends, had been wandering the streets of Soho in the rain (no, we hadn't just gone to Lee Ho Foot's for a big dish of beef chow mein, although that would have been tasty) when we ducked into a bookstore (can't remember which one), and Dark Eden caught my eye up in the sf section. And I'm so glad it did.

On the world of Eden, a planet that doesn't get sunlight, where the only light comes from the glowing fruit of geothermal-heat-fed trees and the animals that live among them, the members of the Family live, more-or-less, in contentment. Descended from two ship-wrecked astronauts (one, a cop, the other, a thief), these 530-odd people live a hunter-gatherer existence in a couple of different tribes spread out across their forested valley, practicing a kind of free love semi-matriarchal society and worshipping the artifacts left by their progenitors. Some are normal, while others have deformities no doubt caused by their limited gene pool. One of the hunters, a young man named John, isn't content with their life. The rituals ring hollow to him, the tribal elders seem small-minded and petty,  he wants to explore beyond their valley, and he's becoming more concerned about how the Family keeps growing, while their food sources are becoming scarce. And John isn't the only one: Tina's interested in John, but she's dissatisfied with aspects of the Family's life as well, and concerned with an increasingly ugly turn its politics is taking; and Gerry the crippled genius has reasoned that things will change whether anyone wants them to or not. When John causes a scandal at the Family's annual religious gathering, he's exiled, and Tina, Gerry, and a few other youths and children join him. But living on the fringes of the valley isn't enough, when a thuggish "batface" (someone suffering from a severe hare lip) named David forms a gang that uses intimidation and violence in a growing bid to take over, John, Tina and the others have to undertake a dangerous journey into the cold dark wilderness to try to find another home.

Dark Eden is a superb piece of writing. Its beautiful, dangerous, fairy light world of gloom (like a rave without the uninspired techno music, or a gym light only by Christmas trees, or a bunch of kids playing with flashlights and glowsticks in a dark basement — that is, if a basement or gym or rave warehouse was also populated by six-legged reindeer, and singing black panthers were stalking everyone and everything) is a fresh setting that's detailed and believable. The story taps into elements of Genesis and Exodus — with a generous dash of Mad Max - Beyond Thunderdome flavouring — and doesn't pull any punches about what would happen to people and an ecosystem in this kind of situation. Beckett's characters are well-rounded, evolving, and believable. While John is at times Adam, Moses, a kind of Cain, a great hunter, something of an inventor, and a visionary, he's also (as Tina takes note) stubborn, deliberately emotionally distant, and sometimes manipulative and arrogantly single-minded. And yet, even he grows, learning that sometimes it's best to run rather than fight. Tina changes from a moon-eyed girl chasing after her would-be boyfriend to an astute leader in her own right. Even David, the cruel boss of the Guards, changes from merely being a dismissible asshole in the tribe to an up-and-coming tyrant who cunningly realizes that what's really a simple scandal with a rebellious teenager can be his vehicle for taking power, changing society, and getting pretty much anything he wants.

I can't wait to get into Dark Eden's sequel, Mother of Eden (which I ordered a little while ago and, having arrived, has now moved to the top of my to-be-read pile), and the upcoming conclusion to the series, Daughter of Eden.

-----------------------------------

Saint's Blood
by Sebastien de Castell

A couple of months ago, I was offered an early copy of Saint's Blood — the newest instalment in Sebastien de Castell's Greatcoats series — for review, and  I jumped on it like a fat kid on a Smartie (Okay, admittedly, I am the fat kid, and I would, in fact, jump on a Smartie if it fell out of the box onto the counter or a clean floor — within the 5-second rule limit — in front of me. I mean, come on... Smarties! They're better than M&Ms and you can make the box into a single-note harmonica!). I've greatly enjoyed the first two books (Traitor's Blade and Knight's Shadow) and would have snapped this one up anyway. The fact that it was free was nice, but that's not enough to influence my opinion of a book. So what did I think?

Loads of fun!

This time around, just when Falcio, Kest, Brasti and their companions think they should be closer to restoring the monarchy, order, and justice to the strife-torn land of Tristia, things (of course) spiral increasingly out of control. Someone is torturing and murdering saints, and whipping the peasants into a frenzy of zealotry. Worse: those behind the killings have found a way to drain the saints of their mystical powers and use that energy to supercharge fanatical assassins hellbent on killing Greatcoats — and anyone else standing in their way. Even Tristia's gods aren't safe: the mastermind behind the religious revolution has figured out a way to create a new god, one that will force the land to submit to the new order. And so Falcio and the others, battered, beaten, outnumbered, outgunned, and on the run, have to figure out how to protect their young queen and defeat an opponent powerful enough to make a god. Oh yeah, and there's some cool cane-fighting too.

As usual, de Castell serves-up a story heaped with action and humour, seasoned with heart and intelligence. Reading it, you flinch at every slice of a blade through skin during the duels, you feel Falcio's mind scrabble around like a rat as he tries to figure his way out of one trap or fight or mistake or another, and you feel the confusion and frustration of the Greatcoats as everything they've started to rebuild falls apart and their friends are brutalized with seemingly nothing to be done to help them. You also feel the frustration and sad resignation as two lovers grow apart. But there's the excitement of the chase. There are the smiles as Brasti and the others dig at each other with jibes as merciless as steel. And there's the satisfaction of seeing Tristia move a little closer towards redemption, even if the way it gets there isn't quite how Falcio imagined it would.

The only problem I had with the book was the jarring effect created by the use of first person narration in the chapters dealing with the Greatcoat gang's first encounter with the new god. Normally, riding shotgun with Falcio through this story (and the previous novels as well) works just fine, but when the group has its initial confrontation with the god, Falcio goes out of commission for a while; when he wakes up, the god is gone, and we don't really get a full sense of what was involved that resulted in the god leaving. We're left with the feeling that this newly-minted deity and his handler just kinda wandered off. Granted, that might be sufficient for Falcio in terms of what he experiences as he wakes up to a suddenly much lower threat level, but I don't think so — he doesn't seem like the kind of guy that would be content with waking up and finding out that the big bad has just exited stage left — and it's certainly not sufficient for the reader. In a confrontation like that, it just doesn't seem believable that the god and his handler would say "Well, that pesky Falcio's face-down in the dirt. Kinda takes the fun out of things. Forget about everyone else standing around, let's go get a sandwich or something. Yeah, a sammy sounds good right about now. Maybe liver and onions." and then that Falcio would come back on the scene and not really think anything of it. Admittedly, the bad guy seems to take the greatest amount of satisfaction from tweaking the nose of Falcio in particular, but you'd think that before they moseyed-off into the woods that they'd smite one or two of the other goody-goodies in their path (beyond the damage already done) just for good measure. Possibly a maiming, or even just a wee little permanently-psychologically-damaging snide remark or something. But nope, they just kinda leave, leaving the Greatcoats et al still on their feet just kinda defaulting to fretting over those lying in the dirt without any real questioning of, or explaining, how they're all actually still alive and not still staring down a petulant incarnation of asshattery. It's not a scene that's weak enough to torpedo the entire novel, but it is one that's annoying enough to pull a reader out of the flow of the story for a bit. At the very least, it needs more filling-in-the-blanks/while-you-were-away storytelling from the supporting characters when Falcio's interacting with them again. Certainly more than we're given, which is pretty much nothing. A story this good deserves a little more backstory from the supporting cast to get around the weakness of the first person style when the narrator's attention was elsewhere.

But, like any good duelist, the story shakes off this momentary mistake and gets back to the business of circling in towards its final satisfaction. And it is an immensely satisfying book. The only question is, now that the Greatcoats and their queen have dealt with a god, what could they possibly face next that could be any worse? The way the world seems to like to beat up Falcio, there's no doubt that something worse will be coming soon enough. And, as mean as it sounds, I can't wait to see it.

-------------------------------------

Children of Earth and Sky
by Guy Gavriel Kay

A poor, young artist is summoned to the most dangerous commission of his life: painting the portrait of the Khalif of a powerful and hostile empire across the sea. A noblewoman tries to create a place for herself in the world as forces beyond her control tear the ground out from under her feet again and again. A young archer seeks whatever opportunities she can get that will help her avenge her family. A fledgeling soldier tries to decide what is right as he's swept through the challenges of training camp politics, and warfare. And the son of a merchant searches for wealth beyond his coin purse and the next big deal. As two mighty empires in Guy Gavriel Kay's historical analogue world crash into one another, people from the middle and minor powers on the sidelines (his quarter twist towards fantasy renditions of Venice and Dubrovnik and others going about their business in the shadows of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires) do whatever they can to survive, and, if possible, find happiness.

When you read a Guy Gavriel Kay story, you know you're going to get two things: a set of thoughtful, sensitive stories about believable people (sometimes the mighty, sometimes the humble) living amidst interesting times; and a meditation on life. As with Kay's other tales, Children of Earth and Sky has a tidal ebb and flow between the scrutiny of those lives — each like a wave coming in to shore — and a pulling back to a philosophical mediation (sometimes a humorous musing, sometimes a sad reflection) about what it means to be. Making this rhythmic movement in and out of the plot isn't something that's easily done. To pull back and talk in broad terms about life means temporarily sidelining characters we want to see more of (I'd guess all of us have experienced this in novels that follow the points of view of multiple characters: we enjoy or identify with one or two more than the others, and we want to spend more time with them, and when attention shifts to another character, as much as the story may still be good, we none-the-less can't wait to get back to our favourites). It also radically changes the pace of the plot. And yet, Kay manages this deftly, giving us enough time with the characters to grow to love them (mostly), and then pulling back in such a way that we don't resent it, because those general meditations on life become a kind of literary gentle hand on the shoulder, helping us understand how we feel about what's happening and how these events illustrate the way of the world, and telling us it's okay to feel the way we do.

As for the characters themselves, in his usual fashion, Kay teases us with a supporting cast who walk into and out of the story briefly (and yet are three dimensional, believable, and have the power to make an emotional impression on the reader) either to engage the clutch of protagonists and then go about their lives, or, in some cases, to start down important paths, only to die. As much as we may want to see more of some of these characters (Give me more Ambassador Orso Valerii! Who else pictured him as a younger Londo Mollari, still unburdened by a life of political failures and the long, slow retreat of a dying empire?), the richness of their brief appearances makes Kay's world more believable, and gives greater weight to the actions, thoughts, and feelings of the protagonists, as well as the movements of the world they have to deal with. And, of course, the protagonists themselves are as fully rounded as people you'd meet in your life (moreso in some cases). You may not know a Danica who's looking for the first opportunity to go out with a bow and arrow and execute everyone from a certain country/faith that she holds responsible for the deaths of her family, but you probably do know a young person who's driven towards a certain goal and is prepared to make any sacrifice necessary to get it. You may not know a Pero Villani on his way to paint the portrait of a foreign leader who could kill him, but you probably do know someone who's been manipulated by leaders and managers for their own ends, who will suffer even if he doesn't make the wrong move, while the powerbrokers who put him in that position remain untouchable. We learn where these characters come from, see how their situations have shaped their attitudes and goals, and watch as they grow over the course of the story — or beyond, throughout their lives, as each character's story is tied up. Not necessarily neatly — there is real, aching heartbreak in one of the story threads that you wouldn't necessarily expect. But these people's lives are all concluded believably.

I also loved the little throwaway details scattered throughout the book that helped make the world of Children of Earth and Sky feel bigger than just the story, older, and more complete. Things like the little references (in the form of artifacts, and at least one character) to the Byzantine-style empire of the previous era detailed in Kay's other books. There are the two moons. Or the ring of blue fire in the depths of the palace, or the spectral voice in the old temple, reminding us that Kay's world is a place where ghosts are real, where there's still magic (if fading magic at that) and that as much as it might seem like our Earth in the past, it isn't. Not quite.

The success of Children of Earth and Sky is that you don't want it to end, and yet, you find yourself content with its ending. Again, it's that narrative hand on the shoulder giving a reassuring squeeze because endings are a part of life, but another part of life is being able to look forward to the next story from Guy Gavriel Kay.


Sunday, August 21, 2016

Dragon Tales - A Review of Disney's Remake of Pete's Dragon

Disney's original Pete's Dragon means a lot to me. In 1977, when I was 3, it was the first movie my parents took me to see. Nearly 40 years later, I still remember walking through the theatre lobby, waiting in line for popcorn, getting seated and realizing that the movie had already started, but not caring because it was the scene where Pete and Elliot are romping through the apple orchard happy and free. I remember Jim Dale's Doctor Terminus and Red Buttons' Hoagy crooning their deliciously evil song "Every Little Piece", and Elliot going berserk in the boat house, and then saving the day by lighting the lighthouse lamp. It wasn't just my first trip to the movies, it was the story that hatched my life-long love of dragons, and, to some extent, fantasy and science fiction in general.

So I was very, very cautious a while ago when word came out that The Mouse was going to take another crack at this wonderful dragon tale. Sure, the original is a little corny in that classic Disney animated musical kind of way, and its early 1900s setting might be a little lost on an audience of modern kids (and many adults!), but it's also beautiful to look at and, at its heart, is a good story with a lot of heart. In general, as I've mentioned often before, I'm skeptical of remakes of movies that don't need to be remade. But I figured I had to give it a chance. It was going to be, after all, a movie with a dragon in it.

[From this point on, like any old map that warns "Here there be dragons", consider yourself warned: Here there be spoilers!]

This evening, my wife and I went to catch a showing of the new Pete's Dragon at the local bazillionplex, and, I have to say, I really enjoyed it!

In this version, Pete is orphaned in a car accident in the woods at the age of 5, and rescued by a lonely dragon who takes the child under his wing (pun intended). A few years later (this version is set in the early 1980s — almost, but not quite as alien to modern audiences as the Edwardian era of the original), Pete's discovered by a forest ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and a bunch of loggers, and taken back to their nearby mill town, causing Elliot, the dragon, to begin a desperate search for the boy. The dragon is disheartened when he finally tracks Pete down and sees that the boy is happy with the humans who have taken him in. When Pete tries to introduce Elliot to his new family (which includes Grace's father, Meacham, played by Robert Redford), the dragon is captured by one of the loggers. Pete must then find a way to free Elliot, and the friends then face the challenge of making a new life in a world that won't let them stay together.

It's a sweet story. Pete and Elliot have some wonderful moments together, and Redford's account of his encounter with a dragon in the forest years before is, itself, magical.

The Weta special effects team has done a gorgeous job with Elliot, although he too (like the story itself) has been reconceptualized. In the old movie, Elliot was a tubby, green version of a Chinese dragon, rendered in classical Disney animation, with stunted wings and no barbels or chin beard, who, despite only vocalizing in grunts, croons, whistles, clicks, and growls, was clearly understood by the humans around him as though he was speaking English (likely due to some kind of telepathy). He was also able to turn invisible. The new Elliot retains the invisibility trick, but his wings are much larger, and his appearance is furry and like a canine-inspired western dragon, and there's no telepathy — humans discern his meaning from body language, the tone of his vocalizations, and the emotion in his eyes. The new, photoreal Elliot, armed with an array of sharp teeth, is also much more intimidating than his predecessor. A thoroughly different dragon, but this one will do nicely.

I also loved the cloudscapes in the background during the forest scenes at the beginning of the film, and in the mountains at the end. Admittedly, it could have been my eyes playing tricks, trying to find patterns where none actually exist, but I'm pretty sure that in several of those shots, some of the clouds looked like dragons. One cloud in the beginning when Elliot and Pete first soared really high looked a lot like the old Elliot. A trick of my mind, maybe, but this is a Disney film with a Weta special effects crew, and those teams have proven time and again over the years how deeply concerned they are with details. I suspect that what I thought I saw was actually there (cue Lampy/Mickey Rooney's "I swear I saw a dragon!" song from the original); that they have intentionally seeded the cloudscapes with outlines of dragons.

I also enjoyed the nod the special effects team made to the original, keeping Elliot's flying style as a kind of twisting bumble through the air (though his inability to land properly in the new version was a bit annoying).

It was also nice to see Elliot get to spend the rest of his life with a dragon family of his own at the end, rather than just kind of mosey off to wander the Earth alone, occasionally helping other people, like the dog in The Littlest Hobo (thought I was going to make a Pulp Fiction/Kung Fu reference, didn't ya?).

Where the new movie suffers is that it has a much weaker story and characterization than the original.

First, Grace, despite being kind and loving, is lacking in any real strength. She's a forest ranger and (as we see from her introductory scene) interested in protecting wildlife, but she does nothing but stand on the sidelines ineffectually wringing her hands when Elliot is captured. A wild creature, never before catalogued, in a forest she's tasked to protect, and she takes no preventative measures when it is taken down in an alarmingly brutal fashion and dragged off to be imprisoned in a dark mill warehouse in chains. Let's compare Grace to Nora (played by Helen Reddy), the lighthouse keeper's daughter, from the original, who takes in Pete and is every bit as ferocious as a dragon protecting its hoard when she defends Pete from his evil adopted parents, the Gogans. The Gogans try physical intimidation, and Nora threatens to pound them. They cite their adoption contract, claiming ownership of the boy, and she refuses to accept that it has any kind of authority and basically dares them to do anything. The new version of Pete's Dragon would have been so much better — and believable — if Grace had been more like Nora and immediately rounded on the loggers during the capture scene and threatened to bring down the full force of whatever animal protection laws (or relevant fish and game jurisdiction) that were in place in the 80s, maybe made an arrest if she had the authority, or made a phonecall afterwards to a well-funded and highly visible animal protection NGO like Greenpeace. Instead, Grace is too busy looking weepy.

And speaking of threats, a huge problem with this film is that there's no clearly-defined villain. In the original, we had both the Gogans and Dr Terminus. The Gogans were abusive and worked Pete like a slave, and probably would have eventually killed him one way or another if they'd succeeded in recapturing him. Terminus, the snake oil salesman, wanted to kill Elliot, cut him to pieces, and sell off "every little piece" to make "money, money, money by the pound!" These were all awful people who represented a real threat to our heroes. By contrast, the closest thing we have to a villain in the modern version is Gavin (played by Karl Urban), one of the owners of the logging/mill company, who is concerned for Pete's welfare, treats everyone else nicely enough, and just wants to capture Elliot (Meacham even confronts Gavin about capturing the dragon without really knowing what he wants to do with it). So Gavin's kind of a dick, but not remotely evil. Which completely puts out the fire of any kind of serious threat to Pete or Elliot. Sure, we know that if Gavin gets his way, Elliot's certainly not going to be enjoying his freedom in the forest, but there's no indication that his heart is going to be removed and "wrapped up in a ribbon with a string" like Terminus would have done. Sure, in the modern era, we like to see characters, even villains, more well-rounded to be believable; and yeah, I can see why Disney wouldn't want to make Gavin a classic bad guy because they clearly don't want to alienate loggers or mill workers or their families who could be in the paying audience (Disney's also obviously shying-away from making much of a statement about logging — especially 1980s-style logging — and its environmental impacts), but without an antagonist who's clearly on the wrong side of the moral compass (as opposed to Gavin's mere self-centred brashness), there isn't the same ability to generate tension, nor is there the moral payoff when the goodguys prevail. About the closest thing we get in this movie to a real badguy is the deer that causes the car accident in the beginning that kills Pete's parents. My theory is that this Bambi, lashing out in blind vengeance against any human he comes across to settle the score for the death of his mother. If there's any justice in the Disney world, hopefully Elliot ate him sometime later (look at the big green guy's canines: he's clearly enjoying venison and other game every couple of days) and saved a haunch to roast for his new friend's dinner.

The other major weakness in the film is that there are no big life-or-death stakes. As mentioned above, Elliot's imprisoned here with an uncertain future, but it's not a given that he's going to die, like Terminus' plan in the original. Pete loses his parents in the opening act, but that's just the set-up. The rest of the film doesn't create any impression that he's in danger. Life with Elliot is good. Life with Grace, Natalie, Jack and Meacham is also good. The prospect of being taken by Social Services is obviously not as good as life with Grace et al, but the story doesn't impune the foster system in any way (again, Disney's probably stepping carefully here so as not to offend anyone working in Social Services, or any of the many good foster parents or adoptive parents out there). So the prospect of losing Elliot is definitely sad, but in no way holds the same kind of horror that was in store for Pete in the original if the Gogans had their way. Also, there's no risk to anyone else in this modern version. The original upped the ante by having a ship — carrying Nora's long-lost fiance (who, if I remember, had been injured and afflicted with amnesia in some distant port until Elliot found him and cured him) among its crew —pushed by a storm towards the rocks near the town, and the lighthouse's lamp disabled by a wet wick. Elliot had to do more than just free himself and save Pete — he had to relight the lamp to save the sailors from dying and Nora from losing her fiancĂ© once and for all. The closest we get to a big save in the new version is Elliot rescuing Grace and her boyfriend Jack (in a really vague — and this is stretching it — kind of full circle nod back to the fatal car accident in the beginning), which doesn't have quite the same punch. It would have been better (and more symbolically appropriate) if he'd had to use his fire to create a firebreak to save the town from a forest fire or something — anything to make the stakes bigger than just one family.

But for all its failings, the new Pete's Dragon manages to soar, and I'd certainly watch it again.