Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Star Wars Rogue One - a Cautionary Tale about the Dangers of Bad Upper Management

When we watch Star Wars films, we expect action and adventure, plucky heroes who defy the odds, and stories that reassure us that good eventually triumphs over evil. The newest instalment in the franchise, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, delivers all of that, though in a darker, grittier fashion than its predecessors. But what's most interesting is something else that it does: Rogue One offers a cautionary tale about the dangers of bad upper management.

This movie doesn't just contain flat depictions of tyrants who are evil simply because they want to rule the universe. It's an in-depth study of the different types of real, toxic personalities who get into positions of power and weaken organizations; their failings; and the consequences of these problems. What's particularly impressive is that it's not just the Empire that's held up to the microscope; the flaws of the good guys — the leaders of the Rebel Alliance — are exposed too.

Yes, yes. Of course. Spoilers ahead and all that.

Rogue One is told through the eyes of two people trying to find their way in the world. The first is orphan Jyn Erso, a young woman trying to escape from Imperial custody, find her lost father (who was kidnapped by the Empire to help with the Death Star project), and — eventually — bring freedom to the galaxy. The other is Orson Krennic, an Imperial officer who's enthusiastic about his work (as the project leader for the Death Star's construction), and wants some recognition for a job well done — and maybe a promotion.

Both run tragically afoul of bad upper managers in their respective workplaces. Unless you're very fortunate, at some point you've probably worked for, or with, one or more of these types of executives, and you understand the havoc they can wreak on employees and organizations.

Krennic would seem to be the most obvious example of someone who's been victimized by bad managers. Ranking somewhere in the fluid wilderness of middle management on the Imperial org chart (sure, the Death Star is the Empire's biggest project at the moment — that we know about — but Krennic's pay grade isn't as high as a regional governor/Grand Moff, probably not as high as an admiral, certainly not on the level of one of the Emperor's ministers, and definitely not anywhere near a Sith Lord), Krennic is dedicated to doing anything and everything to make his assignment a success. Is he evil? Absolutely. It's hard to feel much pity for someone who's cavalier about mass murder as a measure of his project's success, and who includes kidnapping and murder as part of acceptable human resources practices (even if these activities are accepted part of the Empire's corporate culture). And yet there's no denying that Krennic gets a raw deal. Never mind the expected challenges of having to recruit the right talent (I mean, come on, flying all the way out to the middle of nowhere for a head-hunting meeting to land Galen Erso must have been a real scheduling hassle), obtain the necessary resources, deal with the actual designing of the battlestation (after all, we don't know how much effort the Seperatist forces actually put into the Death Star's blueprints during the Clone Wars — Darth Tyranus might have left Geonosis with nothing more than an exterior appearance concept sketch saved to a jpg file waiting to be printed on a big foamcore sheet for a public information/zoning hearing), planning the construction logistics, and actually getting the thing built, the guy's gotta deal with some of the worst senior management in the galaxy. Starting with Grand Moff/Governor Tarkin.

Because Tarkin is a bully.

Without getting involved in any of the hard work himself, Tarkin constantly tells Krennic that his work isn't good enough, pressures him to get to the job done faster, and threatens him with punishment if the Death Star project fails or has operational shortcomings. It goes without saying that  threatening an employee and putting him or her down all the time doesn't foster top-notch work or loyalty. And demanding faster work on a complex project leads to corner-cutting, stress- and fatigue-induced mistakes, and the potential for disaster.

Moreover, Tarkin's refusal to take any responsibility for delay or failure (also the hallmark of a bullying manager) is done without a hint of irony on his part, even though the governor always reminds Krennic that he is in charge. Tarkin complains about security breaches even though he's heaped security oversight duties onto Krennic, who's specialty is R&D engineering and wearing crisp white tunics and capes, and who's already overworked as the construction foreman. The fault lies with Tarkin for not doing the smart thing and hand-picking oh, I don't know, maybe an actual veteran security expert from the ranks of the Imperial Starfleet or the Emperor's red-robed praetorian guard to handle security for the Empire's biggest and most expensive weapon right from the start. Rather than admitting his mistake or responsibility, Tarkin heaps more pressure and blame on Krennic. You just know that if there was a mis-fire of the Death Star's planetkiller laser, and if the Emperor then called a project post-mortem meeting to discuss what went wrong, Tarkin would bring Krennic along to make a PowerPoint presentation prior to the next item on the agenda: screaming, writhing death by Force lightning.

And, while doing none of the actual work, Tarkin is also the kind of senior manager who relishes in taking all of the credit for successful projects. When Krennic announces that the Death Star is complete and it's main gun is ready for its first firing, Tarkin denies him the opportunity to blow up an entire planet (as the weapon was designed to do), limiting the test to the destruction of a mere city. Tarkin's excuse: "We need a statement, not a manifesto." But that's a lie. If you build a planetkiller, it needs to be tested on a planet, or at least a good-sized moon. But Tarkin doesn't want that to happen while Krennic is around, because Tarkin refuses to allow for the possibility of anyone other than himself getting credit for the success of Project Death Star. He allows Krennic to be present for the destruction of the temple city on Jedha just to make sure that the gun works — a statement, if you will, of its functionality for his own progress reports — but Tarkin clearly wants the public destruction of an entire planet — the issuing of the Empire's manifesto of its supreme power — to be ordered, overseen by, and credited to himself alone. There's a real emphasis on Tarkin being associated with the weapon's first major test, and with that being necessarily highly publicly visible. We see this later (in the overall timeline of the franchise) in the governor's statement to Princess Leia in A New Hope about the need to destroy Alderaan because Dantooine was too remote. It's pretty clear that Tarkin had two criteria to determine the completeness of the project: the successful test fire of the main gun (because, hey, if you can take out a city and the surrounding countryside, the planetkiller setting will probably work too), and the elimination of any possible security leaks around the battlestation's plans. Once the city on  Jedha was destroyed, Tarkin's only use for Krennic was to do the mop-up dirty work of killing anyone who might have leaked the details of the station's schematics. After that, Tarkin could get rid of Krennic so he could take all the credit for the Death Star's success for himself.

And there's no doubt that getting rid of Krennic was always part of Tarkin's plan. As stated before, the governor was all too willing to throw Krennic under the bus in the event of failure, but the outcome of the raid on Scarif also makes it pretty clear that Tarkin was going to eliminate him one way or another even if the project was a success. Tarkin blows up the Imperial archive base on Scarif knowing full well that Krennic is down there (on Tarkin's orders). Could Krennic have been killed in the fighting? Sure. But he could also still be alive. Tarkin doesn't even bother to call and check. Given his success on the Death Star, Krennic is obviously one of, if not the most effective project managers currently in the Empire — an important staff resource for any organization. And yet Tarkin's all to willing to vaporize him with a giant laser or see him crushed by a tsunami just to ensure that the governor gets all the credit for himself. Under these circumstances, it's not unreasonable to speculate that even if Krennic and the archive base's general had succeeded in crushing the Rebel raid and prevented the Death Star plans from being transmitted off-site, Tarkin would still have found a way to remove him. Best case scenario: Tarkin would have banished Krennic to some unimportant outpost in the middle of nowhere where no-one of rank would ever hear from him again. No further work on major projects like "Black Sabre" or "Scruffy Nerf-herder" or whatever other labels get put on the Emperor's X-files, just assignments like designing a new sewage system for an abandoned industrial park on Coruscant, or testing the cold resistance of Wookiee hair versus Wampa fur, or evaluating the nutritional value of blue milk versus Gorax armpit sweat. Worst case scenario: Tarkin would have had Krennic executed as soon as he was back aboard the Death Star, if not blown out of the sky when his shuttle was on final approach. You could argue that if Krennic had survived, he would have been a risk to the Empire if Tarkin ignored or marginalized him, because, for revenge, he could have defected to the Rebellion or at least sold the battlestation's blueprints to them. But it's a lot simpler than that. Tarkin is type of manager who's insecure about staff who do good work and have ambition about advancing through the company ranks. Tarkin wanted all of the credit, Krennic demanded to be recognized for his efforts, and so Krennic was going to die.

Grand Moff Tarkin: the type of senior manager who bullies staff by threatening them and telling them that they're of no consequence, who makes unreasonable demands on project completion, who refuses to share any responsibility for failure, and who buries staff who do good work so he can take all the credit.

But he's not the only example of a toxic senior management style. There's also Darth Vader: the wagon circler.

When things get bad working under Tarkin, Krennic goes to the next executive on the ladder (or, even if Vader isn't Tarkin's superior, he's at least another vice-president-level boss who has some interest in the project) and asks for some intervention, or at least clarification of roles and responsibilities. As is proper. After all, most organizations would say that ideally, if a staffer has a problem with his or her boss, the staffer should try to work things out with the boss, and, failing that, go up the ladder or to HR. Krennic does that. And is told by the Dark Lord of the Sith to fall in line, quit whining and get the job done, and forget about any aspirations for a promotion. There's obviously a problem with Tarkin's behaviour, but instead of doing anything about it, Vader's the type of senior manager who circles the wagons with other executives when something goes wrong. Whether it's because Vader and Tarkin are golf buddies at the Emperor's annual Texas scramble tournament, or because the Sith Lord thinks he's already got enough on his plate without having to deal with an HR issue in someone else's department, or because he wants to avoid getting into a pissing match with another VP, or because the Emperor's apprentice thinks that dealing with a problem involving another senior manager would expose a weakness in the organization's overall management staffing and strategy that would make all the executives look bad, or because Ani just doesn't give a shit about the little people, he does nothing. It's a management style that's bad for any organization because it hurts morale, increases the likelihood of losing good workers, and can ultimately cause operations to go off the rails because the people in charge are making poor decisions. Need proof? Vader does nothing about Tarkin's behaviour during the Death Star's construction, initial testing, and the raid on Scarif, resulting in not only the loss of a talented engineer and project manager, but an entire archiving base (and who knows how many important documents contained therein that didn't have copies in other locations), two Star Destroyers, several fighters, and countless personnel. One might even argue that Tarkin's behaviour in Rogue One planted the seeds for the Death Star's destruction in A New Hope. And Vader could have intervened and prevented the whole affair. Instead he chose to back, or at least tolerate, Tarkin and his bad management practices.

But don't think that having toxic executives is a failing exclusive to the Empire. It would be too easy to dismiss it as simply being a case of an evil begetting evil and necessarily attracting people to senior management who are flawed to the point of weakening their organization. After all, look at Hank Scorpio (The Simpsons), Aunty Entity (Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome), or Thulsa Doom (1982's Conan the Barbarian). These are badguys who have built fairly solid organizations, expanding the reach and success of their operations, building infrastructure, hiring effective and unified senior managers (mostly), recognizing risks and trying to deal with them, and generally treating their staff well. Bad upper management is a risk any organization (large or small, public or private sector, corporate or non-profit, good or evil) runs if it doesn't honestly look at and monitor its senior management as scrupulously as it does its front-line staff. Rogue One makes it abundantly clear that the Rebel Alliance has this problem too. And it's a problem that ultimately gets Jyn Erso killed.

Let's start with General Draven: the close-minded manager.

Draven is apparently the chief of the Rebellion's covert operations/dirty tricks/black ops/assassination division. Initially, he appears to be ruthlessly effective at the job, coordinating Cassian Andor's activities, identifying Jyn as a potential asset and ordering her extraction from Imperial custody (you can't really say that she was "freed" because the Rebels don't give her her liberty once she's out of the prison wagon — K-2SO knocks her flat), and coordinating an air strike on the Imperial kyber refinery on Eadu. In fact, his goal of engineering the murder of Galen is so single-minded and unremitting that he seems as bloodthirsty as Saw Gererra is rumoured to be. And yet, it's that single-mindedness that makes Draven a poor senior manager in the Rebellion hierarchy. When his operatives bring Jyn to him, his only thought is to use her to flush out her father so the Death Star engineer can be killed. There's no indication that Draven is willing to consider using Jyn to capture Galen to pump him for information, or maybe convert him to the Rebel cause and put him to work helping to actively identify weaknesses in the battlestation and coordinate attacks, or maybe even design some cool weapons or defensive systems for the Alliance that might help even the odds against the superior Imperial fleet. Instead, he's fixated on assassination and wastes a potential resource. In fact, his well-organized airstrike on Eadu proves that he jumps the gun rather than thinking out the possibilities — were it not for the X-wing attack on the refinery, Galen might have been alive for the Rebels to kidnap and exploit.

Draven is also a victim of limited thinking in the wake of the Eadu attack when he refuses to consider the possibility that Jyn (and by extension, Galen) may be telling the truth about the Death Star having a critical weakness in its design. He then goes further and argues against any attempt to try to steal the battlestation's plans. A lack of faith in front-line employees is a sure way to demoralize them and cause the organization to lose talented staff. If Draven had been better at his job and more open to possibilities, the raid on the Imperial archive on Scarif could have been better planned, equipped, and staffed. Rather than merely being a success because Jyn's commandos and Admiral Raddus' fleet were able to get the plans out (and only being a success because of that hand-off, since nearly everybody died in the attempt), a better organized raid might have resulted in the capture of other important information from the archive (like, say, the names of Imperial agents sent to infiltrate the Rebellion, or structural plans that would facilitate a break-in at the Imperial palace on Coruscant, or the list of Emperor Palpatine's favourite hamburger toppings that could be poisoned — or worse, waylaid to create Imperial frustration with an inadequately dresesed burger) and maybe more of the Rebel staff making it out of that raid alive. And Draven has to take some of the blame for those losses. Caution is one thing, but a good manager knows to look at all the possibilities, and is sometimes willing to take a chance on a plan that could have a big pay-off. In many respects, Draven's the kind of person who should never have made it to the executive level. Rather, he'd be more effective at a much lower management level where he could focus on one particular set of tasks, and where he couldn't limit the Rebellion's ability to at least investigate, if not completely exploit, new opportunities.

Speaking of hardasses, Saw Gererra is another senior manager you wouldn't want to have in your organization. He's the brilliant tactician who's doesn't understand long-term planning.

Now, let's get the obligatory detail-obsessed nerdy nitpicking out of the way: technically, no, Gererra is not an official member of the Rebel Alliance. He's the independent leader of a separate terrorist group who's seen as a little too extreme by the Rebel leadership (The Rebels shoot nervous contacts in alleys; Gererra's people start firefights with Imperial transport columns in the middle of busy urban streets where tiny children are present, so it's a matter of degrees between Rebel freedom fighters and Gererra terrorists. I guess.). But that's splitting hairs. Clearly Gererra and the Rebel leaders know each other and it's likely they've worked together in the past, and while they've technically gone their separate ways, Draven's attempt to contact Gererra for info on Galen is clearly and indication that there's a desire to work together again in the future. So he's separate, but not that separate. Like a former partner in a business who's become an independent contractor that might be brought back in at some point, or the head of a stakeholder agency that's in the same field who might be convinced to partner-up on certain sectoral initiatives, or the head of a separate division in a large conglomerate.

So, under the overall umbrella of groups rebelling against the Empire, as executive team members go, Gererra is highly effective at leading his team when he's focussed on challenges in front of him, like organizing an ambush, or roughing-up a defecting Imperial pilot to determine his reliability. But in the final analysis, he's a poor leader because he hasn't planned ahead, addressed major threats to the organization (like the possibility of something big coming along and blowing everybody up), or come up with strategies to prevent, minimize, or evade those threats. Granted, to be fair, something as ridiculously huge as the Death Star and its ability to destroy Jedha's temple city and Gererra's base  and several hundred square kilometres of surrounding territory might be unforeseeable. Except for the fact that the Death Tomato-er-Star (Muppet Babies flashback) was sitting there in orbit for all to see, getting shipments of kyber crystals everyday, which should have tipped him off that something seriously bad could happen. But even beyond that, Gererra doesn't escape criticism because he could have planned for other, entirely reasonable threats to his base, like having its security compromised and its location leaked, and waking up one day to have a Star Destroyer parked overhead about to begin an overwhelming aerial/spatial bombardment — which would have had the same practical effect as the blast wave from the nearby strike from the Death Star's main gun. Gererra should have installed planetary-defence-strength shields like the Rebels later did on Hoth in 'Empire, or, if that strong an energy signature would have advertised his position, then at least a means to evacuate all of his troops quickly and efficiently (like a transport, or set of escape pods, or super high-speed underground rail line). Anything to get his people out safely and allow them to regroup and launch a counter-attack. But he didn't. The very real possibility of having his base wiped off the map in some form of attack didn't occur to him. And it got all of his people — including Gererra himself — killed.

Back within the ranks of the Rebel Alliance proper, if we're looking for more examples of bad management at the executive level, pretty much every faction leader around the board room table is guilty of weakening their organization. With the exception of Admiral Raddus, Senator Bail Organa, and Senator Mon Motha (although her managerial failings will be examined shortly), none of them recognize the opportunity presented by Jyn's Death Star information (either disbelieving her or not bothering to take the time to consider it) to take the initiative in the next phase of the war against the Empire. They're also unable to agree on a single course of action for the common good. There isn't even any talk of compromise: different faction leaders just start threatening to walk away from the table. This leaves the Rebellion in the position of doing nothing in the face of a new threat, and creates the very real possibility that its factions could break apart, rendering each less effective in mounting a resistance (whether armed or merely politically) and making it easier for the Empire to pick them off one by one. This lack of solidarity among the members of the senior management team and their inability to act on opportunity makes them, as much as General Draven, responsible for the raid on Scarif being as ill-planned as it was, and for the deaths of everyone involved and the loss of valuable equipment.

Which takes us right to the top: Senator Mon Motha, the weak leader.

Admittedly, there are differences between being the leader of a coalition engaged in an armed political uprising and the CEO of a corporation or executive director of a non-profit or chief bureaucrat or elected official in a government. More diplomacy is needed; firing people can be difficult when they're volunteers who are armed and don't want to leave; and if one of your faction leaders doesn't like how things are going, they can pack up an entire division of the organization and go their own way — or knock the boss off and take over. Although, a disloyal exec can quit, entice talent away from the company, and set up his/her own shop,  and those with an eye on power can sweet-talk a company or charity's board of directors into changing the leadership. So it is fair to criticize Mon Motha in the context of allowing bad senior managers to hold her organization back.

As the leader of the Rebel Alliance (and it's pretty clear that she is the CEO, or president, or chair of the board, or executive director, based on her interactions with Draven, how she's trying to run the meeting of the heads of the various Rebel factions, and, later in Return of the Jedi, how she's on-site prior to the attack on Death Star II to give the big pep talk), Mon Motha suffers from a pair of related problems: she can't keep control of her senior executives, and she's unable ensure their unity.

From the scenes in the Rebel command centre on the moon of Yavin, we get the impression that Draven reports to Mon Motha. He may plan and coordinate military operations, but it's pretty clear that he has to keep her apprised of the situation, and that she has the final say in what's going to happen. This is emphasized when Jyn and Cassian are about to leave for Eadu, and Draven quietly takes the spy aside and instructs him to kill Galen regardless of how things go. The fact that the general does this so surreptitiously gave me the impression that he wasn't just trying to prevent Jyn from overhearing; he didn't want Mon Motha catching wind of the scheme either because she'd disapprove and possibly override him. The fact that this is happening at all illustrates that the senator doesn't have control over her senior staff. How many other operations are going on without her knowledge or consent that might impact the Rebellion's survival — or it's public image (something a career politician would be especially sensitive to)? If she had control over her executives, this wouldn't have happened.

This lack of control over her senior management team becomes a full-blown crisis at the end of the film when she's unable to keep the various faction leaders unified as they react to the news of the Death Star's destruction of the temple city on Jedha. Some, like Admiral Raddus, want to keep fighting, others insist on hiding, others think the war's over and they should disband, while some call for open negotiations with the Empire, which is tantamount to surrender. It ends with some groups walking away from the table and threatening to leave the Alliance if other factions insist on fighting and possibly incurring the Empire's planet-killing wrath. It also ends with Jyn and Casssian leading a band of other front-line staff in an impromptu raid on Scarif without the knowledge of Mon Motha and the other executives, and thus without the opportunity for better planning. And Mon Motha is helpless through the whole thing.  She clearly doesn't have enough control over the others — whether through respect or leverage — to make a final decision, issue an order, and have them follow it. She's unable to bring them around to her position through reason or diplomacy. And she fails to inspire them to remain united and redouble their efforts to bring down the Empire. There's no rousing "Will you stand together?" speech like Captain Sheridan's when he returned from Z'ha'dum on Babylon 5, or the not-quite-as-strong-but-still-adequate "Victory or death!" speech from Ambassador Enduran in The Last Starfighter. Rather, she's ringing her hands helplessly, probably dreaming of the future when in Return of the Jedi when she can make a sad little statement about the deaths of many Bothans (thereby alienating everyone else in the Alliance who's worked to expose the secret construction of Death Star II). It's a failure to give them the inspiration for success that they need when they need it the most. The result is a Rebel Alliance so fractious that anyone can do pretty much anything he/she wants.

That's not to say Mon Motha needs to be like her opposite number, Emperor Palapatine. There's no need for Force lightning or choking, Order 66, or Death Stars. But a good CEO needs to have earned the respect of her senior managers so that when she makes an informed decision and issues orders, they'll carry them out. Because Mon Motha fails in this respect, it's amazing the Alliance managed to survive, never mind eventually win control over a sizeable chunk of the galaxy.

The New Republic seems to have been founded in spite of its leadership, not because of it. For that matter, the Empire seems to have rolled along as long as it did on inertia, rather because of any quality in its executive team (at least those presented in the films). Ultimately, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story isn't standing on a soapbox and shouting a full manifesto on how to build the perfect organization, nor is it a class warrior anarchist screed against all people in positions of power. But it does make a statement about the dangers of having bad upper management. And when we hear regular stories in the news about organizations plagued by workplace bullying and harassment, disaffected and burnt-out employees, companies or whole industries weakened by short-sightedness or dissension among the ranks, or greedy leaders focussed only on their own personal gain, it seems Rogue One is perhaps the most grimly relevant instalment of the Star Wars franchise for our times.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Becoming a Caricature of Myself

Happy New Year, everyone! Whatever you celebrated this past holiday season — even if it was just a chance to sit back and relax for a day — I hope everything went well for you and the new year is off to a good start.

Normally I try not to brag about my holiday haul of presents, but one (well, two, given together) was so nerdily awesome that I just had to share:

My wife had a couple of caricatures done portraying me as Ned Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire and Captain Chaos (perhaps the greatest superhero of all time) from The Cannonball Run (she decided that both should also include representations of our science fictionally-named cats, Ripley and Melanie, making trouble, as usual). The art was done by a friend of hers, Karen Poon, who was one of the animators on My Little Pony.

For years, I'd always thought it would be fun to have a little vanity piece like a personalized comic book cover hanging in my study, and while these pictures aren't quite the same thing, they're pretty cool and will get their place of pride on the wall.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Drowned in Moonlight

Leia shot first.

In the opening act of Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope — or just Star Wars as we called it in the late 70s and early 80s —when the Rebel blockade runner is boarded by Imperial troops, after getting the Death Star plans away in Artoo Deetoo, Princess Leia is confronted by a squad of stormtroopers. Does she scream? Beg for mercy? Vainly make a weak, half-hearted slap against the soldiers' chest plates as they drag her way? Collapse in a faint? No. She calmly pulls out her space Magnum, takes careful aim, and blows one of the badguys away before trying to retreat to an escape pod of more defensible position. They have to shoot her with a stun bolt in order to take her. In all the flap a few years ago about George Lucas' retooling of ANH and whether Han should have been left to shoot first in his face off with Greedo, and what this meant to his status as a hero, there was never any question about Leia shooting first at the beginning of the movie. As much as Han shooting first was a fundamental part of his character, Leia shooting first was an inseparable part of hers.

With the passing of actress Carrie Fisher yesterday, that's what sticks out most clearly in my mind: Leia shot first.

I was just three when ANH was released, and my parents, being decidedly not science fiction fans (and, in all fairness, probably concerned that the aliens and badguys might be too scary for a toddler) didn't take me to see it. But there were Star Wars-related toys and other merchandise everywhere back in those days, so I knew what it was, more-or-less what it was about, and who the characters were, and the princess was part of that. And she wasn't like the usual damsels-in-distress that I'd seen on TV and the movies: Leia kicked ass and didn't take shit from anybody. You didn't need to have seen the movie to know that. Her action figure (front and centre in the huge Star Wars display shelf in the upstairs toy section of the Highway Market in Kitchener) came with a gun. When The Empire Strikes Back came out in 1980, my parents did take me to see it in the theatre, and Carrie Fisher made a huge impression on me. Here was a female character who was one of the senior leaders of the Rebellion (at least, at Echo Base on Hoth — it was never clear in the original trilogy where she ranked among the gaggle of Rebel generals, senators, and admirals, but it was up there at any rate), she was calling the shots in the command centre (refusing to leave her post when the Imperials attacked until the place was falling down around her ears and the base had been compromised), giving the tactical briefing for the fighter/transport evacuation, helping to keep the 'Falcon on her feet, refusing to be taken-in by Lando Calrissian's game, and more than willing to tear Cloud City apart to try to save Han and Luke. But while I saw ESB first, the impression of Leia that sticks out the most in my mind was her shooting first aboard Tantive IV in ANH. When I finally saw ANH on my birthday in '81 on a primitive laserdisc machine, my impressions of Leia were confirmed: here was a tough, smart woman who wasn't afraid of facing-down the scariest people in the galaxy, but she could still be tender when her friends were hurting, or frightened when her homeworld was about to get blasted into oblivion. Tough but human.

This was important to my development as a young boy, and as a speculative fiction fan: to see women in this kind of positive, front-and-centre hero's role. To see them as equals of the male characters. It affected how I became a man, and helped ensure I had a broad appreciation of characters and perspectives in speculative fiction — and life in general.

And I give Carrie Fisher a huge amount of credit for that in her portrayal of Leia.

Over the years, I've enjoyed her work in other roles: as Jake's vengeful, jilted fiance in The Blues Brothers; or Paula the crazy adulteress in The Man with One Red Shoe (I'd follow her into a tree any day); or the wagon-wheel-coffee-table-hating friend in When Harry Met Sally; or her hilarious cameos as the nun in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and the doctor in Fanboys. Whether she was on screen for just a minute or throughout the whole movie, she brought a real genuineness to her characters (no matter how wacky they were) that made them all the more enjoyable. I'll also give her credit for her script-doctor work on movies like The Wedding Singer and Lethal Weapon 3. As important as the actors are to bringing characters and story to life, none of it would happen without good writers.

But, as good as she was in those roles, to quote Max von Sydow's character in The Force Awakens, she'll always be royalty to me. As much as I respect Carrie Fisher's wish that her obituaries remember her as having "drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra" (and think that's one hell of a funny line), I'll always remember her as Leia, who shot first.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

An Ode to the Yuletide Ineptitude of Canada Post

Christmas is a time for giving, and while I'd like to be able to give something to everyone on my list, at least one person won't be getting their present this year, thanks for a complete failure on the part of Canada Post. I'd ordered two packages back in November — one of which is a Christmas present for someone — and they still haven't come. This is insult added to injury: back in August, Canada Post lost a bank draft that was sent to us — it never arrived here, and was never returned to sender.

It would seem the posties really aren't interested in dealing with calls from concerned members of the public either. Their website says:

"Please note that we can only investigate individual letters that have been assigned a tracking number.  For regular mail, your feedback helps us learn where to improve our delivery system.  Feedback will not receive a direct response." 

So, if the vendor you made a purchase from doesn't have a tracking number for you, you're SOL and Canada Post won't even bother to respond to an email. Even if you do have a tracking number, you're SOL as well, as evidenced by the legion of complaints in the comments sections of posts on their Facebook page. It's nice that the organization claims it wants to learn to improve, but a good place to start would be, you know, actually delivering things, like it's paid to do.

I tried phoning Canada Post's "help" line on Friday afternoon, but the Byzantine phone tree appears designed to prevent a caller from actually speaking to a live human being. If you do get through to someone, don't expect any help. I finally got through to someone named Jennifer, who told me there was nothing that could be done, and then hung up on me. Yup, great commitment to customer service there, Jennifer and Canada Post.

Looking at this foolishness from a speculative fictional perspective, it would appear that Canada Post is either harbouring a not-so-secret steampunk desire to travel back in time to 1816 where its business practices might fit in better, or it's in desperate need of a visit by Marley's ghost to learn the true meaning of Christmas... and maybe get some tips on the efficient operation of a business.

In the spirit of the season, I've composed the following Ode to the Yuletide Ineptitude of Canada Post:

'Twas the night before Christmas,
And all through the town
People were crying

Because Canada Post had let them down.
They'd ordered their presents
Weeks and months beforehand with care,
But Canada Post failed to deliver them,
So beneath their trees, all was bare.
Post office social media sites gave non-answers;
It's "customer service" reps hung up the phones;
Whether people had tracking numbers or not
No presents came to their homes.
Plenty of junk mail was delivered
But of presents, there were none.
And at the end of Christmas Eve day
Canada Post collectively wiped its hands and said "I'm done!"
And I heard the postal service exclaim
As staff left for holiday vacations that night:
"We don't give a damn about your parcels!
Kiss our keisters tonight!"

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?