Friday, July 04, 2008

Seeing Is Believing - bloginhood's Back Online

It was one thing after another, but finally, after an absence of more than a month, I’m back online. I apologize for dropping off without warning, but a lot of what’s happened came out of the blue.

It started in the back half of May when I was installing an upgrade to my antivirus and the program decided it wasn’t going to play nice with Windows. Go figure. The immediate effect of these programs knocking heads with one another was that they cut off our home internet access. Within days, before I had time to plumb the depths of our machine to try to solve the problem, I was hit with “piece of bad news number 2”… I’d gone in to the optometrist for an eye checkup - a fluke, actually, because I hadn’t been in for about 4 years, and while I was starting to think it was time for a new prescription for my glasses, I’d kept putting it off until finally my wife (who had to get her eyes checked for a job application) made an appointment for me. The doc was peering into my eyes when he started making those “I don’t like the looks of that” type of noises. This gets me a little worried because the BC Optometrists’ Association has been re-running old ads talking about all of the horrible things that can be wrong with you that can go unnoticed until an eye doctor looks at you. Anyhow, he muses about some possibilities and says he’s sending me to see a specialist. Three days later I’m at one of our local hospitals where an ophthalmologist and his sidekicks put me through a two-hour routine that feels like I’ve taken the brunt of a first class eye-poking by Moe, Larry and Curly. He tells me my right eye’s got a bunch of thin areas and some holes in it. They fix that same day with (cue the Austin Powers music) a frikkin laser mounted on a device that felt like someone was trying to ram a paper cup into my eye socket while shining a green flashlight at me. Then they talked about the real problem. Seems, in addition to a whole bunch of thin areas and a Swiss-cheese’s worth of holes, my left eye had a partially detached retina. They told me if it detached entirely I’d go blind in that eye. Two days later they had me in another local hospital for surgery on the left eye, where they put me under general and carved into the thing like a grapefruit to fix the retina and the various holes. Afterwards, I was sent home with an eye patch. Sadly, it wasn’t a cool pirate eye patch, it was a big, puffy orange affair that my wife says kind of looked like a plastic sieve, so I probably looked like only the lamest of pirates – the weenie pirate dressed by his mother that all the other pirates picked on or something. That only lasted overnight ‘cause the next day they took the thing off. My eye was swollen and red as a maraschino cherry and the massively dilated pupil made me look like I was stumbling around with a concussion. Vision was very blurry, but it returned gradually over the following weeks, first with distance vision coming back, then clearing up closer and closer. It’s still a bit blurry close-up, but I’m told that will pass. Needless to say, while deprived of functional vision, I was unable to resolve the computer issue and get back to chatting with all of you folks. Worse than that, imagine having to go weeks without being able to read because it was too much of a strain! Looking at all of the books in my “to read” pile nearly brought me to tears. But that’s not all! Oh no, the fates were getting positively Dickensian on my ass last month. Within days of the operation, I came down with a monster case of bronchitis that sunk its claws into my chest and just wouldn’t let go. It was weeks before I was breathing normally again.

But after all of that, I’m back. And I’ve gotta say, it’s good to be back here, up on the ol’ soapbox, babbling about SF. I’d also like to say a heartfelt thank-you to all of you who sent your well wishes during my downtime.

Now, back to the SF portion of the blog.

One of the things that struck me (and there were many, as the bruises will attest) while I was stumbling around after the operation with my left eye in a haze and relying, initially, almost entirely on my right eye, was that it’s tough to be stuck peering at the world through just one eye. I got to thinking about all of the memorable, and not-so-memorable, cyclopic characters of SF cinema and TV, and decided to rank them according to who was the most cool.

And so, with a singular focus (sorry, I couldn’t resist), here are the Top 30 One-Eyed Characters of SF TV and Film:

30 – KITT – from “Knight Rider” – admit it, you too thought KITT was just about the coolest thing with one eye on wheels (come to think of it, how many other one-eyed things were on wheels?) when you were a kid. Problem is, “Knight Rider” was one of many, many Larson shows that didn’t age well, or survive the test of audience aging either. And this year’s attempt to revive the show hasn’t worked well either. They’ve definitely tried to up the cool factor by bringing in Val Kilmer to voice KITT, but Kilmer lacks the deliciously effete snottiness of William Daniels. KITT might not have finished dead last on this list if his/its abilities had included (beyond half-hearted banter and the obligatory turbo-boost per episode) the ability to lock the doors and override the driver’s control of them, thereby imprisoning The Hoff and preventing him from inflicting himself upon the world.

29 – the cylops – from “The Odyssey” TV movie – some cheap special effects tried to make a sumo wrestler into a monster from Greek myth – and completely failed to make it monstrous. The only reason for acknowledging this tubby fellow is that the TV movie was inspired by Homer’s masterpiece, and we have to at least give a nod to the producers for trying to bring the epic to the masses.

28 – Hector – from “Saturn 3” – this lumbering robotic throwback to 1950’s B-budget monster movies had no redeeming qualities at all except that it had the guts (or stupidity) to think it could try to take on Kirk Douglas. While we might also be tempted to give it bonus points for being attracted to Farah Fawcett in her prime, we would then also have to deduct points for its failure to have the foresight to see the kind of zombie she’s turned into now.

27 – Number Two – from the “Austin Powers” movies – Number Two gets flushed on this list because even though he realizes it is his practical work that keeps Dr. Evil’s criminal empire running, he’s unable to work up the gumption to take total control of the organization once and for all, either by freezing the villain out of the hierarchy during one of his prolonged absences, or through direct confrontation. While Dr. Evil has the advantage in, well, evil, Number Two could probably come up with a plan that would actually work. I respect loyalty, but Number Two’s lack of ambition is what keeps him as the bottom rather than the top. In fact, there isn’t much aside from his loyalty to Dr. Evil that makes Number Two actually evil – he could just as easily be working the support services for Mr. Powers.

26 – Cyclops – from the Marvel “X-Men” franchise – I was never a collector of the “X-Men” comics, but those that I did read didn’t leave me with much of an impression that Cyclops (occasional leader of the team, no less) was anything more than a supporting cast member. The movies have done nothing to change this impression. While there is some lip service paid to Cyclops being a “nice guy”, that’s not so much the case as he’s just a whiner. Petulance tends to blaze forth from him more than eyeball lasers. In fact, the ability to shoot lasers outta his face, and his occasional forays into leadership, are the only factors that put Cyclops ahead of Number Two in the ratings.

25 – the Death Star trash monster – from “Star Wars Episode IV” – somewhat cool for taking down Luke as he was warming up to a good whine, and yet not very cool because by releasing young Skywalker, it gave him ample opportunity to continue to whine throughout the rest of the series. The monster also rates as at least minimally cool because when we were kids, my brother and I had the Death Star play set (which invariably collapsed in on itself if the lid on our nearby toybox banged shut – something that we used to our advantage when our X-wing fighters were ready to blow it up) which included a trash compactor to chuck your action figures into, complete with foam “garbage” and a green trash monster figure.

24 – Death Star trash monster Meg – from “Family Guy: Blue Harvest” – this variant outranks the original trash monster because it was one of only two appearances by Meg on the show – not that I dislike Meg, rather that it kept with traditional FG vicious humour.

23 – Otto – from “WALL-E” – the autopilot with control issues from one of this summer’s animated blockbusters gets points for being a nice tribute to HAL-9000, and more points for being unlike HAL in that Otto never decided to exterminate its crew (unless of course, one considers the slug-like humans to be cargo). However, Otto loses points, not for refusing to relinquish control of the ship to the Captain, but rather because given seemingly inexhaustible resources, an FTL drive and a knowledge of Earth’s poor condition, the autopilot never rose above its programming (like WALL-E , EVE or the others) and never tried to find another suitable world to colonize.

22 – the aliens in the yellow spaceship – from “Monty Python’s The Life of Brian” – we don’t know a thing about them, except those two fat aliens in their yellow spaceship came along at just the right time to catch our hapless hero Brian in mid-fall off of a tower while he was being chased by Roman legionaries. Clearly they’d honked-off some other aliens – and paid for that with their lives – but they at least got Brian back to Earth in one piece so that we could continue watching his hilarious misadventures for a while longer. I think Reg and the other members of the PFJ would salute their sacrifice.

21 – Mike Wazowski – from “Monsters, Inc.” – It’s gotta be tough being a short guy in a world of monsters, especially when your job is scaring people in another dimension. But Mike keeps on plugging, he’s got a heart as big as his blue buddy Sully, and he keeps the gags coming full throttle.

20 – the Cylon centurions – from “Battlestar Galactica” (the old series) – these big shiny badguys weren’t known for their exceptional flying, or their marksmanship, or tactical or strategic thinking, or their durability, or their way with words, or much of anything else, for that matter, but they looked really cool, and if you can’t be good, at least look good.

19 – Maximilian – from “The Black Hole” – a “quiet type” among the badass robots. While this bot is certainly a tough, well-armed (and multi-armed) SOB, and while it is the second in command of its ship, Max only finishes mid-range in the standings because it lacks self control and foresight. Going on a rampage and butchering a crewmember of the Palomino caused more trouble – and subsequent damage to the ship – than whatever sick gratification Max got was worth. As well, the big red guy should have figured out that its boss was utterly off his rocker thinking he could take the Cygnus into the black hole while meteors were being dragged in without sustaining catastrophic damage. Never mind the fact that it should have taken the probe ship and left the Palomino’s crew behind, rather than waste time (and ultimately Max’s own existence) getting into a scrap with VINCENT on a ship that was breaking up.

18 – Captain Harlock – from the “Arcadia” and “Galaxy Express” anime series – as a Canadian, I guess if I’d grown up in Quebec and identified myself as part of the “Arcadian” generation, I’d place a higher value on Harlock. As it is, being originally an Ontario boy, my early anime was “Starblazers”/”Space Battleship Yamato”, which he wasn’t a part of, so Harlock lacks the nostalgia for me. Certainly, in anime terms, he’s a tough dude with a funky phallic pirate ship and so earns a measure of respect.

17 – General Martok – from “Star Trek – Deep Space Nine” – You’ve got to give credit to a tenacious old Klingon war hero who can survive a Jem’Hadar prison camp with daily death matches having only lost an eye. Martok also came out as a hero of the Dominion War. More importantly, he had the wisdom to accept being given the title of Chancellor of the High Council by Worf (who was entitled to the position, having outfought and killed the previous chancellor), realizing that he would make an effective leader and setting aside any pride about not having won the position himself. He also had the smarts to see the advantage in dealing with the Federation. Martok also rates acceptably well for uttering what has to be a quintessential example of Klingon philosophy: “Worf, we are Klingons! We do not respect other cultures! We conquer them!”

16 – Gort – from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” – Another strong, silent type among the artificial persons of this list. Gort is basically the ultimate cop. He’s programmed to observe and make sure the law and the rules are adhered to. When they’re not, he settles the matter. Generally with speed and finality. Sadly, it’s Gort’s complete lack of dialogue, which prevents us from knowing if anything else beyond the rules is going on in his head, that prevents him from rising higher in the standings. That and the fact that he looks like a 7-and-a-half-foot-tall sex toy.

15 – Rell – from “Krull” – arguably one of the worst of the big budget films of the 80’s, “Krull” did have one or two redeeming features. The character of Rell the Cyclops was one of them – kind of. You have to give credit to a guy who decides to help another group of people (another species, in point of fact) in their fight to save their world, against a common enemy. Rell really shines when he makes his final decision to aid in the attack on the Beast’s Black Fortress – rather than stay behind in safety to wait for what is presumably a peaceful and painless death, the big dude ignores his fate, saddles up and goes charging in to help the siege succeed, knowing his death in his altered fate will be unpleasant. And it is. He takes a couple of blasts from the enemy as he rushes the door, allowing his friends to get through, but is then crushed – slowly - by the closing rock gates before he can get to safety. You’ve got to hand it to Rell for that kind of sacrifice, especially giving his life for a young couple who overact so horrendously. However, he does lose points for the really cheesy hair-do, although in all fairness, most of the supporting characters looked like they’d been given bad hairstyling deliberately as a distraction to mask the afore-mentioned bad acting of the lead player(s).

14 – Franky – from “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” – ace fighter pilot, brilliant general, and very easy on the eyes.

13 – Commander Breetai – from “Macross”/”Robotech” – A Commander of a Zentradi battle fleet, this anime archtype is the leader who turns his back on his own people when he comes to grips with the need to do the right thing. Never mind the fact that he’s a decorated war hero, or that he’s the one of the largest specimens of his genetically engineered and cloned people, or that he’s apparently smart enough to earn a position of senior leadership. What makes Breetai an interesting character is that despite a lifetime of following orders and destroying ships and worlds when he’s told to, when confronted with humanity and its emotions and music and culture, he realizes that there’s something more to life than what he and his people have been pigeon-holed into. Sure, his decision to rebel is in part motivated by the fact that Supreme Commander Dolza has labeled his fleet as contaminated for engaging humanity for too long and failing to achieve victory and thus has ordered them destroyed, but by this point Breetai has already had the good sense to realize that talking to the humans can lead to better things than fighting them. Also to his credit, Breetai, the warrior, is willing to consult with and take advice from an academic (Exedore). What holds Breetai back from a higher rank on this list is the repetitive and clunky dialogue forced upon him and the other characters by the writers.

12 - the Cylon centurions (the modern models) – from “Battlestar Galactica” (the new series) – These toasters are big and bad, armed to the teeth (er, faceplates) and fully believable as killing machines that would actually frighten the piss out of you if they were chasing you through the bowels of your drifting ship. Their cool factor has increased now that the rebel Cylons have allowed the centurions to develop sentience, and in the wake of that they’ve discovered self-respect and now insist that the humanoid models mind their P’s and Q’s. I was tempted to deduct points because one of them looked like it was starting to be seduced by Baltar’s rabble-rousing, and yet, maybe that makes these chrome nightmares worthy of more appreciation because it shows greater depth of character if one of them can have misgivings.

11 – the Cylon centurions (the old, First Cylon War models/Guardian models) – from “Battlestar Galactica” (the new series) – These are the Cylons as they should have been on the old series. It’s not that they’re CG’d, and thus somewhat sleeker in appearance than the actors in suits from the old show, it’s rather that they move like they mean business and they’re tough like machines of war would be designed to be (they don’t go down after a single hit like the old show robots did). These Cylons also know how to fly their Raiders too, taking out capital ships like the Battlestar Columbia with skill and precision (as opposed to the old show Raider pilots that seemed to beat the Colonial fleet with nothing more than surprise and overwhelming numbers) and engaging Colonial Vipers effectively. They’ve even developed strategies for taking over ships – and taking out entire fleets – from the inside through boarding actions. Getting rid of those hokey old gladii at their belts in favour of slick-snapping long wrist blades also looks pretty cool. These Cylons are also a helluva lot smarter than the old show forebears – they don’t just build weapons, they come up with the idea to advance the evolution of their race. What they do to their human prisoners is unforgivably horrific and disgusting, but their hybrid experiment shows these machine entities are engaged in a process to better themselves, misguided though it may be. In some ways this makes them more frightening than the Cylons of the old show, and also makes them more human.

We’re into the Top Ten now!

10 – the Daleks – from “Dr. Who” – these brutal, oversized pepper pots are a Time Lord’s worst nightmare. Not only are they hell-bent on “ex-ter-min-a-tion!!!”, but no matter how many times you and your Companions think you’ve wiped them out, they keep coming back. Kudos to the Daleks in the new series for figuring out that hovering is a good way to overcome the pesky problem of stairs when you’re chasing down The Doctor.

9 – Mad Eye Moody – from the “Harry Potter” series – masterfully played by Brendan Gleeson, Moody is that mix of crusty old teacher and biker that a kid being hounded by the forces of darkness needs on his team. He’s reminiscent of Snake Plissken, or maybe an older, ulglier Indiana Jones if Indy hadn’t had the women and there had been more booze.

8 – R2D2 – from the “Star Wars” series – this trusty little astromech is the unsung hero of the “Star Wars” movies. Seriously, who is it that’s always getting the humans and their biological chums out of trouble, while in the process getting blasted or bashed? And what is their reaction when R2’s beaten carcass is dragged out onto the deck (if they bother to notice at all)? “Oh, we’ll fix him”. Pretty cold comfort for a loyal little guy who’s just had his circuits fried protecting your wetware. And you’ve gotta love that never-ending supply of gadgets that keep popping out to help in all occasions. Whether it’s fixing a star cruiser or shocking Salacious Crumb, R2’s your man, er, droid.

7 – Professor Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr. – from the “Indiana Jones” series – Indy a one-eye?! Say it ain’t so! Don’t believe me? Then you didn’t watch “The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones”, where each episode was bracketed by an ancient, and curiously chatty, Indy sporting an eye patch. Since it was approved by Lucas, it’s cannon. Indy’s got one eye by the end of his apparently considerably long life. Lucas hasn’t yet revealed how our hero lost the eye, but I’ve gotta say I was disappointed that it didn’t happen in” Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” to provide a bridge to the TV series and maybe some more interesting plot possibilities than what was offered up.

6 – Ambassador Kosh – from “Babylon 5” – This is a tough one. I wasn’t sure whether to include Kosh or not. While their encounter suits have only one “eye”, Vorlons do have two eyes when they appear to other races (all of them on the show being two-eyed) in the guise of that race. I can’t recall how many eyes the Vorlons have when they’re out of the suits and showing their own faces. If it’s only one, then I’d have to move Kosh much higher on this list, for all kinds of reasons I won’t go into now. If it’s more than one, Kosh gets knocked off the list. So, because I’m not certain, we’ll keep Kosh on for the time being because of the encounter suit, and reasonably high up because he was a pretty cool character. If I’m proven wrong about Kosh, then I’d probably add the Harrihausen cyclops from “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” somewhere near the bottom of the list.

And now for the Top Five:

5 – General Chang – from “Star Trek VI – The Undiscovered Country” – How can you not like Christopher Plummer playing a Klingon general? Chang is smart, resourceful and tough. Unlike his fellow Klingons, the general knows how to use subtlety to set up an enemy for the kill, as evidenced by his style of debate, and his choice of weapon to sabotage the Federation-Klingon Empire peace talks – a bird of prey that can fire when cloaked. All the more interesting to watch when he does explode into violence – verbally or in space warfare – usually quoting something from “King Lear” or “Hamlet”. “You’ve never read Shakespeare until you’ve read him in the original Klingon.”

4 – HAL-9000 – from “2001 – A Space Odyssey” – without having a human body to walk around in or a face to show emotion, the voice behind this glowing red eye did it all as a believable personality in this cinematic masterpiece. As the movie unfolded, we heard HAL become more unsure of the situation, more secretive, at times cold, self-satisfied, and finally despairing and fearful. A machine was given a fully-flushed character, probably for the first time on film. And in the sequel, “2010 – The Year We Make Contact” we saw more of HAL, even a heroic side when he realizes that to save the human crew he will have to allow his own destruction, and moreover he decides to face the end alone (a frightening prospect for any sentient being, especially a machine that doesn’t have the ingrained spiritual beliefs most humans are raised with to fall back on), declining Dr. Chandra’s offer to stay with him.

3 – Colonel Saul Tigh – from “Battlestar Galactica” (the new series) – Colonial officer, Cylon sleeper, rebel leader, drunkard, husband, and friend to Adama, Saul Tigh isn’t always a likeable person – in fact he’s frequently an asshole, but he is a complex and interesting character. For a character who turns out not to be human, the Colonel is a very human character who struggles daily with himself. While he may possess many less-than-admirable traits, there’s still a coolness about Saul Tigh’s willingness in the face of confusion about his origin to take his life by the collar and choose to define who he is and will be.

2 – Snake Plissken – from the “Escape from New York” series – This was a tough one. I almost put ol’ Snake in the Number One slot. Plissken’s the ultimate example of the anti-hero: a Clint Eastwood-talking toughguy from the badlands who’s the badest of them all because he’s the best at getting the job done any way necessary, including winning gunfights (and lethal basketball challenges) against overwhelming odds, even though he’s only got one eye. And he’s a guy who, in the end, stands up against the real badguys, the tyrants, even if his solution to the problem of them isn’t always the safest option. But Snake’s a one-eyed hero who’s coolness is ultimately one dimensional. He comes in, hisses and busts heads, makes some decisions based on a somewhat moral compass, stirs the pot, then limps off alone into the night to be a badass somewhere else. He’s a comic book character. And so he can’t quite eke out the top spot.

1 – Citizen G’Kar – from “Babylon 5” – from freedom fighter to warrior and bombastic diplomat for a corrupt regime, then back to rebel leader and finally to philosopher and explorer, G’Kar is the finest among our company of one-eyed characters. Here is a Narn who began with childish tantrums and schemes and evolved into a poet whose words could bring together disparate races and yet someone who possessed he wisdom and humility to laugh at himself. At first, as a fan, I was sad and angry that his last appearance in the B5 universe was on that steaming pile known as “The Legend of the Rangers” (although even there his character was true to himself), but I was heartened (though still sad) when his quote about lingering voices from the final season of the show was used to open “The Lost Tales”. And so, with one eye, a reflective mind and an open heart, Citizen G’Kar rises above all of the generals and superheros and mechanical monsters to show what is really cool in a story’s character.

That’s my list. Who would you pick as the best of the one-eyed characters out there?
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