Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Top 10 Cyborgs

The recent Terminator prequel/sequel got me thinking about some of the cyborgs that have been trotted out in TV and the movies over the years - not the half-hearted, B-budget, cheesy offerings like The Vindicator, but rather the cool man-machine fusions (whether we're talking humans with technological add-ons for whatever reason, or machines making some use of flesh) that were truly memorable. There were a lot of possible candidates to consider, but in the end, these are the Top 10 Cyborgs:

10) Seven of Nine - Star Trek: Voyager
She's brilliant, technologically-enhanced (look at those nano-probe injection tubules!), and easy on the eyes. While Trek may have occasionally explored in the past what it means to recover from Borg assimilation (through Hugh and his cohorts, and Picard), Seven offered the most in-depth look at what it means to have to regain one's humanity, individuality and identity, even as her implants always kept her somewhat apart.

9) Cylon hybrids - Battlestar Galactica
Meant as an experiment to further Cylon evolution during the war, the hybrids have become the central nervous systems of the basestars (an idea that would seem to have been directly inspired by the Shadow vessels from Babylon 5), mad muttering Delphic oracles to the humaniod models, and gods to the centurions. Not bad for someone who spends all day in a hot tub full of pink goo plugged into fat electronic cables.

8) Major Motoko Kusanagi - Ghost in the Shell
This badass cyborg cop gets points for merging with a rogue AI to help it further its evolution and resolve her own questions around identity and purpose.

7) Robocop
The original badass cyborg cop. For a guy once described as "just a couple of chunks on a coroner's table", Robo is another cyborg who's struggled hard with identity: in this case, moving beyond scattered memories and reminders of a life as Alex Murphy, and beyond his programmer's directives, towards something/someone new. Someone new who can manage to put the boots to the bigger, badder Robocop 2 or a surley ED209.

6) Marcus - Terminator - Salvation
This former death row inmate became Skynet's first experiment in using human flesh to allow machines to infiltrate the Resistance, but asserted his humanity in his own form of resistance. In a movie where John Connor finally comes into his own as the leader of the Resistance, it's far more interesting - and entertaining - to follow Marcus' development.

5) The Borg Queen - Star Trek: First Contact
She is the face of the hive mind of the legion of cyborgs that has rampaged across the galaxy assimilating entire races. Seductive, brutal and relentless, she is frightening with her cold gaze as she calculates what it will take to break a victim, be it biological, machine, or a whole species.

4) Locutus - Star Trek: The Next Generation
One of the most successful assimilations, the converted Picard wreaked havoc on the Federation, combining his own experience and intuition with ages of Borg and assimilated race histories to cripple Starfleet at the Battle of Wolf 359. If it weren't for his recapture and reversion to Picard, Locutus might have succeeded in assimilating the Federation for his queen.

3) T-800 - The Terminator
Arnie's frosty-faced, muscle-bound cybernetic assasin is nearly unstoppable and was frightening as hell the first time around, whether it was fleshed-out, trimming damaged tissue away, or clattering across the concrete as a red-eyed metal skellaton. The reliably dangerous 800 series has been both a villain and a hero and is definitely high on the list for sheer brute force, cunning and adaptability.

2) Cameron - Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
This cyborg may be petite and pretty, but she can still go nose to nose with an 800 and win more often than not. It was fascinating to watch her develop as a character and come to grips with her growing emotions.

1) Darth Vader - Star Wars
The original badass: armoured and machine-enhanced, weilding a light sabre and the power of The Dark Side. Vader is at the top of this list because no other cyborg has ever had anywhere near the impact on geek and mainstream culture that he has. The Sith Lord's only weakness: some weeny acting in his backstory. I guess everyone has a skelleton in their closet, no matter how great or mechanically enhanced they are.

Sent from my iPhone

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Killing Time with Terminator - Salvation

Warning: Spoilers
(spoilage factor: about the same as "2-day-old coyote")

Terminator - Salvation wasted no time in blowing me away with its special effects at today's matinee, but I found myself waiting through the whole thing for a little of the thoughtfulness the franchise demonstrated it was capable of in the original The Terminator, and more recently in the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

While there's no time travel in this installment, there is a time jump: Salvation begins in 2003 with prison inmate Marcus Wright (played by Sam Worthington), on death row for some unspecified crime that resulted in the deaths of his brother and two cops, signing over the rights to his mortal remains to Cyberdine Systems for scientific research once he's been executed. Cue the lethal injection and fade to black. Now we're in 2018 - after Judgement Day, in the early days of the war before time travel has been invented and both sides are using bullets instead of plasma rifles. Skynet's in charge. Christian Bale's John Connor (already seen as something of a prophet and a rising star in the Resistance - though not leading it yet) is with a team on an assault against a Skynet research facility. While his team is killed and the facility is destroyed, Connor manages to escape... later, so does newly rebuilt Marcus. Marcus makes his way to what's left of LA, falls-in with a teeanged Kyle Reese and his little friend "Star", and adventures ensue. The kids get captured, Marcus finds the Resistance but runs into trouble when it's discovered (much to his surprise) that he's a cyborg. He forms an alliance with Connor and then the race is on to save Kyle from execution.

Purely as a summer popcorn action flick, Salvation works. Lots of gunfights, scary robots, and big explosions. Oh yeah, they blow things up real good!

The Terminators and Hunter-Killers (HK's) were especially cool - they looked menacing and used (not all shiny unless they were still on the factory floor) and (for the most part) sounded solid and were fairly frightening when they had to be. I also enjoyed the decision to portray the HK's as modular: if aerial HK's need to collect human captives or root-out Resistance fighters, they just open a hatch and drop a 20-foot-tall cannon and claw equipped ground HK out to get the job done. Got some good guys escaping down the highway in a badass pickup truck? No problem! Detach a couple of biker bots from the ground HK's legs to go after them. The best of the robot scenes though was the end fight sequence where the brand new T-800 is revealed, and it's not just any old face on that pumped-up model - it's Arnie. I read an article not too long ago where it was mentioned that the filmmakers used an Austrian bodybuilder and CG'd Schwarzenegger's face (and it looks like a younger Arnie face pulled or copied from some of his movies in the early 80's) over top. Good job of it too - it looked, like a T-800 should, quite natural. Also on the mechanoid front, I liked the idea of Skynet having to experiment with flesh and metal hybrids through the Marcus project before developing the full-blown 800. Marcus is the missing link between the fully human and the masquerading machine.

Other entertaining stuff included the nice visual allusions to other films: Marcus' escape from the Resistance compound has a motorbike jump over barbed wire that would have made Steve McQueen proud on the set of The Great Escape; the scene with the hydrobots closing in on Connor in the river was more than a little reminiscent of the shrieking eels in The Princess Bride, the night-time shots of Skynet's fortress in San Francisco looked very much like the opening LA skyline in Blade Runner, and the molten metal/cold water combo that Connor tries on the pursuing 800 at the end is mostly right out of Alien 3. Mostly.

Salvation does a good job of honouring the rest of the movies in the franchise as well (although not the extremely well-done TV series, unfortunately). Connor uses a Guns'n'Roses song blaring on a boom box to lure in a biker bot - the same song that was screeching away in T2 when the young John and the other little punk from Diff'rent Strokes went off on a bike to blow some stolen money at the mall. There was Connor's pregnant doctor wife - a nod to the lame-duck T3 where he ends up riding out the nuclear attack with a veterinarian who will later be his wife. And the icing on the cake was Connor, not a Terminator, whipping out the old chestnut: "I'll be back."

I also thought it was a smart move for the film to portray Connor not as the leader of the Resistance, but as an up-and-comer who the generals were trying to keep on a leash. It was enough that he was doing periodic inspirational Radio Free Humanity broadcasts and through his smart thinking winning the respect of his fellow soldiers. If Connor would have started the movie as the head honcho, he would have been too alien and with his personality, it would have been too easy for an audience to see him as a megalomaniac and a prick. This way, his rise to bigbossdom feels natural and he seems like an okay guy.

But, much like Skynet's many plans to wipe-out the Connor clan, Salvation had its flaws.

Right from the start, we see the frightening, bulky metal skeletons of the old Terminator 600's lumbering around mowing down everything they can with their bigass gatling guns. Yes they're scary and cool. But I want to know why Skynet would bother with an inefficient humanoid body design for one of its robots? There are probably many ways to design an effective mid-sized, heavily armed killing machine that could flush-out humans from semi-collapsed buildings, etc. The skull face is scary, but the machines are more concerned with killing or capturing people at this point than giving them the willies. Now, you might point out that in the first movie, Reese notes that early Terminator models had rubber skin to infiltrate human settlements, and so you might argue these bad boys are those particular models, just out on the town without carrying their rubber. And you might point out that oddly, throughout Salvation, the 600's have a tendency to wear rags here and there. But let's not forget Skynet's speech to Marcus at the end, where it tells him that he's the prototype for infiltration. The 600's existed for quite some time before Marcus' activation, and thus clearly weren't meant to infiltrate, and so would not have been equipped with any skin, rubber or otherwise. The 800's appear to be the first skinned infiltrators (although Salvation makes no reference to rubber skin and the Arnie that comes marching after Connor looks to have real flesh over its metal bones). So that brings me back to the original question: what's with the scary skeleton design for the 600's, aside from coolness and the appearance of basic model design continuity? And why do they wear rags? Is that some kind of trophy-taking? Are these primitive androids capable of developing enough in the way of personalities to want to collect souvenirs from their victims? (Skynet does use the term "we" when speaking with Marcus, so maybe some of its servants do develope enough autonomy for Skynet to accord them some respect as individuals)

It also seemed a little dumb that every machine from the T-600's to the ground-based HK's makes a hell of a lot of noise thumping and grinding along when they move in a chase or attack, but somehow they have the strange ability to sneak up on individuals or groups without making a sound. There's maybe 2 seconds warning in the gas station where the little girl looks uneasy before a big claw smashes through the roof and starts pulling people out like so many carrots - no forewarning at all. You don't hear anyone say "Gee, Ted, do you hear a grinding sound comin' from the south?" "Well now that you mention it, Phil, as a matter of fact I do. For my part, I was just thinking about how the ground has been shaking more and more over the past 10 minutes or so." Nope. It's relative quiet until an HK starts grabbing or shooting or a previously-downed 600 grabs someone's boot.

And while we're on the subject of the HK's, did anyone else think it was particularly stupid for Connor and his chum to go our hunting one of the flying bots to test the control frequency at night - not too long after a scene where they'd been talking about how everyone knows you don't go out at night because the HK's use infrared and can find you easily? Would Connor really go hunting those things when the robots have the tactical advantage - at least in terms of sneaking up, which (as mentioned in the previous paragraph) they seem to have the uncanny ability to do without being detected? But somehow that rule goes out the window for this particular scene, and Connor & co return to base with a seeming success to report.

And speaking of robots, why does a dip in a pool of molten metal destroy Arnie's 800 at the end of T2, while this time around the dunking merely pisses the 800 off? And wouldn't the subseqant dousing with water damage the metal with the rapid heat change? (or is that just a problem in the Alien franchise?)

Let's talk about the Resistance base a little - specifically about how the HK's, who have infrared and seem to appear out of nowhere (again, undetected) any time someone so much as farts, missed the explosions, gunfire, roaring engines, shouting voices, and huge firestorm that resulted from the Resistance fighters trying to capture/destroy Marcus when he escaped from the base. How does that go unnoticed? Skynet doesn't have satellite surveillance? Skynet's aerial patrols (both the flying HK's and the little flying spybots) don't go out very often (unlike the Resistance warthogs, which do an awful lot of cruising around for valuable assets that can't be replaced)?

But the Resistance seems to be able to pull off miracles - like a heart transplant in the middle of a dirty field with helicopters kicking up dust, and no prior screening for donor compatibility and no mention of the worry about the body's ability to resist a transplant. I mean, they can have the best transplant circumstances in the world, but unless there's something truly special about Marcus' heart (and whether it was the original or a manufactured replacement, the only thing that was mentioned was that it was very strong), the Resistance would need a hefty supply of anti-rejection drugs to make sure the transplant worked (and those drugs have the tendency to kick the shit out of other organs, like your kidneys). Good thing Connor's wife is the doctor.

And speaking of medical miracles in the post-apocalyptic war zone, why do all the human heroes have great teeth? Maybe it's the shiny glow of their pearly whites that's really responsible for attracting the HK's. The Resistance must have taken control of a toothpaste factory, or spend half it's time raiding old pharmacies instead of fighting, or subject its soldiers to frequent dental checkups (which would have the added value of inuring them to torture).

The biggest problem with the movie though was that in its drive to keep the pacing fast to get us from one SFX-based cliffhanger to the next, it didn't stop to explore any of the issues it raised, and thus missed some great opportunities for character building.

In the case of Marcus, we, the audience, know he's a cyborg, which kills any real chance of "who's the traitor in our midst?" suspense. The only question is whether he'll kill Connor or Reese or not, and based on his behaviour throughout the film, it's pretty obvious that he won't. In fact, we're given that right at the opening of the film when we meet him on death row - he shows clear remorse for his crime and his victims - the personality has been set up as one that doesn't want any more killing. That leaves his only real value to the audience (aside from being yet another action hero) as the stand-in for the viewer in being introduced as the stranger in the strang land, and, more importantly, as someone who can reflect on the philosophical issues the movie raises. But the problem with Marcus is that these issues are missed or brushed aside quickly to get to the next explosion. It takes him so long to realize he's a machine (even though he knew he was executed, he's aware he's in the future, and he's suddenly equipped with stunning fighting abilities - in fact he'd have to be a completely blind egomaniac to fight like he does in the first half of the flick and not figure that this was a little beyond what he was capable of historically) that there's really no chance for him to explore the question of what it means to be human. Skynet throws the issue in his face at the end, to which he quickly throws his computer chip back at Skynet. But the movie could have made time for him to come to this question on his own a lot earlier on. It could also have had Marcus take some time to try to figure out why things were so different from his last memory of the execution room. He never once stops to ask "Am I dreaming? Is this hell? Have I been brought back? Am I still me?" Now you may say that he doesn't do this because he's blocked by the computer chip in his head, but really, it's never explained what that chip does, and it certainly doesn't influence his thinking or functioning at the end when he removes it.

Connor suffers from a similar problem. At no point does he really sit back and weigh what it means to be mankind's hope. He just accepts it. You'd think he'd at least express a little worry about being the voice of the Resistance, the prophet and saviour, and at the end the leader of the Resistance and what that might mean for the safety of his wife and unborn child. But there's nothing.

Some might argue that in an action film like this, the last thing you want to do is bring it to a screeching halt by getting into philosophy, but let's not forget that the original Terminator was filled with relentless suspense and action, and yet still took the time to ask what it all meant. Salvation is so sure of itself, it doesn't care and doesn't have time for that sort of question.

For all that though, this film does the job it's programmed to do: entertain a summer audience with big effects and explosions. Terminator - Salvation is a worthy addition to the franchise, certainly better than T3, and in my opinion more entertaining than T2, but lacking the smarts of the original Terminator or the sadly marginalized Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Top 10 Ugliest Ships of SF TV and Movies

The recent Star Trek movie, featuring Nero's hulking scow, the Narada, got me thinking about how many supremely ugly space ships have been inflicted upon us at the movies and on TV over the years. Say what you want about ships that don't break atmo having no need for streamlining, but there's something to be said for vessels that have a little grace and symmetry in their design. Even ships made for heavy work can have a certain charm to them, like the Red Dwarf, but others are just irredeemably, fantastically ugly - so much so that even their captains must be embarrassed to board them if other people are watching. To that end, I give you the Top 10 Ugliest Ships of SF TV and Movies. (note: I've left out the ugliest vessels described in books, because to include them would require just too much room)

10) the B-Wing fighter from the Star Wars films
What a terrible, off-kilter piece of work this is. Admiral Ackbar & co must have been drunk the night they cobbled this thing together. It's advantage to the Rebel/New Republic fighter squadrons lies not in its firepower, but in the fact that enemy pilots are in such a complete state of shock when forced to look at it that they're easy to pick off.

9) the Alliance cruisers in Firefly
A bunch of gigantic grey and green road pylons lashed together and stuffed with trigger-happy bureaucrats. If the Alliance had been able to build better-looking ships, maybe there wouldn't have been a war.

8) the Sulaco from Aliens
For a ship that's supposed to carry the Colonial Marines - the badasses of the badasses (at least until they run into the bugs) - this clunker doesn't look terribly intimidating. More like a TV channel tuner that's been melted in places and had some broken tinker toys jammed in the front end.

7) the Reaver ships from Firefly
Okay, so the Reavers don't give much thought to ship design - okay, none at all because they're too busy torturing, raping and eating their victims and mutilating themselves - so we probably can't blame them too much for having jagged, ugly ships in ill repair. But decorating their ships with blood and bits of their victims is a deliberate act of disfiguration that gives them some status among the rest of the uglies.

6) the Nostromo from Alien
Like I said before, there are some working ships, that despite being built purely for function, have forms that can grow on you. Nostromo isn't one of them. The great, ungainly towers of its barge (which undoubtedly inspired the Alliance cruiser design on Firefly) are bad enough, but the tug itself is a masterwork of an eyesore. Blast tubes and antennas and all kinds of nonsense sticking out every which way - this scow is the prime example of what happens when corporate interests run the show and give their contracts to the lowest bidder.

5) the alien ships from The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the 8th Dimension
Maybe I'm being too hard on these craft because I absolutely loathed this cheesetastic excuse for a flick, but taken by themselves, they're still pretty damn ugly. Not quite seashells with their roundnesses broken by spikes, they should probably stay put in the 8th Dimension so the rest of us don't have to look at them.

4) the Narada from Star Trek
Like I mentioned off the top, this miner is irredeemably ugly. Not so much a ship as a gigantic collection of saw blades, scythes and barbed wire bound together with crumpled aluminum foil. Maybe Nero's wife didn't die on Romulus. Maybe she just faked it so she wouldn't have to look at his damn ride in her driveway anymore.

3) Dolza's command ship in Macross/Robotech
What can I say? It's an immense, spiky green turd.

2) Shad's corsair in Battle Beyond the Stars
This ship looked like a slug with a pair of guns strapped on it. I hate slugs.

1) the Streib cruiser in Babylon 5, season 2, "All Alone in the Night"
Nothing I've seen yet is as flat-out ugly as the ship that kidnaps Sheridan and makes the mistake of honking-off Delenn and Ivonova. It's as though this race of Shadow-affiliates set out to prove a point that being evil means flying around the cosmos in butt-ugly ships. Problem is, their masters, the Shadows, have ships that are kind of cool, in a sinister way. Maybe the Shadows have a rule that none of their minions are allowed to have nifty rides, so that no-one outshines the Shadows themselves. Too bad for the Streib their ship wasn't tough as well as ugly - maybe it would have stood a chance against the Agamemnon if they hadn't been so fixated on going for a certain look. But while the Streib won't be remembered for their fighting prowess, their remarkably hideous engineering does garner them the dubious distinction of being catapulted to the top of the ugly list.

So which ships have I missed? What space vessels make you want to look away from the screen?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Happy Steampunk Day

On this, the anniversary of Queen Victoria's birthday, I would like to wish all of you a most felicitous Steampunk Day!

While I would have liked to do something cool to honour the occasion like take a ride on a steam locomotive or a dirigible, instead I spent the holiday doing laundry and suffering through a session at the gym.

However, the day has not been a total SF loss, I've been reading more of Nick Gevers' anthology Extraordinary Engines. Definitely a worth-while buy whether you're a hard-core follower of steampunk or a more general SF fan like myself looking for something with an antique flavour for a change.

Star Trek: The Product Placement Experience

My wife and I went to see Star Trek again today, this time with some friends, and my assessment of it hasn't changed one bit since last week: good summer action flick, but not a Star Trek movie. (it's a pretty one-dimensional film - there isn't room in this speed-binge of a story for nuances requiring more than one viewing to notice or understand)

One thing I noticed last time that I tried to keep track of this time was product placement. In Trek, the blatent display of the 20th/21st century products in the 23rd century shows the lengths Hollywood will go to offset the cost of a film, even when it's not reasonable to claim that those products would still be around in 200-odd years, after a couple of fairly significant global wars and occasional economic slumps. I've counted four fairly obvious ones:

1) Corvette (sure, it's vintage, but still a good plug for the car brand)
2) Nokia (the brand of cell phones/car phones preferred by delinquent young galactic heroes)
3) Budweiser (you'd think in the future they'd drink good beer - sadly, it appears they don't)
4) Jack Daniels (can't fault them for this choice, really)

Does the old Beastie Boys song Sabotage count as a product plug? Maybe, if song/album sales suddenly go up as a result of the movie.

I wasn't sure whether Kirk & Sulu's parachute packs had brand names on them.

Any other product placement shots I missed?

In the end, Yogurt was only half right in Mel Brooks' Spaceballs when he said: "Merchandizing, merchandizing, merchandizing! Where the real money from the movie is made!" A big chunk of the coin comes from selling screen time for product placement.

Also, for another take on the new Trek film, check out my friend Steve Rowe's review.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Doctor Who vs The Love Boat

Now here's a mash-up I never expected to see: Doctor Who and The Love Boat.
Click here to check it out on Youtube.

It's so desperately corny and yet... it kinda works.

Thanks to the ever-vigilant Steve for passing this along.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Top 5 Steampunk Devices

Victoria Day is just around the corner: a time for those in Commonwealth countries to celebrate the birthday of the monarch who presided over the British Empire at the height of its power and innovation. It was an age of iron, brass, wood and, most importantly, steam. More than a century later, that era's sense of boundless discovery still has the ability to mesmerize (though we would do well to remember the intolerance and oppression that went part and parcel with the culture of that day, as well as the isolation of the individual). It was a time strangely familiar to us with its people struggling to comprehend the rapid technological, scientific and social changes sweeping over them, and yet somewhat alien due to their narrow worldview, comparative lack of knowledge and slower pace to life. Perhaps it is because of this combination of the alien and the familiar that the Victorian era has spawned a strong sub-culture of SF: Steampunk. Forget your solar or nuclear power, this is a genre of steam-driven pistons, pneumatics and wind-filled sails. And so, in honour of the old Queen and the SF inspired by the heady zeitgeist of her reign, I humbly present the Top 5 Steampunk Devices.

5) Land Ironclads
Essentially a tank powered by steam - or an armoured locomotive without a track. First dreamt-up by HG Wells, the concept has been tapped every now and again in modern times for steampunk purposes.

4) The steam-powered hovering fortress/themepark
When I saw this on Steamboy, I was blown away. The ultimate expression of steam power made even more frightening by the fact that it lies hidden beneath the smiling painted merry-go-round facade of a themepark.

3) Airships
Climb aboard one of these beheamoths of the sky and the world is yours. Sure, this form of flight is somewhat slow, but with the size of your vessel, you'll be well-supplied and able to travel in luxury. Just don't light a match around the gas bags.

2) The Time Machine
We don't know how it's powered, but with polished brass control knobs, it sure is a beautiful example of Victorian craftsmanship. Guaranteed to challenge your views on labour/class relations and sexual mores in any era.

1) The Locomotive Steam Engine
Few technological advances have inspired the imagination like the train. Sure, they're noisy, smoky and solid blocks of brute power, but one look at one of those black iron steeds trundling down the tracks and you can just feel frontiers opening. For better or for worse, the steam engine has made countries. It is such a powerful, recognizable symbol in western culture that it continues to thrive in our fiction - and SF is no exception. We could probably spend days listing the SF stories, TV shows and movies featuring trains in one form or another. Because of its deep metaphorical significance and because it is so completely associated with the Victorian era, the steam engine is, to my mind, the number one steampunk device.

So what steampunk devices would you nominate for the list?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Now You Get SF, Now You Don't

In the middle of Ray Bradbury's new collection of previously unpublished short stories, We'll Always Have Paris. Thoroughly enjoyable so far. Typical chunky, flavourful Bradbury prose. I got a real kick out of "Fly Away Home" the other day - a tale that would have been right at home in The Martian Chronicles. My only regret, and it's a small one 'cause Bradbury's so damn good at whatever he writes, is that there aren't more SF stories in the collection to put me farther ahead on my 365 Short Story Challenge, in which I've fallen so very, very far behind.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Toronto Kid Wins NASA Contest with Space Colony Design

Congratulations to Eric Yam of Toronto, who, according to CBC, has won this year's NASA Space Settlement Competition. The grade 12 student is the first Canadian to win the prize in the competition's 16-year history. His space station, named Asten (another name for the Egyptian god Thoth) is a series of rings stacked atop each other - much like a larger version of the orbital station in 2001, with enough rings to almost make it look like an O'Neil can-city design like Babylon 5. But it wasn't just the engineering that won Yam the prize, it was the other details. His 92-page submission flushes-out design, construction and implementation timetables; analyzes the foods to be grown; and outlines immigration policy and tax structures. He's even put a price tag on this city in space: a mere $563 billion US.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Wolverine's Claws Are A Little Dull

Saw the new X-Men Origins: Wolverine this evening. Didn't love it. Didn't hate it.

The fight scenes were generally well-done, if mostly repetative. There's only so much of Wolvie roaring and charging straight in, claws slashing, with the occasional flip thrown in, that I can watch before it starts to blur. I was actually more interested in the slugfest between the teleporter John Wraith (played by Will i Am) and Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber)than all the catfights between the Logan and Creed/Sabretooth.

The plot with its siblings at odds, the hero's love taken from him, the bad guy's conspiracy was ground that was well-trod, and moved along as it should, though with no surprises.

My wife was pretty impressed with the multitude of variously-nude Hugh Jackman shots, but I can't say that held any interest for me. Oh for the early days of X-Men with Rebecca Romijn and her Mystique body paint. Sigh.

Ultimately, unless you're a big Weapon X fan, this one's a renter.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Star Trek: The Popcorn Generation

Warning: Spoilers
(spoilage factor: about the same as the pools of alcohol spilled on the floor during the barfight near the Starfleet shipyard)

The new Trek prequel is a great summer popcorn movie. Not a Star Trek movie, but a great popcorn flick.

The story... well, you can get the summary pretty much anywhere. What concerns me most is the run-down of the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good:
Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban all, to varying degrees, did good jobs with the characters of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Pine, especially, is to be applauded for seasoning his performances with dashes of Shat every now and then (a cocky strutt, an arrogant lounge in the command chair, the occasional inflection in his voice) without letting those tendencies dominate and thus ruin the character. Urban's Bones was suitably grumbly, but what I liked best of all was the explanation for his character being in Starfleet in the first place, when McCoy never really seemed like the military type. Quinto, for his part, played a more emotional Spock than Nimoy ever did back in the old days, but he gave the character enough tension to make for a good Spock, even if it was not in a direction to create the Spock that we all recognize.

As for the supporting characters, John Cho kicked ass as Sulu, and Anton Yelchin's boyish exuberance worked well for Chekov (and with a real Russian accent, no less!). Uhura and Scotty, like Spock were slightly problematic in that they were different than the original characters. This Uhura is far more sassy and in-you-face, and less self-assured than her template from the orginal series. And where the old Scotty had a natural humour (with the exception of the dumb moment in The Final Frontier where they had him knock himself cold on a metal brace), this one is very much a clown. And yet, like with Quinto's performance, Zoe Saldana and Simon Pegg gave us characters that while different, were worth watching.

Nice to see an older Spock too who has continued to become more comfortable with his emotions and emotional situations, creating a middle path for himself between Vulcan absolute logic and the wild human ways.

From a pacing perspective, the prequel was the thrill-ride a modern audience expects for its summer popcorn dollars. Look away for a minute when you spill your popcorn, and you'll miss something flashy.

And speaking of flashy, this flick certainly loves its flashy vehicles: shiny red convertables that get dumped in a quarry, cool futuristic motorbikes, and, of course the Enterprise herself, with a new glowing-so-white-it-almost-hurts-your-eyes bridge with lots of gleaming metallic trim on the controls. One of the things I really liked about this Enterprise was that it looked big. I mean really big. Lots of shots of cavernous rooms and a huge shuttle bay. In most Trek franchise installments, you only get cramped hallways and the occasional spacious meeting room. Only Star Trek: The Motion Picture ever really gave a sense of the sheer bulk of the old (or, in that case, new - or renewed) girl with its shuttle/cargo bay, rec deck and engineering scenes. But here we're reminded that Enterprise isn't just pretty, she's downright huge.

And what movie with flash would be complete without big explosions? This film certainly loves to make things go kablooey: cars, ships of all sizes, even planets and a star. A whole scale of devastation to fit your level of destructive appetite.

But the movie was impressive for a lot of its little touches and fond nods towards the old series too. Uhura's earpiece for one. And speaking of ears, who didn't squirm uncomfortably when that large-mandibled mind slug made an appearance - except it wasn't the ear this ugly sucker was burrowing into this time. Or how about the Red Shirt buying it on the away mission? Or the Kobayashi Maru test? Even Kirk bedding the hot Orion girl (although this certainly is a different universe if Orions let their slave girls apply to the Federation military, or that the Starfleet of the Kirk era accepts their applications) was a nice nod (or is that nudge-nudge-wink-wink) to the old series and the character's proclivities.

I also approved of the fact that this is a parallel reality to the Trek we all know and love. As soon as Nero came back in time, the future that the old Spock new was gone/different/shifted - the characters are now proceeding along a different track of existence. From about mid-film, when this is mentioned, onward, we're dealing with a different animal. From that point onward, the franchise became free to do whatever it wants to without impinging on the existing canon.

The Bad:
But while this may have been a damn fine action movie, it still, to my mind, wasn't a Star Trek movie. Amidst all the running away from ice planet monsters and explosions, there wasn't time for philosophical exploration. And that's always been a hallmark of Trek, whether you're talking about the original series, the movies (even the bad ones) or the spinoff series. While there were installments that were heavy on action (The Wrath of Khan, The Undiscovered Country, First Contact, Nemesis, and that's not even counting many episodes of Next Generation, DS9 or Voyager), Trek stories have always taken the time to reflect on the questions posed by the situations the characters find themselves in: what does it mean to be human? what are the bounds of revenge? what are the limits of our science? There's barely time for this movie to catch its breath, and no time at all for any degree of introspection or discussion. In some respects, it reminded me of a dumbed-down version of the Voyager episode Year of Hell, where a man in a big-ass ship out of time tries to change the past to protect his planet, and more importantly, his wife, in the future. This film was elements of Trek served up as Die Hard fast food rather than a full, multi-course Trek banquet. Don't get me wrong, this was good fast food, but not Trek.

Then there was Nero's mining ship-turned-avenging-angel-of-death-warship. Now, I would expect an interstellar mining ship to be a fairly large piece of equipment. The scale of the Red Dwarf, for example, makes sense. One would need to have a lot of equipment to tear apart asteroids and moons and things and process them, and plenty of room to store the valuable material. And we know from the other Trek shows that ships tend to get bigger as the years go by (with the exception of Voyager and Defiant). But Nero's tub was ridiculously large. I mean, this big-ass prospector could have intimidated V'Ger! This sucker is so damn big that a massive, close-range volley from the Kelvin fails to cause significant damage - in fact, the detonation of the Kelvin itself within the miner's structure fails to do more than inconvenience it for a while - and we're talking about an explosion that should have generated a shock-wave the size of the one at the end that propels Enterprise away from the black hole (although consistancy isn't really the strong point of action films). That's just unbelievably large and powerful for a blue-collar working vessel. Even the Scimitar from Nemesis couldn't stand up to punishment like that. And where did Nero's boat get so many weapons? That looked too heavily armed for a miner. Unless, of course, Nero was, to borrow a dwarven phrase from a book in the Dragonlance series that I read as a teen, was "looking to the left side of his tools" - using his mining equipment in unorthodox and aggressive ways it wasn't intended for. This explanation is never given, but I would certainly hope that's the case. Really, with the degree of paranoia within the Romulan Empire that's always been hinted at, you'd think the last thing the Romulan hierarchy would ever want would be the working class to have gigantic ships that are armed to the teeth that could allow them to stage revolutions, etc.

And speaking of armaments, where were the planetary defences of Vulcan and Earth? Sure, both are, at least officially, peaceful worlds, but if there's enough danger in the galaxy to warrant armaments on their vessels, you'd think they'd have orbital defence platforms and heavy ground-based defences that could at least pose enough of a problem to slow Nero down before he lowered his planet-plunger into the atmosphere for any old skydiver with attitude to sabotage.

Also, I'm no astronomer or geologist, so maybe I'm out to lunch here, but doesn't the planet Vulcan behave a little oddly for a world that's just had a hole bored into its core? It's just an open hole, waiting for a bomb to get dropped in it. But rather than just being a pit, unless Vulcan is tectonically dead and solid right through to its core, wouldn't there be all kinds of magma underneath the crust that would come oozing up to the surface? Rather than an empty hole, wouldn't Nero just have created a nicely-sized volcano that would roast his bomb, rather than facilitating its descent?

Speaking of the behaviour of large objects, what was the deal with the Supernova in the future that Spock says threatened to "destroy the galaxy"? The whole damn galaxy? Really? I've read a little about supernovae potentially posing threats to neighbouring star systems, depending on their distances, but I doubt the whole galaxy would be in danger. If so, we wouldn't have a galaxy - it would have been destroyed a long time ago by previous supernovae - in fact, there wouldn't be any nebulae to spawn new stars and planets if there weren't these cosmic catastrophes that occur once in a while (catastrophes that don't, by the way, destroy the galaxy). Why not just have elder Spock say that a supernova in a nearby star system threatened Romulus, and since he was in the area anyway, he offered to help? Why does the whole galaxy have to be at risk? And if Romulus had enough advance notice that the blast wave was coming (enough time for Spock & co to hear about it, formulate a plan, develop black-hole-making technology in a convenient package, and install it aboard their fastest ship), why wouldn't its government use its military, its supply of civilian ships - including this apparent supply of big-ass mining ships with lots of empty atmosphered space and funky terraces to hang out on - and maybe ask for the help of Vulcan and the rest of the Federation, to stage an evacuation of the planet? What's with this sitting around with their thumbs up their asses waiting for Spock to save the day in a one-shot deal?

But dumb seems to be the order of the day with these Romulans of the future. This brings me to my final criticism: of Nero himself. The man is apparently an idiot. Okay, he's Romulan, which means he's a tad emotional by nature, and thus potentially prone to making the odd rash decision. That might excuse his attack on the Kelvin when he finds himself dragged into the past right after watching Romulus get destroyed and his wife killed. It doesn't explain his course of action throughout the rest of the movie. You'd think, after his vulcanoid rage had a chance to cool a little after that first bloodletting, that he'd realize that the destruction of his world and the death of his wife were not the fault of Spock or Vulcan or Earth and the Federation or anybody else. A natural catastrophe destroyed his planet. It would have done so if Spock had done nothing. He might as well have blamed the Tribbles as much as Spock. And wouldn't that have made an interesting film: a gang of blue-collar Romulans changing history by wiping out the Tribbles before the Klingons had a chance to. Ooooooh.

But seriously, to be the captain of a mining ship, you'd have to be a reasonably smart person (knowledgable of ship operations, mining procedures and risks, crew management, etc). You'd think that after he calmed down a little, Nero would figure out that he could take advantage of being in the past in a very practical and helpful way. What's the point of changing the future by wiping out the Federation (including Vulcan and Earth)? Will that stop the supernova in the future or save his wife? No. A smart man, unlike Nero, would have said "Gee, maybe I can rev-up my big-ass ship and set a course for Romulus. I'll convince the powers-that-be that I'm from the future, and warn them of the impending natural disaster. That way, when that nasty star goes boom, they'll be ready to evacuate everyone, and my wife, if not my world, will be saved. And, of course, in the process he'd be giving the Romulan Empire of today his technology of tomorrow, which it could use to stomp on all of its rivals now. But does Nero do this? Nope.

But let's say he's still too honked-off to realize he can warn his people 130 years ahead of time. There's still another opportunity to come out of this thing a hero: once Spock finally caught up with him in the past, Nero, having taken Spock and his ship and his do-it-yourself-home-black-hole-kit, could have set a course for the offending star that would go boom more than a century hence and destroy his world and kill his wife, and create a singularity that would destroy said offending star before it was ever a threat. If he wiped-out the star in the past, it couldn't explode in the future and yadda yadda yadda. In fact, you can imagine Nero and Spock having a conversation to that effect:
Nero: "Now I've got you, Spock!"
Spock: "Well, yes. Apparently so."
Nero: "That's right! So what do you have to say about it? Huh?"
Spock: "I'd say that having me, you also have my ship."
Nero: "That's right, bucko, I've got your ship! It's on terrace 93 in big open air-filled space 12 in section 149 of my big-ass ship!"
Spock: "Does it still have my singularity-in-a-can?"
Nero: "You betcha! Now that Lipton Cup-o-black-hole is all mine!"
Spock: "Have you used it to destroy the star?"
Nero: "I'm going to use it! Hah! I'm going to use it to destroy - hey, wait a minute, what did you say?"
Spock: "Have you used it to pre-emptively destroy the star that in the future will annihilate Romulus?"
Nero: "Um. I guess... Well... No. Hadn't thought of that, actually."
Spock: "Well, maybe, you know..."
Nero: "Yeah. Yeah, actually, you're right. I guess I could shit-can that star before it has a chance to blow up and take-out Romulus. Or, if it's already blown up, then I could at least get rid of the blast wave before it gets anywhere near my world. Then maybe you could use your genius to figure out how to get us home to the future."
And so on and so forth. But that doesn't happen. Nope. Nero's gotta go on a rampage, and one that not only gets him killed, but fails to do anything remotely positive for his people or his wife. Looking back at the Year of Hell example, as a Captain Nemo-like figure, Eric Bana's Nero fails miserably. He's just a dumb mad dog running around biting anything it sees. Kurtwood Smith's captain, on the other hand, while obsessed to the point of madness and willing to sacrifice anything to regain his planet's place in the galaxy and return his wife to life, at least had depth and was able to carry on conversations that didn't end with a scream of rage. Smith's captain was extremely intelligent and showed varied feelings and gave a real sense that his lost wife meant something to him and that a part of him was struggling with what he was doing. Nero has none of that and is only a villain-of-the-week who is ultimately forgettable as a character.

That being said, I do have to go back to my original point in this review that the new Star Trek prequel is eminently watchable as an action film, if not a Star Trek movie. It's watchable enough, in fact, that I'm going to see it again next week with some friends and I suspect I'll buy it when it's finally out on DVD. My hope is that if the franchise continues, they'll add some brains to this hefty assemblage of brawn.

Strangely quiet at the movies

There is a force in the universe more powerful than the new Trek
movie: the NHL playoffs.

It's the opening weekend for Trek, and the film has received good
reviews from fans and non-fans alike, and yet just moments ago, as I
stood at the front of the line outside the cinema, and now as I sit in
the semi-darkness inside, it's strangely quiet. Just 7 or so back in
the line; maybe 30 or so now in a theatre that could seat 350. Quite a
change from last night when we tried (and failed) to attend and the
joint was so packed, we couldn't even get in the front door.

Sure, it's a sunny evening - the first we've had in a week or so, but
that's never kept my fellow geeks (and the mainstream audiences just
looking for a summer SFX popcorn spectacular to while away the hours)
from turning out before.

It's gotta be The Game. The 5th battle between our big hairy Canucks
and Chicago. Around these parts, just because you frequent a comic
shop or know what a tribble is, doesn't mean you don't pull on a
jersey and cheer for the team.

So how come I'm not out there scrabbling by the fingernails to get
onto the bandwagon with everyone else? A lack of consistency on the
part of the Canuckleheads. I've been waiting to see Trek for a while
now, and I'm reasonably sure it won't disappoint. The Canucks on the
other hand... Fans have been waiting for years for a Stanley Cup, and
they're still disappointed.

Canucks vs Blackhawks? I'll take Federation vs Romulans.

Ah. The theatre's filling up pretty quickly now. Guess I'm not the
only SF-minded cynic in town.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

What's Worse Than Spoilers?

Bad jokes. That's what. A friend of mine in Ottawa went to see the new Trek movie tonight. Being three hours ahead of me, she decided to send me a note with a quick review: "We saw the new Star Trek movie tonight... It was really great! Except, why did everybody die in the end?" Lame.

Vulcans Get Emotional over Trek Advanced Screening

The Vulcans finally got their day with Star Trek and, according to the CBC, they seem to be pretty happy about it. Residents of Vulcan, Alberta, that is.

The small town about 130km southeast of Calgary has for years been promoting the fact that it shares the same name as the home planet of Star Trek's Mr. Spock.

Recently, the town had been lobbying Paramount for the world premier screening of the new Star Trek film. They even managed to get Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy onside, putting in a request on their behalf.

Paramount opted for the Sydney Opera House in Australia instead. But the studio gave the town a consolation prize - busing 300 residents and a few others up to Calgary for an advanced screening (Vulcan has no theatre of its own), which included a guest appearance by Bruce Greenwood, who plays Captain Christopher Pike in the film.

Judging by the pictures, the horde of prairie Trekkies appear pretty emotional about the experience.

And You Think Things Are Tough on Your Train/Subway

A friend at the office was on the Translink (Metro Vancouver's transit authority) website today and found a link to this little made-for-TV trinket from 1989:

The Trial of the Incredible Hulk!

Bruce Banner musters up the courage to try to save a woman from some thugs on a commuter train/subway, and when they make the mistake of putting the boots to him and getting him angry, well, that's when Hulk SMASH! (not that he actually articulates "Hulk smash", but you get the drift)

I remember that I watched this flick way back when, but I don't actually remember it. Quite a surprise to check the write-up and find that John Rhys-Davies starred as The Kingpin. Certainly it was years before he was in town to shoot Sliders.

On the whole, all of the made-for-TV Hulk movies from the late 80's were pretty forgettable. I only have clear memories of one where Hulk was going nose-to-nose with Thor (who kept referring to the big green guy as a troll), and then the last one, The Death of the Incredible Hulk, with that scene at the end where Banner goes all Hulk on some badguys in a plan, and that shot of the plane blowing up in mid-air with the Hulk falling, then a cut to the Hulk lying on cracked pavement then turning back to Banner. Dead of course.

I guess Translink must have posted the link to the clip because the train/subway scene was shot on one of the Skytrains and in a Skytrain station (Granville Station, I think?). First the Hulk goes nuts on a Skytrain in the 80's, then fastforward to this year when Caprica debuts and the Skytrain (standing in for transit on Caprica) gets blown to smithereens by some teenaged religious fanatic. It's rough when you're a piece of public transportation infrastructure!

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Top 10 Best Moments in the Star Trek Movies

With the new Trek movie set to blast into theatres this weekend, I thought it would be appropriate to take a look back at the others for some benchmark moments.

10) The launch of the Phoenix - Star Trek: First Contact
I still get a kick out of the scene in First Contact where Zefram Cochrane goes into a panic as the historic launch of the first human warp vessel is seconds away from beginning. On goes the Steppenwolf (rather than some soaring symphonic score) and the battered little scrap pile starts its historic climb. Not your typical Trek ship moneyshot.

9) The Klingon reveal/opening battle - Star Trek I: The Motion Picture
Sure the battle itself wasn't much of a battle: some blue-white energy spitballs de-rez a trio of Klingon battlecruisers, but for the first time, we saw Klingons we could take seriously. Forget those petulant goatee-sporting guys from the old series, these warriors looked alien and spoke something harsh that definitely wasn't English. A defining moment in the franchise: from here on out, we would never look at or listen to Klingons the same way again. Even the last of the TV series, Enterprise, had to do some backfilling to explain the discrepency between the appearance of the Klingons on the original series versus, well, everything else.

8) "Perhaps today is a good day to die!" Worf - Star Trek: First Contact
Pretty much everything aboard Defiant is shot, but as long as he's still got engines, Worf's got berserker guts aplenty and a will to do anything to take a piece out of the Borg cube. A quintessential Klingon moment.

7) Picard & Ahab - Star Trek: First Contact
What a great scene between Patrick Stewart and Alfre Woodard. After years of maintaining his stoic facade, Picard is starting to come apart as he can taste the nearness of a chance at vengeance against the Borg. Sure, he tries to cover it with 24th Century nobility, but Lilly sees right through it and isn't having any of his crap.

6) Reliant ambushes Enterprise - Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
The first of two great space battles in this movie, and perhaps the best ship-to-ship slugfest in movie end of the franchise. Sure, many of the other movies had battles, but this one was gripping, full of suspense, brutal, and still raises hairs on the back of my neck. Say what you will about modern advances in special effects, those old models look solid and plenty cool.

5) Zefram Cochrane's dream - Star Trek: First Contact
Even when they're horsing around or having moments of vulnerability, I've always found the Next Generation characters to be a bit stiff. Not so with Cochrane. James Cromwell plays him with believable cynicism as a genius trapped in a world that's shot itself to hell. Forget noble dreams of exploration, laugh at the challenge of innovation, to hell with paving the road to the future, Cochrane's honest about what he wants out of life: money and an island filled with naked women. Not the most likeable guy, but certainly the most human the Next Generation has ever seen.

4) General Chang for the prosecution - Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
The Klingon trial of Kirk and McCoy is a scene where Christopher Plummer really shows what it means to be an actor, as his General Chang alternately conspiratorially cozies up to the accused then harries them at a full roar. There have been other actors who have played good Klingons, but in just 2 hours of film, Plummer played a great Klingon, giving the character the depth others so often lack.

3) The Enterprise reveal - Star Trek I: The Motion Picture
What a masterfully done scene at the beginning of the first Trek film, as Kirk & Scottie approach the dock with the newly refitted Enterprise preparing for launch. First we're teased with glimpses of huge expanses of white hull behind lights and girders, then the travel pod swings around front, the music builds to a crescendo, and we see the new Enterprise in all her glory. Oldschool fans may like their ship from the 60's series, and the younger crowd may have been brought up on D or E, but this has always been the true Enterprise to me.

2) Enterprise self-destructs - Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
I still feel awful when I watch this scene. As I mentioned in the previous blurb, this version of the Enterprise was always my favourite, and to see it blow itself apart and then what's left plummet into the atmosphere of Genesis is gut-wrenching. And yet, it was a pretty spectacular death for the old girl - and one that took out a whole bunch of Klingon badguys.

1) Spock's death - Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Another tough scene to watch - the death of a favourite character. But this was a brave and necessary thing for the writers and director to do. It showed that the crew of a ship like Enterprise can't go gallavanting around the cosmos forever without consequences - that death isn't something just for Red Shirts. In some ways, it set the paved new ground for other movies and shows to come (as did, in a non-SF way, MASH with the death of Col. Henry Blake), letting future directors and writers know that you could kill off a main character to make the point that saving the day is tough business and sacrifice sometimes literally means there must be a life given. Spock's death allowed Marcus to die in B5, Wash in Serenity, plenty of good people in BSG, and, back in the Trek franchise, Data and even Kirk himself. And Spock's death wasn't a cold thing. It was noble and sad. More importantly, it was well-acted. Not just by Nimoy (as we'd expect) but from a remarkably restrained Shatner. Spock's death was a key ingredient in making TWOK the best installment in the franchise, and as such it's probably one of the most important and defining moments of all the Trek films.

Even Daleks Need to Go

One of these things is not like the others...

Check out this great photo from London's Victoria Station!
So, do these galactic overlords have arguments about leaving the seat up?

Thanks to Steve for passing this along.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Dr. Bunsen Who?

If you're a fan of The Muppet Show and of Doctor Who like I am, you'll get a chuckle out of this great picture over on The Hotel Fred (thanks to SF Signal for finding this one) merging the two into a single mass of ubergeeky goodness.

Captain Chaos Is No More

Driving into work this morning, I heard the sad news that Dom DeLuise
has died. SF fans will remember him best as the wannabe superhero
Captain Chaos in the Cannonball Run movies (we shall not speak of the
brief career HIM had as Captain USA), Pizza The Hutt in Spaceballs,
and (please correct me if I'm wrong) Cupid in an episode of Steven
Spielberg's Amazing Stories

DeLuise always had an exuberance about him, a fun gleam in his eye
that made me smile while watching whatever picture he was in.

My favourite role of his will always be Captain Chaos. As much as we
may look at The Watchmen these days and say that comic put the
superhero genre to bed, I tend to think that in a gentle way, The
Cannonball Run
beat it to the punch. In his own way, Chaos illustrated
the true nature of the costumed crimefighter: brave, yes; somewhat
flamboyant, yes; and definitely crazy. To his friends, mild-mannered
rotund mechanic Victor Prinzi took the whole split personality
vigilante thing annoyingly too far, but the Captain always did the
right thing in spectacular fashion - whether it was saving two pretty
ladies from some bikers, driving with exceptional speed and skill to
almost win the race, or saving a lady's "baby" (dog) from drowning.
And in the end, everyone, including audiences, loved him for it. In
his own silly way, Captain Chaos inspired us to be the best in
ourselves. And we ought to be thankful that Dom DeLuise was around to
give HIM life, because I don't know of any other actor that could have
pulled the role off with the flair, mischevous zest, good nature, and
sheer over-the-top camp that Dom did.

Dom DeLuise died at the age of 75.

Rest in peace, Captain Chaos.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Happy Star Wars Day

Just a few minutes left, but I can still jump on the bandwagon and get this in:

May the 4th be with you!

White Dwarf Is A Giant When It Comes to Community

I am still staggering from a full-on chocolate high. Couldn't be happier.

This evening, my wife and I were invited for a dessert party over at White Dwarf, Vancouver's SF specialty bookstore. Owners Walter and Jill like to have some of the regulars in for an after-dinner potluck once in a while, and if the variety of desserts wasn't enough, there was the blind chocolate challenge, where guests asked to close their eyes, eat a variety of chocolates and try to guess which is which based on its level of cocoa. Okay, so I only identified about half of the samples correctly, but after the first 3 or 4, the tastes linger in the mouth and it all just blends into homogenous chocolatey goodness. I regret not being able to savour each variety independantly and with a clean palate, but still: mass of chocolatey goodness - so I can't complain! And as with any well-planned party, there were lots of different folks with lots of interesting things to say. I think I started things in a chat with another fellow about favourite SF authors and how when your favourite puts out a new book, you rush to finish what's in front of you to get to it. But by the time we left, the topics had moved beyond SF: I'd listened to a highly-technical coversation about cameras, some musings about corset-making, and a taken part briefly in a discussion about comparative municipal tax structures. Really, with good conversation with nice folks and endless tasty variations on chocolatey themes, all crammed into a store filled with SF to browse during those occasional lulls in conversation, what more could you ask for?

And it is this experience that is at the heart of White Dwarf. Not chocolate necessarily (although nestled in among the fairy tales on the kids' shelf there is a nifty little book about the greatness of chocolate), but people coming together. It's about community.

White Dwarf is far beyond a mere merchant operation. It's not just about selling books or bringing authors in to read to sell more books. It's about being a member of the local SF community. You can walk into any of the local Chapters big box outlets and find whole rows of science fiction, fantasy and horror books, and a few of them might actually be worth reading (although the bulk are usually role-playing or other media tie-ins), but it's unlikely you'll find anything older than a couple of years, or in any way off the wall, or from a small press, and the staff certainly don't give a shit about you or what you're looking for. White Dwarf, by contrast, like the best of small niche bookstores, has people who know the customers by face or by name, they know what you like and they can talk about pretty much all of their stock or point you in the direction of someone who can. And it's the fact that they care enough to get to know you that takes the relationship beyond a purely business transaction into the level of community. It's the same at the local cons. Sure the White Dwarf staff go to sell their wares, but they also want to catch up with people they know and find out what's going on in the community. People matter to them and they matter to all of us. The divison of the seller's counter more-or-less disappears (except when you have to pay for your purchases, which is fair) because we all share a passion for reading and talking about really good SF. From there we build bridges between our other interests.

These days, community-building has become all the rage among big business. Bring the customers together for events, etc, and you've got a captive audience to better market your goods. They manufacture connections. Sure, there are some genuine relationships that form as a result of this, but ultimately, because of the intent, it smacks of falsehood.

With White Dwarf, on the other hand, the sense of community is genuine. Even without the author reading nights or by-invitation parties, customers want to go to the store just to be there: to chat with Walter and Jill, play tug-of-war with Judd the basset hound, to perhaps to run into other regulars who they recognize, and yeah, to check out the latest stock or browse to see if they can stumble upon an old chestnut that's been quietly sitting on the back of a shelf for a decade or two. People want to be there. Not because the store is urging customers to come as a way to have support or a more complete experience, but because they just naturally gravitate towards a place that's quiet, comfortable and friendly.

In these times of growing social isolation, it's more important now than ever to seek out places where authentic community grows on its own. You don't have to be there all the time -in fact, it would probably be a little weird if you were. But find that local specialty SF store, or comic shop, or club, or Saturday night pizza and movie gang or whatever in your community have some good conversation.

The first time I stepped in the door of this little book shop a few years ago, the experience was: "Ahhh. This is it." And that feeling hasn't ever left.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Back to Red Dwarf

(spoilage factor: about the same as a blob of curry on Lister's T-shirt)

Sometimes the dead should be left to lie in peace (even if they're just piles of irradiated dust on the deck). Red Dwarf ended well with its season 8 cliffhanger. Sure, as a fan of the show, there was a part of me that wanted more, but not if it couldn't meet or exceed the level set by the finale. When I heard the boys from "the short rouge one" were coming back for a three-parter, I was hopeful. Not full of unrealistic expectations, mind you, but hopeful they'd at least be giving fans something to remind us why we loved the show so much in the first place, even with all its faults. What we've been given this year, was Red Dwarf: Back to Earth. And it was so weak, I'm surprised they made it out of Lister & Rimmer's crew quarters, never mind back to Earth.

Red Dwarf may have been consistently, deliberately ridiculous over its eight years, but at least it had a kind of logic to it - both within episodes and from season to season. That's not to say there weren't potholes in the sense of the plots or how seasons played out or related to each other from time to time, and yes, occasionally there was a bit of confusion, but by and large, as a viewer, you know what was going on and were able to follow the episodes without too much of a sense of being lost.

Not so with this latest edition. The confusion sets in right away. Where series 8 left us with Lister, Kryten, Cat and Kochanski in a parallel universe, the revived crew having evacuated, and Red Dwarf falling apart around Rimmer's holographic ears as he fled from Death, this newest installment begins nine years later, aboard the Red Dwarf with just the boys - no Kochanski, Holly or crew. We find out fairly early on that Kochanski is dead (or so Lister has been led to believe), and eventually that Holly is non-functional, but there's no illumination about why the rest of crew isn't aboard, or more importantly, how Red Dwarf was saved from destruction.

I've since done a little hunting around the net and found a short sequence posted to Youtube that seems to have been shot some time ago showing how the series 8 cliffhanger was resolved. It's even funny. Problem is, I can't recall this being broadcasted here in North America when PBS originally ran series 8. Now, maybe I just missed it after the credits, or maybe it's a DVD extra or something, I'm not sure, but I tend to have a very good memory for stuff like this, especially when it comes to the finale of a series I've enjoyed. At any rate, the result was that for a good chunk of the first part of Back to Earth, I was stuck in "what the hell happened?" mode.

But that's just the first particle in the blast wave from the overloading fusion reactor, milado. It gets worse. The basic premise of the plot is more or less a rehash of the episode "Better Than Life", or, more precisely, the Red Dwarf novel Better Than Life. An encounter with a giant, offensively empathic squid leaves the crew unconscious and, unaware of their current state, sharing a group dream where the hologram of the ship's sexy science officer appears (even though Red Dwarf can only generate one at a time - a question they ask but one which isn't resolved) and invents a device to create a wormhole back to Earth. The boys are sucked through and find themselves in 21st century England. Moreover, they discover their entire existence is really a TV show called Red Dwarf. After a few shinanegans involving their quest to meet their maker that are lifted directly from Blade Runner, they eventually discover that it's all just a dream and they have to want to wake up. Along the way, Lister discovers Kochanski didn't die, but got fed up with him and left the ship, and Kryten lied to spare his feelings. Eventually, they wake up and return to their usual routine, with Lister hopeful that he'll find Kochanski some day. Substitute weird alien emotisquid with a hyper-addictive brain-interface video game, and change some of the plot points, and you've got the basic premise behind "Better Than Life" - asleep in a fake reality where it's hard to get out (due to temptation for perfection if it's a good fake world, or due to one's inability to overcome one's own inner demons if it's a bad world). The problem is, if I wanted to see "Better Than Life" again, I'd rewatch the episode or re-read the very well-done novel. Beyond that, the whole "our life is a TV show/book/computer simulation/dream/story" idea is pretty old hat, as is the stepping-into-or-out-of the TV world notion, and thus more or less uninteresting. Back to Earth couldn't make this chestnut anywhere interesting or funny enough to get over that hump.

The episodes were also lacking a crucial element: Holly. Right from the start, the Red Dwarf's AI was as important a character as the other four were, and Norman Lovett's dry smirk always added enough to push any scene over the top. While Hattie Haybridge was certainly no Lovett when filling in for the role during the mediocre middle series', she was still able to do a capable job as the group's clueless guide. Without Holly, you lose that sense of the little man in the closet frantically pushing buttons and leaning into the mic to shout "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!" as he tries to convince the others that there's order in their universe and he's got some idea of how it works. Without Holly, there's no captain at the helm. With Holly, the ship may be running in circles, but at least it's running. Without him, the ship, and the show, feel strangely adrift.

But the micro-season's worst crime, however, was that for the most part it was not funny. Yes, admittedly, the takeoffs on the Blade Runner photo enhancement scene and the "I just do eyes" (or in this case, noses) scene were worth a chuckle, but the rest fell utterly flat. Craig Charles did a good job with Lister's dramatic moments of despair and reflection, but didn't make me laugh. The only time that Rimmer felt like Rimmer was when he pushed the science officer's hard-light hologram in front of a car. Otherwise, he could have been any other non-descript character with an H pasted to his forehead. And it felt like Danny John-Jules' timing was off in his performance of Cat throughout all three episodes. Red Dwarf's humour ranged from vicious sarcasm to slapstick and sometimes (through Holly) a dash of dry wit, and admittedly some episodes or seasons weren't as funny as others, but by and large there was always something to make you keep watching. With the series 8 cliffhanger, it finished on a true, hysterical high note. Arnold Judas Rimmer kicking Death in the nuts and fleeing for his hologramatic unlife into the depths of a doomed ship was a scream, it was a brilliant way to end any show, and, more importantly, it distilled the entire concept behind Red Dwarf (and, let's face it, much of the human experience) into one very potent shot: less than perfect - in fact, less than average - little guys stuck in a hostile world that's doing its best to screw them, using any chance they've got and playing any trick they can to squeeze out one last moment of life, even if there really isn't any point. If you're going to follow a funny and profound ending like that, you'd better make sure that what you're serving is comic genius, and Back to Earth wasn't. It was just a pile of seen it before, tried to hard or not really trying, off timing and just plain not funny.

I have to wonder if it would have been different if Rob Grant would have been involved, rather than it being a Doug Naylor solo effort, but I'm not sure if it's possible or fair to go down that road. Ultimately, this was Naylor's gamble and it didn't pay off for the audience.

There were any number of ways Red Dwarf could have been rebooted. I'm just sorry the option that was chosen was such a smeg-up.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Going Mobile

Just a quick test of my ability to post from my phone. If it works,
it'll make it easier to post from the con floor at Worldcon/
Anticipation this summer.