Sunday, December 19, 2010

Tron: Legacy Fun but Doesn't Live Up to the Legacy of the Original

Warning: Spoilers

I can't say I've been waiting for 28 years for a sequel to Tron. It was an amazing movie by itself, and that was enough for me. Besides, it never presented itself as a story that wanted or really needed a sequel. That being said, when word came out a couple of years ago that Disney was going to continue the story in some way, I was cautiously optimistic and, admittedly, over the past couple of months, fed some cool teaser trailers and the odd tidbit from the rumour mill, I've been pretty excited about Tron: Legacy.

Did that anticipation and excitement pay off when we went to the midnight premier on Thursday? Yes and no. Tron: Legacy is a fun action flick, but it's nowhere near as good as the original.

I tried to go in with an open mind, prepared to give this belated installment to the franchise a lot of leeway in terms of telling its own story and standing on its own feet, but in the end, Tron: Legacy just doesn't have the intelligence, heart, or character development that Tron had.

The basic plot is similar to the original: man goes looking for something, gets sucked into the electronic world, then has to find his way out, in the process saving the residents of said software realm from an evil tyrant. But the protagonist in the original was much more complicated and ultimately realistic than in this newer film.

In Tron, Flynn's motives are pretty self-centred - at least in the beginning. He's out to clear his name and get some revenge and compensation. That means hacking into the Encom system. When the evil Master Control Program uses a laser to send him into the Game Grid, Flynn's still focussed on getting his data, but now he's added escape to his list. Helping the programs overthrow the MCP is something he only engages in because he knows it will increase his chances of achieving his own goals. Their struggle isn't something that really matters to him until its reality is brought home when Ram dies (you might argue that it starts when Crom dies, but that's not about the overall struggle for freedom so much as it is about the seriousness of the situation being brought home to Flynn). It's then that Flynn starts to get an inkling that creators, in this case human users who are seen as gods by the programs, have a responsibility to their creations. But even then, he's still pretty focussed on getting home with the goods. It's not until the end, after he's had to revive Yori and is watching Tron fight a losing battle against the MCP and Sark, that Flynn makes the decision to put the needs of the programs above his own. Despite his brave words to Yori, you can tell that Flynn knows that throwing himself into the beam to distract the MCP is a gamble that's likely to get himself killed rather than a ticket home with his stolen data. Luckily for Flynn, it turns out otherwise. The point is that over the course of his journey, Flynn undergoes a very real transformation of his character.

Sam, on the other hand, sets out in his journey in Tron: Legacy determined to find his father, and that never really changes. He goes into the new Game Grid and is faced with life-threatening challenges, but he deals with them to look for his father. He then finds his father and tries to bring him home. But there's no change in same over the course of this adventure. He's the same dude in the end that he was in the beginning with the exception that at the close he's decided he's got to take a hands-on role in running Encom now, and I would argue that this has more to do with wanting to hold on to something that his father shaped (and thus metaphorically a piece of his father) than it does with any significant character development.

There's another, more unsettling difference between the characters in these movies, and that is how they deal with killing. In Tron, the first death Flynn has to deal with comes during the ring game with the accounting program Crom. Until this point, Flynn's been waiving-off the whole experience in the electronic world as likely being a dream (if one that is occasionally painful when it involves a jab from a guard's shock stick). But when Flynn's shot leaves Crom dangling over the abyss and Sark removes the support, killing him, the reality of the situation is brought crashing home to Flynn. Sure it was Sark that finished Crom off, and it's obvious that Flynn hates him for it, but it's pretty clear from the look on his face that Flynn's feeling the responsibility of firing the winning shot of the match and Flynn has to deal with that. After that, he seems to kill easily enough in the lightcycle match, but remember that this comes immediately after the ring game, and he's probably angry enough to be looking for revenge on Sark and his lackies, and once he's engaged in the match, he's also defaulting back to his game-winning mental zone, and focussed on the escape. By the time he kills one of Sark's men outside the tower, it's a matter of being puzzled at his ability as a user to simply derez a program by copying his colour signature.

But with Sam, killing seems so easy. He's got time to adjust to the seriousness of the situation in transport to the arena, and he's been briefed by his father's stories about the reality of the electronic world, but when he's thrown into the arena in a disc fight, he's got no problems taking out the opposing program. Sure he's confused about how to orient himself properly on the floor or roof and how to use a disc effectively, but derezzing his opponent (which one would assume is hopefully the first time Sam has had to kill someone) doesn't seem to faze him. And that's how he continues through the story, knocking them all down and not really thinking about any of it.

And in terms of what we, as the audience, have to think about, Tron: Legacy falls short of the original. For an hour-and-a-half Disney movie, Tron had a lot to say. It asked us to think about who should control information and creativity, individuals looking to innovate, or the big all-powerful corporate entity only sanctioning what's in its own interests. It took a mature look at the Frankenstein fear of things that man creates going beyond his control - mature in that it didn't just point a frightened finger at the MCP as the example of the only and monstrous ends to man's attempt to make things that think (and this is only as far as most movies - even to this day - go when it comes to examining the possibility of artificial intelligence), it also held up the programs as a counterpoint - creations that thought and cared about each other and their makers. It asked us to consider that humans were on the threshold (and have now more-or-less accomplished) of constructing other levels of existence beyond the physical world. And, as I've mentioned before, it examines the relationship of creator and creation and what responsibilities gods might have to the things they create.

Tron: Legacy, on the other hand, primarily concerns itself with a simple look at the relationship between fathers and sons. With Sam and Flynn, it's a very simple look. There isn't any significant conflict and no examination of the nature of their relationship. Sam wants to find Flynn and wants to know why he was gone all those years. Flynn explains he got shanghai'd by Clu. Sam's fine with that and wants to go home. End of line. The father-son relationship between Flynn and Clu (and don't lecture me about how Clu is part of Flynn himself, a program reflection, rather than a literal son, because metaphorically sons are the reflections in one way or another of their fathers - Clu is just as much a child of Flynn as Sam is - Cain to Sam's non-murdered Abel - although Tron acts as a stand-in for this in a way in being transformed into Renzler) is more complex because Clu's brutality is something that he knows Flynn doesn't approve of, he actually tries to lure Flynn out of his retreat to kill him, he tries to kill Sam, and yet in the end all Clu asks of Flynn is for validation that he followed his programming correctly. But the film never gets into why Clu thought totalitarianism was the way to go, or how his need for Flynn's approval seemingly turned to hate even when things were supposedly hunky-dory between Flynn, Clu and Tron as they built the new world. Nor does the movie explore much in the way of Flynn's feelings towards Clu aside from a quick shot of fear when Tron is apparently murdered and then pity and apology at the end when he merges with Clu (which in and of itself was odd when you consider that in the original the programs resembled their users, but were not in fact the users and thus could be deleted without any apparent reintegration with the users or death on the part of the users).

Through Flynn and Clu, the movie also makes a pithy, shallow statement about the road to hell being paved with good intentions, but there's no real thought put into this because the action is moving too damn fast. As is the growing trend with Hollywood action movies, Tron: Legacy rarely slows down enough to catch its breath, let alone think about any philosophical questions it may raise. Remember that scene in the original Tron where Flynn sits with a dying Ram in a damaged recognizer, and there's a long, quiet moment where Ram studies Flynn's face, realizing at last he's in the presence of a user - one of the gods? Admittedly, that shot may have lasted a second or two too long, but it was a good shot, and a very necessary one for the story. You'd never get anything like that in Tron: Legacy, because it would mean stopping the action for a moment and running the risk of aggravating the ADD that directors, writers and producers in Hollywood seem to now assume that everyone in every theatre audience suffers from.

Beyond these major issues, there were other problems with Tron: Legacy. One of which was the fact that there were plot points that got a fair amount of screen time even though they did nothing to advance the plot itself. One was the whole digression into the bar owned by Castor/Zuse. While his Cabaret-style camping around was funny for a little while, it didn't add any significant element to the story. He was another obstacle, like guards searching on the street or a piece of rock in the landscape, nothing more. And he was totally unoriginal, and not interesting enough (or important enough) as a character to make up for this lack of originality. Sorry, Disney, but we've already seen The Merovingian in the Matrix flicks.

Another irrelevancy was the Iso people. Clu's genocide of them is terrible, but by the time we hear about them we already know he's a homicidal asshole. Besides, up to this point there has been no mention of them and no physical traces of their civilization that would make their loss poignant in anything other than a simply moral sense - we've seen nothing of them to really make us, as an audience, care. Near the end we learn that Quorra is an Iso, but so what? She hasn't demonstrated that she's significantly different than other programs/electronic forms of life. For all that Flynn talks about how the discovery of the Isos could revolutionize human life and philosophy, he hasn't said how that's any different than his discovery 28 years ago that programs, in their own world, are self-aware and have culture. Quorra's ability to come into the real world doesn't seem special either, since it's pretty clear that Clu could have brought himself, his army, and his wacky New Game Grid vehicles into the real world through the uplink in the same manner that Quorra came - it's not like Flynn just brushed-off Clu's advancing army by saying "don't worry - they're only regular programs, they'll never make it through" - he indicated they were a real threat. So why even bother with the Isos?

Something else that didn't work for me was the Daftpunk soundtrack. It had its moments, but after a while, really, it just became a monotonous background of audio oatmeal. It all sounded the same after a while, like background music at a club or rave, as opposed to a real movie score with variety (like original, which also combined electronic with symphonic music - it just did it well). This is even putting aside the fact that the much-lauded "Derezzed" track sounds a lot like the stuff John Carpenter cooked up himself for some of the escape from the Wing Kong Exchange scenes in Big Trouble in Little China (not that I have a problem with Carpenter's electronic score, just that you'd think Daftpunk could do something original maybe). What I did like was the use of the 80's music that kicked in when Sam turned on the power in Flynn's arcade, especially the faint strains of "Sweet Dreams" by the Eurhythmics as he was heading downstairs, about to be zapped into the electronic world. The Daftpunk tracks though... let's just say that by the end of the movie, when Sam, Quorra and Flynn are in the lightplane trying to elude Clu's fighters, the Daftpunk score seemed to actually make the scene less exciting.

I had a few visual nitpicks too:

Why didn't we get to see the laser zap transporting Sam from Flynn's basement to the electronic world? All we had was now he's in one world, now he's in the next. No transition. What a missed opportunity to show off some funky SFX. The abruptness of the change of worlds could also could leave new viewers who haven't seen the original wondering if "it was all a dream", especially if they picked up on the Eurhythmics song just prior to the transition.

Then there were the vehicles. The first one (and admittedly it was a fitting visual bridge to the original movie) was a recognizer. The new look for the recognizers was cool. But it was a bit of a disappointment that these models are clearly smaller than their predecessors. It also appears that they're only being used as transport. In essence, the once feared recognizers are now merely transport helicopters rather than gigantic, weird, stomping attack craft. And what's with the engine wash? Especially with engines that look like they give vertical thrust even though the vehicle moves horizontally? Lots of vehicles seemed to have exhaust or to kick up dust in the new film, even though others, like Clu's command carrier, didn't. Why no consistency?

The clothing was odd too in that is was more-or-less normal (if limited to black and white and orange only for colour and motorbike or space-age chic designs). In Tron, the clothing seemed, for the most part, to actually be a part of the programs. When Flynn arrives on the Game Grid, he's already suited up, and there's no change of wardrobe for him or most of the programs (with the exception of the tower guardians, but that always seemed to me more like they'd been removed from machinery consoles or cockpits than disrobed). In fact, when they're feeding on the liquid energy, or when they're feeling strong emotions, the energy lines (whatever) on their uniforms brighten, and correspondingly dim when they're being derezzed. Here, the clothes are simply... clothes, and the energy lines are merely decoration.

It was a little odd to see Flynn's banquet too, given the liquid energy (electricity?) seemed to be sufficient for the programs in the original film.

And there was far less variety to the landscape in Tron: Legacy. Lots more detail to the buildings in the city, but the surrounding landscape was just jagged black mountains and black ocean with more jagged black mountains. No variety, and so black I couldn't really make out much in the way of details. At least the original, for all its crude, limited texture, tried to present different landscapes with weird creatures and a little colour (red or blue to accent the grey).

The real key to accepting all of the minor differences in the physical forms of things in the film is to remember that 'Legacy isn't happening in Tron's world, it's happening on a New Game Grid - presumably the place next door. Flynn gives us this info (crucial to an existing fan's ability to reconcile the story with the original, but largely irrelevant to a new viewer) midway through the film when Sam finally catches up with him; Flynn telling his son that he brought Tron from the old Game Grid to help him run the new one with Clu. So we can probably infer that when Flynn & co built the new world, they based some of their designs on the old one but made aesthetic changes. But while this accounts for physical differences like clothing, vehicles and landscapes, it doesn't make up for the plot or character weaknesses.

What did work were the action sequences and special effects. The lightcycle match in the first half of the movie alone was worth the price of our IMAX tickets to see it on a huge screen in 3D. The aerial chase in the movie's finale sealed the deal. Throw in some cool disc fights where gladiators have to constantly re-orient themselves around the inner surfaces of their arenas, and catchy new vehicle designs (I wasn't a fan of the new lightcycles, but Flynn's retro bike, the solar sail freighter, Clu's updated command carrier, the wing packs, and the light planes were pretty impressive), and you've got a stunning collection of visuals.

Other sights I really enjoyed included the loving restoration of Flynn's arcade, complete with bachelor pad upstairs and his favourite hand-held videogame (in this case lying down in the basement lab as opposed to up on the couch). Sam's waterfront garage home was cool not merely for being an ultimate rough-and-ready bachelor pad, but most especially for the faded "Dumont" sign on the front of the building - a nice nod to Walter, the character from the original Tron who founded Encom and rhapsodized about the good old days when it had only been in his garage, and who was represented in the Game Grid by his program Dumont the Tower Guardian. Best of all though was the Black Hole poster in young Sam's bedroom. I make no bones about it, I'm probably one of the few people you'll run into who likes that old Disney SF flop, and I'm really hoping that the Mouse, as reported a while back, will take a crack at rebooting that movie if Tron: Legacy does well enough at the box office.

There's also the exterior shot when Sam is at Flynn's retreat that worked really well in my opinion, where the audience sees the lair seperated by a black gulf of wilderness from Clu's city - a nice nod to The Two Towers. Speaking of allusions, I also liked how Flynn's apartment was reminiscent of Dave Bowman's holding quarters at the end of 2001.

It was great to have Bruce Boxleitner come back as Allan Bradley/Tron. He created a nice continuity with the original film, and besides that, Tron, being the title character, had to make an appearance at some point. Given the direction of the plot, I'll even go so far as to say that I was okay with Tron getting Darth Vadered against his will by Clu, especially since he manages to reassert himself at the end (and, from the looks of it, survives his crash and swim).

Another slick little bridge to the old movie that worked really well for me was the board meeting scene where we find out that Dillinger's son has worked his way up the Encom ladder. Seems to be a very clear indication of where future sequels will probably go.

And no fan of the original could help but chuckle at the rehash of the "Now that's a big door!" joke.

So with all of its flaws taken into consideration, is Tron: Legacy worth seeing? If you're looking for a simple action flick with great special effects, yes. If you want a truly worthy successor to the original Tron, one with a smart storyline and interesting characters, you'll probably want to wait a while and rent it at your local videostore or from iTunes or some other online service. I had fun watching this movie, but Tron: Legacy just doesn't measure up to the original.

End of line.

Friday, December 10, 2010

1 Week until Tron: Legacy!

Only one week until Tron: Legacy hits the big screen and I'm pretty excited!

My wife and I have tickets to see the Wednesday/Thursday midnight screening in IMAX here in Richmond (the suburb just south of where the movie was shot in Vancouver and Burnaby - in fact, looking at some of the "real world" shots in the trailer shows a couple of recognizable locations around the city). I've been deliberately holding off rewatching the original Tron for a few months now, just so I can play it Wednesday night before we head out to the bazillionplex to have it fresh in my memory (not that I really need a refresher, having seen it so many times over the years).

Is there any point to this post beyond simply gushing about the nearness of the movie like a kid asking how many more sleeps until Santa comes? No! I'll freely admit, after all the teasers, trailers and waiting, I'm just so damn happy that Tron: Legacy is finally almost here! Now let's just hope the story and acting are as good as the special effects look - I'd hate to be this hyped only to have my hopes derezzed.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Not Entirely Wild about Harry - Review of Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Warning: Spoilers (although, is it really necessary to give a spoiler warning when the film's based on a book that's been on the shelves for 3 years?!)

The biggest problem with going to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part 1!) last week was that it's been so long since I read the book that it was hard to place everything in context. It was hard to figure out what was faithful to the novel and what wasn't, and whether that was good or bad. Hell, I'll come right out and admit it, I've completely forgotten a lot of details from the book (such as the titular Deathly Hallows themselves!), and while in most cases with a film adaptation that would be alright because the film would be faithful to the book and have a plot that ran smoothly or because it would diverge from the book but still have a plot that ran smoothly, in this case it was a major problem.

The film tries to be faithful to the book (at least, from what I can remember), but faced with the daunting task of trying to compress and represent a huge amount of story (even though it's only half of the story) in 2-and-a-half hours of screentime the pacing is extremely choppy. One minute you're in a scene, the next it's jumped somewhere else - possibly with the same characters, sometimes with a completely different set. It was as though the movie was frenetically trying to jam in everything it could to paint the whole big picture of everything that was going on, even though the only way to adequately do this was to have the huge amount of time and space that the book was able to devote to it. The consequence of the rapid changes from scene to scene was that often scenes were robbed of their full impact.

Case in point: the broomstick escape battle near the beginning. This was significant to the story because it's the big opening act that tells the reader (now viewer) in no uncertain terms that the war is now on. Oh sure, there have been fights in the previous installment of the Potter franchise, but those have been quick skirmishes. This is full-on war with a pitched, take-no-prisoners battle involving many soldiers wielding powerful weapons/spells. I remember the book devoting a fair amount of pagespace to describing the aerial clash between Voldermort's minions and Harry's friends. But the movie just gives us a rapid, confusing, largely dark, twisting flight with distant flashes of light and every now and again an enemy swoops into view before Hagrid dives down to the highway or something. There's no sense of the scope of the battle. Maybe that was deliberate. Maybe director David Yates thought a kid-heavy audience would enjoy a visual rollercoaster ride more than a Midway-style dogfight (in which case I'd say he's seriously underestimated an audience that goes bonkers for Star Wars fighter battles). Maybe Yates has done it deliberately to try to show us the confusion of battle where an individual soldier wouldn't take-in the entire scene, but would rather be focussed on his own survival. And there might be some merit in that point of view, but I think there's an argument to be made for combining the two perspectives, as was done in The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan, because as valid as it is to show how confused and frightening the speed of things in a battle can be to the individual, it's also important to the overall story to paint the larger picture of what's going on because it helps emphasize the stakes.

And it's the sacrifice of the larger picture and the stakes of the opening battle that create a serious weakness in the movie right from the start. It's a battle where Harry witnesses two significant deaths: Mad-Eye Moody and Hedwig the owl. While everyone would agree (and I have some vague memory of someone saying something to this effect in the book) that old Mad-Eye going down fighting was they way he'd want to die, this death was important because it reiterates right away the lesson that Harry learned with Dumbledore's death in The Half-Blood Prince, that even very powerful wizards can be killed by enemies and that fights are generally not fair. But we don't see this in the movie - it's mentioned quickly in passing later on and then the story jerks off in another direction. The death of Hedwig is important too because Harry has to deal with the death of a true innocent (say what you will about the death of Cedric in The Goblet of Fire, an animal is far more of an innocent for being unaware of and unable to comprehend what's happening - Hedwig only knows that she was more or less content until everybody took off and suddenly someone threatened her boy, she moved to prevent that harm, and got blasted out of the sky) who was close to Harry and died because someone wanted to harm him. It's an especially significant event because this death, possibly more than any other (from what I can remember of the book), weighs on Harry throughout the story and is something that he revisits often. There's no weight given to it in the movie though, just a quick moment when the snow owl swoops in out of nowhere to attack the Deatheater and then she's an exploding clump of feathers. It's quick. It's shocking. But the film promptly discards the moment, doesn't revisit it, and the impact on Harry is totally lost. Sure he shows that he's depressed throughout the film, but he doesn't vocalize it, we get no real window into his thoughts, and so there's no indication of how these things are affecting him.

And this was just the beginning. There were plenty of other scenes that I thought were given short shrift by the choppy pacing.

The other effect of the herky-jerky scene changes was that it heightened my sense that I was missing elements of the plot. It not only reinforced to me the fact that my memory of the story wasn't perfect, it left me with the sense that there was stuff going on - possibly important stuff - that it wasn't showing the audience and that we were just expected to know. No movie should create this feeling. A film, specifically because of its limitations of time, narrative perspective, and scope, should make the audience feel like they're seeing all they need and want to know, and all that's relevant. The illusion should never be weakened or shattered like it is here - it's integral for a movie that you never get the sense that the man behind the curtain is frantic because he can't fit everything in; the audience can't be left wondering if something is missing or walk away with the vague feeling that something didn't make sense.

And yet, for all of the rapid scene changes, there were plenty of moments which were far too slow. Some of the scenes with Harry, Ron and Hermione on the road seemed to drag (and while Clerks 2 may have made jokes about how The Lord of the Rings trilogy had a lot of walking shots, at least those scenes were effective and interesting), and the bit where they're in the Lovegood home limped along painfully slowly aside from the telling of the Deathly Hallows story via animation, which despite being interesting, had a fairly mellow pace.

What's the solution to the pacing issue? Maybe it shouldn't have been a 2-parter. Maybe The Deathly Hallows should simply have been a single, 4-hour movie. Oh sure, a 2-part flick holds the promise of making waaaay more money in box-office and DVD/Blueray sales revenue than a single film does, and the studios need all the money they can get right now, but if Part 1 was choppy, I'm not convinced that Part 2 won't be as well, and that's a serious disincentive for me to shell out extra money to see Part 2 in the theatre or to buy either of them on DVD. Besides, we're talking about how to solve the pacing issue, and clearly splitting the movie in 2 hasn't worked for scene changes. I think forcing the studio to put together a single 4-hour story would require the director to make it flow better and feel more coherent in order to make it watchable - especially for that length of time. One might argue that a film with a large percentage of its audience composed of children couldn't run that long because the kids wouldn't sit still for it, but I disagree; give a kid an interesting plot, and they'll stay locked to the story for hours. Look at kids watching Saturday morning cartoons (at least 20-30 years ago when networks actually ran Saturday morning cartoons and the cartoons were worth watching), or these days playing plot-oriented videogames, or, most importantly, kids reading the Potter books for hours on end. Make it good enough, and they'll sit still to watch it (although an intermission like they used to have for long movies in the 60's & 70's might help). Could a 4-hour film, even if it was cut better so as not to be choppy, contain all of the plot elements of The Deathly Hallows. Probably not. I'll openly commit heresy here and suggest that some of the plot elements in the book could be removed entirely (far more than the current presentation) to make a story that was able to flow onscreen. It worked for LOTR, it could work for The Deathly Hallows. But that would probably take a braver director than currently exists in Hollywood, and somehow I doubt JK Rowling would go for it.

The other problem, and call me shallow if you want to, is that looking at Emma Watson and Rupert Grint onscreen together in the later Potter films is increasingly and alarmingly like looking at a new rendition of Beauty and the Beast. The kid who plays Ron can't help how he looks, of course, and we should probably be giving the Brits serious kudos for casting (and continuing to cast) an unattractive guy in a lead movie role since Hollywood sure as hell wouldn't, but... eeesh!

It wasn't all bad though.

The movie does capture some nice moments in the growing relationship between Harry and Ginny. There's also a nice scene (which I recall reading somewhere was not in the book but rather written for the film) where Ron has left and Harry and Hermione are dancing and experience a quick moment of uncertain attraction that you'd expect from a couple of teens who have shared as much as they have and suddenly find themselves in close quarters with no-one else around. And the scene where Bellatrix tortures Hermione (largely off-camera) is well-done in terms of being genuinely scary - in fact, I don't remember it being as unsettling in the book as it was in the film.

Is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 worth seeing? Well, if you've followed the franchise this far, yes. If I had to do it again though, I probably wouldn't have paid full price at the theatre - a cheapo Tuesday or discount matinee would be worth while, but if those options aren't available I'd probably go as far as to recommend just waiting to rent it on DVD/Blueray or download it online. Those options might not be available until next summer or close to the release of Part 2, but if it does get released for purchase that late, at least you will stand less of a chance of forgetting the details ahead of Part 2. Who knows, it might even look less choppy when seen closer to Part 2.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Quick Thoughts on the Finale of Caprica

Warning: Spoilers

In following the buildup hype towards the finale of Caprica, I recall reading on some US sites that the final 3 episodes were to be shown in January, and yet here in Canada, Space aired what it calls the series finale tonight. Doesn't make much sense that they'd delay the finale in the US but show it in Canada now, but it's been officially labeled the series finale, so that's the info I've got to go on and will proceed with this review on that assumption.

I'm pretty certain that this was the finale though, for no other reason than the big wrap-up in the last 5 minutes showing more-or-less what's happened with all the main characters and laying down the foundations for the coming Cylon war. Moore & Eick and their writers certainly don't like to leave many loose ends/mysteries/unanswered questions lying around, do they?

That being said, I'll give them credit for answering all the questions in a quick, punchy 5-minute set of sequences. This was far more effective in terms of keeping the pacing - accelerating it, in fact, and actually building some tension into the wait for the coming series about young Bill Adama in the war - while giving necessary information than the closer of BSG was. Say what you will about the flaws of the BSG finale (and there were many), one of the things that really bugged me about it was the self-indulgently long and painfully slow wrap-up on Earth.2 of all the characters' plot lines/fates. The bitter irony was that this, what, half-hour, 45 minutes? of television at the end of BSG felt a hundred times longer than the 4 or 5 entire hour-long episodes that it took to do the same job for Babylon 5 - and the B5 wrap worked! Caprica's final group of short, sharp shots was emotionally satisfying, if not shocking.

The Adamas: After last week's shoot-out ending with Willy's death, I figured the only way the writers were going to explain Admiral Bill Adama would be to have Joseph and his secretary/girlfriend have another son and name him after the first boy a-la the Atreides family in Dune with the Letos.

Also no surprise that the Adama boys would go looking for some vengeance against their mafia kingpin. I have to say though that I was pleased at the resolution of the conflict, with the Guatrau's/Don's daughter helping in the assassination and taking over as the new boss. It would have seemed like too much of a stretch for the Adamas to not only survive the gang war, but to come out in control of "the family". This way, they get their revenge and a smart woman who can be trusted takes over the organization, allowing the Adamas to remain comfortably in the upper middle, but not at the top, of the power structure, which leaves Joseph free to pursue the legal legacy that's referred to in BSG.

What I was unsatisfied with, in terms of this family's role in the finale, was the lack of any real presence of Tamara. You'd think that will everything going on in the world(s - real and virtual) that she'd have shown herself, if for no other reason than to watch. Really, given their relationship, I'm surprised that there wasn't any dialogue between Zoe and Tamara about what was going on and what their role would be. Granted, Zoe's probably thinking about herself and her chance to be with her parents again and what to do about Clarice, but given the amount of time she's spent with Tamara and the bond they've formed, I really doubt Zoe would just ignore her co-virtual-goddess throughout the unfolding crisis. It felt like this was a major oversight on the part of the writers. What's intriguing is Tamara's presence in Clarice's virtual chapel at the end. Part of me thought it was a last-minute add-on by the writers who may have realized they'd forgotten Tamara in the finale and had to tie-up her storyline. And yet part of me wonders if this scene means that she was deliberately left absent from the entire episode as a means of indicating that she was just watching from the sidelines. In the end (literally and figuratively), this quick shot in the chapel strongly hints that Tamara will play some role in motivating the Cylon rebellion years down the line. Zoe may proclaim herself to be god, but with Tamara in the chapel among the Cylons, one has to wonder if it's the quiet Adama girl who will in fact grow into the role of the Cylon god.

The Graystones: (for some reason, I've always got to do a mental check when I think of this family's last name, as I always swap it with Greystoke from Burroughs' Tarzan) I have to admit I didn't quite accept the plot device of the monotheist police captain/inspector/chief/whatever going so far as to declare the Graystones to be suspected terrorists after Clarice's failed attempted murder of them. Really, Daniel's company is so huge, wielding so much influence, that even with the admission of Zoe's involvement in the train bombing that happened in the pilot episode, I seriously doubt he'd have the authority or that he'd get the backing, for a carte-blanche warrant against the Graystones - especially after the break-in and attempted murder. He might have been able to get them tailed, but (without any knowledge of Caprican criminal law particulars) I'd wager he'd be bogged-down in the warrants process and backroom police and prosecutorial and judicial politics so long that the attempted bombing of the stadium would be resolved long before he was able to get a public warning put out against them.

It also didn't make much sense to me that with a city-or-planet-wide warrant out for the Graystones that they were able to make it into the stadium at the end. You'd think that the Caprican security computer systems would be sophisticated enough and have good enough facial-recognition software, that Daniel and Amanda would have been snagged by cops on the street, regardless of the sunglasses-and-scarf combo, long before they got anywhere near the stadium.

That being said, I did like the resolution to the bomb crisis, with Daniel calling in the robotic troops to stop the bombing and take down the terrorists. Making the Cylons the heroes of the day was the perfect plot twist and sets up a delicious irony for their eventual rebellion and genocide of the human race.

It was also kinda cool as a Lower Mainland resident to see Caprica cast singer Mark Donnelly, who performs the national anthem at the Vancouver Canucks games, as the anthem performer at the C-Bucks game. Donnelly performs the Caprican anthem well, although the song itself is so ponderous that I had to wonder if it was merely a case of bad lyrics on the part of the series writers, or whether it was done deliberately as another subtle dig against the people of Caprica (as we've seen in other quick flashes from time to time in the series).

The wrap-up scenes with the Graystones made sense too. I thought that in his last media interview, Daniel's optimistic tone of voice despite his unwillingness to speculate how relations between humanity and the Cylons would go gave a hint that he'd grown as a result of the events of the series and wasn't quite so sure of himself or the world anymore. It was also bittersweet to see Daniel and Amanda reunited in the flesh with Zoe, knowing that this was something they'd wanted and yet leaving a nagging uneasiness given what we know of the humanoid Cylons' role in destroying the Colonies. What's also nagging is that the finale doesn't give a clear indication of Zoe's role in the Cylon war ahead. As I mentioned earlier, with Tamara in Clarice's chapel, there seems to be a sign that Tamara might be the Cylon god, rather than Zoe. Zoe may have decided to protect her parents from Clarice, and to destroy Clarice's heaven, but will the girl have any real or lasting sympathy for humanity, or will she become as jaded about humans as she was with her parents at the beginning of the series? And that begs the question that even if she does side with humanity, why was she not able to offset Tamara if Tamara becomes the force motivating the Cylons towards revolution? Wouldn't Zoe be able to stop the Cylons if there's a little of her in every toaster? Despite Moore and Eick's fondness for tying-up loose ends, I don't think we'll get the answer to this one.

Clarice: What happens with Clarice makes sense and is a sign of the talent of the series writing team. It's no surprise early in the episode when she cagily admits that she isn't planning on joining the others in the suicide bombing of the stadium. Clearly, she's a person who lusts for power and glory but firmly believes it's the duty of others to die for the cause - not her (that would interfere with her path to said glory). In washing her hands of that job, she's totally keeping with the nature of her character. I've always thought that there's a direct parallel between Clarice and the Cylon D'Anna Biers - I've wondered if the similarity in their personalities somehow implies that maybe Clarice was used by the Cylons as a personality template for D'Anna, although admittedly that's sheer pie-in-the-sky speculation. Best of all though is when her husband calls her on her ego and unwillingness to put her life on the line. His statement that she'll be in their god's light is as much a condemnation and a warning that she'll be judged and damned by their god as it is a lip-service parting blessing. No surprise either that in the wake of the plan's failure she'd waste no time in trying to set herself up as a religious authority again, targetting a new flock and stirring discontent in the Cylons. No surprise either when she goes to Gemenon and we find that Lacy is the Mother-Superiour of the monotheists with a Cylon on her right. The question is, what happens to Clarice when Lacy tells her to kneel?

I'll also give the finale of Caprica credit for the sequence at the end showing how the Cylons are being integrated into society as more than just soldiers - as slaves doing manual labour and menial chores like dog-walking. It paints a very clear picture of the world described in the Planet of the Apes movies just before Caesar said "no", except in this case, the rebellion is not entirely self-motivated. This time the Cylons, in place of Apes, are goaded by outside forces as much as they are driven by their own discontent.

And now the wait for young Adama's war.

Monday, November 29, 2010

R.I.P. Leslie Nielsen

Sad news tonight that Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen has died. CBC is reporting Nielsen died in hospital in Florida after a battle with pneumonia.

His best-known connection to SF was for his role as Commander JJ Adams in the classic 1956 film Forbidden Planet. I think the first time I saw the movie was as a teen in the late 80's watching the late night Sci Fi Friday feature on KSTW out of Seattle. What struck me immediately was that it was a rare example of smart science fiction storytelling in 1950's cinema (although it had an advantage over most movies, working from the Bard's excellent source material), and it's one that I still enjoy watching (in fact I'm still kicking myself for not picking up a copy on DVD a couple of years ago when they released the anniversary edition). For his part, Nielsen did a good job of playing the typical square-jawed ship captain forced to deal with a deeply weird and extremely dangerous situation.

Nielsen had other SF gigs as well, including the early 50's TV series Tales of Tomorrow (never seen this one because I've never come across any reruns of it and haven't bothered to try to hunt it down online).

Mainstream audiences probably remember him best for his comedic roles of the past 30 years, including Airplane! and the Police Squad TV series and its successor Naked Gun movies. The Naked Gun flicks were pretty funny, but I also really enjoyed Nielsen as the 'shroom-fuelled Jedi master of curling in Paul Gross' Men with Brooms. Come to think of it, the only one of Nielsen's comedies that didn't make me laugh (surprisingly) was the Mel Brooks flop Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Overall though, Nielsen had a brilliant sense of timing, the ability to keep a straight face amidst the most ridiculous antics, and a twinkle in his eye that always promised more laughs.

His accolades include being made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2002, and stars on the Hollywood and the Canadian Walk of Fame.

Leslie Nielsen was 84.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

5 Long Years

At the end of November 2005, I launched bloginhood. The night was chill and damp and a typical impenetrable West Coast winter fog was oozing over everything in the Lower Mainland and I was reading Bradbury.

Five years later, in the deep of tonight, it's strangely cold (not the dry, skin-blackening, space-between-the-galaxies cold of the Prairies or the drenching, overwhelming, claw-at-your-bones cold of Eastern Canada) and snowflakes are gently but insistently stumbling out of the low-hanging orange sky and I'm reading Robert Charles Wilson's Darwinia.

In the time between, I've been babbling about this and that having to do with science fiction, fantasy, magic realism and everything else in between that makes up the grand, creaking, expanding, wonderful genre of SF; hopefully with some degree of consistency. Why? Because it's so much fun! All of the book, TV, and film critiques - the savaging of the bad, the gushing over the good and the grand shoulder-shrugging over the indifferent; the sharing of genre-related news tidbits; the meditations or rants on the genre in general or issues affecting it; the reports from the cons; the side projects like launching a short-lived sister blog or playing a small role on the editorial team of an online critical SF magazine in its dying days; the BSG set photos as the writers' strike forced the series into hiatus; the War of the Worlds rehash; the occasional privilege of taking part in discussions on the very cool SF Signal; the 365 Short Story Challenge; and the lists in all their varying lengths and entirely subjective content... all of it has been such a blast! SF is my first love and it's so great to be able to have a place to come and talk about it.

One of the best parts of the whole experience has been all of you. I'm kind of baffled that people bother coming to this site, but for whatever reason, I'm grateful that you do come because it's cool to know that other fans out there are thinking about some of the same books, shows, films, and issues - even if you're also thinking that I'm totally out to lunch in my assessment of them. Which, admittedly, I probably am. So here's a shout-out to all of you, fellow SF fans, to the folks in London and Dorchester and Manchester and Glasgow, in Madrid and Wiesbaden and Berlin, in Torino and Stockholm and Moscow, in New Delhi and Adelaide and Canberra, in Seoul and Urasoe and Osaka, in Sao Paulo and Bogota and Mexico City, in Seattle and San Francisco and Peoria and the Bronx and Houston, and of course here at home in Edmonton and Saskatoon and Kitchener and Toronto and Nepean and Laval and Halifax and Mount Pearl, and yes Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley and Courtenay and Kelowna and the rest of BC, and all of the very cool places in between. Thank you, one and all, for being part of the last five years.

I hope you'll all join me here for the next few years.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Review: The Space Opera Renaissance

I love speculative fiction anthologies. Whether they're historical retrospectives, cultural collections, awards anthologies, a year's best, an author's best, or highlights of a sub-genre, anthologies are the sampler platters that satisfy and educate SF appetites. They not only entertain and highlight the zeitgeist within the genre or larger culture, they frequently contain essays and introductions that provide valuable critical perspectives on their contents, the people who wrote them and the times when they were crafted. I owe my education in the classics of the Golden Age and New Wave to anthologies like Greenberg & Asimov's The Great SF Stories books and nowadays I find the best way to learn about what's happening in the genre around the world is to look for collections from particular countries, like Jack Dann's Dreaming anthologies of Australian SF (one of my biggest disappointments when travelling in Hong Kong this past spring was being unable to find any collections of HK/Chinese SF that had been translated and made available in English language bookstores). One of the highlights of VCon every October is being able to go to the Edge Publishing table in the dealers' room and pick up an advance copy of the year's Tesseracts anthology. The testament to how much I love anthologies is that every few years when I'm forced to go through my book collection and cull the herd to make room for new items, I never remove anything from the anthology shelf. Even the bad ones are kept.

The Space Opera Renaissance, edited by David G Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer is no exception. As a collection offering a perspective on the evolution of a major sub-genre, it's an important book that deserves to be kept, even if its contents are, on the balance, mediocre.

On the up side, TSOR is an enormous volume packed with a large selection of authors from Edmond Hamilton in 1929 on up to present day figures like Alastair Reynolds and Charles Stross. With a selection like this, you're pretty much guaranteed to find something you'll enjoy, whether it's an author/story you already know, or a new acquaintance. Some of my favourites include Leigh Brackett's Burroughsian adventure "The Enchantress of Venus", Cordwainer Smith's "The Game of Rat and Dragon" (read before but still enjoyed), "Orphans of the Helix" by Dan Simmons (a nice return to the Hyperion universe that I was pleased to read again), Allen Steele's "The Death of Captain Future", and "The Survivor" by Donald Kingsbury (something I'd read years ago when going through the Man-Kzin Wars books - a long one, but well worth the time). Many of the other stories included, at least in my opinion, were, if not great, good enough and worth reading. Some, like David Brin's "Temptation" or Iain M Banks' "A Gift from the Culture" weren't favourites, but grabbed me enough to make me interested in reading the Uplift (Brin) or Culture novels at some point.

In addition to the stories, Hartwell and Cramer offer well-researched and interesting commentary on the evolution of space opera from the "shit" of the early days (at least in terms of its reputation) to the current "shinola". Their introductions to each story offer not only the authors' bios, but opinion on the writers' impacts on the genre and where their tales stand in relation to it - either building space opera up along its classic lines or satirizing it or offering a more realistic interpretation. I also enjoyed reading, in the case of more recent authors, comments the editors solicited from the writers themselves for the purposes of this anthology. Great to hear the author's own take on their story's place within the genre.

On the down side, one of the anthology's greatest strengths is also its biggest weakness: in nearly a thousand pages, there are more than a few stories that tanked, and some of these were too long. Edmond Hamilton's "The Star Stealers" and Jack Williamson's "The Prince of Space" were prime examples of this. Others I found so tedious that (and I really hate to admit this), after suffering through a few pages I called it quits and skipped ahead to the next story. The one that comes most readily to mind here was David Weber's "Ms. Midshipwoman Harrington". Far too boring to justify nearly 80 pages (true, Kingsbury's "The Survivor" was pretty fat too, but at least it was an engaging story with that explored the relationship between cowardice, survival and adaptation, and played games with the reader about whether the protagonist was really all that sympathetic). The amount of stories that didn't work for me got to be enough of a problem that TWICE I put the book down to go off and read something else. Granted, to some extent this has to do with personal taste, but I'm sure I'm not the only reader who got bogged-down trying to get through this thing.

For a book of this bulk, Hartwell and Cramer should probably also have included more entries from the early days of space opera. While the title does describe it as the Renaissance of the sub-genre, rather than a complete history, it does span a period from the end of the 1920's all the way up to the early 21st Century, and thus does almost constitute a complete history of the genre. Why not include entries from some of the other early giants of space opera like EE "Doc" Smith, AE Van Vogt or John W Campbell?

That being said, while The Space Opera Renaissance didn't hit the ball out of the park, it is a comprehensive look at the sub-genre that's generally good enough to be worth adding to anyone's collection.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Pausing to Reflect on Remembrance Day

Today was Remembrance Day, marking the 92nd anniversary of the end of WWI, and a time when we pause and reflect on the sacrifices of those who fought in all of the wars and police actions and peacekeeping missions over the decades. Sacrifices that have made it possible for us to enjoy the freedoms we have today.

Look back through your family tree and you'll find names, and maybe even photos that go with them, of people who were soldiers, sailors, airmen, merchant marines, nurses and others who have served their country. Some of these people you may have known, others may be generations gone. If you're lucky, there are stories to go with the names and faces, because the stories are important. The stories make these people real - more than just names dates and faded photos. And when these stories help us really feel that these people were real, we more fully appreciate their sacrifices.

What does all of this have to do with this site's usual focus on SF? Nothing? Everything.

Because of the contributions of our veterans and war dead, we're able to freely express our opinions on the internet, even if those opinions are only about science fiction and fantasy. It's because we have these freedoms that authors and TV producers and film-makers can tell us all kinds of different stories that challenge not only our imaginations but our beliefs and politics.

It's also relevant because there's some pretty good SF out there that talks about the wars and peacekeeping. Here's a post from a few years ago where I've named a few stories on this theme that I enjoyed the most.

But most of all, regardless of this site's focus, it's important to highlight Remembrance Day because it's simply the right thing to do.

Lest we forget.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Radio Gaga - Listening to Canadia: 2056

A couple of weeks ago while on the CBC website, I stumbled on an ad for a radioplay that had been airing on Radio One that was surprisingly geeky: Canadia: 2056.

Not being a regular listener of the station, I'd missed the series' original run, so I hunted it down on iTunes and downloaded both seasons. I've been listening to a couple of episodes every night for the past little while and have just finished it. On the whole, Canadia: 2056 isn't bad.

As the title makes fairly clear, this science fiction-comedy is set in the year 2056, where the American government warns that the Earth is threatened by a hostile alien race, and builds a fleet of warships to pre-emptively destroy the enemy before they can leave their own world. Canada is the only other government that supports the US mission, and contributes a single vessel to assist the fleet: the Canadia. But you won't find this ship on the front line of battle - at least, not deliberately. Canadia is a maintenance ship - more to the point, the vessel and its crew specialize in unclogging toilets and various other small jobs like replacing lightbulbs.

The story opens with the crew of Canadia desperately trying to get the ship ready so it will be able to leave orbit with the rest of the fleet, when an unexpected new shipmate arrives. Midshipman Max Anderson is an American, son of a senior admiral who thinks her boy needs to man-up and that the best way to do that is to send him off to war - except, wanting to ensure that he'll get home safe, she assigns him to the Canadian maintenance ship, believing he'll be out of harm's way. Max initially has to put up with resentment, American jokes, and the awful realization that he'll be plunging toilets for the rest of the war. Having to deal with this new member of their crew are the Captain, a petty, egomaniacal, somewhat dim bureaucrat who's obsequious to his US Commanders only as long as the com system is on, then turns on a dime to grumble spitefully about them; the much put-upon First Officer Margaux Faverau who holds the crew together as she puts up with her bumbling captain and jokes about her heavy Quebecois accent; absent-minded old Doc Gaffney; and Amanda Lewis, the engineer who quickly develops a crush on Max.

Throughout their odyssey, Canadia's crew has to deal with everything from nutty AI's to American admirals that are either indifferent or overbearing cowboys, mysterious aliens to time travel, catastrophe to brains in jars, Canada-US relations and the stereotypes each country has of the other, government bureaucracy, and, of course, clogged toilets across the entire fleet.

In many ways, Canadia: 2056 feels a lot like the British TV series Red Dwarf. The crews are very much blue-collar workers going about duties utterly lacking in glory, and you get the sense that pretty much anyone from one series' ship would fit in well on the other vessel. Their misadventures tend to have the same feel too. The main difference is that the crew of the 'Dwarf is wiped-out in fairly short order, leaving Lister as the only living human, kept company by Holly, Cat, Rimmer, and later Kryten and Kochanski, while most of Canadia's gang manages to stay alive, more or less. In fact, I'm fairly certain that the creators of Canadia: 2056 are aware of, and probably intended, the parallels with the UK show, as evidenced by a couple of references in the radioplay to "the Jupiter Mining Corporation", which, as fans of "the short rouge one" know, was the name of the company that owned the Red Dwarf prior to her 3-million-year run into deep space.

There are plenty of nods to other SF works though. The afore-mentioned brain-in-the-jar has been used plenty, although every time it came up in Canadia: 2056, I couldn't help but think of the treatment it gets in Futurama (okay, admittedly, Groening's show uses entire heads in jars, rather than just brains, but you get the idea). Max's best buddy the robot is unapologetically R2D2. The series plays with post-apocalyptic survival a bit (take your pick of inspiration there), there's a time machine that's a half-assed cousin to Marty McFly or Austin Powers' rides, and there's an interfering, godlike alien straight outta Trek, among others.

Most of these references were worth a chuckle, but the first season's running joke with the Doctor and 2001: A Space Odyssey got really stale, really fast. I also thought the series ending was a little too The 13th Floor-ish. Parts of the conclusion were funny, but ultimately it was unsatisfying.

Is Canadia: 2056 worth spending $24 to download 24 half-hour episodes? Yes. I certainly would have preferred to listen to it for free when it aired on the radio, especially since CBC is funded by my tax dollars, but looking back at the original air dates and times, admittedly I would have been busy with other things anyway. But I don't regret paying for the download. It was funny enough when it needed to be and told a genuinely good story about some of the relationships among the crew.

I think it's also worth listening to as a way of supporting the dying art of radioplays. When's the last time you listened to one? Especially a radioplay that told a science fiction story, and in particular, one that was produced recently? I'll bet it's been a while, hasn't it? The last new ones, at least the last newly-produced ones with SF elements to them, that I can remember listening to were back when I was a kid in the 70's and early 80's. After that... nothing. Sure, there are rebroadcasts of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre production of War of the Worlds, and the odd radio station here and there (like Rock101 here in Vancouver) will have a DJ who loves radio enough to convince the PD to let him do a classic radioplay show overnight once a week, but those are few and far between. As for the Mothercorp, CBC does a good job of maintaining the art form, but it's pretty rare for it to condescend to produce a radioplay as firmly rooted in the SF ghetto as Canadia: 2056 is. If you remember the better days of radio decades ago, when radioplays were still common, and if you want to experience a well-made one again, this program is worth while. If you're a younger SF fan and you've never listened to a radioplay, or have heard the old Welles cast and want more opportunities to listen to a story and create the pictures with your own imagination, I'd say this series is probably worth trying.

He Shoots, He Doesn't Score! - The Close of the NHL Superheroes Challenge

Well, Hallowe'en has come and gone, and with it my NHL Superheroes Challenge that offered fellow fans the chance to mock the surprisingly silly team-up between Stan Lee and the National Hockey League. And it was a bust. Not one person submitted a tongue-in-cheek superhero suggestion for their local (or favourite) hockey franchise.


Is it because there's too great a rift between comic/SF fanboys & fangirls and hockey fans?

Is it because comic/SF fans have too much loyalty to their NHL favourites to take potshots at their soon-to-be superhero avatars?

Is it because Stan Lee is too much of a sacred cow for anyone to criticize his comic creations, no matter how much the new ones are blatant marketing schemes for a sport that's big enough not to need them?

Is it because I was unable to offer any prizing for my corny little contest?

Is it because ultimately this challenge was just too weird and lame? I think this is probably most likely.

Ah well.

I'll still be keeping an eye on developments with the Guardian Project and passing them along. And when the time comes at the Allstars when these, er, heroes are finally revealed, I'll play the pointless supervillain and level the weapon of merciless criticism if they fall short.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Top 5 Ramming Scenes of SF

Sometimes, in the midst of a science fiction battle, you've gotta go for broke and call for ramming speed. Some of the best SF battle scenes that spring to mind most quickly for me involve a ship from at least one side, deliberately or accidentally, barreling into one of its enemies.

I'm not talking about some weenie, half-assed slap of a collision like the Enterprise shuffling into the Scimitar at the end of Star Trek - Nemesis.

I'm talking about a hull-wrenching, ship-wrecking, explosion-causing, full-on crash-up between two vessels, causing significant, crippling, if not catastrophic damage, and perhaps even changing the tide of the battle.

Run for the lifepods, chums, we're goin' in!

Top 5 Ramming Scenes of SF:

5) Star Wars - Return of the Jedi - The A-Wing Fighter Ramming the Super Star Destroyer's Bridge
It always seemed to me that this was an accidental ram: the A-Wing had taken a hit and the pilot lost control. But there's no denying that this was a truly devastating impact. How is it that the Rebel capital ships could pound away at this monster's shields and hull for minutes? hours? and not cause significant damage, but one little fighter, the smallest on the line, takes out its bridge and the Empire loses its flagship - and sustains massive damage to the Death Star II. Sure, we can argue until we're as blue in the face as Grand Admiral Thrawn about how absurd it is that the Super Star Destroyer's non-bridge officers weren't able to regain control in time through an auxiliary CIC or the engine room, but the fact remains that this was a David and Goliath scenario with truly awesome results.

4) Star Trek - Deep Space Nine, season 2 finale "The Jem'Hadar" - The Jem'Hadar Fighter Ramming The USS Odyssey
Sometimes, as we learned from the previous example, size doesn't win the battle, especially if your enemy is a Jem'Hadar fighter (let's call a spade a spade, those suckers are big enough to be small capital ships - they're basically corvettes or maybe big enough to be destroyers) with massive firepower and suicidal determination. The Odyssey, a Galaxy-class starship like the Enterprise, tries to come to the rescue of Sisko & co, but ends up getting pummeled by 2 (or was it 3?) Jem'Hadar "fighters". When the rescue is complete, Odyssey attempts to cover the escape of the DS9 Runabouts, but the Galaxy-class ship is destroyed while retreating when it is rammed by one of the Jem'Hadar. Sisko has it mostly right when he explains to the others that the ram was the Jem'Hadar's way of sending a message to the Federation of how determined they were. It was more than that though. It was really a big "fuck you". A message would have involved crippling or destroying Odyssey, but ramming it and destroying one of their own ships in the process was seriously over-the-top on the part of the Jem'Hadar. This was a scene that was also, at least in my mind, a major turning point for the Trek TV shows in terms of portraying the viciousness and brutality that a space battle might entail, and a promise of things to come for DS9 in particular.

3) Battlestar Galactica, season 3 "Exodus Part II" - the Pegasus 2-for-1
When the time comes to rescue the colonists from New Caprica, Galactica initially goes it alone, but the odds are stacked too heavily against the old battlestar, and it looks like Admiral Adama won't make it out. That's when his son Apollo appears in the Pegasus, and the larger, newer battlestar provides cover for Galactica to get away. Pegasus is heavily damaged in the battle, and so before he abandons ship, Lee sets his battlestar on autopilot and sends it hurtling guns-blazing directly at a Cylon basestar. The impact is so colossal that one of Pegasus' flight pods is sheared clean off and tumbles into a second basestar, destroying that vessel as well. An incredible battle to watch, and a nice nod to the episode from the old series where Commander Cain's Pegasus is last seen diving between a pair of enemy basestars in a hail of lasers and missiles.

2) The War of the Worlds by HG Wells, Chapter 17 "The Thunder Child" - Another Great Double Take-out
Of all the slug-fests described in SF books I've read over the years, the one that stays with me the most is a Victorian-era sea battle, the showdown between an early battleship and a trio of Martian war machines in The War of the Worlds. Wells sets the scene of a harbour clogged with ships loaded with refugees trying to escape the terrible Martian tripods. Suddenly, three of the alien machines appear and it looks like they'll be able to make good on the old cliche of having as easy a time as shooting fish in a barrel. But unexpectedly a large British ironclad comes racing into the harbour. In the first exchange, the Thunder Child is raked by a Martian heat ray, but destroys the alien with a volley from its guns. The battleship then charges towards a second Martian, which fires its own heat ray, destroying the ship's upper superstructure. However, the Thunder Child's hull continues to plow forward, ramming the Martian and destroying both. The third war machine slinks off, leaving the refugee ships to escape the harbour in safety. This scene has all the right ingredients: a surprise rescue, the good guys facing incredible odds (both numerically and technologically), a rousing victory when humanity needs it, the innocent escaping, and even though the heroes die, we get the satisfaction of seeing the surviving Martian retreating rather than destroying the ships in the harbour. Of course, it's also the last break humanity will get in the story until the germs take their toll. Wells shows how great a storyteller he is by giving us a victory that, as the rest of the story unfolds, seems smaller and smaller as the Martian occupation gets worse and worse.

1) Babylon 5, season 3 "Severed Dreams" - the Churchill vs the Roanoke
I've spoken at length before about what a powerful piece of TV storytelling (regardless of series or genre) this episode is, and this particular scene is one of the many reasons for it. The battle is raging as B5, the Alexander and the Churchill defend themselves against the Earthforce ships that have been sent to arrest their crews. The Churchill's captain, Hiroshi, knowing her ship is too heavily damaged to continue to fight, orders her ship on a collision course with the Earthforce-loyal Roanoke, broadsiding the other destroyer and causing both ships to explode. (I'm guessing Straczynski thought it would be appropriate to have a Japanese captain make a kamikaze attack in this scene.) It's an incredibly well-done piece of special effects to watch with a powerful musical score digging at the viewer as well. But ultimately, I think what's best about the scene is that it's treated with a lot of realism from the standpoint of the characters. When the destroyers explode, there's no cheering in B5's C'n'C. Some relief, but no celebration - not only do these people appreciate the danger everyone is in, and the terrible loss of life they've just witnessed, but they're also well aware that even though the Roanoke arrived as their enemy, not too long ago they were all part of the same military - all children of Earth. What we're witnessing in this scene isn't so much a great victory as a terrible tragedy. It's just an amazing piece of writing. As good as all of the other nominations are, they don't hold a candle to this part of "Severed Dreams".

What are your favourite ramming scenes from SF?

1 Week Left in the NHL Superheroes Challenge

Alright comic fanboys and hockey fans, there's just 1 week left in the NHL Superhero Challenge! If the NHL and Stan Lee can team up in a truly ridiculous marketing scheme to create their own hockey-themed superhero squad, I think we, as fans, are entitled to give it a pre-emptive check into the boards.

Create your own superhero profile based on your local or favourite NHL franchise! Let us know what their strengths and weaknesses are (especially weaknesses!), what strange powers they have, and who their rivals are.

Deadline for submissions: October 31st - it's a Hallowe'en trick and treat!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Randy Quaid Tries for Refugee Status in Vancouver

The CBC is reporting actor Randy Quaid and his wife have been in an Immigration and Refugee Board hearing today in Vancouver trying to get refugee status in Canada.

Quaid, whose SF roles include drunken father & co-saviour-of-the-world Russell Casse in Independence Day, the monster in Frankenstein, and Bruno in The Adventures of Pluto Nash (not to mention his unforgettable non-SF role as Cousin Eddie in the Vacation movies) was allegedly arrested Thursday by Vancouver Police when officers responded to an incident, ran an identity check on a couple allegedly involved, and discovered the two were wanted on outstanding warrants in the US. The 60-year-old actor and his wife Evi are charged with felony burglary and misdemeanor for allegedly moving back into and vandalizing a home they once owned in Santa Barbara, California.

Today at the refugee hearing, the Quaids claimed they fear for their life in the US. Quaid says eight of his close friends have been killed in recent years and he thinks he's in danger.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Top 5 Insults of SF

There's nothing like a good insult - unless it's being directed at you personally, that is.

Science fiction and fantasy are full of characters who make fun of others and are poked-at themselves. There's Q from the Star Trek franchise, who wastes no opportunity to make snide comments at the expense of Picard, Riker or Worf. And the tables are occasionally turned when we get to see how ridiculous Q himself can be made to look. The Trek universe, through Deep Space Nine, has also given us Elim Garak, a tailor and former Cardassian spymaster, who while being treated for injuries boasts of having wounded a gang of Klingons for life with his insults. And the Dragonlance roleplaying tie-in books presented an entire race, the Kender, who have a magically-enhanced natural ability to taunt pretty much any person or creature to the point where they're driven into a mindless rage.

Say what you will about how nice it is of Babylon 5's Minbari to find amusement in misunderstandings of language rather than the possibility of personal danger or embarrassment, the rest of the universe usually gets a kick out of a good insult.

It's important to note that when I'm referring to insults, I'm not talking about SF-nal racial slurs here, like "mudblood" in the Harry Potter books, or when Cat offhandedly refers to the human crew of the Red Dwarf as "monkeys", or the Colonial use of "toaster" as an epithet for Cylons.

The true wit is in potshots directed specifically at individuals for real, overblown, or imagined flaws in their personalities, personal appearance, or actions. Sometimes it's an artfully drawn-out description or comparison taking at least a sentence to fire-off. Sometimes it's not that creative at all. Frequently good insults are dirty. And often just a single word will do to really, really get to someone.

And so this week's list is dedicated to:

The Top 5 Insults of SF

5) "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!" Monty Python's The Holy Grail
Forget swords and armor or catapult-launched livestock and manure, the most powerful weapon the French soldiers mustered against King Arthur and his companions was their never-ending torrent of taunts. There are lots of really funny, merciless lines of beratement in this movie that never fail to get me howling, but this is probably the one that most readily springs to my mind. It's purely idiotic in its own right, but it's leveled with such ferocity and petty cruelty and it's just so creative that you can't help but love it. And let's not forget that it's part of the volley that succeeds in making Arthur cringe and driving him off.

4) "You stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder!" Star Wars - The Empire Strikes Back
Princess Leia's tongue-lashing of Han (right before her tongue duel with Luke) is perhaps one of the best-known insults in SF. What makes it really funny, as everyone knows, is that the space pirate takes more offence at being called "scruffy-looking" than a "nerf herder" or "half-witted" (which might be taken as a sign of being half-witted. I'm just sayin'.)

3) "smeghead" Red Dwarf
Short and to the point, this is Lister's favourite jibe at his snooty, idiotic roommate Rimmer (before and after Rimmer's death). What's great about this one, is that the writers no doubt concocted it to use in place of "asshole" and other similar real-life invectives that probably wouldn't be allowed by the TV censors (not entirely sure about the censors in the UK where the show was produced, but most Canadian and American censors would have an issue with it), and yet in doing so they used a real-life, disgusting bodily substance, and ended up getting away with it on air in a bunch of countries.

2) "You nameless licker of scentless piss!" The Man-Kzin Wars 3
Over the years as Larry Niven and his gaggle of co-writers have given us installments in the seemingly never-ending conflicts between humanity and the race of seven-foot, bipedal, intelligent, and highly belligerent tigers that terrorize the immediate neighbourhood of Known Space, they've done a good job of exploring the details of the Kzin culture. Part of this involves their language and especially their insults. The taunts they use at each other very much reflect their feline nature and behaviour. In this case, being nameless refers to low social status, as kzinti are only given names as rewards for outstanding work/war service or if they are noble-born (otherwise they're referred to by nick-names as kits and by their job titles as adults). The rest of the insult refers to an individual who engages in piss licking for no reason apart from enjoyment, since being scentless it would convey no information that a cat would normally pick up from it. In one nasty little barb, this phrase tells the reader a lot about the Kzin. As an insult among Kzinti though, it's very successful at driving the recipient into a rage, provoking him into a "scream and leap" - an attack resulting in a fatal claw-to-claw fight which is the common method for male Kzin to settle serious disputes. I can't recall which particular story from The Man-Kzin Wars 3 this insult comes from or which author wrote it, but it's a zinger that's one of my favourites for being gross, vicious, creative, kinda funny, and a piece of dialogue that provokes explosive action.

1) "petaQ!" (or p'tahk, pahtak, p'tach, patak, or however you choose to spell it) the Star Trek franchises
I haven't been able to pin down exactly what this nasty little bit of Klingon means, but like the previous Kzin insult, it's bad enough to usually force a fast and brutal response. PetaQ makes it to the number one spot for being short, effective, and probably the best-known insult in SF.

What insults from SF books, TV shows or movies stick out best in your mind?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Fanboy (and Fangirl) Challenge: Your take on the NHL Superheroes

As I've been harping about for the past week or so, Stan Lee and the NHL have joined forces to create a squad of hockey team-themed superheroes, but they're making everyone wait until the All Star Game on January 30th before they unveil their creations.

But why should we have to wait until the season's half over before we get to see these superheroes? The idea behind the Guardian Project mashup is just so insane that we should be allowed to start making fun of them now!

So I say let's do it!

I'm issuing a challenge to all the comic book/SF and hockey fanboys and fangirls out there:

Choose your local/regional or favourite (if you don't root for the home team) NHL team and create a tongue-in-cheek character profile for that superhero.

Be sure to include:

The Superhero's Name (must be some variant of the actual city/team name)
Physical & Costume description
Optional: Other relevant data such as battle stats (in place of game stats like never having won the Stanley Cup)

Bonus points if you've got some artistic talent and can send a link to a sketch you've drawn!

Remember: the whole idea of mashing-up superheroes and hockey is so ridiculous that your character and his/her attributes should be equally ridiculous. Be brutally honest about the potential strangeness of any comic character that would be inspired by your city/team. If they play poorly, dress funny, or have a vague name that implies nothing about what the superhero's abilities would be, or if there's something quirky about the team/character's home town, that's all fodder for your character profile.

I can't offer any prizes at this point for those who participate except for honour and glory, but it'll be fun!

Want to participate but you don't have an NHL team in your area? Need a refresher on the names of the teams? Not a hockey fan but want to take part in the fun? Visit the NHL's website for a complete list of all 30 of the current teams.

Note: I will also accept your nominations for superheroes based on NHL teams that no longer exist (ie the Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets, etc).

Reply through the comments section of this post. Deadline for submissions will be Sunday, October 31.

Stan Plays Coy about new NHL Superheroes

Comic book legend Stan Lee and others associated with the new NHL Guardian Project took part in an interview with ESPN Radio on the 13th where they really didn't say much about the new batch of superheroes except how big this endeavour is.

At one point, Stan mused that some of the characters could turn out to be villains, but no specifics were given. Later he hinted that there could be some explanation for rivalries that might reflect some of the real teams' histories with one-another. Again, there were no details.

In fact, the closest they got to shedding light on any of these superheroes was one point where a member of Stan's gang mentioned that they'd drawn the Minnesota Wild character as being physically massive.

The rest was all hype about the big unveiling at the All Star game this winter.

Stay tuned for more on the comics-hockey mashup...

Friday, October 15, 2010

New Logo for Sci Fi Trading Post

We've just posted the new logo for Sci Fi Trading Post to the site!

Kudos to Catherine MacDonald at Phatcat Creative for doing a great job on the design.

And a hefty dose of thanks as well to good friend and webmaster extraordinaire Steven Rowe of Lim Rowe Consultants for putting the site together and getting the new logo up.

We're still in the midst of building the back end of the site and getting the books and comics catalogued, but we're hoping to be open for business in a couple of weeks. Be sure to follow Sci Fi Trading Post on Twitter: @SciFiTradngPost for updates on our launch and information on our products.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Not-So-Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I hope all my fellow Canadians out there had a great holiday long weekend, and for all of you who aren't from the Great White North, I hope you had a Canadian nearby who was willing to share his/her celebratory turkey with you!

For my part, normally I'd be smiling blissfully in a turkey-inspired near-coma right about now, but instead I've spent the weekend meditating on designed obsolescence in household goods, specifically appliances. While Thanksgiving proper is today (Monday), my wife and I usually do the big supper on Sunday, giving us the Monday to take it easy. But yesterday's meal preparations were far more of a hassle than they normally are: the oven died on us after the turkey had been in it for a couple of hours. Luckily I've got a big-ass barbeque out back with plenty of propane and I was able to finish it off very nicely out there, even adding a touch of mesquite smoke.

That being said, the whole event got me thinking of science fictional ways to get avoid having to deal with inconveniently-timed appliance failure. I was reminded of a very short science fiction story I read long ago (and I'm totally blanking on the title and author's name) about a family of the future getting ready for their big Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey dinner... the mother was bustling around the kitchen getting things ready, the key preparation being putting a big platter on the table and placing a small pill on it. All she had to do was apply water and in a second the pill would expand into a huge, hot and ready to eat turkey with all the trimmings. Meanwhile, the kids are running around, and she's concerned about the baby being underfoot, so she picks him up and puts him in his highchair at the table, then turns back to the kitchen to continue the other preparations. She turns back to the table a minute later, and realizes something is amiss: the pill is no longer on the plate, she looks around, unable to find it, then realizes in horror that the baby has reached across the table and is just stuffing the pill in his mouth. The end. Okay, so maybe the meal-in-a-pill idea isn't the best solution to my GE oven crapping out. Still, there's gotta be some way to build a more reliable appliance that doesn't die at the most inconvenient time.

And the stupidity doesn't end there...

Today (Monday), the fridge died on us. We only found out after it had been dead for a couple of hours. Had to toss a whole lot of food.

Two appliances in as many days, and over a holiday weekend centred on food! I've had streaks of bad luck before, but this is getting ridiculous! What's the plan for tomorrow? Is a meteorite going to brain me as I walk down the street tomorrow to a business meeting?

Why is it that nothing lasts anymore? Up until a couple of years ago, my grandmother had a fridge in her basement that she'd owned since the 50's that was still working perfectly and had the honourable designation of being "the beer fridge". My fridge: no more than 7 years old. Same with my electric oven (grandma's gas oven dated back to the 30's). If I had any doubts before, I'm now certainly a firm believer in the idea of designed obsolescence.

Where's the super smart house that's supposed to stay in working order and take care of me for life? Where's the smart house that Bradbury described in "There Will Come Soft Rains" that's tough enough to outlast its owners (and their dog - excuse me while I wipe some tears away) and stay functional even after a nuclear blast. Granted, it was only functional for a short time before eventually being destroyed, but still, it was pretty tough, and kept working until the end! I'll betcha its fridge and oven were running just fine until the place finally burned down!

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to dig-out my bike helmet from the depths of the closet. I've gotta be ready if that meteorite makes an appearance tomorrow.

Friday, October 08, 2010

NHL Superheroes' Promo Website Up and Running

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, the NHL and comic creator Stan Lee have teamed up to create a new line of superheroes based on each of the league's 30 teams. It's called the Guardian Project. Today the new Guardian Project website has gone live.

Upon arrival, the site takes visitors through a short trailer (complete with a driving metalhead guitar and drum score that gets kind of annoying after a while for its repetitiveness) teasing what some of the characters will look like. Problem is, the superheroes are all so shrouded in shadow it's pretty hard to make out any details, much less identify who represents what city.

Once the promo's over, it flips to the homepage, which is even more murky and piled with a legion of generally indistinct figures. There really isn't much more to the site aside from Stan's bio and a news page.

The National Hockey League's news page reports the characters will be unveiled at a special presentation during the All-Star Game on January 30, 2011 in Raleigh, North Carolina.

I've still got a bad feeling about this.

But, at the same time, I think we can have a little fun with it. More to come...

Superheroes Coming to the NHL

This has got to be one of the strangest mashups ever: Superheroes and the real-world NHL. And who's one of the main characters behind this cultural collision? None other than Stan Lee.

CBC is reporting the creator of Spiderman, the Hulk, and the X-Men (through his SLG Entertainment company) has teamed up with the National Hockey League to create Guardian Media Entertainment, which will work with VICON House of Movies, an animation and motion-capture firm. Under the deal, Lee will create a superhero to represent each of the NHL's 30 teams.

The new squad of costumed vigilantes will appear in games available on a website set to go live tomorrow (Friday), coinciding with an announcement Lee and the NHL will be making at the New York Comic Con. These superheroes will be making appearances in broadcasts and animated sequences (presumably during the games) over the course of this hockey season. The report says a comic could also be published around February. Videogames and merchandise may be coming down the pipe at some point as well.

The aim is to attract 9 to 14-year-old boys to hockey.

Does anyone else have a bad feeling about this?

Reading the story gave me something of a queasy flashback to '79 when as I kid I sat dumbstruck in front of the TV when The Super Globetrotters animated series came on one Saturday morning. That was a weird sports/comic mashup, and that's even considering the Globetrotters were more of an entertainment act than a legitimate sports team in the first place.

What I want to know is how will these new superheroes reflect their actual home teams? Will an individual character have the same name, more or less, as his team? For example, would the Vancouver Canucks superhero be called the Canuck, or Canuckman or something like that?He certainly couldn't be called Captain Canuck because that's the name of an actual trademarked superhero. Same goes for the Nashville Predators - Predator has been a property of Darkhorse Publishing for a long time (although it would be really cool if they could use the name and actually have their superhero be a Predator - except, rather than battling evil or whatever, he'd probably just mercilessly hunt down the other superheroes and take bits and pieces of them as trophies).

What about his/her (I'm assuming it'll be "his" in most, if not all cases, because the marketing goal is to attract male fans) powers? Will their powers have something to do with the name of the team, or the region/city the team is located in, or it's logo (thereby making the superhero an alternate mascot)? Would the Oiler have the ability to extract non-renewable polluting resources from the ground? Would the Flame shoot fire, or just be flaming (sorry, Calgary, I just couldn't resist)? How about the Canuck? With an orca for a logo, would he swim around and eat salmon; or would he go for the Vancouver angle and have the power to knock-off work early, go skiing or golfing, and find someone pretty much anywhere who'd let him take a toke or two of BC bud?

Or will each individual's powers in some way reflect the particular skill or tendency his real-life team is known for? Would that mean that the Maple Leaf would have the power to suck?

What about weaknesses? Would the Canuck start off strong in a fight, but then become kind of indifferent and inconsistent and ultimately get knocked out of the battle? Would the Shark be powerless against Chinese chefs out to make sharkfin soup? Would Capital be neutralized if a badguy could turn him into a lower case?

Presumably all of these superheroes know how to fight really well, since, as the late, great George Carlin noted, hockey is really 3 activities: skating, playing with a puck, and beating the shit out of somebody.

Would there be rivalries among these superheroes, just as there are among the actual teams? Really, would missions be jeopardized because Toronto Maple Leaf and the Montreal Canadien constantly rehash their ancient feud and slug it out with each other rather than the badguys?

What about arch-enemies? Just who will these guys be fighting? What will the forces of evil look like? Will Lee have to create generic non-hockey-related crooks like bankrobbers for them to fight? Even better, what if he were to create supervillains that actually reflected the evils of the game? What about the deadly powers of Low Audience Attendance Man? How about Unsustainably High Player Contract Man? Or the truly horrific Franchise Relocator, who forces lesser, financially unstable superheroes to move to new cities, possibly even regions that aren't known for hockey at all and don't have a significant fan base?

What about supporting characters based on legends from the larger NHL community, like Don Cherry (host of Coach's Corner, one of Canada's favourite hockey curmudgeons, and quite possibly the worst-dressed individual on television aside from the cast of The Big Bang Theory)? Cherry would be awesome as a character... I just can't decide whether he would be a sideline goodguy, like a grumpy kind of Charlie's Angels Bosley who sends them on their missions, a badguy who berates them for their ineptitude until they burst into tears, or someone neutral - like a version of The Watcher who complains a lot. Would Gretzky make occasional appearances in the comic as some kind of supreme being in the manner of the Celestials or Galactus or one of the gods?

What about teams that used to exist but have since moved due to financial insolvency (victims of the afore-mentioned arch-villain Franchise Relocator)? Would the superheroes have to face the ghost army of the Winnipeg Jets, the Quebec Nordiques, the Hartford Whalers, etc? Or would we see the team/superhero they've become have occasional flashbacks to his old identity? That might actually be kinda cool. Wait a minute... I can't allow myself to get caught up in this and actually approve of this mad marketing scheme.

For all the money that the NHL has to throw at this thing, and all the creativity and connections Lee has, I just can't see this insane hybrid actually having much life (much less credibility) in it.

But it does give me an idea...

Stay tuned, comic/hockey fans.