Thursday, September 30, 2010

Generation Gap Already Appearing in Tron: Legacy Fandom

The other day my wife and one of her coworkers were talking about looking forward to seeing Tron: Legacy when something interesting came up: the coworker said he was eager for the new film because he was a huge fan of the original, but he also noted his young son was also super-psyched to see it, even though the boy hasn't ever seen Tron.

Once I got over my initial shock at hearing about a fanboy parent who failed to indoctrinate his son with the awesomeness of Tron, I started thinking about how a kid could be so eager to see a movie that's openly been billed as a sequel, even though he didn't have the foundation of the earlier production.

Obviously it's the sheer power of the marketing by the titanic Disney machine that's Master Control-like grabbed the consciousness of anyone who likes science fiction or action movies with cool special effects, and the fan-fed hype that's followed the advertisements and strategically leaked tidbits.

But what's more interesting is that this kind of young fan break with the source material is something I've only seen and heard about before with the Star Wars franchise: kids growing up on the prequels or the Clone Wars and loving them, without having seen the original trilogy. To my knowledge, this hasn't happened anywhere else.

Granted, there aren't many other franchises that have been around long enough to have tried reinventing themselves to offer this kind of generational disconnect. Star Trek had its recent reboot, but the original Trek is so ubiquitous in our culture that it's hard to imagine that even young mainstream movie-goers heading to Abrams' ADHD-inspiring action and camera glare fest wouldn't have had at least a little exposure to The Shat and co. There was Battlestar Galactica, but the new series really wasn't something you'd want your kids watching, so I doubt it's something that's happening with this show. It's possible this sort of thing happens with anime franchises. Certainly some of them, like Gundam, or the various installments of Macross, have been, if not continuous year-over-year, then at least popping up at regular intervals to allow new generations of viewers to latch on without the benefit of the source material. But even then, regular anime viewers tend to be a fairly devoted bunch, and I'd venture to guess that any kid who's gateway to a particular series has been through one of its newer installments would probably go back and explore its origins. You don't necessarily see that with Star Wars though... some kids seem to be happy just with what's in front of them.

But with Tron... sure, you probably don't need to see the original; the trailers seem to indicate that Legacy will give enough backstory on its own, and with a new character entering the game grid, and with that other world being totally new to this new protagonist, the younger audience won't be alienated without having seen the original because they'll be able to comfortably put themselves in the new hero's shoes (or electronic boots or whatever). That being said, younger viewers should see the original Tron, not just because it's flashy and the old-style graphics are sufficiently old and different as to possibly be interestingly alien to kids who've grown up with slick near-photo-real games, but because it's a great story, one with many layers that they can ponder as they grow older. As much as I want to see Legacy, I suspect it's likely to be a simple, straight-forward (though probably enjoyable) action flick, rather than the thoughtful (and action-packed) film that the original was. Kids need to see movies that are not only cool to look at, but are smart, especially smart, as well.

First Chapters of Todd and the Book of Pure Evil Not Bad

Warning: Spoilers
(spoilage factor: about the same as a stuffed armadillo violated by a homunculus)

Imagine if Bill and Ted and their friends were inadvertently thrown into the role of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and her gang, and if the writing style had a hefty dose of vulgarity that would do a View Askew production proud. That'd give you an approximation of the new TV series Todd and the Book of Pure Evil.

With the first two half-hour episodes airing tonight on Space, the show seems to be a reboot of a 2003 Canadian-made short film of the same name. Not having seen the original (I only stumbled across it on IMDB while looking for a write-up on the modern take), I can't comment on whether this was a good idea or not, or how faithful the new version is to its predecessor.

In and of itself though, the 2010 take on TATBOPE isn't bad. Sure, there were times when I had to ask myself if it was too juvenile, but then, when has that ever stopped me from watching something before? Besides, while it's not a constant riot, there are enough laughs and well-written lines, and an honest enough portrayal of highschool social interactions (barring the demonic incidents, of course) and the hopes, insecurities, betrayals, stupidies, and yes, angst, of teenagers, to make it worth watching. In fact, with the show in its infancy, I'll give episode 2 credit for having one of the best lines of dialogue I've seen on TV all year:

"Science doesn't love you. Science doesn't even like you."

Starring Alex House in the title role, the show's first episode introduces us to Todd, a metalhead who's at the bottom of the highschool pecking order, dreaming of becoming a rockstar and getting heartthrob Jenny to like him by winning the school's battle of the bands. Problem is, his band, Barbarian Apocalypse (comprised only of Todd on guitar and his chubby, one-armed buddy Curtis on drums), can't even make it past the try-outs. Goaded by a trio of mysterious stoner metalheads in the school parking lot to keep on trying, Todd stumbles upon The Book of Pure Evil (apparently known to all true metalheads) and reads a spell to make him a killer musician. Problem is, while it makes him unnaturally talented, anytime he plays, the music has disastrous results for those who listen. Meanwhile, a group of cultists is trying to obtain the book for their own nefarious designs. Todd's dream girl Jenny comes to his aid, revealing that her father disappeared while investigating rumours of the book. Curtis joins the fight, along with Hannah (Melanie Leishman), a geeky girl with a not-so-secret crush on Todd. The problem is, everytime the group tries to destroy the book, it somehow survives and disappears or is stolen and re-hidden. A little reminiscent of Reaper, each episode involves some new misuse of the spells within and the gang's efforts to battle the forces of darkness and recover the book.

Each episode also features a cameo by Jason Mewes (mouthy drug-dealer "Jay" in the View Askewniverse) as the somewhat helpful, wisdom-dispensing school janitor Jimmy. Playing the role without any over-the-top antics, Mewes reminded me a bit of the janitor in The Breakfast Club, except there's always something just a little quirky about his advice.

I'm not sure if Todd and the Book of Pure Evil will be consistently entertaining enough to make it into a permanent spot on my viewing roster, but at first glance it's certainly good enough to continue watching on a trial basis.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

CBC Chronicles Made-in-Canada SF TV

Jason Anderson posted an interesting story to the CBC site the other day examining Canada as a hotbed for SF TV series production.

The answer to Anderson's initial question of why so many science fiction TV shows are produced in the Great White North is pretty obvious: the Looney is usually lower in value than the Greenback, giving American producers more bang for their buck up here. Add to that talented local film crews and actors, tax incentives, and the fact that Vancouver (Hollywood North) and Toronto offer locations that can easily and believably double for US cities, and you've got a magic combination. This aspect of the article isn't news at all. As Canadians, we've been hearing media stories for years about the factors that attract TV and film productions, especially if there's a fluctuation in the dollar, a change in government tax or permit policies, or protectionist rumblings from factions in Hollywood.

What's more interesting though is how the article chronicles the many series that have been produced up here in the science fictional tidal wave that followed the launch of the X-Files in the early-mid 90's. Anderson examines the Stargate franchise at length, and mentions other big names in the genre like Battlestar Galactica and Caprica (though BSG is only referenced as a quick explanation for its sequel series, rather than given its due for being the critical and audience success that it was), Eureka, and Sanctuary, among others. Unfortunately, there are a couple of glaring omissions to the list: V and Smallville. Anderson may be forgiven for passing over smaller fare like Lexx or Reaper (personally, I disliked Lexx, but Reaper - which had some involvement from Kevin Smith - rocked), but the V remake and the newest incarnation of the Superman story? While I don't watch Smallville, it's had a long enough run and has a big enough following that it certainly warrants a nod. V, while newer, has received enough attention, especially from mainstream audiences, that it should have been mentioned as well.

Hats off to Anderson though for giving a bit of a pre-Mulder&Scully history lesson. Due to the incredibly high suckage factor, a lot of Canadian SF fans don't like to talk about The Starlost, but I'll give the reporter credit for including it in his piece, so that this part of our country's SF history, as bad as that part was, isn't forgotten. The historic record has to be complete, warts and all. What was most impressive to me as a Canadian SF fan though, was a piece of trivia from waaaaaaay back that Anderson dug up: apparently the first dramatic series aired on CBC Television was a locally-made show called Space Command (featuring a pre-Trek James Doohan), which ran from 1953-54. I'd never even heard of the series before (not even being a glint in Dad's eye that far back, and because the mothercorp hasn't bothered to rerun the show in my lifetime), but to hear that it was the first drama on the broadcaster's fledgling TV channel is pretty awesome.

At the same time, I'm disappointed (yet sadly not surprised) that CBC hasn't kept up the tradition of producing home-grown SF. They'll throw millions at period pieces, especially if they're set in the Maritimes, but forget about science fiction. Sure, they partnered with BBC and tossed some money at the revival of Doctor Who, but CBC can't take much credit when it's really a UK production, and CBC stopped funding it after a season or two anyway. Then there was the highly entertaining J-Pod (based on the Douglas Coupland book), which was geek-oriented if not SFnal. CBC, in its infinite wisdom, pulled the plug after one season though, turning its back on the geek audience yet again. I don't even think the show's available on DVD or Blu-Ray in the CBC store. Way to rock that post-production, post-air profit opportunity, guys. Let's hope at some point CBC will remember its legacy and rejoin the rest of the entertainment industry in producing SF shows in Canada.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

No Ordinary Family Off to an Ordinary but Okay Start

Admittedly, I don't think this can be a full-on review of the new SF/comedy/family drama series No Ordinary Family because I missed the first half hour of the pilot tonight (The Mercer Report was on, and as much as I'm a die-hard SF fan, nothing trumps a new episode of Rick Mercer), so I'll just jot down a couple of quick impressions.

The superhero family schtick has been done before, from The Fantastic Four to The Six Million Dollar Man and his bionic spinoffs and their family reunion, to The Incredibles. NOF is definitely on the Incredibles end of the spectrum, even echoing the animated film's tone through the use of asides, only instead of talking to a reporter in a documentary, Mr & Mrs Powell self-reflect and narrate to a mostly unseen family therapist. As with The Incredibles, this plot device actually works as a means of letting us see a little deeper into two of the characters and injecting a little more humour, rather than slowing things down as I feared they might the first time the story made one of these cutaways.

Of course, with things beginning with the family discovering they've recently acquired super powers, and the discovery of a villain who is also specially endowed (and no, I'm not referring to anything X-rated under his trenchcoat, I'm talking about his teleporting ability with the SFX that looked exactly like Nightcrawler's in X-Men 2), NOF also has the same feel that the fallen NBC show Heroes did in the first season. Michael Chiklis' (already a superhero veteran, having played the Thing in the Fantastic Four movies) character's giddiness at finding out he has powers reminded me a lot of Hiro Nakamura, and his tests were a lot more fun than Claire's.

But rather than Heroes-style blunders, I'm actually more worried that NOF will stumble down the road of typical American family dramas and become insufferably sappy. Sure, some love and support amongst the family members is warranted - they are a family, after all. But there's a line, and if the show heads into Party of Five territory, I'm out.

In terms of main characters, again, I really enjoyed the father, Jim Powell (Chiklis), who's acquired abilities much like a powered-down version of the Tick: super strength, the ability to leap great distances, and significant durability (although not seemingly totally indestructible like the Tick). Without having seen the opening of the show, it's clear that Jim's been the primary caregiver for the kids, isn't satisfied with his job (not sure what it is, although from what I caught he seems to be a civilian working in a police setting), and is trying to hold together a relationship with his wife where there's been increasing distance between them. Chiklis does a great job in the role, showing us a family man who's dissatisfied with his life (not dissimilar from Bob Parr/Mr Incredible) and is grabbing at the opportunity to be someone he thinks can make a real difference in the world.

Julie Benz also does a good job as Stephanie Powell, a 21st Century supermom even before she became a metahuman. If there's one thing that's indicated to me this early in the game that the show won't be too sweet, it was near the end when the daughter Daphne (Kay Panabaker) is confiding that her boyfriend cheated on her, and the first words out of Stephanie's mouth weren't something hackneyed and soft like "oh, honey, I'm so sorry"... nope, instead she spits something to the effect of "that bastard!" (correct me if the wording was a bit different, but that was certainly the tone). That's a believable - and more importantly, watchable - modern character, ferociously supportive. A very well-written and well acted moment.

Almost as entertaining as Chiklis is Romany Malco (Jay from The 40 Year Old Virgin) as George St Cloud, Jim's friend who's a District Attorney, part of the show's comic relief, and from the looks of it, is becoming Jim's enabler/handler a-la Robert Culp in The Greatest American Hero. You've gotta love a buddy who not only supports you in your desire to become a superhero, but helps out by transforming your garage into a crime-fighting lair - with WiFi!

As for the kids, Daphne and JJ (Jimmy Bennett), I haven't formed much of an opinion of them yet, except that they're whiny.

At this point, No Ordinary Family seems like a good enough show, though nothing amazing. The real question is, with Mercer conflicting with the first half hour of NOF, will I remember to record NOF so that I'll actually get to watch entire episodes?

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Top 5 Aliens in Human Form

Science fiction has served readers and viewers aliens of all shapes and sizes over the years, from HG Wells' beaked & tenticled blood-sucking Martians to ET to the weird, rooster-lookin' supreme being at the end of Dan Simmons' Muse of Fire. Then, of course, you've got your various non-corporeals like Arthur C Clarke's monolith builders or Star Trek Deep Space Nine's wormhole aliens. But sometimes these beings take on human form. They're not to be confused with extraterrestrials who just naturally look like us, like Ford Prefect or Klaatu. These are creatures who look nothing like us but for various reasons have chosen to mimic our form. Here are the best among them.

The Top 5 Aliens in Human Form:

5) Mirror Girl - Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson
For years, all that any adult knew about Mirror Girl was that she was a figment of the imagination of a socially-awkward little girl living with her mother at a scientific installation. By the end of the book, they discover Mirror Girl is a very real alien entity - the gatekeeper of a very strange device that facilitation observation, communication, and possibly travel between different worlds. While mirror girl certainly isn't evil, she isn't bringing flowers and candy to humanity either. There's a creepiness to her interaction with the protagonists at the end, and especially with the way she uses the child Tessa to observe things over the course of the story.

4) Centauri - The Last Starfighter
This old con man/military recruiter isn't a shape-shifter and doesn't use telepathy to influence how others see him. For Centauri, image alteration is old school - he mashes a mask over his face and slips on a fake pair of eyes. Centauri is a character who sees the rules as being as flexible as external image, but ultimately, he's working for the greater good - although "it never hurts to be rich." He's certainly one of the most entertaining secondary characters in science fiction who dons a human face - and he's got a slick ride and knows how to rock a hat.

3) Ambassador Kosh - Babylon 5
The Vorlon ambassador is almost never seen outside his encounter suit in his natural form by anyone besides members of his own race and a few others. On one occasion he appeared to a group of diplomats on the station as representations of each of their cultures' versions of angelic beings, while rescuing Captain Sheridan from a potentially fatal fall. But "angels" don't count for the purposes of this list. What does count is the season 3 episode "Interludes and Examinations" where Kosh takes the form of Sheridan's father during a telepathic conversation/dream. It's a way for Kosh to put aside the zen koans and cryptic pronouncements that he usually communicates with, a way to show Sheridan a comforting, trustworthy face to have a straight-forward talk. Something entirely appropriate for Kosh to admit to Sheridan that the human is right and has done a good job, that the Vorlon ambassador was afraid, and that he's saying goodbye (sort of). It's an extremely poignent scene, cutting between Kosh with a human face saying farewell in Sheridan's dream, and Kosh in his natural form (which we, the audience, still don't really get a good look at), slugging it out in his quarters in a fight with a gang of Shadows that he's doomed to lose. Kosh only appears as a human once in the entire series (I don't really count the hand shot that Leeta recalls in the pilot), and it makes that appearance all the more powerful because it's done in this circumstance.

2) Starman - Starman
In this story, a not entirely non-corporeal alien (it appears as a ball of blue energy, and yet apparently has enough in the way of physical needs that it needs to get home/back aboard its ship in order to survive) uses its technology to clone a human body to inhabit so that it can go incognito in the US and survive long enough to make a cross-country to make a rendezvous with its mothership. Along the way, it experiences human sensations, interacts with the natives, and falls in love with the woman it's kidnapped (the widow of the human it cloned), and in so doing, it learns - at least a little - what it means to be human, conversely discovering a bit about its own species and what they're lacking. Starman is also worth watching to see Jeff Bridges' performance as the alien. You can see why Bridges was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar the year the film came out - he's extremely convincing as a character that has to learn how to use its body from the ground up, how to communicate with humans, and how to navigate American culture. He's totally believeable as alien - even at the end, when the character has experienced so much, developed a degree of understanding of it, and has enjoyed some of it, for all his appearance, this character is still undisputably inhuman.

1) Q - Star Trek the Next Generation/Deep Space Nine/Voyager
Was there ever any question about who would get the number one spot on this list? Whether he's posing real, lasting harm by forcing a collision with the Borg or threatening to extinguish humanity himself, or whether he's simply being a pain in the ass playing jokes on Picard or making fun of Riker, Q is the most memorable alien to have taken human form. Admittedly, that's a strong claim to make considering shape shifters and highly-evolved entities taking human form are par for the course in the Trek franchises. But John DeLancie's performance was so deliciously over-the-top that any time Q was on screen you couldn't take your eyes off him. Q may have been guilty of many things, but never of being boring. I think ultimately part of the attraction of Q's character is that for all his power and knowledge, the fact that he looked like us reminded the audience that some things never change - it was a visual statement that even if our species were to attain such evolutionary heights, even if we were to shed our corporeal forms and be able to look like whatever we wanted ("We've all been the dog!"), we'd still probably behave the same, we'd still look like humans on the inside.

So who/what are your nominations for the best aliens to take human form?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tripping the Rift Is Back!

Years before Ron Moore and David Eick retooled Battlestar Galactica and introduced us to a sexy android named Six, there was another cyborg seductress by that name who made nerdish TV viewers and some - only some - of her shipmates drool on Tripping the Rift. After a few years off, the show is back!

Never seen it before? Think of Futurama - if it was written by Kevin Smith or Trey Parker and Matt Stone at their most vulger. The CGI series follows the misadventures of the crew of the Jupiter 42, led by greedy and lecherous Captain Chode, a short, fat, tenticled, purple alien. His companions include his afore-mentioned cybernetic sex slave Six; his reptilian nephew Whip; Gus, the self-hating robot; T'nuk, the ugly, triple-breasted, somewhat centaur-like pilot; and Bob, the agoraphobic ship's computer. They frequently run afoul of the idiotic Darph Bobo, leader of a race of evil aliens who look like clowns. As the gang wanders the galaxy in search of the next big score (take your pick of meanings), hilarity ensues.

The long-awaited season 3 kicked off tonight on Space with a riff on The Terminator. Not one of the show's best episodes, but funny enough. I'm just glad geeks have another opportunity to go Tripping the Rift.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Doctor Is In

Normally when I babble about "the Doctor" I'm referring to a certain Time Lord, but this time the news is about the holographic sawbones from the Trek franchise - or the actor who played him anyway.

The organizers of VCon were spreading the word today that Robert Picardo will be doing a signing at Imperial Hobbies, here in Richmond, BC on #3 Road across from the Lansdown Mall this Saturday starting at noon.

I'm tempted to go, but I don't really have anything for him to sign (except for an old VHS tape of Star Trek First Contact, where he appeared briefly in a funny little cameo), and since I haven't been following his more recent fare, like the Stargate franchise, I don't really have any worthwhile questions to ask.

I'll give Picardo his due: he was pretty funny back in the 80s as "the Cowboy" in Innerspace, and did a solid job as the afore-mentioned Doctor in Star Trek Voyager (Which I've been rewatching a lot of lately in reruns on Space. Does anyone remember what other aliases that character went by? I remember EMH Mark I, of course, and Schweitzer in one episode, but did he take on any other names? Not counting the name of his holo-programmer, of course.). I think my favourite Doctor episodes were the one where he was first transmitted back to the Alpha Quadrant and had to retake a hijacked Starfleet prototype warship with the help of an even more prissy EMH Mark II (a very fun epi), and the one where he gave romantic advice to Seven and developed a crush on her over the course of the lessons. I really had to feel for the character when she foisted the "friend" label on him in the end, 'cause how many of us have been saddled with that crushing, if well-meaning, emotional roadblock at least once in our lives? Picardo aced that quiet, sad accepting expression, and for all the big, flashy singing numbers that the character did over the course of the series, his melancholy rendition of "Someone to Watch Over Me" was probably the Doctor's best performance.

Anyhow, if you're in the area and you're a fan of Picardo's, be sure to drop by Imperial Hobbies.

Sent from my iPhone

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Boxleitner Talks Tron

The Hardcore Nerdity site may be temporarily offline for an overhaul, but that doesn't mean its resident nerds are slacking-off; they're still out gathering interesting bits of geekiness here and there and making some of it available on the site's holding screen. That includes a nice interview with Bruce Boxleitner done at the recent Fan Expo in Toronto. The star of Tron and Babylon 5 reminisces about the original movie Tron and its impact, especially on actors and the movie business. Certainly worth downloading.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Top 5 Lost Civilizations of SF

Since the beginning, science fiction and fantasy writers have tapped into the idea of lost civilizations for any number of plot devices, from settings to ancient lore, dangerous devices to strange people or creatures. These blank spaces on the map or cloudy periods in history serve to stir wonder, spark adventure, overwhelm with terror, but most of all to intrigue us with mystery. Here are some of the lost civilizations which have stuck out most in my mind over the years.

The Top 5 Lost Civilizations of SF:

5) the Elvish kingdoms of Beleriand - The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien
In the first age, Tolkien paints a picture of Middle Earth as a place of grandeur as well as chaos. Almost an entire nation of elves who once left Middle Earth to live with the gods in the west has now returned to hunt down the Silmaril jewels stolen by the evil god Melko/Morgoth and to avenge the crime. They establish a number of powerful kingdoms across the region of Beleriand as they wage their ultimately futile war. In the end, with the forces of evil nearly victorious and the elven kingdoms fallen, the gods come east to put a stop to Morgoth, but during the terrible battle Beleriand is destroyed and covered by the waves. The shadow of the loss of Beleriand and its elvish kingdoms is something that hangs over the rest of the Silmarillion in the later ages, and even stretches into the Lord of the Rings, despite the fact that the events of the First Age are only hinted at in passing. There's a profound and palpable sense of loss among the elves in the later years - a longing for the good old days when the world was young, Men were few, and the kingdoms of the elves in Middle Earth were rich, sophisticated and powerful. Elrond's Rivendell and Galdriel & Celeborn's golden wood were either non-existent, or far-flug, provincial settlements back when Beleriand existed. Now, the great kingdoms only survive in memory and story, and even those will disappear as the elves finally leave Middle Earth for good and the few Men who know about them eventually die. The kingdoms of Beleriand are truly lost civilizations.

4) the Krell - Forbidden Planet
When Commander JJ Adams and his crew of intrepid spacemen arrive on the planet Altair to investigate why no-one's heard from the human colonists in years, they find a wilderness where only the strange Dr Morbius, his beautiful daughter, and their servant, a robot named Robbie, live. But as they investigate, Adams and his crew discover Morbius has learned an astounding secret: long ago the planet was home to an incredibily intelligent and powerful race known as the Krell, and while nothing of their cities remained on the surface, their gigantic machines where still active deep underground. What's more, they find out that the frightening unseen force that destroyed the Krell was also responsible for the deaths of the other colonists - and now for members of Adams' crew. Forbidden Planet is a gem of sci fi cinema. The shots of the vast underground complex are breath-taking, and while Morbius is always showing off this trinket or that computer, there's always a sense of mystery about the place - for all the marvels he's accomplished by adapting the Krell technology, the scientist himself admits there's much he still doesn't fully understand. Moreover, the corridors of the complex seem all the more brooding because we don't know what happened to the Krell themselves. We don't even know what the Krell look like, even if we do finally behold the monster from the id that killed them. And the mysteries of this lost civilization will stay mysteries forever because of the destruction of the planet at the end of the movie.

3) Earth
From Asimov's Foundation novels to Whedon's Firefly 'Verse to Disney/Pixar's Wall-E, science fiction is rife with stories where our entire planet's civilization has been wiped-out, marginalized to the point irrelevance, or just plain forgotten. In fact, there are too many good ones to pick just one as the uber-example of a story where the Earth and all that it held are gone; the three mentioned above are among my favourites.

2) Mars
Yes, I know, another meta example. No, I don't think this is cheating. Same as with the last nomination, lost civilizations on Mars have been written about by countless authors. One of the first I can remember encountering as a kid pouring through the library at C. Cornwell School in North Dumphries, outside of Cambridge Ontario, was a story about a boy growing up in a colony on Mars, unhappy at being called a "greenskin" by Earthers because he was just as human as them and didn't have green skin. The story frequently talks about leaving the colony and seeing the ruins of ancient, abandoned Martian cities, with no-one knowing what happened to the planet's original inhabitants. The boy gets embroiled in some kind of mystery (possibly involving the ruins, I can't remember) and at the end of the story, the Martians return in their fleet of black ships. I wish I could remember the title of the book or the author, but it's been so long. If anyone knows what the title is, I'd be grateful if you could refresh my memory. As an adult though, my favourite story, or group of stories, that talk about a lost civilization on Mars, is Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. It's just wonderful how the book comes full circle, beginning with a fading Martian civilization, stuffed with stories about humans living amidst the Martian ruins and along their canals, and ending with the Earth itself becoming a lost civilization and the human survivors on Mars becoming the new Martians.

1) Atlantis
The mother of all lost civilizations. The one from our most ancient history that's inspired all of the other tales of cultures or cities or islands or continents or whole worlds that rose to glorious heights before being destroyed or fading from memory. Another meta nomination, yes, but again, there have been countless stories that have used Atlantis as a plot device. Most recently, of course, is an entire series in the Stargate franchise: Stargate Atlantis. Not a fan myself, but I have friends who are, so this one's for them. For my own part, I really enjoyed an anthology Asimov, Greenberg and Charles G Waugh pulled together a couple of decades ago called Isaac Asimov's Magical Worlds of Fantasy 9 - Atlantis.

What are your top lost civilizations?

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Blogging Battlestar: Giving and Taking & Longshots

In this Battlestar Galactica rewatch we're closing out season 2 with "Downloaded" and "Lay Down Your Burdens" parts 1&2.

In "Downloaded", Caprica Six (the model who seduced Baltar back in the Colonies to gain access to the defence systems, and who fell in love with him in the process) is resurrected and promptly enlisted by D'Anna Biers (who appears to be in a position of leadership among the Cylons) to reach out to Boomer, who has isolated herself since her own resurrection as she struggles to reconcile her cover human life with her true nature. When Anders and his guerillas bomb the building the three Cylon women are in, they're trapped in an underground parkade with him. That's when the truth comes out, that Caprica and Boomer share a desire to make peace with humanity, and that D'Anna's been planning to scrap both of them all along because of their sympathies, and the possibility that these feelings have made them less-Cylon, but mostly because their status as heroes among their race gives them more influence than she has.

It's a fascinating study of not only the human natures of these ostensibly inhuman people, but of their awareness of this and honesty about it. None of them behaves like the dispassionate machines they're descended from and are supposed to be. Boomer, who has refused to reintegrate with Cylon society, for all her raging about identity, seems to have most successfully integrated her new human emotions into her Cylon personality. In fact, her rant in her apartment about what part of her is real shows that she is the most honest of them - she acknowledges that her human feelings are real, even if they were originally only a programmed cover, and that they are a meaningful part of her. Caprica has human feelings as well, but has a tougher time with them. She yearns for Baltar, but knows that a good Cylon shouldn't. Because of this, she's very careful about hiding them from the prying D'Anna, only admitting to having a little difficulty getting used to her new body. But Caprica eventually embraces this new development in her personality when she bludgeons D'Anna and proposes that Boomer join her in convincing the other Cylons to start down a new path of peace. For her part, D'Anna never admits to being anything but Cylon, even as she displays some of the worst aspects of humanity: she displays brutality and cruelty as she toys with Anders, she's manipulative and power-hungry when dealing with her fellow Cylons, and is envious of the influence that Caprica and Boomer have the potential to wield, and schemes to "box" them forever, no matter how much they might commit to the Cylon cause.

During his imprisonment in the garage, Anders experiences not so much a revelation as a slowly dawning suspicion that there might be more to the Cylons than anyone has previously suspected, and that they might not be the souless, absolute enemies that he'd believed them to be. It's almost a pity that he wasn't trapped down there alone with Caprica and Boomer longer. I have to wonder if they'd have been able to have enough of a dialogue to come to the understanding that it would be better if the Cylons just left the humans the hell alone, rather than attempt some sort of reconcilliation and life of moving forward together - which is exactly the course of action the Six and the Eight convince the other Cylons to take; one that ends in disaster.

Meanwhile, back in the fleet, something inhuman is afoot - and it's not Sharon's birth of Hera. It's Roslin's decision to take the baby away from her mother, and Adama going along with it. I've said it before and I'll say it again, there's a blind, unreasoning viciousness to Roslin's ongoing determination to seperate Sharon from her baby. If the President would have ordered that the Cylon be tossed out an airlock immediately after discovering she was pregnant, it would have been a hard-hearted but possibly defensible position. But in the months since, despite all of the help Sharon has given the fleet, Roslin is still out for blood, ordering the abortion of the baby and only backing off because the child's blood could save the President's own life, and now ordering not only that the child be taken from Sharon, but that the mother be told the baby had died. And all out of some unsubstantiated fear of what unknown horrors a next-generation human-Cylon hybrid might or might not be responsible for. Right. It's vengeance, pure and simple. In Roslin's mind, there can never be enough Cylon blood, a Cylon like Sharon will never be able to do enough good, to atone for the genocide of the Colonial people. There is no foregiveness or forethought in Roslin's heart. Even when it comes to the boundless potentials of a baby. Pretty scary attitude and narrowmindedness to have for a leader of humanity, and an aweful responsibility to foist upon the tiny shoulders of an infant when that leader is also a teacher - someone who is supposed to be able to see the inifinite potentials that children represent. And her excuse for the deception and kidnapping ('cause that's what it is, folks) is that the baby is important to the Cylons, so it can't be allowed to stay with Sharon because the Cylons might make a play for it. Yeah. Right. We're supposed to believe that with the fleet's success to date in eluding the Cylons and fending off their attacks, and with Sharon and her baby being kept in a highly secured cell aboard Galactica with Pegasus offering cover nearby that the Cylons are actually going to be able to successfully infiltrate and steal the kid without getting it killed? Sure. And we're supposed to believe Sharon's going to suddenly change sides again after causing the deaths of other Cylons, colluding with the fleet, and even falling in love with a human? Doesn't hold a lot of water.

But I wonder if there's something else terrible at work here... I wonder if Roslin's jealous of Sharon. Roslin is human, but she hasn't had a successful relationship (except for the one that has only newly formed with Adama), she doesn't have any children, and she had terminal cancer. Sharon, on the other hand, is a machine in human form, yet has someone who loves her dearly, strengh, youth, and beauty, and now a child. Sharon's got everything that Roslin doesn't, and with the destruction of the Colonies as her excuse, the President is determined to deprive Sharon of happiness.

It's also pretty aweful to see Adama go along with all this. He's a father, and one who's lost a child at that. You'd think the last thing he'd want to do would be to put Helo through the agony he's had to deal with. And while he may still be uneasy around Sharon because of Boomer's attempt to assassinate him, but even if he wasn't able to ignore his desire for revenge, you'd think the Admiral would bear in mind the old piece of advice about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. If the child's a potential threat, it makes more sense to keep it locked away securely in a cell with its mother - especially if doing this means he could keep using Sharon as a tactical asset - than it does to send the kid out to be with a civilian in an unarmed ship out among the fleet where it would be more vulnerable to accident or attack than aboard the battlestar. And speaking of assets, you'd think Adama would also be mindful of the potential for the child to be valuable to the fleet's military efforts at some point, since the Cylons seem to put so much stock in the baby's future. In going along with this plan, Adama's being cold-hearted and vengeful, and unforgiveably dumb.

Baltar's got quite the moment in this episode as well, when he's at the conference where Roslin decides that Sharon can't keep her baby. There's genuine worry on his face when he thinks the baby will be killed. And unlike the usual Baltar behaviour, this doesn't seem like self-interest. He actually seems to be concerned for the child. Maybe it's because he's been indoctrinated enough by Angel Six's ramblings about the baby having a grand destiny, or maybe it's simply because Baltar's human enough to appreciate that something terrible is going on.

Great performance by Tamoh Penikett as a father grieving for his (supposedly) dead child while trying to stay strong enough to support his devastated wife and keep up with his duties aboard the ship. And Grace Park does a fantastic job as well as a woman who's devastated at the loss of her child and who can't help but suspect betrayal at the hands of the humans she's tried to help. She paints the perfect picture of rage and righteous indignation that lashes out at everyone, including her husband.

And from taking shots at people, we move on to a story about longshots: "Lay Down Your Burdens" parts 1&2. It's actually a story with three parts though: the rescue and discovery of New Caprica, the election, and the settlement.

I've always been a little curious about the rescue end of the story. Starbuck's been agitating for a bailout of the survivors back in the Colonies ever since Sharon brought her and Helo back from Caprica, and she goes as far as to make the request in the episode "Pegasus". Adama and Roslin turn her down - for very good reasons. What's curious is how LDYB starts off more or less with Starbuck proceeding with the Search And Rescue mission plan, without the audience being told why the higher-ups finally changed their minds. Sure, they've got the Cylon heavy raider's nav computer to guide them - with Sharon's help - but that's a technical advantage, it isn't a reason for Adama & Roslin to change their minds. Why now?

At any rate, Starbuck's got the go-ahead, so, with a band of volunteers and a squadron of raptors, she goes haring off across the galaxy for home. Along the way, one of the ships gets lost and inadvertantly discovers New Caprica, a rainy world that supports plant and animal life and is enshrouded in a nebula that could hide the fleet from prying Cylon eyes. But Starbuck and co manage to reach Colonial space, get to the surface of Caprica and find Anders and his merry men (and women) in the forest. There's a short slugfest with the Cylons before the toasters mysteriously withdraw, and the SAR team and survivors return home to Galactica, with Starbuck reporting there were no other survivors.


She's pinned-down on Caprica for 2 days and she says there are no other survivors on the entire planet or the 11 other Colonial worlds (not counting whatever assorted other settlements there might have been on asteroids, moons, comets our outworlds in neighbouring systems)?! What the frak?! How did she come to that conclusion? She obviously didn't do flyby's of the other Colonies, never mind 11 other detailed searches that would have been required to make a ruling like that - especially since any survivors on the other worlds would, like Anders & co, have been smart enough to dig-in and hide themselves in order to avoid detection by the Cylons. Was she using her "angelic" powers of perception? Is this the Caprican racism that's touched on in the prequel series Caprica? What if you were a survivor on Aerlon or Canceron? Sucks to be you! Then again, who knows? Maybe enough people crawled out of the woodwork on Virgon or Picon to reform their society, and maybe while the people of the fleet decided to go primitive when they called it quits on Earth.2, the survivors back on the Colonies managed to rebuild their societies with the use of their advanced technology without making the mistakes of the past. Who knows? Certainly not Starbuck.

Meanwhile, back aboard the fleet, news of the discovery of New Caprica nearly overshadows the presidential election. While Baltar continues to make small inroads by charging Roslin with being a religeous fanatic, Roslin continues to dominate the polls and thinks she's got the election in the bag. Until, prompted by Angel Six, Baltar and his campaign manager Tom Zarek get a revelation for the winning strategy: play the settlement card. While Roslin sticks with the push to find Earth, Baltar quite wisely capitalizes on the weariness of the people of the fleet - their desire to finally settle down on a habitable planet and make a new life for themselves. And despite Roslin's harping on the threat of Cylons, it's not a bad idea. After all, regardless of what the two Cavils say about peace before being flushed out the airlock, the Cylons have been relentless about hounding the fleet so far, and there's no evidence that they won't continue to do so all the way to Earth. There's no reason to think that Earth will be a haven at all. New Caprica, on the other hand, is hidden within a nebula. Looking at the way the story plays out, if it wasn't for Gina setting off the nuke aboard Cloud Nine (a really dumb move on Baltar's part handing that thing over - how did he think that wouldn't amount to serious trouble? Giving her a bomb wasn't going to get him some kind of revenge against Roslin - it doesn't take a genius, which he is, to see that!) the Cylons might never have found them, and all of the things that had happened before would be free to happen again, and again, and again - this time on New Caprica instead of Earth.2. Does Baltar really care about settling down on this cloudy little planet (it's like a huge version of British Columbia!)? No. It's purely a political tool to gain power. But the difference between the tools used by Baltar and the tactics employed by Roslin is that it's entirely legitimate to play the settlement card. Roslin, on the other hand, has no scruples at all about cheating. Say what you want about Baltar being a bad choice for high office because he's quirky or because he may have been sleeping with the enemy, but we've seen enough of Roslin's character in the past to know that fixing the election isn't just about doing right by the people, or staying on the right path which leads to Earth. Bottom line is that Roslin refuses to give up power. She simply can't see anyone else shepherding humanity to a successful future, and she'll hold onto her rule any way she can. If there's anything redeeming in her character at all, it's that she backs off when Adama confronts her. Even though he appears to make it clear that he's not prepared to unseat her if she allows the fake results to stand, she steps down, apparently, because she doesn't want to lose his respect. That's something at least.

That takes us to part three: life in the new colonial era. Things suck. Humanity's new home is dreary and wet, supplies are running low, there are labour disputes, Galactica is undermanned and in ill repair, and Baltar is a drugged-out, self-absorbed failure as a ruler. But if we step back and take a fair look at the situation on New Caprica before the arrival of the Cylons, it's actually hard to say the attempt to settle there has been a complete failure. Really, how is this any worse than things would have been on Earth.2 after the fleet was deliberately destroyed and the Colonials scattered across it to try their hands at a stoneage life? Baltar's a bad leader? Without a doubt, but don't think for a minute that the various groups of Colonials on Earth.2 didn't have self-absorbed idiots in charge, and more likely a few had bullies and psychos take power before their groups turned on each other or started preying on other bands of Colonials. And they wouldn't have had the benefit of technology to make their settlements a little more liveable like they did on New Caprica.

But amidst the hardship of the settlers' lives, it's interesting to see how everyone has adapted - or tried to adapt. Starbuck as the put-upon wife with the irresponsible, incorrible boy-husband. The Chief as union boss with pregnant little Cali as his enforcer. Apollo as an overweight bureaucrat aboard Pegasus, who's settled for Dee. It all begs the question, are these people no longer who they really are? Or is this what they're really like, because their existence for the past couple of years on the run from the Cylons was such a huge departure from their normal lives?

And then the Cylons show up, the fleet flees, and the Colonials go from being hunted but free, to being ground under the rule of invaders. As the Cylons board Colonial One, it's great to see the looks on the faces of the key players, especially Caprica and Baltar. She's finally got what she wants, but he's highly unnerved at seeing her again, especially after Gina's suicide. I get the sense that during his time on New Caprica he hadn't seen Angel Six at all. Now the Cylon he loves arrives - and he can't be sure which version of her it is - while her companions insist on his surrender under threat of death.

And that takes us, more or less, to the end of season 2.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

If You Could Go Back in Time and Convince George Lucas to Change 1 Thing about the Prequels, What Would It Be?

I was watching a special on the Comedy Network earlier today that had a routine by Patton Oswalt with a great bit about the Star Wars prequels. In it, he talks about what if he could go back in time to the mid-90's and confront George Lucas about the prequels before he made them.

Coincidentally, last night while flipping through the channels, I came across Spike running Revenge of the Sith (ever since Kevin Smith's Zack & Miri Make a Porno I can't help but chuckle when I see that title) and had already been thinking about how it could have been better with some changes.

People have been bitching about the prequels ever since they came out (even those of us who found them reasonably entertaining had to acknowledge there were serious issues), but still, it's worth re-asking from time to time:

If you could go back in time and get George Lucas to make one change to any of the prequels, what would it be?

And before you answer, I'm making one ground rule: Jar-jar is automatically disqualified - it's too easy to say Lucas should never have included him!

For me, there are a couple of possibilities... The midichlorians in The Phantom Menace got things off to a bad start for me. In fact, I think that whole nonsense bothered me more than Jar-jar did because a character can be ignored, but you don't go messing with the Force! Lucas was really messing with canon there.

There were some moments in Attack of the Clones that were pretty cheesetastic, but nothing too offensive.

And then there was ROTS, with Vader's inexcusably weak "Nooooo!" Check out the opening of Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, Georgy, that's a fucking "NOOOOOOOO!" for you.

But the worst, the very worst, the one element of the prequels that bugs me to this day, was Padme Amidala dying of heartbreak. Not only does it break with canon, contradicting what Leia says in Return of the Jedi about her memory of her real mother (and no, I don't think that even if she's strong with the Force she'd remember something from when she was a minute old and her infant eyes were still unable to focus), it's just plain stupid. Nothing medically wrong with her, and instead of making her new children her priority and getting on with life, she mopes to death like an angst-ridden teenager. Okay, admittedly, her character is, more or less, an angst-ridden teenager... she would have been right at home skipping through the hallways in The Breakfast Club or any other John Hughes flick. But still, it's a pretty dumb way to go, especially when the babies she was hoping for and gushing over during pregnancy have finally arrived. Lucas could have thought of a hundred different options to resolve Padme & the twins' storylines at the close of the movie that would have fit better with the original series, made more sense, and had greater emotional impact. Instead, we're simply left with "my boyfriend turned mean and I can't go on without him". With this being the last major scene of the movie, of the prequels, it left a bitter taste in my mouth that tainted the entire prequel series for me. Basic presentation: the opener and closer make the biggest impressions, and Lucas blew it on the big finish.

Give me a time machine, and that's the one story element in the prequels I'd ask... no, beg... no, demand him to change.

What would you ask him to change?

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Top 10 Saloons of SF

Sometimes when you need a drink, simply heading downstairs to the beer fridge isn't enough. Sometimes you've got to head out to your local pub, club, or dive bar. Maybe a place where everybody knows your name, maybe some joint where you're another face in the crowd. Science fiction and fantasy are rife with saloons of all sorts. Of all the gin joints in all the worlds of SF, here are the ones I think would be most worth walking into.

The Top 10 Saloons of SF:

10) Imhotep's - The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
Regardless of what you thought of the movie in general, you've gotta love its recreation of an old supper club. Built with money from the sale of the ultimate blood diamond - the Scorpion King's pyramid-bling that lured desert travellers to their deaths for ages - Jonathan's club features a swinging band, dancing girls who are easy on the eyes, and Egyptian-inspired decore. And if you're heading out to battle the undead or just returning from saving the world, you can always grab some tasty Shanghaiese cuisine from one of the neighbouring restaurants or street hawkers. Grab your white dinner jackets, gentlemen!

9) The Crystal Palace - The Wild Cards edited by George R. R. Martin
Down in Jokertown, there's a place where anyone who's contracted the Wild Card virus can feel at home, whether you've developed an elephant's trunk or you're a guy who's been turned into a troll. And the owner, Chrysalis, is the most beautiful woman you'll ever meet - or, she would be if her skin weren't transparent. In the Wild Cards stories, the Crystal Palace plays a role as a New York mutant's ansewer to Rick's Cafe Americain in Casablanca as much as it does the neighbourhood's bar, with Chrysalis collecting intrigues like Rick. Might be interesting to visit, if there wasn't a risk of having to take a barstool next to Snotman.

8) The Gentleman Loser - Burning Chrome by William Gibson
In this story (and, I believe, some of Gibson's other cyberpunk tales), the Gentleman Loser is the place to be for hackers and other denizens of the underground economy. It seems like a great place to drop by just to see the techno-hipster crowd, never mind if you need to find some electronic gunslingers to pull an online bankjob for you. Also, it has one of the best bar names in SF.

7) The Waystone Inn - The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
It may seem like any other country tavern in a quiet little farming town, but if you're there at the right time, you may get a hint that something's a little different about the staff. Maybe you'll figure out that the waiter is a demon. Or maybe you'll discover that the owner is more than just a simple barkeep, he's a great musician, one of the toughest fighters you'll never want to meet, a sorcerer, and that the incredible tale he doesn't want to tell is all true. But even if you don't find any of this out, it's a cozy enough place to get a refreshment.

6) Quark's - Star Trek - Deep Space Nine
Okay, so the Ferengi owner probably waters-down the drinks and will stiff you on your change if you aren't paying attention, but DS9's tavern is probably worth a visit. You've got interesting patrons - especially that Morn guy at the end of the bar, holosuites, and dabo girls. Ahhhh dabo girls. Need I say anymore?

5) Gina's bar - Porco Rosso
Located on a tiny island in the middle of the Adriatic, Gina's bar is the favourite haunt of bounty hunters, air pirates travellers and assorted others. Even though most of the movie takes place in the air, when Porco Rosso stops in, I just soaked up the details of the place. Comfortably dark with exquisitly rendered ambience. If it was real, it would be enough to tempt me to move to Italy and buy a plane or a boat just to drop in once in a while.

4) the Zocalo bar - Babylon 5
If B5 is the crossroads for most of the galactic civilizations, then the Zocalo market and its bar are the true hub of the station. Take a seat and you could find yourself next to a Drazi merchant, a Narn assassin, or you could have Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari hit you up for a free drink or some credits to back his latest system down at the casino. Say what you will about the Fresh Air restaurant or the Officers' Lounge, the Zocalo bar is where it's at. It's the setting of several major meetings and confrontations during the series, and is even part of that poinient goodbye scene in the final episode where the main characters leave the station for the last time, with Garibaldi reaching over and taking a forgotten shotglass. In many ways, the bar was as important a set as the bridge of the Whitestar.

3) the cantina in Mos Eisley - Star Wars - A New Hope
Come on, you knew the cantina had to be on the list somewhere, right?! Where else in the universe could you go for a drink where the wolfman might be the guy sitting next to you, and not have him try to eat you? And the jazz band onstage kicks ass - even if they only play two songs. Here's another bar that tries to invoke the opening pan around Rick's in Casablanca, and is one of the most memorable settings in the entire Star Wars saga. The downside, of course, is that in a town referred to as "a wretched hive of scum and villainy", a bar that "can get a little rough" is probably not a place you want to frequent. And it sucks that they've got a no droids policy, 'cause there's no excuse for racism, even against silicon-based lifeforms. Worst of all: from time to time, Bea Arthur tends bar and breaks into song.

2) Cicero's - Hyperion by Dan Simmons
What can you say about a bar so huge it's expanded like a virus over the years to take over several buildings along the waterfront in Old Jacktown, where you might find yourself drinking with poets, governors, Shrike pilgrims, mercenaries, Ousters, and just about every other type of patron you can imagine? In just a couple of sentences, Simmons' description of Cicero's had grabbed me. If it was possible to go there, I would - except for the whole impending universal armageddon thing. Still, it might be worth chancing it just to say you'd hung out at Cicero's.

1) Callahan's - The Callahan Chronicles by Spider Robinson
There was never any doubt that Callahan's would top the list of the best saloons in the SF-verse. Everybody goes there, from aliens to vampires, for the booze and for the bad puns, and each patron's story is more entertaining than the last. Best of all, unlike many of the other bars on this list, there's actually very little chance of getting killed there. Toss your empty glass in the fireplace, order another shot of Bushmill's, and let's have a toast to Callahan's!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

bloginhood to open Sci Fi Trading Post

I'm proud to announce I'll be opening a new business soon: Sci Fi Trading Post, an online used bookstore selling science fiction and fantasy novels, and comics.

The site's currently under construction, thanks to ace web designer, former colleague, SF & comic fanboy, and good friend Steve Rowe. In the meantime, he's set up a cool cover page that's worth looking at. While visiting the site, you can leave your email if you'd like me to inform you when Sci Fi Trading Post is open for business.

Meanwhile, another former colleague of mine who's a graphic designer is working on a logo. I'm looking forward to unveiling that in a little while.

In terms of stock, I've contributed a few books and comics from my personal collection, and have been quietly acquiring gently used novels over the past couple of months and the selection will continue to grow.

So why open an online second hand bookstore? Simple: I love books, the weight and shape and smell and feel of them, and most especially the stories within. I want to help other SF fans find books that will entertain and challenge them, enriching their reading experiences as they enlarge their personal collections. I'd like to think there's a world for everyone.

Stay tuned for more updates as we get closer to opening the doors at the Sci Fi Trading Post.