Monday, December 01, 2014

A Couple of Science Fiction-Related Causes that could Use Your Support this Holiday Season

As we enter the season where a lot is traditionally said about family, about giving, and about hope, we're often called upon to come out in support of one cause or another, generally very worthy, dedicated to helping others through troubled times. Looking out at that vast sea of the charities, fundraisers, and calls for support though, we, as fans, don't usually see any that speak directly to the family of science fiction and fantasy. But this year, I'd like to draw your attention to a couple of sf-related causes that are in need of your support.

The first is a fundraiser for author Spider Robinson and his daughter Terri. As some of you may be aware, Terri's fighting stage 4 cancer, and given the how expensive healthcare is in the US, you can guess how much of a financial toll this has taken on the family. It's been a rough couple of years for old Spider... first losing Jeanne to cancer back in 2010 (a blow which has severely affected his writing), then having to deal with Terri's diagnosis, and then a heart attack this past summer. This poor guy isn't just singing the blues, he is the blues, and yet, seeing him a VCon this past October, he's doing his damnedest to keep going and find a smile here and there, at a time when most of us would just pack it in. It's not often that we, as fans, get to show an author in a meaningful way how grateful we are for all of the hours of entertainment, thought, and perhaps wisdom he or she has given us, but this time we do have that opportunity. Consider following the link above and helping Spider and his family out.

The second is a call for subscription to, and support for, OnSpec Magazine. Back in August, word came down the pipe that after years of support, the Canada Council (Canada's federal government-backed grant organization for the arts), in its infinite wisdom, decided to cut funding to OnSpec in 2015. Flimsy excuses were given by the masters of culture at the Council, but it's pretty clear that the literati can't bear to fund something as low-brow as speculative fiction (despite many of Canada's past and present big-name authors having slummed it in the genre ghetto from time to time, whether they wanted to admit it or not). Stories of this kind of snobbery abound (so many that they would drag this particular post light years off topic), and I guess, with sf being so prevalent in pop culture right now, it was only a matter of time until the guardians of Can-Lit purity struck back. Since then, the magazine has managed to pull together enough support and make a few changes to allow it to keep operating. But it still needs your help. So what to do? Obviously, if you're a Canadian, or a landed immigrant paying taxes here, you can certainly write to the Council registering your displeasure and requesting that they overturn their decision. Fat lot of good that'll do, but you're welcome to try (I directed a tweet at the Council's Twitter account this summer before leaving for LonCon, but, not surprisingly, received no response). You could do one better, and write to the federal Heritage Minister — since the Council is funded by Ottawa — or your local Member of Parliament and say that, as a taxpayer, you'd like them to look into the situation and, acting on the instructions of taxpayers, request that the Council to overturn its decision. Or, since the die has been cast, you can skip the communications campaign that's surely doomed to be ignored, and just go straight to supporting OnSpec directly. Follow the links above and you can make a donation, or, even better, subscribe! It is, after all, a speculative fiction magazine, and magazines are meant to be subscribed to (unless you've got a time machine and you're going back a hundred years or so to the settler era, when magazines and seed catalogues were necessary fixtures in outhouses for more than just reading)! Every quarter, you'll get pages of awesome that'll showcase new talent in the field. I've been a subscriber for years (well, my wife has bought me a subscription for years as an ongoing birthday or Christmas present), and it's always a treat to find out where its stories will take me. The cover art's usually pretty cool too. Best part is, you don't have to be a Canuck to be a subscriber, they'll mail the mag anywhere in the world, and they've got an online subscription option too — all you have to be is someone who loves good speculative fiction — well, and someone with a few extra bucks to buy a subscription. But really, it's quite affordable, and worth every penny. Show your support and subscribe now.

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Shows that Jumped from Saturdays to Weekdays After School

Sometimes, after launching a new cartoon on Saturday mornings, a network would, at some later point, drop it into a weekday after school position. Once in a while, a show would keep running in both slots at the same time, but usually it was a hand-off from one to the other for good.

Why? I don't know. I don't think it had anything to do with the quality of the show, because some that were moved rocked, while others were utterly forgettable. Maybe it had to do with jockeying for ratings, though I don't know how much kid viewership outside of the coveted Saturday morning lineup really mattered. Maybe it had something to do with ideal times to promote shows which acted as marketing vehicles for toys. Or it could have been for some other reason.

In any case, here are a couple of good Saturday morning shows that made the jump to weekday afternoons:

First up, Robotix, the story of a group of humans stranded on an alien planet, who fall-in with giant robots controlled by AIs based on the personalities of that world's original inhabitants, who remain in stasis deep beneath the surface. While the robots were supposed to be rebuilding the infrastructure of their destroyed civilization, they ended up fighting with each other, and the newly-arrived humans split into two factions who take sides, with their help greatly augmenting the abilities of the robots. Aside from being a thoroughly kick-ass show, Robotix was also a marketing vehicle for the toy line of the same name, which was also pretty cool (you could use the large, Lego-esque pieces and electric motors in each set to build robots with a wide range of configurations). I got the Argus set (based on the character who lead the good guys in the series) for Christmas one year, and aside from having to replace it on boxing day due to a faulty part, it was one of my favourites for a while. (full pilot episode)

Released as part of the same mega line-up promotion as Robotix (along with the forgettable Big Foot and the Muscle Machines and Jem and the Holograms) is our next series: Inhumanoids. This show was about a team of scientists in league with various races of secretive monsters (a race of plant people, a race of rock people, and a couple of magnetic dudes at the Earth's core) battling a trio of demonic creatures called, you guessed it, the Inhumanoids. The show was also about marketing toys. In the show, vicious-Muppet-looking Metlar, who likes to hork-up fireballs and throw them at people, is backed by the viney, brainless titan Tendril (imagine the bastard child of Cthulhu and Swamp Thing), and D'Compose — think a hairless yellow gorilla for the body, with an exposed rib cage, and rat's skull for the head — who stashes prisoners in his chest cavity like coats in a wardrobe and turns people into zombies by biting them. After ages trapped in custom magical prisons, the Inhumanoids escape and then try various schemes to alternately conquer and destroy the world — everything from stealing nuclear weapons to unleashing stumpy cyclopses with appetites that would put the starting lineup of an American football team to shame. Episodes would occasionally take a turn for the disturbing (and of questionable appropriateness for a Saturday morning audience) when D'Compose got front and centre, temporarily turning characters into mutant-zombie things, unleashing huge zombie armies, and once raising a mad scientist from the dead in a manner that even the yellow demon himself found unsettling. But the good guys always won and there were toys to be bought. So, you know, there's that to keep in mind when you're a kid and trying to get to sleep later that night staring across the room at D'Compose and his open sternum prison. (opening intro)

And taking things back into space, in an Old West-superhero mashup kinda way, there's BraveStarr. It's the story of Space Martial BraveStarr, a man of First Nations ancestry with super powers (eyes of a hawk, ears of a wolf, strength of a bear, and speed of a puma) who keeps the peace on a mining planet in the future. Assisted by his trigger-happy, cybernetically-enhanced, intelligent, talking horse, Mr Ed, er, no, that wasn't it... uh, Francis? 30-30, yeah, that's it! — along with a couple of other deputies — BraveStarr arrests run-of-the-mill criminals when he's not battling the evil entity known as Stampede. If you take out the super powers and universe-threatening-evil-entity angle, the show's kind of like a kid-friendly precursor to Firefly — as told from the cop's point of view (now wouldn't that be a cool crossover to see?). (full episode)

Monday, November 24, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Star Wars Spinoffs and Spoofs

I've always been a proud uncle, but this past week, I was even more proud. My brother mentioned that he was walking through his living room a couple of days ago, and passed his 6-year-old daughter, who was quietly humming the Imperial March theme from Star Wars while colouring in a Christmas activity book. How could you not beam with nerdy pride?

It reminded me of how everything was coming up Star Wars back when I was a kid in the late 70s and early 80s, lingering in the realm of Saturday morning cartoons even years after when I was a pre-teen and the afterglow of Return of the Jedi was fading from pop culture consciousness.

The Secret Railroad did a Star Wars spoof episode not too long after Episode IV debuted (I can still remember the awesomeness of Mr Passenger pulling an extension cord out of his carpet bag, running it from his umbrella to a wall socket, then going toe-to-toe with Darth Vader in a light sabre duel with said electrified umbrella), and others followed overtly or somewhat subtly over the years. I wish that TSR episode was available online to share, but I can't find any sign of it — I fear the bulk of the series is lost to time.

However, one of the later spoofs that is still available is the "Gonzo's Video Show" episode from season 1 of Jim Henson's Muppet Babies. The show, in general, teeters precariously on the edge of being insufferably cute and aimed at too young an audience, but then sometimes spins right around and has funny elements that can appeal to older viewers — not as sly and adult as the original Muppet Show itself, but enough to make the cartoon series worth watching if you're in the right mood. And this episode is no exception. Of note is the inclusion of actual footage from Star Wars in the gang's playroom production (used to illustrate what the Muppet kids are seeing in their imaginations — rather than what's actually playing out on their camcorder), which is no surprise, given the Henson group's deep involvement with 'Empire and 'Jedi. Personally, I've always gotten a kick out of Kermit's narration of the opening crawl. The episode also strikes a cord with me because when I was a kid, my friends and I would pretend to be Star Wars characters and act out our own adventures — we called it "Star Wars With Us". We never video-taped these sessions like the Muppet Babies did, but we would have if one of us had had a camcorder. And so, for your amusement, here's Muppet Babies — scroll forward to about the half-way mark to get past the non-Star Wars material. (full episode)

From the potentially insufferably cute to the unquestionably insufferably cute, here's a cartoon spinoff of Return of the Jedi that came out shortly after the two made-for-TV Ewok movies. It's called, not surprisingly, Ewoks, and, like the the afore-menioned live-action TV movies, I don't know if it's considered official franchise canon, but I really hope it isn't. (full episode)

Lastly, I'll try and redeem this post with something cool that (unlike Ewoks) was actually worthy of the Star Wars monicker: Droids. This cartoon detailed the adventures of R2D2 and C3PO, in what were probably the years prior to their service aboard the Tantive IV at the beginning of Episode IV, although the prequel trilogy more-or-less undercuts that possibility. In any event, our favourite mechanical thralls find themselves associated with well-meaning racers/hoodlums, Rebels, and others, as they try to avoid the forces (no, not Forces) of the Empire, and, on one occasion at least, survive crossing paths with the dreaded bounty hunter Boba Fett. I remember the show being pretty cool back in the old days — good enough to warrant a prime-time special at one point, and I still enjoy the theme song. (full episode)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Toy and Game Marketing Gone Wild

Ah, Saturday morning cartoons. When they weren't trying to get you to buy hyper-sugared cereals during the commercial breaks, they were all about encouraging you to buy the toys and games they were based on. (Mostly. To be fair, there were some shows that weren't based on pre-existing toys or games, and didn't have any merchandising developed after they went to air either, but those were very much in the minority.)

In this instalment, we have two shows that epitomized this:

Dungeons & Dragons (full episode):

...and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (full episode):

The TARDIS - No Room For Fans

(spoiler alert)

In the week or so since the finale of the recent series of Doctor Who, I've been giving a lot of thought to the Doctor's Companions — and to those who would be Companions, but aren't — and it occurs to me that the TARDIS is a "no fan" zone.

It's something that came to me when Osgood died: that no-one who's a fan (and by "fan" I don't mean a real-world person who loves the show, but rather an in-story person who follows the Doctor's exploits, and, since I'm now thinking of this kind of person as a specific character type, we should probably capitalize them into "Fan" the way we would with Companion) of the Doctor gets to graduate to become a full-fledged Companion aboard the TARDIS. In fact, they don't even get the consolation prize of tag-along status aboard the police call box for a one-off adventure. All they can ever hope for is to receive a pat on the head for their assistance, and to be left behind when it's time for the Doctor to head off on his merry way.

So how is a Fan different from a Companion, or, for that matter, a tag-along?

First, there's the educational and emotional difference: unlike the Companions, the fans already know all about the Doctor (or, at least as much as any human with adequate historical records and government security access can know) and his adventures, and, based on this, have developed a fannish love for, and loyalty to, him. Companions always start off as ignorant of the Doctor until they meet him in person and are dragged into one of his adventures (or, while they're playing a separate role in the same incident, meet him and combine efforts in a shared adventure). The Companions have to learn about his past in bits and pieces as the Doctor chooses to reveal it, and as such are on much more emotionally unstable ground when they're forming opinions about him. The Fans (like Osgood, or Malcolm from Planet of the Dead), on the other hand, having researched as much as they can about the Doctor, have had plenty of time to evaluate his words and actions, and have already formed an opinion of him by the time they actually get to meet him. A Companion like Rose or Captain Jack may eventually develop a fannish devotion to the Doctor over the course of their adventures, but with the Fans, it's already there. The same applies with tag-alongs: they may grow to respect and love the Doctor, like Wilf, or begrudgingly put up with him, like Jackie, but that's only after they meet him; the Fans already know who they're dealing with, and how they feel.

Second, there's the obvious, crucial difference: that a Fan ultimately gets left behind, where Companions (like Martha, Donna, Sarah Jane, Clara, Amy, Rose [eeesh!], or any of the others) take up residence — or at least frequent flyer status — aboard the TARDIS and become regular sidekicks of the Doctor on his adventures, providing support or entertainment to the Time Lord, and sometimes acting as his conscience or even saving his immortal behind from potential discomfort or extinction.

Then there are the tag-alongs, like Wilf, Jackie, Mickey Smith, or Captain Jack Harkness, who the Doctor encounters in the course of an adventure (or just day-to-day life when dealing with regular folks), and who come along in the TARDIS (voluntarily or accidentally) for the remainder of the adventure, and then, at the end, go back to their normal lives. Actually, there are two types of tag-along: a tag-along who might come back and join the Doctor for another adventure, and may — like Captain Jack — get promoted to Companion status and take a long-term berth aboard the TARDIS; or the type who may just go back to his or her regular life (like Wilf or Jackie) and avoid further stumblings through time and space. (And yes, I know, you're going to tell me that Jackie came back aboard the TARDIS a couple of times, but I don't think you can really count her as a bona fide Companion since she ultimately had no interest in bouncing around the universe unless Rose was in danger.)

The Fans, on the other hand, like Osgood and Malcolm, get left behind.

Malcolm busts his ass for the 10th Doctor (or is Tennant now the 11th, because of John Hurt's insertion into the roster?) crunching the numbers to help bring the double-decker bus full of Londoners home, and you just know he'd ditch UNIT like a stained pair of old underwear if the Doctor would just so much as nod in his direction. But the invite never comes. No, too bad for poor Malcolm, the Doctor's in his mopey, self-pitying, I-just-wanna-roam-the-universe-alone sulk — or maybe it's because Malcolm just isn't cool enough, or female enough — and the scientist is stuck working for an organization that uses his talents but doesn't really respect him. Exit Time Lord.

As for Osgood, the 11th Doctor (or do we call Matt Smith #12?) blows past her — and her super-awesome 4th Doctor scarf — in his usual whirlwind during the Zygon crisis of Day of the Doctor, makes some demands, leaves a compliment or two, then heads off about his business. The most she gets comes later, this past series, when the 12th Doctor (or is Capaldi lucky number 13?) offers to bring her along, but fate tragically (and conveniently, for the Fan denial pattern) intervenes and she's killed by the Master before she can take him up on it.

I've been wracking my brain to think of any other character in the Whoniverse who fits the description of a Fan, but no-one in the series' of the 9th through 12th Doctors comes to mind. In terms of the older series, the 4th Doctor was my first Doctor as a little kid, but I don't remember any characters who fit the bill back then, and didn't have a chance to watch the show in the years afterward until the 8th Doctor's appearance in the Fox special.

Can any of you remember someone from the various old series who was a passed-over Fan rather than a Companion, tag-along, or background character?

Ultimately, the in-show Fans are a lot luck us — the fans in the real world: we all watch the Doctor's exploits from afar as he goes from adventure to adventure, series to series, companion to companion, and face to face, usually enjoying, but occasionally condemning him, waiting impatiently to see more of him, and wishing we could join him, if only once, but never getting that chance.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Dubious Spinoffs

I've been floored by some kind of bug for the past week, so, lacking the energy to do anything better, I've decided to post another quick instalment of the Saturday morning cartoon rewatch.

This week: dubious spinoffs.

In their desperate attempts to put out new Saturday morning content every season, back in the 70s and 80s, the networks and cartoon production houses would sometimes repurpose pop-culture icons in ways that probably seemed like a good idea at the time (and, admittedly, were kinda fun for kids back then), but in hindsight are probably best forgotten.

Except I can't forget them. Oh no, of all the things I could be allocating brain storage space to, quite against my will, I find myself dwelling on the utterly pointless. Case in point: this post's three selections.

For starters: The Robonic Stooges. Because what the venerable trio of knuckleheads needed was to be transformed into cybernetic superheroes. (excerpt)

And speaking of unlikely superheroes, how about The Super Globetrotters? The basketball entertainers from Harlem had a previous run-of-the-mill cartoon and made enough appearances in other media that I think it's fair to call this show a spinoff (of sorts). (intro)

And if those two offerings weren't weird enough, we'll finish with a little tale about the beleaguered castaways of Gilligan's Island, who apparently decided that life on their private Polynesian island was so intolerable that, in a desperate attempt to get back to civilization, they built a spaceship. Not a boat. Not a plane. Not even an inflatable pool chair with a little cup holder on the side. No, it had to be a spaceship. With artificial gravity, an FTL drive, and hard radiation shielding. To make a hop over a couple of hundred kilometres of water. But okay. Whatever. Unfortunately, despite having the genius to develop this impressive suite of technologies on their own, the castaways are unable to make a simple sub-orbital flight or bounce, and instead find themselves on a strange planet on the ass-end of the galaxy. Ladies and gentlemen, hold on to your aloha shirts, it's time for Gilligan's Planet! (intro)

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Superheroes edition

Sorry this weekend's instalment of the Saturday morning cartoon rewatch is late, everyone; yesterday turned out to be more hectic than usual.

Anyway, I hope your Hallowe'en was enjoyable this year; that you went to a good party, or had a fun time taking your kids out trick-or-treating, or answering the door and handing out candy. As a kid, one of the best times was when the calendar lined-up just right — like this year — with Hallowe'en on a Friday night, so I could stay up a little later because there'd be no school the next day, and then wake up on Saturday morning to watch new episodes of my favourite cartoons, with my sack of plunder beside me on the living room carpet so I could breakfast on chocolate bars and gum and bask in the afterglow of trick-or-treating.

While it's a little too late for that, I've lined-up a couple of cartoons that might re-awaken a little of that old feeling. This weekend, I'm going with a superhero theme, so grab a couple of left over chocolate bars, and get ready for some 80s-style Saturday morning fun!

First up, Spiderman and his Amazing Friends. This show featured the web-head teaming-up with college buddies and future (or was it former?) X-Men, Firestar and Iceman. They all lived with Peter Parker's Aunt May and her dog, and, somehow, without old May knowing it, they'd converted one of the rooms in her house into their high-tech superhero headquarters. Each week they'd battle another Marvel foe: from a scientist-turned-out-of-control-giant-spider-thing, to rogue Asguardian Loki, to Spiderman's old foe, the Green Goblin. Lots of fun action, and it helped cement my affection for comics. (full episode)

Next, it's time to SMASH!!!! with The Incredible Hulk. If I recall correctly, the big green guy was usually scheduled back-to-back with Spiderman and his Amazing Friends, with the whole thing billed as The Spiderman and his Amazing Friends and Incredible Hulk Adventure Hour or something like that. Marvel owned some prime real estate on our TV, in any case. Just like Spidey, the Hulk was another can't-miss show for my brother and I. (part of 1 of 3 of full episode)

Lastly, there was Hero High. I seem to remember a live-action stage show opening to the cartoon at some point, which is distinctly odd (although, didn't they do that with The Archies once upon a time too?), but I also remember wishing they'd just get on with the animation. Though this Filmation offering was nowhere near as cool as Spiderman, or the Hulk, or Superfriends, it was none-the-less reasonably entertaining when I was a kid. (intro)

One last thought about superheroes... I'd like to dedicate this post to a bunch of unsung superheroes I've met over the years: the caring siblings of kids with developmental disabilities. As some of you know, my wife is a volunteer coach with Special Olympics. Sometimes, when she hasn't had enough assistant coaches on hand, I've come in to help her with her two programs that teach younger kids about the value of playing well together, and the basics of different kinds of sports. On those occasions, I've seen something that's blown me away: siblings of some of the athletes — often younger siblings — coming in with their parents to help their brothers and sisters participate. I've seen a six-year-old girl — a pint-sized supernova — take her big brother under her wing like a mother hen, supporting him when he wasn't sure about what to do, and not only that, but going around the room and offering encouragement and help to other athletes, and then asking the coaches what more she could do to lend a hand. I've seen a seven-year-old steadfastly guiding his big brother towards a soccer net so that he could show off his ability to kick. And there have been others over the years, supporting their special siblings with a care and a maturity far beyond that of other kids their age. This at a time when they could be insisting on doing their own thing — playing with their own friends, competing in their own sports, reading, playing video games, or whatever. But rather than focussing on themselves, they've come in to be with their brothers and sisters. Some of these supportive siblings go on to join organizations as coaches or other volunteers, fundraisers, staff, or health and/or education professionals. Others may quietly support their special-needs siblings behind the scenes, because that's what families do for one-another — that's what you do when you care for your sibling. And so I think we ought to give a shout-out to the siblings who are always there for their special-needs brothers and sisters when they need them: you're the real superheroes among us.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Happy Hallowe'en 2014!

Happy Hallowe'en, everyone!

I hope the spooky season has been good to all of you, and that you've either netted a huge haul of candy from trick-or-treating, or that you've got a ton of candy left over that the kids who came to your door didn't get to (because one of the best parts of being an adult at Hallowe'en is eating the leftover candy).

This year's holiday was pretty fun in our neck of the woods. I put the lights and other decorations up last week (have to keep up with the neighbours — around here, Hallowe'en decorations go up right after Thanksgiving!), so we've had a while to enjoy them. Meanwhile, for the past week or so, we've started re-watching favourite seasonal films, like Ghostbusters, Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Sixth Sense, Monster House, and Monsters vs. Aliens.

We hit the pumpkin patch last weekend, coming back covered in sticky mud, but with some suitable jack'o'lantern fodder. I started working on mine yesterday, so that my wife would be able to do hers today, and that seemed to help get things done in time without us getting in each other's way. From top to bottom, here are: the Frankenpumpkin, done by my wife; the TARDIS/Police Call Pumpkin, also done by the wife; a generic happy/dopey pumpkin I threw together to keep the little kids happy; a Hallowe'en cat that I carved; and my masterpiece this year, the Awful Head-Chewing Monster Punkin. I have to admit, I was a little concerned that AHCMP might have been a little too over-the-top, especially for the really little kids, but all of the families who came around tonight — especially the ones with the tiny tots — loved it, so, I guess it was just on the right side of the line of fun scary versus sick and unsettlingly creepy.

With the jack'o'lanterns ready and a couple of hours until the trick-or-treating would start, I checked-off the next part of our holiday tradition by jumping in the car and jogging up the highway to the neighbouring city of Richmond to hit up our favourite fried-chicken joint and bring supper home (this goes way back to when I was a kid, and my folks would frequently pick up KFC for supper on Hallowe'en because it was quick and easy and they wouldn't have to do any cooking themselves while getting us ready to go out and answering the door for early trick-or-treaters; for me, it just became a part of the holiday, so my wife and I keep doing it, though we now get the food from a little mom-and-pop joint, rather than the Colonel). The hour-round-trip drive (very light traffic, all things considered) was perfect because that gave me time to re-listen to the old 1939 recording of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre radio production of War of the Worlds, which is a hell of an entertaining show and an example of radio at its finest.

By the time I came home, my brother had come over to spend the evening with us, so we dug into the fried feast with some tasty beverages, watched some old Hallowe'en TV favourites (It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, Disney's Lonesome Ghosts, Trick or Treat, and Ichabod Crane, and Bradbury's masterpiece The Hallowe'en Tree), watched the fireworks coming up over the treeline from a nearby neighbourhood, nerded-out on talk of upcoming superhero movies, comics, and Babylon 5 versus Star Trek Deep Space Nine, and relayed back and forth to the front door to deal with the onslaught of trick-or-treaters. And we didn't have to wait long for the kids — we had pretty solid waves of them coming in from about 6:15 through 9:15, mostly families with younger kids (no mooching uncostumed teens, which was good). By the end of the night, we had probably been visited by 157 trick-or-treaters, which was pretty good. Not as good as last year, when we were up around 220, but still a very good turnout. Always interesting to see what the costume fads are from year to year; this time around, ninjas seemed to be popular with the boys, while girls tended towards princesses, though there were a few superheroes, and one kid steadfastly rocked what must have been his parents' Ghost Face costume from Scream.

Of course, the two best parts of Hallowe'en these days, are when we get to see the kids' faces light up when they realize we've just given them full-sized chocolate bars (we don't mess around with those weeny little snack sized ripoffs in our household), and, almost as good, when the trick-or-treating's over at the end of the night, and we tally-up how many chocolate bars we have left over for ourselves. To quote Garfield: "Candy, candycandycandy!"

And now, to bed and a little Edgar Allan Poe before sleep.

Ray Bradbury was right: "... the greatest night of the year. Better than Easter. Better than Christmas. Hallowe'en."

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Hallowe'en Edition!

With Hallowe'en less than a week away, I thought it would be appropriate for this instalment of the Saturday morning cartoon review to include some really scarifying shows!

Well, okay, maybe silly rather than scary, but they do feature ghosts and monsters.

We'll start with The Drak Pack, a series about the adventures of three teens who can turn into monsters (Frankie, who becomes Frankenstein's monster; Howler, a werewolf; and Drac Junior, who's pretty obvious) to battle the forces of evil in an attempt to redeem the good names of their night-crawling ancestors. I don't remember this one lasting more than a season or two, but my friends and I used to love it, pretending to be the characters and making up our own stories — except, without the weird, transformable coffin-hotrod. (intro)

Next up, we've got yet another incarnation of everybody's favourite mystery-solving mutt, Scooby Doo: The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo. This addition to the franchise sees a pared-down version of the Scooby Doo Gang, consisting of Scoob, Shaggy, and Daphne — joined by some kid (basically a human stand-in for Scrappy Doo) — travelling the world trying to snag 13 ghosts they accidentally released from a pandora-esque box.

There's a couple of reasons I like this version more than some of the other franchise instalments (including the original): first, the story is a lot more focussed — the gang isn't just wandering around (presumably in a daze from hot-boxing the Mystery Machine) randomly blundering into mysteries involving alleged monsters, where they end up foiling the same old type of under-the-table land deal. Instead, they've got a clear directive and a different bad guy to bag in each episode. Second, Daphne's smarter and more actively involved in decision-making in this version than in the others, where she's essentially limited to being a pretty sidekick to Fred's bossiness and Thelma's analytical intelligence and occasional pushiness. Third, it's pretty clear that Daphne and Shaggy have hooked-up (at least for the time being — later spinoffs would remove her and focus entirely on Scoob, Shag, and Scrappy), thereby redeeming Shag from loser status (although I always thought he and Scoob were the smartest ones in the gang, with their desire to avoid dangerous situations and their good sense of knowing when to run). And fourth, this show was cool because it had schlock horror meister Vincent Price as a character, acting in a Charlie/Bosley role dispatching the gang on their missions and providing a little advice. The writers/producers are saying to the audience: "See how ghostly this show is? We've got Vincent Price! Vincent Price, people! That must mean it's scary in a fun way! Ha ha!" That was enough for me, back then. (intro)

Lastly, I give you the awesomeness that is The Hilarious House of Frightenstein! Yes, I know, this is a live action show, not a cartoon, but coming up on Hallowe'en as we are, it would be a crime not to include this monster-themed production. Beyond that, THHOF is perhaps the greatest kids' show ever made, and therefore deserves its due.

Not only was this 1971 Canadian production (made at CHCH in Hamilton, just down the road from where I grew up, in Cambridge) immensely entertaining with its weird sketches — the witch who hosted a cooking show, the vampire constantly screwing-up attempts to animate his version of Frankenstein's monster, the castle mail room, or the old librarian who would read nursery rhymes as if they were gripping tales of horror — full of cheesy jokes, and the wonderfully detailed haunted castle sets, it was also educational, featuring segments with Doctor Petvet (about different kinds of animals and how to care for them) and The Professor (physicist Julius Sumner Miller). Most importantly, the educational components of the show weren't patronizing: the teacher characters never talked down to the kids out there in the TVland audience, which made it more likely that kids would pay attention, and much easier to absorb the lessons.

There was another massively important educational component to the show: the Wolfman and his call-in style radio program (on the castle's in-house station EECH). Somehow, CHCH and THHOF were able to use dozens of then-current major rock'n'roll songs — such as the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" — to play in the Wolfman's segments. The songs were played in their full length while the Wolfman and Igor (a huge, lumbering, good-natured green guy who acted as both character in many of the skits, as well as a kind of onscreen metaphorical stand-in for the kids in the audience) would rock-out (occasionally with a mannequin dressed as a mummy) in front of the camera, with an early type of blue screen behind them flashing psychedelic visuals created by camera-monitor feedback. What was important about all this was that for me (and probably some other kids watching at the time), this was my first exposure to real rock'n'roll — to good popular music. As a little kid in the mid-late 70s, I was, strangely, not exposed to a lot of good rock music, despite the fact that there was so much great stuff being created and played at the time. My dad kept the car radio generally tuned to unquestionably forgettable easy listening, and only actively sought out the Beach Boys when he wanted something specific to play. Around the house, my mom would either play records by The Carpenters in the afternoon (to this day, I find myself reluctantly sympathizing with Nicholas Cage's version of Ghost Rider, and his weakness for Karen Carpenter, because of that early programming), or classical music (and no, I'm not complaining about early exposure to Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and Brahms — that was all good, but not at the expense of missing out on the cool things going on in rock at the time). The teenagers I knew — those who would bother to talk to a little squirt like me — were all focussed on disco, so they weren't any help either. Instead, it fell to the reruns of THHOF and its segments with the Wolfman to teach me what real rock'n'roll was really about. "Jumpin' Jack Flash" is still one of my favourites because of that show.

And then there was Vincent Price, blasting the show open with all the camp he could muster, doing the odd sketch, and closing every episode with the same rhyme that was delivered with such quiet deliberation as to leave kids really rather unsettled after the previous hour's silliness. Forget all of the films, the world should remember Vincent for his work on THHOF.

And so, let us take a tentative step back into The Hilarious House of Frightenstein! (full episode)

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Mini Review 4: The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains & Echopraxia

The books in the books-to-review pile are piling up, but I'll keep this instalment short because, in the week leading up to Hallowe'en, I want to stick with the theme of recently-read books that are creepy. And Neil Gaiman's The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains and Peter Watts' Echopraxia certainly fit the bill.


Published as one of the new mini-hardcovers that seem to be all the rage with authors and publishers these days (most less than 200 pages, this one a mere 74), and complete with colour illustrations on every page, Neil Gaiman's The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains might sound, at this brief description, like a kids' book — at least, until you actually stop and look at the damn thing (with its menacing, shadowy skull staring out from under the hood of the mountain on the cover) and realize that it's far from it. A fairy tale book, maybe. But not for children. The book was released here in Canada this past summer, and I picked it up and devoured it shortly before we left for Worldcon in London, and after for Scotland and its Highlands. And it was a reading decision that would come back to haunt me. As soon as we got up into the dark, brooding mountains, leaning in over their fence of black pines around Inverness, I couldn't get the image of that cover, with its intense and frightening skull, out of my head. (To be fair, the Black Mountains are nowhere near Inverness [they're located on the Isle of Skye], but the Black Isle [not really an island] is, and seeing it looming in the distance, it certainly looked like the cover illustration on this book, and when that mental image was coupled with some of the grim local folklore we heard about the supposed origin of its name, you'll have to excuse me for mentally swapping the two.)

The book tells the story of a little man named Johnnie, who convinces former reaver Callum to guide him to a legendary island where he might find a mountain cave filled with gold. Callum agrees, though reluctantly, and throughout the journey they run into other country folk who warn them that the place is dangerous and their quest won't end well. When they do finally get to the cave, they find gold, but also a terrible darkness — a darkness watching them from within the cave, and a darkness within themselves watching each other.

What is the truth? It's a glimpse into the terrible things men do — for wealth, for a clean getaway, for revenge — and the costs and consequences they incur, and the things — other men, mountain spirits, and their own consciences — that prey upon them.

If you're looking for something suitably unsettling for All Hallow's Read, this book would be the ideal treat.


What could be more appropriately scary for a Hallowe'en read than a book containing vampires, zombies, madness, murder, a vast uncaring alien menace from the blackness of space, and the end of human civilization as we know it — and all of it within the realm of possibility? Welcome to Peter Watts' Echopraxia, a worthy dark companion to Blindsight.

Where Blindsight told the tale of a ship crewed by a motley assortment of technologically-upgraded humans with a variety of alternate psychologies ranging from autism to multiple personality disorder, shepherded by a genius-intellect vampire resurrected by genetic engineering, all on their way to confront an intelligent but non-self-aware alien presence on the edge of the solar system, Echopraxia paints a picture of "meanwhile, back home" — as everything back home more or less falls apart. The other vampires have escaped their think tank prisons and are on the prowl, viral zombiism and other plagues (biological and technological) ravage the world, chemicals and rogue engineered crossover genes pollute wildlife like styrofoam fast food cartoons blowing across landscapes beside highways in the 80s, people are detaching themselves from reality by the thousands — uploading themselves to a virtual environment called Heaven — and governments and other large organizations take potshots at cults of people experimenting with creating hive minds. And if that's not enough, the folks back home have begun to get an inkling that things may not be going so well with the expedition detailed in Blindsight, and that the alien presence might be securing a toe-hold much closer to home — and much faster — than previously believed.

And so we ride along with biologist (and non-augmented human) Daniel Bruks, as he's swept along from self-imposed isolation in the desert to the confines of a spaceship where there's a watchful truce between a hive-mind of geniuses, their wannabe escort, a guilt-wracked soldier, an autistic pilot bent on revenge, and an escaped vampire and her squad of zombie soldiers, all heading towards a power station orbiting the sun that may be host to unwelcome guests. For Bruks, survival means more than just avoiding an alien attack; the terrifying, initially inexplicable attention of the vampire; or threats from others who try to kill him; it also means facing the possibility that the continuation of life might require the end of self. It might mean becoming the definition of echopraxia.

Like all of Watts' works, Echopraxia is hard science fiction. Not just because the author is rigorous about creating a world and plot based on what is scientifically possible, but also because this is a story that is hard on its characters, and hard on the reader who has to bear witness to all of it. Watts' stories operate in a Hobbesian state of nature, where life is nasty, brutish, and short; where the end goal of every life form is survival by any means necessary; and where the conscious mind is just along for the ride, regardless of how much control over events it believes it does or should have. Watts' stories are full of violence: physical, verbal, emotional, and psychological; self-inflicted and administered by others; and, where it is physical, it is active (where characters are being hounded, menaced, beaten, and killed), remembered, and promised/foreshadowed/implicitly understood as inevitable.

If that's not enough to scare you in time for Hallowe'en, I don't know what is.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Flash Gordon & Dr Snuggles

Maybe you're a Count Chocula kind of person. Or maybe Lucky Charms or S'Mores Crunch are more your style. Me, I'm going for Pac-Man. But whatever your over-sugared marshmallow cereal of choice is, grab yourself a big bowl and find a spot in the middle of the living room floor, and get ready for another instalment of Saturday morning cartoons!

First up, one of the greatest swashbuckling science fiction shows of the late 70s and early 80s: The New Adventures of Flash Gordon. Follow the adventures of Flash, Dale Arden, and Dr. Hans Zarkov as they battle strange alien monsters, and try to rally the diverse races of the planet Mongo to overthrow the tyrant Ming The Merciless. (full episode)

Now to switch gears and indulge in some lighter fare for a younger audience (although, on Saturday mornings, all bets were off — cartoons for kids of different ages were all aired at more or less the same time, and the cartoon time slot was, at some point, followed by a music video slot where kids fresh off the 'toons could get the shit scared out of them by Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video): the Dutch/English masterpiece known as Dr Snuggles. The incomparable Sir Peter Ustinov supplied the voice for the titular Edwardian inventor who — along with his animal, robotic, and structural friends (some of which were also voiced by Ustinov) — goes on adventures ranging from the rescue of wayward flying trees from the depths of space, to a global quest to recharge the fading colours of the rainbow. It's a gentle, kinda steampunky, magical, wildly imaginative series that crams a lot into each episode without ever feeling rushed or shallow. Absolutely wonderful storytelling for kids, and entertaining for adults too. (full episode)

Tune in next week, for another instalment of Saturday morning cartoons!

I Ain't Afraid Of No Ghost - But A Reboot... That's Another Thing Altogether

For years now, the fan community has been sharing rumours of a new Ghostbusters picture in the works like kids sitting around the campfire swapping ghost stories. But now, in the past couple of weeks, just like a scene from Ghostbusters itself, we've been told that it's real — that a new movie's finally gonna happen.

And then we started getting word from director Paul Feig of what this thing's going to look like, and, suddenly, I got this sinking feeling, like when someone in a movie goes into a haunted house hoping to catch a glimpse of Casper, or maybe Slimer, and they end up starting to get the feeling that they're going to have to deal with something more like the entities from Poltergeist instead.

So I started reading through the reports about Feig's plans, particularly his interview with Entertainment Weekly, and then I donned my Ghostbusters hockey jersey, and fired the first and second movies into the blu-ray player, and then I gave it a lot of thought. And while I try to keep an open mind about film talk until a movie actually hits the screen, in this case I feel like Venkman staring down the hall at Slimer for the first time, knowing that what's coming next probably isn't going to be groovy.

The biggest problem with Feig's vision, at this point, is his decision to go with a total reboot. To rip the tablecloth out from under the franchise's history, leaving only the flowers of the name "Ghostbusters" still standing. The first two films never happened, their characters don't exist, it's a whole new universe with whole new technology.

I hate the notion of reboots. Principally, because they rarely work. This is usually due to bad writing and direction, and sometimes acting, but also to the current Hollywood phenomenon of shotgunning reboots (usually to superhero franchises) onto screens within just a couple of years of their predecessors, with this often happening even though the earlier material was reasonably good. It's not only a case of unoriginality, it's a matter of these new versions being totally unnecessary. A reboot is only worth doing if the original/previous version sucked. If the earlier version was okay, then either produce a new movie that keeps the old one within continuity, or, [gasp!] take a big risk and spend your time, money, and energy on something new and original that isn't linked to any other property.

Let's take a look at some of the reboots that have come out in recent years:

Star Trek and Star Trek - Into Darkness (a remake of The Wrath of Khan, despite the director's claims otherwise) were terrible. Glaring A.D.D. fests with characters who were strident and shrill in their dealings with each other, rather than genuinely emotional, reasonable, or interesting, and plots that were so stupid that you'd think they'd been penned by a Tribble in its final, delusional moments before dying of an overdose of poison-laced quadrotriticale. These were no more serious attempts to do Star Trek than an episode of Pokemon would be.

Similarly, Man of Steel (a retread of Superman II) was a colossal shit pile, giving us a Superman who was more wooden than Guardians of the Galaxy's Groot, and a plot that was so dumb that the writers/director/producers/studio might as well have hired Gleek the space monkey to crap onto pieces of paper, put them into a hat, which they would then have randomly pulled out and attempted to rorschach-style decipher to fill in material on each page of the script. Seriously, this flick gets as far as having a Jor-El AI simulation take control of Zod's ship, to the point where he can slam hatches and cut off the arms of bad guys, and yet he can't just pilot the damn thing into the sun, thereby, oh, I don't know, killing all of the bad guys and thus ending the threat to Kal-El and humanity? Nah. Couldn't do that. That might actually make sense. It was also unnecessary because Superman Returns, though not perfect, was an acceptable film, and one that continued the Superman franchise (at least, one that continued the franchise after Superman The Movie, and possibly Superman II) in a reasonable fashion, rather than throw out the previous material.

The Christian Bale Batman movies were in a bit of a grey area. They were all pretty entertaining (though The Dark Knight Rises was frequently stupid in some of its plot point choices), but really, they were unnecessary. The Michael Keaton movies (we shall not speak of the others) were very well thought-out and acted, and still stand up to rewatching today.

About the only reboot that I can think of that was a success in terms of being well written and acted, and looking good, and fitting the criteria of being necessary because its previous incarnation was a disaster, was the new Battlestar Galactica.

So that's one reboot out of a whole pile in the last decade or so. Not a great track record, Hollywood.

Mostly, reboots are just a director's exercise in polishing his own ego. The director and studio want to capitalize on a known, successful property with built-in fan loyalty that will increase their modern film's chances of box office success. A reboot also allows a director to claim originality without having to actually do the hard work of coming up with something new.

Feig claims that to come back to the existing Ghostbusters universe would be "too difficult"and that if it's a world that's already had a ghost attack "how do you do it again?" Well, Paul, it's been 25 years since Ghostbusters 2, and while a lot happened back then, one would expect their world would have moved on, with other events, characters lives changing, and other characters coming in and out — just like the real world has done since 1989 and everything that happened then, like a little event called the fall of the Berlin Wall. Life moves on, and, in so doing, leaves plenty of room for developments in the world and brand new stories that aren't too constrained by the events of the past. Feig's also said he wants to have new characters and tell new stories that are really scary and have shiny new tech. See above.

And because of the amount of time that's passed, a sequel wouldn't have to spend a lot of time on the links to the original films: maybe a photo on the wall of Janine and Louis opening a franchise operation in another city, or a character walking past a memorial wall with photos of fallen members like Egon (and Peter, if Bill Murray refused to do a live cameo), or a brief scene with an elderly Ray tinkering in the lab, or Winston doing paperwork as company CEO. Anything's possible, and even the smallest nods here and there would go a long way towards establishing the new film's legitimacy.

If the original Ghostbusters had been terrible, with a deeply-buried seed of potential in its rotten core — like the original Battlestar Galactica — then there would be a good reason to reboot it. But it wasn't. And there isn't. A sequel, as opposed to a hard reboot, would allow Feig to do all of the things he wants, while still respecting the original material that built the fan base and told the story he is implicitly relying on for the success of his new movie, regardless of how different he makes it. There is simply no reason for a hard reboot, aside from self-deluding vanity.

Then there was Feig's second big piece of news: he wants to go with an all-female cast.


Feig says "it would be really fun" and "I just find funny women so great."

I agree: funny women are great. As are funny men.

I also think that this being the 21st century in western society, it's okay — and, story-wise, better — to have stories mixing both genders. After all, women and men work side-by-side in all kinds of businesses, scientific and academic settings, military operations, non-profits, etc and these workplaces are better for that mix.

Admittedly, there are some situations/settings, where a single-gender crowd is appropriate, such as Feig's movie Bridesmaids, or its male counterpart The Hangover (and sequels) and the Tom Hanks flick that film folk rarely like to acknowledge: Bachelor Party. But even these situations are not so clearly-defined when we look at modern life, as more and more men are adding women to their groomsmen lineups, and women include men as bridesmaids (my own best man at my wedding was a woman — my oldest friend since junior high — and she organized and attended the bachelor party). And so when we look at a small business startup or group adventure setting like that presented in Ghostbusters, it seems obvious that having an mixed gender ensemble cast is what most accurately and appropriately represents modern society.

Moreover, this is already a proven concept in modern film and TV. Look at Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, or Firefly, or Farscape. Remove the comedy element, and it still works: Battlestar Galactica, the various Star Trek spinoffs of the last 20 or so years, and Alien and Aliens. Throw the comedy element back in, along with horror, and Cabin in the Woods is a great recent example of how a mixed gender ensemble makes a film work (And, yes, I know, part of the point of that cast mix was to play off the idea of classic slasher film character tropes. But Whedon could have done something similar with an all-male or all-female cast, as some horror movies have done. Wisely, he didn't.).

Besides that, a mixed gender ensemble does a better job of ensuring there's someone for everyone in the audience to identify with. It's kind of like last weekend, when my wife and I were shopping for a birthday present for our niece: we were looking at Lego sets, and were a little confounded that a lot of the kit boxes seemed geared towards one gender or the other, when that kind of specificity wasn't necessary. One box for a mountain cabin set (complete with mountain!) only came with a bearded male mini fig, which might make a girl feel excluded. On the other hand, another box for a cruise ship/yacht kit only came with the new "friends" skinny girl mini figs and in bright pastel colours, which might discourage boys who would otherwise be interested in building a boat. Why can't all the boxes contain male and female mini figs, and have photos of boys and girls playing with them. It's like Lego's taken niche marketing too far. Instead, we settled on a kit from The Lego Movie with female and male figs. But getting back to Ghostbusters, yes, there should absolutely be smart, funny, caring, ass-kicking female leads. There haven't been enough of them, women have been wanting to see more of them, and men enjoy them too. But by the same token, let's not leave good male leading characters out either, because both men and women like them too.

Feig says "Bottom line: I just want the best, funniest cast."

Wouldn't that be a mix of talented people of both genders, as the other productions mentioned above have proven?

Wouldn't it be awesome to have a cast of ghostbusters that included talented people like Melissa McCarthy, Jenna Coleman, Rashida Jones, Gillian Anderson, Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, Sara Tanaka, Rosario Dawson, or Emma Stone, AND some talented people like Jason Lee, Ken Jeong, Vince Vaughan, Jon Favreau, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Nick Kroll, Marlon Wayans or Tyler Labine?

Bottom line: as a fan, I just want any new movie to be really good, and that would be far more likely if it's a sequel instead of a reboot, and if it has a mixed cast.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Gone But Not Forgotten

It was with real sadness that I read a few days ago that the era of Saturday morning cartoons was officially over — October 4th was the first Saturday in more than 40 years with no cartoons in the morning lineup. To borrow from Kevin Smith, growing up, Saturday morning cartoons were my religion, and to know they're relegated to memory and reruns on YouTube and specialty cable back channels has caused a bit of my soul to wither.

Saturday morning cartoons were an important part of growing up in the mid-late 70s and the 80s. They were a common language in the schoolyard — didn't matter whether you were a sporty kid who went to hockey practice at 6am, or one of the bookish ones who stayed home — at some point we all watched at least a few shows, and so we had a common frame of reference for storytelling and play in the school yard. And the word "storytelling" is important, because, while these shows were often part of larger marketing schemes to sell toys and other merchandise, or vehicles to ensure you'd watch the commercials for sugary breakfast cereals that were just as slick as the cartoons themselves and also designed to make you want to buy things (the cereals), these shows actually had a talent for telling stories. They had plots, and differentiated (sometimes multidimensional - in terms of psychology and emotions, as well as corporeal existence) characters. There was also (aside from the toy- and video game-driven marketing fare) a no-holds-barred approach to the stories in these series, showing us endless worlds of fantasy and science fiction, from the very childish to the occasionally mature, and illustrated with texture and depth. That's a far cry from a lot of the kid-oriented animation today: the endless, static-imaged, flashing colour background, brain-hemorraged-eyed, gap-mouthed parade of Yu-Gi-O-type shows where the "adventures" of each episode are more or less interchangeable, as are the characters and action, and nothing is learned (insert image of Old Man Bloginhood sitting on his porch waving his cane petulantly and shouting "In my day-"). Even if the animation back then was a little clunky compared to today's computer-enhanced stuff, they were still a treat to watch.

We also benefitted back then from a mix of shows from different decades — a veritable intertidal zone of cartoon eras — from vintage series of the 60s re-run for new audiences, to the expanding variety of the 70s, to newer ideas in the 80s (focussing even more heavily on product marketing). This let us see animation and storytelling styles evolve in front of our eyes. It also gave the networks more stories to run, especially in years (or seasons, because the programming wasn't always the same in the spring and fall) when the studios weren't producing as many shows. Of course, by the 80s, the kid audience was so important that the networks were airing prime time specials on weekday evenings at the start of the fall season to promote their new Saturday morning cartoon lineups.

And that's just the animated fiction. Saturday mornings were also interspersed with educational shows like In the News, and the animated School House Rock, as well as live-action fluff like Bigfoot and Wildboy, The Ghost Busters, Wonderbug, Jason of Star Command, and, the king of them all, The Hilarious House of Frightenstein. Hell, I remember one of the networks up here in Canada even tried to rerun The Starlost at one point.

So, to keep the memorial candle burning, I'm going to start a new feature here on the blog: every Saturday (or sometimes late Friday night, or maybe belatedly on Sunday, because I can be remarkably lazy), I'll link to a couple of my cartoon favourites from the 70s or 80s (as culled from various sources on YouTube). Where possible, I'll link to a full episode, but, if those aren't available, you'll at least get the intro sequence.

It should be noted that there are some big-name shows you may remember from the old days that won't make this feature (like Battle of the Planets (G-Force), Star Blazers/Space Battleship Yamato, Transformers, or Gobots) on the technicality that they weren't run on Saturday (at least, not in my neck of the woods, where they were after-school shows). Others may not make it because I didn't like them.

To start things off, one of the longest-running cartoons of that era (having a couple of varying but similar titles over the years), and also one of my favourites: The Superfriends (a set of intros).

Now run into the kitchen to get a bowl of your favourite sugary cereal (complete with stale, dehydrated marshmallows), and get comfortable for Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (a full episode).

And let's not forget Godzilla (intro).

And lastly, a one-off feature from CBS Storybreak: Dragon's Blood, based (very loosely, apparently) on the Jane Yolen book of the same name. As a kid, I loved this one because, first and foremost, it had dragons in it, and secondly because the story was pretty good. As an adult, having just rewatched it, I can say the story holds up reasonably well, and the feel of artwork is interesting, somewhat reminiscent of a kids' version of Heavy Metal — without the gore, the zombies, the boobies, or the Loc-Nar wreaking havoc. Bonus points because it's also introduced by Captain Kangaroo himself, Bob Keeshan. (full episode)

Tune in next week for more Saturday morning cartoons (well, I'd hope you come by before then to read some of the other blog posts, but, you know, if cartoons are your thing, that's cool).

Meantime, what were some of your favourite Saturday morning cartoons?

Monday, October 06, 2014

VCon 2014 - Day 3, The Finale

Sunday at VCon is kind of like the morning after a cabin party: most of the revellers have gone, but a few people are left, and while they're all still having a good time together, there's the unspoken shared bone-deep knowledge that it'll be over soon, and all around, there's a weariness of step.

I stumbled back in just after noon, in time to catch most of the "Mapping and Fiction Writing" panel. The importance of maps is a subject that has a special place in my heart - not because of any lust for the cartographic sciences and arts, but because back in 1988, as a kid in school, I was sent to the Delta Young Writers' Conference, and was pleasantly surprised to find that one of the guest authors running one of the workshops was a BC-based science fiction writer. I wish I could remember her name, because she was friendly, encouraging, and genuinely interested in the ideas the kids were coming up with, and for a goofy sci-fi nerd like me, she was the perfect mentor, if only for a couple of hours. I'd love to be able to dig up some of her stories. Anyway, the focus of her workshop was on the importance maps have in world building. Specifically, the necessity to get geography and the effects of geography right (if you have a mountain range in the land you're creating, and the wind blows from a certain direction, remember that the leeward side of the hills will probably be dry, etc). It's a lesson that's always stuck with me, and, while geography isn't a make-or-break feature of stories that I read, there's a part of me that tracks how authors lay out their landscapes to see if those worlds make sense. But getting back to the present and VCon... Today's map-questing panel did a fantastic job of taking the subject beyond land formations and weather patterns. They talked about the importance of demographic mapping to help think through population sizes, cultural capabilities, religious spread, economics, etc. Even the importance of naming came up, with one panelist noting that how an author names a city can have an effect on the plot, giving clues to its historic backstory and that of its people, their culture, and their language. A couple of the panelists even gave examples from their own writing experiences, where mapping out locations as they wrote sometimes forced them to go back and rewrite parts of their stories because the maps illustrated that certain plot moves weren't logical given the story setup and the universe's rules. Definitely a good session to take in, even from a fan standpoint.

After stepping out again for a quick lunch, I attended the "Justify the Science Flaw" session. This is one of those panels that comes back year after year and draws a good crowd because it's so damn funny. Movie or TV scenes, bits of dialogue, and images that defy natural laws or logic are offered to the panelists (many of whom are scientists, along with others who may not be scientists, but who have a solid knowledge of the sciences), who then have to come up with scientifically plausible explanations. While the panelists are usually pretty good at offering off-the-cuff scientific guesses, their jokes often show the greatest genius. Audience participation is pretty entertaining too, for the most part, although there are always a couple of people who, lacking a full understanding of the social graces, take things too literally, don't see the humour, interrupt, or soapbox, and turn the session into an endurance trial for everyone else. Sadly, this is a fact of any large gathering of nerds, and the rest of us just have to wait it out, and to that end, I'll give the panelists mountains of credit for bearing with it with grace.

In the break that followed, I wandered around the venue one last time, taking a walk through the Dealers' Room and chatting with a couple of the merchants. Out in the hallways, I was, as always, impressed by the die-hard attitude of some of the cosplayers, who, even though Saturday is the big day to strut their stuff, keep up the effort on Sunday. Among the cosplayers I came across was a young lady (above) dressed as one of the soldiers from the anime series Attack on Titan (definitely worth looking up on Netflix) who had done an incredible job of making a spot-on replica of the outfits from the show. With this amount of talent shown by the younger con-goers, there's sure to be a lot of impressive costuming coming out of this region for a long time to come. Well done!

Next, I had a bit of a choice: attend the "Are Fantasy & Science Fiction Inherently Violent Genres?" session, inflict mental anguish upon myself by going to the legendary Turkey Readings, or take a chance and go to the "Mortars and Medals" feedback session and offer a suggestion for next year. I took a chance on the feedback session. It wasn't a large crowd that turned up to talk to this year's and next year's con chairs and their aides, but the group did have a number of worthwhile suggestions to deal with organizational issues, promotion of the con's charity of choice, and questions around photographic consent. When my turn came, I made a point of giving kudos to the organizers for getting Spider & Gibson to come, though I was told those two would have come anyway because they were getting inducted into the CSFFA Hall of Fame at the Aurora Awards — Yeah, I know, I thought, but take the compliments when you get them! I also backed the call for better promotion of the con's charity of choice (Aunt Leah's). And lastly, I went out on a limb and suggested that next year the con committee take a survey of members — or host a session — to sound members out on whether there's a desire to ever put in a Worldcon bid. Much to my surprise, every head in the room turned towards me and I was met with choruses of "NO!" and "We can't do it!" You'd think I'd just suggested we sacrifice a baby to Cthulhu or something. To my mind, it's a no-brainer: Vancouver is a big city with all the amenities, it's the crossroads of the Pacific and easy to get to, there are well-known local authors and lots of great authors from across Canada who could come, and, with all of its grand natural surroundings, it's pretty much the most beautiful city in the world. Not so simple though. Among the older members of the local sf community, there are still whispered tales of some horrific con catastrophe that happened 20-odd years ago that've got them terrified of the notion of trying to host anything big. And, even for members of the younger crowd who are willing to take the chance, there are apparently various Worldcon rules in place that preclude bids unless there's enough big con experience on the bid committees. So no love. And yet... There does seem to be some ambition out there, and an outside chance of perhaps playing a long game over many years where more people can get experience at other cons and maybe land some larger cons locally, then maybe... But that's a ways off, and we can't get ahead of ourselves. When the session was done though, next year's con chair and I had a bit of a chat — a chat that turned into an extended discussion over beer, and, to make a long story short, it looks like I've been pulled into a closer orbit of VCon, and that I'll be volunteering in some capacity with the con next year. Whether that orbit results in a gentle descent onto an enjoyable planet that I'll want to revisit again, or a maddening death spiral into a collapsar of pointless geek politics, I don't know, but for now I'm choosing to focus on the positive and say that it's good to pitch in and help the con be the best it can be. More news as it happens.

Then the Closing Ceremony was upon us, and thankfully it was short and sweet. Glad to see so many people who enjoyed this year's con, including the Guests of Honour. For myself, overall I did enjoy this year's event. There may have been a few bumps on the road, but once things got going, it was pretty good. One thing that was very obvious this year was a change in the programming — a number familiar sessions/topics that were staples of the con year over year were gone from this year's schedule, and while that caused me to do a bit of a double-take when initially looking at the program, ultimately I don't think it's bad to shake things up once in a while. That way, topics/sessions don't get stale, and it gives a chance for new points of discussion or learning to shine. Finding the balance between the old and the new is the trick. The other highlight of the Closing Ceremonies was the announcement of some of the details of next year's con:
VCon's theme in 2015 will be Time Travel (appropriate, because in Back to the Future Part II, Marty [played by BC's own Michael J Fox], Doc, and Jennifer travel forward from 1985 to 2015).
The Author Guest of Honour will be Joe Haldeman.
And the Gaming Guest of Honour (also an author) will be Ed Greenwood.

And then it was over for another year.


As I was leaving, I ran into Robert J Sawyer in the lobby. Sawyer wasn't one of the session panelists this year, but there was word a few days ago that he might be coming by today (he mentioned that he'd just been down at a writers' convention in the US, and decided to swing by Vancouver for the last day of VCon on his way home to Toronto), so I'd packed a couple of anthologies that he'd contributed to (and edited in two cases), just in case we crossed paths. As I've said before, Sawyer's a really nice guy who always makes time to talk with fans and seems to enjoy it. Because all of the anthologies of Canadian sf I'd brought were fairly old, he (like Spider and Gibson the day before) took a bit of a trip down memory lane, and shared a few recollections, including how they'd convinced the family and estate of Robertson Davies to allow one of the great writer's stories to be included in the Crossing the Line collection at a rate they could afford. Always interesting to hear the neat little backstories of how these things come together.

And then that was the end of the con for me. Back home to my wife, the cat, supper, and a PVR'd episode of Doctor Who.

Not a bad way to spend a weekend.