Thursday, July 31, 2008

Interesting Editorial

Check out this interesting editorial from Kate Heartfield of the Canwest News Service, published today in the Vancouver Sun, on what’s drawing people to the host of superhero movies this summer.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A New Feature: Movie Reviews from My Mother-In-Law! - the first installment: "The Dark Knight"

For those of you who tire of my frequently excessively long and pointless movie reviews, I’ve decided to add a much more to-the-point feature (occasionally) to the blog: Movie Reviews from My Mother-In-Law! (you may now mentally insert the theme music from “Dragnet”)

Oh, I’m not abandoning my movie reviews – I’ll keep posting my long-winded cinematic bitchings (most likely late, as usual), but this is something I’ve been mulling over as an extra for a while.

My mother-in-law is a 50-something Chinese living in Hong Kong. Because she took very early retirement years ago, she’s got a lot of time on her hands. One of the things she enjoys is going to the movies. And she goes to a lot of ‘em. While she isn’t a fan of SF movies, she does take in one or two from time to time. Another thing about Mother is that she shoots from the hip. Her thoughts on any film, good or bad, rarely require more than a couple of sentences, and she’ll tell you exactly what she thinks. And once a verdict has been rendered, it’s final. There’s no discussion. It’s safe to say that Mother and I approach movies from different perspectives. I rarely agree with her assessments, but listening to her sledgehammer reviews always gives me a chuckle, if for no other reason than their brutally opinionated bluntness.

The seeds of this feature were first planted years ago when “The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring” was released. Mother was less than enchanted, having this to say: “Ugh. It was bad! Just a bunch of dirty little men running around.” After our initial astonishment, my wife and I had a good laugh. We were flat-out howling years later when we saw Kevin Smith’s “Clerks II” and Randall did his take on LOTR, alleging that all that really happened was walking. At any rate, we knew that Mother’s thoughts on pop culture cinema were an untapped gold mine just waiting for the right opportunity.

And so, it is with great pride that I share with you the first installment of Movie Reviews from My Mother-In-Law! In this review: “The Dark Knight”

“Meh. It was okay. Why did they bother to go to Hong Kong though? There was no need for that.”

Stay tuned for my own take on the latest Batman flick.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Scientist Says a Real Batman Would Have a Pretty Short Career

Just in time for the annual summer orgy of comic-inspired cinematic blockbusters (with fans and the general public lining up for “The Dark Knight”), a University of Victoria professor has determined that if Batman existed in real life, he’d have a pretty short career - about 3 years.

CanWest New Service is running an article today (I caught it in The Vancouver Sun newspaper) featuring Dr. Paul Zehr, a specialist in kinesiology and neuroscience, karate black belt, and lifelong Batman fanboy. Zehr’s publishing a book entitled “Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero”, where he details exactly what would be involved in becoming a non-super-powered vigilante crime fighter, and what the consequences of that would be.

According to Zehr, a real-life Batman would have to be in peak physical condition –part Olympic decathlete, part NFL running back, part ultimate fighter, part boxer. This person would need to have 10-12 years of martial arts and motor skills training, 3-5 years of intense physical conditioning and a few more years of working under a lot of stress.

But Zehr points out the cost of getting into nightly slugfests with badguys and vaulting around on buildings would be high. A crimefighter, no matter how good, is likely to get hit a few times and fall once in a while. Zehr says injuries, like repeated concussions, would start to pile up over time and eventually force Batman to throw in the cowl.

B5 - Do It Right or Not at All

SF Signal had a link to “Babylon 5” creator J. Michael Straczynski’s page the other day, on which JMS says he’s given it a lot of thought and come to the conclusion that he won’t be doing any more B5 projects unless a studio gives him enough money to do it properly – “a full-featured, big-budget, feature film.”

Good for you, JMS.

That had to be a hard place for him to come to in his reflections, but I think it’s the mature and artistically correct conclusion.

I’m a huge fan of B5. It was an incredibly written show with compelling characters. For its time, it was the best damn show on TV and is still eminently watchable. Sure there was the odd weak episode (but what show wouldn’t have some with that kind of on-air lifespan), and season 5 seemed a bit rushed, and yeah “The Legend of the Rangers” was a monstrous steaming pile of shit, but overall, B5 had a vision and it followed it, and it had a story to tell and it told it well and made us care.

But in some ways, it’s a good thing it’s over. It’s because the story of B5 was so good that it’s a good thing it’s over. Some stories don’t have to go on forever. They’re good enough to continue to be good over time without constantly tacking on extra installments here and there every couple of years. A good dish doesn’t need an entire buffet to make it better – sometimes the food on that one plate is great on its own. To keep adding on more and more is to risk losing that original wonderful product amid the clutter; it is to risk making the original beloved thing no longer special. There’s an old saying that an artist has to know when to walk away from the piece of art he’s working on. George Lucas hasn’t figured that out (don’t get me wrong, while I love the original Trilogy, I don’t hate all of the stuff that’s followed it – but the other stuff is just unnecessary and doesn’t stack up), but the afore-mentioned posting proves Straczynski has.

Part of me is hopeful that someday JMS will be offered enough money and be given enough time to create another great installment in the B5 saga. But if that doesn’t happen, that’s okay. We’ve still got the B5 story that has been told, and it’s good enough as-is.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Goodbye, Roland

A sad visit to White Dwarf Books yesterday. The store owners’ trusty Basset Hound, Roland, has died.

It was shaping up to be a good afternoon… it was a sunny Saturday, my wife and I were driving around Vancouver after a nice lunch and we thought we’d drop by the store to check out the latest books, chat with the owners and say hi to Roland. The first part of the trip went as planned – many good books (naturally) and I was happy to find the newest offerings from Nick DiChario and Naomi Novik. But something was missing. No sign of the old dog on his blanket under the display table at the back of the central aisle. Now, Roland being off-site was nothing unusual… sometimes he’d be out for a walk, but the tablecloth had never been blocked the entrance to his lair before. As I settled-up for the books, I asked where he was. The owner got a sad look in her eyes and told us Roland had died last week.

To a regular like me, this was a shock. Roland was part of White Dwarf. He was one of the first things I saw the first time I went there, that old Basset Hound lounging in front of the door in a nice sunny patch. I remember smiling to myself thinking, “Here’s a quiet little SF bookshop with quiet owners and a quiet dog. This is a good place.” If he wasn’t under his table at the back, Roland would be in a sunny spot up front, keeping an eye on the door. Sometimes he’d work up the energy to patrol the aisles and check out the customers, always ready to accept a pat, always hoping you had a cookie you’d share. If you went to an author reading at the store, no matter how many people were crowding the aisles, Roland would always be there, doing the rounds in his slow, steady way, having a good look and sniff at the customers and making sure his store was in good order. He was an important part of the feel of the store - Easy-going. Comfortable. Encouraging you to take your time and wander between the shelves like he did, idly sniffing out that next good book.

Hearing the news, I felt sad. Sure, he wasn’t my dog, but Roland was a good old dog, the kind you always said hi to when you passed him, the kind who you just knew you were going to stop and pat if he happened to be awake when you dropped by. I felt worse when the owner said it was still pretty soon and she couldn’t talk about him much without having to hold back the tears. But she told me that it was alright that I’d asked. She said she liked it when people asked because it let her know that all of us cared about Roland. And we did. So if you’re a regular at White Dwarf, give the owners their space if they need it, but if you’ve got fond memories of Roland, let them know that you’ll miss that old dog too.

Goodbye, Roland.

Quck! To the Fanmobile!!!

You never know what you’re gonna see on the roads these days. Amidst all the duallies, extra-loud non-muffling mufflers, neon lights, bumper stickers, stuffed toys in the back window and paraphernalia hanging from rear-view mirrors, sometimes, just sometimes, an SF fanboy or girl will stand out from the crowd of hipsters with a little bit of geek pride.

About five weeks ago, I saw (barely) just such an example of a fan strutting their stuff. One sunny weekend afternoon as my wife was at the wheel, my distance vision post-op just starting to return, while we were getting on the on-ramp of the Arthur Lang Bridge on the Vancouver Marpole side heading for Richmond, we saw a little black car, a Volkswagen GTI, I think, sporting a BC plate with the license: CTHULU. I guess even the old ones need a fuel-efficient, easy to park, yet sporty little car to get around in. I seem to recall a posting on SF Signal quite a while ago with a photo of a car with a similar Lovecraftian brag-tag in Virginia or someplace in the US.

Not two weeks later, driving through Tsawwassen, we found ourselves behind something much sillier: a little quarter-ton pickup boasting the plate: MC LUVN. Okay, so this one wasn’t an SF-mobile, but I figured I’d give a nod to another type of dedicated fanboy anyway.

What’s the most fannish car you’ve seen on the road?

So long, Carlin

It wasn’t too long ago that George Carlin died, and even though I was offline at the time, I thought it was important to post a quick note here about what a great performer he was.

Performer almost seems too limiting of a term. I think Carlin was really a “stand-up philosopher”. That phrase was coined by Mel Brooks in “The History of the World, Part I”, simply referring to a comedian – the profession of Brooks’ Roman Empire –era character, Comicus. But with Carlin, the philosopher part of the gig went far deeper than the mere fact that he was a stand-up, or that he used performance as the vehicle to deliver his philosophy. As many have already mentioned, and with far better words than I can muster, Carlin’s comedy dug into the heart of our society, both in terms of the how and why behind simple things like turns of phrase and sports, to the bigger issues like politics, religion and ideology. Carlin wasn’t just having tantrums on stage to see if he could get you to smile, he had clearly thought his words through to their ends and made you laugh because he helped to you to see the absurdity behind it all for yourself.

In addition to his stand-up routines, Carlin was also an actor. Some of his roles of interest to SF fans were Rufus, the cool cat who kept the two hard rock-wannabes on track in the Bill & Ted movies (Rufus gets extra cred for choosing a phone booth for the shape of the time vessel in the movies, a respectful nod, of course, to “Doctor Who”) and as slick-talking, cigarette-sucking, Armageddon-courting Cardinal Glick in Kevin Smith’s biblical fantasy “Dogma”.

But getting back to his stand-up, while I enjoyed many of his political rants, the Carlin routines that I’d have to say are my favourites are What Constitutes a Real Sport/How Sports Should Really Be and most especially Hellos & Goodbyes. I love how Carlin catalogued all the ridiculous ways people say goodbye and their implications (asking you to say “hi” to someone else for them is like asking you to carry cargo), and how the routine evolved into “unique” ways to say goodbye that he’d dreamt up so that “people would remember you”, such as “Farewell! May the forces of evil become confused on the way to your home!” At a time when we’ve just lost this master stand-up philosopher, proper ways of saying goodbye become important. In fact, as J. Michael Straczynski has noted, “goodbye”, because it is a single word that carries such heavy emotional freight, is one of the most powerful words we have at our disposal. And yet it is also one of the simplest. I think one of the messages Carlin was trying to convey with his bit on hellos & goodbyes is that too often we stretch for ostentation when the simple and the heartfelt would do. And so, with that, I say goodbye, George.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Battlestar Galactica - What on Earth?

At this point, I’ve been outta the loop for so long that I’m probably the only person who hasn’t weighed-in on the mid-season cliffhanger or whatever you want to call it (Mid-season? They’re not gonna air any more shows until 2009 and this is still mid-season? Let’s call a spade a spade here, folks, this was a season finale, and because we have to wait so damn long, whatever comes in 2009 is a new season as far as I’m concerned!) where Galactica and the fleet finally reach Earth. I’m gonna speak my peace anyway.

Overall it was a good episode. But it felt rushed. Sure they had a lot to squeeze into a single episode, and yeah they key at this point is to keep the pacing quick, but one of the hallmarks of this series’ success has been its willingness to let some moments play out in their own time. It’s had a little something called patience. That’s been a major factor in keeping the level of realism in the plot so high. Not this time though. It was like the writers wanted to throw a fan’s wishlist at us full of the things we wanted to see and the type of hints we love to be teased with so that we’d be sated and wouldn’t realize we’re being cheated at having to wait so long for the show to resume or that there aren’t quite enough episodes to play itself out. I felt we were being hurried through Adama’s mental breakdown. This is a significant event within this character and the plot, and yet it was settled so quickly it was like being at a banquet where the main course arrives, you take two delicious bites and when you turn your head for a second the waiter whisks your plate away and moves on to the dessert course (this happened to me a little over 2 months ago). Adama’s suffering and recovery needed way more time, not only to be believable, but to make the audience really care that it happened. Remember the entire episode of “Babylon 5” dedicated to Sheridan’s interrogation at the hands of Clarke’s inquisitors? That was character and plot development that was given due diligence. The Adama experience? Not so much.

Then there was the odd little statement when Lee told Rosalin how happy the Quorum would be that she was back, as though he was hinting they were unsatisfied with his administration. Really? Seems to me when she went galavanting off aboard the basestar the Quorum was on the verge of a revolution, with all off the members grinding their teeth at Rosalin’s (again, let’s call a spade a spade) growing dictatorial behavior. More time could have better explained their joy at her return.

How about seeing a little more of the imprisoned 6 who’s pregnant with Colonel Tigh’s child? They gave us a quick shot of her at the end, but the character’s been absent for the past little while.

What we needed to see more of was the behind-the-scenes Cylon politics. D’Anna took them to the brink of a shoot-out, risking the loss of the final Cylons, and the others basically went along with it. Sure, 6 fussed a bit, but mostly just stood there and looked worried and the 8’s/Boomers looked like they were focusing like it was another day at the office. These are Cylons that rebelled against their peers and went to the extreme of destroying the resurrection hub, and they’re not going to at least verbally take D’Anna to task for risking a shooting war that they probably can’t win and would possibly cost the lives of the Final 5? Sure, they’re cautious around D’Anna because she knows who the 5 are and they don’t, but that doesn’t imply that they’d give her free reign. You’d think the strong, silent type centurions who are so protective of the hybrid might also object to the prospect of a pissing match that could injure or destroy they’re precious hybrid (never mind their own newly self-determining lives).

That being said, there was a lot I did really enjoy about the episode, especially the riveting scenes with Saul Tigh putting his life on the line for a fleet that now hates him for a traitor, because he’s decided that Colonel Tigh is who he wants to be. I also enjoyed the final act where the fleet jumps to Earth, with beautiful shots of the ships in orbit, a wonderful musical score and then the bitter disappointment of the travelers standing amidst the ruins. It was a good ending to the episode. And ya know something, it could have been a good ending to the series.

But there’s more to come. And as we wait, there are two big questions to wrestle with:

When in Earth’s history did they arrive and what happened to the 13th colony? (okay, that’s really two questions)


Who is the 5th Cylon?

With respect to the first question(s), I’ve been toying with a couple of possibilities...

At first I was highly suspicious and wondered if they’d even landed on Earth at all. Sure it was a blue planet with clouds and a yellow sun. But we didn’t see out great big moon anywhere in the background, and there was no large view through the clouds to identify the shapes of continents below. Could this have been another colony world left behind along the way? But no, the constellations verified that this was the right location. I wondered briefly if this could be a very ancient Mars, as some scientists have suggested it may have been wet and more Earth-like in its deep past. But this Earth-like? And no big volcanoes rearing up to the edge of space? Probably not. Occam’s razor cut in and I figured that with so little time left in the series, the writers would probably not be jerking around with other worlds – they’ve got to keep the pace up and cut to the chase, so it’s obviously Earth. But when?

For a while, I was hopeful that it might be something really cool and off the wall - a time in the distant future where (as some on other boards have said they’d like to see) our civilization has progressed to a post-human state, leaving the old cities and possibly our physical bodies and perhaps even the planet behind in favour of electronic existence in the information space between machines. The cities would, in time, then decay under the force of the elements, leaving only mystery to the new arrivals who have not yet been contacted by the post-humans (who, immersed in their own quantum-computed concerns, may not even care about the arrival of this gaggle of interstellar refugees) and may never be. Or, having evolved, might be able to teach the Colonials and Cylons a little wisdom. But I doubt it. I suspect the writers of this very gritty series would want to give the audience something more tangible.

If it’s the future, that raises the question of whether the 13th colony eventually destroyed itself, whether it was destroyed by its own creations (all of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again), or perhaps even by that which this series has avoided so far like the plague - some kind of alien force. Perhaps they packed up and left for greener pastures for some other reason. I think the most likely of these scenarios would be either self-destruction or destruction by their own creations.

But I think the most likely reason for the discovery of the ruins is this: I suspect the writers are going to make a big nod to the old series idea that these spacemen were the ancestors of one of Earth’s ancient civilizations (real or mythical). My bet is that the fleet has arrived in the ancient past. Bronze Age at the earliest. I’m guessing that we’ll be told that sometime even earlier in prehistory the 13th colony arrived, founded a civilization among the savages and less advanced societies (maybe they’ll go for broke and call it Atlantis), then collapsed as all civilizations eventually do. The Colonials, tired of running, will hunker down and try to rebuild and eventually blend in with the locals.

Then there’s the equally hotly-debated question of the identity of the 5th Cylon. At various times, I’ve subscribed to three theories:

In my more cynical moments, I’ve entertained the idea that it might be Tom Zerick. Consider that all of the other four are strong, outspoken personalities who are, or have been leaders and thus have influenced (and you may want to read “influenced” as “controlled”) human beings (and generally more effectively than the ham-fisted brutal ways of their Cylon brethren). Saul Tigh has served as a Colonel in the Colonial fleet, handling significant responsibilities and authority as second in command (and on two occasions, the command itself) of Galactica. He also led the rebellion against the Cylons on New Caprica and was a chief rabble-rouser among the disgruntled crew after the return to space who believed that only those who had lived under the occupation had known hardship. Galen Tyrrol was chief of the flight deck aboard Galactica, a union leader on New Caprica, a senior leader of the resistance on New Caprica and once again a union organizer during the fleet-wide general strike. Tory was one of President Rosalin’s senior staff members and also served as her aide in the resistance movement on New Caprica (in which she seemed to hold some organizational authority, as evidenced in her coordination of block groups during the evacuation). Anders was a guerilla leader on Caprica and reprised this role with the resistance on New Caprica. For his part, Zerick was a terrorist leader on Saggitaron, the leader of the prisoner uprising aboard the Astral Queen, a presidential candidate and leader of an apparently neo-marxist party, and current Vice President (and two occasions interim President) of the Colonies. Certainly he’s been agitating people on a large scale in one way or another for the entire series. In fact, as the Cylons claim they want to change the relationship with humanity, Zerick has claimed to be trying to redefine humanity’s relationship with itself with proposed neo-marxist reconceptualizations of society, politics and economy. Aside from his terrorist and political activities, nothing else has been mentioned of Zerick’s past, making him a reasonable candidate to be the 5th Cylon.

In my more paranoid moments, I’ve wondered if the audience might be the 5th Cylon. While I didn’t watch “The Sopranos”, I recall friends who were fans discussing that series end, with the screen that went abruptly black, tossing around the theory that this was the audience – the unacknowledged character – finally getting whacked as so many others in the show had been – the audience was finally made part of the experience. Or so the theory went. I’ve chewed on the idea of whether we’ll get a reveal of this nature (though a similar treatment and fate would be doubtful) at the finale of BSG. And yet this one doesn’t feel quite right either.

At this point, I’ve got the notion that the 5th Cylon might be Felix Gaeta. It seems that so far, all of the 4 have lived lives that seem designed to give them a sense of the big human experiences: Tigh is a fleet officer, a drunk, a rebel leader and was a husband in a tempestuous marriage; Anders is the sports hero with the on-again off-again marriage; Tory maneuvers treacherous political waters and flirts with cult leader Baltar; Tyrrol was in love with a traitor and struggled in his marriage. But Gaeta, Gaeta on the other hand, has none of that. Sure he was the senior aide in the Baltar administration and secretly fed information to the resistance, but he certainly wasn’t living on the edge. Gaeta has led a quiet life in a go-nowhere job where he’s liked by most of his colleagues but ultimately taken for granted. And isn’t that a fundamentally human experience too? The others have all struggled with their identity and times (most especially during their Cylon-coming-out). Gaeta voiced this as far back as D’Anna’s documentary on Galactica’s crew back in season 1 (or was that season2?) where he said all he’d ever wanted was to work on a battlestar, and now, here he was, and he didn’t really know what he wanted anymore. All of the 4 have lost something: Tigh his wife, Tyrrol his wife and Boomer before that, Anders his wife, Tory her sense of place and sense of self. Gaeta lost his faith in the system when the election was rigged, he lost his faith in Baltar on New Caprica, he lost his faith (to some degree) in his shipmates after the rescue when he was branded a traitor and nearly executed, and he lost his leg during Starbuck’s mad quest for Earth. During his recovery in hospital, Gaeta sang sad songs endlessly to cope with the pain. Immersing onself in art as a means of self expression and a way to deal with feelings/emotion/pain is so very fundamentally human and something the Cylons would dream of if they wanted to grow in the direction of humanity. Gaeta: adrift in the middle, crippled and emotionally lost. So human. And so, possibly, very, very Cylon.

That’s my two bits, for what little they’re worth. Something we should all bear in mind though is that it has been said a few times by various people associated with BSG that not every question will be answered when the series ends. Not every situation will be resolved. How do we know we won’t be left hanging on these issues?

But for now, it’s fun to guess. So what do you think? What’s the deal with Earth, and who’s the 5th Cylon?

Sunday, July 06, 2008

2008 Aurora Awards link

The 2008 Aurora Awards, Canada’s highest honours for speculative fiction were announced at Keycon in Winnipeg not too long ago (mid May), but, if you were out of commission at the time like I was, you can find the complete list of winners on the Canadian SF Works Database site.

Congratulations to all of the winners!

A Prescription for Geekdom

A trip to the hospital emergency room a few nights ago unexpectedly turned into a geekfest.

It was Canada Day, about mid-evening, (happy belated Canada Day, by the way, to all my fellow Canucks, and a happy belated Independence Day to our neighbours to the south) and after an enjoyable day at the local salmon festival, I was relaxing in the back yard with our cat, Wookie (what, me, an SF fan? Yes, I know, we forgot the second “e”) waiting for the bbq to finish its smokey magic on some bison ribs when another cat wandered into the yard. My beast chased the thing off, but I made the mistake of trying to pick him up afterwards (with the aim of putting him back in the house) while he was still in full territorial Kzin mode. In a second, he went from being my little buddy to a shredding demon wrapped around my hand digging claws and fangs as deep as they would go. Sporting a range of slashes and one sizeable gash in the back of my hand that went right down into the muscle, I asked my wife to take me to the hospital for a couple of stitches, a tetanus shot and some antibiotics (any doctor will tell you cat spit is some seriously bad stuff and you really want that tetanus shot if you haven’t had one in the last decade).

Once there, I explained the whole thing to a nurse. She looked up from her notes and said “So he went from Cringer to The Mighty Battle Cat?” That had the two of us chuckling pretty hard. I responded “You know it’s a good night in the ER when you can drop a ‘He-Man’ reference”. I think she was happy someone actually understood her slick little Saturday morning cartoons allusion. And who can blame here? How many of us have dropped SF-flavoured pop culture references that have fallen flat because the other party hasn’t experienced them? Makes it all the more enjoyable when someone’s on the same playing field as you.

But it didn’t end there… My wife snuck into the examining room while I was waiting and we got on a Monty Python kick (“Spamalot” is in town and we had started discussing whether we can rearrange our schedules to see it). By the time the doctor arrived, we were well into “it’s just a flesh wound” and “what are you going to do, bleed on me?” bits. I can’t say we had him in stitches – those were reserved for my mangled hand – but he was catchin’ the references as they flew and he seemed to appreciate a little levity on a busy holiday night shift. His requests for my wife to pass him a couple of pieces of equipment got us onto a Nurse Piggy and “Muppet Veterinary Hospital” kick that was pretty satisfying.

The strange tie-up to the whole affair came the next day when I was chatting with my mom on the phone, explaining what had happened. She responded by quoting Han Solo! “It’s not wise to upset a Wookiee.” My mom, suburban housewife, the shake-n-bake queen, the woman with little to no interest in SF and who was bemused at times, frustrated at others with her geeky son’s hoard of sci-fi books, turns around and out of the blue drops a Star Wars reference on me. The Force was strong with her that day.

I guess you just never know when or where an SF moment will happen, but that’s what makes them all the more enjoyable.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Seeing Is Believing - bloginhood's Back Online

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

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

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

Now, back to the SF portion of the blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re into the Top Ten now!

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

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

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

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

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

And now for the Top Five:

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

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

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

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

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

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