Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’

Dune … Desert Planet … Arrakis

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

I’ve been intending to write this article for some time but Cracked’s recent article about five dream film projects that turned into nightmares provoked my digital pen. The five films they cite as having been nightmares for their producers are: Battlefield Earth, Dune, Toys, Pirates and Howard the Duck.

One of these things is not like the others.

Dune‘s production was famously troubled culminating with David Lynch refusing to lend his credit to the extended cut. But the movie is quite serviceable. And IMDB seems to agree. Here are the IMDB ratings of these five troubled productions:

Howard the Duck: 4.5
Pirates: 6.1
Toys: 4.9
Dune: 6.6
Battlefield Earth: 2.4

You can see that for all its problems, Dune is considered a decent flick. Certainly not in the same category as Battlefield: Earth.

It’s hard to overstate the difficulty of bringing a book like Dune to either the big or the small screen. Much of the novel occurs in the minds of the characters and the action depends heavily on their intellectual and physiological skills. The Dune universe is so intricate and complex, you could spend an entire movie just setting it up. (In fact, the Duniverse is often so abstract and complex that it’s hard to follow on the written page.)

But for all that, I would argue that we have gotten not one but two quite serviceable adaptations. Neither is perfect. Both have flaws. But they are very watchable and do a fine job of bringing out the essentials of the book.

The Lynch/De Laurentis version was absolutely savaged by critics when it was released and is still regarded by many as a gigantic flop. I really don’t understand why. Granted, I’ve read the book so I understand it (a friend who worked at a theater said they had to give out pamphlets explaining all the terms in the movie). But, if memory serves, I had not read the book when I first saw it and still didn’t understand the hatred.

Visually, the movie is a feast. Some of the FX are a bit dated, but the set design, costumes and navigators are wonderful. Toto’s score is very good, even it gets a bit repetitive. And the casting is top-notch. Jurgen Prochnow is outstanding as Leto Atreides. MacLahan, Annis, Stewart, Jones and Dourif are all great. Even at times when the movies is struggling, the actors pull it through.

The script has some issues but the conflicts are perfectly clear and the themes laid out quite plainly. Even on first seeing it, I found the plot intriguing and the idea of winning conflicts through political, religious and psychic power drew me in. And Dune itself is depicted quite well.

I think one reason for the hatred is that the original cut is a lot less comprehensible than the extended cut which I saw on TV the first time and now own on DVD. The extended cut, which Lynch disowned, has a massively superior opening narrative that explains the background and politics. It has a lot more scenes that flesh out the narrative and give the complex script room to breath. Much as I respect David Lynch as a film-maker, I think the long cut is far better than his (even if the special effects are still not quite finished).

(Of course, in later years, the critics would decide that Lynch’s opaque narratives and befuddling plots were a sign of his genius. I guess that stuff just wasn’t acceptable in the science fiction genre. It would be another thirty years before incomprehensible science-fiction films would be hailed as works of genius.)

I also have a high opinion of the sci-fi channel’s miniseries, which I also own on DVD and have also watched multiple times. With six hours to work with, the miniseries is more coherent and adheres better to the book (and doesn’t have the embarrassing weirding modules). The portrayals of Chani, Irulan and the Harkonnens are far superior. Fremen culture — the keystone of the book — receives a far better treatment. I know a lot of people prefer the monstrous baron of the Lynch movie. But I prefer a Baron (and a Feyd and a Raban) who are smarter and deadlier. The Baron is supposed to be a formidable opponent, a skilled tyrant, not a cackling imbecile. Feyd is supposed to be nearly Paul’s equal in a lot of ways. The Sci-Fi miniseries nailed it, making the Harkonnens dangerous and deadly. It also, in my opinion, does far more with the female characters — an important aspect of Herbert’s writing.

The sci-fi channel version has its own flaws, of course. William Hurt is somnambulant as Leto. Alec Newman is good, but not as good as Maclahan. The effects are conspicuously poorer because of the budget.

Still, you really can’t go wrong with either. I would give both 8/10 (fan rating). I suppose I should hold out hope that one day we’ll get a perfect adaptation. But I really don’t see that happening any time soon. In the meantime, both versions of Dune are worth the time of any science fiction fan.

Star Trek, Prometheus and the Death of Sci-Fi Storytelling

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

Note: this article contains major spoilers for the Star Trek movies and minor spoilers for Prometheus. You might thank me, but just in case you want to discover them for yourselves, read carefully.

Ulysses is the worst book ever written.

There, that got your attention didn’t it? In saying that, I don’t mean that Ulysses is a bad book or even not a great one. What I mean is that it is one of the worst books every written because it is opaque, difficult and complex. It is unapproachable for most readers. This would be fine as far as Ulysses goes but its difficult style has persuaded many writers — and many critics — that being opaque, difficult and complex constitutes genius. So truly awful works like Gravity’s Rainbow are assumed to be brilliant because they are incomprehensible. The logic seems to be that a book that bad must be brilliant.

The Problem of the Mystery Box

In the last few years, I have noticed this aesthetic bleeding into science fiction. There are and more science fiction films and TV programs, including mainstream ones, that make no damn sense at all. Defenders of these movies and TV shows see their incomprehensibility as a sign of their brilliance. But I see them as a sign of lazy writing.

Take Lost, for example. I never watched it, but many people vented frustration because its plot wasn’t understandable. In fact, JJ Abrams has boasted about this with his routine about how wondering what’s in a mystery box is better than finding out what’s in the box. Battlestar Galactica, which I did watch, followed the same pattern. In the end, a shaky arc emerged but there were tons of red herrings and contradictions on the way.

Both series were proclaimed as brilliant. But I think this has less to do with actual brilliance than in mistaking incoherence and lack of planning for brilliance. Contrast them against, say, Babylon 5, which had a lot of mystery and intrigue but, in the end, holds together pretty well. Having watched the series multiple times, I can see how ideas are put in place years in advance, how everything is relevant to the plot and how, ultimately, it all makes sense. The reason it does is because Stracyzinski, unlike creators of Lost and BSG, was not just throwing random mystery events on the screen and then, toward the end, trying desperately to reconcile them. He had written out the plot in advance on 3×5 cards. He knew exactly what was going to happen so that events in Season 1 were directly related to revelations in Season 4.

And that’s the key difference. One series had a complex labyrinthine plot that was in view from the start. The others were put together by writers doing random things and pretending like it made them smart. In BSG, for example, the writers didn’t know who the Final Five Cylons were until Series 3 and practically drew names out of a hat. The Lost writers admitted they didn’t have a series bible and that the early days especially had random bits thrown out that they eventually dropped.

I’ve heard, but can not confirm, that several recent sci-fi series like Fringe, Terra Nova, Under the Dome and Revolution are even worse. In these cases, however, it seems more like plain bad writing than ham-fisted attempts at “mystery”. According to the online criticisms I’ve read, the series’ contradict themselves routinely even when the plot is straight-forward. However, this may be an offshoot of the aesthetic built by Lost, BSG and later seasons of 24 of doing a series with a running arc but no bible or advanced planning.

It’s fine to have a mystery box. It’s even fine to not necessarily reveal what’s in it. What is not OK is for the writers to not have an idea of what’s in the mystery box. Because instead of having plot developments that hint consistently at what’s in there, you end up with a maddening collection of red herrings that lead nowhere. You end up with a muddled plot that contradicts itself and punishes rather than rewards the attentive viewer.

Moving to film, a recent example of this trend toward incoherence is Prometheus. The early scripts made sense. But the version on the screen doesn’t. To cite Franklin Harris again:

Unfortunately, it isn’t just that “Prometheus” is ambiguous, which can be a virtue, but that it doesn’t seem to know where it’s going with any of its ideas. And when it comes down to the basic stuff, it fails miserably.

Can anyone tell me what the plot of Prometheus was? Can anyone say, for certain, that there actually was something in the mystery box?

Character as the Source of Drama

A good plot emerges naturally from the responses of characters to a situation. A bad plot emerges when you decide in advance what you want to do and twist the characters to follow those points. Lost and BSG, despite their narrative problems, at least had reasonable characters. But there is an even lower tier of sci-fi these days that combines an incoherent plot with idiotic or inconsistent characters.

Back to Prometheus. The characters in the movie frequently do nonsensical things because the plot, such as it is, requires them to. A character previously scared of the situation takes off his helmet and approaches a menacing tentacle. Why? So it can attack him. A pilot who could care less for one of the characters effectively commits suicide at her urging. Why? So the ship can be destroyed. Hell, the Star Wars prequels had more consistent characterization than this.

Kurt Vonnegut said that in a good story every character should want something, even if it’s a glass of water. In Prometheus, what do people want? What are their motivations? What drives them? A few of the characters have clear motivations, but the plot turns on characters whose motives are opaque if they exist at all. Say what you want about Abrams’ mystery box, at least he wasn’t putting the characters in there.

It’s fine to make a character morally ambiguous or to make his motivations somewhat opaque. One of the best characters in TV science fiction was Kerr Avon of Blake’s 7. Avon claims to be entirely motivated by self-interest, wanting to be safe, rich and secure. But over the course of the series, his actions often betray his self-proclaimed motives. He risks himself, even sacrifices himself for others. In my opinion, his cynical self-interest is who he wishes he were. He sees the idealism in others and finds it childish and even, in the case of Blake, fanatical. But he can’t quite be that selfish person he wishes he were.

But the thing about Avon is that he remains a compelling character even though his motives are unclear. Unlike the characters in Prometheus, he actually has motives besides advancing the plot. There is something he wants. There are reasons behind the things he does. He is consistent in his actions, even if his actions are not always consistent with his words. He doesn’t abandon the crew to death in one episode and then take on a full squad of Federation troops in the next because the plot says so. If Avon is a mystery box at least there’s something inside it, even if we never find out what it is.

The motivations of Hal 9000 in 2001 are opaque. But there is clearly some reason behind them, even if it is not explained until the next movie (or in the book). If 2001 were made today, Hal would kill some people, spare others, pilot the ship to Mars, send laser beams down the hallway and no explanation for any of it would be given or even possible. Defenders would say, “well, he was a crazy computer”. He was, but even crazy computers act in certain ways. And once we find out what drove Hal mad, his actions make sense.

In a recent post, I talked about conspiracy theories. I noted that the difference between a real conspiracy theory and bogus one is that real conspiracies tend to be pretty straight forward (“let’s kill Hitler”), even if the mechanics of them sometimes become complex. Fake conspiracy theories are like Rube Goldberg engines because they are not built up from ideas (“let’s assassinate JFK”) but from perceived holes in the conventional explanations (“a magic bullet”).

The problem with some of the worst science fiction plots these days is that they tend to devolve into Rube Goldberg engines for the same reason. No one lays out the plot in advance and thinks about how Character X would accomplish Goal Y given situation Z. They decide they want to have events A, B, C and D happen and so wrap the characters around that. They then proclaim that we’re too simple to understand the complex plot. Maybe this is the result of our paranoid times: the X-Files‘ absurd plot was born from Watergate paranoia. It was never intended to make sense but to reflect vague conspiracy theories. But for most science fiction, it makes no damn sense. (And the X-Files has well-developed characters with clear motives even if the overall plot was nonsense.)

Star Trek: Spoiler Warning

What brought this post up — and perhaps it’s because I care about it so much — was the recent Trek films. While I liked them, I was ultimately disappointed because it seemed like they were built less around character than around set pieces and action sequences. This is a big letdown for a series that was always built around character.

For example: in the first movie, one of the most problematic sequences occurs after the destruction of Vulcan. Spock throws Kirk off the ship, Kirk runs into Spoke Prime on Delta Vega, they then run into Scotty and then transwarp beam back to the Enterprise.

The number of coincidences and plot contrivances in that portion are staggering. That’s because the script isn’t trying to make sense or be consistent with anyone’s character; it’s trying to gin up a bogus conflict between Kirk and Spock, get the action beat of the monster on the moon, get a meeting with Spock Prime and drag Scotty in. It is entirely a plot contrivance that emerges from the bizarre decision of Spock to not put Kirk in the brig but to abandon him on a dangerous icy planet (I’m thinking that would be called attempted murder in Star Fleet regs).

Here’s an alternative off the top of my head that would have accomplished the same thing. While the Enterprise is being repaired, Spock works on rescuing survivors. Among the survivors is a young engineer’s mate Montgomery Scott, who is put to work since Enterprise lost so many engineers in the battle. Spock prioritizes restoring subspace communications to warn Star Fleet while Scotty is given the lesser task of repairing the warp engines. Hearing that the Nerada visited Vulcan’s moon, he sends Kirk to investigate. Kirk finds Spock Prime, who advises him that Spock II is compromised and can not properly command the Enterprise. He also advises him to promote promising young Enterprise personnel such as Ensign Chekov. Returning to the Enterprise, Kirk relieves Spock. When Scotty works a miracle and restores the engines, he sets off in pursuit of the Nerada and also to get close enough to Earth to warn them by normal communications.

Yeah, that’s not a great plot either. But it’s built around the characters taking logical actions to deal with the situation. I didn’t start out with “we want to put in a cool CGI monster because it’s been ten minutes since we had an action beat.” But you could still put a CGI monster in there if that’s your kink.

Star Trek has other problems: the complete lack of any planetary defense on Earth or Vulcan, Nero’s failure to warn Romulus of the coming supernova (something their astrophysicists could check out), the movie not being entirely clear on the distance scales of star systems and planets. But, overall, it holds together OK. Most of the characters are reasonably defined. I was hoping that in movie 2, Abrams would iron out those problems.

I was wrong. Star Trek: Into Darkness is worse when it comes to storytelling. In STID, Admiral Marcus decides he wants to militarize the federation, start a war with the Klingons and conquer the Galaxy. This sort of thing has historical precedent. The path that most warmongers have chosen would be to ramp up paranoia and militarism through propaganda and staged Reichstag fire incidents. Once the buildup is ready, they stage a full-blown military incident on the border of Klingon space to start the war. One way this could play out in film: the Enterprise crew, stationed on the border of Klingon space, finds the lies behind the propaganda thanks to their Klingon-speaking communications officer. This could lead to a huge battle between militaristic forces on both sides and those who want peace (sort of like Star Trek VI did). You could even end it on a cliffhanger, if you wanted, with the Enterprise crew and a few peace-wanting allies as renegades as the two empires move toward war, then resolve that in movie 3. And how beautifully ironic it would be if the ultimate upshot of Nero’s interference in Movie 1 was to bring about peace and understanding between humans and Klingons decades sooner.

Something like that might have been a great Trek movie. Indeed, you can see the outlines of it in the actual film. Or they could have gone in a different direction. They could have left the Klingons out, kept Khan in and made it about eugenics. Or we could have had a totally unrelated adventure. Or we could have had Gary Mitchell.

But no. We didn’t get anything like that. Abrams decided we need to have Khan and we needed to kill Pike and we needed to involve the Klingons and we needed to have the Enterprise badly damaged in an attack. And so we get a Rube Goldberg engine: the Admiral revives Khan (and only Khan), puts him to work building new weapons (because there are no geniuses in the 23rd century), has Khan stage a couple of attacks (maybe; it’s not clear if Khan is still following his orders) then retreat to Klingon space. He then wants the Enterprise to fire 72 torpedoes filled with Khan’s people to wipe them all out (because simply firing them into the Sun or turning off their cyro units would be conspicuous?) and then sabotages the Enterprise so it will be destroyed by the Klingons. Then he shows up in the Vengeance to destroy the Enterprise and claim the Klingons did it (there being no black boxes in the 23rd century).

None of those complications were necessary. None of them make any sense. He doesn’t need Khan to build advanced weapons; Star Fleet has massive troves of engineers, many of whom might be sympathetic to his cause. He doesn’t need Khan to blow up buildings AND flee to Klingon space AND have the Enterprise get destroyed by the Klingons AND send the Vengeance to destroy it. Marcus has a transwarp beaming device. He could transport a bomb to Khan’s location, transport Khan’s people into the Sun and then stage a military incident on any ship near Klingon space. His Rube Goldberg plan doesn’t make him look like a chessmaster; it make him look like an idiot. Pick one conspiracy and stick with it.

And what are Khan’s motivations in all this? Is he helping Marcus? If so, why does he try to kill him? If not, why does he flee to Kronos? Because he was hoping that Kirk would show up with the 72 torpedoes with his people in them and drag the Vengeance along for the ride? That’s not Khan being a genius; that’s Khan being a plot device.

In the climax, the Enterprise and the Vengeance are duking it out over Earth. Does no one notice? Does no one say, “Hey, the flagship of the fleet is getting the shit kicked out of it by a mystery ship. Should we, you know, ask them what’s going on?”

There were moments when I thought this movie was going to go to interesting places. One, pointed out by my brother, was when Kirk asks why anyone would blow up Star Fleet’s records. But instead of following on that, we get an attack by Khan in a helicopter (Starfleet security is apparently terrible). Another was when Uhura confronts the Klingons on their planet. In a previous Trek iteration, she would have talked them into helping. It would have been a shining moment for her. But no, she needs to fail so we can get a stupid action sequence of Khan taking out an entire fleet with a cannon.

I liked Abrams’ Trek movies but that was mainly in spite of themselves. When the movies focus on character and intrigue, they are good. But that doesn’t happen nearly often enough (especially in the second movie). For all Abrams’ talk about character building, intrigue, mystery boxes and how you don’t don’t need the best special effects for a good scene, STID is just another bang-up film in a Star Trek template. It has its moments; but not enough. I liked it; I wanted to love it.

All is not lost, of course. We are in an unfortunate era dominated by people who savor “mystery” over coherence and plot contrivances over character. If you look past the glamor franchises, you will see better things: Inception, Gravity, Children of Men, WALL-E, Moon, District 9, Cloud Atlas. Hell, even The Hunger Games and Avatar are better than some of the recent crap. Her looks intriguing.

So there is hope. You just have to look past the shadowy remnant calling itself Star Trek.

The Force Will Be With Disney

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

So, I was busy yesterday when Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere lit up like a Christmas tree over the news that George Lucas had sold Lucasfilm to Disney. Reaction has been strong, if mixed. Someone on FB said the news was dominated by two events: a huge disaster and Hurricane Sandy.

I’m not seeing it that way.

Regardless of what one thinks about the Disney Empire, they provide great entertainment. Their Pixar division has produced some of the finest movies of the last decade (WALL-E, The Incredibles, etc.) Miramax has pumped out numerous Oscar nominees. Their main division has produced solid entertainment in Narnia (first film at least), Pirates of the Caribbean (first film at least) and Tangled. They’ve turned Marvel into a relentless film mill which has pumped out films that are decent (Thor), good (Iron Man) and great (The Avengers). And for all the criticism John Carter got, it was a not a bad film by any means.

Really, the whole anti-Disney thing kind of puzzles me. Yes, they are relentless in protecting their copyright and making a ton of money with endless merchandising. I have a daughter who is into princesses, so my wallet is very familiar with them. But … is that really such an evil thing? America isn’t a hippy commune.

Sleeping on it, I’m more convinced that this could be a good thing. “Could” being the operative word. And the reason I think this could be a good thing is that the franchise is now out of Lucas’ hands.

I don’t mean to slam Lucas. He’s a visual genius who revolutionized film-making. I have a higher opinion of the prequel trilogy than most. And the expanded universe of Star Wars has been excellent, especially from their video game division, which has produced engrossing, well-made, entertaining games that advance the story (and, notably, are not ridiculous resource hogs).

But I also think Lucas’ success produced some problems that manifested in the prequel trilogy. As I argued before, there were great movies buried within those pretty good movies. The thing that made them almost great movies was Lucas’ vision. But the thing that kept them from being great movies was Lucas himself. His flaws — a tin ear for dialogue, a tendency to overcomplicate plots, a push for the cute, an inability to direct actors — were on display and I think his success and his stature prevented anyone from gainsaying him, from saying, “George, come on … let’s cast Annakin as a teenager, not a kid.” And the expanded universe of video games and books actually hurt the films because much of plot — Annakin’s fall from grace, in particular — had taken place off screen.

Disney now has the ability to get anyone they want to work on Stars Wars VII. There are directors out there — great directors — who would pay them for the privilege. They can, if they want, get Peter Jackson to write and direct, Kevin Smith to script doctor and the entire cast of Harry Potter to act. And by keeping Lucas on as a “creative consultant”, they can be sure that he brings a bit of vision to the project. If Disney works this right — finds a great crew and gives them the freedom to create a great film — we could be dazzled.

Ah, but that’s the rub … if. I could just as easily see the studio thinking they have to get something out that’s generic and endlessly marketable to start paying off their $4 billion investment.

We’ll see. I am often too optimistic about these things. But the Star Wars universe is very rich and deep. It’s still possible for great film-makers to make great films in it. Hopefully they now have a chance. That chance did not exist 24 hours ago.

Wednesday Linkorama

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012
  • Distracted parenting is a problem, obviously. But, despite the horrible tragedies described, it’s not clear how big a problem it is. Mobile devices free parents up to do more things with kids and to supervise them more. I will let on, however, that they can occupy your attention. I was at a park when a kid broke his arm and didn’t notice immediately because of my phone. Don’t know if it would have been different with my kid.
  • I’m really looking forward to reading Nate Silver’s book.
  • Statues at the bottom of the sea. Amazing. And heart-breaking, when you think of what they represent.
  • I think this author has a good point that the Star Wars universe is likely illiterate. However, I think it’s less a conscious “where is modernism driving us” thing than a reflection of Star Wars being built on medieval narratives and cliches.
  • An interesting take on one of the more panned documentaries of the year. It does seem that people have a problem accepting that being anti-Big Education is not the same as being anti-education. Or even anti-teacher.
  • This story made my day. This is religion at its finest.
  • Whatever the political fallout of Benghazi, the story of the attack is an amazing one.
  • This is NOT the way to fight global warming. And they say all the greed and abuse is on the skeptic side.
  • Doctor Who Challenge: Days 26-30

    Thursday, August 30th, 2012

    Just to knock this out with the last five days so I can stop thinking about it:

    Day 26: Favorite Doctor gadget

    I’m not a big fan of the Whatever Device. I was somewhat fond of Bessie in the old series. But nothing really can compete with the sonic, can it?

    Day 27: Favorite interview

    It’s not quite an interview, but the extra part of Martha’s instructions from Human Nature, where David Tennant says some amazingly silly things, is a great.

    Day 28: Favorite gif

    Uh, no. I hate animated gifs.

    Day 29: Favorite guest star

    Most of the guest stars were already covered in villains and companions and so on. But I would like to highlight two little cameos that brought a grin: John Cleese in City of Death and Bill Nighy in Vincent and the Doctor.

    Day 30: When you became a Doctor Who fan

    It was the mid-80′s. My friend Adam (name changed to protect the innocent) was very into Doctor Who. I had watched a couple of episodes — Pyramids of Mars and Four to Doomsday. But I wasn’t really into it.

    Then I watched an episode with him called Mawdryn Undead. Although I have seen it many times since, I can still remember the mindset of watching it off and on, becoming intrigued but being confused about what was going on. I an still remember it as some half-understood mix of images. While the effects were notoriously lousy, the ideas, the writing the acting drew me in.

    I was intrigued enough that I decided to watch Terminus on my own the next week. And, after that, I was hooked. I realize that Terminus is no one’s idea of a great episode. But I found it intriguing. And when it was followed by Davison’s great last season and then Pertwee’s run, I became an addict.

    What followed was a wonderful time as I discovered the series. There was so much to look forward to – 20+ seasons! I can still remember eagerly anticipating each week’s episode, breaking out the newspaper and seeing what was on.

    The American experience of Doctor Who is very different from the British one, especially before the new series became popular. Doctor Who was … well, not exactly obscure. Most people had seen an episode on PBS. But it was so weird for someone to be a fan of the show. Being a Trekkie was bad enough, but a Whovian? That was a real freak show.

    (Hell, my dad use to get on me about it. Funny story: frustrated with my lack of a dating life, he used to say, “What, are you going to marry Doctor Shmoo? Ironically, 30 years later, I did. My wife is named Sue, some friends call her Shmoo and she has a Ph.D. in biochemistry. And Doctor Who is probably the only TV show we watch these days.

    My mother, however, embracing anything that got me out of the house, sneaked into a fan club meeting and found someone who knitted Tom Baker scarves. It was the most shocking birthday present I ever got.)

    Sad to say, I did not have a lot of friends in high school. But Adam, before we had a falling out, introduced me to Terminus Tardis, a Doctor Who fan club (Terminus is one of Atlanta’s three previous names). I would go about once a month to watch old episodes or the newest episodes, neither of which were being shown on TV. But I would also socialize. I met a couple of people from my high school who were into it (I was frantically reading the novelizations and developed a reputation — and not a good one — for always having a Doctor Who book on me). I would go down to the PBS station to answer phones when they were raising money during Doctor Who. And … well, that was my social life, such as it was.

    Without Doctor Who, I might have been even lonelier in high school. But I don’t look back on that time with any shame. When I watch old episodes, it takes me back to those old days of adjusting my rabbit ears to pick up a clear signal and eagerly discussing the latest discovery with my few friends. And now that Doctor who is cool, I can legitimately say I was into Doctor Who before it was cool (way, way, waaaay before it was cool). And I’m sure that scarf makes me look like some kind of … well, maybe not a hipster … but something not entirely uncool.

    Anyway, those paragraphs above tell you a lot about why I love the show so much and I would devoted several thousand words to a silly tumblr exercise. Now it’s out of my head and into yours. Back to our regularly scheduled program.

    Doctor Who Challenge: Days 16-19

    Thursday, August 30th, 2012

    Is the blog haunted? I could swear that right before vacation, I posted Days 16-19, wrote but held Day 20. Then I came back and an empty Day 20 was posted, so I had to fix it. Now I can’t find 16-19. So this is all out of order and I’m just going to finish this puppy and crawl into a hole before I embarrass myself further.

    I know I wrote this because I remember how hard it was to come up with the choices.

    Day 16: Favorite Actor

    I’ve already stated my favorite doctors and companions, so I’ll exclude them and just focus on guest stars.

    For the old series, I always liked Michael Sheard, who played numerous roles and was simply great as the doomed Lawrence Scarman in Pyramids of Mars. For the new series, I’ll go with Michael Gambon. The character of Kazran could have been terrible; Gambon made it exceptional. Honorable mention to Julian Bleach as Davros and Bill Nighy’s cameo in Vincent and the Doctor.

    Day 17: Least Favorite Actor

    When you base a series in Britain, you’re hard-pressed to get bad actors. But Graham Crowden in Horns of Nimon was simply awful (although that may have been the horrid script). For the new series, I didn’t like Peter Kay in Love and Monsters but that’s probably because I hate Love and Monsters so much. It’s awfulness was not really his fault.

    Day 18: Favorite Actress

    For the old series, Beatrix Lehmann was simply a delight as Professor Rumford in Stones of Blood, one of the few episodes of the old series that passed the Bechdel Test. For the new series, I’ll take Carey Mulligan, who I still wish would return as Sally Sparrow.

    Day 19: Least Favorite Actress

    No one could eclipse Bonnie Langford for the old series. For the new series, I never cared for the Lady Cassandra character and Zoe Wanamaker’s performance.

    Doctor Who: Days 21-25

    Friday, August 17th, 2012

    Did Day 20, might as well bring this puppy home.

    Day 21: Favorite couple

    In the old series, it was Ian and Barbara. I always hoped they ended up getting married after they left. Their interaction in The Romans as wonderful. For the new series, who else could it be but Amy and Rory, the first genuine married couple in the series?

    Day 22 Favorite Friendship

    This seems to be restating the favorite companion question. I’ll stick with Sarah Jane (old series) and Donna (new).

    Day 23: Favorite spinoff

    The only one I’ve really watched is Torchwood, which could be uneven. Sometimes is was really good and sometimes it was awful. Children of Earth was simply brilliant, one of the most brutal mini-series in sci-fi history.

    Day 24: Favorite quote

    From the old series: “The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. Instead of altering their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views…which can be very uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.” — The Doctor, Face of Evil

    From the new series?: “The universe is big, its vast and complicated, and ridiculous. And sometimes, very rarely, impossible things just happen and we call them miracles. And that’s the theory. Nine hundred years, never seen one yet, but this would do me.” — The Doctor, The Pandorica Opens (and really, just pick a random page on a Moffat script and we’re there).

    Day 25: Favorite Doctor catchphrase

    I hate catch phrases. “Exterminate!” is the only one that ever really sent chills up my spine.

    Doctor Who Challenge: Day 20

    Friday, August 17th, 2012

    Day 20: Favorite Writer

    OK. Didn’t realize this got published instead of sitting in my draft queue. I don’t know what’s more awkward: that it got published or that no one noticed…

    Anyway, my favorite writer of the old series was Robert Holmes. Holmes had a unique way of getting the science of Doctor Who mind-bogglingly wrong. There would be sciency words sprayed around, but the execution was almost childlike (in a memorable moment, the Doctor uses a diamond to convert a lighthouse into a spaceship-destroying laser). But … Holmes has such a great feel for character, dialogue and plot that it didn’t matter. Episodes like Ark in Space and Pyramids of Mars and Caves of Androzani were among the most brilliant of the entire 26-year run.

    Russell T. Davis was the Robert Holmes for the new show. He had an amazing feel for character. But his science was laughably bad. He was great. But in the end, he is eclipsed by Stephen Moffat, who is rapidly becoming the best thing to ever happen to Doctor Who. Not only is his dialogue memorable, his characters true and his plots intricate, he science is gold. It’s not accurate, per se, but it is plausible. The ideas he throws out aren’t ridiculous and he is very good at not over-explaining things. There are occasional “huh?” moments like The Big Bang. But overall, he keeps it together. And the juggling act he did through seasons five and six was remarkable.

    Most of the best episodes of Doctor Who were written by Moffat — for either series.

    Doctor Who Challenge: Days 9-15

    Sunday, August 5th, 2012

    Some more from the Doctor Who challenge. We’re getting further into the weeds as the questions go on. In the meantime, I found this on Cracked’s website, giving an overview of the Doctors that’s pretty amusing and accurate.

    Day 9: Favorite Master

    Oh, it’s Delgado, no question. Jacobi was good and Ainley coulda been. But Delgado was simply awesome. I know a lot of people loved Simm, but I wasn’t overwhelmed. As James Berardinelli said to me in an e-mail: “The Master isn’t merely evil. He’s diabolical. In five minutes, Jacobi captured something that Simm couldn’t “get” in two episodes.”

    Day 10: Saddest Episode

    Probably Journey’s End for the new series, which had Donna’s departure. For the old series, I’ll go with the last episode of The Green Death, which tugged hard on the heart strings (Katy Manning breaks down on the DVD commentary). It wasn’t just the end of Jo’s tenure; it was the end of the UNIT era and the beginning of the end for Pertwee.

    Day 11: Funniest Episode

    For the new series, probably Partners in Crime which really showed off Catherine Tate’s talent for humor. For the old series, probably City of Death, which was written by Douglas Adams. The Romans, however, would be a close second. It features one of the Doctor’s boldest and funniest jokes when he plays music for Nero.

    Day 12: Episode that scared you most

    Oh, Blink, definitely Blink. A Doctor Who episode had never really had me gripping the sofa arm quite like that one. For the old series, it’s hard to tell. I’ll just throw out Ark in Space, since the idea of being slowly transformed into an insect is scary.

    Day 13: Favorite theme song

    The current arrangement is pretty fun.

    Day 14: Character you like that almost everyone else hates

    From the old series, I liked the Sixth Doctor. And I hate to admit it, but I actually kind of liked K-9. I’m not sure who people find annoying in the new series. Jackie, maybe?

    Day 15: Most annoying character

    Probably Adric in the old series. For the new series it was Adam. The last two are bad question for me since I usually tune out annoying characters unless they are around for more than an episode. I can’t really get worked about the third Dalek on the left being an annoying twerp.

    The Doctor Who Challenge: Days 4-7

    Friday, August 3rd, 2012

    Some more Doctor Who blogging. I promise I’ll be mercifully short.

    Day 4: Favorite Villain

    There were so many good ones from both the new and the old series: the Master, of course. The Valeyard, Tobias Vaughn, Davros, Fenric. And if we fold in monsters, you’ve got the Daleks, the Vashta Nerada, the Cybermen and the Weeping Angels. I would say that the old series was a little better at villains, per se, since it had more time for them to develop into full characters.

    But I’ll go with something off the wall here: Sutekh. Sutekh was one of the few villains who I found frightening. The idea that a being so powerful could be unleashed and cause such immediate and awesome destruction was deeply disturbing. Sutekh was incredibly intelligent, vicious and brutal, threatening to torture the Doctor for centuries for destroying his ship. He’s the one villain that, had he gotten free, would have been unstoppable. Gabriel Woolf was so effective of the voice of evil that they brought him back to voice the Beast in the new series.

    With the new series, I’ll go with Davros. But the Weeping Angels taken a close second.

    Day 5: Favorite Aliens

    I’d go with the Silurians but they’re not really aliens, are they? And you could go with the Doctor, but that’s not really the point. And I’m guessing this is different from the villains/monsters I listed above. This is supposed to be something friendly?

    So if we’re going with friendly extraterrestrials who are not the Doctor, I’ll go with the Draconians. They only made one appearance but I found them fascinating. If we confine ourselves to the new series, I’ll go with the Ood.

    Day 6: Favorite Special Episode

    This mainly applies to the new series — The Five Doctors was the only special in the old one. I’m going to go with Christmas Carol which I found to be far less over-the-top than Russel T. Davies’ last few overwrought episodes. It could be watched by someone only vaguely familiar with Who, it played wonderfully on the original story and featured a great performance from Michael Gambon.

    Day 7: Favorite Season

    I’m going to go with Season 13 from the old series. It featured the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane, the best combination in Who history. And the episodes: Terror of the Zygons, Planet of Evil, Pyramids of Mars, The Android Invasion, Brain of Morbius, The Seeds of Doom were excellent. This was back when Doctor Who was determined to scare the crap out of its viewers.

    For the new series, I’d probably go with Season 6. You know it’s a good season when, arguably, the two best episodes weren’t written by Moffat.

    Honorably mentions go to classic Seasons 8 (The Master and UNIT at their best), Season 14, Season 15 (which has some bad episodes but was special to me), Season 21 (except for The Twin Dilemma), Trial of Timelord and Season 25.

    Day 8: Least Favorite Season.

    For the old series? Season 24 was pretty bad apart from Dragonfire. For the new series, the four specials that ended Tennant’s tenure were pretty poor, especially the deeply unapproachable End of Time. Season 1 of the new series was probably the worst simply because the show was still finding itself and was a bit uneven. But really, there haven’t been too many bad series in Doctor Who’s history.

    The Doctor Who Challenge: Days 1-3

    Monday, July 30th, 2012

    Apparently, there’s a tumblr going around for a 30 day Doctor Who challenge, a bit of summer fun to bridge the way-too-long gap between Series 6 and 7. There seems to have been no starting date. Everyone is proceeding at various paces as the meme goes viral.

    You know me: I can’t resist a list and especially not a list on my favorite subject. So I’ll bite. I’ll concatenate a few just so the blog doesn’t get swamped with Doctor Who posts. This post will be longer than most because I had already written and shelved a long pointless post on my favorite Doctors.

    (more…)

    John Carter

    Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

    Mild Spoiler Warnings:

    An airplane is the wrong place to watch John Carter. Or … maybe it’s the right place. You can’t get overwhelmed by special effects watching a tiny screen twenty feet away from you. Story, acting and dialogue become more important; action less. And so while this review is necessarily of a flawed viewing experience, I think I will probably stand by it after I’ve seen Carter on my big TV.

    I’m a big fan of Burroughs’ martian tales. Even thought they are outdated, they are imaginative, thrilling and captivating. Captain John Carter of Virginia and Princess Dejah Thoris of Helium are two of the great characters in science fiction and Barsoom is one of the most fully realized science fiction worlds ever devised. Barsoom doesn’t just have places, people and monsters. It has culture, history and religion; the things that make a world real. I read the books in college and loved them and I keep meaning to return to Barsoom again. For a long time, I wished John Carter’s cave were real and I could go there. So my expectations were high, if tempered by the cynicism of a 40-year-old.

    I can report that while I was disappointed, I was not appalled. The movie is not bad; it is quite watchable. It has some good moments and retains a bit of a sense of wonder. However, I can’t really see myself recommending it to someone other than … me. I have an ability to watch some films and filter out the bad stuff and enjoy the good stuff. This is why I like the Star Wars prequels better than most people in my age group: I enjoy the good parts and ignore the bad ones. I can’t do that with every film, only with films that hit a particular flawed nexus.

    But I can’t recommend to anyone else. I think that those unfamiliar with the Burroughs cannon will find themselves a bit lost and bored, not really caring too deeply about it. And I think most of those familiar with the Burroughs cannon will find themselves outraged. This is Borroughs filtered through the action film genre: over-expositioned, filled with too many action scenes, lacking the emotional thread of the books.

    I don’t regret watching it. There was stuff that irritated me but enough to like that I’m not regretting the investment of two hours of my time . Granted … it was two hours on a plane; not exactly premium time. But I could find giving those two hours again at some point, maybe as background while I worked.

    One big question is how Taylor Kitsch fares in the lead role. Kitsch is actually not bad. He’s not Hayden Christianson out there. But … he’s not that good either. Someone with less looks and more acting chops would have been better. Kitsch’s shortcomings stand out, however, because the rest of the cast is very good. Dominic West does some wonderful scenery chewing (and would have been a better choice in the lead); Willem Dafoe is excellent as Tars Tarkas; James Purefoy has a wonderful two lines as Kantos Kan. But the real gem is Lynn Collins, who simply shines as Dejah Thoris (surprise: I thought she must be English but looked her up and she’s American). She brings intelligence, conviction and beauty to the role, overcoming the writer’s “enhancements” of the character. I actually believed her as the Princess of Mars. Kitsch I could take or leave. But a sequel without Collins would not be worth it.

    The biggest problem with the film is that it simply does too much. It’s like the makers decided that A Princess of Mars didn’t have enough material; they had to pull in entire Burroughs mythology and throw in some pointless action scenes. There are simply too many elements, too many working parts. We are not given time to marvel and awe at the beauty and grandeur of Barsoom. We simply stand there while more and more stuff is thrown at us: a stupid and unnecessary expansion of Carter’s adventures out West; an unnecessary addition to his backstory; the river Is; the Therns; some of the deeper politics — these are all things that were not really necessary and, frankly, smack of fanboyism. Lord of the Rings solved the problem of taking a sprawling story and trimming it down, even if it meant losing some of the good parts (Bombadil, the Barrow-Wights, the Scouring of the Shire). John Carter has the opposite problem — taking a lean story and going too deep. This makes for confusion. And the movie tries to cover up its sins with action sequences.

    Example: introducing and ramping up the role of the Therns created a good enemy and a clever way to end the movie (and Mark Strong is solid in the role of the chief Thern). But it also was part of the general overwhelming confusion. Holding them back for a future movie; hinting at their existence; that might have worked better. Imagine John Carter returning to Earth, then realizing that someone was using that transportation mechanism and devising a method of smoking them out. That would have ended the movie on an intriguing note and set up the sequel. (That said, the entirely original ending of the movie is one of the best parts and left me smiling).

    Really, and I hate to say this, almost all of the movie’s problems would go away if they had just followed the damned book. I don’t say this is a Burroughs purist or any other kind of purist. I haven’t objected to changes made to Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or anything else because I understand that film is a different medium and what works on the page does not necessarily work on the big screen. I get that.

    But there’s something the movie makers forgot: Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the books the way he did for a reason. By sticking with Carter’s point of view, the elements of Martian society are introduced more gradually, with new layers of complexity coming with each subsequent book. We are along for the ride, sharing John’s sense of wonder and excitement as he discovers Barsoom. Sticking with that structure would have made for a much more even and far less confusing film.

    It also would have taken away the movie’s most glaring problems: the over-reliance on action beats to keep the audience interested; the over-exposition; an arena sequence that is basically ripped straight out of Attack of the Clones. People have a tendency to dismiss Burroughs writing skill since he wrote pulpy stuff. That’s garbage. The man’s books are still read a century after they were written. That’s not because of the cover art. Burroughs could fucking write.

    (Aside: I keep referring to action beats. This comes from a Kevin Smith monologue about trying to get a Superman movie made. He recounts a meeting with a Hollywood exec who claimed movies need an action beat every ten minutes to keep the audience interested. If you watch enough movies, you’ll see his philosophy is real. I hate the action beat philosophy and it’s the biggest problem with John Carter. Good films do not need action beats to keep us interested; they build toward action scenes. They don’t rely on them as periodic electroshocks to wake an audience put to sleep by ham-fisted writing.)

    In the end, the ultimate test of any movie is “will I buy it on blu-ray?” “Will I spend my hard-earned money so that I can watch this over and over again?” And with John Carter, the answer is, despite my complaints, “probably”. The movie is far from perfect, not even that good. However, it’s not unwatchable and it has its moments. And, frankly, it is likely to be the only John Carter movie worth watching for the next couple of decades.

    I will watch it again. I’ll watch it because I’ve been in love with Dejah Thoris for twenty years. I’ll watch it because I like seeing Tars Tarkas on the screen. I’ll watch it because I love Barsoom. And any chance to see it, even a flawed one, is a chance I have to take advantage of.

    Your mileage may vary and almost certainly does.

    One final note: it an absolute travesty that this film was a flop. It is not bad. It’s quite watchable. It does have a few really good moments. And most of the people I’ve spoken to found it passable. It’s certainly better and more imaginative that the Transformers, Spiderman or Pirates sequels that rake in billions. It flopped because it was badly marketed: the makers thought everyone knew who John Carter was; they didn’t hype it relentlessly — a stunning surprise for Disney; and they put a review embargo on it (always a bad sign). I read several people commenting that they wouldn’t see it because it looked like a cheap Star Wars knockoff.

    Disney thought it was going to be a flop, treating it like one and then acted all stunned with their self-fulfilling prophecy fulfilled itself. And their lack of vision cost the film the success that could have set up a sequel: a sequel that could have fixed many of the errors, avoided the mis-steps and given us the John Carter movie we have been waiting a hundred years for.

    Oh, well. I’ll just have to cling to my hope that someone will throw a hundred million dollars at Joe Stracyzynski so he can get cracking on the Lensman movies.

    IMDB rating: 7/10. But that’s on a fanboy filtering curve. For most people, it would be 6/10. And for many Burroughs fans, it would be lower.

    Update: One other note. John Carter’s Earth-evolved physique gives him superior abilities in Mars’ lower gravity, both in the books and the film. But this ability is exaggerated to a big and bothersome degree in the film. That’s another thing that could have been fixed in a sequel.

    Ray

    Thursday, June 7th, 2012

    I remember an interview a long time ago with Ray Bradbury. He told a story — and I may be remembering this badly — of seeing a show at a carnival. The showman pointed at him and said, “Live Forever!” He almost did. He died yesterday at 91. And how apropos it happened after a transit of Venus.

    There has been a lot said about the man — his amazing combination of optimism and pessimism about the future; his ability to get to our deepest fears and our highest hopes, often at the same time. He could write stories that evoked amazing pathos — my favorite being All Summer in a Day, still one of the most heart-breaking stories I’ve read. He could terrify — I used to have nightmares about Something Wicked This Way Comes. He could infuse us with he wonder of technology and space travel — when I saw Columbia launch on cold morning in Florida, my first thought was, “Rocket Summer”.

    But, to me, the one thing that Bradbury was best at was evoking that feeling of youth — of recalling those endless summer days when you could run forever and feel the pure magic of being alive. The sense of child-like wonder in his writings was powerful and often dragged me back in time to when each day was a month and every year a century. He often did this to contrast against what he feared would be a sterile future. A perfect example is from Time in Thy Flight, when a little girl, Janet, is brought from the future to see the “frightening” past. In her words:

    “I want to see it all again. I’ve missed the motives somewhere. I want to make that run across town again in the early morning. The cold air on my face — the sidewalk under my feet — the circus train coming in.”

    And later, before she jumps the time ship to stay in the past:

    “No, I just want to be inside. I want to stay here, I want to see it all and be here and never be anywhere else, I want firecrackers and pumpkins and circuses, I want Christmases and Valentines and Fourths, like we’ve seen.”

    (And, in typical Bradbury fashion, one little boy is caught by the teacher and heart-breakingly unable to join his two companions in the past.)

    Hopefully, Ray is somewhere where it always fall and spring and summer, where it is Christmas and Valentines and the Fourth. And is “inside the big house, in the candlelight, [where] someone is pouring cold apple cider all around, to everyone, no matter who they are.”

    Firefly and Serenity

    Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

    I should have a feature-length post on this, but for the moment, I’ll like to Agony Booth’s nice video review of Serenity. The thing is, I watched Serenity as someone who had not seen a single second of Firefly. I liked it a lot, enough to make me buy the series and watch it. But I do agree with him: you did have that feeling of being at a great party where you didn’t know anyone. Once I’d watched the series, the movie was even better.