Wednesday, October 30, 2013

#622. Write...Edit...Publish: Haunting

Denise Covey's Write...Edit...Publish is rolling around again, which means it's story time!  This month's is celebrating Halloween, which is tomorrow (just in case you are a ghost). Without further adieu, here's my story, which clocks in at 1,194 words:

The Other Side

For convenience sake, we will identify our subject today as Le Novo.  He once had a different name, but that was when he was still among the living, as the living.  Then he died and came into the rest of it. 
We're not concerned with Le Novo's life before his death, because as far as this story is concerned Le Novo was only concerned about his life after death.  It would be so much simpler if this weren't the case. 
My name is Pilot, which is to say that it is my name now, much as Le Novo's name is Le Novo now rather than before. 
 It's the name I have come to adopt.  Names don't mean as much here as they did on the other side.  You'll get used to it.
It was my task, as you might imagine, to shepherd the young Le Novo, as it were, into our way of things.  I'm afraid I made a mess of things, but in my defense my subject made it extremely difficult.  It happens, more than you'd think. 
The problem Le Novo had was that it was not as easy for him as it is for others to let go of his life before death.  Life on that side is spent entirely consumed with the fear of life on this side.  Sometimes this leads to extreme trauma in the transition.  It's not a matter of letting go, because death will do that to you, but of the few times when the transition of memory doesn't work as well as it should. 
Le Novo was still very much attached to his life before death.  He was attached to his family most of all, and all the things he'd known so well in life, the mundane things like where he used to enjoy sitting, or the bed he found so comfortable. 
Sometimes when this happens, this flaw in the transition of memory, it's because of the way death occurred, an imprint violently committed to the mind regardless of which side the individual is on. 
As far as I was ever able to tell, Le Novo died peacefully in every sense. 
And yet he could not tear himself away from his desire for the other side.  Some people, even the ones who fear this one so fiercely, live their lives on the other side with as intense a desire for this one as Le Novo had for that one. 
I'm telling you all this because of course Le Novo found the loophole back there.  He went back to the other side.
This is always a bad idea.  It's the basic truth of our existence.  It's our one rule, you might say.  You break it at your peril, not because of any punishment that will be inflicted upon you, but because of what it will do to you, without fail.  It's the dire inevitability, like death is on the other side. 
But try as I might to convince Le Novo of this, he would not listen.  What else could I do, then, but grant him his wish? 
It will never be the same, going back.  Only once every third millennium does someone experience an authentic resurrection.  Anything else is exactly what I'm about to tell you about Le Novo now. 
He went straight for his family.  Because he was intangible, this was as fruitless as you might expect.  You can see the other side from this one just fine.  Most of the time this is good enough.  You watch life the way they watch television.  It's the same thing.  For the desperate, for those like Le Novo, they believe they can have something more.  And yet it's impossible. 
Le Novo spents months trying to convince himself otherwise.  He learned to manipulate material objects again.  Never organic.  That's the loss from the event of death.  Once sundered from the body you lose all contact with it, all its most treasured sensations.  When a cup or a set of keys or some homework turned out to be somewhere unexpected, that was le Novo's doing. 
His despair grew.  How couldn't it?  He became frutrated.  The family moved away.  He couldn't follow.  He remained anchored to the house.  It's familiarity that makes the whole thing possible.  You can't form new attachments, from this side to that, even if you go back.  That's no longer the point of your existence.  There are greater wonders. 
Years, decades passed.  Le Novo stayed in the house.  He could no longer bring himself to move on.  He had to believe his family would return.  It only felt right.  They wouldn't abandon him like that, his memory.  How could they?  Didn't they know what he'd done for them? 
They would be back.  He wouldn't leave.  He couldn't. 
Except they never did.  He wife died.  His children died.  His grandchildren died.  None ever came back.  And yet Le Novo never left the house.  How could he? 
There were new occupants, new families.  None of them familiar.  They all caused Le Novo considerable agitation, and he was not shy to show it. 
He couldn't communicate with any of them.  He couldn't communicate with his own family.  Why should he bother now? 
One day, however, a medium was brought to him, someone who could bridge the gap between sides, at least for a little while.  Callard Bowser was the last hope of the current occupants.  They had consulted plenty of charlatans.  Bowser was real.  She told them Le Novo's real name, when he'd lived there, how long he'd been since he returned. 
She helped them talk together.  or rather, she talked to Le Novo and then relayed what she heard. 
Le Novo explained his heartbreak.  He told Bowser how he appreciated the brief moments where he found something familiar.  He explained how he understood that it wasn't the new occupants' fault.  But he couldn't help himself.  That was no longer under his control. 
And it wasn't under Callard Bowser's, either. 
This was about the point where I thought it was stepping in again.  There are too many like Le Novo, too many who fall into this trap.  Some of them are more unreasonable about it than he was.  I talked him out of this loop.  I had to occupy a living soul in order to do it.  Thankfully, because I have experience with these things, and am not nasty about it, it's a mutually beneficial relationship, one I can employ when necessary.  Sometimes the living soul is aware of it, and sometimes it isn't. 
As gently as I could, I discussed with Le Novo the possibility of coming back.  It was always an option, I said, as long as Le Novo himself embraced it, the way he'd stepped back to the other side in the first place. 
Of course, there's an entirely different version of this story that would send chills down your very bones, but then, you no longer have any. 
And that's exactly why I tell you about Le Novo now.  As a cautionary tale, a reminder of things you already know.  And a warning not to do it yourself. 
It's better for all involved.

Monday, October 28, 2013

#621. The seven best things about The Big Bang Theory

What bothers me more than anything is when people react against something popular by acting as if it has no business being so beloved, and they come off as idiots who have no idea what they're talking about.  That's the kind of thing I've heard repeatedly about The Big Bang Theory.  You know what The Big Bang Theory is.  I've loved it from the start.  Here's my list of things to love about it:

  1. "The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis" This is an episode from the second season, and to my mind remains the best episode of the series for any number of reasons.  Classic moments include "Look, Leonard, Sheldon's hugging me!", and the repeated refrain of "My leg's killing me, thanks for asking," both of which have become constant touchstones for me.  It's the episode that pushes geeky Leonard and bombshell Penny closer to having a romantic relationship after more than a season of teasing it.  It's Sheldon's neuroses in classic form.  And as far as the cast goes, it seems like a fairly visible moment where everyone, especially Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco, realize just how much they've come to love doing this show, especially the closing moments where Leonard and Penny exchange gifts ("Turns out not letting the bike fall on you is lesson #1!").  If you need any one episode to fall in love with the series, this is it.  Oh, this is it.  It's a classic for the fans, and easily accessible for new viewers.  This is everything charming about The Big Bang Theory, wrapped in a little bow.
  2. Variety of jokes.  Seriously.  I read one of those negative reactions recently (source to remain nameless) that took a look and only seemed to notice the dumb jokes, who said they felt betrayed by a series that was supposed to be smart.  But the beauty of this sitcom is that it can do smart and dumb with equal aplomb, both with the characters who are supposed to be smart and the characters who are supposed to be dumb.  It's always struck me as a little like Frasier, only without all the fussy stuffiness (which I say in a good way, because how else do you describe the Crane brothers?).  Sheldon quickly became the face of the series because Jim Parsons so easily realized that his character is not nearly as one-dimensional as he might initially seem.  His smartness very easily lends itself to stupidity, because where he's smarter than anyone else in the room he's absolutely clueless socially.  But he never stops trying, and never stops assuming that he's always right.  And he thinks Leonard is worse than him.
  3. Character growth.  The most shocking thing about the series is its constant character growth, because every single character introduced to date has grown, even though they all started as very specific types.  The most shocking would be Howard, who started as the insufferable would-be lothario, but has gone on to develop the most lasting and meaningful romantic relationship, marrying sweety Bernadette.  Anyone who saw Howard in the early seasons would never have seen this coming.  But it happened.  Even Sheldon's always-awkward relationship with Amy Farrah Fowler has evolved.  Really!  And Raj can finally talk to girls without being drunk!
  4. Firm understanding of character.  This goes hand-in-hand with the variety of jokes, really.  Because none of these characters are one-dimensional, they can have any kind of jokes possible, even if it seems Penny is frequently the butt of the same kinds of jokes (for the record she's the only character who not only doesn't have a middle but even a last name, so it only figures; if she ever became successful as an actress that would be the ultimate evolution in the series).  The thing is, all of these characters could be said to be in ruts in their lives, and they need each other more than they realize, even as far as Sheldon goes.  He might sometimes seem to be unbearable, but, and Stockholm Syndrome aside, these guys really appreciate each other.  There's a reason they stick together.  They very much complement each other, often in surprising ways.  And that's because the writers are always exploring them, examining them from every angle.  That's how Howard grew so much.
  5. Ability to expand the cast.  In the beginning there were only Leonard, Sheldon, and Penny, with Howard and Raj at the periphery.  And then Howard and Raj grew in importance, and then we got Amy Farrah Fowler, and then Bernadette, and even the emerging Lucy, likely still developing as Raj's intended soul mate.  And they all fit so nicely together.  They all become a part of the family, and the show never misses a beat.  That's incredibly rare.  Any other series would have taken the original archetypes for granted.  But again, this ties in with character growth.  This is a series that looks at all the angles.
  6. Wil Wheaton.  Seriously!  Previously known for Stand by Me and Wesley Crusher, Wheaton's cultivated a weird second act both on the Internet and as The Big Bang Theory's best recurring character, Sheldon's natural nemesis in ways you couldn't have imagined until it happened.  How someone hasn't tried to build a whole sitcom around him is still a mystery to me, although maybe they have or Wheaton simply doesn't want it.  But these appearances alone prove how valuable he is as a comedic figure.  
  7. Love of pop culture.  Geeks sometimes claim the geeks on this show get their culture all wrong.  But I don't mind identifying as a geek, and think the series nails it just fine.  And the ways it happens are always a delight to watch, especially as a Star Trek geek seeing more than just Wil Wheaton show up.  Their trips to Stuart's comic book shop ring true, too, although the hapless Stuart is constantly making me rethink the romance of running a comic book shop...Although like everything else about the series he's always hilarious!
Anyway, love the show.  Will always be a fan.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

#620. A critical reappraisal of Star Trek: Insurrection

Sometimes I love to be a contrarian.  Although I don't necessarily try to be one, I tend to develop interests that run counter to popular belief.  For instance, since its 1998 theatrical release, I've always been a fan of Star Trek: Insurrection.

Of course, for most people to say Insurrection is one of the lesser films in the franchise would be an understatement.  To say that it probably helped facilitate the end of that part of Star Trek history would be another understatement, especially as it was the opposite of predecessor First Contact in almost every way.

And yet I've always liked it, if not outright loved it.  But the truth is, and this is something even I've struggled with, I've always been on the bubble.  I'm this close to loving it.  And last night I was thinking about it again, and maybe I'm closer than ever.  This post is my bid to maybe convince others to have a reconsideration of their own.  Maybe you won't end up loving it, but you may think about nudging it out of the Star Trek dregs, where it currently sits nestled tightly with The Final Frontier (I refuse to consider Into Darkness as anywhere near this level despite the results of polling earlier this year).

In some ways, Insurrection is really quite brilliant, and years ahead of its time.  Just as Into Darkness was a commentary on the era of the War on Terror, Insurrection is a movie about the unfortunate relationships that helped make it possible, and some of the relationships we're still struggling with today.

Or as Admiral Dougherty puts it, "They have technology we can't duplicate.  You know what that makes us?  Partners."

"Partners" being an obviously loaded word.  And here you can sure bet that I'm thinking of all the relationships involving the transportation of that most precious of modern resources, oil.  But this is not about politics.  This is about a Star Trek movie that was all about this thorny conundrum years before anyone was even prepared to broach the subject.  

Insurrection's basic plot is modest enough: Captain Picard and his crew stumble upon a Starfleet mission to relocate a planet's population in order to exploit the natural resources.  (Sure, there's even some Avatar in there, about ten years ahead of time.  There's even plenty of good old fashioned environmentalism in there, a sort of updated saves-the-whales Voyage Home, minus nuclear wessels).

At the time, the biggest knock against the movie was that it was basically an extended TV episode.  That's another thorny issue right there.  I never saw it that way.  There were certainly episodes of Next Generation that featured a similar situation, but then there was a whole episode that featured Khan in the original series, and no one (or at least loudly) ever said Wrath of Khan was basically just an extended TV episode.

And that point, as I finally understood, never even got the series right.  If this was basically a TV episode, it was from Deep Space Nine and not Next Generation.  I hate to be pedantic about this, but that's the crux of it.  Insurrection doesn't make too fine a point about this, but the whole reason the events of the movie occur is because of something called the Dominion War.  

What's that, you ask?  The Dominion War was a seasons-long arc in Deep Space Nine.  The Dominion was basically the evil version of the more familiar Federation, from the other side of a wormhole.  Not only did Deep Space Nine basically spend its entire run gearing up for the Dominion, but the final two seasons were hotly embedded in the resulting war.

And the whole point of Admiral Dougherty's dirty dealings in Insurrection is because of this war, a relationship Starfleet feels compelled to have because of something so basic as resources.  But these relationships are not always as good for everyone as they can sometimes seem.  

Surprisingly, out of every other conceivable angle covered in the series, Deep Space Nine itself never really got around to this particular aspect of war, how it can drive unexpected new conflicts.  So if anything, Insurrection is that TV episode that never happened, that two-parter or omitted season cliffhanger.

What's more embarrassing than anything is that Star Trek fans were already so splintered in 1998 (the driving force of the coma that began in 2005) that they never even considered that.  Even Deep Space Nine fans didn't realize this.  The first time anyone said that Insurrection was basically an extended episode, everyone just assumed that meant Next Generation, because naturally that was the series that featured Picard.  

And the downright criminal thing of it is that even now there are many Star Trek fans who never even took Deep Space Nine seriously.  And Deep Space Nine remains the most perfect Star Trek.

The problem of it really was that almost every Star Trek movie, probably until the 2009 reboot, was basically geared toward existing fans (and this one was very nearly subtitled Prime Directive, and that should tell you everything you need to know about it).  And fans themselves never really seem to realize that.  Most other fan communities would be thrilled to have a movie, let alone ten of them.  Star Trek fans?  They're notoriously fickle.  Don't believe for a moment that the majority of them actually share Gene Roddenberry's optimism.  

And how to better represent that than the pettiness of how they subconsciously greeted perhaps one of the best elements of Insurrection, Data's opening arc?  Most fans considered the beginning and end of questioning whether or not Data should be considered ethically and morally equal to a flesh-and-blood individual to be the seminal Next Generation second season episode "The Measure of a Man."  And I agree, "Measure" is brilliant.  But that should never have been considered the be-all-and-end-all of the exploration of the rights of the signature android in Star Trek.

How do I know fans were so conflicted?  Because they greeted Voyager's Emergency Medical Hologram, or "Doc," the same way, for seven seasons.  Sure, he was a fan favorite, but not a single one of his many similar, "Measure of a Man" episodes were ever considered classics, even though at least one of them ("Latent Image") unquestionably is.

In  the movie, Data begins on a separate mission and must be retrieved by Picard.  This whole sequence has always been the brunt of my justification for considering Insurrection positively.  And it completely changes the perception of how Starfleet really perceives Data, "Measure" and its court settlement considered.  Dougherty doesn't seem to find him quite so special as Picard's crew and Next Generation fans always have.  (Then again, proof positive that Data never reached Spock levels of Star Trek icon-hood can be found in the reception for Nemesis.)

And that's another reason to view Insurrection differently, because it dares to challenge one of the basic tenets of Star Trek.  That no matter how much a pain in the butt these captains can sometimes be, they're always considered to be legends in their own time.  But that's not how Dougherty treats Picard at all.

Picard, mind you, is captain of the flagship.  It should be assumed that if he's active at all during the Dominion War, that he's at the front lines.  And yet even in Next Generation he was always seen as diplomat first.  He was even recognized as such by the finicky Klingons!  In Insurrection, there are any number of reasons to believe he's not as beholden by the Starfleet brass as seems befitting.  And on a subconscious level, that's just not right.  

And yet, what's Picard's defining characteristic?  What any Star Trek lead character's defining characteristic?  The moral compass.  (Which makes Sisko's experiences in "In the Pale Moonlight" so endlessly intriguing.  And consequently why some fans will never forgive Janeway, because she seemed to have a "Moonlight" every other episode.)

And Insurrection is ultimately all about the moral compass.  And that's also the reason why Deep Space Nine couldn't have done this story, because it could never have done Admiral Dougherty.  It had done similar figures before the war, but during?  Just wouldn't have happened.  Would have been too depressing.  Admirals in Star Trek are usually just this side of villainous.  In fact, the first unabashedly good admiral was featured in the Dominion War arc.  Just goes to show.

And Admiral Dougherty has always been my second favorite part of Insurrection.  And a large portion of that is because of Anthony Zerbe.  It only figures that the lone reflection I found of someone else seeing this was from the Matrix sequels, when he shows up in Zion as Neo's confidant.  What Christopher Lee accomplished in the Lord of the Rings films and the Star Wars prequels (to my mind, greater effect), that's what Zerbe did, years earlier.  Not a hugely written part, but Zerbe nails it in scene after scene.  Insurrection would be worth viewing again, I'd suggest, just to prove this out.

And he does this opposite Patrick Stewart.  For some critics, their favorite knock against the Picard films is that Stewart is rarely given material worthy of his acting caliber.  But the funny thing is, Hollywood in general has never given him material worthy of his acting caliber.  Until Star Trek, he was barely a blip on the radar, despite making efforts for years.  And even after Star Trek, he barely made a dent.  So much for material worth his acting caliber.  If anything, his Star Trek film appearances were as close as he ever got to Hollywood material worth his acting caliber.  And Insurrection is no slouch in that department.

And he gets to sing in this one.  Star Trek has always been at its geekiest when it indulges its inner Family Guy.  Here there's a wonderful interlude where Picard, Data, and Worf all sing "A British Tar" from Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore.  It's part of the whole sequence featuring Data's early arc in the film, and it's one of the best parts.

And that particular sequence also features some of the CGI work that definitely would never have been in a TV episode.  Even if it's modest compared to what other films were doing even in 1998, that shuttle chase has always been a highlight for me.

There are things Insurrection doesn't quite nail, and there's humor wrongly intended to indulge Star Trek fans, but on the whole, there's a lot to recommend, and recommend quite enthusiastically, about it.  It may not have been the epic it could have been, but that was still a few years off from happening in any genre film successfully (Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films), but then, at least it wasn't insufferably melodramatic about wanting to be epic (Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films).  

And to think most of what you've ever heard about Insurrection was that it was one of the minor efforts, if even that.  Even if it is minor, it's still got a lot going for it.

Friday, October 25, 2013

#619. The Cephalopod Coffeehouse October 2013

The cephalopod of the title to this blogging book club is the Armchair Squid, our beloved and very soggy founder.  Please visit him first (er, after me) and give thanks, preferably with whatever squid love to eat.  Unless it turns out to be books.  Because that would just be wrong.

This month I read far fewer books than has been represented in my past participation in the Coffeehouse, which is actually settling back into a more normal routine, now that I'm settling back in with Maine.  That being said, what's been passing for official as far as I've been doing it:

  • The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
I'm currently reading Between Parentheses, which is a collection of Bolano's miscellany, mostly stuff he wrote about literature, which helps inform what I'm going to write about this month in regards to my favorite writer (since of course I also wrote about him last month).

The story of Savage Detectives is this: a pair of zealous poets, so extreme in their devotion to their craft that they would disrupt the readings of those they considered their inferiors by shouting their own works, embark on a sacred quest to track down their mysterious predecessor in a minor circle known as the Visceral Realists.  What they discover informs the whole shape of the book, which is this:

The book is in three acts.  The first recounts how a would-be member of Arturo Belano (a stand-in for Bolano himself) and Ulises Lima's  (Bolano's good friend Mario Santiago) inner circle ends up joining them on their quest after he inadvertently liberates a prostitute from her very angry pimp (whose subsequent pursuit is the alternating dramatic backbone of the plot in the third act).  The second act is all about various perspectives and lives recounted, all somehow relating to Belano and Lima's later, separate travels.  What led to these lives of apparent desperation?

The clever thing about the book is that the second act points the reader in the direction of the answer as one of the frequent voices in the fugue finally gives the reader details on the figure who so entrances our wayward pair, a woman who lived a lifetime ago and seems to have all but fallen through the cracks of history.  And more clever still is the reveal at the end of this act where Lima and Bolano have all but assumed the same fate (and the main character from the first and third acts has succeeded even better).

For large portions of the book it may be easy to assume that Bolano is writing as close to a biography as he ever managed, although to think so is about as depressing a thought as you can get.  It's true that he didn't achieve any real success or recognition until Savage Detectives itself was published, so that he very well could have been the anonymous, charismatic, but somehow always suspect drifter he paints Belano to be.  

And yet truth is not always to be found in fiction.  Or at least there are always more shades to a story than it can sometimes seem (which is perhaps another reason why Bolano has so many voices speak in the second act).  In Between Parentheses a different voice entirely emerges, although very much a zealot, not as pathetic as Belano can sometimes seem.  Bolano pursued literature the way other people breathe.  He absorbed it.  He had opinions, strong ones, about everyone, scores of writers I'd never heard of, whole traditions that have eluded me.  And there's a strong case to be made that much of what I know of as his he borrowed from others.  Which is only natural.  I assume he made it very much his own, because there's got to be a reason why I know his name and not so many of the ones he knew and treasured (or tolerated).

Was it such a good idea to read his nonfiction after reading another book that so brilliantly encased his fiction?  Sometimes it's not wise to peek behind the curtain.  Sometimes the bubble can be burst, when you see how the sausage is made.  And yet even when he exhausts me Bolano fascinates me.  The whole reason I started to devote so much energy into reading as much of Bolano as I can get my hands on is because of something he wrote in 2666.  It only figures.

The way Savage Detectives reconciles itself affirmed that he deserved the acclaim, and deserves my devotion.  Belano and Lima went in search of a myth and ended up disillusioned shells of themselves.  Is that something Bolano experienced?  Is that something he felt, before the acclaim of this book?  If so, he doesn't seem to have confessed that anywhere else.  Do I want to know?

Either way, I'll keep reading Bolano.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

#618. 7 reasons Charmed is not just for chicks

My sister is obsessed with Charmed.  She's rewatched the entire eight-season series multiple times, and on several of these occasions I've watched most of it with her as a result.  Would I have watched it even once without her?  Moot point.  I've grown to love it almost as much as she does.

The series ran from 1998 to 2006, and starred Shannon Doherty (for the first three seasons), Holly Marie Combs, Alyssa Milano, and Rose McGowan (for the final five seasons) as the Halliwell sisters, whose Power of Three enabled them to control individual powers and confront nasty demons on a regular basis.  It was basically the best update of I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched imaginable.

And yet there's probably the sense that unless you're female or at least a male of the horn dog persuasion (because producers made sure all four lovely ladies wore skimpy clothes), you never thought about taking Charmed seriously.  If that's the case, here are some reasons to reconsider that decision:

  1. Deadpan acting.  Hey, the actors in the series knew it could sometimes be silly, too, even if the material was always taken seriously.  That's why all four actresses knew just how to present the material, never melodramatically (which would have been the approach some of the stories could have provoked) or comically (although the sheer blessing of Milano is that she could have it that way and never miss a beat).  Charmed was a drama, but not in the sense of The Vampire Diaries or True Blood (and certainly not Game of Thrones!).  Tone could vary.  So the actors chose a neutral tone to match.  The extremes of the approach are best characterized by Doherty, who took it most seriously, and McGowan, who had the most obvious fun with it.
  2. Kaley Cuoco.  The future star of The Big Bang Theory was featured in Charmed's final season as a counterpoint witch unrelated to the Halliwell sisters with family drama of her own and a different kind of learning curve than had been experienced previously in the series.  I already knew Cuoco from her work in 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter (where she was the daughter in question), which is best remembered as the sitcom John Ritter was doing when he died.  I always loved her.  Her part in Charmed is the reverse of Big Bang Theory and 8 Simple Rules, where she's the dumb blonde.  Here she's more capable than the Halliwells are sometimes willing to admit.  In other words, this is her original geek cred.
  3. Cole.  The featured villainous romantic figure of the series, Cole was a human/demon hybrid who seduced Milano's Phoebe for three seasons, married to her when he was technically the Source (as in Of All Evil), which was incredibly bad timing.  Cole's demonic half looked like Darth Maul on steroids.  His human half was portrayed by Julian McMahon before he did Nip/Tuck and played Dr. Doom in the first two Fantastic Four movies.  Though the character was the closest the series ever got to soap opera, Cole was very much the male embodiment of the Halliwell deadpan charm, and thus perhaps one of the easiest conduits for male viewers.
  4. Leo.  The flipside would be Leo, who was the significant other to Marie Combs' Piper.  Sort of like the Charmed version of Lois and Clark's Dean Cain as far as soft-spoken male protagonists go, Brian Krause's Leo was constantly evolving, and not just because the series necessarily spent most of its time with its female leads.  Leo was introduced early in the series and only gradually revealed as a Whitelighter, what this series called guardian angels, which introduced a whole different level to the mythology.  Leo and Piper had their ups and downs, mostly to explain why Leo wasn't around all the time, but that also meant Leo had a good deal of independence and wasn't always tied strictly to whatever the sisters were up to.
  5. Knowledge of its own mythology.  Something every fanboy loves is mythology.  Charmed had that in spades, and always knew exactly how to exploit it.  This was sometimes pretty easy, since the Halliwells were immediately introduced in relation to their ancestral predecessors, including the mother who died when they were young and the grandmother ("Grams") who raised them until her own death (in both cases that hardly meant we saw the last of them!).  Where a lot of other shows would have stumbled when trying to replace a crucial cast member, the subtraction of Doherty and addition of McGowan was handled with aplomb, mostly because the flip-flop was executed perfectly in the fourth season premiere, drawing on groundwork that had been laid years earlier.
  6. Wicca for dummies.  As the sisters discovered themselves, their approach to being witches differed greatly from what you might imagine.  There were certainly key recognizable elements, but for the most part everything here was very specific to the characters rather than Wicca lore.  Hence the heavy emphasis on their fictional Book of Shadows, which was practically a part of the cast, the way the starship is in Star Trek, for example.  And their powers were more like superpowers than magic, anyway.  Only Doherty's Prue had something that could have been considered cutesy (and only because of the sound effect that accompanied it), while McGowan's, which ties into my previous point, was perhaps the coolest, the trademark orbing of a Whitelighter (although in her case, half-Whitelighter).
  7. Awesome guest-stars.  Here I'm thinking of the likes of John Cho (years before Star Trek or Harold & Kumar), David Carradine (he was always awesome), French Stewart (as a surprisingly dramatic genie), Jim Rash (whom you may know either as a screenwriter or a star of Community, although here he's a laughable demon whose name "will haunt you forever"), Rainn Wilson (years before The Office, in a role that might have typified his career if he'd never struck upon Dwight Schrute), and Brian Thompson (who makes everything better in a completely different way than David Carradine).  You don't need to be a chick to appreciate any of these guys, just a fan of pop culture.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

#617. Heading toward 2013 World Series

Been a good amount of time since I've checked in with how the baseball season has progressed, but thankfully plenty of good things to report, such as...

Boston Red Sox vs. St. Louis Cardinals

That's the 2013 World Series match-up.  As you may recall, both teams are personal favorites, and had exceptional years all season long.  The Red Sox in particular, above and beyond a rebuilding year, were magnificent, getting able contributions all around, even though there was a massive hiccup for Clay Buccholz, who had the best season he's ever pitched...until being sidelined for most of the season, although he's since returned and contributed fairly well in the post-season.

Both the Sox and Cardinals are no strangers to the World Series.  Boston historically faced the 86 year drought after the 1918 title (the year before the infamous Black Sox scandal, which featured the Chicago White Sox, as well as the foolish trade of Babe Ruth), snapped in 2004 (a season chronicled in Stephen King and Stewart O'Nan's Faithful) and repeated for emphasis in 2007.  The Cardinals have won recently in 2006 and 2011, and were also the team the Red Sox defeated in '04.

The Oakland A's continued to perform well throughout the season, reaching the division series, first level play of the post-season before being eliminated by the Detroit Tigers, where coincidentally Jose Iglesias had ended up during the season.  Iglesias was a standout fill-in for Boston at the start of the season, remarked upon here, and so it's great that he found somewhere to perform on a regular basis in the Majors.

The only team I followed that didn't do spectacularly was the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, although Mike Trout's season picked up considerably after I stopped tracking baseball here.  His sophomore year started to feel like an improvement over his remarkable rookie season.  He ended up with a .323 batting average.  Albert Pujols missed the end of the season with the same sort of health issues that have been plaguing him since coming to the Angels two seasons ago.  He ended with a .258 BA.  Mark Trumbo, the other player I was tracking, finished at .234, and I probably won't be following his stats again.

No matter who wins the World series I win, but I'm pulling for hometown favorite Boston.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

#616. Seven Characters necessary for a Star Wars Middle Trilogy

I've been a pretty big fan of Star Wars for most of my life.  The original trilogy was something I grew up with (sometimes I think I could write a whole book based just on these memories, or perhaps just a blog, or perhaps just a blog post), and I've never lost my passion for the saga, including the prequels.  Consequently, and because when I love something I end up thinking quite a bit about it, I've often tried to imagine how the story expands past the story of the Skywalkers, which is what George Lucas's sextet is all about, how Anakin's journey finally brings balance to the Force.

Now, I've had an idea since the release of Revenge of the Sith for how the whole story begins, which involves iconic names like Palpatine, Yoda, and Chewbacca, but recently I started to think about another piece of the puzzle, the years between the prequel and original trilogies.  I'm fully aware that there are many stories from the likes of the Dark Horse comics and books and probably even video games, but I tend to consider only the films as canon, except when certain useful bits of inspiration populate the expanded universe (which is something Lucas himself has done, for instance to name Coruscant).  Therefore any thoughts I discuss now are mostly based on the films and not anything that someone else has previously considered.

Here, then, are seven key characters I would involve in a trilogy of adventures set in-between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, a Middle Trilogy if you will.

  1. An Imperial recruit who defects.  This is an idea that first occurred to me, ironically, based on a Dark Horse comic, which chronicles the similar journey of Biggs Darklighter, Luke's old friend who famously bites the dust in the trench run on the Death Star.  (Even though Biggs has such a small role, he's always been a favorite of mine.)  This character would be the prototype, part of the whole movement that helps create the military aspect of the Rebellion.  The big thing about this character is that he's a personal recruit who works closely under Tarkin and Darth Vader, and so his defection is equally personal.  And because there's another minor aspect of A New Hope that's always fascinated me, this Great Defector is drawn from my extrapolation of the Journal of the Whills prologue from the novelization.  I always wondered who or what the Whills were.  Subsequent research suggests that Lucas may have conceived it as the original version of the Force, but I always considered it to be the surname of an important figure in the unrevealed greater saga.  So for that reason, this character's last name is Whill.  He is the personification of what Vader evokes when he says "There will be no one to stop us this time," the great threat previous to Luke Skywalker that must necessarily have existed.
  2. A handmaiden of Padme Amidala.  One of the prominent minor elements of the prequels was the constant presence of all those handmaidens, frequently used as decoys.  To my mind, the death of Padme doesn't mean their role in the story goes away.  I've narrowed down the most likely candidate for this task to Teckla Minnau, who is admittedly another character who's popped up in the expanded universe.  This is a figure who works best in conjunction with:
  3. Princess Leia.  I'm hoping that JJ Abrams addresses more forthrightly than the books people have written about the years after Return of the Jedi Leia's growing awareness of her own Force abilities (for those who still wonder why Lucas overlooked the fact that Amidala dies in childbirth but Leia clearly states in Return that she remembers her mother, I would say that she does so with her initial, instinctive knowledge of the Force).  Anyway, Leia becomes the driving hero the way she was never quite able to be in the original trilogy, despite the fact that Hope begins with her very much in that role.  I envision her walking a very fine line between an apparent loyalist to the Empire and secret agent of the Rebellion, using allies like the handmaiden Teckla to accomplish her goals.  Of course, she's aided by her adopted father:
  4. Bail Organa.  Present but in a fairly brief capacity in the prequels, Bail is forthright in his suspicions of Palpatine and is a useful figure in the strict politics of the whole thing, in a way that Leia can't be.  Leia is the media darling, whereas Bail is the one who's giving the good fight.  Any resemblance to recent Americans politics I hadn't thought of until just now, for the record.
  5. Darth Vader.  This one goes without saying.  Any Star Wars story within this time-frame must necessarily include him.  I once again refer to Hope for the story beats he must represent, which is the Empire's growing disconnect from Force lore, the "old religion" that leaves much of what he and Palpatine are an apparent thing of the past.  And considering that this is the period where Vader truly learns about his new circumstances and the details of the Dark Side, there's plenty to explore here.
  6. A secret Sith apprentice.  Given that Palpatine placed all his faith in the future of not only the Sith but the Force in Vader, he's not looking to replace him.  And there's the famous rule of two in Sith business, that there are always and only two.  Apparently.  But the prequels are littered with suggestions that Palpatine played fast and loose with this idea, and even expanded universe lore has played around with this in the Clone Wars TV show.  Just as there are Imperial suspicions of Vader, Palplatine will have his own doubts about his apprentice's immediate effectiveness in his altered state, so he'll have someone up his sleeve not so much to replace Vader but to keep him on his toes.  And what interests me is the idea that this figure could also link in with the Lucasian idea that the best thing about Star Wars is the familial struggles, which means that this secret Sith is the sister of the Imperial defector...
  7. Boba Fett.  The bounty hunter immediately captured fans' imaginations even though his role was always a fairly passive one.  I imagine that Vader included him in the Empire Strikes Back line-up that fellow Imperial officers found so discomfiting because they'd worked together in the past.  Chances are very good that Fett and Vader compete in the effort to stop the defector.
I will be drawing up sketches for each individual installment for this Middle Trilogy at my writing blog, Sigild V.  (Incidentally, you might want to read my three previous forays into Star Wars fiction: "Star Child," "I Joined the Rebellion," and "Tarkin, Republic and Empire.")  Stop by and see how it develops!

[EDIT: Here's that write-up.]

Monday, October 14, 2013

#615. Announcing the Ode-athon

Announcing my very first blogfest, the Ode-athon!  Simulcasting here and at my writers blog, which for some reason is called Tony Laplume, the date is November 2, 2013 and you are all invited.  (You may also participate on any day of the regular week that follows.  But you will have to do so while writing your NaNo.  At least this one you can write ahead of time.)

The Ode-athon is a call to write about your favorite writers.  Here I'm thinking specifically of authors, although I'm already planning to cheat myself with a cartoonist in my writers dozen (somewhere around fourteen).  You can choose one or you can go with as many as you can hit without exhausting yourself.  The idea is to tell us about the writers you read most passionately, the ones who have affected you the most, and perhaps even inspired you.  

The last perk I have to share is that on 11/9 I will include a recap post about the whole thing.

Here's the sign-up list:

Friday, October 11, 2013

#614. The Force (of Others)

Last month I talked about a new comic book that's adapting the 1974 version of Star Wars, when George Lucas was still refining the basic concepts of the saga that would become a phenomenon three years later.

Part of the great fun of reading this mini-series from Dark Horse is seeing familiar elements in altered form, and perhaps one of the most intriguing is the version of the Force that knights of the Jedi-Bendu (which sounds like something out of Dune) use.  The phrase "May the Force be with you" is famous from the completed film, but in this version it's modified with "the Force of Others" in it.

And it's made me think a little more about the whole concept of the Force.

I'm not sure how much thought anyone's given it beyond the fact that Yoda can wax poetic about it and even a scoundrel like Han Solo will reference it positively not so long after outright dismissing it, while Darth Vader has a hard time having his "hokey religion" (Solo's words, mind you) taken seriously, plus you get to have an awesome lightsaber and start training as soon as possible (which isn't always soon enough).  When the prequels introduced the microscopic lifeforms that make a Jedi's connection possible, that seemed to be beyond the extent of the fan's interest in studying it further.

And yet there's that scene in Attack of the Clones where Yoda busts out "Jedi-fu" and then immediately hobbles back to his walking stick.

Force of others, force of will.

So, I started giving it some more thought.  Clearly the Force gives its wielders, good and bad, special abilities denied most others, from telekinesis to thought influence and even clairvoyance (well, sometimes).  I would have described it best as a force of will, personally, a little like how the comic book Green Lantern Corps uses a ring to channel willpower into tangible constructs, but the use of will differs quite a bit.  The Force is used to manipulate one's environment, to gain greater control.  One of little Anakin Skywalker's calling cards was his greater instincts in podracing (or it might have been that clairvoyance thing), at any rate certainly good in a fight (though not good enough to keep limbs from being lost on a routine basis, but then we're talking about electric swords here).

So when I first read about "the Force of Others," it gave me another idea.  Instead of being a tool tailored to one individual, what if the Force is a literal translation of the "strength of ten men" effect?  That's how I interpret at least this version of the Force, which may influence even the canonical approach.

What if a Jedi (or Sith) is able to tap into a collective will instead or merely their own?  They gain the strength of others and are therefore able to go beyond the ordinary abilities of a single individual.  It would be like a tug-of-war contest waged by one person against a whole team as if the one person had a phantom team around them for support.

Anyway, that's my idea, the mystery behind the mystical concept of the Force.  When Yoda switches from bouncing here there and everywhere back to the frail sage we know and love, clearly he's just relied heavily on the Force.  And maybe a little more.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

#613. 7 Ways the original Star Wars trilogy is superior to the prequels

Earlier this year I presented my case for why the Star Wars prequels are better than the originals.  In all fairness to the persistent opposition, I'm now going to present the case for exactly the opposite.

  1. Distinct film-making for its era.  The thing that made Star Wars such a smash hit in 1977 (and every year since) was that even with all the acknowledged antecedents there had never been anything like it.  George Lucas created a new cinematic vernacular both visually and narratively.  The prequels, and all blockbusters since really, exist in that new landscape.  How do you compete with something like that?  As many fans have decided, you really can't.  
  2. The prototypical rogue.  Another signature element of the original trilogy that everyone and their mother has attempted to duplicate in the years since is the lovable rogue archetype embodied by Harrison Ford so successfully that it not only gave him a career (he'd been struggling for years and had gone to carpentering in lieu of acting roles, having even been an afterthought in Lucas's own American Graffiti four years earlier).  My favorite Han Solo knockoff is Sawyer from Lost, but Ford was so good at it that he became a box office staple for years, twisting the type for another iconic character in Indiana Jones.
  3. Slow burn storytelling.  The originals told their saga a lot more methodically.  I suppose the prequels didn't have this opportunity because they were literally explaining something that fans already knew about.  This wasn't the case in the first three films.  Every piece was dropped into place very deliberately, from Luke discovering his aunt and uncle had just bought a differently kind of farm entirely to Han finally figuring out why Leia only had eyes for him.
  4. The humor of the humor character.  The fact of the prequels will always be that the fans will probably hate Jar Jar Binks.  Lucas acknowledged this in the second two films of the second trilogy by drastically reducing to practically eliminating entirely the controversial amphibian.  Except Jar Jar was basically an update of C-3PO, who gradually obtains the honor of bugging the hell out of the most popular character in these films, Han Solo.  The funny thing is, Threepio can very easily be viewed as just as annoying as Jar Jar, and Lucas seemed to get that, too.  By Return of the Jedi, the protocol droid is far better integrated into the rest of the plot, spending less time dropping non sequiturs and more being involved directly in the story.  Yet, and perhaps because fans always loved the beep-bopping R2-D2 (even though he could easily be considered annoying, too, from a certain point of view) and the droids spent a lot of time together, you don't hear fans grumble so much about this one while they relentlessly hate that one.
  5. The big reveal.  It's the moment even non-hardcore Star Wars fans love to talk about, the ending of The Empire Strikes Back, when Darth Vader reveals that he's Luke's father (sorry, thirty-year-old SPOILER ALERT).  It's a huge, huge moment, capping a film that many still consider to be the best in the whole series.  And it's the voice of James Earl Jones.  The voice of James Earl Jones can do no wrong.
  6. A standout after a standout.  Actually, my final three points all relate to Empire.  The best way to create a continually beloved trilogy is to have at least two of the three become instant cultural institutions.  The first one was a phenomenon.  Like The Godfather Part II, Empire is the rare sequel that not only doesn't suck but can be argued to be superior to its predecessor.  That's a great way to make a lasting memory.  
  7. New icons introduced after the first film.  Most of the icons in Star Wars were introduced in the first film.  But then the second film added more.  That's the sort of thing that makes institutions, folks.  There was Yoda.  Everyone loves Yoda.  They love to quote him.  There was also Boba Fett.  For a guy who has far less to quote, he was another instant sensation.  He remains the only thing about the Star Wars Holiday Special that anyone will admit to remembering, because technically he debuted in it as part of a cartoon segment.  There was also Lando Calrissian, still my personal favorite!  How do you do that?  The Fast & Furious films did it by accident years later.  Star Wars did it by design.
And they remain eminently rewatchable.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

#612. Superpolitics, or It's Great to Be a Politician When Your'e Doing What Politicians Do Best

I'm not going to get into the politics of the government shutdown, but I figured it would still be fun to talk about.

The crux of it seems to be that President Obama is desperately trying to ensure the Affordable Care Act (or "Obamacare") remains intact, because he sees it as his lasting legacy, just as Republicans are using this to maneuver themselves for 2016.  It sucks about all the economic fallout that's resulting from all this, but then, we haven't exactly been in the best possible shape for a good number of years now.

What excites me is that aside from the economic frownie face, this is politics as you read about it in the history books.  JFK wrote the whole of Profiles in Courage about this.  (If you've never read it, consider it your 11/22/63 anniversary duty.)  Who doesn't vaguely remember the one dude who beat the other dude right on the senate floor, and how batshit insane that was even for that time?

No, this is politicians doing what they do best.  Voters naively believe that politicians are elected to perform a civic duty.  No, politicians are elected so that they can make impressive speeches in front of each other.  The same principals they espouse during their campaigns are the same things they talk about upholding while shaping new laws and whatnot.  And they're so busy doing that, trying in vain to convince each other, that nothing ever gets done.

Every once and a while, all this grandiose posturing makes an impression on people other than politicians.  Ted Cruz made a 21 hour filibuster to kick off the shutdown.  Now, granted, his filibuster was probably not nearly as awesome as Patton Oswalt's.  Nothing will ever be that awesome.  In evidence:

But still, Cruz had the real world equivalent, and that's something to celebrate, even if you couldn't possibly sit through all 21 hours of it awake, or agree with everything he said.

And that's the sort of thing that's been going on ever since.  Great time to care about politicians being politicians.  Because this is what they love the most.  Aren't you happy to see them so happy?

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

#611. Seven Fun Facts about The Rifleman

Watching old TV shows can be fine even if they were originally broadcast decades before you were born.  Recently I've been watching a lot of old TV shows, and I figured I'd share with you a few interesting observations about one of them, The Rifleman.

The Rifleman originally aired from 1958 to 1963 for a total of five seasons and 168 episodes.  It starred Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain, the eponymous character for the simple reason that he did all his shooting with a rifle (a Winchester).  It was an early TV Western, debuting a few seasons after the start of Gunsmoke and one before Bonanza.

Anyway, the observations:

  • It occurred to me that comic book artist Howard Chaykin may very well have based his whole art style on Chuck Connors.  The resemblance between the two is uncanny.  Distinctive jawlines and piercing stares!

(via wikipedia)
(via amazon)
  • Another signature of The Rifleman is McCain's son Mark, who has a knack for getting in trouble even though he's a generally capable and bright kid.  It reminds me of Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
  • Speaking of Star Trek, the bond between widower Lucas and young son Mark is also reminiscent of Benjamin and Jake Sisko from Deep Space Nine.  It shouldn't be too surprising to see parallels of this kind, considering Gene Roddenberry originally pitched Star Trek as "Wagon Train to the stars."  Wagon Train was another TV Western.
  • I know Connors from another role, "Swiftie" Morgan in Support Your Local Gunfighter, a 1971 James Garner films that also features Harry Morgan and Suzanne Pleshette.  "Swiftie" is a character who looms like a specter over the whole movie, but doesn't appear until the very end.  I grew up loving the name "Swiftie" Morgan.
  • Director Sam Peckinpah created The Rifleman from a rejected Gunsmoke script.  He eventually left the series and soon began his film career, with such hits as The Wild Bunch to his credit.
  • As you might have assumed from the photo of Connors, he also had careers in professional sports, including stints in baseball (he played for the Cubs!) and basketball (he played for the Celtics!).
  • The Rifleman provided early roles for Dennis Hopper and Michael Landon.  Landon quickly landed Bonanza (and then Little House on the Prairie and then Highway to Heaven) after a few guest appearances.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...