Friday, November 29, 2013

#639. The Cephalopod Coffeehouse November 2013

Most of what I read this month was written by John le Carre, plus a Goodreads offering and then what I'm currently enjoying.  Here's the line-up:

  • Call for the Dead by le Carre
  • A Murder of Quality by le Carre
  • The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by le Carre
  • A Most Wanted Man by le Carre
  • The Otter, the Spotted Frog, and the Great Flood by Gerald Hausman and Ramon Shiloh
And now The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith J.K. Rowling.

I didn't purposefully set up the British duo of le Carre and Rowling, but their crimes of social disorder are perfect companions.  You may know le Carre from Spy Who..., which was the first of his books to be made into a film, subsequently followed by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Tailor of Panama, and The Constant Gardener, which was my first exposure to the author although I didn't know it at the time, and a movie I instantly fell in love with.  If you love Rachel Weisz you'd probably like it, too.

I knew the name "John le Carre" well enough, but he's the kind of author who was probably better known in the culture during his heyday than later.  His George Smiley, featured in the first three books on the above list as well as a few others, was the antithesis of James Bond, his literary contemporary, and of course Bond went on to far greater popular exposure, whereas you probably don't recognize Smiley's name at all, and even think it sounds kind of comical for a spy.  But read just one of these books and you'll take him seriously, I bet.  Smiley was a product of the real world.  He was the very embodiment of the mundane and horrifying truths of the Cold War.

And le Carre tells a darn good mystery.  I don't read mysteries often.  That's a whole genre I think might get a little tiresome, because the rules are so hard to subvert successfully (although my man Bolano did exactly that throughout his career, part of what made him so great).  His stories are rife with British social mores, so much so that Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality are almost as much about that as the brilliant deductions of Smiley.  But then he's also a master of staging the scene for an entire generation, and Spy Who...was said to be the touchstone of the Berlin Wall that was erected at pretty much the same time as its publication.  In the 9/11 era, le Carre revisits many of the same relationships that emerged after WWII in an entirely new context for Most Wanted Man, and may also explain the two brothers from as recent an event as the Boston Marathon bombing.

That makes him an incredibly relevant writer.  

Rowling is turning into one as well, and not just for having written the blockbuster Harry Potter series.  In her first standalone novel, The Casual Vacancy, she had already demonstrated an uncanny ability to spin a new version on the common theme of a signal death (in Harry's case, two), a trend that continues in Cuckoo's Calling.  Again, I couldn't have known this, but the result this time is so similar to le Carre that it strikes me as entirely appropriate that they exist on a similar wavelength.  Both are incredibly British, for one.  And for another, they know what the British around them are really like, and they're not afraid to write about it.  That did Mr. Dickens quite well a hundred and a half years earlier.  With each new story Rowling demonstrates the ability to view the same event from a different vantage point, first from the perspective of children and then from a whole community's and now and perhaps most directly from the person who's called to investigate the whole affair.  Where to next?  I'll certainly be reading.

Check out more Cephalopod Coffeehouse selections starting with squishy founder, A Squid.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

#638. Next Generation Rewind: The part about the mad scientist

I've previously written about the Star Trek Generations villain Dr. Soran, Guinan, and El-Aurians here, but it occurred to me that once I got started writing about Picard's favorite bartender, I lost track of my larger points concerning the mad scientist.

You will remember that I reasoned all El-Aurians were essentially inherently intuitive in social affairs, a trait that made it easy for Guinan to work the room in Ten Forward.  Now I'll circle back to Soran.

Like the rest of his people Soran lost most of what he knew and loved when the Borg destroyed the El-Aurian home world.  He lost his family in the bargain, and the whole point of his Nexus obsession was that it gave him a way to bring them back, essentially.  I'm here to argue that perhaps Soran wasn't such a bad guy (aside from recklessly destroying worlds, just like the Borg, in the midst of his quest).  He was more like a lonely immigrant.

Generations is all about isolated individuals somehow becoming more isolated by events outside of their control.  Kirk, for instance, is lost from time, and in the Nexus broods that he passed on an opportunity for happily married retirement.  Picard loses his sense of family continuance after assuming his brother's son would continue the line when his own career got in the way of Picard being able to do it himself.  Data finally obtains emotions, but they overwhelm him and even seem to cost him the life of his good friend Geordi, and he can't even remove the chip that gave him the blessed curse to begin with.  Soran?

He was a scientist.  Unlike Guinan, his previous lifetime was occupied in isolation.  As my theory goes, community life is everything for El-Aurians, something that comes so naturally to them that they don't really need to speak in order to understand each other.  Soran had this in his life in the form of his family, his one great tether to an essential part of his being.  When that tether was severed, he became even more isolated, dangerously so.  And in the midst of trying to find a new home, he discovers the one way left to him to get it back.

As the years passed, after being forcibly pulled from this paradise by meddling Starfleet officers, Soran grew increasingly bitter and cynical, a callous shell of his former self.  And what self was left, exactly?  Only the scientist, the detached individual who was used to thinking in clinical terms, separated from a functional reality, his only tether gone, a tether that had once been so strong and pure, something every El-Aurian had probably taken for granted.  Think of this comment he makes to Picard:

"They say time is the fire in which we burn."

He can't possibly know what has happened to Picard's brother and nephew, and yet he strikes upon an evocative image that is directed related to how they died, and exactly what immediately began haunting the captain upon learning the news.  He's taunting Picard because for Soran, the captain is like everyone else.  He can't be himself.  He can't be known, and anything he knows about someone else is no longer important to him.  He has no bonds.  He is the very picture of the lonely immigrant, his lost culture something so profound that perhaps you can't truly understand it unless you've been isolated like that yourself.  And Picard does know.  He's known Guinan for years.  In the scenes that follow, he finally discusses his emotional turmoil with Troi, and then a little later has another counseling session, this time with Guinan, and then a third, this time with Data, in which he's counselor.  A fourth follows later, with Kirk.

For someone like Soran, he wouldn't have had to talk with anyone at all, not when he was back in the old days, back with his family, back among the most sympathetic of a sympathetic species.  But after they were surgically cut from him, by the Borg, who we must remember are a collective devoid of individual consciousness, which is only a step or two removed from the perfect intimacy of the El-Aurians, he becomes someone who won't listen to anyone ever again, not the way he once did.

This type of storytelling was no doubt considered by the filmmakers to make for appropriately cinematic Star Trek, the same way The Motion Picture nearly twenty years earlier had gone for the cerebral rather than the kind of blockbuster material even audiences at that time would have better appreciated.  All of this is implied knowledge.  If you don't see it you probably will never even realize it's there, and thus consider the whole movie a bust, even though at least four characters are soaked in this rich tapestry of echoing textures, so that even questionable decisions like how Kirk dies or Data seemingly being reduced to mere comedy suddenly make a great deal of sense.

So I offer you the challenge: consider the part of the mad scientist.  Soran's more than that.  He's actually the heart of the whole movie.

Monday, November 25, 2013

#637. The failure of The Counselor

It's kind of funny, because I haven't even seen The Counselor yet, and chances are I won't see it for a while, but its failure at the box office (and with critics) was something I felt I needed to acknowledge here.

And basically, at least as far as the audience goes, I think it failed because of a crummy trailer:

I'm not even sure that's exact one I'm thinking of, but basically the whole marketing department seems to have assumed far too much about the movie's appeal.  One of the assumptions was that Ridley Scott as a name sold itself.  His last movie was Prometheus.  Except he's a director who does something completely different with each project, and doesn't seem to have developed a strong following despite years of exceptional work.  Then there's Cormac McCarthy, best known as the author of a bunch of books (All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, The Road) that were later made into movies, working on his first original screenplay.  But audiences don't like filmmakers as much as they like blockbusters, "event" movies, especially these days.  And there's the poor, incomprehensible editing, which itself seems to have been done because it was assumed that either the director or the screenwriter would have sold this project already (which they didn't), or that perhaps the notoriety of that one Cameron Diaz scene (on the hood of the car) was already infamous enough (it wasn't).

The Counselor, even more incredibly, failed at a time when the fall season saw an exceptional demand for more adult material.  Theoretically audiences were primed, especially for a project that came prepackaged with a certain amount of prestige.  But a story that doesn't explain itself and a bad trailer can be deadly.  Although I don't agree, that was always the charge leveled against John Carter to explain its own box office failure:

If the audience doesn't understand what you're trying to sell, if they're not on the same page, then you are probably in for trouble.

An example of a perfect trailer would be for Where the Wild Things Are:

(Although that one's so awesome it set up probably unreasonable expectations for someone like me.)

The Counselor's pedigree still intrigues me, a great deal, but that's someone like me, who can be sold on things like directors, screenwriters, even a slambang cast.  But not everyone's like that.  Critics turned against it, because they're like that, once they realized it wasn't going to be a phenomenon.  They assumed it would be a triumph for McCarthy, an apparent cultural institution, the adult's version of all those fuzzy franchises that dominated summer and then came back again in the late fall.  They were wrong, and didn't even care to admit it.  Instead they seemed to cop their response from the miserable trailer.

In this instance, I'm perhaps asking you to give this movie another shot.  Approach it with an entirely open mind if you have to.  I haven't seen Killing Them Softly yet, either, but it strikes me as a similar case, a movie that should have at least developed a cult following (whether because of director Andrew Dominik or actor Brad Pitt).  Actually, let me mention at least one movie I've seen that may be comparable to it: Warrior, Tom Hardy's best movie to date.  The critics didn't mind lauding that one, although silently.  It was ignored at awards season.  But it deserved then and deserves now a far greater audience.  Give that one a shot.  Give this one a shot.  Give Killing Them Softly a shot!

Because although recent months have proven that audiences still care about adult material, it never hurts to support even the apparent failures.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

#636. Next Generation Rewind: Guinan Edition

Guinan (played by Whoopi Goldberg) first appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation in the second season premiere "The Child," and would go on to make twenty-seven more appearance in the series, plus a minor supporting role in Star Trek Generations and a cameo in Nemesis.

In her initial appearances Guinan was shrouded in mystery.  Although presented as the host of the Ten Forward lounge and its bartender, clearly she was something more.  She was the only being who ever managed to challenge Q.  And her relationship with Picard was one of his most intimate.  Yet it wasn't until Generations that we learned what her species was.  In a way, it was a letdown.  Gradually the mystique of the character fell.  We learned her race survived, barely, their encounter with the Borg.  They became a race of wanderers.  Her first meeting with Picard was after all a fairly routine Next Generation adventure.  And her people, the El-Aurians, seemed like just another ordinary life-form after all.

Then again maybe not.

Generations also featured as its primary villain Dr. Tolian Soran, the man obsessed with getting back into the Nexus energy ribbon that served as the gateway to a land of heart's content.  It's my contention that better understanding this man will help you better understand El-Aurians in general, and Guinan specificially.

Soran describes (while he's torturing poor Geordi La Forge, incidentally!) his people as listeners.  It's a strange if cryptic remark, certainly.  When coupled with his actions throughout the rest of the movie, and all that experience with Guinan, perhaps it can make a little more sense.  Everything we know about the El-Aurians (which, by the way, can probably be translated as The Listeners) comes from the post-Borg invasion era, when the entire population was dispersed.  All El-Aurians essentially became loners.

Now, we never see what Soran's heart's content in the Nexus is.  If the visions shared by Jim Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard are any indication, however, the Nexus appears best motivated to bring out strong feelings of home and family, either once experienced or strongly yearned for.  I contend, therefore, that Soran's vision was one of times past.

He was described as a family man, before the Borg, a husband and father, self-professed as benevolent in this previous life, until provoked to desperation, a need to find his way back there.  The Nexus was this opportunity.  For anyone, this seems like a good enough quest, despite the extreme measures Soran takes to achieve it.  But just perhaps, it's even more important to an El-Aurian.

Listeners.  We didn't need Soran to tell us El-Aurians were good listeners.  Picard had Deanna Troi as ship's counselor, sure, but just as many passengers opted to use Guinan for this emotional relief.  She was at her best when she hardly said anything at all.  She helped people understand what they already knew, with just a few key insights offered as she listened.  More than the imp Q described, Guinan's true gift was the ability to be exactly what she needed to be.

Perhaps, just perhaps, because that's what she knew best, from her previous life.  We know she was already an adventurer, traveling the stars even before her whole race became exiles.  She was looking for her personal version of what all El-Aurians already knew, a deep sense of family (in Nemesis she makes a joke of how many times she's been married), an interconnectedness, where words aren't absolutely necessary to feel a sense of community.  Listeners don't tend to talk.  They know, on an intrinsic level.  Imagine a whole culture of people like that.  Imagine, then, the El-Aurians.

Guinan was never as desperate as Soran.  She was able to fill the void left by leaving her people behind in a number of ways.  Her curiosity was subtle, but it was there.  Why else travel to Earth in the 19th century, when most other aliens wouldn't have cared less about the activities of humans?  She was a connoisseur.  Why else become a bartender?

Besides, she met Picard.  Someone who truly understood her on a personal level.  They were kindred spirits.  Her appearance in Generations may be Guinan's most significant.  If Picard, or Guinan, had ever considered it, theirs was the solution they ever needed to their problems.  Why else would Guinan have the ability to visit someone else's vision?  She already belonged in Picard's.  It was unspoken.  Well, perhaps perfectly El-Aurian.

The way Guinan and Picard met, it was nothing fussy.  And maybe that's exactly how it should have been after all.  He rescues her, but doesn't make a big deal about it.  He doesn't have to.  He's the best version of himself in that moment.  Perhaps El-Aurians always know the best version of the people they encounter.  Someone like Soran will have been past the ability to appreciate this.  But someone like Guinan?  The definition of her existence.

This is all there in Generations.  I think I was always aware of it, but only recently came to appreciate it.  For most fans, the movie is a vaguely (at best) disappointing affair, the anticlimactic meeting between Kirk and Picard, best known for the unsatisfying way Kirk dies.  Of course, by his own admission (from The Final Frontier), he always knew he'd die alone, away from his own family, and that's exactly what he does here.  In a way that's the most appropriate way he could have died.  Everything about Generations is subtle like that.  Picard, meanwhile, is suffering an emotional crisis during the whole story, having lost his beloved nephew, in whom he had placed all his dreams for the future.  Picard is halfway between Kirk and Soran.  His guiding light?  Guinan.  I always liked that character.  Maybe that's why I always liked Generations.  The more I think about it, the more I like it, too.  It's a subtle story (when anyone else would have gone full bombast on such an occasion), a perfect Next Generation story, the only one of its movies to significantly feature Guinan.  It only figures.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

#635. The Doctor hits 50 years

Doctor Who, you may have heard, is turning 50 today.  I mean, in his TV adventures.  I'm sure he's much older, in aggregate and all that.

I'm not going to write too much except to mark the celebration because to date I've seen very little of the Doctor's many adventures except for the odd Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant episodes.  If I manage it, I'll watch one of the noncanonical Peter Cushing movies, Doctor Who and the Daleks, tonight, which I nicked from the workplace breakroom for the occasion.


[EDIT: Didn't end up watching the movie, but saw Seussical, a musical filled with Whos.  It's pretty much the same thing.]

Friday, November 22, 2013

11/22/13 (#634.)

For just this once, I'm going to play it straight, go with the historical record as it currently stands:

The conspiracy theorists are wrong.  Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.  He was the lone gunman.  He assassinated John Fitzgerald Kennedy fifty years ago today in Dallas, Texas.

Earlier this year, I read Stephen King's work of fiction, 11/22/63, which tracks one man's extraordinary chance to change history when he discovers a portal to the past, which deposits him just a few years before the assassination.  With the help of notes made by his predecessor, the man tracks Oswald's whole course.  It's fascinating reading.  King even goes so far as to suggest the most obvious way a conspiracy might have happened, but still ends up playing it straight, backing away from any real suggestion that it was anything but Oswald's idea.  I would suggest that if you read any one book about it this year, this would be it.

The thing about the book is that it sort of demonstrates an eerie, fearful symmetry in the course of Oswald's life.  Anyone who knows much about JFK's life should know how much of a prime motivator his father was in his decision to enter politics.  If you're not being generous, you could say Joseph Kennedy harassed and bullied his son into public service.  And as King depicts it, it was all but exactly the same for Oswald and his overbearing mother.

I would not go so far as to say Oswald was a monster.  A horribly misguided idealist, yes, but not a monster.  And a guy who was hounded all his life, maybe that above all else.  He was swept up in the Cold War era, certainly.  He went the full Communist.  He became a zealot.  He even petitioned for citizenship in the U.S.S.R. after serving in the U.S. military.  He took up the Cuba cause.  You have the Communist, Soviet, and Cuban connections the conspirarists are always looking for fit snugly in the one figure of Lee Harvey Oswald.

I think he managed to look as innocent as he did, gave all the fuel to the belief that he couldn't have acted alone, or perhaps wasn't guilty at all, because essentially he was the opposite of Kennedy in about every way.  He was a guy who tried to do what he felt was right.  He might have been wrong in every way, but he made every effort he could.

Even the day of his lasting infamy, the hand of fate seemed to be guiding him.  The conspirarists insist that the shots as recorded could not have been achieved by a single shooter.  There is still other testimony that he could have at least gotten off all the necessary shots in the allotted amount of time.  Let's keep the argument.  Suppose he pulled off the impossible.  Every other thing he tried Oswald was basically a failure.  But put him in the cross-hairs of history, and somehow he pulled it off.  He had to.  This was his moment.  He succeeded in getting his message across.  He struck a blow for all his most cherished beliefs.

Now, to be clear, I'm not condoning or exonerating Oswald.  I contend that the course of American history shifted for the worse that day.  Kennedy remains an idol of mine, flaws and all.  He was perhaps the last truly great citizen we've had.

I'm just saying, maybe today we can put some of those old ideas we've been entertaining for fifty years to rest.  Lee Harvey Oswald was a very small man.  In his head he was much bigger.  But the truth was he just wasn't.  He never seemed big enough, important enough to have done the deed.  But in the fearful symmetry, it's there.  Perhaps because he didn't seem big enough is the only reason you need to accept that he did do it.  Fates collided that day, an awful mark of destiny.

History may not soon forget either man.  In fact, I think we're only starting to know both of them.

Rest in peace, Jack.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

#633. 150 years ago today...the Gettysburg Address

This was the speech that wasn't supposed to make history.  It was short, not even the featured one on the dedication day.  Lincoln, to be frank, wasn't even that popular.  He got in, got out, and probably thought that was the end of it.

But the Gettysburg Address has become not only a cornerstone of his legacy, but one of the defining moments in the Civil War, American history, politics...It became pretty important.  Here's the text, with italicized phrases that demonstrate how pervasive it's become, because you will surely recognize them:

Four scour and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.  We are met on a great battle-field of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. 
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.  The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.  It is for the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

It is indeed a short speech, and much of it is filled with formalities, but it reaches a crescendo at precisely the moment it needs to, striking memorable turns of phrase, some of them ironic (we do note, Abe, we do), and none of them addressed directly to Union or Confederate interests, but rather the nation as a whole, which was always his great concern.  It's remarkable for everything it isn't, and for everything it is.  No politician today would stake his reputation on so few words, although some of his noteworthy successors (FDR, JFK, Reagan) as orators understood what he had stumbled upon in all modesty, that it's not the empty rhetoric but sincere emotion and conviction that rings most true.

Monday, November 18, 2013

#632. Mr Data - Computa Ergo Sum

One of the most famous characters from Star Trek: The Next Generation is the android Data, who famously suffered from a Pinocchio complex, in that all he really wanted was to become "a real boy."  That is, he wanted to be more human, or as he puts it in Star Trek Nemesis, "to grow beyond [his] original programming."

And that's all well and good.  I think it's safe to say that fans generally accepted this arc at face value, that it was perfectly fine for him to have this goal, as it helped him be the classic Spock figure in the franchise, commenting on the human condition from an outsider's perspective.  But really, why would an android want something like that?  I mean, especially for an organization like Starfleet, Data would have every advantage over his colleagues.  Although maybe that's the point.

Data was created by the eccentric scientist Noonian Soong, who had been driven to the fringes of society in the pursuit of his dream.  The initial results of Soong's efforts perhaps justified this position, the terror of Data's complete opposite, Lore, who in fact called up the destruction of the colony world where Soong worked by communicating with the Crystalline Entity, among other bad behavior.  Soong was so scandalized by this prototype who acted too human that he started from scratch when he began work on Data.

Years later, Data was discovered in the ruins of the colony by a Starfleet survey mission, and appears to have made the decision on the spot to join the organization.  He advanced through the ranks in the common way, acting like just another recruit and then serving on various starships as just another member of the crew.  The only captain he ever had who seemed to recognize that Data was special was Jean-Luc Picard.  And it appears that under Picard's command Data felt most free to pursue his passion of becoming more human.

But again, why would he want that?  Chances are, because of a culture of fear.  He probably didn't encounter too many humans who accepted an android being an android at face value.  Although robotic life was present as far as Kirk's time some seventy years earlier, it was still the exception to the rule.  Like Spock (the only regular Vulcan), like Worf (the only Klingon), and later Nog (the only Ferengi), Data was one of a kind, the only artificial being to serve in Starfleet.

It's far easier to accommodate inclusiveness when there are a lot of individuals being assimilated into a culture, when you don't feel you're making a special effort because you see many colleagues you know making it, too.  It's far harder when it appears to be very much the exception.

Data being Data, who at the time of his rescue didn't have emotions, he probably didn't register hostility against him as anything other than observations.  But all the talent and ability in the world can't be used properly when it isn't encouraged to reach its full potential.  Then again, maybe Data scared Starfleet, made it feel as if the whole concept might become obsolete if you had a single individual who could perform the same functions as an entire crew complement.  

So instead of using his vast computing capabilities to their fullest extent, Data goes with the flow and more or less lives inside his own head for years on end.

And, eventually, decides that someone who can do anything only wants to be more human.  Perhaps it's a response to a feeling of being excluded, always being left out when he can't understand how his colleagues seem to get along so well with each other.  

It may also have started as an experiment, a challenge Data took because he saw it as a challenge he couldn't easily meet, something that would be incredibly rare for him.  We'll call that the positive alternative in this discussion, and it's a perfectly valid argument.  At some point, it would have become an obsession, so that he no longer consciously remembered in that neural net of his the original impetus.

But you have to admit, Starfleet has a poor record in his regard.  Even after years of distinguished service, Data is still considered an object rather than an individual.  Picard has to defend his valued officer's very existence in an impromptu trial.  And in the years to come, the Emergency Medical Hologram program proves that if the debate is shifted to a different lifeform than Data, the results of this victory on Data's behalf are easily nullified.

Perhaps the fear is warranted.  There's the Borg to consider, a collective of organic individuals who have decided (through coercion) that machinery is needed in the equation to perfect it, reach perfection itself.  In a way a purely artificial existence is the end goal of the Borg mentality, a gradual retroconversion process that doesn't hesitate, much as Lore behaved, to ignore the massive harm it causes along the way to achieve it.  Cold logic, in a twisted way Vulcans would never approve.

The idea of a robotic lead character was something that fascinated Gene Roddenberry for years.  It might be argued that Data was based on the earlier Roddenberry creation Questor, star of an aborted 1970s TV show.  Star Trek's creator also had the conflict between artificial and human life on the brain when he conceived Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which many still believe offers an origin for the Borg in the machine world V'ger comes back from to start its insane quest to meet its own creator, which it subsequently refuses to believe could have been something other than a direct reflection of itself, a man rather than machine.

A good episode to explore some of the implications of Data's quest would actually be "Deja Q," in which the merry prankster Q is made human as punishment for his mayhem, and ends up bonding with Data during the transition process, an understated if elegant commentary on the whole affair.  Why would Q, who had never previously nor again bother too much with Data, spend so much time with the android in the one circumstance where he seemed least fit to offer guidance?  Because they were in the same boat.  Data wanted to be human.  Q was forced to be human.  Both of them tried to figure out what these circumstances mean.  And so they learned from each other.

We meet another of Data's "brothers" in Nemesis, the prototype B4, who is a child compared to Data and Lore, sporting only basic cognitive abilities.  It's almost an insult to consider that Soong could have created something like him, a huge step down from his siblings.  Was he an earlier effort, or perhaps later?  Either way, Data takes it upon himself to give B4 the chance to grow beyond his original programming as well, downloading a complete set of his memory engrams into his brother in an effort to spur development by way of increased curiosity.

Was that it, though, was it mere curiosity that caused Data's quest in the first place?  I know I suggested it already, but could it have been something so cold as that?  It seems unlikely, at least in later years.  His friendship with Geordi La Forge was genuine, that much was apparent, perhaps because Geordi didn't judge him (because he himself knew what it was to be an outsider), and could actively help in mechanical matters, even when he didn't agree with the end results (such as all circumstances around the emotion chip that dominated Data's later development).

Data was a product of his creation, but he was also the son of the environment around him.  Regardless of Starfleet prejudice, he appears to have been motivated by the need to adapt himself, to be something more than he was when he started.  Tellingly, every step of the way he never stopped being himself.  He always remained true to his unique perspective, no matter how much he studied the world around him.  Did Soong construct a dreamer?  It appears so.  Data's only ambition was to explore the possibilities of the universe, and humans were a way to appreciate them more fully.  So in the equation of his life, Data computed that the best way to achieve his goals was to become "a real boy."

Did he take himself for granted, along with everyone else but Picard and his crew?  Perhaps.  But for Data, I don't think this was cause for too much concern.  He created android life, too.  He knew what that was all about.  He didn't see himself as a set of incredible abilities, but rather the abilities he was lacking.  If nothing else, that's the Star Trek message in sum.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

#631. Seven good memories from Lois & Clark after everyone stopped watching

I loved Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, unabashedly.  The 1993-1997 romantic drama featured a more human take on the Man of Steel, and was for a time one of the hottest shows on television.  Then of course the show runners faked the wedding near the middle of the third season, and fans were not happy.  A little more than a season later, the series was an afterthought and then quickly cancelled.  I might argue that its cultural effect lasted a little longer.  Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films, for instance, put a huge emphasis on Peter Parker's love life, something the comics only sporadically attempt (the last time this was at all relevant was when he controversially ended his marriage to MJ...but fans actually did get over it).  It might be said that like Lois & Clark they were more about a dude who sometimes swings around NYC in a funny costume and otherwise spends all his time obsessing over a girl...just like Clark Kent before him.  (When your crushes are portrayed by Kirsten Dunst and Teri Hatcher, you are okay to obsess.)

How to redeem the series more directly?  Well, for starters, by pointing out that the series did not actually suck after that botched wedding.  And that maybe even that post-wedding arc was ahead of its time.  Here's the list:

  1. Tempus/H.G. Wells episodes.  These started in the second season, with this this classic scene  from "Tempus Fugitive" (that my family endlessly quotes), but more followed, and it would be a shame if this part of the series were to be forgotten.  Tempus (brilliantly portrayed by Lane Davies) came from the future, while H.G. Wells ("Herb" to Tempus) was H.G. Wells (in two incarnations).  The first time they appear it totally makes sense, and then it makes even more sense to keep bringing them back because they're instant icons for the show, a part of the Superman that remains entirely its own.  The second Tempus/Wells episode immediately precedes the "wedding," and it's called "Tempus, Anyone?" but the fourth season entries are better, including "Soul Mates" (which follows the real wedding) and "Meet John Doe"/"Lois and Clarks," a two-part follow-up to "Tempus, Anyone?" about an alternate timeline where Clark never became Superman.  Maybe you have to be a fan of the series already to love these so much, but then they may also be the best selling point to get you back into it.
  2. The post-"wedding" arc.  This was circa 1996.  Outside of a few exceptions that didn't reach near as wide an audience as Lois & Clark in its prime, serialized storytelling was just not something that happened on TV, but here it is.  After their wedding is crashed, Lois and Clark undergo the worst test of their relationship ever (worse than Dan Scardino!), including an amnesia period that saw Lois become a sensational cabaret singer (totally worth it), and an appearance by comics regular Bibbo, a character who had his high point after Superman's death at the hands of Doomsday, an arc that was created, by the way, to delay the comics wedding so it could coincide with Lois & Clark's.  No, not the frog wedding.  Having an arc that had something to say other than "will they or won't they" helped open the door to shows like Lost a decade later.  Thank you frog wedding.
  3. The last appearances of Lex Luthor.  John Shea's Lex was a major part of the show's first season.  His loss was a major blow to the series, the only stumble it never truly recovered from, although of course it enabled Lois to finally take Clark seriously.  So it only figures that his final appearances followed the frog wedding, because who else would stand to benefit from such a farce?  And isn't it at least worth celebrating one last return engagement from another of the show's icons?
  4. Lord Nor.  Lois & Clark didn't have the iconic General Zod.  Instead it had Nor, portrayed by the brilliant Simon Templeman (and before you argue that I've just described both Davies and Templeman the same way, quite unoriginally, they both earn it).  Templeman can now be found in Neighbors, which is equally brilliant.  Nor's appearances were part of Clark's temporary departure to live with some newly discovered fellow Kryptonian survivors.  To get out of it, he had to go the full American, er, Kryptonian Gladiator on Nor.  But Nor had better hair.  And henchmen.  The one thing Superman always needed was henchmen.  Although that would probably alter his image a little...
  5. Justin Whalin & Lane Smith.  Whalin was the second Jimmy Olsen, after someone finally figured out that the original actor looked a little too much like Dean Cain.  He slipped into the role perfectly, with an infectious enthusiasm that brought a whole new energy to the series.  Lane Smith, meanwhile, was the reason this version of Perry White was obsessed with (Great Shades of) Elvis (as opposed to the more traditional expression of "Great Caesar's ghost").  As the series progressed, they got to have a great deal of fun playing off of each other, to the point where it was almost like watching two different series, one called Lois & Clark and the other Jimmy & Perry.  And that would not have been a bad thing at all.  These guys deserved a spin-off.
  6. "Bob and Carol and Lois and Clark."  The myth of any series that relies heavily on romantic tension is that when the actual romance happens, all the goodness is lost, and you no longer need to care about it.  I don't know about other famous examples (such as Moonlighting), but that just wasn't the case with Lois & Clark, and this fourth season episode is a prime example, and a pretty clever one at that.  Bob and Carol are a rival couple sharing the same secret, only Bob is a supervillain instead of superhero.  And the story pretty much writes itself.  Not so bad, is it?
  7. "Twas the Night Before Mxymas."  Another gem from the fourth season features the famous fifth dimensional imp Mxyzptlk as portrayed by Howie Mandell.  But more importantly, it's one of those time loop stories where the day keeps repeating itself, only in this one things keep getting more grim, which becomes hugely entertaining after a while, until the imp is inevitably defeated.  Maybe not completely relevant if you're a Mxyzptlk completist, but an episode that proves the series was still fully capable of firing on all cylinders in its final season.
And one last note worth keeping in mind, what became the series finale introduced what would have been even more revolutionary in Superman lore than the wedding of Lois and Clark, and that was the idea of a baby in the Kent family.  It would have been extremely interesting to see how that might have developed.  Just saying.

Monday, November 11, 2013

#630. Seven benefits of an aging Kirk

This is an interesting time for Star Trek fans.  We're back to a point where we're only getting one out of the two screen versions of the franchise that we've been able to enjoy in the past.  Star Trek began, of course, as a TV experience, then came back in the movies, where it existed exclusively in that form for almost a decade, and then we had a period where it was both (and a lot of both!) for a considerable stretch.  Based on the reception of Star Trek Into Darkness, it's clear fans still remember that last movies-only era very well, as their devotion to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan remains unabated.  The funny thing is, those movies are among the most unlikely film phenomena ever.  I mean, there's the Cocoon films and the Grumpy Old Men films (and the other Matthau/Lemmon projects that ensued), but it's still incredibly rare for movies to spotlight a cast of aging actors, let alone a whole series of them.  Usually it's always young.  I mean, the new Star Trek films feature those same characters, back when they were far younger (even younger than at the start of the original series!).  Imagine, though, if they'd featured the older Kirk?  Would that be so bad?  Here's some things fans got a a result of that peculiar era:

  • Character growth.  One of the hallmarks of the original Star Trek series was that it was basically episodic, as were most TV shows of that time, meaning there wasn't a lot of impact from story to story, nothing that was really carried on or progressed.  That was far from the case in the movies.  Kirk was immediately seen as a melancholy man reluctant to move on with his career in The Motion Picture, a theme that persisted in Wrath of Khan.  For a man previously identified by his passions, for being the very picture of youthful enthusiasm and gung-ho attitude, this was quite a progression.
  • Everyone ages around him.  Career-wise it was probably ridiculous that he kept the whole familiar crew around him.  Sure, the gang was systematically reassembled around Kirk in Motion Picture (notably McCoy and Spock, along with a telling remark from Scotty, always the Fourth Man of this merry band), but as they grew older these guys really should have gotten new assignments, promotions, all that.  Chekov got that in Wrath of Khan.  Sulu was famously supposed to get the same thing in that movie, only to be delayed that privilege until The Undiscovered Country four entries later.  Uhura?  No idea.  I guess she didn't have much ambition.  But they were still getting older, and McCoy only became, to my mind, a better character because of it, more assured of his easy, comic cynicism.  What's not to love about that?  Without McCoy there to help commemorate it, the aging Kirk would have lost a good deal of his impact.
  • Spock.  Spock benefited the most from this.  The more things stayed the same the more he changed, the more he grew, even more than McCoy, into the best version of himself.  Everyone already loved Spock.  I'm not talking about the death-and-return arc.  That only served to acknowledge how important he was to the whole thing, even if Kirk was the face of Star Trek.  I'm talking how he grew into his role as the Yoda of Star Trek, the wise sage, not merely the Vulcan of cold logic and one-liners during spirited exchanges with McCoy, but the Spock who was capable of breathing on his own, who wasn't defined equally by his friendship with Kirk.  In fact, his arc of returning from the dead helped make that possible, served to illustrate how Kirk and Spock truly complemented each other.  And yet it's in Undiscovered Country where the character reaches his apex, especially in contrast to Kirk.  Here they view an opportunity for peace with the Klingons quite differently.  It's the heart of the conflict that JJ Abrams would later explore in his own films.  So that's the origin of that.
  • A new generation grows around him.  We meet Kirk's son in the movies.  Who would've ever imagined the thought in the series?  But it was easy natural by the time it happened.  And a competent new Vulcan in Saavik.  Even Decker.  Of course, none of them survives quite the way Kirk and his crew did, and would continue to do.  David doesn't come back from the dead, Spock does.  We leave Saavik behind.  And Decker doesn't even survive his first appearance, much less his ill-fated lover Ilia.  And yet as Kirk ages we see the seeds of what he planted.  It just happens that he continues to be larger than life.
  • Christopher Plummer!  This may be a most curious argument, but I suspect Plummer's appearance in Undiscovered Country helped remind movie fans that he existed.  After a sensational splash in his younger years in The Sound of Music, Plummer faded into the background.  It didn't happen immediately, but after Undiscovered Country the aging Plummer became a staple in the movies.  Had there been no aging Kirk there would have been no compelling need for an equally aging Klingon adversary.  And Plummer's Chang deserves a place in the annals of great Star Trek villains, precisely for Plummer's distinguished performance.  And we've gotten many more since then, and I for one am very pleased about that.
  • Kirk's true significance.  The aging Kirk put his whole career in context.  By the time of Undiscovered Country, after he'd succeeded in keeping himself active as a starship captain rather than admiral or something else, we saw how the rest of Starfleet compensated around him.  Yes, I've discussed how his force of will still held back subsequent generations, but the rank and file eventually started catching up with him, and I think that's how Spock finally reached the point he did.  Kirk never did accept the responsibility of driving policy.  He preferred to remain active as the guy figuring things out rather than the one shaping the course going ahead.  That meant that all the experience he had with the Klingons amounted to others deciding what to do with them, and he was forced to accede to their ideas, or rather Spock's.  And what this means is that while Kirk always seemed the superstar, maybe he wasn't as much as one for Starfleet as he liked to believe.  He saved the galaxy many times over, but this would never have been possible without those around him providing support.  The films, especially Undiscovered Country, make that clear.  It's the sobering thought he may have had early on, why he backed away from further responsibility.  This is not to diminish the man's career, but rather to suggest that even as a form of greatness Kirk had to accept that the comparative mundane world around him still existed, and was the better for it.
  • Picard!  The aging Kirk made it possible to imagine other aging captains.  Several generations later, the latest captain of the Enterprise is a man already decades into his career, head (not quite) full of grew hair, and confident that he's fully capable of getting the job done.  And that's exactly what Jean-Luc Picard does!  And, arguably, he did the job better.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

#629. Seven filmmakers (alive and dead) who could pull off a Savage Detectives movie

As you may have figured in recent months, I'm slightly obsessed with the late Chilean author Roberto Bolano.  Although his masterpiece 2666 remains my favorite, I recently read The Savage Detectives, which is probably better known outside of obsessives like me.  What would a movie based on this book look like?  Well, there's a number of ways that could go, and to help familiarize you with just what kind of book Savage Detectives is, here's a breakdown of directors past and present who could make it a reality:

  • Robert Altman.  The late director of the original film version of M*A*S*H among other classics, but that's the touchstone I was watching the other night when I realized the connection.  The movie is different from the Alan Alda series in a lot of ways.  Hawkeye Pierce, for instance, is played by Donald Sutherland, who would otherwise probably never have a chance of being confused for Alda, while Trapper John is played by Elliot Gould (a young Tom Skerritt plays a third member of this merry band not represented in the series).  The anarchic appeal of Sutherland and Gould is a good analogy for Savage Detectives main characters Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, who similarly spread chaos at a frenetic pace, the signature style of Altman.  The Altman Savage Detectives would feature Belano and Lima mostly from the opening and closing sequences from the book, where the pair are engaged in the events that most closely unite them, a chaotic sequence of events much like literary warfare (which like the movie's closing football game picks up the action considerably in the end).
  • Orson Welles.  Belano and Lima are obsessed with discovering the fate of their ideological forebear Cesarea Tinajero, very similar to the classic Wellesian archetype featured in such films as Citizen Kane and Mr. Arkadin.  This would be much more of a noir/mystery type of interpretation, and certainly a stark contrast to an Altman rendition.  But that's how you begin to see the breadth of the storytelling in the book.
  • Robert Rodriguez.  Perhaps the most famous maverick filmmaker active today is Rodriguez, who has been actively pursuing certain projects obsessively, including his Spy Kids, Machete, and Mariachi franchises, even while the public never quite connects with him.  That's Belano and Lima in a nutshell, although the Rodriguez version of the story would either spin the same sequence as Altman or heavily feature the middle section of the book, where even more classic Rodriguezian chaos ensues, with the central characters Belano and Lima drifting in and out of the plot.
  • Quentin Tarantino.  The constant and more successful counterpart to Rodriguez is of course Tarantino, whose Savage Detectives would perhaps offer a third version of the Belano/Lima framing narrative, this time from the perspective of Quim Font, the possibly future-deranged father of daughters featured in this sequence who would provide a clear yet intriguing and very, very talky perspective.  If that's not Tarantino I don't know what is.
  • Terry Gilliam.  Savage Detectives has been called a modern Don Quixote, a story Gilliam has famously tried to tell before (hilariously and depressingly related in the documentary Lost in La Mancha), although it can be argued that like Welles, Gilliam has spent his career retelling the same story over and over again anyway, and it's always Quixote.  This version again focuses on Belano and Lima, but is probably the first one that could embrace the whole book.
  • Sofia Coppola.  The female voice exists loud and clear in Savage Detectives, whether in the prostitute Lupe featured in the framing narrative or Maria Font, Quim's daughter who is among the most prominent voices of the middle section and also featured prominently in the Belano/Lima sequence.  Coppola has mastered the art of capturing the quiet desperation of women struggling to cope with situations that seem to spiral out of their control.  Hers would be a unique but still very much identifiable take on the book.
  • Andrew Dominik.  Perhaps the least known name in this list beyond Roberto Bolano himself, Dominik intrigues me as a possibility on the continuing strength of his brilliant masterpiece, the perennially overlooked Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (on that basis Dominik and Bolano have plenty in common).  His version of Savage Detectives would also court the Belano/Lima narrative, but instead focus on the character who's technically the lead in those events, Juan Garcia Madero, who like the lead in Dominik's film, Robert Ford, could easily be described as a creepy groupie whose presence only fouls up events for the more famous people he gravitates toward.  In contrast to an Altman or Tarantino approach, Dominik's would be considerably more contemplative, evocative, poetic.  Which again would be very much in the spirit of Roberto Bolano himself.
And with five out of these seven directors actively capable of making this happen, the theoretical probability of a film version worthy of itself being made of The Savage Detectives remains a distinct possibility.  And there are probably a few other directors worth considering as well, including certainly Darren Aronofsky, the Coens, and even Joe Carnahan.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

#628. Ode-athon recap!

The Ode-athon is done!

I wrote about a lot of writers.  A lot of writers!  And this past week I've been reading John le Carre, and he turns out to be good enough where I probably would have included him too if I'd read him before.  Just good stuff, but you'll be reading about that for this month's Cephalopod Coffeehouse.

What did my fine friends write about?

David Walston chose a bunch of writers, too.  We ended up sharing the fine gent Douglas Adams, and there were also Gary Jennings, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.

Pat Dilloway went with John Irving, who should come as no surprise to anyone who's followed Pat for a while.  He helpfully provided a link to something he wrote way back in 2004, and then a complete decoding of all the references!

The Geek Twins chose Michael Crichton, and proceeded to write about the best and worst film adaptations of the late author's considerable backlist.

Armchair Squid decided on Maurice Sendak, the author and illustrator of the seminal Where the Wild Things Are.  Squid, by the way, is also captain of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse.  He's got a helpful sign-up sheet for the next meeting waiting for you!

Friday, November 08, 2013

#627. Seven lost elements of Star Trek: The Next Generation if you only know it from the films

So, I'm a big Star Trek fan.  What I'm about to write would be completely impossible for me, since I know pretty much the whole franchise like the back of my hand [insert Scotty punchline from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and bonus points if you know what it is], including the four Next Generation films [more bonus points if you can name them] as well as all seven seasons of the show.

Still, it astonishes me to think that it remains a very real possibility that a large chunk of the show's legacy would be lost on someone who only knows it from the films.  Granted, the show itself remains the most-watched of all the Star Trek series, but it's easier to catch up new fans with the movies than to sit through 170+ episodes.

If you're one of those newer fans, here's what you're missing:

  1. Q!  Serious Next Generation fans would be so upset with you!  Q is practically a member of the main cast, not because he made so many appearances (eight in all, actually) but because of the large impact he made with an instantly iconic personality (which is all the funnier to think about because originally the part wasn't even in the pilot, where he debuted along with almost everyone else).  For years fans clamored for him to be featured in a movie, but it never happened.  Can you even imagine what that would have been like?  No doubt vastly differently from every other one Paramount has yet released, for starters.  But seriously!  Can the fans imagine Next Generation without Q?  It's inconceivable!
  2. Tasha Yar.  A series regular in the first season, Yar was killed off before the end of that freshmen year at the behest of actress Denise Crosby, who thought she was being vastly underutilized.  In later years she realized her huge blunder (the show grew immensely in popularity two seasons later), and returned a number of times in various Substitute Yar roles, but she's the first of the series regulars who aren't represented in the films.  
  3. Wesley Crusher.  He's there if you don't blink in Nemesis, but otherwise the boy wonder is also a stark absence from the films even though, like Q, it would be hard to imagine the series without him (even if you hated the character).  Actually, now that I think about it, maybe the Q movie could have also been a Wesley Crusher movie.  You may recall that Wes's whole arc in the series revolved around a strange alien known as the Traveler whose vast abilities were only hinted at, a note Wes left on, actually, having attained the same powers.  Pit that against Q.  What do you get?
  4. Dr. Pulaski.  This one is the third of the series regulars who didn't appear in the films.  The character was actually a replacement for Wesley's mother in the second season, after Dr. Crusher's actress likewise wondered in the first season what happened to the role she thought she'd accepted (although Beverly would indeed return and in fact appear in all of the films).  Fans weren't too keen on Pulaski, sure, mostly because she was the rare negative voice around Data, and she could be misconstrued as a female "Bones" McCoy.  I always wondered why she was never brought up again after the second season, much less in the films.  
  5. Lore.  Speaking of Data, even though we saw another lost "brother" of his in the films, we never saw his "evil twin," who was such an integral part of the android's character arc in the series that the emotion chip that alters his role so much in the films actually came from Lore.  And yet no Lore in the movies.
  6. O'Brien.  This one actually baffles me the most.  Miles O'Brien was portrayed by Colm Meaney, who arguably is the most successful film actor to ever appear in Star Trek.  And yet for some reason he never appeared in a Star Trek film.  Who doesn't love O'Brien?  You could argue that his character definitely moved on when he transitioned to Deep Space Nine, moreso than Worf, who still managed to appear in every film, but still, huge opportunity lost.  Perhaps it would have been too distracting?  You certainly wouldn't want to waste Meaney in a cameo or bit role.  And anything else might have been too substantial and distracting from the core cast, many of whom constantly struggled for noteworthy material as it was in the films.  But still!
  7. Alexander.  Worf's son would probably have been completely out of place in the films, but he was still a substantial legacy of the series.  He popped up in Deep Space Nine, too, but the little warrior could have demonstrated a different character arc in fate had played out differently.  But again, not without altering the nature of the films.  Some would argue that as being a good thing, but then, we would never have gotten Abrams Trek.  And I love me Abrams Trek.
Anything else you care to bring up?

Thursday, November 07, 2013

#626. Geeky Bit: Harrison Ford and the origin of that Star Wars scene

Perhaps one of the more notorious scenes from Star Wars Episode IV - A New Hope is the scene in the Mos Eisley cantina where Han Solo is confronted by Greedo.  This is because of the fact that Han is originally depicted as unequivicably shooting first.  I say "originally" because George Lucas started monkeying around with that as he revised the movie in subsequent releases.  Here's a video about it:

Well you can all rest easy because I've come to the only conclusion worth talking about that will never be contradicted: Harrison Ford shot first.

He did so in a 1973 episode of Gunsmoke, in fact.  See if you don't find it awfully familiar:

It's like Lucas originally borrowed that scene for his own movie frame for frame (in the crucial shooting moment, anyway, as there is a shocking lack of Miss Kitty in Star Wars lore).  Maybe I'm far away in terms of how much if at all anyone's talked about this before, but I happened to catch the Gunsmoke episode the other day, and at first it was just a pleasure to see Ford at all, and then to see that play out was even more incredible.

And it's highly unlikely that anyone from Gunsmoke is ever going to edit Hobey's actions any other way.

So if you want to retain the purity of Han Solo's bloody preemptive measures, that's where you should look.  I guess it somehow figures, since Han was always a kind of cowboy anyway.  And yet Ford didn't play another cowboy until this:

(Which, no matter what they say, is absolutely awesome.)

Monday, November 04, 2013

#625. Seven artifacts of Boomtown

One of my all-time favorite TV shows is Boomtown, which lasted about a season and a half, airing from September 2002 to December 2003.  The first season was widely hailed by critics at the time, but its innovative, immersive storytelling was a tough sell to viewers.  An attempt to broaden the appeal in its second season didn't fare too well, and may have even alienated existing fans.

Here are some of the things worth remembering about it:

  • Graham Yost and John Avnet.  Yost (primarily a writer) went on to create the Elmore Leonard-inspired Justified, which has enjoyed a modest cult following, where Avnet (primarily a director) has joined him.  Yost is perhaps best known for his hand in the Spielberg/Hanks mini-series From the Earth to the Moon, Band of Brothers, and The Pacific, all of which share Boomtown's flare for spotlighting expansive casts.  Avnet has less acclaim under his belt, although I've admired his work elsewhere in the film 88 Minutes (which is otherwise pretty much widely abhorred), and he was a producer in the innovative Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, as well as on the Mighty Ducks films.  He also directed Fried Green Tomatoes.  I imagine that if Boomtown had succeeded, their footprints in film would be wider and greater, and more easily appreciated.  
  • Neal McDonough.  Boomtown remains the highlight of McDonough's career.  I first noticed him in a small role from Star Trek: First Contact.  He's since appeared in such projects as Band of Brothers, Minority Report, Walking Tall, Medical Investigation (another TV series that lasted about as long as Boomtown), 88 Minutes, Tin Man, Desperate Housewives, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Justified.  He's best known for his piercing blue eyes, which can give him a steely, menacing look, which has more or less defined his career in Hollywood, where he gets either bit parts or villainous roles, because casting directors will either give him something small or the bad guy's part.  But he's brilliant, and never more brilliant than in Boomtown.  And so that's always been one of my favorite reasons to love Boomtown, because it's the one time where he's been given material worthy of him.
  • Donnie Wahlberg.  The second lead in Boomtown was Wahlberg, and he's easily gotten the most mileage out of his experience on the show.  He subsequently landed a similar role in Saw II, and then another in the excellent TV series Blue Bloods.  If you like him in either of those, you'll love him in Boomtown, where his performance in the pilot was its main calling card.  You may even thank Donnie for kid brother Mark Wahlberg's performances in The Departed and The Fighter (although to be fair Mark laid the groundwork for those in Three Kings, but the new aggression I argue comes from Donnie's turn here).
  • Mykelti Williamson.  The third lead was Williamson, who until that point was better known for playing Bubba in Forrest Gump (the guy who was obsessed with shrimp).  He'd previously starred in the short-lived TV remake of The Fugitive, which likely inspired his casting in Boomtown, and like McDonough has subsequently appeared in Yost's Justified.  If Boomtown had been a bigger hit, Williamson's career renaissance would have been more successful.  His work in the series was one of an endless series of highlights, but it was one of the highlights of those highlights.  By the way, his first name is pronounced "Michael T."
  • Lana Parrilla.  One of the supporting cast members in the show was Parrilla, who has gone on to much wider success in Once Upon a Time.  She was a highlight of Boomtown (along with everything else), so I tracked her career pretty much as closely as the three guys above her.  I elsewhere enjoyed Parrilla in 24 (where she appeared for half of the fourth season) and Windfall.
  • Sam Anderson.  Before showing up in Lost as Bernard, Anderson was a standout guest actor in Boomtown, bringing those trademark sad eyes with him to one of the rare instances in television where you actually care about the grieving parent.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, he's also popped up in Justified.
  • The writing.  The writing was superb.  Each episode featured a crime covered from multiple vantage points, like Rashomon on a weekly basis, not just the lead characters in the show but the criminals and victims as well.  The best episodes, however, also explored the lead characters themselves, including a standout for Williamson's character ("Fearless") and the best episode of the series, "Blackout," which explores the full nuances of McDonough's, which didn't shy from his usual villainous tendencies, but found the human beneath them (need I say he was a lawyer?).  For this reason alone, Boomtown remains the standard by which I judge ever other TV series.  But then, it did everything else excellently as well.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

#624. Seven ways to enjoy How I Met Your Mother

CBS is in the midst of broadcasting the ninth and final season of How I Met Your Mother, a sitcom I ended up loving in an instant after randomly watching one of the earliest episodes ("Okay Awesome"), but which has never really translated into a big hit despite being plenty recognizable and delivering reasonable ratings throughout its run.  I suspect it's because most people either don't understand why it's taken so long to accomplish the titular goal, or long ago dismissed it as a Friends knockoff.  Regardless, HIMYM easily solidified its position as one of my all-time favorite TV shows.  Here are some of the ways I love it:

  1. Like Prison Break.  Prison Break was a series about a singular event that somehow was accomplished after its first season but still managed to last for another three, which endlessly baffled some people but eternally fascinated me.  The strength of the premise, and extrapolation of storytelling from the basic arc (for the record, they ended up breaking out of another prison in the third season), not to mention a strong cast of compelling characters, kept me interested and continually devoted.  Which for me made the whole point of whether or not it was strictly accurate to its title entirely moot in a heartbeat.
  2. Like Red Green.  Chances are you don't even know what the heck Red Green is.  Basically it's the Canadian Home Improvement, a PBS staple about a couple of knuckleheads who believe they're the perfect males.  The point is, they're also extremely identified with their home region, a trait shared by both Marshall (who's very much from Minnesota) and Robin (who's very much from Canada, and would probably right in with Red Green).
  3. Like NewsRadio.  NewsRadio was a favorite of mine throughout its run (the show Phil Hartman was doing when he died, it also featured Maura Tierney, Stephen Root, Andy Dick, Joe Rogen, and Dave Foley), and although a critical darling and featuring all the earmarks of a beloved classic never quite reached the status of a popular darling.  HIMYM reminds me so much of it, even though they're not hugely similar otherwise.
  4. Like Seinfeld.  More than NewsRadio or Friends, HIMYM is reminiscent of the gang from the show about nothing, who randomly visited each other for the slightest reasons and regularly gathered at a diner.  Barney is about as close to a new Kramer that I've been able to find on TV, Marshall similar to George (less loud about it, though), Lily like a pint-sized Elaine.  Although Ted is not so much a Jerry.
  5. Like (500) Days of Summer.  He's far more like the hapless romantic Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays in this delightful little gem, stumbling toward love and absolutely convinced he's found it every time, just because it's his fondest desire.  HIMYM, like Days, is about as close to a male chick flick as you're ever likely to find.
  6. Like Lost.  I'll admit, one of the reasons I initially grew to enjoy HIMYM so much was because of the broadcast proximity to Lost, debuting a season later.  I'd already watched the castaways on their island of mystery for a whole year, and watched riveted as their backstories began to be revealed in flashback.  Flashbacks were an early staple of HIMYM, sometimes merely from rewound moments of Ted's narration, sometimes to far earlier points in the gang's lives, like how they all met each other.
  7. Like Pulp Fiction.  The structure of the series is so intricate, I could either reference Arrested Development, which is famous for dropping continuity Easter eggs, or this classic Quentin Tarantino film, whose labyrinthine plot is as much a signature element as its notable performances.  And as a long-time viewer, for me that's the best thing about the series, that it's so continually rewarding.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

#623. Ode-athon!

Today begins the Ode-athon!

For the purposes of this occasion, we’re considering our favorite writers, the ones who inspire us, whether merely as readers or even as writers ourselves.  They’re the ones we couldn’t live without, and have treasured for years (unless we just discovered them this year!), reading them religiously, waiting breathlessly for their next release (unless they’re dead), recommending them without reserve to all your friends.

Here’s my list, because I hate to narrow my options:

Peter Ackroyd
I fell in love with instantly when I randomly discovered his then-recent release The Plato Papers at my university bookstore at the start of the millennium.  I’ve since come to appreciate his deep sense of history and his continuing patronage of the arts in various fiction and nonfiction works (although there’s so much of it I shudder at the task of reading all of it!).  Personal favorite: still The Plato Papers, a parable about the vagaries of reputation and the certainties of civilization (where I got the “mouldwarp” from Scouring Monk’s URL).

Douglas Adams
Hardly needs an introduction, but he’s one of the seminal writers I borrowed from grade school classmates and subsequently made my own (Jerry Spinelli is another).  Known best for the Hitchhiker’s, er, “trilogy,” Adams also created holistic detective Dirk Gently, and wrote a number of nonfiction works I still hope to catch upon some day.  Personal favorite: The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul, the second Dirk Gently book, which cleverly updates Norse mythology.

Dave Barry
Fell in love with him thanks to a syndicated humor column he wrote for years, but my appreciation only deepened when he delved into fiction, sometimes on his own but also with Ridley Pearson in the Peter Pan prequel books featuring the Starcatchers.  Of all the writers in my selections, I’ve easily read the most from Dave.  When I use the phrase “would make a great name for a rock band,” that’s a deliberate callback to one of his trademarks.  Personal favorite: Insane City, which the best (and most recent) of his solo works of fiction, although following the same basic pattern of chaotic events following a given set of individuals.

Roberto Bolano
The best pure literary voice I’ve yet discovered, and continually readable as I delve deeper into his catalog, an ongoing process.  Personal favorite: 2666, his most ambitious and accomplished book.

Jerome Charyn
Like an American Peter Ackroyd, Charyn wears his love of culture and history on his sleeve, although he’s decidedly more mischievous about it.  He also has plenty of books I’m still in the early stages of appreciating, but I have yet to be disappointed no matter his risks.  Personal favorite: The Green Lantern (not to be confused with the comic book character), Charyn’s take on Russian literature.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Speaking of Russian literature, as far as I’m concerned this is the master.  Personal favorite: The Brothers Karamazov, an amazing tour-de-force that to my mind eclipses the more acclaimed Crime and Punishment.

Stephen King
Growing up deep in the heart of King territory made it all but mandatory to read him, but I took my time getting around to it, so it was all the more gratifying to discover how much I truly admired him.  However, for everything I’ve read from King so far, I haven’t really touched his horror, which of course is what he’s best known for.  Personal favorite: The Stand, his epic take on post-apocalyptic fiction.

David Maine
Like Ackroyd and Charyn, Maine takes his inspiration from the stories he loves the most, and most of the time they happen to come from the Bible, but he’s also written about classic movie monsters.  Personal favorite: Fallen, based on the biblical story of creation, and the four humans unlucky enough to be there, each of them nursing their own private pain.  This one may be written most eloquently, tracing backward rather than forward and being all the richer for it.

Herman Melville
Everyone knows Moby Dick, and I actually enjoyed it, but I discovered to my delight that there’s plenty of truly excellent material that he wrote after it.  Personal favorite: The Confidence Man, a clever social satire that seems to have been completely forgotten.

Grant Morrison
To my mind the best of the comic book writers, endlessly inventive and immersive in his Byzantine explorations of superhero archetypes both with icons and more obscure figures, while also taking the time to come up with his own myths.  Personal favorite: Joe the Barbarian, which as I think about it more and more is the 21st century equivalent of Alice in Wonderland, and deserves to become a classic of any literary medium in its own right.

Thomas Pynchon
Seems to write almost exclusively in giant literary epics, and that’s perfectly okay with me, since he’s certainly expansive and wildly creative enough to repeatedly accomplish it.  Personal favorite: Mason & Dixon, which will have you reconsidering the earliest days of United States.

J.K. Rowling
Perfectly well-known and hardly needing me to sell more books, but there you are.  I devoured seven Harry Potter adventures, and was pleased to see that her magic exists outside of them.  Personal favorite: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which exploded that whole series into an intensely personal affair.

Salman Rushdie
Bold doesn’t begin to describe the writer who had a fatwa issued against him, but his talent is phenomenal and style as creative as you’re ever likely to find without the need of gimmicks.  Personal favorite: The Satanic Verses (source of said fatwa).  Brave the risk and treasure it for yourself.

Bill Watterson
I couldn’t possibly omit the cartoonist who defined my childhood, whose retirement in 1994 hardly affected his ongoing legacy.  Personal favorite: Calvin & Hobbes (yes, by default but by no means in a limiting way), the great chronicle of the ultimate 20th century nonconformist and his best friend.

Special bonuses!

These guys don't write fiction, or books specifically, which was the focus of my list, but I still wanted to mention them:

William Least Heat-Moon
Best understands the United States because he’s traveled it a number of different ways and always written brilliantly about it.  Personal favorite: PrairyErth,  a “deep map” that saw him explore an entire rural county on foot.

Robert Pirsig
As far as I’m concerned, the definitive 20th century philosopher from the States.  Personal favorite: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Quentin Tarantino
The best screenwriter, knows film better than anyone, is still evolving.  Personal favorite: Kill Bill Volume 2 if we’re talking strictly screenplay.  It’s his most assured, least showy storytelling.

The Ode-athon continues!

11/4 David Walston at Blah Blah Blah Yackity Smackity
11/5 Pat Dilloway at PT Dilloway
11/7 Nigel and Maurice Mitchell at The Geek Twins
11/8 The Armchair Squid at The Armchair Squid
11/9 and back to me at Scouring Monk and Tony Laplume


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...