Monday, June 29, 2015

Interstellar Is Just That

It is not often that a movie can really impress me. Interstellar is such a movie. I love behind the scenes stuff so I usually watch all the special features. Being a writer, I get lots of insights into the creative process. While Interstellar as a movie is probably the best SF film I have seen in a long time, after watching the special features it has to be one of the most incredible movies every made.

With a legacy of quality effects that goes back to Kubrick's 2001, it is easy to get jaded about the nature of the special effects and the science behind the story. Interstellar just raised that bar to a brand new level. Most movies have noticeable special effects and holes in their science. Interstellar was flawless. Mainly because of how many effects they achieved in camera. It's science is impeccable. It should be with a gravitational scientists on the crew. They went to such lengths that they actually made some interesting discoveries about how light bends and how objects would look.

Not only are the effects and science great, but the story is great as well, with just enough that goes beyond the pure science in to scientific speculation that this is the epitome of what science fiction should be. At the heart of it, it is a father daughter story set in space and abounding with science. But you don't need to be a scientist for the story to make sense.

This film most certainly deserves the Hugo award this year. It is what the Hugo is all about. It is, unfortunately, on the Sad Puppies list. I'm quite sure it would have been nominated anyway. In other areas it has received many awards, beating out the other Hugo Nominees. And it is really quite funny that the puppies would nominate this film. They are so against stories with a message and if you don't get the messages in this film you have to be brain dead. As against the puppy slates as I am, I am forced to concede that this is indeed the best SF film of the year and I must put it first when I vote. I just have to. From the emotional, enjoyment, box office response, and industry award perspectives this film comes out on top among those nominated. If you believe in the spirit of the Hugos, you won't let the source of a good nominee that deserves to win cloud your judgement. Of course, not all will agree that this is the best offering, but from my perspective, I have no choice.

The effort that went in to making this an outstanding production is amazing. The music scored before and during production, the front projected backgrounds that the actors saw out of the windows, the full size props used as effects models, the painstaking attention to the science behind wormholes and black holes and the amazing rendering of those objects faithful to the science, not to mention the serious warning that if we ruin our planet it would take a miracle (the wormhole in this case) for use to survive. And underneath it all, a story about one man sacrificing his family to save humanity and the ripples that causes. Amazing story telling and an amazing production resulting in the best SF movie I have seen. Better than 2001, better than Star Wars, better than Star Trek. Absolutely amazing.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Has Star Trek gotten too Star Trekky?

According to Simon Pegg, who is penning (of is it co-penning) the next Star Trek feature film, at the moment titled Star Trek Beyond, he has had to make it less Star Trekky. What does this mean? Is this a good or bad thing. My take is that it is a good thing and here is why.

We have had Star Trek for over 50 years now (the final shots of The Cage, the shots of the Enterprise, were filmed early in 1965). But it is not a unified body of work. There are some distinct versions of Star Trek. It, of course, started with Gene Roddenberry's vision of Star Trek. Gene was a dreamer and crafted this utopian future where the crew of a ship would travel around and get into adventures. His dream is fully realized in The Cage, starring Jeffry Hunter as Christopher Pike. He had a chance to give us his pure dream a couple of other times, but let's keep this chronological for now.

Well, NBC like his concept but they wanted some changes. Gene made them. Some might argue that this diluted Gene pure idea, but I would argue that the success and popularity of Star Trek is directly linked to the changes NBC requested. They wanted more action, more relateable drama. What we got was the original Star Trek series starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley, plus an animated series, and a series of 6 feature films. This is Star Trek, but is it really Star Trekky? I would say no. Read on.

Gene's second shot at Star Trek was Phase II (not to be confused with the fan production of the same name). Phase II had scripts, sets, costumes, test shots, a model of the Enterprise, and new cast members. Phase II turned into the first movie. The sole script used was In Thy Image, reworked into a "welcome back" movie. It is again that very cerebral story that we had in The Cage. It isn't looked to favorably on by most Star Trek fans. The second film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a return to the action packed style of story from the original series. And why? Nicholas Meyer sat down and watched the original series. The following 4 films followed that pattern.

Then Gene had his third and final chance to give us his vision and Star Trek: The Next Generation was born. This is Gene's vision. The pilot, Encounter at Farpoint, is the third installment of Gene's undistilled vision. Except that this time, what followed was something completely different. Star Trek: The Next Generation was unique. A magic feat of casting led to a group of people who were as close when the cameras were off as their characters were when the cameras were on. But Gene was fading. His name was carried on the episodes as executive producer, but as the series progressed, Rick Berman took on more of the production duties and the stories that were produced became more his vision than Gene's. Star Trek: The Next Generation became a second unique produce of the Star Trek franchise. It was followed, before it even ended, by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. And as soon as Star Trek: The Next Generation wrapped and moved on to feature films, Star Trek: Voyager joined the franchise. All three of these had strong 7 year runs. They were followed by Enterprise, which had a truncated 4 year run.

But what has happened? Why has Star Trek been out of production for so long. After more than 15 years in constant production, there is no Star Trek. Why? Now we come to the issue. As it went on, Star Trek took on a quality that I grew to dislike. I'm a big fan of the original series and The Next Generation, but the others failed to grab me. It became formulaic and seemed distant, not only from the Star Trek that started it all, but even from Gene's vision. That unique mix of what Gene wanted and what NBC wanted was lost. It took on a pattern that I feel exemplifies the label of Star Trekky. It is what is expected, what fans think they want, what the franchise is perceived as. But that is NOT Star Trek. It is what we got, however twisted, in the latest two feature films. Roberto Orci is an avowed Star Trek fan. It is clear from what he gave us, along with Abrams wild ideas, is the type of story that Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise gave us. But when you paste those ideas onto the original 1960's characters, it really shows the flaws that have crept into the franchise.

What is sad is that the best episodes of Deep Space Nine and Enterprise are the ones that harken back to the original series. Trials and Tribble-ations and In a Mirror, Darkly bring back that action of the original series. So what has happened to Star Trek? Well, it has become its own worst enemy. It has become a franchise with an expected format. NBC's changes to Gene's vision have become the enemy. But what we have is NOT Gene's vision, it is other people's interpretation of it. Too much emphasis is placed on doing what Gene wanted. Why? He had three chances to give us his vision. It is great, but it is not what garnered all the fans. And more importantly, it is not what the studio wants in a film. Why did Star Trek Into Darkness not bring in the money? Well, sucky writing, to start with, but it had action and effects, and the original characters. But the biggest thing was it was hampered and derailed by that ghost of the franchise. Orci constrained how the story was told.

Now take a look at Star Trek: New Voyages/Phase II and Star Trek Continues. What are they giving us that Abrams and Orci didn't? They have returned to that original format. Essentially it is Gene's universe with NBC's storytelling. That gold combination isn't that hard to return to. NBC wanted the same thing that Paramout wants. They want something that is highly successful that reaches the widest possible audience. Gene's vision was in the sort of future we are going to have. It isn't really Star Trek if you leave that out (and frankly Abrams and Orci seemed to miss that part). But it also isn't really Star Trek, not Kirk's Star Trek, if you abandon that goal that NBC forced Gene to adopt. The magic happened from the mix of Gene's creativity and vision and NBC's experience of what worked and desire for commercial success. That was repeated in 1982 with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (6th highest grossing movie that year), in 1986 with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (5th highest grossing movie that year), and even to some extent in 2009 with Star Trek (7th highest grossing movie that year). If Paramount is to have a success with the new Star Trek, they have to do a different direction than Star Trek Into Darkness. They need that mix of Gene's vision and the action adventure that NBC originally asked for. You can't do that just by having a big action movie and steal some scene from the most popular Star Trek film. You have to understand that Gene's vision reflects the culture of the Federation and that you can then have a huge action adventure story that can carry those ideas.

So in my estimation, Simon Pegg saying the new film with be less Star Trekky is a good thing. He is a Star Trek fan himself and he knows how to make awesome films, so with that combination, I'm hoping he will be able to produce something more worthy of the legacy of Star Trek and at the same time less franchisey.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Weary of Insults by the Stupid and Ignorant

When I get into political discussions, I get called a liberal and socialist. When I get into similar discussion on science fiction and fantasy I get called a SJW (social justice warrior). I get that these people are trying to insult me and usually act accordingly, but what I rarely talk about is how accurate these terms, when applied with their correct meanings, are.

I have been a science fiction and fantasy reader since.... well I can't really remember. At first I read both, not really having a preference, but gradually I dove into science fiction. I think the wide variety of quality media had a lot to do with it. The fantasy options in movies and TV left a lot to be desired back in the 80's. I started out with Star Wars, then Doctor Who, and then (even though my mother had been trying since I was born) Star Trek. When I found Star Trek I become a huge fan. I watched the original series religiously on weekdays and Battlestar Galactica on weekends.

And I read. Asimov, Heinlein, Norton, the Star Trek Pocket Books series, and a host of others. I always had a book with me or was scribbling my own story attempts in notebooks. I am a great fan of behind the scenes stories and I have absorbed the influences, inspirations, and goals of Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas.

What that all culminates in is me. I am a product of what I read, of my family background, of where I grew up. And as a result, my politics are viciously moderate. I do not put up with either extreme conservatives or extreme liberals very well. I don't tolerate bullies or liars or people who twist things around to suit their telling of the story.

So where does that leave me today? I am a firm believer in equality for all. A lot of my beliefs were tempered by Star Trek. Anyone who actually paid attention to what Gene was doing will know that he didn't hold with the racist and misogynistic attitudes of the 1960's. While it is hard to see it to day, he cast the most ethnically diverse and gender equal cast of the decade. He poured his idealism into the Vulcans and their ideal of IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations). Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss and the first same sex kiss on television. It starred a mixed species character. Gene wanted it to feature a woman as second in command, but that went to far for 60's sensibilities.

From the written word I got more of the same. Equality, diversity, justice, doing what is right, fighting those who don't want things to change. I seriously don't believe that science fiction can exist without the so called 'SJW's because so much of the genre has focused on that for so long. Heinlein's first novel from 1939, For Us, The Living, touches on all this. Asimov challenged us to find the robot, Andrew Martin, human in Bicentennial Man. Time after time, story after story, this is what I have read. This idea by one group that SJW's are a new thing and have "taken over" the genre and are redirecting it from its roots is asinine. This so called SJW movement IS the genre of science fiction. It always has been. The people who use SJW or the more ridiculous GHH are the ones trying to change the genre to suit their political beliefs.

I have this nice chart that shows the voting habits of our US government and it clearly shows how far our government has descended into madness. The right has gotten more and more radical over the last 40 years to the point where even trying to discuss things with those of that bent is an exercise in frustration. This movement that accuses science fiction of being taken over by SJW's seems to stem from the same right-wing insanity. Yes, the stories have gotten more daring, with more homosexual and transgender characters, with more equality for all, but isn't that what we have been building towards? Isn't that what Gene Roddenberry saw in our future? Is that not what Star Trek portrayed? Is that not what the writers were striving for in the constraints of their time?

So I fail to see the danger in what these people fear because it is what the genre has been striving for since its inception. And who cares if a year or two sees more women winning awards than men? We've had it the other way for far too long and it is about time the majority gender gets its due? So if anyone cares to call me an SJW for these viewpoints, or a liberal, or socialist, I see no point in taking it as the insult they mean. It is time to own up that even as a moderate, I have causes to fight and equality of all is a big one.

On one final note, this post/rant was inspired by a blog post by David Mack ( that finds him dealing with this issue with someone who has no clue what a social justice warrior Gene Roddenberry was.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Redshirts - A Very Funny and Thought Provoking Novel

With all the conflagration surrounding this year's Hugo Awards, the winner of 2 years ago, Redshirts by John Scalzi, has come up as a title that may not have deserved the award. After reading it, I have to say that it did deserve the award.

An award winning science fiction novel should do a number of things. Namely tell a good story, but the really good ones make you think as well. Redshirts is very clearly inspired by Star Trek and the many one-off characters who died in the course of those 79 episodes (most of them sporting red uniform tunics). But it takes that idea to several new levels. One, it is about a copy cat show that isn't even supposed to be very good. Second, the characters come to know they are in a show and then set about changing things.

The romp through the fictional world was fun and filled with things that made me laugh out loud. It was one of the most fun books I've read in years. It was obvious from the outset (with even the title warning you) that needless death was at hand, but the way it was handled was superb. Scalzi has crafted an epic tale that will stand the test of time. You don't need to be a fan of the original Star Trek, but it helps.

So Redshirts now takes its place with the many other Hugo Award winners and it fits right in. The nature of the story, the excellently detailed universe, the philosophical ideas covered, all lead to an excellent novel that is worth the read and deserved the Awards it was honored with.

Monday, May 25, 2015

That Special Component That Makes A Classic Epic

Epic films are nothing new. In many ways, most science fiction films try to be epic. Most of them fail and I have stumped upon the single element that leads to that failure or success.

Fans of Star Wars almost universally agree that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the saga. There is a reason for that. I used to consider the first film (titled simple Star Wars or A New Hope depending on your level of purism) the best and in many ways it is, but it was really eclipsed by its sequel in virtually every way save the ending. Empire is the middle chapter, yet it holds its own. The secret lies in the choice of director. Irvin Kershner was known for his personal, intimate style. He didn't tell epics, he told stories of people and that is what Empire is.

If you take a look at the Star Trek films, you find much the same thing. Why were the second and fourth movies the best? They told very personal stories. The second even manged to do so without having the two main opponents on the same set. A brilliant piece of story telling. The fourth film does it by making it about this small crew going home to face the music for what they have done and finding a way to save the planet in the process. These films are about the people. Plus they tell a pretty great story.

When the creators of a film realize this little secret, they hit gold. William Wyler did this for MGM in 1959 with Ben-Hur. He was the director of very intimate, personal movies. Yet here he was making the largest and biggest budget epic to date. That was the success of the film. That is why so many films fail. They fail to realize that a good story is first and foremost about the people that inhabit it. When the creators of a film realize this, the film succeed because all their choices are focused into telling the best story they can and if the background is epic, the picture is epic.

This holds true for the written word as well. All stories are about the characters and their journey. A well crafted tell can tell anything on top of that and can do so with many characters at the same time. Movies usually need to pare that down a bit and focus on just a few, but a few rare movies can capture that even with a large cast. But no matter the scale, the film needs to be intimate. You need to get close to the characters. You need to feel their journey. When you watch Han and Leia fall in love, you believe it. When Leia reveals her feelings, there is no doubt because the stage has been set. Han responding with "I know" just tops it all off.

Love, is of course, not the only intimate tale to tell, but it is a very common on. Stories fail when they fail to make the story intimate and personal. In Battlestar Galactica (1978), you care about the people. You quickly get invested in their journeys. In Galactica 1980, the characters have great adventures, but you don't get to know them at all. There are no moments when the characters reveal themselves.

Generations have followed Frodo to Mordor because Tolkien invested his tale with intimate moments where the characters come alive. Yes, the story is of great adventure and he was a great world builder, but the success comes down to the reader caring about Frodo and the story being so much about him and his companions more than the War of the Ring.

Same for the original Star Wars trilogy. We care about Luke, Han, Leia, and the others, because the movies are intimate. Here they are toppling the great Galactic Empire of Palpatine, and they story is not just about the battles they fight, it is about their friendship, their relationships, the other events in their lives, as much as the battles.

So great story telling, no matter the medium, is that intimate connection to the characters that bring them, not just to life, but close. Like you know them personally.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Watching the Classic Battlestar Galactica Again

I've had the DVD's sitting on my shelf for ages, but I had not fully watching the series in quite some time. And for full measure, I watched all of it, including the 1980 series. But I finally got around to it and just finished the final episode yesterday.

In many ways, Battlestar Galactica was just another studio's answer to Star Wars. It was originally slated to be a TV movie, but ended up being show theatrically (which is how I first saw it). Then it blazed onto the small screen. But it only lasted a season before it was cancelled. It came back a year later, but with a mostly different cast and just wasn't the same. Fast forward a couple of decades and it was rebooted and came back as a series that was allowed to run its course. I just couldn't get into that one. It lacked the visual style of the original and the story went directions that were too out there for my tastes.

But it was born in 1978. Looking at it today compared to its compatriots, Star Wars, Alien, Battle Beyond the Stars, Star Trek The Motion Picture, and others, the sets and effects hold up very well. They started out with high production values and they kept that up for the first series (to some the only real series - and understandable viewpoint). The stories were well written. When you consider that it came on 10 years after Star Trek's third season, it is frankly an amazing series.

The DVD includes several special features which reveal a lot about the series and probably a bit about why it didn't make it. The series had great production values on screen, but they were rushing things. They had intended to do a TV movie and maybe later a series, but the network wanted a series and they gave them one. With the actors getting scenes minutes before they were to be shot and everything happening at the last minute, some things about the series are less than stellar. Sometimes the acting leaves a bit to be desired, sometimes there are goofs. But when you compare it to other contemporary series, it is very good. Supremely good, but maybe a bit before its time. It arrived in the wake of Star Wars, but it wasn't Star Wars. Glen A. Larson mixed a bunch of his interests together and crafted an idea that was unique and stands up to time. But like many series (dare I bring up Firefly), it didn't find its audience fast enough and it went off the air. The network had them do another series - something more familiar - and Buck Rogers was on the air for 2 years (next up in my viewing schedule). So it wasn't the production, it was the story. I got it, but not enough people did. Plus the little issues that brought the show down a bit.

But 37 years on, it is still outstanding. It can hold its own with Star Trek, Babylon 5, and Firefly. At least that is until you add in the 1980 series.

Many will automatically go "yuch" at the mere mention of Galactica 1980, but it did not turn out to be quite what they had envisioned it to be and had to change course after the pilot story. It was to be a time travel story and it ended up being a Colonial Scouts story. You really can't put it in the same category as the first series. It just isn't up to that standard. Plus it wreck's the continuity. That said, I have seen a lot of bad movies and bad TV series and Galactica 1980 isn't that bad. It is cheesy, but that was not unusual in 1980. It is just so far below the first series that few of the fans could appreciate it. Watching it now, 35 years later, I found that I did appreciate it. At least for what it is. It is flawed, deeply flawed, but the premise has merit and the execution was normal. I find it far more watchable than Knight Rider, though not nearly as good as Airwolf. But it certainly didn't find its audience. 10 episodes in it was cancelled. Probably for the best, though I think the production team was just getting the hang of the new format they had been forced into.

One of the most fun things is the final episode. While it is set in the framing story of Doctor Zee telling Adama about a dream, the episode is about Starbuck. It gives the entire series an end on a high note with one of the best stories of all of them (definitely the best of Galactica 1980). I shouldn't wait so long to watch it again.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Ann Leckie - What A Hugo Award Winner Should Look Like

I've been reading F/SF for over 35 years. I have a lot of past Hugo Award winners that number among my favorites so I am well versed in what constitutes an award winning story. Last years Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice popped onto my radar when it won not only the Hugo Award, but the Nebula Award as well. It went on to win several other awards as well.

It features an interesting set of premises - that the point of view character is the last remaining component of a ship AI and the culture that it comes from makes no gender distinction. Consequently all the pronouns, except when using a different language (noted in the text as such), are feminine.

I have a feeling the pronoun usage might get in some people's way in enjoying this work, but I found it very alien and that it added to the world building immensely.

When you get down to the story, it is a truly epic space opera set far in the future - in terms of unspecified thousands of years. Everything is fleshed out, painting a brilliant picture of the world in the author's mind. You feel what it might be like to have different pieces of yourself. You can feel the Ancillary's pain and confusion when that is cut. And brilliantly, the author not only portrayed the former AI that way, but also the leader of the people. How else do you control a multi-system empire except to divide yourself and be everywhere at once.

And past the events of the story itself are the character interactions and development. The characters come alive and are more than the words on the page. I felt like I had lived the story with them. A brilliant feat of writing.

I have to say that this was as good, if not better, than some of the great stuff I read many years ago. Hugo Award winning (and Nebula Award winning) are markers of quality and this novel fit right in.

I quickly followed reading Ancillary Justice with the sequel, Ancillary Sword. It was as good and as engrossing, bringing with it new aspects of the universe and the characters. If a sequel ever deserved as many awards as the original, this one certainly does. It is a magnificent world given to us by a magnificent writer. I can't wait for the third book. I definitely have a new author to add to my list of favorites. I can't wait to see what she does next. Her nomination for this year's Hugo Awards is justly deserved.