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AniMaytion Month: Rock and Rule/Strange Frame

Last year about this time I spent some posts focusing on works of science fiction, and this spring I’m kind of doing it again by default, except that this month, my particular interest is in animated productions.

And, in addition to that, I find myself in the position of having recently encountered two animated features that are, at best, cult classics in terms of notoriety, and both of them involve people in a post-apocalyptic scenario saving those they love through the power of rock and roll.

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Chronologically, the first one is 1983’s Rock and Rule, produced by Canada’s Nelvana Studio – the first English animated film produced entirely in this country, I gather. In a time after global war has left the world populated by animalistic humanoid mutants, Angel and Omar are a couple who dream of making it big as musicians. Angel has a real talent but Omar is selfish and insecure about his own success and they quarrel over exposure for their own songs. Angel is sought out by Mok, a sorcerous former superstar who tempts Angel with going solo. Mok has been searching for a special voice that will enable him to achieve a new kind of power – a horrible demon summoned from beyond. However, I would never have known this movie existed if it hadn’t turned up in the YouTube suggestions while I was watching the other one…

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In 2012, an award-garnering indie film called Strange Frame: Love and Sax came out completely under most radars. Centuries after the polluted Earth has been abandoned and humanity has colonized the rest of the Solar System, hereditary debt bondage and genetic engineering to make you better at a given job are the norm. Parker, a runaway middle-class saxophonist on Ganymede falls in with a debt-slave rebel, Naia. The two become a couple and form a subversive band. When Naia catches the eye of a recruiter for a big music producer, Parker finds herself turfed out as Naia becomes a brainwashed, sanitized superstar. Joining up with the crew of a DIY spaceship, Parker formulates a plan to defy the big fame machine, recover her beloved and get away from it all.

First off, it should be made clear that neither of these movies is meant for kids. I gather that it was a popular misconception that Ralph Bakshi made Rock and Rule; the use of rotoscoping does give that impression, I suppose. The movie sure isn’t shy about suggestive clothing – club dancers wearing the bare (ha, ha) minimum, the villain half-naked in a robe and Angel forced into an outfit on par with the Princess Leia slave bikini – and there’s a scene of Omar and Angel making out very energetically. Strange Frame meanwhile takes place in a Blade Runner-esque grungy future where fetishistic clothing is commonplace and Parker and Naia have sex two or three times in the run of the story – it’s not pornographic by any means but it is still pretty steamy. Plus the monster Mok summons in Rock and Rule is fundamentally disturbing.

Rock and Rule‘s voice cast aren’t big names, as far as I know, except for Catherine O’Hara in one scene. That said, the singing voices are quite big. Well, to be honest, the only one I knew was Iggy Pop, and that’s only because of the time he was on Deep Space Nine. He and one Lou Reed lend their voices to musical numbers by the villainous Mok, the singer Robin Zander does Omar and Deborah Harry does Angel’s singing.

Strange Frame, by contrast, first caught my eye precisely because of its cast: Parker, the heroine and narrator is voiced by Claudia Black, late of Farscape and Mass Effect 2, Naia is played by Tara Strong, Grenman, the captain of the DIY ship – the delightfully named Lone Mango – is Ron Glass, and Chat, the band’s drummer, is Alan Tudyk. Given the general look of the thing, two Firefly and one Farscape actors make perfect sense, really. Cree Summer, Tim Curry as the villain, and George Takei as the villain’s overseer round off one heck of an ensemble.

I can certainly understand why somebody thought that Rock and Rule was Bakshi’s doing. You can tell from how they move that the characters are rotoscoped over live performers at least some of the time, and the attention to detail is pretty impressive. Whoever was animating Mok’s face certainly cared about their work. It’s got more movement in it than some whole characters. It seems to be set in the far future with a new civilization having arisen long after the old one. Omar and Angel make out in a car that looks abandoned in a sort of campsite, the nearby big city is called Nuke York and features such as Mok’s airship, his power plant base and the hovering-shuttle transit system suggest islands of advanced technology in a sea of used future – Blade Runner again splattered across Mad Max, as it were. What’s kind of weird is the halfhearted way the characters are made to look like animals. If TV Tropes is to be believed, most of the main characters are meant to look like dogs, but they resemble dogs to about the same extent that Arthur resembles an aardvark. Angel just looks like a regular gal with a button nose if you don’t look too close. Mok is supposedly meant to be a cat, but I don’t see it at all. He looks like Count Dracula as played by Steven Tyler. Overall, the effect isn’t ‘these are cartoon anthropomorphic animals’ so much as ‘these are humans but something about them is weirding me out.’ That said, the animators pushed the boat out on the demon. It doesn’t stick with cliched demon imagery. Instead it goes the Eldritch Abomination route of depicting something that seems unused to having a physical form, and is in a constant state of hideous flux.

Strange Frame‘s animation is made in a style of stop motion with paper cutouts. It incorporates bits of old live-action movies and CGI-distorted live images for some of the backgrounds and vehicles. The character design is eclectic to say the least. The various genetically engineered persons create a colourful cast. Reesa, Grenman’s first mate, looks more like a hybrid of monkey and bat than a human; the three ‘Muses’ who advise Parker include a catgirl and a lady with ram’s horns; Atem, the band’s bassist looks like a werewolf and Chat the drummer has four arms. Parker is easily the most normal-looking. The grungy, orange-tinted scenery, megacity setting, corporatocratic society and whacky-tending-to-racy clothing styles evoke Blade Runner, Transmetropolitan, or Warhammer 40K Hive Worlds. The way ancient spare parts get used to build ships, and how some ships are built using hollowed-out asteroids as hulls was particularly nifty. The combination of digital and physical media – or appearance thereof – is reminiscent of the Neil Gaiman movie Mirrormask.

Neither film is a musical exactly, but music is nonetheless a key part of the story. Rock and Rule is, as I said, a bit of an all-stars lineup of its time. Lou Reed’s villain song for Mok is fun enough. The original Canadian version and American redub of this movie are apparently markedly different, because I found a standalone clip of Iggy Pop’s contribution, but in the original version’s upload I watched, it’s barely audible above the sound effects of our heroes dashing to the rescue. I’m innately wary of any story where somebody’s voice or talent is supposed to be earth-shattering, especially when it’s as literal as here, because it’s hard to find a real talent that lives up to that much hype. But to my pleasant surprise, Angel’s song, ‘Send Love Through’ – later reworked by Deborah Harry into the single ‘Maybe For Sure’ – is written and performed so well that you really could believe that it has the power ascribed to it. Certainly, it’s now been stuck in my head for over a week.

Music in Strange Frame is superb. The songs of Naia’s that get spotlighted are catchy, especially the one she composes in the first act. The only disappointing thing is that you feel like you’re only hearing portions of them. Strange Frame doesn’t seem to have a soundtrack album. The background music is also catchy as hell, with Jazz, electronic and other influences evident. The saxophone’s presence, as Parker’s instrument, gives the music real drive and emotion. The big chase scene at the end is especially good. The sci-fi sound effects are first rate, too. As before, some of the busier scenes might make it hard to notice what’s going on. According to the Wikipedia page there’s a Roger Waters song in the movie, but don’t ask me where.

Rock and Rule‘s story is, if nothing else, pretty original in concept, and the way that a quarrelsome couple can come together to vanquish evil through song is oddly moving, if a little cheesy. The only drawback is that the characters evolve by the flick of a switch, rather than gradually. Omar is hot-headed and selfish, storming off in a huff when Mok seeks out Angel’s solo talent, but we don’t really see enough of their life to know why she puts up with him. I think the relationship is meant to be seen as passionate but creatively fractious, but without enough context it almost looks abusive. It still drives a theme of your loved ones and your art being more important than your ego. Omar pulls a big damn heroes moment more because it looks cool in the movie than because it seems true to the character, while their other two bandmates actually make a rescue effort we get to witness. And that doesn’t actually accomplish much, except to get their drummer, somewhat an audience surrogate, into position. Omar’s character arc, such as it is, is served by Angel, despite her nominally being the main character. She doesn’t really have an arc. She doesn’t fall for Mok’s enticements of solo success, he kidnaps her. She stays much the same. Though it is cool that she’s a positive example to those around her, and she’s an active and intelligent character, it does seem like she’s doing a lot of the emotional labour here. Mok is a villain I like. Complex he ain’t, but cunning, grandiose, petty and diabolical, and the theme of fundamental goodness drives his downfall as well as the demon’s. But the plot has a sense of being rushed from point to point.

Strange Frame‘s plot is a lot better organized, with Parker’s narration keeping you on top of things. That said, some of the plot is communicated visually without being spelled out, but it comes across more as ‘we want you to interpret this’ rather than Rock and Rule‘s ‘we don’t have time to explain this properly’ vibe. Exactly how the villains’ evil plot works is a little unclear. They make an android duplicate of Naia but still keep her squirrelled away in stasis – I interpreted it as using the android as a conduit for her talent while locking away her rebellious personality. The other bandmates kind of fall by the wayside with little ceremony. In contrast to the sense that large chunks of plot and character are missing in Rock and Rule, Strange Frame seems to have a lot of plot elements that don’t go anywhere. I gather the original plan was to make a series out of it, and there are threads tending to indicate that. The parallel narrative with the AI installed on the Lone Mango barely interacts with everything else. It sort of reminded me of that ‘castaway’ metaplot thing in Watchmen. While the villain is vanquished, his overseers, represented by the voice of George Takei, are never seen, named, nor called to account. The rescue plan seems to go a little too easily, and the big chase scene seems oddly unimaginative, albeit visually enjoyable. That said, the ending, while open-ended, is positive and satisfying, and the movie defies the increasingly infamous Dead Lesbian trope!

It might be obvious by now that I like Strange Frame more than Rock and Rule. Strange Frame‘s dialogue and voice acting are excellent, funny, heartbreaking, and clever. I had to laugh at Claudia Black bringing us a whole new set of sci-fi fake swear words after her tenure on Farscape. The story’s better constructed, and the characters are more varied and interesting, with almost everybody in it a person of colour (when they look human) a sexual minority, or both. I like the setting, a future civilization spanning the Solar System, like the Expanse or Cowboy Bebop. I like the artistry of the animation, which is quite unlike anything I’ve seen.

I’m not saying I don’t like Rock and Rule. Apart from its Canadian background, it’s still an great archetypal story, however haphazard, and its animation style gets me in the nostalgia somewhat. The imagery is quite imaginative. Despite the comparisons to Bakshi, I actually thought some of the scenery was akin to Studio Ghibli’s style. It’s just that if I had a choice of which one to push to friends, Strange Frame would be – and indeed, is – first in line. I recommend it first for story, characters, voice acting, progressivism and general weirdness. Rock and Rule‘s weirdness seems more unintentional than Strange Frame‘s. For music though, for me, it’s a dead heat, I’m glad to say, and it feeds this weird fascination I have with stories about fictional bands I was previously feeding on a diet of Jem and the Holograms.

You can rent Strange Frame on YouTube and Rock and Rule has been running the bootleg circuit so long I don’t think anyone cares anymore, so it too will pop up on YouTube time and time again, so check them both out, if you like.

Meanwhile, in the interest in getting that song out of my head, here it is in a fan-edited video so you all have to hear it too…

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Posted by on May 3, 2017 in animation, Movie

 

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The Nightmare Stacks: Fresh Laundry

I am, as I’ve said on numerous occasions, wary of long-running franchises. There are a few I persist in following anyway, like the Dresden Files and Honor Harrington, that nevertheless exhibit clear signs of eventually stagnating or losing their way.

Still, these have earned some benefit of the doubt from me, and another one of them has been the Laundry novels by Charles Stross, about the exploits of the British secret service in charge of defending the country and the world from occult menaces from beyond.

I’ve commented in my articles on the previous three books that the series has seemed to be stalling out somewhat. The Apocalypse Codex seemed to come around for another go at the same scenario as the book before, the Fuller Memorandum. The Rhesus Chart and the Annihilation Score meanwhile suffered from continually reusing the same plot point of rooting out an enemy within which the series had already done to death. And the sense of escalation toward unknowable menaces from beyond space and time seemed to plateau out in favour of smaller campaigns against half-related threats.

In addition, the series wandered from its main character, the geeky and sardonic Bob Howard, to other point of view characters, and gave the villains point-of-view chapters, which rather undermined the effect of Bob’s comic voice on the one hand and undermined the shadowy horror of the enemy on the other hand.

But Bob was in oversight in Apocalypse Codex and Rhesus Chart, and his wife Mo was the main character of the Armageddon Score. But in the new book, the Nightmare Stacks, Bob doesn’t appear at all.

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In the Nightmare Stacks, the main character is Alex Schwartz, a top-flight computer whiz recruited by the Laundry in the Rhesus Chart after becoming the victim of a daemonic possession called PHANG Syndrome. By the Laundry novels’ definition, he’s a vampire. Along with other members of the Laundry, including several friends of Bob’s, he’s involved in the cleanup efforts after the Laundry was gutted by its various moles. In the process, he’s being brought further into the Laundry’s tangled web, and learning more of their secrets.

The particular one that haunts him as it does the rest of the Laundry is CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, the code name for when, as H.P. Lovecraft would have it, “the stars are right” and reality begins a period of distortion and accessibility to cosmic intelligences of alien malice.

However, we learn, there is a whole slew of CASE NIGHTMARE scenarios, and another one, CASE NIGHTMARE RED, has arisen – invasion by alien civilization.

Seizing on an opportunity presented by the breaking down of cosmic barriers, the survivors of the Morningstar Empire, an alien-fey civilization, determine to leave their dying world, laid waste by some of the cosmic horrors mentioned above, and invade ours, conquering it to forestall their own extinction.
The All-Highest leader of the Empire sends his daughter, his spymaster, to assume a human identity and infiltrate the leadership. In the end, she ends up enticing Alex, but in so doing she finds that her assignment may also be her only chance to survive out from under the shackles of the geas spells that bind everyone in her society.

Fundamentally, the problem I’m increasingly having with the Laundry novels is a sense that Stross started this escalation of cosmic menace – what the third book called ‘a hierarchy of horrors’ – but that he (or more probably, his editors) decided that the escalation was happening faster than they wanted, and now he’s making up new spinoff plots to draw this out longer. The introduction of CASE NIGHTMARE RED annoyed me, because of its sense of ‘wait, forget about that thing we’ve been building up for book after book, look at this instead!’

That said, the book also overcame a lot of my other complaints. It isn’t following the plot of finding a mole – one of the main characters, Cassie the spy, is trying to become one, but it doesn’t pan out that way. Moreover, despite losing both Bob and Mo at this point, the supporting characters that are sticking around are ones I like, and I like Alex. And not just because we share a name. His story of trying to find purpose in life and his self-hatred over his condition makes for an engaging read. In a strange way, the scene featuring his family drama was touching and supported a theme of human goodness, as contrasted against Cassie’s origins, as well as the pettier side of humanity as shown, somewhat, by his parents. On a larger canonical note, it’s kind of interesting that, whenever Bob is mentioned (having moved up the ladder of the organization) Alex’s reaction is a lot like Bob’s reaction to his boss Angleton in the early books.

I am also, as I’ve occasionally hinted in the past, a sucker for redemption stories, and Cassie goes through a very persuasive one which I really enjoyed. She’s quite a charming character – her little tic of answering “Yesyes” instead of just “yes” is weirdly cute and she and Alex make a sweet supernatural couple. At the same time, she’s no damsel and is the one to finalize the solution to the crisis.

On the flipside, the Morningstar Empire is very disturbing. In the classic Laundry fashion, they’re a crossover of modern technology and mysticism. They are essentially alien elves, with many of the more sinister of the tropes of the Fair Folk. It kinds of reminds me of the elves in Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching Discworld sub-series. They have ‘dragons’ and ‘horses’ which are merely conventional names for something much scarier, and the brutal system of subjugation-by-magic they employ is genuinely scary as well as repugnant. While in the past books giving point-of-view time to the villains reduced their scariness, the buildup to the invasion and its progress is chilling, suspenseful and heartbreaking as we skip to innocent people – airline pilots, police, cosplayers at an anime convention notably – being wiped out by the invaders and even our occult defenses misfiring.

Okay, so in summary this is a good book, no doubt. While the series at large has begun to try my patience, and this continues with the book’s cliffhanger ending, it has a feel-good element I appreciated, good characters and makes use of events of past books to build this one. I haven’t heard a peep out of the Dresden Files or Honor Harrington series for a while, but in the meantime, the third of my favourite long-runners triumvirate is soldiering on.

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2016 in Book

 

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The Journeyman Project 3: Better Late Than Never

Well, so much for big ideas.

Suffice to say I had a modicum of personal drama the past couple of months. Alas, others have commented as eloquently or moreso than I could on Captain America: Civil War.

However, I do have a loose end that deserves tying up. I was going to write a series on adventure games and by jingo, that’s what I intend to do.

‘Better late than never’ has a bit of a double meaning for us today; better I be a while getting back to this blog than not at all, thus I’ll resume my reviews of Adventure Games. And this one was one I encountered a very long time after first hearing of it: Presto Studio’s 1998 saga The Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time.

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Your view in the game: bottom centre is your current disguise, bottom right, Arthur’s interface

As I said back at the end of March, my interest in adventure games dates back to Myst and Riven. When I first played Riven in the late 90’s, CD ROM was still how it was all done. By and by, we happened upon the discovery that one of the (five) discs that Riven ran on also had a demo for Legacy of Time.

Only in recent times and the rise of GOG.com was I able to chase it down and experience it in its entirety, and so I have.

In the Journeyman Project series, you play an agent of Earth’s Temporal Security Agency. Earth is a junior partner of an interstellar alliance called the Symbiotry. A traitor to the Agency, on the run since trying to sabotage Earth’s entrance into the Symbiotry, is trying to get your attention from across the millennia.

Now, an enemy is moving towards Earth which the Symbiotry is powerless to stop. The Symbiotry realize that they seek ‘the Legacy,’ a relic of a vanished ancient, advanced alien civilization that was deposited on Earth and its hiding place concealed from history. It exists in three parts, in times and places once thought to be myths: El Dorado, Atlantis and Shangri-La.

You have to travel to each of these time periods, interact with their inhabitants, learn their mythology, and, with the help of your AI partner Arthur, solve the myriad little puzzles standing between you and the safety of humanity.

This is much more the traditional point-and-click adventure game than Myst is. Unlike Myst, you collect an inventory of objects used to do anything from repairing a machine, reaching a lever, cutting a rope, or even bribing your way into somewhere. Some objects also go together to craft something you’ll need later, or are used in a different time period than where you find them.

From a gameplay point of view, the game has aged modestly well. As with Syberia, the process of moving around is cumbersome. Although from a first-person perspective, advancing to the next area is represented by a slow movement of the camera with a ponderous footstep effect. You can skip them by keeping one hand on the escape key, but nevertheless, it’s an unnecessary addition to what is essentially the same journey from still image to still image that Riven uses.

You can move at leisure between the three time periods if you get stuck and you’ll come back to the last point you left when you return.

The puzzles themselves are, for the most part, quite artful. In a number of cases, there is actually more than one variation on the solution. I first discovered this in Shangri-La. There, you have to lubricate a rusty prayer wheel that’s part of a sort of combination lock. I discovered in separate playthroughs that there are two ways to do this: either using a bowl of yak butter from Shangri-La itself, or one of olive oil from Atlantis. This ameliorates my big problem with Syberia, in that if one approach requires collecting an item that is easily overlooked, I still have a chance to solve it in a way that doesn’t involve scouring all three game worlds for whatever it is.

When you do get stuck, that’s largely what Arthur is for: he’s the hint machine. You can adjust in the game’s settings how much help he gives you, but he’ll give successive and more pointed hints on request if you’re really stumped. He also adds little witticisms and observations that are often based on the real histories of the civilizatons the game settings are based on. He kind of reminds me of Bob in the Dresden Files.

The downside is that the ‘witticisms’ can vary enormously from ‘actually pretty funny’ to ‘will you shut up already.’ It’s especially obnoxious in that it wrecks the tone from moment to moment. The first time you visit Shangri-La, shortly after its destruction (ever after you go back to before then) you find a dead monk, and Arthur is suitably sombre and horrified. Then a couple of moves later he’s declaring his desire to yodel into the Himalayas. Maybe his emotional subroutines are corrupted or something.

Otherwise, the character interactions are somewhat variable. Legacy is like Myst in that it uses real actors on a bluescreen and integrated into the environment – Full Motion Video – rather than building CGI characters – something that would have been really hard to do well at the time. You use your time travel suit to assume the appearance of people you meet, and interact with other people in their form. It has a strategic element, especially in Atlantis, because you get different results depending on who you pretend to be.

That said, it can be a bit of a guessing game chasing down which disguise will accomplish anything. I recognize one or two actors from 90’s shows like Star Trek: the Next Generaton, but the acting is forced or amateurish, though never to the point of seeming lazy. There’s a particularly quirky performance from the Lama of Shangri-La, whom Arthur dubs ‘Lama Blinky.’ I suspect the studio lights were getting in the actor’s eyes a bit. Mostly, though, the writing is just clunky. There’s a lot of what Tropers call ‘As You Know’ dialogue, with characters elaborating at length on things they know the person you claim to be already knows, or infodumping on you under a guise of idle chit-chat. It’s like an undercover mission in a kids’ tv show.

I must here give full credit to the game for doing something I didn’t think I had a right to expect: to the best of my knowledge, the actors are (mostly) from the right part of the world for the parts they’re playing. I kind of worried I was going to be watching a bunch of Anglo-Saxons in wigs and silly accents. But, judging from the surnames in the credits, the Atlanteans are mainly Greek, south European or Middle Eastern (or American immigrants therefrom, at least), the El Dorado people are Latin and/or Native American (I think), and the monks of Shangri-La are all East Asian (albeit not Tibetans or Nepalese). Not bad, considering. And, by and large, there’s not an excessive amount of stereotype. Talk of magic and spirituality isn’t much more pronounced in the Native Americans than in the other two groups. A couple of the Doradoans (Doradii? Doradoi?) seem a bit over the top, though. So far as I’m any judge, there is no particular Asian stereotype common to the Shangri-La characters. As for the Atlanteans, the only thing in the game that makes me cringe is the hammily cheerful African ferryman, who, while technically a slave, professes to be perfectly content with his lot. Swing, and a big, racist miss.

Visually, the game looks lovely. The graphics are low-res even by the standards of their time, but the designers lovingly studied the aesthetics of real-world civilizations to build these places. The Inca and Nazca lent a lot to El Dorado. If they’d had hot air balloons, this is what they’d have looked like, I daresay. Rather than do the usual thing and make Atlantis look like an idealized Classical city, they went for a lavish Minoan look. Much more plausible and unfamiliar to modern eyes. And, speaking as the grandson of a Buddhist, I had to laugh when I realized that the monastery of Shangri-La is basically the Potala Palace in Lhasa and the Boudhanath in Kathmandu in the wake of a head-on collision.

Actually, on that note, there’s something about this game that really jumped out at me. You remember how I said that you pick up some real-life historical trivia from Arthur pertaining to the real civilizations these settings were based on? Nowhere is that more true than in Shangri-La. Possibly because Tibetan civilization is better documented than Nazca or Minoan. Anyway, the game takes a stab at having educational content – it vaguely reminds me of Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego – but while you’ll pick up tidbits about ancient South America and the Mediterranean, this game contains virtually a grade-school level introduction to Tibetan Buddhism!

Talk to the Lama, and it’s all there: reincarnation, the Four Noble Truths, enlightenment, Nirvana. The whole shebang. The famous mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is even a key to one of the puzzles! I actually found out a few things about the mythology I hadn’t previously heard of.

It tickles my affections because Buddhism is the one religion I’ve ever even considered follwing, and as a secular code of ethics it still retains its charm. You can solve the three worlds in any order you like, but I think that the developers intended for you to do Shangri-La last – which I ended up doing in my first playthrough. The origins of the ancient alien artefact are expressed using the wheel of reincarnation as a metaphor, and there’s an extra step in finishing the level that’s analogous to enlightenment.

Which makes it a little distressing when you remember that you’re visiting all three civilizations a few days before their destruction. There’s no suggestion that we’re even trying to avert that and save all the characters we’ve gotten to know. If there’d been some kind of Temporal Prime Directive, as they say on Star Trek, that would’ve have at least acknowledged it. It’s a plot hole that jumped out at me my second run through, and left it with a rather melancholy air.

However, that omission aside, the game is quite clever, beautifully designed, and unexpectedly charming. Amateur-hour acting and writing aside, it’s a lot of fun, and kicks off a free-floating sense of nostalgia for a 90’s kid. Time travelling in pursuit of ancient alien artefacts was the kind of plot I’d have gone absolutely ga-ga over in those days. I’m glad I caught up with it.

Or it travelled through time via the GOG machine to catch up with me, I suppose.

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2016 in Video Game

 

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Saturday Supplemental: A Brief History of Star Wars

Well, the time has come at last. I’ve said before that there is a trinity of franchises that set the style for popular science fiction today. First, in 1963, there was Doctor Who. In 1966 came Star Trek. And in 1977…

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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

Star Wars, now known as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, was the brainchild of special effects wizard George Lucas. He made it as an homage to pulp sci-fi of his childhood, and it was a classic revisitation of the Hero’s Journey, arguably the oldest trope in existence.

Of the three great franchises I’ve done the history of, Star Wars is probably the one whose behind-the-scenes history I know the least. That said, I’ve gleaned a certain amount of lore from my parents, who remember seeing them when they first came out.

Star Wars’ saga of the Skywalker family’s quest to master the ways of the mystical Force that permeates the the galaxy and overthrow the evil Galactic Empire and its ruler Palpatine is a perfect illustration of the idea that there’s no such thing as an original story, only fresh versions of old ones. The Hero’s Journey is so basic, and yet in the cladding of Star Wars became one of the biggest deals in pop culture in the last half-century.

If you have infinite time to waste, you can check out the fascinating ‘History of Hollywood‘ series of articles on the TV Tropes wiki. From that, the Star Wars movies were one of the cutting-edge contributors to the concept of the blockbuster film, along with the work of Lucas’ friend Steven Spielberg of the same period. It was a massive hit for all ages (per that wiki, family entertainment had been the exclusive preserve of Disney before then) that seemed to come completely out of nowhere.

Probably the most talked about innovation of the Star Wars movies is in the area of special effects. In space movies prior to this, you moved a model spaceship across a background in a way that made it very obvious that they were subject to Earth gravity and made of plywood – see the old Doctor Who series. Lucas was the first one to keep the model in place and move the camera, resulting in much smoother motion. This innovation was the launching pad for one of Lucas’ many companies, Industrial Light and Magic, still the name in special effects. Only Weta Workshop has, to my knowledge, approached it in prestige since.

Star Wars was and remains a visual feast, from the locations, to the ships, to the aliens, to the action. It runs on raw emotions of exhiliration, awe and suspense. For the more intellectual viewer, it was rife with callbacks to classics like Flash Gordon and echoes of things like samurai legends. Thematically, it’s so universal that people all over the world have gotten into it.

Actually, despite its standing in pop culture and in relation to Doctor Who or Star Trek, there’s an argument to be made that Star Wars isn’t actually science fiction, but like Saga, is fantasy that just happens to take place in outer space. Science fiction is sometimes defined as being about what might happen, but Star Wars is clearly in another galaxy far, far away. That said, the aesthetic, if not the concept, had a big impact on science fiction from that day forward.

The 1977 epic was followed up with the Empire Strikes Back, a significant change in tone that included one of the most famous twists in movie history and, unusually, a situation where the bad guys kind of win.

Return of the Jedi rounded out the trilogy with a resolution of the threads laid in the previous movie and massive all-round epic conclusion that would stand the test of time for twenty years.

It must be said that all of this took a lot out of Lucas, and he defied a lot of convention in doing it, becoming a free agent auteur in the process.

Star Wars was also a pioneer of another, arguably less awesome area: merchandising. Star Wars doesn’t just make money from ticket sales, or video and DVD sales. It spun itself out into a huge market of collectibles like models, toys, posters and so on.

In addition, Star Wars has (or had, at least) something unique in its time: the Expanded Universe. With an entire galaxy to play in, the franchise ballooned into spinoff books and comics, covering the events after Return of the Jedi, before A New Hope, and spaces between, and following the exploits of our heroes and even the most briefly-glimpsed side characters.

This is what set Star Wars apart, I think, from Trek fandom or Whovianism: more than the other two, being a Star Wars fan became a lifestyle unto itself. Star Trek licensed materials were never as cohesive or interconnected, and Star Trek merchandise, in my experience, is harder to find and a lot more downmarket. Doctor Who is moving more in the Star Wars direction since the 2005 reboot, but it has a lot of catching up to do. Besides which, Star Wars, similarly to Warhammer 40K which came after, is a universe so big you can just about live in it full-time, and it’s an ideal breeding ground for Ensemble Darkhorse-type characters like Boba Fett.

It was something only possible because Lucas, having broken away from the Hollywood establishment, had pretty much total oversight of the franchise. In contrast, Gene Roddenberry, for better and worse, was still answerable to a studio. Until the sale to Disney, you could depend on one guy signing off on every little thing.

Which, it must be said, did backfire in numerous ways. Personally, I could never see myself getting into the EU because what little I gleaned always came across as overstuffed. Whether that’s fair or not I don’t know, but what I do know is that after a while Lucas’ creative monopoly started to show its drawbacks.

The most obvious one, and the one even Lucas himself has been known to joke about, is that Star Wars dialogue is as campy as it comes. Everybody gave him hell for that, from Harrison Ford to Sir Alec Guinness, and it’s been a part of the franchise from the word go. Coupled with this is the way he gives characters names that either sound like the babblings of toddlers, or that are hit-you-over-the-head goofy sounding, like the obviously sinister pseudonyms used by Sith or (and this is the one that makes me want to throw something at the screen every time) the portly X-Wing pilot in Episode IV named ‘Porkins.’ The Force Awakens is, for some reason, continuing this tradition in the person of Supreme Leader Snoke.

Before I go on, I should make this clear as it is a point on which I might diverge from a lot of readers. I watch campy franchises like this in spite of their cheesiness, not because of it. I will never understand the logic of watching something to enjoy its flaws. For me, camp is sometimes an historical relic that is acceptable in that context, like the original Star Wars, or something I tolerate because the story is worthwhile anyway, as in the case of something like Tomorrowland. It’s why I never watch things like the Family Guy Star Wars parody (well, that and a general dislike for Seth MacFarlane) or, on the Trek front, Galaxy Quest, because the conversation is going to be them saying, “Hey! Star Wars did something stupid and cheesy!” And me replying, “Yes, I know. Now will you shut up, I’m trying to enjoy it over here!”

Which is why, like a lot of people, my favourite Star Wars movie was Empire Strikes Back, because Lucas merely took general charge of the production and left the dialogue and other fine details up to colleagues. Didn’t improve the Imperial Stormtrooper’s aim much though.

Star Wars was ambitious in having a saga across multiple movies – grabbing us early on by inexplicably calling his first movie “Episode IV” – but it’s clear that Lucas was playing things a little more seat-of-the-trousers than he might have wished us to believe. I particularly remember watching Empire Strikes Back with my Dad as a kid. In one scene Leia kisses Luke – mainly just to tick Han off – and my Dad remarked, “She’s gonna to feel funny about that later.” Leia also discusses in Return of the Jedi what little she remembers of her birth mother, but Padme dies in childbirth in Revenge of the Sith. And there are little early oddities like Vader shouting at Leia in Episode IV, whereas, ever after, his calm stoicism is one of his best assets as a villain.

Another thing Dad pointed out to me over the years is that oftentimes Lucas couldn’t seem to make up his mind who his target audience was. The violence and crises of the movies are pretty mature stuff – I remember being quite shocked as a child by how many of the good guys get shot down in Episode IV. And it was many years before I could get through Return of the Jedi because despite the cute kid-friendly Ewoks this movie also contained the Emperor himself – who I will remind you, looked like this:

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Bit much for a seven-year-old to take, really.

Which brings me neatly to the Prequel Triology. I’m probably the oldest generation for whom this was a part of my growing up: the new trilogy of Episodes I, II, and III, beginning in 1999 with the Phantom Menace. This trilogy follows the rise of Anakin Skywalker through the Jedi ranks and his eventually succumbing to the Dark Side and becoming Darth Vader. And, at this point, you will be hard pressed to find anyone over the age of twelve willing to defend it.

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Lucas was back in the driver’s seat for this one, as he had been for Return of the Jedi, and unfortunately, due in part, seemingly, to tribulations in his private life, his worst bad habits seemed to get the best of him.

Now, there are legions of articles, comment threads and videos discussing the shortcomings of the Prequel trilogy. In general, another of Star Wars’ dubious distinctions is being one of the first franchises to exhibit a voracious yet unpleasable fan community. If you can stand his interminable videos and obnoxious voice, then the YouTube critic Confused Matthew probably does as thorough a job as anyone of dissecting them.

Among the most common ones were the sloppy and vague background to the conflict – taxation of trade routes, etc. – making it seem arbitrary and hollow; making one’s Jedi potential based more on a blood test than on the content of your character; a plot that barrels ahead leaving hole after hole in its wake; a lot of prophecy and Chosen One talk in a franchise that has never used it; accusations of racist stereotyping; enemies that flip-flop between being funny and scary and failing at both; and of course the most ham-fisted love story ever seen on screen.

That’s not to say that they had no virtues: Episodes I and II in particular had great action, visuals, music and casting, and the fight at the end of Episode I was a masterpiece of choreography. But then Anakin took centre stage and it went downhill fast.

Anakin Skywalker is so arrogant and abrasive you’d think he’d already fallen to the Dark Side! His come-ons to Padme in Attack of the Clones were my younger self’s master class in how never to treat a woman, and he regarded the world through what I’ve since dubbed the ‘Anakin Skywalker Serial Killer Glare’ (see also Jace in City of Bones and the teen big brother in Jurassic World). Beyond that, Lucas’ dialogue got worse and worse, and the battle droids and Jar-Jar stood for Star Wars’ inability to keep a consistent tone.

What always gets me about the Prequel Trilogy is that it contains a terrific story about Anakin’s downfall, but that Lucas doesn’t appear to have noticed it. A lot of aspects of the story that exist as plot holes would have worked if strung together differently. I thought, during Attack of the Clones, Anakin was going to be given legitimate reasons to be disillusioned by the Jedi; the fact that the ‘guardians of peace and justice’ do nothing about slavery in Episode I, their callous attitude toward Anakin’s mother in Episode II, the inflexibility of their code, and the implication in Episode II that there were corrupt Jedi masters involved in instigating the Clone Wars, were, I assumed, setting up the Jedi Order as being in decline, and Anakin’s frustration turning him to a side that promised decisive action. The Seperatist movement could have been a group with legitimate grivances that got coopted by evil. Instead, we get this.

Part of the problem is that worldbuilding in Star Wars has always been a little slapdash: the sheer size and openness of the universe also results in it being quite vague. Sometimes this helps imply a larger world, like C-3PO’s brief line in Episode IV about the Spice Mines of Kessel. But sometimes it undermines the story: at no point does anyone explain in the Prequels what a Sith is or what they want revenge for. What the Seperatists want, their ‘demands’ as Count Dooku puts it, are never shown. The specific remit of the Jedi is never clarified. Most frustrating of all, as I said in my article on the Force Awakens, the Force is never given clear rules as to what you should be able to do with it, at what stage of your training, so that characters tend to find new powers and forget old ones when the plot requires it.

George Lucas’ talents lie squarely in high concept, special effects and production oversight. Despite everything above, though, I don’t mean that as damning with faint praise. Lucas is really, really good at those things. Despite what he makes his characters say sometimes, I’ll also credit that his casting is never less than spectacular. His first ‘Special Edition’ of the first trilogy also made the most of new developments – and more money – and for all the subsquent remasters have contained some questionable decisions, you have to respect Lucas for going outside the system and trying new things. Pity more people in Hollywood don’t try that.

Star Wars is flawed – badly flawed – in myriad little ways, but that doesn’t mean it’s a write-off. It still stirs real emotions in its fans, and taps into very basic elements of storytelling that speak to anyone and everyone. It didn’t become the massive phenomenon it is because of hipster-ironic snarking at its expense. The trappings are strikingly original, the action is exhilirating, and it will be a dark time for the Rebel Alliance indeed when composer John Williams is no longer around to write the stunning scores for these movies. When the hamminess does work, it really works, too – there’s just something about the phrase “you are in command now, Admiral Piett!” The Force Awakens is showing some signs of upping Star Wars’ game in the diversity department – in which it was already fairly strong – and shaking off a bit of the camp, while still retaining its Rule of Cool ethos. As enthralling as Star Trek, as timeless as the Lord of the Rings, and almost as quotable as the Princess Bride, it well deserves its place as one of the cornerstones of geek culture.

May the Force be with you.

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2016 in Movie, Saturday Supplemental

 

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Leviathan Wakes: A Bleak Expanse

Hard Sci Fi. I’d be the first to admit that I’m susceptible to the idea that ‘scientifically accurate’ in sci-fi goes hand-in-hand with ‘boring.’ The restrictions of real laws of physics tend to place limits on things like speed and range of places that can be visited.

I think that the reason for this is that I’ve read a lot of such stories that felt more like textbooks on how life in space would really be rather than being actual stories about people living in that. Honor Harrington occasionally becomes a borderline example of this, but I do recall some others.

A while ago I was involved in a conversation about human evolution, where it was wondered aloud if humanity could ever diverge again into separate species. I remarked that it would only be possible if separate human population were isolated for a very long period, such as if we were dispersed among other planets. At this, a colleague commended to me a book that, in part, depicts exactly that.

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Leviathan Wakes is the first in the Expanse series, which has apparently also given rise to a new television series.

In it, humanity has spread throughout the Solar System. Mars and the settlements on the large bodies of the asteroid belt have become semi-independent nations. ‘Belters’ regard those from ‘down the [gravity] well’ as arrogant, exploitative and dangerous. People have been living in low gravity and pressurized environments for so long that their physique and culture have developed accordingly.

Holden is an officer on a comet-mining ship who loses friends in a violent attack. He openly declares his suspicion that Mars has committed an atrocity against the Belters, and thus gets drawn into the escalating Cold War between the ‘well’ and the ‘belt.’

Miller is a police detective on Ceres Station in the Belt. He’s put on a quiet little favour-job for one of the corporations that runs Ceres to track down their daughter, who has run away on some idealistic crusade. His investigation is thrown upside-down by the esclation of the interplanetary conflict.

Miller, Holden and his crew, each beset by tragedy, end up following their respective, intertwining paths to discover the root of the events that are causing this potentially cataclysmic conflict between worlds: the conflict is merely a by-product of a discovery that will shake every kind of humanity to its core, and threaten its soul.

Over the Christmas break I finally watched Blade Runner end to end, and it struck me that this is what life off Earth would probably be like in that world. The Earth is described as overpopulated and exhausted, but powerful. Corporations, not governments, run the Belt stations like Ceres and Eros. Food is synthesized from non-photosynthetic sources like yeast and fungi – reminiscent of the protein rations used on Firefly as well.

Speaking of Firefly, lived-in, dingy, used-future aesthetics are in full swing here. Quarters on stations are called ‘holes,’ if that gives you some idea.

The futuristic science is awesome without breaking too many rules that I can spot: artificial gravity is only possible with certrifugal force or acceleration – and that’s usually really unpleasant for all concerned – weapons and ship-to-ship combat rely on acceleration, pressurized compartments, and guided missiles, and isn’t fought at whites-of-their-eyes close quarters, much like in Honor Harrington.

At the same time, unlike several sci-fi properties out there, technologies appear to have advanced apace with each other. Everyone has a ‘terminal,’ somewhere between a smartphone and the omni-tools of Mass Effect, and medical science has achieved immense precision and idiot-proof applicability. There’s a chapter where Holden and Miller both cop a huge radiation dose, and they have to be hooked up to a machine that spends hours stamping out the nascent cancers around their body, which it does flawlessly. There are also cocktails of drugs used regularly for mitigating accleration g-forces.

As for the story itself, apart from being in space, it is an awful lot like a noir detective story or political thriller – Holden being the everyman sucked into something bigger than himself, and Miller the jaded, hardboiled detective who finds his emotions consumed in a seemingly ordinary case.

Then the twist happens, and what I suppose must be the groundwork for the rest of the series is duly laid, which ties all the seemingly disparate threads together, and kicks this story up into Lovecraftian levels of disturbing.

The intricacy and cleverness of the plot further allows us to visit a number of facets of the civilization these people live in. It’s a somewhat bleak depiction, making us seem rather petty, not to mention tiny and vulnerable, but still makes the case for the better angels of our nature, especially via Holden.

I like Leviathan Wakes for its worldbuilding, themes and atmosphere. It left me emotionally drained and satisfied. And yet, strangely enough, I found I don’t have a powerful urge to read the rest of them. Maybe to watch the TV show, but not much.

This puzzles me. Maybe I’m still in the post-holiday funk, but more than that I find that, despite the rich and detailed world – worlds – the characters themselves are strangely boring.

Miller’s sort of the same-old jaded, over-the-hill cop who can’t seem to make a difference. Holden’s the more idealistic and appealing of the two of them, but the idealist looking into the abyss is likewise a bit tired to me.

There’s also something about the way the book treats women that I find subtly icky. The relaxed, rational attitudes about interpersonal relationships are kind of nice, I guess. Nonetheless, the only two women Holden has on his crew he ends up sleeping with, and one of them dies to give him the old woman-in-a-proverbial-fridge to avenge. And getting together with his comrade Naomi seems like the standard hero’s reward that’s danced around until the usual boxes of dramatic tribulations are ticked. If he’s a very good hero, he gets the sex. Ho hum.

Miller is even worse, in a way. He’s sent to track down this runaway rich girl basically to kidnap her and send her home; in piecing together her life and fate, he claims to have fallen in love with her, and sees a vision of her that talks to him as his obsession grows. You can’t fall in love with someone you’ve never met. Miller’s meant to be a broken man, but this kind of pedastalling of a woman comes across as far more creepy than tragic to me. While it’s sort of understandable since he’s a jaded old cop and all, I also find it faintly obnoxious the way he persistently refers to the sex workers he encounters on his regular beat as ‘whores.’ Call me a Social Justice Warrior, but I’ve always thought that a word better suited to the mouths of villains. And when he finally tracks the rich girl down the ensuing discovery is so grotesque as to almost constitute gore porn.

So Leviathan Wakes is a beautifully conceived setting and plot, which kept me guessing right until the end, but as much as I enjoyed it, the characters inhabiting it feel like they could have been written decades ago with no appreciable difference, and lot of things a story should have in this day and age, this one doesn’t. And this costs the book the sharpness or spark that would have taken it from ‘functionally good’ to ‘outstanding,’ if you see what I mean. I shall learn from it what I can, but having done so, I feel I have very little use left for it.

 
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Posted by on February 2, 2016 in Book

 

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The Force Awakens: So it Begins

Well, this holiday season was the big one all of geek culture was waiting for: Star Wars Episode VII: the Force Awakens has come!

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It was probably inevitable in what I grouchily refer to as the Age of the Remake, where Hollywood et al can barely seem to make anything that isn’t an adaptation, a remake or a sequel of something that came out twenty-plus years ago.

This particular instance was made more than usually unpalatable for me because the man at the helm is the ubiquitous J.J. Abrams. Apart from a general feeling that this is too much power for one nerd to hold, I’m still ticked off at him for building his resume for this job by running roughshod over my favourite franchise and effectively turning into a mindless Star Wars knockoff.

Let it not be said, however, that I buy into the age old Star Trek vs. Star Wars rivalry. I’m a lifelong Star Wars fan; Empire Strikes Back has been one of my favourite movies since before I was school-age. That said, I’ve never had the kind of personal loyalty to the franchise that I have to Star Trek. Not because there’s anything wrong with Star Wars. It’s just that Star Wars doesn’t have the mission or message that Trek does. Star Trek was here to tell us something really important about our potential for the future, albeit I’m beginning to think I’m the only one who noticed. Star Wars invited us on an epic and soulful whiz-bang space adventure, simple as that. And if that’s the bar they want to set, then I will concede that the Force Awakens more than delivers.

As the new plan came to light, mixed feelings arose in the fandom. The one that ticked off a lot of people is that, to develop a story for a new wave of Star Wars, they decided to chuck out the entire post-Return of the Jedi Expanded Universe canon and start from scratch. People who have invested themselves in experiencing the licensed comics and books were understandably left with a feeling of having the rug pulled out from under them. As someone who is only broadly aware of it, it seems to me that the EU has grown so vast, complex and detailed, that to successfully integrate all of it would be impractical.

Thirty years after the downfall of the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, the new Republic is engaged in a proxy struggle against the First Order, what remains of the Galactic Empire. Rey, an orphaned battlefield scavenger, is pulled into an urgent mission by Finn, a Stormtrooper of the First Order who has deserted. Joining forces with heroes of the semi-legendary battle against the Empire, they have to evade capture by the fanatical disciple of the Dark Side Kylo Ren to bring the Resistance a droid, BB-8, who carries a map that will show them their great hope: the whereabouts of the missing Jedi Luke Skywalker. At the same time, the First Order have built yet another planet-destroying superweapon that must be destroyed for the Republic to survive and preserve the ancient Jedi ways.

A few people I know complained that the plot is basically just a retread of the very first Star Wars movie, and there is something in that. The fact that their opposition is basically an Even More Powerful version of the Death Star is certainly a clue. A lost droid with a secret mission is another one. The desert planet setting (oddly not Tatooine as I assumed) and the fact that our heroine – who even dresses a bit like Luke Skywalker in his farm boy days – meets a mentor figure are all very clearly revisiting the basic plot of Episode IV. All that said, it never crosses the line into straight-up ripoff territory in the same way that Star Trek: Into Darkness did.

Thorough worldbuilding has never been a strong point of Star Wars. George Lucas’ judgement about when to explain things and when to leave them ambiguous was shaky at best. This movie is no different, though at the stronger end of normal for the franchise. We see an inhabited planet get blown up, but it isn’t clear which one, nor is it dwelt on much, rather like Alderaan back in the day. The exact political or strategic situation is really fuzzy: is the Republic in direct conflict with the First Order? And if so why do you need a Resistance? And why does the Resistance include people who became top generals in the Rebel Alliance? Shouldn’t they be in the regular military? Star Wars allows a lot of latitude to not worry about this sort of thing, but it still makes the story universe seem a bit unpolished. The movie has a very interesting set of scenes where we see what it’s like to view the world when you’re sensitive to the Force, but the actual rules of the Force, what it makes you capable of and how much of your ability is talent and how much is training remain eternally ill-defined.

More irritating to me is that there are so many incidental encounters, supporting characters and other elements that, I am forced to assume are going to be significant in the movie-a-year Marvel-style cinematic saga that Star Wars is apparently now to become. Knowing that and seeing all these possible hints makes this movie feel less like an experience to be had and more like homework for an experience that hasn’t happened yet. This was the thing about Lost that always got on my nerves: the whole story seems to be trading on the promise of something awesome coming later rather than focusing on its own merits.

And merits the story does indeed have. I’d agree that the movie is a retread of Episode IV, but it is one in the same way that Star Trek: the Next Generation is a retread of the Original Star Trek, or that BioShock: Infinite is of BioShock, or that the Second World War was of the First. It’s a generational echo, a chance for a new group of people to undertake a similar cause in their own way.

The story pulls a bit of fast one by setting up a main character who it turns out isn’t actually the main character; he’s a bit more analogous Wedge Antilles in the original trilogy. The characters have personal struggles and traumas of various sorts, and it’s fascinating how we have two Hero’s Journey stories running together and mutually supporting. Finn and Rey’s refusal of the call phase is a bit more than just a formality as it is for Luke in Episode IV. Rey’s loner lifestyle gives way to her becoming part of a team and a circle of friends without her losing her personal indepedence or a turning into a cookie-cutter love interest.

Finn’s defection to free agency is probably going to transition into his joining the Resistance in a later movie, but oddly for playing the long game, his arc seems more rushed even than the others, and they all feel rushed. His defection seems to come with no particular precedent – it’s even noted he never had a single discipline problem prior to that – and he goes through the opening steps of the Hero’s Journey at an especially breakneck pace. He clearly has a lot to do later in the series. He’s a good guy with a good heart and although he’s somewhat the comic relief, it’s never to the point of disrespecting him, because he’s honestly out of his depth, being neither an ace pilot nor a potential Jedi like most Star Wars protagonists.

Abrams has proven that he’s really good at building a character arc in the context of television series, like Lost and Fringe. But it feels like he panics and rushes things when he’s limited to the runtime of a movie. It can be done: Joss Whedon’s Avengers can stand on its own as a character piece even if you haven’t seen Thor or Iron Man. It might even have been worthwile for Abrams to go full Peter Jackson and make a three hour mega-movie if it allowed a bit more modest pacing.

Overall, the new crop of heroes are perhaps my favourite thing in the movie: they aren’t supermen – or even all men – or aces or destined saviours – although there’s an element of Arthurian imagery with Rey. They’re regular people with complimentary skills and talents, and there’s less of a sense of living up to a pre-ordained destiny, as in the other two trilogies, than of just trying to be a good person and make your way in the world. Er, galaxy.

As for the returning champions like Han Solo and Leia, contrary to what I feared given Abrams’ history with Star Trek, the movie honours their contribution to the franchise. Although Solo’s character seems to have had a bit of the old reset button, and the way he enters the story’s a tad contrived, the old guard have arcs of their own. They don’t take over the story and turn it into fanfiction, nor are they in there just as a fanservice bribe, nor as comic relief to make fun of the franchise. To Rey and Finn, these people are practically folk legends, and yet they relate to them as people and learn and grow from their influence.

All this is set neatly against the villain Kylo Ren. It kept occurring to me that Rey and Ren are like opposite sides of a fandom argument on a comment thread. While Rey is enriched by her encounter with history and yet remains her own person, Ren is consumed by it. He’s basically the worst gatekeeper-type fanboy. He’s obssessed with being a Dark Side badass. He worships Darth Vader’s memory as the ultimate master of the Dark Side, to the point of wearing a ripoff of Vader’s mask for no other apparent reason. His lightsabre appears to be both oversized and overpowered – it gives off heatwaves and deals a lot more damage than normal – and punches his own open wounds to show off how tough he is. Despite all these trappings, the untrained Rey gives him a run for his money; he lacks Vader’s imposing stoicism – indeed he has almost no self-control at all – and doesn’t appear to know how to use the old Sith standby of Force Lightning. It all goes to make him both scary and loathsome. The fact that he’s pitted against a group of gender and race-diverse protagonists of the kind that the whitebread macho fanboys railed against gives it a rather grimly satisfying symbolism. Really, every franchise should do something like this, just to sort out the Reys and Finns from the Kylos in their midst…

Overall, I really enjoyed the Force Awakens. It walks a fine line between doing something new and riffing on the classic that gives you a reasonable amount of both. It’s cheesy and maybe shallow, but Star Wars was always cheesy and shallow, and it was epic regardless. The characters are really fascinating, the special effects are awesome, the connection with the original trilogy is touching, the music is superb and the dialogue, the butt of many a joke at Star Wars’ expense, has improved a good deal. Abrams has also reined in his lens flare fetish a bit. My main concern is whether the revived franchise will be able to maintain a sense of momentum going forward. We’ve already escalated to a Mega-Badass-Super-Death Star™, and I’m not sure where we can go from here.

However, for the first time in a while, I can honestly say, I’m looking forward to finding out.

Happy New Year, and may the Force be with you.

 
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Posted by on December 31, 2015 in Movie

 

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Saturday Supplemental: On the Future of Star Trek

So it’s been announced that 2017 will see the arrival a new Star Trek series. And as a lifelong fan of Star Trek, and a supporter of its original message of an idealistic vision of humanity’s future, I’m dreading it.

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Star Trek was great, but also had singificant flaws. I think ultimate root of my problem with J.J. Abrams’ new incarnation is that Star Trek has not only abandoned its mission statement, but seems to think that several of its flaws are actually selling points. Although geek culture has become mainstream in the new millennium, Star Trek fandom, so I believe, is still regarded as a bit of a joke in some quarters, including among some of the fans themselves. I’m therefore concerned that what could be a fanstastic new progressive sci-fi series will end up, like the movies, concerned more with retro self-parody.

The Mary Sue recently compiled an excellent list of things the new Star Trek is going to have to start doing in order to maintain its relevance in this era of television. io9 has produced a couple of them. Not wishing to accentuate the negative, I nonetheless want to point out some of the things that I believe were holding Star Trek back that, if it is to be great again, it needs to stop doing.

5. Don’t Keep Falling Back on Rubber Forehead Aliens.

By the TNG-era Star Trek shows, the standard method for making a character appear alien was to glue some rubber prosthetic to their foreheads. The Klingons were the vanguard of this technique, but it was the go-to method for most alien characters. Sometimes it was relatively subtle, like the nasal ridges that mark out Bajorans. Other aliens like the Ferengi, Cardassians, and Jem’Hadar have almost their entire heads covered with prosthetic.

On the face of it (har har) this was a reasonable way to do it. It’s relatively cheap, you can crank out a zillion of them at a time, and it still leaves the actors with some ability to emote.

There are a couple of big problems, though. For one thing, it isn’t very scientific that right-on-the-money humanoids would be this ubiquitous. For another thing, some of the designs are so arbitrary and token that they just look goofy – somebody even mentioned in-universe once that Cardassians all appear to have cutlery glued to their heads.

More troublingly, looking at a lot of episodes, you start to realize that how sympathetic and relatable the aliens are is sometimes in direct proportion to how much they resemble Anglo-Saxons! This is a really unfortunate habit for Trek of all franchises to have fallen into. The good news is that, if the creators are willing to really give Star Trek a place in modern media, as opposed to making it a parody of itself, there are lots of ways around this. CGI now allows a lot more possibilities for relatively small expense, not to mention less agony for the actors. And the idea that ‘relatable’ must mean ‘human-looking’ was firmly discredited by one of Trek’s later contemporaries: Farscape. Farscape’s aliens were in many cases Jim Henson puppets, and Pilot and Rygel were principle characters with legitimately emotional performances.

That’s not to say they should go back and un-rubber-forehead the Klingons, Cardassians, Romulans or anyone else, but if they want to build something new in Star Trek and not just circle the drain a few more times, this is a good way to go.

4. Chuck out the Holodeck and Transporter Malfunction Plots

Within the fandom this has to be one of the biggest jokes going. The Holodecks go catastrophicaly wrong so often that there ought to have been a massive recall on them at some point. Futurama had a dig at this once; it’s the only joke at Star Trek’s expense that’s ever made me laugh. Some of these episodes were legitimately good, like TNG’s “Emergence” or DS9’s “Badda Bing, Badda Bang,” but there were too many of them for it not to seem absurd and tiresome after a while.

The transporters don’t go wrong as often but they still did it to excess. As before, some of them were alright. Again, nothing this basic and common to the universe should go awry this badly, this often and still be in use. I’d almost be willing to see them chuck out the transporters entirely, or do what Enterprise did and only use them in emergencies. The reason the transporters were introduced at all was because it was too expensive in the 60s to do a landing sequence effect every week, and today it’s easy as pie.

There’s a bigger issue here involving excessive amounts of plot-important but meaningless technobabble, not unlike Doctor Who, but in Star Trek’s case it’s usually just a bit irritating at worst, except particularly in regards to holodecks and transporters. Deal with that, and much else can likely be forgiven.

3. No More Bridge Bunnies

This isn’t neccessarily the biggest flaw in Trek but it is the one that most gets on my nerves. Gene Roddenberry was a great and progressive person, by most accounts a very nice chap, and ahead of his time in many ways. At the same time, however, he was a massive chauvinist. And it showed.

The ubiquitous miniskirts on the Original Series are the least of it at this point. Counsellor Troi, a commissioned Starfleet officer in TNG, spends most of the series bumming around the bridge in what looks like a stripper’s pyjama onesie. I can understand Troi wanting to be approachable despite her rank to, say, a nervous newbie on the Enterprise. She’s basically a non-denominational chaplain after all. But how anyone could concentrate on her advice is beyond me. DS9 mostly kept this habit mercifully in the background with Quark’s barmaids, which at least made some kind of sense. Voyager restrained itself for a while but then gave up and introduced Seven of Nine in her boobtastic unitard. Eye candy was apparently so desperately important that it overrode such trivial considerations as the oxygen supply to Jeri Ryan’s brain.

The absolute nadir was, naturally, Enterprise and T’Pol. T’Pol had no excuse. She was an officer, with scientific and tactical specialities, from a highly formal culture and yet arses around the ship in a freaking castuit. Vulcans don’t care about sex appeal and every other non-Starfleet Vulcan ever has worn robes. That’s not even touching on the contrived situations where she strips for no good reason.

And for me, this is one of the biggest obstacles to Star Trek being respected as a social commentary platform, or even just as a show: it’s a damned hypocrite! You can’t have an all-inclusive diverse vision of humanity’s future and then plaster it with male-gaze eye candy. It makes your message look clueless, or worse, like you don’t actually mean it.

So, if Star Trek is to be regarded in the wider world as anything but a sweaty male nerd’s delusion of intellectualism, you have two choices: either get rid of the eye candy or make it equal opportunity. Not saying I want the second one, but you can either play fair or not play at all. Them’s your options.

2. Don’t Throw the Word ‘Logic’ Around

From the word ‘go,’ Star Trek has been famous for juxtaposing a highly passionate or emotional character with a cool, highly rational one. Kirk and Spock, Riker and Data, Kira and Odo, Paris and Tuvok, B’Lenna and Seven of Nine, Archer and T’Pol, to name a few possible dichotomies you could make in the casts.

The thing of it is, that the scenarios that pit passion against logic are oftentimes horribly oversimplified, and tend to be delivered in favour of the passion-driven character and very condescendingly to the rational character. Data getting lectured about chess by Troi is one instance I’ve always remembered, since playing chess illogically is basically impossible. The poker metaphor used in other episodes, like “the Corbomite Maneuver” works rather better, and when Dr. McCoy tried to call Spock out, Spock could usually throw it right back at him.

The accumulating evidence leads me to conclude that a lot of writers don’t know what ‘logical’ actually means. Because in Star Trek, it far too often translates as simpleminded, naive, or even callous.

So the writers of a new series are going to really have to up their game in writing how a strictly non-emotional thinker would see the world, and make sure that each side of the coin actually represents a legitimate point of view.

You can also subvert it sometimes. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you might want to take a page from Steven Moffat. The reason “Scandal in Belgravia” is my favourite episode of Sherlock despite its very dodgy gender politics is that in the end, the cold-emotionless-rational guy wins precisely because he’s the cold-emotionless-rational guy!

It also pays to consider that Vulcans and similar races oughtn’t be all the same. There can be more than one kind of logic or perspective, something which Star Trek’s been inconsistent at demonstrating with its ‘Planet of Hats’ monolithism.

1. Don’t be Cavalier about Worldbuilding

This is a tough one because it encompasses a lot of Star Trek’s myriad little flaws, but they are so many that it becomes the key issue Trek needs to deal with. Star Trek has always suffered from chronic ‘depending on the writer’ syndrome. In an age where consistent canon and long-running story arcs are the rule, this is a vice it can’t afford anymore.

Starfleet protocol is a big one. Assume for the moment that Starfleet has a military structure, whatever else it might be, and several questions arise. Why is Riker, as ship’s executive, allowed to flirt and even have flings with personnel under his supervision? You can’t even do that in non-military hierarchies. Why do the most senior personnel always go down to the dangerous planets first? Related to that, why does Starfleet only seem to have officers and precisely one enlisted specialist: Chief O’Brien? Why do officers never salute or stand to attention? How big is Starfleet? For that matter, what is Starfleet’s exact role? They talk up exploration but they do a lot more than that.

In general, it would be nice if they would let the protocol inform the story, rather than bending protocol to serve the story. Sisko’s standing in the fleet in DS9 doesn’t make sense except on the basis that he’s the hero and therefore must be in charge. If they’d promoted him to flag rank, or the Defiant had had to play a crucial but supporting role, that would have worked. Including more enlisted types, or to borrow a phrase from TNG, more regular “Lower Deck” characters would help this one a lot, too.

Some of the rules, like the Prime Directive, are never more than summarized, so they mean whatever the writer wants them to mean. Some rules are just plain forgotten about, leading to many examples of how Star Trek started chasing its own tail in later years. TNG did a number of episodes about the rights and status of artificial intelligence, some setting legal precedent in-universe, only for Voyager to tackle the exact same ones, as if nobody in the Federation had learned a damn thing the first go round.

The society behind Starfleet is seldom shown. We know that the Federation doesn’t use money, but what do they do instead? How does day-to-day life work? How much autonomy do Federation member worlds have? This is a big problem inasmuch as we never get a clear sense of what our heroes stand for except in general, idealistic terms. They’re pretty good terms, mind, but I think Star Trek would be made much more compelling if it became a comprehensive model of a future society. Politcally high risk – the writers might fear being denounced as ‘Social Justice Warriors’ – but potentially high rewards. We also have to consider the possibility that some of them just flat-out don’t work and have to be retconned, like the replicators that by rights should render all mining, agriculture and manufacturing obsolete.

I said earlier that other races in Trek occasionally threatened to get monolithic. On the flipside, though, sometimes they were quite inconsistent. For some reason, the Klingon attitude to suicide sticks out at me; in some episodes it’s acceptable, in others it’s absolutely taboo. This isn’t differing attitudes between Klingons, it’s the same Klingon saying different things.

Another issue is scope: Star Trek is the posterboy for the Trope that science fiction writers have no sense of scale. This was actually the one thing about Into Darkness that every Trekkie seemed to catch: given the travel time from Earth, you’d think the Klingon Empire started at Pluto. The TNG two-parter “Unification” had the Romulans trying to invade Vulcan even though Vulcan is nowhere near Romulus. It’d be like if the Nazis had tried to invade just Las Vegas but no other part of the USA along the way. If they had a stronger sense of astrography, as in Honor Harrington, then it would define the Trek universe much better and open up interesting options for strategy in the stories.

The biggest one for me personally is the battles. I’ve said before that combat should not be the focus of Star Trek storytelling. The trouble is that when it did come up, it was stilted as hell and inconsistent. TNG was especially bad for this. If the plot needed the Enterprise to win, they’d usually mop the floor with the other side in three shots. If the plot required our heroes to lose, they would promptly lose fifty IQ points and the ship would magically turn into glass and cardboard. The battle in Star Trek: Generations was particularly exasperating for this reason.

Never mind being accessible to the masses, this sort of thing frustrates the most loyal Trekkies, and it’s not something they can afford in the current age if it wants to stand tall beside today’s television epics.

Of course, you have to wonder, depending on how much reworking the Trek verse needs to avoid all this, and to do the things the Mary Sue or io9 called for, would it still be Star Trek? But then that leaves me back where I started. If Star Trek can’t function beyond these parameters, then it’s gone as far as it can go, and you might as well make a new, original series. Which would be best? I don’t know, but if Star Trek is going to become a province of the nothing-but-remakes culture we live in now, it had better make it worthwhile.

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2015 in Saturday Supplemental, Television

 

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