Saturday, October 18, 2014

Rating Rebels

 I recently watched the premiere episode of Star Wars Rebels (Subtitled Spark of Rebellion), the first effort put forth from Lucasfilm since its take over by the Walt Disney Company and I have to say I am very pleased with what I have seen so far. Set approximately 5 years before Episode IV, Rebels follows the crew of the Ghost, a not un-Millenium Falcon-esque transport as they set about the galaxy far, far away, doing their best to hamper the Empire in any way they can.

The Ghost crew seems new, yet familiar at the same time. You have a cocky pilot, an over-sized tough guy alien, a battered R2 unit, a Jedi-in-hiding, a brash young woman wearing some very familiar armor, and a young orphan just beginning to realize that he is Force-sensitive.  The story follows young Ezra, an orphan living on the Imperial-occupied world of Lothal, who gets by by stealing what he needs from the Imperials, and making them look like fools in the meantime. It is on one of these exploits that he meets with the Ghost crew, and eventually decides to join them in trying to thwart Imperial plans, which includes rescuing a group of Wookie slaves from the spice mines of Kessel.

At this time, the Rebel Alliance does not exist as a formal entity. I suspect that as the series progresses, we will see these characters meet with other rebel cells, and if the show runs long enough, we may even see the birth of the Rebellion.

I will admit that the animation was lacking somewhat - a surprise since The Clone Wars was so well done. The Wookies in particular could have been better. They looked too plastic, especially the young one who I thought had a head too big for its body. Like its predecessor, I'm sure that this will improve over time.

Having grown up on the Original Trilogy, I love that the look and feel of that series was so well replicated. I loved that certain shots were replicated from the TIE battle of A New Hope, as well as integrating cues from John Williams' original score throughout the soundtrack without making them feel cliche'd. The playful banter was also back, making these new characters already seem like old friends.

I know that Clone Wars was very well received, and was indeed an excellent series, but being a child of the 70's and 80's, my preference will always be for the Rebellion era. After a while, all the political intrigue and dark Sith dealings wore on me and I lost interest. I guess I'll always champion the underdogs. Always been more of a scoundrel and rogue myself.

I know many people have misgivings about the Disney/Lucasfilm merger, but based on what I have seen so far, I feel those worries are sorely unjustified. The fate of the Force is in good hands.

#StarWars #StarWarsRebels #TheForce #Disney #Lucasfilm

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Impression's De Comic-Con

I have been a long-time convention goer, ever since attending my first Star Trek con back at the tender age of 16. Ironically, this was only a few days after William Shatner's infamous "Get a Life!" skit on Saturday Night Live. I remember thinking that there was no way that a convention could be like that, only to find out that the SNL skit was pretty spot-on. At the end, I figured that this was a one time event in my life, a bucket list item to be crossed off, just so you you could tell your grandkids you did it.

I was wrong.

I did go back again -a lot. Over the course of the next decade, my friends and I would venture into Manhattan, sometimes 4 or 5 times a year, to feed our need to be around (and I use the term lovingly) geeks like us. For myself, the treat was seeing and meeting celebrities from my favorite shows and movies, and getting their autographs. (My favorites are my personalized Dave Prowse/Darth Vader autograph and my DC Comics Star Trek # 19, written by Walter Koenig, and signed by him as well -also personalized.)

My con experiences lasted into my mid-twenties, until I moved from New York to Wisconsin, married, and began raising a family. The idea of attending a con was put on the back burner, but the need to fill that geek-centric part of my soul still tugged at me. I needed to let my geek-flag fly.

Star Trek's Karl Urban onstage.
On August 23, 2014, I attended my first con in years, making the trek down to Chicago (Rosemont, IL, actually) for the big Wizard World Comic-Con. I expected it to be big, bigger even than the epic 3-day Creation Con held in New York every Thanksgiving weekend, but even I was taken back by the immensity of the venue. Whereas the shows I had attended previously had maybe 2 - 3 big name guests, Comic-Con had literally dozens, either appearing onstage for Q&A sessions, or signing autographs and doing photo-ops.Michael Rooker and Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy), Karl Urban (Star Trek), Simon Helberg and Kunal Nayyar (Big Bang Theory), Lou Ferrigno (The Incredble Hulk), director John Carpenter, and the entire cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation, along with pro-wrestlers, comic writers and artists were in attendance. And yes, Stan Lee was there too.

Star Lord takes aim.
One of the great attractions of cons are the cos-players, people who go to great lengths to emulate their favorite T.V., movie, or comic book, or anime characters. Costumes range from fairly simple (Wearing an ARC-reactor under your T-shirt and saying you're Tony Stark) to the complex (A full-blown Iron Man suit). The Guardians of the Galaxy made an appearance. Mal, Kaylee, and Jayne of Firefly/Serenity were there. I counted no fewer than six Black Widow's,and at least an even number of Harley Quinn's. Star Wars was surprisingly under-represented, though I did spot at least two of the obligatory slave-girl Leia's. Whovians were very much in existence, with various Doctors represented by both genders, as well as several women wearing Tardis-themed dresses. Superheroes were everywhere, including The Greatest American Hero, from the 80's T.V. show. Each and every cos-player was happy to take the time to pose for pictures, some even thanking me for taking their picture.

There were delights and disappointments. I was thrilled to see just about every toy I ever played with as a kid at some of the vendor's tables. Many were out of the package, well-worn,and well-loved, and ala Toy Story, just waiting for someone to play with them again. I was also pleased to see that the prices on these items were not ridiculously over-priced, nor were their modern day counterparts, most reasonably priced between $5-$10-a fair deal for in-package toys dating back 10 years or more. Unfortunately, I never did find the Dexter Jettster action figure I was looking for.

On the downside, I was disappointed at how Cons have changed in the last twenty years.When I used to attend, autographs were never charged for-that was included within your admission price. At best you would have to pay for a photo to get signed (around $5). This time around, I dropped $60 for a 1-day admission. Prices for photo or autograph sessions ranged between $40 to $150 or more depending on the celebrity. I don't know how people justify that kind of expense, no matter how popular the star.

On the flip-side, I should note that many celebrities were happy to allow photo-ops at their autograph tables, if the line was not too busy. Comic-Con policy forbids taking pictures from outside the autograph venues, even from a distance. Sad.

The truly great thing about cons like these is how they become a sort of microcosm of our society today. All types exist here in a Roddenberry-esque kind of Utopia. Age, race, beliefs are not as evident to con-goers. We all come together to get our geek on and celebrate that diversity amongst kindred souls.

I already plan on attending next years event. If you're there, look me up. Perhaps you'll even appear in a future blog post. Until then friends, keep on geekin' on.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Lost Era of Klingon History - Star Trek : The Final Reflection

While looking back 30 years into the past for my 1984 movie retrospective Setting the Way-Back Machine, I came to realize that this is not only the 30th anniversary of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, but also one of the finest Star Trek novels I have ever read. So for this post, I'm going to introduce you (or re-introduce for some) to the John M. Ford novel The Final Reflection.

The Final Reflection is unique in that the original series trio of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are barely present within its pages, and have no bearing on the tale whatsoever. They appear only as bookends at the beginning and end of the book. The rest is written as a historical novel detailing a little known (and according to Federation files, fictionalized) period in history set before the birth of Kirk. It is also unique in that it focuses on those events from the Klingon, not Human, point of view.

The story follows a Klingon Captain named Krenn, who starts out as an orphan child with no House to speak of. Krenn and other orphans are used as playing pieces in high-stakes live chess games played by the Klingon elite. Impressed by his performance, an Admiral adopts Krenn and proceeds to set him on the path to command, which he rises to quickly. On one particular mission, where he ferries a human Federation envoy to the first Babel conference, he learns a lesson in peace, and discovers a Klingon plot to bring the Empire and the Federation into a war that could destroy both. Krenn must then decide which is more important, total, unquestioning devotion to the Empire, or turning against the Empire in order to save it.

Written long before The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, or Enterprise were ever conceived, The Final Reflection offers a fascinating inside look at the (arguably) most fascinating alien race in Star Trek lore, a look that is different from anything we have come to know from those shows. The characters are believable, likable, and as honorable as any Klingon we have seen. The battle scenes (and there are quite a few) are well-written and tense, and the pace of the novel is swift, with some surprising bits of humor that comes from the characters interactions, and not at their expense.

The beauty of this novel, despite the fact that it is totally non-canon from a modern Star Trek point-of-view, is that it stands out as a well-written science fiction novel overall. All author John M. Ford would have had to do was change some names of characters and races, and removed the Kirk-centric prologue and epilogue, and he would have had a wonderful, original sci-fi work that easily could have generated further adventures of Captain Krenn and crew.

Though I still have my original paperback from years back, and there are still some copies floating around, I was delighted to find that this fine work is still available as an e-book from Amazon (I have provided the link below.). If you ever get the chance, and are not too much of a Trek purist and can overlook the discrepancies that several seasons of television and movies provide, I highly recommend taking a look at this fascinating bit of little-known Klingon history.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Setting the Way-Back Machine. Destination: 1984 Part III

Welcome to the year 2014, or as I prefer to call it, the thirtieth anniversary of 1984. In retrospect, 1984 was a particularly good year for cinematic science fiction, so over the next few months I will be doing a look back at some of the higher points of that year. (DISCLAIMER: As I have pointed out in earlier articles, these are my opinions. Mine, not yours. I take no responsibility for ruining your childhood.)

Sorry about the delay,Geekers. I had meant to have this posted by early June, but what with  publishing my latest book, a collection of Sci-Fi and Fantasy short stories, I fell a little behind.  So let's get right into it, shall we? Up for review this month, 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

I first have to confess that while I enjoyed Arthur C. Clarke's novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, I am not a fan of Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film. I will agree that it is a creative milestone, not only in terms of science fiction film, but in cinema in general. The film looks terrific, even by standards of today's visual effects,and the set and costume designs are incredibly realistic (Though the business attire worn in the films opener evokes a bit too much Austin Powers). The story is engaging and the acting is passable. The problem is that the film is so dang slooow. Kubrick's love of meshing his visuals with classical music is inventive, but slows the pace too much. I don't need a five minute sequence just watching a spaceship dock with a spaceship and seeing a space-stewardess walk the entire circumference of he space-liner in zero gee. It draws the viewer out of the story.

By contrast, Peter Hyam's 1984 sequel, does not fall into this trap. Also, ironically, is one of those rare films that actually better than the novel it is based upon. The plot, picking up years after 2001, deals with Dr. Heywood Floyd, the man responsible for sending the spaceship Discovery on its mission to Jupiter, searching for answers as to what went wrong. Hitching a ride aboard a Soviet spaceship, Floyd and a small team will reactivate the derelict Discovery and its dormant control computer system HAL, and investigate the mystery behind the disappearance of astronaut David Bowman after encountering the enigmatc Monolith orbiting Jupiter.

While the novel that the film is based upon is a fine piece, the story lacked the tension to really engage a film audience. The Soviets in the book act like old friends to the American crew and everyone goes about their duties without conflict. In the film, tensions between the U.S. and Russia are escalating and the two superpowers are on the brink of  launching World War III. These tensions carry over to the crew of the Soviet spaceship Leonov, who view Floyd and his crew with suspicion and animosity at first, but as the film progresses, the two crews must work together to solve the mysteries within and find a grudging respect and friendship for each other.

What really makes this film work are the performances of the stellar cast. Roy Scheider as Heywood Floyd , leads the American crew which consists of Bob Balaban as HAL creator Dr. Chandra, and the always excellent John Lithgow as engineer Walter Curnow. Helen Mirren plays the captain of the Soviet crew, and Keir Dullea reprises his role as David Bowman, and Douglas Rain returns to voice the enigmatic HAL-9000.

There is an honesty to this cast that makes all the fantastical happenings seem all the more real. Whether the characters are discussing the mystery of  what is happening with the Monolith, the events that are taking place on the Jovian moon of Europa, or simply discussing what ballpark makes the best hot dogs, the viewer feels that these characters believe every word they are saying. Of particular note is the friendship struck up between Lithgow's Curnow and Russian-crewman Max, played by Elya Baskin, and the banter that plays between them is fun to watch.

In particular, this is one of my favorite Roy Scheider roles.Whether he is playing a scientist, a small-town sheriff turned shark-hunter in Jaws, or a submarine commander on Seaquest DSV, his portrayals are always that of the approachable favorite teacher or uncle, and we cannot help but root for his character. And though heard as HAL but never seen, Douglas Rain gives such life to the character that when HAL finally accepts the fact that he may cease to exist if Discovery is destroyed, we truly feel pity for him.

The only classical music used in this film is Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, heard over the opening and closing sequences. The rest of the score was composed and conducted by David Shire. The visual effects by The Entertainment Effects Group are believable and effective.

 Author Arthur C. Clarke has a cameo as the old man on a bench outside the White House, feeding pigeons, and he also appears on a cover of Time magazine, along with 2001 director Kubrick as the U.S. and Russian leaders.

Though a bit dated, as all films about the future tend to be, 2010 still holds up remarkably well. Clarke penned two more sequels, 2061 and 3001: The Final Odyssey. As of this writing, I have no knowledge of any plans to adapt these to film.

Next destination for the Way-Back machine, the 1984 horror-comedy Ghostbusters.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Setting the Way-Back Machine. Destination: 1984 Part II

Welcome to the year 2014, or as I prefer to call it, the thirtieth anniversary of 1984. In retrospect, 1984 was a particularly good year for cinematic science fiction, so over the next few months I will be doing a look back at some of the higher points of that year. (DISCLAIMER: As I have pointed out in earlier articles, these are my opinions. Mine, not yours. I take no responsibility for ruining your childhood.)

Up for review this month, The Last Starfighter.

This film is a personal favorite, and easily falls into my top-5 list of favorite science fiction films of all time. A feel-good movie with a simple story and quirky, but likeable characters, this film is perhaps the most influential on me in terms of my writing. My original draft of The Starhawk Chronicles (Written in high school and then only titled Starhawks) was a barely disguised re-write of the Starfighter story. Later drafts would lose the naive innocence of that draft, but the spirit is still there.

 Released in July of 1984, The Last Starfighter is the story of Alex Rogan, a young dreamer seemingly doomed to live out his life in the small southern California trailer park he lives in with his mother and younger brother. One night, after acing the Starfighter game outside the general store, a mysterious stranger arrives looking for him. Alex is then swept up into the middle of a galactic conflict
"to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada." Alex's skills are sorely in need, especially after an act of treachery destroys the Starfighter ranks, leaving him the sole hope of the Star League.

Back on Earth, hijinks ensue as Alex's "replacement", a look-alike android named Beta, goes about pretending to be Alex, causing chaos with both Alex's girlfriend Maggie and the other residents of the Starlight, Starbright trailer park, all the while dodging an alien hit-beast sent to kill the real Alex.

Along with his navigator, a reptilian alien named Grig, Alex takes his Gunstar into battle against the alien fleet alone, barely triumphing with the use of Death Blossom, a secret weapon installed into his prototype Gunstar. Alex returns to Earth to explain his whereabouts and that the Star League needs his help to rebuild the Starfighter ranks. Taking Maggie with him, Alex sets off for further adventures among the stars.

This movie has a lot going for it. The cast, from relative newcomers Lance Guest as Alex and Catherine Mary Stewart as Maggie, to long-time veterans Dan O'Herlihy as Grig and Robert Preston playing galactic con-man/ starfighter recruiter Centauri, are all charming and fit their roles well. Preston is especially a delight, basically reprising his  role from The Music Man, as the fast talking confidence artist who tricks Alex into accompanying him to the planet Rylos. Only Preston could dish out lines like "May the luck of the Seven Pillars of Gulu be with you at all times." and make it both funny and believable at the same time. Sadly, this was also Preston's final feature film before his death in 1987 from lung cancer.
There is great chemistry between Lance Guest and Dan O'Herlihy as Starfighter and his navigator.
While training a seemingly inept Alex on how to use the Gunstar's weapon, Grig implores him to relax, to which Alex quips, "Terrific! I'm about to be killed a million miles from nowhere, with a gung-ho iguana who tells me to relax!" Later when explaining their mutual home lives (Grig lives below ground with his "wifoid" and "griglings") Alex tries explain about being stuck in one place in a mobile home, and Grig responds with "A mobile cave that never went anywhere. Fascinating." O'Herlihy brings a believability to the character, despite being unrecognizable behind his reptilian makeup. Moviegoers would later get to see the man behind the mask in the first two Robocop movies, with O'Herlihy playing the "old man" head of corporate conglomerate OCP.

The Last Starfighter is best known for being the first film to use computer-generated special effects for all its effects shots. Prior to this, CGI had been used before, but limited mostly to, well, computer graphics, such as the war-room holographic display in Return of the Jedi.
 Though primitive by today's standards, (In truth, some video game graphics even exceed this.) the effects at that time were impressive, offering a glimpse of what was to come as movies from Young Sherlock Holmes to Jurassic Park and beyond would jump on the CGI bandwagon first started out by Starfighter. The movie looks like a video game, but considering that Alex's abilities at gaming are what draw him into the Rylan conflict in the first place, the comparison is appropriate.

Also notable, though not at the time, were the number of Star Trek actors that appear in the movie. Meg Wyllie, playing Maggie's grandmother, was one of the mind-controlling aliens in the original pilot The Cage. Wil Wheaton makes a brief, almost unnoticeable appearance as one of the trailer park kids, and Deep Space Nine's Marc Alaimo (Gul Dukat) plays the human form of the interstellar hit-beast sent to kill Alex.

In all, The Last Starfighter is a simple film, a bit of sci-fi fluff, that reflects a somewhat more innocent age of the genre. Most anyone I talk to who has seen it reflect fondly on it, and some of us still hold out for a sequel, though with the age of the film and relatively modest showing at the box-office, this is a long shot at best.

And please Hollywood, no remakes. We like this film just fine.

On our next trip back to 1984, we will jump ahead to 2010, The Year We Make Contact.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Setting the Way-Back Machine. Destination: 1984 Part I

  Welcome to the year 2014, or as I prefer to call it, the thirtieth anniversary of 1984. In retrospect, 1984 was a particularly good year for cinematic science fiction, so over the next few months I will be doing a look back at some of the higher points of that year. (DISCLAIMER: As I have pointed out in earlier articles, these are my opinions. Mine, not yours. I take no responsibility for ruining your childhood.)

  That being said, for this entry, I will be reviewing Star Trek III : The Search for Spock.

  Released by Paramount Pictures on June 1, 1984, The Search for Spock is oftentimes considered by many to be the bastard child of Wrath of Khan, but  that is an unfair comparison. The third entry in the original series' film run stands strongly on its own, with much to offer to both long-term fans, and new followers as well.

  The Search for Spock (To be referenced from here on as TSfS) picks up where Wrath of Khan left off, with the Enterprise returning home to Earth, presumably to repair her battle damage and head back out. Most of the crew has been reassigned, and the Genesis planet has been deemed a quarantined planet. The commander of a Klingon vessel has learned of the Genesis device and wants to obtain this "ultimate weapon" for the good of the Empire. Kirk learns that Dr. McCoy is suffering from the effects of Spock's final mind-meld, and that both must be brought back to Vulcan. When Starfleet refuses to allow Kirk to return to Genesis to retrieve Spock's body, Kirk and crew then steal the Enterprise and head out against orders. Arriving at Genesis, they not only find the Klingons waiting for them, but that Spock has been regenerated by the "Genesis Wave" and is aging in surges in sync with the planet, which is rapidly tearing itself apart. Kirk destroys the Enterprise to keep it out of the Klingon's hands, stealing their Bird of Prey in time to get Spock off of Genesis moments before the planet is completely destroyed. Returning to Vulcan, Spock's katra, or "living spirit", is rejoined with his regenerated body, and the crew is whole once more.

  This film has much going for it; a strong script written by series creator Gene Roddenberry and producer Harve Bennett, strong performances by the main cast and supporting players, and some top-rate visual effects by Industrial Light and Magic. Directed by Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy makes a fine feature film debut. Proving himself with this film, he would, of course, go on to direct the very popular Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and act as Executive Producer on Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, as well as directing 3 Men and A Baby and others.

  Most of the main cast have nice little character moments: Scotty's "Up yer shaft!" response to the uber-polite turbolift computer, Uhura putting "Mr. Adventure" in his place (and the closet), and Sulu's famous "Don't call me Tiny." Only poor Chekov is left out of the fun, his main responsibility is to take over Uhura's comm position on the Enterprise. At least this is more than made up for in many good scenes in The Voyage Home.

Christopher Lloyd plays the Klingon commander, Lord Kruge. Quite frankly, not only is it one of his best performances, but he brings a grumbling menace to the character without being over-the-top. Many remembered Lloyd's performance as lovable stoner Jim Ignatowski from the classic comedy Taxi, and feared that his villain would be laughable. Just the opposite. Lloyd's Commander Kruge is one of the best, most memorable villains in the Trek movie franchise, and set a benchmark for all Klingons to follow.

  TSfS is notable for not one, but two, significant, life-affecting events in Kirk's life. The first, and most notable, is the destruction of the Enterprise by Kirk. In order to keep his ship and its secrets of Genesis out of the Klingon's hands, he turns its destruction into "a fighting chance to live." Beautifully achieved by ILM, the Enterprise's self-destruction and immolation in the Genesis planet's atmosphere, is both heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time, but was not much of a shock to fans, since both television ads, and the trailer for the film, touted this as "the final voyage of the Starship Enterprise.", even showing the grand starship blowing herself to Hell.

  More of a surprise, and no less significant, is the death of Kirk's son, David Marcus (Merritt Butrick), by the Klingons. Fighting to protect Saavik and Spock, David is stabbed through the heart. Though bloodless, and partially obscured, the brutal way David meets his death is both sudden and incredibly shocking. I remember the genuine, horrified gasp that arose from the audience when I saw this film on its opening day. We felt we had only just met David, and looked forward to seeing his relationship with Kirk develop over the course of the series. Kirk's loss of his son would be a major driving force behind Kirk's attitude toward the Klingons, especially later on in The Undiscovered Country.
  Robin Curtis takes over the role of Saavik from Kirstie Alley, who left the series due to a fear of typecasting and salary disputes, and does a fine job. Sadly the Saavik character loses momentum from here on. Featured only briefly in The Voyage Home, she was due to be a major player in The Undiscovered Country, but the character was written out in favor of Lieutenant Valeris.

  Star Trek II gave us the first new starship design since the series with the U.S.S. Reliant. This film ups the ante with three new starships to drool over. The science vessel U.S.S. Grissom, the U.S.S Excelsior, and the Klingon Bird-of-Prey.  Afficionados of starship design, such as myself, are left drooling. All three designs would be used extensively in future series and films.

  As dramatic as Wrath of Khan, and as much fun as The Voyage Home, The Search for Spock is a satisfactory middle act in what would later become known by some as the Spock trilogy. Sadly, the rest of the film series became a bunch of one-shot episodes with little to connect them. Perhaps the reboots of the series can bring back the multi-film arc.

  Next in our look back at the year 1984, The Last Starfighter.