Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Trying Not To Talk About Babylon 5, But...

Here's the thing. I am currently going through and mainlining Babylon 5 into my brain, for a secret writerly reason of which I cannot speak at this moment. (Because it is secret. And writerly.) I never watched the show when it was on, for a wide variety of reasons including the fact that I am very apathetic about popular culture as a whole: My general philosophy is that if it's still fondly remembered by the time I get around to watching it two decades after the fact, it's probably very good and well worth waiting for. If it drops completely off the radar and everyone scorns it for being a failure that started off promising and proceeded to head downhill like a rocket-powered toboggan, it's probably 'Heroes'. (But I kid the series!) Seriously, if it's not worth watching, I probably will find out about it in the decade or so before I get around to it. It's the Planetary philosophy: "We're archaeologists. We'll dig you up and work it all out in a couple of years."

(The best part of this philosophy is that by the time I get around to watching it, the DVDs are cheap and I don't have to wait through the offseasons.)

So the point is, I have a lot of thoughts about Babylon 5, many of which I am restraining myself from saying due to writerly secret reasons. But one thing I do keep thinking about, and am allowing myself to talk about even though I'm shutting up about a lot of it, is, "Why did the series never come back?" I have heard from my lovely and intelligent wife that JMS, creator/producer of the series, doesn't really have an interest in doing more on account of how hard it was to get the first series made, and how many of the actors have unfortunately passed on, and how he's more or less told the story he wanted to tell. And while those strike me as true (because I know my wife and in addition to being lovely and intelligent, she knows metric tons about 'Babylon 5'), they also strike me as good things to tell yourself, if you're a former producer of a science-fiction series with a small-but-devoted fanbase that can't get renewed. It does seem to me that there has to be at least an element of falsehood there...because 'Crusade'. Clearly, JMS at one point felt like there were enough ideas floating around in the B5 universe to sustain a second five-year series. That series was canceled with four years of stories left untold. That suggests to me that there are more stories he at least was willing to try to tell.

The question is, "Why can't he?" Because let's face it, we live in a very different era than we did in 1999 (when the series was canceled.) Shows with cult followings and long tails now routinely make returns, from 'Family Guy' to 'Doctor Who' to 'Futurama' to 'Serenity' (which itself is probably due for another return a few years from now. Big Red Button, guys!) We live in an archival culture now, where quality television is not dependent on the vagaries of an inconsistent syndication schedule to gain a following among science-fiction fans. So why is it that Babylon 5 nostalgia isn't leading us back towards a revival of the series and an explanation of the Drakh war? At the very least, Dark Horse should be putting out a comic book of this stuff.

I think the answer is that the very thing that Babylon 5 fans loved has given the series a reputation that prevents it from gaining that kind of return following. Everyone talked, during the period the series was on the air, about its intricate continuity and long-running storyarcs. About hints that began in the pilot and slowly unfolded over the course of five whole seasons. (I used to have a button that said on it, "Doctor Who explained, Babylon 5 predicted, Star Trek...apologized for." It's funny if you're an obsessive Doctor Who geek.) The problem with this is that it intimidates people away from the show. Even in an archival era, where the series is ten bucks a season and you can get through the whole thing in a couple of months if you work at it, Babylon 5 is legendary for requiring an investment to get through. (And it's also got an entirely undeserved reputation as having a long slog of dull episodes to get through before you hit the "good stuff", by which fans tend to mean the metastory-heavy shows. Personally, I think that Season One's standalone episodes are plenty good...but I'd never have known that if I'd listened to the people telling me to watch the show.)

The long and short of it is, we are now in an era where practically every series takes its model from B5, and sci-fi fans should not be scared away from a series with storyarcs. But because it was so innovative at the time, and because so many people talk about nothing but the arc plots, I think people somehow assume they're going to be harder to follow or require more attentive viewing than any other series, and they don't know if they want to put in the effort. Which prevents the show from developing the kind of following that sells DVDs, comics, merchandising, and other stuff that would make the bean-counters in Hollywood stand up, take notice, and shove a dump truck full of money in Straczynski's face and say, "Is this enough to make the kind of show you want?" Which is probably what it would take to overcome his reluctance to dive back into it all.

Basically, what I think I'm saying is, "If you've been waiting 20 years to watch 'Babylon 5' because you were worried about having to mainline the whole thing into your brain over the course of a month or so, you don't need to be. I'm not doing that because it's the only way to watch the show. I'm doing it for secret reasons. Shhhhhh."

Friday, January 25, 2013

Why I Can't Believe Manti Te'o

For those of you who don't follow college football (and given the Venn diagram of my blog and college football fans, I suspect that's a whole lot of you) allow me to first explain who Manti Te'o is before I explain why I can't believe him. Te'o is a linebacker for Notre Dame (or was--he's going out for the NFL draft this spring) who had a pretty serious string of really excellent games this year, and was in line for the Heisman trophy. In his interviews and press appearances, he talked a lot about how hard it was to keep playing after the personal tragedies he'd experienced, but how hard he tried to be inspired by them. See, Te'o's girlfriend and his grandmother had both died that year.

The grandmother hadn't come as much of a shock--she was elderly and in poor health--but his girlfriend, now that was a real sob story. She'd gotten into a car crash, and when she came out of her coma in the hospital, it was to the news that she had cancer. She fought valiantly against the disease, but in the end, it claimed her not long before...or possibly after, accounts vary...Te'o's grandma died.

Actually, accounts vary on a lot of things involving Te'o's girlfriend. Primarily because, as the sports news site Deadspin revealed, she never existed. Everything about her was made up out of whole cloth. The pictures were of a different girl, one who was an acquaintance of a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who may or may not have known Te'o. The Twitter account was a fake, the school she supposedly went to had no records of a student with her name, the hospital she was supposedly staying at had no records of her, and there was no birth or death certificate for her.

Te'o and his agent (since he's gone out for the draft, he now has an agent) were quick to turn this into a brand new inspirational story--Te'o was the victim of a crushing, malicious hoax that nearly ripped his heart out, but nonetheless he plans to keep on playing to show them that...um, something. The fact that Te'o spent months talking about all the time he and his girlfriend had spent together in Hawaii, and how they'd met at a game? Te'o had fudged the truth, slightly embarrassed to admit that he had never met the love of his life. The fact that even by his own timeline, he'd found out about the hoax in early December, and had made public statements about his dead girlfriend right up until the story broke in January? He wasn't sure how to tell everyone about it all, and just decided to keep it under wraps until he could figure it out. The fact that he apparently never visited his dying girlfriend in the hospital, despite flying through her home city on his way back to Hawaii to visit his grandparents? "It just never crossed my mind."

And that's where I draw the line. I can believe gullibility, I can believe catfishing, I can believe that some people are really good liars and willing to take advantage of people...but I have been in a long-distance relationship. I met my current wife over the Internet. And I can tell you with 100% certainty, if you care anything at all about your long-distance significant other, you are going to make an effort to see them. If you are passing through the city where they live, during a period where you have free time, while she is dying of freaking cancer, not going to see her either means that you know she's a fake, or you're a sociopath of the highest order. And I am willing to give Te'o enough of the benefit of the doubt to believe that he's not a sociopath of the highest order.

I do feel kind of bad for him, of course. He's too stupid to know how to tell a believable lie about his fake Internet girlfriend. Saying that she made excuses to avoid him, that she told him she didn't want to see him with her hair missing or something? Barely plausible. Saying that it just slipped his mind to visit the dying girlfriend that he couldn't shut up about to the media while everyone thought she was real? You couldn't be clearer about the fact that you were BS'ing if you did the interview in a pile of horse manure.

Te'o's lying. Even if it's never proven (which is unlikely, given how much scrutiny is on him right now) I will always know it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

My Big Terminator Question

Why, apart from the obvious reason that his name was at one point a big box-office draw and he's currently attempting to suck the last dregs from the addictive teat of fame, does more than one Terminator ever look like Arnold Schwarzenegger? Let's remember, these are meant to be top secret infiltration devices, made to go where humans congregate without drawing attention to themselves, and then unleash a hellstorm of violence when the humans have dropped their guard. Doesn't it kind of give the game away if the human guards manning the barricades say, "Oh, crap! It's the former governor of California again! Aim for the eyes, I always freaking hated 'The Running Man'!"

I know that they did show Terminators with different faces in the original movie (although they still had a certain muscular bodybuilder look to them. Really, if you're going to be cunning in your pursuit of the human race, make a Terminator who looks like Wil Wheaton.) But in the second movie, we go right back to Ah-nuld, even though there is no sane, rational or sensible reason for John Connor to send back an identical duplicate of the T-800 that Skynet sent to kill his mother, and several extremely good reasons not to. (They almost died trying to convince Sarah that it wasn't the same Terminator, they almost died fighting cops convinced that they mysterious cop-killer had made a return appearance...) Really, the only person with a sensible reason to look like Arnie in T2 was the T1000, who has a vested interest in impersonating his counterpart to sow confusion and dissent among his targets, and he never does it.

Really, the only place it makes actual sense is in T3, the one that gets mocked by people who weren't paying attention for all the plot holes it doesn't have. There, Skynet sent a Terminator specifically to use John Connor's affection for the Schwarzenegger model against him, and it was captured and reprogrammed and sent back to stop the TX. (Which, you'll note, was also designed to look skinny and vulnerable and not like what people picture when they see a Terminator, because that's what you'd do with an infiltration unit. Because T3 was a much better sequel than T2, but nobody remembers that because hearing Arnie say, "liquid metal" and "Hasta la vista, baby," in an Austrian accent was so cool that it wiped everyone's memory of how stupid the plot was.)

Unfortunately, it's too late to suggest that maybe the Terminator series isn't exactly begging for a return appearance from a washed-up 80s action movie actor, or at least that if they want one of those, Steven Seagal is much cheaper. Schwarzenegger has already been signed for Terminator 5: You Knew It Was Going To Happen, and that's final. But could we at least see something different done with him?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

We Miss You, Gilda Radner

For those of you unfamiliar with the world of football, the talk of the playoffs this year has been San Francisco. Even though they're the number two seed in the playoffs and will have to win a road game against the Atlanta Falcons, everyone's hot pick is the 49ers, and people can't stop gushing about the team's new wookie quarterback.

Don't get me wrong--I agree with everyone who said that coach Jim Harbaugh made a big gamble by benching Alex Smith and putting in a wookie at quarterback. And apparently it's paid off for them so far. I just don't know if it's a good idea. I mean, I can see the advantages; wookies are faster and stronger than humans, and a wookie quarterback could probably throw a football farther than even Joe Flacco's cannonball arm. Plus, a wookie would be awfully hard to bring down in the backfield, even for a sack artist like John Abraham.

But is a wookie temperamentally suited to the position of QB? Let's not forget, wookies are easily distracted by strong scents, particularly the smell of food, and pretty much every stadium in the country has a whole crowd of fans enjoying the offerings of the concessions stand. Do you really want to have to stand up at a post-game press conference and explain why, with two minutes left, your team captain leapt into the stands and started grabbing bratwursts away from people, gobbling them with both hands?

For that matter, wookies are infamous for their temper. They've been known to rip people's arms off for losing; is that really the kind of person you want under center in a tense game? Ron Jaworski once said that the most important skill a quarterback needs to have is amnesia, the ability to shrug off mistakes and go back out to win the game. A wookie quarterback is unlikely to be able to regain that kind of mental equilibrium, even if he doesn't get ejected for tearing Ray Lewis' legs off and beating him. (At the very least, this would cost his team fifteen yards in personal foul penalties at a time they can ill afford it.)

And if the NFL does allow wookie quarterbacks, what then? Will other teams respond with Trandoshan linebackers? Will we see Gamorrean tackles? Twi'lek wide receivers struggling to get their lekku under their helmets? Eventually, human beings will be crowded out of the sport completely in favor of some sort of violent alien gladiatorial contest. That's why, for the sake of the integrity of the sport, I think we need to tell San Francisco to bench their wook...wookie...

Oh. I see.

Never mind.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Possibly Interesting Question

Currently, copyright law in Britain puts the expiration date of copyright at 70 years from the death of the author. (The same holds true in America, although it's 120 years from creation/95 years from first publication for works for hire, although that isn't germane in this particular case for reasons that should become obvious shortly.)

Sax Rohmer, creator of Fu Manchu, perished in 1959. This means that in 2029, a relatively short sixteen years from now, Fu Manchu will go into the public domain. (unless his Fu Manchu novels were done as work for hire, which means that the copyright wouldn't expire any later than 95 years from 1913, date of publication of the first Fu Manchu novel. Since Fu Manchu didn't go into public domain five years ago, I think we can assume that it wasn't work for hire.)

My possibly interesting question is: Do you think that people will make use of Fu Manchu once the character becomes public domain? On the one hand, the "Yellow Peril" stereotype, which Fu Manchu exemplifies and arguably created, is at this point an embarrassing legacy of an era in which racial stereotypes were common and accepted. Pretty much any story involving Fu Manchu, in any medium, is going to be analyzed with a very skeptical eye by anyone who has any interest in racial sensitivity. These days, that's a lot of people (which is something I'm tremendously heartened by, honestly.)

On the other hand, modern sci-fi/fantasy is a descendant of the pulp novels like the Fu Manchu series, and in some ways is inextricably linked to them right at the roots. Anyone trying to make a serious exploration of the racial politics of cult fiction has to take the Yellow Peril stereotype into account, and if you're going to do that, what better symbol to use than the original Yellow Peril himself? (To say nothing of those people who just can't resist making use of an iconic character simply because he is an iconic character. There's already been at least one "Fu Manchu Versus Sherlock Holmes" novel, and I can imagine that it might be hard to resist the temptation to do a Fu Manchu/Dracula team-up, or a "Fu Manchu and the Cult of Cthulhu" story.)

I do believe there will be some use of the character starting in 2029; but given the problematic nature of the character, I'll be very interested to find out how much.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Self-Taught Superheroes, Part Nineteen

The portal chamber was huge. I mean, I was expecting something pretty big, because this was Lord Raptor and the portal chamber was the showpiece of his big plan to conquer a thousand worlds and stuff, so I knew his ego was going to make him overcompensate for...something. (Well, I mean, I also noticed that he did make his personal armor with a really silly-looking codpiece. But I'm refusing to guess why.) But the logistics of it made it even bigger.

After all, the whole thing was designed to move an army through. You needed to be able to file tanks into that thing three or four abreast, wheel airplanes and fly helicopters. The staging area on this side alone could probably have hosted a couple of games of football back to back. (And it opened out to the outside, which would have made me more nervous if Kevin hadn't insisted that he'd fused the door controls. Of course, knowing what I know now about Kevin, that actually makes me even more nervous in hindsight.) And the portal itself...it was monstrous. It dwarfed me. And in case you didn't think that sounded impressive because of my size, it dwarfed Captain Light, whose hair I have to stand on tippytoes to ruffle. This thing was giant, and it kind of intimidated us.

"You sure I can power this whole thing?" Josh said, looking a little bit nervous.

"Positive," Kevin said, cinching a weird metal band that looked sort of like the offspring of a blood pressure cuff and Robocop's armor around Josh's right arm. He began hooking up another one around the left. "You're powering a force field that can stop tank shells, discharging enough energy with each punch to dent battleship steel, and oh yeah, you're also projecting a psychokinetic field that can move two hundred pounds of mass at sixty miles an hour against the pull of gravity. And I'm guessing you don't get tired doing any of that, right?"

"Um...not sure," Josh said. "I mean, I don't exactly know what 'tired' feels like, so..." He flexed experimentally, and the cuff moved with him. "But you think that's more power than a nuclear reactor?"

Kevin fluttered his hand back and forth. "Well, I'm always going to side with the reactor, don't get me wrong, but...your energy source is a lot less lossy. There's no heat, no radiation, only a little bit of visible light...we can tap your energy directly, unlike a reactor, which is basically just a fancier way of boiling water to run a steam-powered turbine. I mean, I'm always working on ways to reduce the loss, but you can only go so far before you run into Maxwell's Demon, you know? Now, you...your body is doing some things that would reduce a lot of very talented physicists to nervous wrecks. Lucky for you I'm not a lot of physicists." He plugged a cable as thick as my wrist into each of the cuffs. "In fact, I'm just one." He paused. "Um. Little grammar joke, there."

Josh just nodded. He really did look pretty nervous about this whole thing. Then again, I'd probably have looked nervous if a physicist with crazy mad-scientist hair said he was going to use me as a living battery to power a teleportation jaunt halfway across the country. That was our plan, in case it wasn't clear to everyone. Josh, better known as Captain Light, was going to single-handedly power a dimensional portal that a full nuclear reactor couldn't get going for more than a few seconds at a time so that our seventy-odd hostages could scramble through it into the middle of Yankee Stadium (we needed a big open space, and we wanted somewhere public so that Lord Raptor wouldn't be able to go after them in retaliation. And John Q. Public is a Sox fan.) So yeah, I was learning that real life was like the comics in one key aspect--we came up with some pretty crazy stuff and passed it off as a "plan".

Kevin tightened up a few more connections on the portal end, then flicked a few switches. "Okay, co-ordinates are set...receptors are aligned...attractors are spinning...we're all set here, just waiting for power on your end."

"How do I do that?" Josh asked. "I mean, I don't normally think about using my power. It just sort of...happens. When I hit things, they break, when things hit me, they break...it's not really conscious, you know?"

Kevin shrugged. "I don't know. Try to hover or something."

Josh closed his eyes, slowly lifted an inch or three off the ground...and the portal began to open. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before. It looked like the desert on a really hot day, the kind where the air is shimmering in the heat like you're watching it all through a veil of tears, but at the same time, it was spinning, too. The wall on the other side of the portal looked distorted, warped and almost melted in a weird, sickening way...and then it resolved itself into another place. A place with green grass, and a throng of cheering fans whose cheering slowly stopped dead.

We all watched in total fascination. It seemed so surreal, like everything we'd ever believed about our world had just gone and dissolved. It seemed like some sort of crazy, big-screen TV with perfect sound and perfect picture. I almost didn't believe it was real until the baseball rolled through it.

That snapped us all out of our stupor. "Go!" I shouted to the hostages. "Go, run, move, go go go go go!" I realized I sounded like Biff McLargeHuge or something, but I couldn't stop myself. The hostages didn't need my encouragement, that was for sure. They saw the outside world for the first time in a month and they ran for it. I helped the last few through, the ones who'd gotten sick or injured during their stint of hard labor, and then made a last quick scan around for stragglers.

What I saw was John Q. Public staggering to his feet, and Lord Raptor already at the side door hammering away at the keypad.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Should We Know Who the Enemy Was?

This is sort of "old business", and very Who-related, so I apologize in advance for those of you who come here for other things and don't care much about pre-Eccleston Who. But before there was the Time Wars that destroyed the Time Lords, there was the War. Same basic premise--the Time Lords were fighting a war against a time-active power just as powerful as they are, but with two key differences--one, the war occurred in the Doctor's personal future, starting the day he died as Gallifrey's enemies finally felt safe enough to move against them. The glimpses the Doctor got of the War (starting with 'Alien Bodies') were scenes from his own personal future, but simply knowing about it warped it and brought it ominously closer.

And two, which is more relevant here, the enemy wasn't the Daleks. In fact, the enemy's identity was never satisfactorily explained. Lawrence Miles, who wrote most of the significant novels in the War arc, intended them to be someone other than the Daleks, but the novel in which he finally intended to reveal their identity was never published. Instead, then-line editor Stephen Cole co-wrote a novel called 'The Ancestor Cell', where they were explained as a collection of technobabble from the dawn of time shortly before the War arc, and Gallifrey, were neatly excised from the line never to be mentioned again.

Lawrence Miles, in turn, went on to write a spin-off series in which the Time Lords and the War are carefully changed just enough that he can use his own concepts freely, called 'Faction Paradox'. In it, the enemy is simply known as The Enemy, with the details of their identity being described as "irrelevant".

As a fan of both Doctor Who and Faction Paradox, I'm not sure this was the right move. At this point, I think that the identity of the Enemy risks drifting gradually into irrelevance if not revealed, while revealing it might drum up useful publicity for a somewhat cult spin-off. I'd really like to see Lawrence Miles (ideally) write a book that explains who the Enemy was intended to be, or if that's not possible due to rights issues (it was hinted at as being an old foe of the Doctor's in some way, shape or form) at least get it out in an interview who it was originally intended to be so we finally can put the question to rest. However, I'll admit that part of my desire just stems from being a fan who hates unsolved mysteries, so I can't say I'm unbiased here. Anyone else remember the Enemy? And do those people want to see it come back and get finally answered? Feel free to make your thoughts known in the comments!

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Review: Whispers Underground

'Whispers Underground' is the third book in what appears to be an ongoing series (wonderfully, author Ben Aaronovitch has said that he plans to keep going until he can afford a yacht) about Peter Grant, official apprentice to the last officially-sanctioned wizard in Britain. Although, as one of the threads running through the novel shows, the last officially-sanctioned wizard is very much not the same thing as the last wizard. This thread, which was frustrating to me at the end of 'Moon Over Soho', has been developed quite well here (there's a great gag where the mysterious rogue wizard leaves a psychic trap in Elvish that Tolkien fans translate as, "If you can read this, not only are you dead but you're also a huge nerd.") I don't even mind the fact that it's still dangling by the end of this book, now that I'm used to the idea.

One of the other minor complaints I had about the last book turns out to have been very well-thought out for the long haul as well. Not to unduly spoil 'Moon Over Soho', but Peter has a very different attitude when it comes to "monsters" than his superior. In the last book, this kind of came to nothing, because fate sort of took its own course, but that only heightened the tension of this novel. When Peter finds an entire underground civilization beneath London, one with a tangled and extra-legal relationship with the seedier denizens of the city, the question of what exactly is going to happen to them once the larger world finds out becomes all the more razor-edged due to the events of 'Moon Over Soho'. By showing that the world isn't always cute and cuddly towards the inhuman, Aaronovitch gives us one more reason to find the story gripping.

And it is. What starts as an ordinary murder turns into an exploration of the magical underworld, literal and figurative, of London. It's exciting stuff, and Aaronovitch makes it (as always) witty and exciting and funny and scary and nerve-wracking and just generally excellent. Oh, and recurring character Lesley May gets a hugely expanded role for this one, which is just plain awesome because she deserves it.

In case I'm not being clear here, this one's a good buy too.