Thursday, March 31, 2011

Space Academy - "The Survivors of Zalon"

Spoiler Level: High

Space Academy was one of the "must see" shows during my childhood.  It was a Saturday morning show, made by Filmation, a company whose product was everywhere on Saturday mornings when I was growing up.  And like most Filmation products, it was never seen again once it finished its network run.

Because of its limited availability, I never had anything but my memories on whether it was any good.  I remembered it fondly, but then again I thoroughly enjoyed Lost in Space at that age too, which just as thoroughly disappointed me when I saw it again as an adult.

Now that I'm 42, not only am I less easily amused, but I have higher standards for kids shows as well.  Just because a show needs to be written for a younger audience does not mean that it needs to be bland, patronizing or out-and-out stupid. Sarah Jane Adventures and Wizards of Waverly Place understand this; K9 occasionally has problems remembering it.

Last weekend I found a DVD box set including not only the entire run of Space Academy, but Filmation's other live action science fiction shows, Jason of Star Command and Ark II as well, all in one nice box set for a mere $10.  Ten bucks! It was one of those South Park Wal-Mart moments, where I was trapped by the enticement of something I didn't necessarily need by the staggering low price. I couldn't go on without buying it.  I had to find out how well they held up.

And the answer is... surprisingly well.

The writing, model work, special effects and music are all very strong for television in 1977. The effects are better than Doctor Who's 15th season, which premiered at the same time.  Being a tech-head I especially love the modeling work done on the Space Academy itself, the Seeker ship, and the Seeker's launchbay.  The sets all look great, portraying the clean, slick designs we all expected from the future in the 70s, when the technology of the computer itself was still seen as something new and shiny.  It also has a very catchy, upbeat theme song.  I didn't notice any of the typical Filmation stock music, although their stock sound effects are here in abundance.

Space Academy premiered September 10, 1977, just three and a half months after the premiere of Star Wars.  This means one of two things-- either they had already been working on the show and the timing was a coincidence (and most likely gave them a boost), or a Filmation exec got this show moving the moment he walked out of the theater.  After watching the first episode, I suspect this series probably owes more to Space: 1999 and Star Trek than it does to Star Wars. It's got that sense of exploration, of meeting strange alien life (in this case, made out of energy) and a desire to learn from it.

If the show falls apart anywhere, it's in the acting.  Jonathan Harris (Dr. Smith of Lost in Space fame) totally carries the show as Commander Gampu. Harris plays the part of a wise teacher and commander completely seriously, and comes across great.  The kids, on the other hand, often come across as stiff and uncomfortable, and the results are often cringe-worthy.  But this is their first episode; maybe Harris will rub off on them and they'll improve.

In this premiere episode, one of the students is monitoring a planet that's due to explode when she picks up signs of life on the planet.  When they investigate, the students encounter a young orphaned boy living alone on the world, protecting two glowing gems. The gems are children to a glowing red sphere, who is trying to make sure that its children mature by also becoming beings of pure energy when the planet explodes.  Desperate to protect its children, it traps the students on the planet in a force field and holds Commander Gampu in orbit so they can't interfere with the birthing process.  Gampu must then plead with the alien parent, explaining to it that what means life to them will mean to death to the humans on the planet.

Now seriously, couldn't you see that story on classic Trek or Space: 1999?  And it also gives Harris a chance to put in a great performance, showing his concern for the students under his care.

The character of Laura Gentry (played by Pamelyn Ferdin) was also really standing out to me; I knew that I recognized her, but for the life of me I had no idea where I knew her from.  It turns out she played one of the little kids on the classic Trek episode "And the Children Shall Lead."  And I'm pretty sure when I last rewatched that episode, it was bugging me there that I knew her from somewhere as well-- apparently, I had a faint memory of her from here!  At last, the circle is complete.

So all in all the pros way outweigh the cons, and if the rest of the season holds up as well as this first episode did, then this is going to turn out to be a show well worth seeing again as an adult.


If you have a Half Price Books near you, check it to see if you can find the same great deal I did. If not and you're still interested in the show, here are the Amazon links. The discs are also available to rent through Netflix.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Paul

Spoiler Level: Medium

Oh, man. I laughed so hard I nearly passed out.  No lie.

Paul is a great movie because it works on two levels.  One on level, there's the obvious homage to Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., and to the fanboy subculture in general.  There so many in-jokes I could never count them all.  A few zinged over my head, but not many.  (Or not enough, some might argue.)

But unlike Free Enterprise, for example, the film doesn't require you to get them.  Many of them are played in such a way that even if you don't get the reference, the way they're delivered is funny all on their own.  (Okay, Higher-than-Medium Spoiler Level here as an example.  Highlight it to read it.) For example, when Blythe Danner faces off against Sigourney Weaver, she exclaims "Get away from her, you bitch!"  Out of my group, three of us laughed because it's Sigorney Weaver's most famous line from Aliens now being directed back at her.  One of us laughed because it was Blythe Danner being portrayed as a little old lady, and here's this little old lady taking charge and kicking butt. And there's numerous scenes like that. I remember finding Spaceballs disappointing because I felt Mel Brooks explained all the jokes.  The jokes aren't explained here, so either you catch the reference or you don't-- but even if you don't, the scene has been crafted in such a way that the line is funny all by itself.  It's the perfect solution, and one that could only be achieved by people who genuinely love the source material they're lampooning.

And then there's the characters themselves-- Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as two Brits dealing with America for the first time, Seth Rogan as (the voice of) the rude & crude title character Paul, Kristen Wiig as Ruth Buggs, a devout Christian who has her world turned upside down. Not to mention the people who end up chasing them, including Ruth's father, government agents, and angry rednecks.  That's the film's other level; it is, first and foremost, a flat-out comedy.  You could never have watched a single frame of science fiction in your life and you'll still find a lot to laugh at here.

This definitely goes in the list of top fanboy movies.  Come to think of it, the only other two on the list are the brilliant aforementioned Free Enterprise, and Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back.  And come to think of it again, I don't think I've laughed at a movie so hard since Kevin Smith.  And that's saying a lot.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Primeval - Series 1, Episode 2

Spoiler Level: Medium

Did I mention that I really, really, really, REALLY hate spiders?  My god, this episode was worse than Arachnaphobia.  It played on every fear of spiders I have.  My skin was crawling, I was flinching at every itch on my body, and I was looking behind me.  And that was with me closing my eyes whenever I could.  Congratulations, Primeval, you've succeeded in scaring the hell out of me.

Once we got to the giant centipede it wasn't so bad.  The centipede was creepy, but creepy in a way I could handle. It worked better than the Centaurapede from K9, but that may be because I was already creeped out by the time it showed up.  And as long as I'm comparing Primeval to K9, it occurred to me today that the character of Lester in Primeval is what the character of Drake is trying to be on K9. I don't know if it's better writing here or better acting on behalf of Ben Miller or a combination of both (although I suspect it's the latter, with apologies to Connor Van Vuuren).

The characters continue to be enjoyable, with a nice love triangle forming between Connor, Abby and Stephen (aka "The Young and the Beautiful"), and with Helen's story moving along fairly quickly.  That's the nice thing about British shows; with only 6 episodes to the season, they don't waste time.

Once again, I also like the bigger implications, that certain evolutionary gaps were potentially caused by the anomalies.  I hope they keep following up on that line of thinking.


Monday, March 28, 2011

Star Trek: The Next Generation - ''Time Squared''

Spoiler Level: High

I was going to go for a typical "double Picard" shot, and I thought, y'know what?  Everyone does that.  I'm going to go with one of the cool ship shots that I liked.  So here's the Enterprise getting sucked into the Space Funnel.

I love time travel stories, but this one's just missing something.  Maybe it's the fact that being thrown out of time messes up Future-Picard and his shuttle so badly, since we've never seen time travel have that kind of effect before or since.  But just to play devil's advocate, every different method of time travel in Star Trek seems to have different properties to it with different consequences, so I'll just jot down in my little notebook of Temporal Laws of the Star Trek Universe that "time travel caused by an anti-matter explosion inside a sentient space funnel reverses the polarity of the time traveler and their equipment until they return to the departure point from their timeline."

Other interesting little tidbits:

* We see Riker cooking for the first time, and he references his difficult past with his father, which is a very nice set-up for the following episode.

* Picard tells Troi to stay with Future-Picard so she can sense any change and notify him immediately, but after a two minute conversation with Pulaski she gets mad and leaves, apparently forgetting Picard's orders.

* When the Space Funnel zaps both Picard and Future-Picard, Picard leaves the bridge and heads to sickbay.  Troi and Riker stay on the bridge and exchange worried looks, then Troi leaves to go after Picard.  Cut to commercial break.  When we come back, Picard's entering sickbay, but Troi's beat him there!

* Apparently the intelligence Troi was sensing was originally meant to be Q, and this episode would serve as a lead-in to "Q-Who," but Roddenberry nixed that.  (With thanks once again to Larry Nemecek's The Star Trek: The Next Generation Compendium.  Yes, I read the write-up after I watch every episode.)

I also like that Future-Picard is able to explain to Picard what's going on because, logically, in his timeline he was focused on trying to figure out what the Space Funnel was, while in our timeline Picard spent the same time trying to figure out what Future-Picard was.  Neat.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Dreaming Void by Peter F. Hamilton [UPDATED]

Spoiler Level: Low-Medium

The Dreaming Void is a very good novel and a very enjoyable read.  It also frustrates the hell out of me.

The story takes place in the year 3589, which really appeals to me.  I like the idea of a story that's so far ahead in time that society has been radically redefined.  And the book delivers on that promise-- the galaxy of 3589 has practically conquered death, with a new body being able to be made to order, with all your previous experiences downloaded into it.  Almost nobody dies; they just suffer body-loss.  And you can make your new body look however you want it to, so everyone looks like they're in their twenties even though they're centuries old.

It's also kind of frustrating because society is so radically different that it takes a while to figure out just how this society works.  For example, there are Higher humans and Advanced humans, the unisphere and the gaiasphere, biononics and genetic improvements that all seem to not be genetic at all but computer based.  It's a lot to take in with very little explanation-- you have to just figure it out as you go.  Although there is finally an explanation on the differences between all of these and how they came about... 474 pages in.  And by then you've pretty much figured it out, that page just fills in the details.  And just who the hell is Ozzie, anyway?

One of the things I love about the book is that it has many, many different characters taking part in many different storylines, all of which are driven by the fact that a religious group called Living Dream wants to make a Pilgrimage into the Void.  Unlike most galaxies that have a black hole at the center of them, it turns out ours has the Void at the center instead.  And every now and then the Void expands and devours anything around it.  But one man named Inigo started receiving dreams from inside the Void, and now his followers want to go there.  Others are afraid that going there will trigger a massive devourment phase that will destroy all life in the galaxy.

And the nice thing about this set up?  It's all in place by page 24.  Out of 582.  So you know how I complain that Jack McDevitt books tend to give away major parts of the book on the back cover?  Can't say that here.

The frustrating downside to this is that no major plot points are moved forward on this until the end of the book.  And then, nearly all of them end on a cliffhanger!

Now the characters and situations and worlds are genuinely all very interesting.  I was never bored with the book for a minute.  But dammit, I want to see this interesting premise move forward, and after 582 pages and over five weeks of reading,  I have to get the next book to see the overall story arc move one step?!?

And yes, it took me over five weeks to read this book, even with my coming back to it often and ignoring most of my comics.  Thick book, small print, slow reader.  And I realize it's not the author's fault I can't read faster; man, I wish I could install some biononics or Advancer upgrades or what have you so I could have read this in my usual 10 days.  But that's just the speed I read.  Which means if I want to satisfy the curiosity I felt when I read that initial back cover blurb, I have to invest another good six weeks (the next book is a good 90-some pages longer), and guess what?  It's a bloody trilogy!  (And no, I didn't realize that when I picked it up.  I did realize there was a second book, but I didn't realize the whole thing would be over 1800 pages.)

And I haven't even touched on the fact that it takes place in the same universe as his two previous books, Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained.  For the most part that's not a problem because it's set 1,500 years after those books, so the events of those books are ancient history and easily picked up on as simple backstory when referenced.  It's only when characters start popping up from those books that I start to feel like I'm missing something important, but it does a good enough job of giving me what I need to know.

Now by contrast, the story of the dreams that are coming from the Void are paced just right for me.

The book alternates chapters; we get one chapter set in the outside galaxy following the lives of many characters, followed by a chapter of the dreams received from a microuniverse that exists inside the Void, following the life of Edeard, the man who changed their world.  The microuniverse inside the Void is very much like the middle ages, with one notable exception-- everyone there has telepathy and telekinesis.  It takes a little while to get the hang of Edeard's world as well, but his world is much simpler and much easier to grasp.  And most importantly for me, in a story telling perspective, his story comes to a climax that sets the stage for something bigger in the next book.  It's a good breaking point.

And really, that's my big complaint.  I wanted this book to satisfy my curiosity of the premise, while upping the stakes and giving me a good breaking point.  The inner Edeard storyline does that; the outer Inigo storyline doesn't.  And it's hardly the author's fault that he didn't write the book the way *I* want books to be formatted.

I don't mean to sound so bitchy, and maybe it's just because I've had my meds reduced (well there's a giveaway), but dammit, I feel disappointed.  I feel like I invested so much into this book and now it tells me that to see the part of the story that should have come in around page 200 I now need to invest it all over again in another 600 page book.

And I probably will, because after all is said and done, it is a good book.  If it's about the journey and not the destination, then it's an enjoyable journey.  Did it entertain?  Yes, yes it did.  And this is one of the cases where I have to remind myself (say it with me folks) that it's called entertainment.

But man, I can't help but feel let down.

I wish I could read faster.



UPDATE: Having had a night to sleep on it and let it settle in, it occurs to me that I've walked away from books that ended like this without caring what happened next, or even dropped books in the middle once my curiosity was satisfied and never came back to them.  The very fact that I did get this upset about it shows how much the author made me care about the world he's created here.  So some well-deserved kudos to Peter F. Hamilton for being able to do that.  I will definitely read the follow-up, The Temporal Void... but probably not until I'm on vacation and can dedicate a lot of time to reading it.

I still wish I could read faster.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Beyond the Time Barrier

Spoiler Level: High

This is an old black-and-white movie from 1960, one year before Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.  It's a product of its time, playing on the concept of man going into space being a complete unknown, and (of course) serving as a warning against the use of nuclear weapons.

Major Bill Allison is flying the first space plane, designed to fly straight up into space.  During the flight, his plane ends up breaking the time barrier, and he arrives back on Earth 65 years later, in the year 2024.

And here is why I find these kind of movies fun-- we get a look at what they predicted Earth's future would be like.  After the first manned moon landing, the Earth banded together and colonized Mars and Venus in 1970.  But fallout from nuclear weapon testing has worn away the protective layers of Earth's atmosphere, resulting in the Earth being bombarded by cosmic radiation.  In 1971, this radiation caused a plague, causing people to mutate and resulting in future generations being born deaf, dumb and sterile.

Ahhh, if only the Earth had banded together after the first moon landing, instead of only going a half a dozen times and then never going back again. I also loved how they were predicting colonies on Mars and Venus just ten years into their future.  I'm guessing we didn't know how brutal the conditions on Venus are back then? However I have to give them points for coming close to predicting the hole in the Ozone Layer and Global Warming.  And even Major Allison's jet is similar in concept to Virgin's space plane.

Most of the dialogue and some of the acting is pretty bad, so much so that I was surprised this movie was never used on MST3K.  Heaven knows my wife and I were playing MST3K with it on our own. The science is pretty laughable as well.  ("Gravity has no effect on time!") And then of course there's the cigarettes, with Air Force officials lighting up in the hospital.  But that's part of what makes these old SF movies fun.

As to things I genuinely did like about the movie:  They actually had access to an Air Force jet, which was pretty impressive, and the model work when the jet is dropping its stabilizers looked a lot better than I expected.  There's some very cool paintings used to show the future city, which granted don't fit in with the actual movie footage well, but are still neat to look at.  And the future city is obsessed with triangles.  The place is full of them, the doors, the walls, the support pillars, everything is triangles, even the dissolve wipes from scene to scene, all of which makes for some very neat camera angles.  I liked the triangles.

So really, it's not as bad as an Ed Wood movie, but still bad enough to be fun, and good enough that I never got bored with it.



Friday, March 25, 2011

Primeval - Series 1, Episode 1

Spoiler Level: Low

With all of my shows taking a break until April, I decided to check this show out since I've heard such good things about it.

First thing's first... Oh my, no episode titles.  How edgy.  How avant-garde.  How boring it makes for a blog review title.  Seriously though, it doesn't really bother me, but it makes me wonder, why are we seeing a backlash against episode titles?  For example, did anyone notice that Stargate stopped putting episode titles on screen when they switched to SGU?  I can't think of any show I watch that puts the episode titles on screen anymore.  It's like episode titles have become so twentieth century. Not that I mind that the entire show is just "Primeval," and maybe once I see the entire show I'll feel it really works for it or something, but right now it just strikes me as a move away from creativity and into homogenization.

But none of that really matters, because the episode itself was a great starter, and definitely made me want to see more.  I knew the premise was about creatures from the past slipping into the present, but I kind of thought the heroes would be more on the defensive and reacting to each new monster as opposed to trying to figure out why the portals are happening, if they've happened before, and who else has been using them.  When Professor Nick Cutter declares "Everything we know about the universe is wrong" I believe him, and it makes me look forward to finding out what the truth really is.

Not to mention that everyone's just so darn good-looking on this show.  That doesn't hurt, either.

Next episode: giant spiders with pincers. I hate spiders.  I mean, I really, really hate spiders.  That does not inspire me to want to watch it.  But I will.



Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Cape - ''Endgame''

Spoiler Level: Medium

Well, this was a pleasant surprise.  Apparently NBC decided to post the last episode online.  I feel kind of foolish now; I stopped checking on this show once they announced no more episodes would be aired.

"Endgame" was filmed before they got the notification that NBC had cut their order down to 10 episodes from 13, so the makers of the show didn't get a chance to wrap it up.  Having said that, "Endgame" is at least more satisfying of an ending than "Razer" was.

The evidence that Vince gathered on Peter Fleming in the previous episode has gone public, so Fleming weasels his way out of it by doing what he does best-- framing someone else to take the fall for him.  In this case it's Marty Voyt, Vince's best friend who helped set him up in the first place.  As I suspected in "The Lich," this is Marty's redemption story, as he comes clean to Vince's wife about what he's done and why he did it-- which is to say, to protect his family from Fleming.  And we did see Fleming threaten Voyt's family in those early epsodes, so that reasoning works.

This is a typical late-season episode, in that big things are starting to happen, and the pieces are all being put into place for the final battle.  Fleming's defenses are starting to unravel, and you can tell that Chess was going to start taking the center stage again very soon.  Vince gets to be with his wife again, albeit as The Cape, and has to be talked out of revealing that he's still alive to her, with reassurances from Orwell and Max that he can tell her very soon.  It's a shame we won't get to see any of that happen now, but at least we have some closure between Vince and Marty, and a feel for the ending that would have been.

As of this writing, this episode is still available to view for free -- with the same one lone commercial played at every single commercial break -- at http://www.nbc.com/the-cape/video/endgame/1313753/.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Star Trek: The Next Generation - ''The Royale''

Spoiler Level: High

This episode gets a bad wrap.  Yeah, it has some bad moments, but all in all it's a fun little episode.

The Enterprise comes across the remains of an old NASA expedition, much farther out than any such expedition could have reached.  On the planet's surface, Riker, Data and Worf discover a great big nothing with a pair of revolving doors.  Entering leads them into a bizarre recreation of an old Las Vegas hotel.  It's not long before they discover that the entire thing was made by aliens as a place for the last surviving astronaut from the NASA mission, based on a cheap paperback novel found on the NASA ship.  But just like the Hotel California, at the Hotel Royale you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.

There's very little I really don't like about the episode, but one of the things I do dislike is that there was no good way at the time to do an effect of the Away Team going through the revolving door and coming out into the same room (à la the most recent Doctor Who short, "Space").  It just makes it look like Riker, Data and Worf are the Three Stooges and aren't smart enough to know how to use it. 

The story itself is a cool concept, and it's always fun to see characters out of their element.  The scene where a phone rings and Worf isn't quite sure what to do with it is great, and Data's gambling at the end is priceless.  And I always liked the part where they identify the timeframe of the mission based on the fact that the US flag has 52 stars.  (Wonder if that will ever happen?  We've got 22 years left before this becomes inconsistent.)

Speaking of inconsistencies, I never would have thought to look this up if it wasn't (once again) for Larry Nemecek's The Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion, but this episode uses Fermat's Last Theorem as a parallel for the NASA mission; while they may have learned what happened to them, they still don't know why it happened or how they got to be so far out into space.  Picard muses that, like Fermat's Last Theorem, it's a puzzle that may never be solved.  (Which kind of bugs me; it would have been just as easy to write an answer in the journal they found.  It stikes me as attempt to be mysterious that doesn't really work.)  As of the book's printing (at least my copy, which is the May '95 revision), Nemecek says that as of 1993 Fermat's Last Theorem was close to being proven, and a quick Google search shows me that it was in fact solved... also in May of 1995!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My Star Wars Vintage Collection R2-D2 Dilemma-- RESOLVED!

Well, I finally come to a decision.  And in my usual style of making mountains out of molehills, I decided to make a production out of it.  And believe it or not, I got it all on the first take!  Wow!


Monday, March 21, 2011

Transformers: Prime - ''Deus Ex Machina''

Spoiler Level: High

Another good entry, albeit with a few complaints that probably aren't worth getting into.

Miko and Bulkhead are in the spotlight again; When Ratchet detects that some Energon has been detected in Greece, Miko and Bulkhead investigate, only to discover an ancient painting of a Cybertronian artifact: and Energon Harvester, capable of extracting Energon directly from the ground.  Or worse yet, from the body of a Transformer.  From there it's a race between the Autobots and two new Decepticon characters, Knock Out and Breakdown, to find and retrieve the artifact first.

Knock Out and Breakdown are cool characters; they're both vehicles, which is cool from the start.  Starscream's open disdain for any Decepticon on wheels suits him well.  I kept recognizing Knock Out's voice, but couldn't place it; turns out he's voiced by Daran Norris, who played Gordy on Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide.  He also voices Cosmo on Fairly Odd-Parents, but he uses a completely different voice for that one.  The things I learn from my daughter's TV habits. Breakdown, on the other hand, is one of those big, silent types who doesn't say much, but prefers to speak by blowing stuff up.  He's not totally silent like Bumblebee or Soundwave; more like he only says a few words when the time is right, like Silent Bob.  Or Ferb.  And they don't leave at the end of the episode, so perhaps we'll actually get to see them again.

I'll go ahead and get into my complaints anyway.  Bulkhead figures out where Starscream's going to go, but doesn't work it out until after all the other Autobots have rolled out.  He does seem to have at least clued them in so they could show up when the action's ended.  And if Starscream keeps killing his own troops (and taunting them that he could kill them), I can't imagine why Knock Out and Breakdown would stick around.  Perhaps they won't.

Oh, and it was good to see Megatron again, even if he is still offline.

So all in all, an enjoyable outing.  Here's hoping we'll be seeing more of the expanded Decepticon army.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Doctor Who - ''Space'' and ''Time''

Spoiler Level : Low

I really don't want to give too much away on this one, partially because it's less than 48 hours old, and partially because the BBC is actually allowing a Doctor Who video to stream outside the UK!

This year's Red Nose Day featured one story broken into two four-minute mini episodes, "Space" and "Time."  So be sure to check out the link below to watch them.  And if you're so inclined, it wouldn't hurt to make a donation and let them know that sharing a charity event like this worldwide will result in worlwide donations.  And yes, they do take PayPal in US Dollars.

Even though it's only eight minutes, these "minisodes" still capture the heart of modern Doctor Who, with lots of flirtatious fun between the characters, lots of good laughs, and the trademark Moffatt timey-wimey temporal dillemmas.  If this is any sign of whats to come with a married couple in the TARDIS, then we're in for a great season this Easter!

(Oh, come on.  Like there was ever any doubt.)

The Doctor Who segments, along with tons of other Comic Relief / Red Nose Day material, is available worldwide on the official Red Nose Day YouTube Channel, www.youtube.com/rednoseday.  Just the Doctor Who segments (along with a link to make a donation) are available at the Doctor Who News Page at http://www.doctorwhonews.net/2011/03/dwn180311200008-space-and-time.html.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Galactic Trader

I'm not much of a gamer.  Seriously, I can count the number of games I've played through to the end on one hand.  The classics are more my speed-- and when I say classics, I'm talking Pac-Man, Asteroids and Space Invaders.  The only people who are more old school than me are people who still play Pong.

So when I followed all my friends over to Facebook (the tumbleweeds at MySpace were getting boring to talk to), I initially resisted the Facebook game apps.  I eventually started playing FarmVille and CafeWorld.  Once I started I really got hooked; I loved that I could turn my Cafe into my own pizza parlor, and I became a true FarmVille junkie, planning my crops around my social commitments. I rarely spent real money on the game; I say rarely, because when they did an "alien invasion" theme week, I couldn't resist buying a crashed UFO to put in the middle of my crops.
But after a while the game started to become a hassle.  They added too many special goals, andto be honest I wasn't having much fun with the regular farming anymore.  Plus they kept harassing me for my e-mail address.  I didn't want to give them my e-mail address.  So one day, I went to log in and I was sent to a screen that said my e-mail address was required to continue, and it only gave me two choices: enter my e-mail address, or leave.  So I quit playing, and I announced to all my friends and family that I was done with Facebook games until they came up with one that had spaceships in it.

Well... now there's a game with spaceships in it!

In Galactic Trader, you build your fleet, explore strange new worlds... and strip mine them of all their resources! You meet new life and new civilizations... and blow them all up!

Seriously though, the game gives you tasks to complete, as you help mine resources so that different organizations can build spaceships, space stations, hyperspace bypasses and so on.  The more you play the more systems you unlock, the bigger ships you can build, and the aliens you meet get tougher.

And a lot of the hardware is very reminiscent of other media.  For example:
Colony Ship or Colonial Battlestar?

Ressearch Station or Cardassian Station?

Space Academy or... ummm, Space Academy?!?
Scarlet Raptor or Starfury?
Cargo Ship or Space Galleon?
Super Cargo Ship or Space Battleship?
Of course, this only adds to the fun.  Having so many classic designs mashed into one game makes it like the Super Robot Wars of spaceships.  (Ahh, Super Robot Wars Alpha... another game I started and never finished.)

The game has a total of 12 missions, and while I was going through those missions I was totally hooked.  After about two weeks I finished them all, and after that... nothing.  There's no "Congratulations!" message, no direction on what to do now, and a plot line about hidden artifacts that's kind of left hanging.  I'm hoping the creators of the game are planning more missions.

Now that I'm done with all the missions, my enthusiasm for the game has dropped down to much more rational levels.  I can build up my fleet and my resources at my leisure.  I'm still way ahead of all of my friends, so I can make necessary materials they might need available to them, which is good because right now I can beat them all in war games, and I'd like them to start giving me a challenge since none of the alien races do anymore.

The more systems you unlock, the richer minerals you can mine.  So I came up with a "cheat sheet" chart to help me be able to tell where to find each one without constantly having to click on every planet.  If you play the game, here they are.  Click on them for bigger, more usable versions.

So if you're interested in playing, the game can be found on Facebook at http://apps.facebook.com/galactic-trader/?ref=ts.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - ''Citadel Rescue''

Spoiler Level: High

Don't you just hate it when the kids fall in with the wrong crowd?

Anakin has become quite an admirer of Tarkin, appreciating that Tarkin can take the fight farther than the Jedi can.  And they both try to one-up each other on who's more chummy with Palpatine.  During the final battle, Tarkin attempts to shoot Osi Sobeck in cold blood, but Sobeck is too fast for him; in the end, Tarkin's saved by Sobeck being literally stabbed in the back by Ahsoka, something she learned from Anakin.  Yes, things are starting to look very dark indeed.

Again, this series makes me wonder about Ahsoka's fate.  Will she become a full-fledged Jedi, then go off on her own when the series ends?  Will we get to see Order 66 from her perspective?  Will Fives be the one to turn on her? Or will her fate just be ignored? The darker tone the series has taken this season makes me feel like we should get an answer, but we've got at least two seasons to go, and anything can happen in that time.

The battle scenes in space continue to blow me away. While the characters aren't photo-realistic, the ships are, so the space combat scenes really look as good as anything from the movies.

Only two episodes left to go this season, and those aren't airing until April.  Looks like I'm going to need to find some new shows to watch!

As usual, as of this writing this episode is available to view for free at http://www.starwars.com/video/view/001238.html.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles

Spoiler Level: Medium-High

First off, I want to apologize to all my readers.  It's been a good ride, I'm glad you've kept reading my posts, and I'm going to miss you all.

For, according to Roger Ebert, I am an idiot and you should consider spending less time around me.  Because I can not tell a lie; I enjoyed this movie.

It's not high art or anything; from what I've read, director Jonathan Liebesman wanted to do an alien invasion story that treated the military more realistically, something along the lines of Saving Private Ryan with aliens.  Now I will confess I have yet to see Saving Private Ryan (it doesn't have spaceships in it), but I always got the impression that was a very emotional film, which this film definitely is not.  We get to meet every single member of the platoon before the fighting begins, but to be honest once they got into their combat gear I couldn't really tell which one was which or remember who had what story.  So I really wasn't able to have a whole lot of empathy for them as characters once they start getting killed in combat.  But once the platoon is reduced to four or five soldiers and they start referencing each others histories I was able to figure out who was left and keep track.

No, what Battle: Los Angeles succeeds at is giving us a very gritty take on War of the Worlds, completely from the military angle and with lots of boom.  We get the occasional TV news footage to show us that this is happening all over the world, and there are some civilians that our heroes have been ordered to rescue, but even those civilians are seen solely from the perspective of the marines' interaction with them-- they have no opening shots telling us about their lives, and when they're rescued and handed off they're out of the film.

Which, for me, is where this movie succeeds over Spielberg's 2005 War of the Worlds.  Spielberg tried to do an alien invasion story that was a family feel-good movie, with the estranged dad trying to reconcile with his wife and kids.  Now I can respect that the original book focused on a man having been physically separated from his wife during the invasion and trying to get back to her, but an end-of-the-world alien invasion story is no place for a feel-good "get to know your kids again" kind of story.  By contrast, there are kids in Battle: Los Angeles, but they're obviously going through a traumatic experience and, while one little boy and his father are featured quite a bit, their relationship is not intended to be the main part of the film.

The movie suffers from the usual Hollywood conceits; this one platoon manages to learn all the critical intel and has opportunities to attack all the right spots to turn the tide in the war.  And of course, the invaders have the crucial weakness of a Master Control Center, but at least in this case it only controls the spaceships in the LA area and not the entire alien army all over the world.  In that sense, this movie does a little better, in that it doesn't have a lot of the glaring flaws in logic that always seem to be in movies these days. (Such as Jeff Goldblum's laptop being able to interface with an alien computer network in Independence Day, for example.)

Speaking of the spaceships, I loved their design.  They could all join together as a disc or have sections that would break off into individual fighter drones.  The aliens themselves looked fine; it was a design that looked very alien, but what I really enjoyed was their tech.

So with no disrepect intended to the esteemed Mr. Ebert, who's a real critic and not just some fanboy with a blog, I got out of this movie exactly what I was hoping for-- a shoot-'em-up between humans and spaceships with lots of cool special effects.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Cloverfield

Spoiler Level: Low

See?!?  We CAN make a good monster movie in the US!!!

I've been shooting home movies since 1988.  I have 119 volumes so far.  And my camera work is infamous among my friends for being terrible.  So I was really able to relate to the way this movie was shot, it instantly grabbed me. The opening party sequence lulled me in perfectly, and I really did jump when the first explosion hit.

The reason I feel Cloverfield really works as a monster movie is it's totally from the perspective of the poor schmucks you always see running away from Godzilla.  It's not from the point of view of the heroes and scientists and reporters and astronauts who are trying to save people from the monster or fight the monster or even understand the monster; these people aren't out to save the world.  They just want to get away from it and survive.

And the end music is so Godzilla-esque!  I absolutely loved it.

I haven't got to watch all of the special features yet, but the bit I did see had J. J. Abrams saying that he was inspired by a trip to Japan, and how amazed he was that Godzilla is such an icon over there.  He said he felt America needed its own really good monster like Japan has.  And the Cloverfield Monster itself succeeds on all levels.  It's big, tough, mean, nasty and unstoppable. 

But if Godzilla had stopped after his first movie, he'd never have become an icon.  Apparently plans to expand on this film have stalled, which is a real shame, because there's so much more that can be done with it.  We could see these events from the military perspective; we could see the monster stomp a totally different city; we could see what happens when the monster starts meeting other monsters.  And all that's without even explaining exactly what it is.  Although I'm not opposed to an origin film, I think it would be cooler to get a few new clues with each installment and have its backstory come out slowly.  But for that to happen, we have to get more stories at all.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Star Trek: The Next Generation - ''Contagion''

Spoiler Level: High

This episode has a lot going for it.  For starters, there's the USS Yamato, and not as an illusion this time but the real thing.  Even though she blows up before the opening credits, it's still nice to see it.  Heck, it's nice to finally see another Galaxy-class ship.  We only saw Constitution-class ships in the original Trek (because they couldn't afford to make different ships), yet we rarely got to see other Galaxy-class ships in Next Gen & DS9.  Any time another Federation ship was needed, we saw an Exclesior-class, a Miranda-class, or a Constellation-class.  We never got to see another movie-style Constitution-class besides the Enterprise(s), ever.  And when we did finally get to see other Galaxy class-ships, they'd always get blown up.  Until they finally blew up the 1701-D herself and replaced her with the Sovereign-class 1701-E.  Then they'd let the Galaxy-class ships not get blown up, but we never got to see another Sovereign-class ship.  Or an Intrepid-class ship besides Voyager.  It's like the producers forgot we were smart enough to understand that there's multiple ships of the same class.  In fact, the two times we see the Yamato it's essential to the script that it be the same kind of ship as the Enterprise-- in "Where Silence Has Lease," what they think is the Yamato turns out to be Nagilum showing them a reflection of themselves, and here it sets up a threat to the Enterprise-- there may be a design flaw in all the Galaxy-class ships that might cause the Enterprise to blow up like the Yamato did.

But that's just me being a nit-picky fanboy because I love spaceships and I'm always hungry for more cool spaceship shots.

The other cool thing about this episode is that it introduces the legend of the Iconians, the lost race that used Gateways to travel to other worlds.  The Iconian Gateways would come back in Deep Space Nine and in a huge crossover in the TrekLit novels, not to mention that the concept of  traveling via a gateway instead of a starship would become the premise for 17 seasons of Stargate shows.

This episode also sets up several of Picard's more famous character traits: he orders his first Earl Grey tea, and we get his first mention of his love of archeology.

Watching this episode in light or recent world events, the scene of Wesley talking with Picard about the loss of the Yamato was very touching.  The name Yamato is of course from Japan; it was a battleship in World War II, which was rebuilt into a spaceship in the classic anime Space Battleship Yamato, translated into Star Blazers in the US. So when Wesley talks about how he can't get the loss of all those lives off his mind, I couldn't help but think of all the tragedies that have struck Japan this week.  I've also been shocked by the callousness of some people on the web (who shall remain nameless and linkless here, because imho they don't deserve the attention they've already received). Anyone who can look at such suffering and claim it's justified because of Pearl Harbor or even worse, that this is God somehow punishing the Japanese has lost the important part of being human.  Wesley asks Picard how he's able to handle the loss of so many people so easily, and Picard replies it's never easy.  "If ever the time comes when the death of a single individual fails to move us..."  Well, he doesn't get to finish his thought because the replicator gives him a plotted plant instead of his Earl Grey tea.  But I like to hope that this means humanity will outgrow the kinds of heartless sentiments I've been seeing now.



Monday, March 14, 2011

Transformers: Prime - ''Convoy''

Spoiler Level: Medium

First and foremost, you've got to admire any "Convoy" reference in US Transformers, since Convoy is Optimus Prime's name in Japan.

Now as to the main plot:  Someone's out to hijack a fancy new super-generator, and for once it's not the Decepticons-- it's an organization called MECH, a group of humans who pride themselves on having all the best technology possible.  The Autobots agree to escort the generator to its destination, not realizing they'll be fighting against humans.

It's a great concept, but it's a bit of a double-edged sword as far as storytelling goes.  Optimus understandably orders the Autobots to use minimum force, as he doesn't want to take any human lives, which really works, because that's the kind of honorable 'bot Optimus is.  But on the flip side the battle scenes drive home the fact that this is a kids cartoon, and y'know, nobody can get hurt, as is seen by the multiple shots of MECH Agents escaping from cars before they blow up and using non-lethal force themselves.  Clone Wars this ain't.  So while the idea of Transformers being dragged into a human war as opposed to humans being dragged into the Transformers' war is really good, I'm not sure that this is the proper format to tell it.

As usual, as of this writing this episode is currently available to watch for free on The Hub's website, http://www.hubworld.com/transformers/shows/prime/videos.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Legends of the SuperHeroes

Spoiler Level: You've got to be kidding, right?  Well, I suppose some of you yung'uns might not know what this is, in which case, it's High.

Legends of the SuperHeroes (all one word) is the Star Wars Holiday Special of super heroes.  They aired about six weeks apart from each other, they only aired once, and they were never released to the public, existing only in the memories of an entire generation.  Well, and as bootlegs at convention dealers rooms.

But now, Warner Brothers has done the unthinkable:  they've released Legends of the SuperHeroes as part of their Archive Collection, where Warner Brothers prints copies to order directly for the customer.  Generally these Archive editions are simply the main feature, with no remastering or bonus features.  But as I mentioned earlier, these two one-hour specials have never seen the light of day since January 1979, so even that much is a treat.

And here, "no remastering" is a step up in quality, since every version of this seen since 1979 has been a bootleg copy of a copy of a copy.  Heck, this is probably better than when I saw it on TV in 1979, because I was probably watching it using an antenna back then!  And the picture is sharp and clean on this DVD; I've definitely never seen it look so good.  And best of all, the ending theme song that I loved so much as a kid is clean and clear here, with no voiceovers.

And if that wasn't enough, this actually has a deleted scene, a few outtakes, and a production track of Mordru's musical number! Sadly, it's not a clean version; it's a muted piano track, with the main audio being the rhythmic click for the pianist to play to.  But man, who would have thought that any of that still existed, let alone would be included on an Archive release?

But is it actually worth watching?

It is if you can appreciate the 1960's Batman TV show.  It's totally comical, complete with a laugh track.  And while a lot of the gags are typical 1970s variety show shtick, some of them are genuinely funny and even a bit racy.

But the reason why Legends of the SuperHeroes succeeds where the Star Wars Holiday Special fails is that, ultimately, Star Wars Holiday Special was a step down for Star Wars from the movie, but Legends of the SuperHeroes was a step up for DC Comics characters on TV.  At that point, we'd had Batman & Robin, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel; this gave us Green Lantern, Flash, Hawkman, Black Canary, and Huntress (within a year of her comic book debut!) and a scene with the Atom. (Batman, Robin & Captain Marvel are here as well, although no Wonder Woman, alas.)  Not to mention a great rogues gallery; they could have just gone with the recognizable Batman villains, but instead they only used the Riddler (reprised by the wonderful Frank Gorshin, who'd always managed to stand out to me in the campfest of the Batman TV series), joined by Sinestro, Solomon Grundy, Weather Wizard, Giganta, Mordru, and --despite Shazam! having run for three seasons-- the live-action screen debut of Dr. Sivanna.  All in their proper costumes!

The first special, "The Challenge," is an adventure, with the villains ready to blow up the world and trying to keep the heroes distracted so they won't be able to stop it, all the while giving them clues that lead them straight to it.  It's played for laughs, but it's helped by some of the laughs being genuine; I was actually laughing with it, not at it.  The second special, "The Roast," is just that-- a celebrity roast where the villains come in and make fun of the super heroes, hosted by Ed McMahon.  I am not kidding.  Most of the super heroes each get a decent scene, and Green Lantern and Sinestro even have a better shoot out in "The Roast" than they did in "The Challenge"!

Will it appeal to today's hardened comic book fans, who want their heroes treated with respect, their special effects to be new and breathtaking, and gritty realism from their stories?  Eh, probably not.  But for those of us who were mesmerized ten-year-olds when this first aired, it holds up to the childhood memories.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

My Star Wars Vintage Collection R2-D2 Dilemma

Like most guys my age, I spent most of my childhood collecting Kenner's original Star Wars action figures.  And when I say "collect," I mean pouring over the racks in every toy store even when my allowance was all gone, longingly examining every detail of the entire collection on the back of the cards, saving up my proof-of-purchase seals for whatever free action figure they were offering next, hanging the cards on my bedroom wall... and of course playing with them.

The line fizzled out when I was in high school, and for years after that I would constantly have dreams of finding Star Wars figures again, so when they brought the line back in 1995 it was literally a dream come true.

Nowadays Kenner has been bought by Hasbro, and Hasbro knows how to try and appeal to the collectors of my generation: vintage packaging.  Oh, they've done the occasional Vintage tribute, with three waves of figures in the classic 70's and 80's packaging, but those were all in special plastic protectors, so it wasn't the same.  But this-- this is uninhibited, all-out nostalgia.  The Vintage Collection figures are a combination of old and new designs, and it's not just a one-off thing:  new waves of figures are coming out in this design all year long!  So the shelves look exactly like they did when I was a kid.  It takes me back and makes me feel like I'm 12 years old again every time I see it.

An amazed Fer discovers the Vintage line for the first time, with a figure he always wanted as a kid: Dack!

The crazy thing is... even though I've been oohing and aahing at the toys ever since August, I haven't been buying any.

Take Dack here, for example.  This is what I always wanted them to do when I was a kid. I've had dreams of finding this. So again, literally a dream come true.  But... they put out a Dack figure in 2002.  Oh sure, I had to buy a Snowspeeder and yet another Luke Skywalker to get it, but I did, so what's the point in buying another Dack?  Well, just because of the nostalgic packaging, I guess.

See, the problem is that I'm really not a believer in not opening my toys.  Oh sure, I have a few unopened toys, but it's pretty unusual for me. It's become a real Catch-22.  I want the toys for the packaging, but if I take the toy out of the packaging, it becomes just another Star Wars figure.  And I don't want to just keep the packaging by itself; my New Years Resolution for 2011 is to cut back on clutter.  If you've seen my house, you understand why.

And then there's the Mail Away Boba Fett issue:  to complete the nostalgia, they're re-offering the first ever Star Wars Action Figure Mail Away offer-- a reissue of the original Boba Fett figure, but this time with the actual missile-launching backpack that they had to pull in the 70's.  But to get it, I have to open the figures.  But I don't want to open the figures.  But I want to get that Boba Fett.

So I just haven't been buying any.

Then about two months ago, I found the Return of the Jedi R2-D2.  This R2-D2 has the serving tray and the pop-up lightsaber and the sensorscope and an opening compartment on his chest.  I knew I had an Artoo with Serving Tray, so I held off and waited until I checked my other one to see if it already did all those things.  Nope.  I have four different Artoos that do all those things individually, but this Artoo does it all.

And, of course, the next time I went to the store it was sold out.

No big deal, I told myself, I don't really need it.  Which is true enough.  But it's become one of those figures I regretted not buying when I had the chance.

And then when I went shopping at Wal-Mart last night... they had one again.

So I bought it.

Now what the hell do I do with it?

Do I open it?  If I open it, then I'd be tempted to buy four more figures to get the free Boba Fett.  (Time's running out on that deal; it expires at the end of this month.)  I do want to open it, because this Artoo does all those cool things!

But... it looks sooooo nice.  The classic action figure design.  The Kenner logo.  The "Free Boba Fett" sticker.

What do you think I should do?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - ''Counterattack''

Spoiler Level: High

A rather brutal episode for our heroes, as they try to escape the Citadel and quite a few Clone Troopers end up dying some very nasty deaths.

I rather like the crab Battle Droid design, probably because it reminds me of the Invid.  I always thought the Invid looked fierce.

Tarkin and Anakin are building a grudging respect for each other, and we're starting to see more hints of how this war is leading Anakin to believe that sometimes the few should decide what's good for the many.  Watching the war as an ongoing story like this helps bring home how its changing him.

And lastly, I have to give a salute to Echo, who at least got to die a valiant death.  This leaves just Fives now from their original squad.  Without his fellow squadmates, will there be anyone to mourn Fives when he finally goes, or will he be just another clone shot down in the line of duty?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Smallville - ''Scion''

Spoiler Level: High

WOW.  Just wow, wow, O-M-what- the-G WOW.  That was awesome.  I did not see that coming at all.

The Superman comics actually had a storyline where Lex died and cloned himself a new body, so when Smallville brought in the young cloned Lex I was cool enough with it already.

But the fact that Smallville was showing me Conner Kent's origin while sneakily mixing it in with the Lex Clone story fooled me completely.  I never expected it to take this left turn into him being Superboy, but it fits so perfectly.  Out of all the actors they've had playing Lex since Michael Rosenbaum left the show, Lucas Gabreel seemed the least like him, and it struck me as kind of an odd choice-- until this episode, when he makes the perfect Superboy.  When I was watching it I though that was their plan all along, but now that I've looked the actor up, I see that he played Lex in a flashback episode in 2006, so they were actually going for consistency.  So the fact that he makes such a great Superboy is a very nice bonus.

And in another case of my being unobservant, I didn't realize he was the same actor that played Ryan in the High School Musical films until just now when I looked up his name.  This, despite the fact that my daughter has played those movies about a gazillion and one times.

It'll be interesting to see where the show goes with him from here.  On the one hand, they've set things up so he should be in the rest of the season; on the other hand, this is his fourth episode, and guest stars on shows seem to only be able to appear for four episodes.  (Why is that, anyway?  I've noticed it on a lot of shows, not just Smallville.  It's like if they appear more than four times a season, then they have to be considered semi-recurring characters, which I assume would also mean they get paid more.  Which is all complete and utter speculation on my part; anyone know if I'm on the right track, or is there another reason for it? But I digress.)  So will we be seeing more of Conner Kent, or will he suddenly be busy the next few episodes?

And lastly, we now have a month long break before Smallville starts its final five episodes.  It's looking more and more like we're going to get the Voyager ending, and not get to see Clark in the suit until the last scene of the last episode.  I hope I'm wrong; what I'd really like is for the Darkseid storyline to be wrapped up in the penultimate episode, and then have the final episode be all about Clark going public as Superman and the world's reaction to it-- the kind of episode that's usually a Superman show's first episode.  But even though they've been doing some fantastic stuff these last few years, this is still Smallville, after all, so I'm trying not to get my hopes up too high.