Discovery

Well, I got a chance to see the first two episodes of the new Star Trek and here are my thoughts:

  1. If you obsess about canon, this series will trigger you hard. There is no way you can sensibly integrate this into the same universe as TOS without serious mental violence so my suggestion is just let it go.
  2. This series is dark.  Not just thematically, but in terms of palette.  If you prefer the historical Trek aesthetic, you may be better off watching The Oriville.
  3. I don’t think I can judge the series itself because it has yet to establish a status quo. The first two episodes are really a prologue setting up the main character’s backstory.
  4. If we judge by the first two episodes, this will be a Trek where blowing ships up is going to be a regular thing.
  5. I don’t like the design of the new Klingons, and that seems to be a common sentiment.
  6. Still it’s watchable, and I liked the main characters…
  7. …but not enough to pay for yet another streaming service just for the one show.

Luke Cage II

I’m two episodes further along than I was my last post. And damn.

[POTENTIAL SPOILERS]

Luke Cage manages a mid-story twist that’s on a par with the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or the shower scene in Psycho. It’s all the more impressive because it’s not an information reveal— at least, not in the sense that the information revealed is the plot twist. Luke Cage manages a moment that forces you to reassess the roles several characters play in the story (as in, who, fundamentally, the story is actually about) without any major piece of hidden information, no secret plots or allegiances suddenly coming to light, no one revealing that X is suddenly Y. It’s just one character doing something that’s been set up for seven episodes, and the reason it’s shocking is because it’s 1) sudden, 2) brutal, and most important 3) breaks an ingrained expectation of what roles specific characters are supposed to serve, and how their stories are supposed to play out.  It not only breaks the generic tropes of the crime drama/superhero story we expect, but also deliberately takes a right turn away from the expectations laid by Marvel’s two prior Netflix shows.

I have no idea where this is going now, and I love it.

Luke Cage— or what Marvel can learn from itself

I’m only five episodes into Luke Cage and I think I can say Marvel’s managed to hit it out of the park again.  Like the prior two Netflix series, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, Luke Cage manages to draw on all the strengths of the MCU in a smaller-scope more street-level fashion.  It perfectly encapsulates one chief strength I’ve mentioned before, superhero as trope as opposed to genre.  What Winter Soldier owes to 70’s era espionage movies, Luke Cage owes to the Blacksploitation flicks of the same era, while still being relevant, modern, and part of the wider Marvel universe.

It also shows that Marvel’s Netflix lineup continues to avoid one of the major problems of the MCU.  (See, I’m not a complete drooling Marvel fanboy, I admit the movies do have some problems.) Like its two small-screen predecessors, Luke Cage has a primary villain who isn’t a non-entity, a plot device, or completely ‘meh.’

My favorite Marvel movie, Guardians of the Galaxy has an antagonist that could be swapped with the one from Thor: Dark World and no one would even notice.  How many great scenes do you remember with Red Skull or Whiplash?  Do you even remember anything about the villain from the first Iron Man movie beyond the climatic fight scene?  When the high water mark of cinematic villainy is the guy from Ant Man and Ben Kingsley pretending to be a terrorist, you have a bit of an issue.

But in Luke Cage, Cottonmouth is a villain that’s as fascinating and scary to watch as Wilson Fisk or Killgrave.  The achievement is that much more impressive since a lot of his character echoes that of Fisk; the snaps of violence, the deep roots into his city, the desire to be a pillar of his community… but the acting sells it.  Cottonmouth has an edge of desperation that makes him both more sympathetic and more threatening.  Whenever he starts laughing, you expect someone to die.

Yeah, the series is recommended.

Stranger Things

Just finished watching Strangstranger thingser Things on Netflix, and it is fantastic. By now you’ve probably heard that it is a nostalgic throwback to 1980’s cinema, and you’ve probably heard people name-drop Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter when describing it. This is all true; we have a host of Speilbergian characters, a plot that could have come from a King or Koontz novel, and a score that Carpenter could have written. Even the title font is lifted directly from those Signet paperbacks that crowded the rack on the corner drugstore circa 1985. But leaving it at that (as awesome as that description is) is really selling this series short.

First off, the series works on its own terms even if you could care less about the nostalgia factor. The acting is stellar on all counts, especially the kids’ ensemble. You care about all these people and what they’re going through. Second, while some critics might complain about the plot being simple, derivative, and “stuff we’ve seen before,” that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Most of the story beats in Lethal Weapon were already well-worn by 1987. Halloween’s story can fit on a postcard and leave room to list the cast and crew. Tarantino’s complete oeuvre is derivative of classic 70’s exploitation films. Stranger Things takes a basic story, a host of genre tropes, and a deep knowledge and affection for a particular era of filmmaking, and executes it so well that one half-expects the show to be followed by a VH1 “Where-are-they-now” documentary focusing on the child actors, now in their forties. I’d go one further and say that, unlike Tarantino’s work, Stranger Things fits seamlessly amongst is influences, less as a modern child, and more as a belated-but-contemporary sibling.

Also, those who critique the tropes and homages miss one of the more impressive bits of writing alchemy here. This isn’t just one story, but three distinct stories braided together. Or, really, the same story from three different points-of-view and three different genres. You have the Speilbergian kids story where they take in the “alien” stranger who might have a connection to their missing friend. You have the adults, the grieving mother and the alcoholic Sheriff, caught in a government conspiracy over sinister Cold-War CIA experiments reminiscent of early King, Firestarter in particular. Then you have the teens caught in a monster movie/creature feature that bears more than a passing similarity to A Nightmare on Elm Street. All three levels work and the plot gears mesh seamlessly. When the separate braids join up in the end, there’s no question that all the story parts hang together. If you want a case study in how to successfully mash-up an arbitrary number of diverse story elements into one work, Stranger Things couldn’t be a better example.

IMHO, this is the best thing to come out of Netflix since Jessica Jones.

5 remakes I would like to see

So there was this Ghostbusters remake/reboot that caused a lot of angst among various peoples. Since I’ve yet to see it (I’ll probably wait until it’s on Netflix.) I don’t have an opinion on it one way or another. But the existence of the film has made me ponder the idea of remakes/reboots in general; why they work (Battlestar Galactica, Casino Royale), limp past the post (Star Trek, Miami Vice), or explode in an incandescent glory of fail (The Wicker Man, The Day The Earth Stood Still.)

One obvious thing is that decent quality source material doesn’t guarantee the quality of a remake. In fact, it often seems that there is an inverse relationship; the better the original, the worse subsequent attempts seem.  That may be simply a side effect of comparing the two.  After all, it’s easier to improve on a crappy movie than improve on a great one, and making any movie worse is the easiest task of all. It also seems to me that the best remakes take the existing property and do something new with it (counter-example and failure: Psycho). Much is made of “gritty reboots,” so much so that it’s now a cliché, but there’s also the “campy reboot” that can also work/not work just as well (see Dragnet or Dark Shadows), what matters is that the change in tone gives a reason for the remake to exist.  The gender flip in Ghostbusters obviously serves a similar meta-purpose, to change the story enough to justify the movie’s existence.

With that in mind, here are five stories I’d like to see getting remade.
Continue reading “5 remakes I would like to see”

21st Century Slans

Netflix_Sense8_promo_artThere is a very old trope in SF, epitomized in the novel Slan by A. E. van Vogt, where a subset of humanity “evolves” some form of mental/psychic gift and is subsequently persecuted by the majority “normal” population. It’s a theme particularly suited to expressing alienation, and the term “Fans are Slans” gained currency back when SF fandom felt truly alienated from the wider culture. When I finally saw Sense8 on Netflix, it struck me as a modern take on a similar idea, albeit expressing a different, and more adult, form of alienation.

So, when I read this article about transhumanism and pop culture sci-fi, I’m struck by how much history is absent from its appreciation.

Sense8 is, in terms of premise and plot, a classic golden age story that could have slipped into psionic-era Astounding circa 1950. In terms of character and theme, though, it made a detour through Dangerous Visions. . . Specifically through its use of near explicit sexuality in various forms. The sex, I think, is a major part of the theme, as almost all the main characters begin at a point of alienation with the wider world, in two cases primarily because of their sexual orientation, in another case because of an upcoming marriage, and in yet another because of a past relationship and birth that ended tragically. Sex (straight, gay and poly) and birth (both graphic) are a big part of the package. But if that doesn’t deter you, its worth a watch.

A random thought about SFF and sexual politics

Two things converged in my head recently.

I didn’t comment about the whole Game of Thrones rape kerfuffle last month.  Mostly because I don’t watch Game of Thrones. But the controversy about it seemed (to me) to spring from a deep conflict between the contemporary ethos of sexual morality and a fiction portraying a world that does not share that ethos. (In my mind, such arguments tend to sound similar to those who wish to ban or censor Huckleberry Finn because Twain wrote “nigger” too much.) I won’t argue the particulars here when others have done so much better and are familiar with the source material.

But today I read a post about children’s author Enid Blyton that referenced a post about gender roles in SF by John C. Wright (in addition to Eric Raymond’s post about “Literary Status Envy,” which is outside the point of this post, but of interest to understand the current puppyish Hugo divisions.)

Now Mr. Wright is very Catholic. He is also persona non grata in much of fandom for reasons that should be clear upon reading the above link, reasons largely similar to the reasons many folks in fandom despise Orson Scott Card. Both are shunned and derided because they do not share the same ethos of sexual morality as those doing the shunning.  Some might argue that this is not why they dislike Mr. Card, or Mr. Wright. They’d argue that their dislike stems from the “hate” ascribed to such views.  That, I think, is simply rebranding the source of the disagreement, since those who call the views of Wright and Card hateful would feel likewise about any moral framework that defined homosexuality as wrong.

Mr. Wright has a religious view of sexual morality that historically was developed around procreation and preservation of the family unit. The exemplar sin here would be homosexuality, the epitome of the non-procreative sexual act.

Those that dislike Mr. Wright have a secular view of sexual morality that is based on mutual consent. The exemplar sin here would be rape, the epitome of the non-consensual sexual act.

Circling back to Game of Thrones then. The current secular western view of sexual morality is a relatively recent invention. If one writes about different times and places, the sexual mores of that time and place will not duplicate those of the current era. It strikes me then that those who cannot understand John C. Wright’s point of view on these matters (not share them, mind you, simply understand them) will not be able to convincingly imagine a society significantly different then the one they happen to inhabit.  It also strikes me that those responding so viscerally to the Game of Thrones might be having the same internal moral panic that John C. Wright experienced watching Legend of Koraa

Four Things Marvel is doing right and everyone else will (probably) do wrong

I’ve just recently started catching up with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on Netflix, and I started thinking about how well Marvel has done with its properties since Iron Man came out all the way back in 2008.  A lot has been said already about the “shared universe” idea, and how “revolutionarily” it is, but I don’t think that’s it. . . not exactly, anyway.  Sure, that’s what everyone is focusing on, and we will be inundated with “shared universe” properties from now until the next decade, most of which will go two or three films and quietly die an unmourned death.  After all, the idea of several different creative properties sharing a single continuity is not all that new an idea.  It’s at least as old as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which is probably better than whatever Universal Studios comes up with now to jump on the bandwagon.  And we have Star Wars, Star Trek and Dr. Who as examples of franchises that spawned decades worth of TV, movies and print stories in a continuity that was shared to one degree or another.  As evidence that the shared universe in and of itself has little to do with Marvel’s current success, consider the following counterfactuals: Would the Marvel Cinematic Universe have succeeded if it led with Daredevil?  Would Guardians of the Galaxy have made any less money if it wasn’t connected to the MCU at all?

So what’s up with Marvel?  Here’s the top five things I think they’re doing right.  The MCU serves some of these points, but my guess is that folks jumping on the shared universe bandwagon will whiff on most if not all of these points.

4) Brand identity.  Most superhero movies are identified by either the main characters (X-Men, Fantastic Four) or the director plus main character (Raimi’s Spider Man, Nolan’s Batman), so once you spin off a property (a Nightwing movie say) you loose some connection to the original property.  Marvel’s movies are identified by the studio name, much like Pixar’s films.  So that they can make a Guardians of the Galaxy without any necessary connection to their prior films, and Marvel’s fanbase has developed enough trust to give the oddball flick a chance.

3) Superheroes are a trope, not a genre.  Speaking of Guardians of the Galaxy, how did Marvel manage to stick a straight-up eighties-era space opera fantasy in the same continuity as Captain America? Because Marvel isn’t making “superhero movies,” they’re making movies with superheroes in them.  They’ve done Space Opera, WWII War Movies, Conspiracy Thrillers. . .  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t even have superheroes for the most part, and owes much more to the X-Files than Superman.

2) When you have decades of intellectual property, it doesn’t have to ALL go into ONE movie.  How many villains do you need for a superhero movie?  How many do you usually get?  How well does that usually go?

And most important, and the step most likely to be overlooked by everyone jumping on the bandwagon.

1) Write a decent screenplay.

And now for an episode of “what he said.”

Over at Mighty God-King we have a critique of the new series, The Event.  Now, I haven’t seen the show, and from what I’ve been reading about it, I don’t have any desire to, but MGK’s post brings up some very good points that are not just applicable to series television, but to fiction generally.  I can boil it down to a general rule of thumb; in  your book/trilogy/film/TV series, no matter how complex the story is going to become in terms of plot and style and world-building, in the hook— the first chapter/episode/etc.— you need to keep the focus tight, the action straightforward, and the narrative as comprehensible as possible.  A reader must have a emotional investment in the story before they’re asked to follow truly convoluted plots or intricate world-building, or major structural slights of hand.  Without that, they just aren’t going to invest the mental energy to follow what you’re doing, or care about it when they do figure it out.

Anyway, read the post, it makes sense.

PS- Want to know my theory why Lost succeeded where all these other shows bomb?  It was a character drama first and foremost, all the mythology stuff was a layer on top of all these people’s stories.  Which is why it sort of makes sense that it ended how it did.