Trek writing update

I’ve been so preoccupied with browser issues and other stuff that I neglected to update my writing progress. Over the past few weeks, I’ve completed my outline for Rise of the Federation Book 4 (which I have a title for now, though I don’t know if I should mention it yet), done copyedits for RotF: Uncertain Logic, and dealt with the proofreading galleys for Department of Temporal Investigations: The Collectors.

I wanted to get ROTF4 outlined before I did copyedits for Uncertain Logic, since I wanted to know where I was taking the story next so that I could refine any story or character threads in UL as needed or insert foreshadowing. But it turned out that the two already mesh pretty well, and I didn’t need to do any major alterations to either the Book 3 manuscript or the Book 4 outline. (Or at least, any changes I made to UL were about improving the book itself rather than foreshadowing its sequel.) And I think I managed to make the Book 4 outline tighter than the previous one. Instead of having two distinct, major parallel storylines, it has one main storyline (albeit with two or three interwoven threads) and a smaller independent subplot. Margaret, my editor, was quite happy with it and has sent it in to CBS for approval. The best part is, because of my desire to get it done in time for Book 3 copyedits, I turned it in exactly a month before deadline, which means I should get paid earlier and have more time to work on the manuscript, assuming approval comes in a timely fashion.

I didn’t need to do too much work on the galleys to The Collectors, but I was able to correct a couple of scientific details. I recently learned something about… a thing I don’t want to spoil… that I’d depicted incorrectly in the story, so I was glad for the opportunity to fix those descriptions. Oh, and I also took the opportunity to put together the annotations for the novella, since the galleys include the final page numbering and it’s convenient to proofread and annotate them at the same time. Indeed, I find that doing the annotations gets me thinking about aspects of a story that I didn’t examine closely before, and sometimes that helps me catch mistakes and make improvements in the galleys.

Oh, and I’ve also seen the cover and blurb for The Collectors, so hopefully it won’t be much longer before they show up online. The e-novella will be released on December 8.

Now that I’m done with those projects for the moment, I’m starting to think about a new Trek pitch or two set in the Original Series era. I’m hoping I can get something approved in time for the 50th anniversary in 2016. In which case I’d better get cracking.

Browser update

Well, thanks in part to the suggestions made by the commenters to my earlier post, I’ve managed to get Firefox set up to work almost like Opera, and in some ways even better. I’ve only had to make a few minor adjustments to my habits, like using Ctrl-click to open a new tab rather than Shift-click; and there are a few things I have yet to get used to, like the tabs being on top instead of on bottom, or the Find in Page box being in the lower left and opened by Ctrl-F. One drawback I’ve just discovered, though, is that I can’t seem to reduce the tabs in size within the window; if I want to have two half-size pages side-by-side, I need to open them in separate windows. But that’s a minor adjustment and might actually be slightly easier.

As for the Thunderbird mail client, it seems to work after all. I’ve realized that the main reason it didn’t seem to be getting new messages consistently is that I often mark them as read or delete them on my smartphone before Thunderbird gets around to checking for them. I didn’t realize until yesterday that when I do that on the phone, it changes the messages’ status on the mail server itself. I’m used to my old Eudora client program that used POP (locally downloading and working with mail) rather than IMAP (interfacing directly with the server). But Thunderbird’s already notified me of two incoming e-mails this morning, so I know it works. I’ve now got it set up to interact with both my mail accounts, and I discovered that I could use it as an RSS feed reader as well, which lets it take over the one last Opera 12 function that Firefox didn’t seem equipped for. (Yes, FF has Live Bookmarks, which does something similar, but Thunderbird’s format is closer to what I’m used to from Opera.) I preferred Opera’s arrangement of three parallel vertical columns, since Thunderbird puts the pages in a fairly short window underneath the list of entries; but it’s easy enough to click on the link and read the message on its original page in my browser. So it’s a minor adjustment.
So I’m finally back to a place where I only need to have one browser open as a matter of course rather than two — and just a few days ago, I was afraid I’d have to get used to switching among three browsers to do different things. So I’m definitely glad I managed to sort this out. And thanks to the commenters for the helpful suggestions.

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THE BIONIC WOMAN thoughts, Season 1: “Return” and series debut (spoilers)

Well, Netflix still doesn’t have anything past season 2 of The Six Million Dollar Man, but I got impatient waiting and decided to go ahead with season 1 of The Bionic Woman, since it was so nice to see Lindsay Wagner again in her debut episodes. I’d been hoping I could watch the TBW seasons in parallel with the corresponding 6M$M seasons, but it looks like the DVDs for TBW include all the relevant crossover episodes, so that’s something.

Indeed, the first disc in the Season 1 set only includes one episode from TBW itself, following four episodes from 6M$M: the original “The Bionic Woman” 2-parter from season 2 and its followup, the third-season premiere 2-parter ‘The Return of the Bionic Woman.” Since I’ve already covered the original episode, I’ll lead off with the sequel.

“The Return of the Bionic Woman” is a spoiler title if ever there was one, and the episode makes no secret of what it’s about. It opens with Richard Anderson narrating a recap of the original 2-parter — and I think these narrated recaps are really cool, a practice that might be nice to have today, at least in some cases. Anyway, it ends with Anderson saying that Jaime Sommers died — “Or did she?”

Cut to Steve and Oscar in a helicopter going on a mission, with Steve distracted by his memory of the same slow-motion shot of Jaime on horseback that closed out the previous story (well, three episodes ago in sequence). He then gets his mind on the mission, but in the course of chasing the bad guys, he has something heavy fall on his bionic legs and cripple them. At least, that’s the idea, but the thing that falls on them (evidently the top part of a warehouse rolling door or something) looks way too light to do that kind of damage to his superstrong limbs, a failure of direction. Anyway, he ends up in Rudy Wells’s bionic hospital for repairs, and Rudy has apparently been experimenting with hair restoration, since he’s now played by the less gray, less bald Martin E. Brooks (made up with grayish hair to better resemble Alan Oppenheimer, but that will change over time). This, by the way, is Rudy’s second recasting, since Martin Balsam played him in the pilot movie. While recovering, Steve believes he sees Jaime alive in the hospital, but Oscar and Rudy tell him he was delirious. But his bionic eye susses out the truth and he confronts the two men, who confess that they were able to revive Jaime using an experimental cryogenic procedure developed by Dr. Michael Marchetti (Richard Lenz), a young member of Rudy’s team who’s suddenly been retconned into existence. But it left her in a coma and barely clinging to life, so they didn’t tell Steve because they didn’t want to get his hopes up only to force him to watch her die again. As retcons go, it’s fairly believable — certainly more so than Rudy’s sudden change of appearance (especially since Oppenheimer’s Rudy appears in the recaps at the start of the show).

When Steve is finally brought in to see Jaime, she doesn’t recognize her former fiance. She has… amnesia!! Okay, that’s pretty soapy, and you can see the formula writing at work, the need to keep the action hero from having a permanent romantic relationship. And just to make it soapier, Jaime has not only forgotten Steve but fallen in love with Michael. Michael recognizes that this is just a standard patient infatuation, but — this being the 1970s — is not unwilling to pursue it. Still, it’s handled with more sensitivity than it could be. Rudy convinces Steve not to pressure Jaime to remember, since remembering brings back the severe pain that drove her mad before (although that’s a bit iffy, the idea that just remembering the physical pain of the clot that almost killed her could have a comparable medical effect). So he has to settle for being in the friend zone and not pressure her. He and Michael are actually very civilized and mutually respectful about their competition, which is basically a symptom of ’70s TV’s need to have its heroes be as clean-cut and flawless as possible; but I still like it, because it’s refreshing to see these two men recognize that the woman is not a piece of property they’re competing to possess, but an independent person who’s free to make her own decision. Steve and Michael are not only respecting each other by being so civil and philosophical about their competition, they’re respecting Jaime by recognizing that it’s ultimately not up to them. And I really like seeing that.

Anyway, in the iffiest decision in the episode, they decide that the best way to take Jaime’s mind off the pain of trying to remember her past is to take her to her childhood home of Ojai… where she can’t avoid being reminded of her past. The results are somewhat predictable, though it’s strange that nobody in Ojai seems to have been aware of Jaime’s death, given that she was a world-famous tennis star and all. Was her demise covered up because of its connection to bionics? This is never explained. Anyway, Jaime then decides she needs to take her mind off the past by looking to the future and doing some work for Oscar. He sends Steve and Jaime on a mission to blow up a munitions plant run by Carlton Harris (Dennis Patrick), whom Jaime snows with her feminine wiles (though in a wholesome and sweet way) in order to get to a control she needs to activate to let Steve into the plant so he can sabotage it. But her resurging memories confuse her and she thinks Steve needs her help, so she runs to him and botches the mission. (Continuity error: It was set up that they both had to pull switches in two locations simultaneously to keep from being blown up, but when Steve pulled the switch without Jaime pulling hers, nothing happened.) They both get out, but the mission is a failure. Steve realizes that he himself is the problem –as long as she’s with him, the memory and pain will continue to trouble her. He has to let her go, and suggests that Rudy and Michael take her to their Colorado Springs facility for further treatment.

This sequel 2-parter isn’t quite as good as the original. Since Jaime is now a blank slate with no memory, more distant from Steve, she doesn’t have the same texture to her personality or the same rapport with Steve that she had before, so the relationship and Wagner’s performance aren’t as engaging. And I don’t know if they needed 2 hours to reach the conclusion they did. The previous 2-parter was a bit padded, but the slow pace worked because of the believable relationship and naturalistic dialogue and interplay among the characters. This one could’ve stood to be more compressed.

The 2-parter, written by Kenneth Johnson, leads into the series debut of The Bionic Woman, “Welcome Home, Jaime,” another 2-parter by Johnson, this one split across two discs. Oddly, part 1 of this episode is listed on IMDb as both a 6M$M episode and a TBW episode, and the DVD seems to list it under 6M$M bonus episodes, but it has the TBW main and end titles on the disc. Wikipedia reveals that it was originally intended as a 6M$M episode, presumably part 1 of a crossover introducing the spinoff, but it was re-edited with TBW titles in order to let that series premiere a bit earlier. That would explain its hybrid musical score, which is mostly Oliver Nelson cues with a few interpolations by TBW’s first-season composer Jerry Fielding. I imagine the Fielding cues were added as part of the changeover. It apparently also explains why Part 1 is lumped together with the 6M$M bonus episodes; the DVD set counts it that way even though it has TBW titles.

Anyway, given that it’s Johnson’s direct continuation of his previous storyline, it’s odd that it reverses so much that “Return” set up. Jaime’s had more operations to restore most of her memory (except her relationship with Steve, conveniently) and all her pain, and she returns to live in Ojai (with Steve’s parents Jim and Helen Elgin, now retconned to have been her legal guardians since she was 16 — presumably after Steve went off to join the Air Force, since he’s a few years older). Also she gives Michael the brush-off (not even on camera) and soon learns that she and Steve were once engaged, though she doesn’t remember the feelings and Steve accepts her need to start over. I suppose the setup and reversal made more sense in the original broadcasts, when the episodes were four months apart. I guess I’d always assumed they led more directly into each other.

Anyway, the first half is largely focused on Jaime’s adjustment and settling into her new life in Ojai, taking an apartment above the barn in Steve’s parents’ new ranch (and using bionics to clean it up) and getting a job teaching at the local Air Force base school, thanks to her retconned education degree (and how she managed to find the time to both get a college degree and become a world-class tennis pro is questionable, unless it’s because she’s just that awesome, which I can totally buy). But she’s still willing to go on missions for Oscar, though Oscar is willing to just take a loss on her bionics and let her go back to her normal life, saying she’s been through enough already. To his credit, and Johnson’s, the issue of Jaime’s gender is never raised as a factor in Oscar’s reluctance. It’s implicit that he’s more solicitous with her than he’d be with a male agent, and certainly the episode takes a more “feminine” tone with the domestic scenes and the teaching and the easy-listening theme music, but there’s no point where anyone in the episode says she shouldn’t be risking her life because she’s a woman. The only character who calls attention to Jaime’s womanhood is Jaime herself.

Meanwhile, Carlton Harris is still around, trying to track down the woman who attempted to sabotage his plant, and he finds her and sends his agents to Ojai to spy on her and test her superhuman abilities, which he saw during her escape. The only real action in part 1 is when his men stage a car crash so she’ll use her bionics to rescue an “injured” driver. But once Harris arrives in Ojai in part 2, things begin to heat up. He rigs another accident, a blowout of Jaime’s brakes on a downhill road — and for some reason Jaime never tries using her parking brake, which was how my father told me he dealt with that situation when it happened to him once. Instead she opens the door and uses her bionic leg to brake, although it’s pretty blatantly a mannequin leg that the stunt driver was holding out the door. And I’d think that applying braking force in such an unbalanced way would probably cause the car to spin out or something.

Anyway, Jaime proves her smarts when she convinces Oscar that Harris could kill her more easily than this and must instead be testing her, like a potential buyer test-driving a car. Aware that she’s under surveillance, she comes up with a plan to stage a fight with Oscar on the grounds of wanting more money, in order to make Harris think he can buy her. This successfully lets her infiltrate his organization, in hopes of finding the elusive proof that he’s a criminal (he’s stayed clean enough that he actually has government contracts). So she plays greedy and goes along with Harris’s plans to steal some important defense components, while politely rebuffing his seduction attempts. But Harris suddenly has a son, Donald (Kip Niven), who’s fresh out of Harvard Law and conflicted about his father’s dirty dealings, but devoted enough to the man he sees as kind and loving to put up with his corruption. When he discovers that Jaime is spying for the OSI, he’s conflicted about whether to tell his father or not, but Jaime ultimately convinces him to dig deeper and find the truth about the murders Harris has committed. Unfortunately, Oscar’s been having one of his reckless moments, blabbing to the defense contractor (Gordon Jump) that Jaime burglarized that he has an agent in the thief’s organization — and forgetting that Harris is another contractor on the same project, so that Jump calls him up to warn him and tell him the reassuring news about the spy. Thus forewarned, Harris tricks Jaime into robbing his own company, showing off her bionics to his foreign buyers. But Donald shows up at the right time to get her out of trouble and together they save the day (well, mostly Jaime does).

Aside from some ’70s-Universal clunkiness, this is a pretty solid 2-parter. Donald’s sudden existence in part 2 feels tacked on, but there’s some engaging drama in his conflicted feelings toward his father, even if Niven is not the most effective actor. And Johnson established Jaime as a smart, resourceful, courageous protagonist; if anything, Jaime is a lot more gung-ho about her OSI work than Steve is about his, considering how often he rebels against Oscar and goes on vacation at every opportunity. She’s not above using her femininity to catch Harris’s interest and win his trust, but in a demure and wholesome way, without the blatant sexualization of near-contemporaries like Charlie’s Angels. Now that Jaime’s finally moved past being the suffering girlfriend and become the lead in her own right, she’s taking to the role quite well. I think it’s a pretty good start for the series.

The continuity across these three 2-parters is pretty good for ’70s TV, thanks to Johnson being the writer and producer of them all (well, he wasn’t nominally the producer on the original 2-parter, but was being groomed to become one, so he was allowed to effectively function in that role during its making). But there are a couple of glitches. For one thing, the tree with “Steve + Jaime” carved into it is different in “Welcome Home, Jaime” than it was in “Return.” But the main thing is the timing. The original 2-parter was said to have spanned 7 months, and “Return” says Jaime was in a coma for months, suggesting that more than a year has passed. But Steve says in “Return” that his reunion with Jaime was “last spring.”  And “Welcome”‘s references to the time since her last tennis tournament also suggest that less than a year has passed. The later episodes seem to have defaulted to the assumption that the passage of story time matched that of real time.

Sound-effects watch: The bionic sound that I’ve been rendering as “ta-ta-ta-tang” is definitely standardized by this point, to the extent that it’s even heard at the end of the main titles (accompanying a bionic jump) as a sort of coda. It’s even used for a bionic run at one point, something that’s been done inconsistently at best up to now. I also heard the first occurrence of the deeper, repeating thud sound effect that was used for impacts or rebounds of things struck bionically, although I think that sound was standardized in 6M$M season 3 before it showed up in TBW. Unfortunately I can’t find out for sure, because Netflix doesn’t have season 3 yet! So I’ll just proceed with TBW season 1.

Browser brouhaha

October 27, 2014 4 comments

For years now, I’ve been using Opera 12 as my main Internet browser, but more and more sites are upgrading their tech to be incompatible with it, and apparently the current versions of Opera lack much of its functionality. For a while now, I’ve had to rely on Firefox for certain sites that Opera couldn’t handle well, like Facebook and Netflix. But I had trouble figuring out how to import my Opera bookmarks into Firefox, so I kept on using Opera for most things.

Lately I’ve been thinking I should go ahead and try Google’s Chrome browser — in part because I have it on my smartphone, and since it stores bookmarks in the “cloud,” importing my Opera bookmarks to Chrome would automatically put them on my phone too. Also, I found out this week that Chrome would let me use a bookmark bar like the one I so rely on in Opera, with my favorite sites all listed without the need to open menus. So I decided to try Chrome, and it works fairly well, except for some annoyances, like how there’s no way to open a link in a new foreground tab (which is shift-click in Opera and, as I’ve just discovered, control-click in Firefox), and no RSS reader. Also, for some reason, Chrome doesn’t get along with Netflix streaming at all. Even with the most current update of the streaming software, the image was low-resolution and posterized. So clearly I couldn’t switch to Chrome as my exclusive browser.

But here’s the thing: Once I imported my Opera bookmarks to Chrome, I was able to import them from Chrome into Firefox — and yesterday I figured out how to create the kind of bookmark bar I wanted in Firefox! So I finally have all my bookmarks organized and available in Firefox as conveniently as they are in Opera. Which gives me a strong incentive to keep using Firefox as my primary browser (and I’m using it now as I write this post). And there are other minor ways in which using Firefox is closer to the Opera experience I’m used to, like the ability to open new foreground tabs. It still has a couple of drawbacks, though. Opera has a function I really, really appreciate, which is the ability to disable animated GIF images. I’m very easily distracted and annoyed by such things, so I love having a browser that I can set to disable the animations by default unless I choose to turn them on. I gather there are things you can download that let you temporarily freeze them by hitting the Escape key, but that’s not the same thing. It’s mainly an issue for me on the TrekBBS, whose edit window has a bunch of animated smileys adjacent to it, and that can be very distracting. I may try to see if I can just get used to it, since there are so many advantages to Firefox over Opera 12. (For one thing, when I copy and paste a text in Firefox, it retains formatting like italics and bold.)

So it looks like the main benefit of getting Chrome on my desktop is that it’s helped me make better use of Firefox and my phone. So it’s been more a transitional aid than anything else. It’s a good thing these downloads are free.

The other issue I have to consider is peripheral to that. I’ve recently tried upgrading from my email client, an old version of Eudora (the original program, rather than the modern namesake that’s basically a modification of Mozilla Thunderbird). I pretty much had to, because for some reason my main email service has suddenly stopped letting me send outgoing mail through a client program (i.e. I can’t access its SMTP server, and I’ve gotten no useful response from the provider’s tech support) and I couldn’t get that version of Eudora to connect to my Gmail account. I tried Thunderbird itself, which works okay except for one thing: It doesn’t seem to check mail automatically, even though I have that option turned on in its setting menu. So I’ve been relying on the mail client in Opera lately — although that’s a bit annoying because I have it downloading mail from both accounts, and my Gmail account automatically picks up mail from my main account, so I get most of my mails twice in Opera. I may have to test out another client or two before I find one that works for me. I could just keep using Opera, but it feels wasteful somehow to have a whole browser program open to serve only as a mail program.

Progress is annoying sometimes. Sure, it’s great when new things come along with new abilities, but it’s frustrating when progress takes away things you were happy with.

EDIT: How about that? Just minutes after I posted this, I suddenly got the test e-mail I tried sending to my Gmail account from my mail client weeks ago. I tried again with a new test message, and it worked too. So the problem has spontaneously fixed itself, immediately after I complained about it publicly. Thank you, universe! I approve of this new, more responsive approach. Keep up the good work!

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No, I’m not at New York Comic-Con

Going on right now is the 9th annual New York Comic-Con… and the first one ever that I haven’t attended. I just didn’t have any good business reason to attend this year, and it was happening on the same weekend as the local Books by the Banks festival here in Cincinnati, which I had to miss last year because of the conflict (after attending it back in 2012 and once a few years before that). And NYCC has just gotten so crowded and noisy and strenuous that after last year, and exhibitor tickets have become so much costlier and harder to get, that I felt it was time to take a break. And I didn’t feel like another long road trip so soon after my visit to Detroit a few months back, or another plane flight so soon after Shore Leave. So I decided that this year I’d prioritize BbtB over NYCC and just stay in town.

But then I was late to apply to BbtB, and though the organizers were willing to let me apply anyway, somehow it never quite came together and I wasn’t accepted as a guest this year. So I debated with myself whether to try to get into NYCC after all, maybe see if Pocket could get me a guest speaker’s pass and see if I could make last-minute arrangements to stay with a friend. But I realized: I’m still recovering from that minor gum surgery I had a few weeks back, so I have to avoid biting into foods, keep the healing area very clean with a special mouthwash, etc., and it would be hard to ensure that if I were on the road or at the convention, trying to scrounge food where I could. So that pretty much left me without anyplace to be, at least professionally.

Still, I decided I’d drop in to Books by the Banks this afternoon just as a visitor (it was free, though I had to pay for parking — and if I hadn’t been misled online about the parking prices, I would’ve taken the bus instead). I figured it might be a chance to meet some fellow authors, maybe even see somebody I knew. And I did. I finally got to meet John Scalzi, one of the most successful science fiction writers from the Tri-State area, and heck, one of the biggest around, period. I sat in on his panel, where he offered some interesting and hopefully useful advice, and got to chat with him for a bit afterward. I was flattered to hear he was aware of Only Superhuman, though in retrospect I figure it’s probably because of that business over the cover art a while back. I had a talk with Brad Ricca, who’s written an interesting-looking biography of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. And I did run into a couple of people I’ve met before, including Dan Andriacco, a mystery writer and Sherlock Holmes authority whom I met at the Ohioana reception a few months back and who told me some things that were useful in my Locus essay on Sherlock and Elementary, as well as Mark Perzel of WVXU radio, who interviewed me early last year about Only Superhuman and who knew my father back in his radio days. So it was nice to run into them again.

At least staying at home gives me more time to work on my writing. I’ve been trying to get a rough draft of my outline for Rise of the Federation Book 4 done before diving into the copyedits for Uncertain Logic, so that I’ll know of any continuity tweaks or foreshadowings I need to work in, and I finished that to my satisfaction (at least, for an initial rough draft) this morning, with over six weeks’ leeway to polish it before the due date (yes, astonishingly, for once I’m massively ahead of schedule!). And meanwhile I’ve got the final set of galley pages for DTI: The Collectors to proofread. So that’s all keeping me busy enough without the distractions and fatigue of a trip to slow me down.

Still, as tired as I am of the frenzy and crowds of NYCC, I do miss being there and getting to hang around with my friends (and their cats). I saw them all (well, not the cats) at Shore Leave just a couple of months ago, but now I have to wait until next Shore Leave to see them again, unless I can contrive a reason to make a business trip to New York City before then. As for NYCC, hopefully next year I’ll have something new to shill there, but who knows? I might go anyway, just because I missed being there this year. Although I hope next year it doesn’t conflict with Books by the Banks.

Batman advisory: There is no alley in Crime Alley!

This is a repost/edit of comments I made on, in response to a YouTube supercut which purports to depict every screen depiction of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, although it omits the recent flashback version from Beware the Batman‘s episode “Monsters” and the dream-sequence alternate version from Justice League Unlimited‘s “For the Man Who Has Everything” (which is not a depiction of the actual murder, but is the closest the DC Animated Universe ever got to showing it, since Batman: The Animated Series was made under severe censorship and could never do more than symbolically allude to the event).

One thing that virtually all these screen adaptations have in common (albeit something that was pointed out to me on another site recently but that I think is worth passing along): They make the mistake of interpreting “Crime Alley” as an actual alley, of the sort that a rich couple would have no conceivable reason to take their child into at night. In fact, when Crime Alley was introduced in 1976 in Detective Comics #457 by Denny O’Neil and Dick Giordano, it was introduced thusly:

Twenty-one years ago, this neighborhood was the dwelling place of the rich and soon-to-be rich… a place of gourmet restaurants and fashionable theaters… of elegant women and suave men…

But the dry rot of time set in, and the laughter stopped and the lights dimmed, and those elegant women and suave men sought their pleasures elsewhere… and now, only the forlorn and the desperate walk these streets…

For one night, two brutal slayings occurred signaling the beginning of the end… The area known as Park Row acquired a new name — Crime Alley… and –


(That last being the story title. All ellipses are from the original text — I’ve deleted nothing.)

So “Crime Alley” is just a nickname for the street/neighborhood — it’s not a literal alley. The artwork shows that the spot where the killings occurred — or the spot where Batman stops a mugging and gets inordinately angry at the mugger for daring to draw a gun on him there, on the exact spot and anniversary of his parents’ murder — as the sidewalk in front of a row of brownstones, just a couple of doors down from the movie theater (which has become a porno theater in the story’s present day).

Before that, in the original 1939 depiction of Batman’s origin and later in 1948’s “The Origin of Batman,” the murder occurred on a street corner right under a streetlight. So in the comics, it was consistently portrayed for decades as a crime that happened right out in the open, making it all the more shocking and brazen. In O’Neil’s version, the fact that such a brutal crime happens in an upscale neighborhood just adds to the shock, to the extent that it scars the reputation of Park Row forever and triggers its decline into a slum as the well-to-do residents flee. The tendency of TV and movies to put it in a literal back alley, the kind of place where you expect a crime to happen, detracts from that impact, and creates the impression that the Waynes were killed as much through their own carelessness as Joe Chill’s brazenness (of course you should never blame the victim, but the impression exists nonetheless).

The only accurate screen portrayal is in Batman: The Animated Series. “Appointment in Crime Alley” (by comics scribe Gerry Conway) portrays it just as O’Neil did, as the former Park Row, now become a slum neighborhood. The actual site of the murder is shown as a sidewalk under an elevated train track. A couple of dozen episodes later (and presumably a year later in story time, since they’re both on the anniversary), “I Am the Night” shows the same, but now the tracks are wider, the sidewalk under them looking darker and more enclosed, thus drifting farther from O’Neil’s intent.

But then there’s the hallucination sequence in “Dreams in Darkness” where Batman sees his parents in a surreal, twisted alley and they then walk into a tunnel that becomes the barrel of a giant revolver. And JLU’s “For the Man Who Has Everything,” supposedly set in the same universe, shows it in Bruce’s memory/dream as an alley directly across the street from the movie theater showing The Mark of Zorro. So that’s another one that gets it wrong. B:TAS is really the only screen adaptation that followed O’Neil’s intention behind the name “Crime Alley,” and yet it was inconsistent about it, and never actually got to show the murder.

Oh, and while we’re at it, how about that movie the Waynes were coming home from? In the 1939 version, it was just “a movie,” no title given. In 1948, it says merely that Bruce was “walking with his parents,” no movie mentioned. The movie was back again by “There is No Hope in Crime Alley” and by Len Wein and Jim Aparo’s 1980 storyline “The Untold Legend of the Batman,” which consolidated all the backstory established about the character up to that point; but still no title was given. The first time an actual movie was proposed, to the best of my knowledge, was in the very first screen portrayal of the murder, in the 1985 Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians episode “The Fear” by Alan Burnett, which I’ve discussed before. In Burnett’s version, the movie was Robin Hood, perhaps meant to inspire Batman’s future choice of nickname for his sidekick. (Note that Burnett’s version also debuted the practice of portraying the murder site as a dark, scary alley, which suited the episode’s theme of Batman overcoming fear, but set an unfortunate precedent.) However, just a year later in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller established the film as The Mark of Zorro, which is what most versions have used since then — the main exception being Batman Begins, which changed the movie to an opera, Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito (though it’s often mistakenly assumed to be Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus — “The Bat” — because of the bat-costumed performers in the movie scene).

Since “The Fear” was the first version I saw, I assumed for a long time that the movie was supposed to be Robin Hood and that the Zorro version was a later retcon. Turns out the Robin Hood version was just a blip. It was no specific movie at all from 1939 to 1985, Robin Hood in 1985, and The Mark of Zorro from 1986 to the present, except once. Still, I’m partial to it,  not only because it was the first version I saw, but because it’s really hard to explain Robin’s nickname and costume any other way. Well, maybe Dick Grayson was the one who liked that movie while Batman was influenced more by Zorro. That would really make more sense, wouldn’t it?

So the moral of the story for film and TV producers is, when adapting a story, make sure to double-check the details. And the moral for comics and prose writers is, when naming a pivotal location in your story, avoid metaphorical names that film and TV producers might end up taking literally. We’re lucky we didn’t end up with a supercut of scenes where the Waynes are murdered while going bowling.

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Thoughts on Godzilla: Finishing the Showa Era (spoilers)

September 19, 2014 1 comment

Last time, I covered the beginning of the doldrums of the Godzilla franchise, a run of mediocre, half-hearted films whose only high points were the ambitious and epic Destroy All Monsters and the off-puttingly weird and experimental Godzilla vs. Hedorah. Following the negative reactions to the latter film, Godzilla vs. Gigan in 1972 brought back director Jun Fukuda and reverted to a more standard formula, using mostly established monsters aside from the title villain Gigan, a hook-armed, cyclopean cyborg kaiju with a buzzsaw in its thorax. The hero is a manga artist who’s hired by a theme park dominated by Godzilla Tower, an office building in the form of a life-sized Godzilla statue — but the people running the park have some ominous plans involving “absolute peace,” and the hero (along with his kickass martial-artist mother, my favorite character in the film) gets involved with the sister of another employee who’s gone missing (kidnapped by the bad guys for his scientific knowhow) and they investigate what turns out to be another alien invasion plot. There’s a bit of an attempt to echo Hedorah‘s ecological message, because the aliens (who are literally cockroaches disguised as humans) thrive in the hostile environments left over after civilizations have destroyed themselves with pollution. But they’re happy to hasten the process on Earth, with help from Gigan and King Ghidorah, who show up to trash Tokyo and, presumably, the rest of the world. At this point I had to wonder, how come literally all the alien invaders up to this point have had King Ghidorah working for them? Is he some kind of cosmic mercenary for hire?

Like Fukuda’s first Godzilla film, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, this film keeps Godzilla mostly in reserve until the last half-hour, though we do get a few scenes of him on Monster Island, giving instructions to Anguirus, who’s apparently now his sidekick. There is actually a version where they converse in cartoon-style speech balloons, but the version on Hulu excludes those. However, YouTube has the relevant clips. Anguirus makes a half-hearted sortie onto Japan but is turned back by the Self-Defense Forces, and that’s the only kaiju action we get until Gigan and Ghidorah arrive and start smashing up the place. But once Godzilla and Anguirus finally show up, the tag-team battle rages pretty much nonstop for the last 30 minutes of the film, albeit with the occasional cutaways to the heroes as they escape from Godzilla Tower and get the military’s help in defeating the aliens so that the good kaiju can fight the bad kaiju without interference. It’s more effective action than we’ve seen since Destroy All Monsters, though it certainly helps that it’s tracked with stock Akira Ifukube music, which automatically makes the whole thing seem more stately and impressive, even with the Muppetish Godzilla of the later Shōwa films.

Fukuda’s next film, Godzilla vs. Megalon, is oddly difficult to find on DVD. Apparently there have been some release problems and delays making it less available. Netflix has the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version available for rental, but with a “Very long wait.” So this was the hardest film for me to track down and the reason this 2-part post has been delayed. I was almost on the verge of giving in and spending actual money for a copy, my completist urges almost trumping my cheapskate urges. But it finally occurred to me to check my library’s catalog for a VHS edition rather than a DVD, and lo and behold, they had one! A phone request and a car trip later, and I had it, costing me only 20 cents for the parking meter (plus the cost of the gas I used, I guess). Of course, being an old library tape, it was pretty worn and had major tracking problems, which may have undermined my enjoyment of the film.

Except there’s not much to enjoy. The title is somewhat misleading, because this isn’t really a Godzilla movie. It was originally meant as a solo debut for an Ultraman-type robot hero, Jet Jaguar, but it was decided to shoehorn Godzilla and Gigan into the story as an afterthought. Jet Jaguar — who has no feline attributes whatsoever — was invented by a guy called Goro, who’s the protagonist along with his friend Hiroshi and his young nephew Rokuro (who seems to be called “Roxa” in the English dub — probably an approximation of “Roku-san,” which is how a boy named Rokuro might be addressed in Japanese). JJ is hijacked by people from the Atlantis-like subterranean kingdom of Seatopia, which has been partly destroyed by underground nuclear testing by the surface nations. Seatopia is given a nebulous and plot-irrelevant link to the Easter Island statues, yet its inhabitants are played by Caucasian actors, which I suppose was meant to make them look exotic to the Japanese audience. Despite having been at peace for 3 million years (yes, million), they happen to have a daikaiju, Megalon — a beetle kaiju with drill hands — that they unleash to destroy the surface world without any prior attempt at diplomatic overtures, communication, or anything. At first, they use JJ to direct Megalon toward Tokyo, but Goro retakes control of the android with ridiculous ease, and at Rokuro’s suggestion, sends JJ to Monster Island to summon Godzilla’s aid. JJ conveys the message through semaphore, in which all the monsters in this movie are apparently fluent. But Godzilla takes most of the movie to swim from Monster Island to Japan while JJ tackles Megalon solo — somehow spontaneously “reprogramming” himself to become giant-sized.

As if that weren’t random enough, the Seatopians contact the aliens from the previous film and ask them to send Gigan to help Megalon defeat JJ. So… they have the means and the will to communicate with aliens from Nebula M, but can’t be bothered to phone up the White House and the Kremlin and say “Hey, guys, your nuke tests are trashing our kingdom”? Anyway, Gigan arrives for his encore and tag-teams JJ with Megalon, and then, about ten minutes before the end of the film, Godzilla finally shows up — initially battling Gigan so they can recycle stock footage from the last film, but finally trading partners with JJ so the film can just barely earn its title. The hero monsters beat up the villain monsters to the point that it just becomes petty, and finally Megalon flees back underground and that’s the end of it, with no attempt to address the unresolved conflict with Seatopia, beyond a cursory mention by Goro and Hiroshi of telling the scientists to be more careful with their bombs from now on.

All in all, Jet Jaguar vs. Megalon, Featuring Godzilla (there, I fixed the title) is a pretty desultory kaiju film, and shows how far Godzilla had decayed as a concept by this point. Godzilla is at his least scary and most anthropomorphic here, more a friendly, cuddly superhero and wrestling partner to JJ than a vast, terrifying monster. At one point, he even holds up his fingers in a V sign to JJ. Most of the rest of the film isn’t much better. It was shot in great haste and probably for very little money, and it shows. There really aren’t any significant human characters beyond the three main protagonists and the Seatopian villains. (And there isn’t a single female character in the entire movie except for some dancers at the ceremony that awakens Megalon.)  There’s a lot of stock footage, and the scenes of the SDF mobilizing to fight Megalon and of Megalon trashing Tokyo feel lifeless, since we aren’t shown any characters reacting to these events and so they have no emotional context. The whole film feels like it’s just going through the motions. I’m glad I found a library copy, because it wouldn’t have been worth paying for. Hedorah may have been freaky bizarre, but it was a lot more interesting than the routine, slapdash films that preceded and followed it.

Jet Jaguar never appeared again onscreen, but it’s worth noting that a month after this film, Toho debuted the television series Zone Fighter, which featured a team of similarly Ultraman-like superheroes and had guest appearances by Godzilla as a heroic ally and King Ghidorah and Gigan as villains. The series is considered part of the Shōwa-era canon, but I don’t feel any pressing need to track it down and watch it.

Perhaps Toho realized the problems with the franchise at this point, since the final two Shōwa-era movies take things in a more serious direction, starting with Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, Jun Fukuda’s swan song as director. Godzilla (now with a meaner, less Muppety design) seems to be on the rampage, but there are some things that aren’t quite right: He hisses rather than roaring, his atomic breath is yellow rather than blue, and he gets into a brutal fight with his sidekick Anguirus, bloodily dislocating the ankylosaur’s jaw and sending him into retreat, his survival unclear. But Anguirus has summoned the real Godzilla, whose atomic breath blows holes in the impostor’s skin and reveals a robotic body made of “space titanium,” as it’s dubbed by the main scientist of the film, yet another scientist character for Akihiko Hirata (seen before in the original film and Son of Godzilla). This is Mechagodzilla, who’s under the control of the latest bunch of alien invaders (ape-men from “the third planet of the black hole”) and who badly injures Godzilla, with rather a lot of blood.

But the aliens, despite using Godzilla as their template, are more concerned about a new kaiju, one based on the shisa, a protective lion-dog spirit of Okinawan mythology. Its name is King(u) Shisa, which is very straightforward, but it usually gets Anglicized as King Caesar, which basically makes no sense, so I won’t call it that. Much of the movie is about the film’s rather nondescript heroes discovering a statue that will awaken King Shisa, studying the prophecy that tells them what to do with it, and eluding the aliens who are determined to keep them from awakening King Shisa, who allegedly has the power to awaken other kaiju, or so the aliens exposit to each other. Once the statue unearths KS, though, a descendant of Okinawan royalty needs to sing him awake with an extended musical number, much like Mothra, but without the dance routine accompanying it. It kind of drags the film to a halt. And once King Shisa wakes up, he doesn’t really live up to the hype. He’s kind of a scruffy-looking lion-dog-man giant who has one neat trick — he can absorb Mechagodzilla’s ray in one eye and return it from the other, a bit like Bishop of the X-Men — but that’s about all he has going for him. Mechagodzilla has him on the ropes when Godzilla finally shows up, and he doesn’t contribute much to the climactic fight beyond head-butting MG a few times once Godzilla has overpowered it by somehow turning himself into a giant magnet because what the hell. The tally of other kaiju that King Shisa awakens in the course of the film is exactly zero. Finally, Godzilla “kills” MG by twisting its head off, even though we were shown just a few minutes earlier that it could rotate its head all the way around quite freely. It’s like the filmmakers kept forgetting what they’d previously established.

So while it’s nice to see the franchise attempting to go in a more mature direction again, the film ends up being rather mediocre, making promises it doesn’t really deliver.

The final Shōwa film, Terror of Mechagodzilla, brought back Ishiro Honda as director for the final time. Akihiko Hirata is also back again, but this time playing a different character, Mafune, disguised by a gray-white wig and mustache but still recognizable in old photos and flashback scenes. After playing an aloof and ethical scientist in the original film and friendly, bland scientists in Son of and GvMG, now he’s playing a full-on evil scientist — your classic mad doctor whose radical theories got him disgraced and now wants to destroy the world to show up Those Fools at the Institute. He’s working with a second contingent of the black hole aliens, except they’re no longer Planet of the Apes rejects disguised as ordinary, business-suited humans, but are wearing silver jumpsuits and truly insane helmets. His rejected theories give him control of a dinosaur kaiju called Titanosaurus — no relation to the actual sauropods of that name, but a long-necked godzilloid with fishlike fins and crest — and the aliens have recruited him to apply his knowledge to the structurally similar Mechagodzilla, now somehow intact again after being blown into space-titanium confetti in the previous film. He owes the aliens for saving his daughter Katsura (Tomoko Ai) by turning her into a cyborg after a fatal lab accident. But she’s torn by her feelings for the film’s nondescript hero, a marine biologist working with Interpol to deal with the Titanosaurus problem.

You’ll note I haven’t mentioned Godzilla. He doesn’t show up until the last half-hour or so, having a brief, abortive clash with Titanosaurus and then not appearing again until the climactic battle. (Once again, we see that the 2014 movie’s limited use of Godzilla is not without precedent.) But at least this is the one film out of the last four where Godzilla is the sole heroic kaiju rather than part of a duo. At first he just seems to want to “challenge” Titanosaurus for dominance, but in his second appearance he’s back in the superhero mode established in earlier films, arriving just in time to save a couple of random teenagers from Titanosaurus’s rampage. He’s actually kind of overwhelmed by his two foes, but the human heroes manage to weaken them both in different ways, allowing him to triumph. Though there’s a tragic outcome to the central character story.

While still more serious and older-skewing than some of the earlier films, this one’s a bit more conventional than its predecessor, what with the goofy-looking alien costumes and broad characterizations. It does have a fair amount of city-smashing and monster-brawling action; these last two films had more money to spend than their predecessors, and it shows. This film also had the advantage of bringing back Akira Ifukube to do the score. Still, the bizarre approach of doing a direct sequel to the prior film yet making no effort at any real continuity with it, and even bringing back one of its lead actors in a completely different role, rather undermines it, at least when the two are watched back-to-back. And it doesn’t work as any kind of climax or finale to the  Shōwa  series; it was just one more film, and then the series got cancelled due to poor box office returns. It’s not an awful ending to the era; it’s good that the last two films attempted to pull the series out of the goofy doldrums and put more effort into it. But the second half of the  Shōwa era, even at its best, just doesn’t compare to the first half, or to the Heisei series to follow.

And that just about does it for my Godzilla review series — again. I can now say I’ve seen at least one version of every Godzilla film (though I regret having to settle for the lousy American version of King Kong vs. Godzilla). But, y’know, there are still a number of other kaiju films out there, like King Kong Escapes, Frankenstein Conquers the World, and so forth. So this may not be the end…

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