Archive for April, 2010

Hamlet with Time Lords and Picard, Version 2

Well, with Time Lord and Picard, since there’s only one this time, but I’m following the precedent of my earlier post on the 1980 Derek Jacobi/Patrick Stewart Hamlet, which was loaded with Doctor Who cast members, many of whom played members of the Doctor’s race.  This time, in the 2009 production which made its American debut on Great Performances last night, the Tenth Doctor himself, David Tennant, played the Prince of Denmark, with Sir Patrick Stewart reprising his 1980 role of King Claudius, this time doubling as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father.

Tennant’s the only Time Lord this time out, though overall this production has nearly as many Who-universe veterans as the 1980 version.  John Woodvine, who is the Player King here (fittingly, for he played Claudius in a 1970 production of Hamlet), was the Marshal in 1979’s “The Armageddon Factor” (the Who debut of Lalla Ward, who was Ophelia in the 1980 production).  Roderick Smith (Voltemand, one of the ambassadors to Norway) was Cruikshank in “The Invisible Enemy” in 1977, while Andrea Harris (Cornelia, this production’s version of Cornelius, the other ambassador) was Suzanne in the new series’ “The Stolen Earth” 31 years later.  Reynaldo, the servant whom Polonius sends to spy on his son Laertes, is played by David Ajala, who just recently appeared as Peter in “The Beast Below” (and who was a bounty hunter in The Dark Knight).  Robert Curtis, who plays the soldier Francisco at the opening (and is credited on IMDb as Fortinbras, though that character’s appearance at the end is not in the version aired on PBS), played a “Security Man” in “Prisoner of the Judoon” in the Doctor Who spinoff The Sarah Jane Adventures.  And Zoe Thorne, who has a nonspeaking role here as a lady-in-waiting, has ironically done two voice-only roles in DW, the Gelth voice in “The Unquiet Dead” and the Toclafane voice in “The Sound of Drums”/”Last of the Time Lords.”  Meanwhile, Oliver Ford Davies (Polonius) lacks Whovian experience, but he was Naboo Governor Sio Bibble in the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

This production is not as complete as the 1980 version, with a number of things cut out, including most of the Fortinbras subplot and the entire explanation of how Hamlet escaped his exile and death sentence (so that the revelation that “Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are dead” is without context or explanation).  More on the cuts later.  The play is updated to a modern-ish setting, maybe c. 1980 give or take, but with a more multiethnic cast than would be expected from that era.  Elsinore is interpreted as an oppressive place filled with surveillance cameras, an extension of the play’s themes of secrets and spying.  An interesting idea, but I found the cuts to the security cameras’ POV to be distracting and gimmicky, and the ubiquity of surveillance devices makes all the hiding behind arrases seem rather redundant.

But what about the Doctor and the Captain?  They’re the ones we came to see, right?  Well, David Tennant was, and I can hear his Doctor saying the word in my head, “Brilliant.”  As usual.  He ran the full gamut here as only he can.  When first we meet Tennant’s young prince, he’s sullen, subdued, hair slicked back so you hardly recognize him, teetering on the edge of heart-wrenching despair.  His usual manic energy is completely buried.  But when the visitation from his father’s spirit (whose armor is constantly smoldering, cleverly suggesting his sins being “burnt and purg’d away”) overwhelms him, Tennant outdoes even Jacobi’s mania.  From then on, he runs the whole gamut.  Mostly he’s more naturalistic and subdued than Jacobi was, or than Tennant’s Doctor was, but when he’s feigning madness (or maybe not entirely feigning it, at some points), he pulls out all his comedy stops, even indulging in some Jim Carrey-esque mugging that I could’ve done without.  Sometimes, shades of the Doctor peeked out, but even when he was at his most manic, he didn’t quite use the same speech rhythms and mannerisms that his Doctor had.  Overall, a richly layered and dynamic performance, as energetic and compelling as you’d expect from David Tennant.

So how was he in the soliloquies?  Pretty good, but it’s hard to judge fully, since at least two of them, “To be or not to be” and “How all occasions do inform against me,” have been cut down!  The former goes right from “whips and scorns of time” to “But that the dread…”, and the latter skips right from “Even for an eggshell” to “From this time forth.”  It’s rather startling that even an abridged production of Hamlet would abridge the soliloquies, especially “To be or not to be,” which is probably (as Tennant pointed out in the behind-the-scenes featurette at the end) the most famous piece of literary writing in the entire English language.  It borders on blasphemy.  Anyway, what there was of the soliloquies was handled well, though Tennant doesn’t agree with my interpretation of “Thus conscience does make cowards…” any more than Jacobi did (see my earlier review).  I guess my take is an unusual one.  Tennant’s soliloquies are generally more subdued than Jacobi’s, though his “How all occasions…” isn’t as flat; though quiet, it has more of the building frustration beneath the surface that it should have.  As with the Jacobi version, the soliloquies (and Polonius’s asides) were directed to the camera, but somehow it seemed more natural here, maybe because I’m more used to it now or maybe because of the modern dress.

In my review of the 1980 production, I expressed some disappointment at the 40-year-old Patrick Stewart’s performance as Claudius, which I found superficial and rushed, more of a recitation of memorized speeches than a thoughtful interpretation of their meaning.  I expected that the far more experienced Sir Patrick of today (though I don’t think he’d been knighted yet when this was produced) would bring far more to it.  And boy, was I right.  The 2009 Claudius is the diametric opposite of the 1980 Claudius.  Stewart takes his time and brings meaning and weight to every line.  His range and his intensity are so much greater now, and so is the believability of his characterization.

If anything, he’s too good for the role.  It’s ironic to see him playing both Hamlet Sr.’s ghost and his brother Claudius, given how both Hamlet and the Ghost lament at how much less of a man Claudius is than his  brother, lacking the old king’s looks, intelligence, charisma, etc.  But Sir Patrick’s Claudius here is so commanding and impressive that, aside from the whole assassination business, it doesn’t really seem like such a bad thing that he’s the king.

The one thing I didn’t care for in Sir Patrick’s performance here was his very last moment, a bit of business that Sir Patrick apparently did in the stage production as well.  The text of the play in Act V, Sc. II is unclear on the action when Hamlet tells Claudius “Drink this potion!” followed by “[King Dies.]”  It’s often interpreted as Hamlet pouring the drink down Claudius’s throat.  Here, Hamlet has Claudius at the point of the poisoned foil, and of course Claudius has been cut already by the same foil and is doomed anyway.  Hamlet puts the goblet in Claudius’s hand and demands that he drink it.  Claudius considers what to do for a moment, then shrugs, takes the drink, and dies.  It’s an interesting interpretation, I guess; is it because he’s dying anyway and wants it to be quicker, or is it that he feels guilty and fairly defeated and decides to go out like an “antique Roman”?  But the problem is that Sir Patrick’s shrug is just too broad.  It gave the moment an incongruously comical effect.  I think he could’ve conveyed the same acquiescence with a subtler expression or gesture.

Ophelia here is Mariah Gale, who gives a much better performance than Lalla Ward did in 1980.  Her Ophelia comes off stronger and more assertive, which somewhat mollifies her submissive actions and mental fragility in the text, even if it clashes with them a bit.  She’s not quite as weepy and hopeless in the first few acts.  And when Polonius’s death drives her mad, it’s a more self-possessed madness with genuine rage and accusation behind it.  Indeed, Gale’s performance makes me wonder if this Ophelia was pulling a Hamlet, feigning her lunacy in order to get people off their guard while she sought answers.

Hey, there’s an interesting thought.  What if Ophelia was getting too close to the truth… and Gertrude wanted to protect Hamlet from exposure… and she met Ophelia out by the willow by the brook and pushed her in?  If so, she certainly managed her coverup more cleanly than Claudius did.

My reaction to Penny Downie as Gertrude isn’t too different from how I described Claire Bloom’s 1980 performance — solid, not a standout, notable for a distractingly plunging neckline.  But I think Bloom gave a clearer sense of Gertrude’s allegiances, having her choose to protect Hamlet and not tell Claudius that Hamlet knows of his crime.  Here, I’m not sure if those lines were cut or not, but I didn’t notice the same clarity.  Gertrude seemed to be equally devoted to both men and didn’t show any clear choice between them — except at the end, where Downie’s expressions show that Gertrude realizes the goblet is poisoned and chooses to drink anyway, perhaps to protect her son and expose Claudius.

Davies’ Polonius is solid, suitably pompous and dissipated, but not quite as charming as Eric Porter’s 1980 version.  Peter De Jersey as Horatio is merely okay, not the most sympathetic Horatio I’ve seen.  Mark Hadfield’s Gravedigger isn’t the showstopper the character should be.  But John Woodvine is outstanding as the Player King.  The 1980 production chose to go with an actor less impressive and accomplished than the leads, so that Hamlet’s soliloquy about the Player’s brilliance came off as incongruous.   Here, they made a wise choice of casting a highly accomplished RSC veteran in this role, and Woodvine’s recitation of Priam’s slaughter is superb, befitting Hamlet’s awe.

One other thing still bothers me, but that’s about the play itself, not the interpretation.  I mean, it all kind of loses focus in the last act or so.  It starts out as this thriller concentrating on Hamlet and Claudius, and it’s kind of a whodunnit, or rather a “did he do it?”  We have the Ghost’s accusation of murder most foul, but Hamlet isn’t just going to go off and kill a monarch on the word of an apparition that might be satanic, so he basically invents Lt. Columbo, adopting a flaky persona to get people off their guard while he investigates and gathers evidence against his prime suspect.  Okay, so when he accidentally kills Polonius, that admittedly changes the game.  And yeah, I can see how Laertes’ desire for vengeance grows out of that, and how Claudius is using Laertes as a pawn to get Hamlet killed, once his England gambit failed.  But the last act is all over the place.  First Hamlet and Laertes are at each other’s throats over Ophelia’s grave, but then nobody finds it odd that the very next thing the King does is to arrange a swordfight between them?  Where’s Admiral Ackbar when you need him?  And the whole Hamlet-vs.-Claudius throughline of the play is kind of lost in the chaos, almost a sidebar rather than the climactic confrontation you’d expect.  It reminds me of modern movies, where a strong story in the first two acts is often lost beneath obligatory action and spectacle in the final act.  But then, Shakespeare was probably subject to a lot of the same creative pressures.

Indeed, there’s a lot of stuff thrown into Hamlet that distracts from the core story — minor characters who have their bits and then vanish, pieces of business that have nothing to do with anything else.  It feels like Shakespeare was keeping his whole repertory company in mind and writing in scenes that played to all their strengths.  Maybe the regular Globe-going audience got to know these players and wanted to see their favorites have their moments, so WS made a point of writing in cameo scenes that let them do their schticks.  Heck, it’s not like he expected this to be great literature that would be remembered and studied for centuries.

So that’s the second Patrick Stewart/Time Lord Hamlet.  Is it better than the first?  Hard to say.  Jacobi and Tennant are both brilliant Hamlets in their own distinctive ways.  I’d say Tennant’s style was more modern, a lot of his delivery more convincing and natural, and he avoided the few flaws in Jacobi’s performance.  He mugged and goofed around a bit too much, but so did Jacobi.  But in terms of which performer is the most compelling to watch and listen to, it’s a tossup.  Maybe Jacobi has the edge in the listening department and Tennant in the watching department.  As for Sir Patrick, he’s immeasurably better here than he was 29 years earlier, and he’s in two roles.  Plus we have the far superior interpretations of Ophelia by Mariah Gale and the Player King by John Woodvine.  So in terms of performances, I’d give this one the edge by a good margin.  But the modern setting doesn’t always work, and the editing is misjudged; too many significant parts were cut out, and some unnecessary parts were left in.  (For instance, given the removal of Fortinbras from the bulk of the play, the whole “ambassadors to Norway” bit served no purpose.)  Still, I’d say both are definitely worth seeing, as much for their contrasts in interpretation as for their individual merits.

So am I the only one who, after Hamlet died, kept expecting him to regenerate?  “The rest… is silence.  I don’t want to go!”

The outline is done!

My Star Trek: DTI outline is now on my editor’s (virtual) desk, right on schedule.  It’s still a little rough here and there, but that’s detail work to be filled in later.   And as I remarked before, it’s quite long enough as it is.  I tried streamlining it for Jaime’s convenience, but was only able to trim it by 15 percent or so.

I expect this is going to be a rather long novel.  But its structure might help me write faster.  Normally, I write in a linear fashion; I don’t jump around much in a manuscript, but go scene by scene in order, unless I belatedly think of something I need to add and have to go back.  But this book will have several different parallel, fairly independent story threads for the various main characters, plus various sidebars, so I figure if I get stuck on one storyline, I can find some other part to work on.

In any case, I’m sure it’s going to be an interesting project.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S2) Reviews: “The Council”

“The Council”: Part 1 of this 2-parter opens with Jim taking a long time to drive up and get into a recording studio, where the mission is on a phonograph record.  As in past phonograph briefings (probably using the same stock footage), the needle moves backwards, outward from the middle.  The mission is to stop gangster Frank Wayne by obtaining his secret files showing the information about the Swiss banks where the mob keeps its stolen billions.

Wayne is played by Paul Stevens, but his voice is dubbed by Martin Landau.  The scheme is for Rollin to take his place, and for this, they need info about the man.  Luckily, an old friend of Wayne’s, Jimmy Bibo (Nicholas Colasanto, younger and chubbier than I remember him from Cheers), has been caught embezzling.  The titular council of mob leaders finds him guilty, and he’s buried alive.  The team is waiting to dig him out, once they distract chief henchman Johnny (Robert Phillips) with the old throw-a-rock-in-the-other-direction trick (why do henchmen never catch on to that?).  Not that he’s grateful; he still refuses to give Rollin advice on how to impersonate Wayne until Jim threatens to put him back in the hole.  And boy, isn’t it lucky that Johnny didn’t shoot him or crack his skull open before burying him?

Meanwhile, Jim pretends to be a hard-hitting senate investigator out to advance his career by going after Wayne.  After a messy search of his house (to prompt Wayne to move his incriminating books to his office safe) is aborted by a bought judge, Jim and “US Marshal” Barney take Wayne in for questioning and roughing up in a dingy hotel, where Rollin is watching through a one-way mirror to perfect his Wayne disguise.  Eventually, Jim leaves Barney alone and Wayne makes his move, getting Barney at gunpoint and calling his boys for a rescue.  The disguised Rollin takes Wayne’s place in the nick of time and pretends to kill Barney.  He’s in the organization now, but the killing makes him too hot for the others to handle, so they demand that he leave the country… or else.

And that’s the end of part 1.  Not really a lot happening.  Part 2 begins with the usual incredibly long recap, though this is the shortest one yet, only 4:34.  Surprising, given how padded everything else is, but maybe a symptom of how little story there was.

As usual, the big cliffhanger setback turns out to have been part of the plan all along.  Rollin-as-Wayne decides to lay low by going to Cinnamon, who’s playing a plastic surgeon.  While the gangsters watch, she surreptitiously removes Rollin’s makeup while making it look like she’s using a silicone injector to transform his face to look like Rollin.

Why the back-and-forth?  No particular in-story reason.  It could’ve worked just as well without the plastic surgery, and could’ve only taken an hour once the padding was cut down.  I guess they just didn’t want to have Landau’s face off camera too long.

Cinnamon gives Rollin a UV lamp that’s supposed to be good for the recovery of his face (ahh, more innocent times), but which actually contains a winch gizmo that, once he’s alone, he uses to rip off the office safe’s dial so he can break in and snap photos of Wayne’s books.  (Why can’t he crack the combination in a more conventional way?)  But this is after Jim barges in, slaps Rollin around “without recognizing him” as Wayne, and gets a beating from hench-guy Johnny before the other gangsters stop him, warning that it’s too dangerous to go after a federal investigator.  But that doesn’t stop Rollin/Wayne, who wants Jim killed.  The others advise against it, but Rollin orders Johnny to put a bomb in Jim’s car.

Not to worry, though; we’re shown almost every interminable moment of Willy rigging a fake manhole cover and Jim and Barney putting a trapdoor in Jim’s car.  After the bomb is planted, Jim comes out in the weirdest M:I gadget yet, a coat with a fake, hollow back of his head attached, so he can duck down through the trapdoor and have it still look like he’s sitting in the car when it blows up.  (How did they know Johnny would be watching from the rear?)

While Rollin’s photographing the books, he’s interrupted by his fellow mobsters who ask him what to do about a boxer who failed to throw a fight.  Rollin just says “You know what to do” to get rid of them.  Great going, Hand — you may have just condemned a guy to death because you were too busy to care.

But later, when the other head mobsters learn of the car bombing from Johnny, they realize “Wayne” has gone too far.  They gather another mob council to put him on trial.  Rollin takes his character assassination of Wayne to the ultimate, having him go totally irrational and try to shoot the senior mobster when it doesn’t go his way.  The gun is rigged to jam, so Rollie makes a break for it and Johnny pursues, just missing him at the elevator.  (How did they know Johnny would just miss him?)  But Barney has rigged the two adjacent elevators to move in sync and there’s a trapdoor between them.  While all this other stuff has been going on, a real plastic surgeon, Dr. Reese (Stuart Nisbet), has been… get this… altering the real Wayne’s face to look like Rollin!  The unconscious Wayne is in the other elevator, and they switch the two lookalikes while Johnny is racing downstairs to intercept his former boss.  (The elevator has been conveniently slowed by Barney to let him keep up.)  The real Wayne wakes up just in time to get shot by Johnny, who then gets shot by the cops that Cinnamon called a few minutes earlier.  The end.

I have to wonder, why arrange for Wayne’s assassination when they’d already gotten the goods on him from his books?  It was tax evasion charges that brought down Capone.  But I guess that wouldn’t have been as dramatic an ending.  Still, it seems gratuitous.  And it’s at least the second time that a doctor has violated his Hippocratic Oath and operated on an unconsenting patient in order to help the team set him up to be killed.

And what about the investigation and trial?  Won’t there be questions asked when it’s found that the late Frank Wayne was surgically altered to resemble actor Rollin Hand?  That would be bound to complicate things.

Overall, this one doesn’t make much sense.  And it feels like a one-part story that was stretched to two by adding the plastic-surgery switcheroo.

The previous two episodes only had stock music, but this one has a partial score by Jerry Fielding (Star Trek: “The Trouble with Tribbles” and “Spectre of the Gun,” Hogan’s Heroes, Macmillan and Wife, the first season of The Bionic Woman).   What there is of it is mostly in part 2, and it has the trademark sound of Fielding’s  style, heavy on the clarinet and full of rising and falling phrases.  The highlight is the elevator sequence, where Fielding does a lively variation on the main M:I theme.  It’s a shame they couldn’t spare the funds for a full original score by Fielding.  Two episodes’ worth of fresh music might’ve made this weak, slow-moving 2-parter more rewarding.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S2) Reviews: “The Seal”/”Charity”

“The Seal”: An unremarkable tape scene, except that for the first time the mission briefing is on a cassette tape; Jim brings the player with him on a shoulder strap.  (It’s worth noting this was considered cutting-edge technology at the time, and was the inspiration for the Star Trek tricorder.)  As I think I remarked before, it’s odd that cassette tapes were so rarely used on this show even after they became commonplace.

The mission: Industrialist Taggart (Darren McGavin) has purchased a jade statuette which is the stolen royal seal of Kuala Rokat, a nation important to America’s strategic interests in Asia.  His refusal to give it back risks driving the country into the Soviet bloc.  The team must get it out of his possession by any means.  Their plan hinges on Rusty, a ginger tomcat who’s been trained to fetch things.  This is the second episode to feature a cat prominently, the first being last season’s “The Diamond.”  This time, the cat is one of the good guys.  (But really, a plan depending on a cat deigning to follow instructions?  What were they thinking?)

Cinnamon plays reporter to interview Taggart while Jim pretends to be a subcontractor whom Taggart Aviation has been overpaying for his rivets — the perfect bait to make Taggart’s accounting department eager to bend over backward to “help” him.   In this way, he sabotages their computer with a doctored punch card.  He’s also slipped a fake punch card into the phone’s autodialer (the ’60s version of speed dial, where you had to insert a punch card encoded with the number to be dialed) so they’ll reach Barney when they call computer repair.  Willy sneaks in Barney and Rusty inside a replacement computer, then fakes Jim’s signature on the signout sheet to hide the fact that Jim’s still inside.  He couldn’t so easily hand back two security badges, so he uses a gadget to stick two together for several minutes, then reveal the hidden badge shortly after a security alarm has been sounded due to the badge discrepancy.  This little trick gets the poor security guard fired by his mean boss.  Congratulations, IMF!  You’ve just ruined this poor guy’s life!  Now his wife’s going to leave him and he’ll descend into drink and wrap his station wagon around a telephone pole!

Anyway, Taggart spins this whole tale about how the jade seal has been stolen so many times throughout its history that its rightful owner is whoever happens to possess it at the moment.  Conveniently, he concludes that if anyone steals it from him in turn, they’re welcome to it — thus sort of absolving the IMF for the crime they’re in the process of committing.  Cinnamon concocts a legend of a curse that will kill Taggart in six hours if he doesn’t return the seal.  He doesn’t fall for it, but he’s amused enough to let Cinnamon invite in a visiting professor from Kuala Rokat (Rollin in subtle but profoundly unconvincing “Oriental” makeup) to tell him about the curse.  Rollie performs magic tricks to make it seem he has mystical powers (spouting some Orientalist rubbish about how such things are commonplace in the East).  This culminates in Rollin making himself disappear (making a sheet appear to levitate with a helium balloon he somehow smuggled in and inflated silently–huh?) in order to sneak to the vault and pretend to be electrocuted by its door (he’s wearing a special gizmo that protects him from the current).  While the security system is shut down to save him, Barney’s able to drill through the wall and use another balloon to insert a strip of material that emits a harmonic to neutralize the sound detectors once the security system is turned back on.  Interestingly, he uses magnets on one side of the wall to catch the drill dust on the other side, since the vault floor will go off if even a few ounces’ weight lands on it.

Rusty almost ruins the plan by playing with the fishies in Taggart’s fish tank, but is caught in time.  Barney inserts a telescoping rail for Rusty to walk along and sends him instructions through a headset attached to his collar, goading him to retrieve the jade and bring it back.  Naturally, Rusty takes his time.  I wonder how many dozens of tries it took to compile enough bits of footage to make it look like the cat was following instructions.  But eventually Rusty brings the jade out, and Jim and Barney sneak out by switching clothes (at gunpoint) with the paramedics who’ve come in to take the “electrocuted” Rollin to the hospital (serves them right, since they were apparently too unskilled to tell he was faking).  So the day is saved, the team drives off in the stolen ambulance, Rusty gets the last word, and they all have a good laugh at their morally questionable and illegal activities against a US government contractor in the name of some tenuous gain in the mad game of brinksmanship that was the Cold War.  But there was a cat involved, so I guess that makes it okay.


“Charity”: The DVD calls it “Sweet Charity,” but other sources disagree.  Anyway, it’s a weird episode.  The mission this week involves busting a charity scam.  That’s right, not a malicious foreign government or a spy ring or a powerful crime syndicate, just an unhappily married couple, the Hagars, who have bilked various rich people out of their money on the pretense of funding charities.  You really have to wonder why the IMF is being given such a minor case.  I mean, they already know somehow that the Hagars have the stolen money in the form of platinum bars hidden under their pool table.  Why can’t the authorities just arrest them on the basis of that knowledge?  Okay, they’re living on the French-Italian border, but America’s on friendly terms with those countries, so what’s the problem?  (And their home happens to be the same Pasadena location used for Stately Wayne Manor in the ’60s Batman, at least in exteriors.)

Anyway, the plan is very convoluted for such a minor mission.  Cinnamon plays a wealthy recluse (wearing an odd feather swim-cap thing that makes her look like a baby bird or something) who gets acquainted with Erik Hagar (Fritz Weaver) while Jim pretends to be a doctor attracting the attention of the man-hungry Catherine Hagar (Hazel Court).  Willy, as Cinnamon’s chauffeur, “accidentally” damages the grill of Hagar’s car, so Cinnamon has him drive the car into town for repairs.  Hagar lets him have it without question, thus proving himself incredibly trusting for a career con man.

Jim appears to make some mistakes with his cover story, so Catherine catches on that he’s a fake.  However, that’s part of the plan; his real game is to pretend to be someone Erik hired to distract his wife so he could go after Cinnamon (or rather, her millions of dollars).  Catherine is sufficiently smitten with Jim that she tells him to “earn your money.”  Turns out the gigolo biz only paid 300 bucks a weekend back then.

Meanwhile, Barney and Willy are doing the old “cut open the floor from the basement” trick and stealing the platinum from under the pool table, replacing it with an inflatable set of fake platinum bars.   Also meanwhile, Rollin barges in on Erik’s naptime, holds him at gunpoint, and tells him to take off his tie and shoes and lie back on the bed.  Just as it looks like it’s going someplace really disturbing, Rollin sets the blanket on fire to make it look like Erik died in a smoking accident.  As the world’s slowest-burning blanket gives off smoke, Rollin tells Erik that his wife arranged the hit, and Erik pays him off to switch sides.  He then pretends to try to suffocate Jim and Catherine with natural gas, but the branch he’s used to barricade the door is pre-scored so Jim can break through easily enough. Jim convinces Catherine that her husband is out to bump her off for her money, and they need to run away with the platinum first.  She shows him where the (now fake) platinum is, and then trustingly leaves him to take care of moving it to their car so they can run away with it.

But the real platinum is back at the garage where Barney & Willy are fixing Erik’s car — by way of melting down the platinum and molding it into a replacement grille and headlights for the car!  They return it just in time for Erik to see his wife and her gigolo driving away with his ill-booten gotty, so he can drive off in pursuit of them.  Jim gets across the border because his trunk is empty save for a deflated balloon whose resemblance to platinum bars goes unnoticed by the border guard, but Barney arranges to be driving a van that crunches Erik’s grille for the second time today, so that when the guards inspect it, they discover it’s platinum and arrest him for smuggling.

This episode is full of holes.  Aside from the question of why the authorities couldn’t just arrest these guys, or publicize their scam so people wouldn’t be taken in, there’s the question of why this convoluted plan would work.  Okay, they can arrest the guy for having platinum on his car, but what about the subsequent investigation?  There’s no way to prove he knowingly turned his car grille into platinum, since he didn’t, and a warrant for his house will turn up nothing now.

And the Hagars are very unimpressive antagonists.  They’re not hardened killers, not physically dangerous at all (so the whole “If any of your IM Force are caught or killed” line is rather incongruous).  They don’t have some vast organization or Soviet-bloc government protecting them.  They’re just a couple of con artists working alone, and barely functioning as a team at all, since they clearly hate each other and are easy to turn against each other.  And they’re really quite gullible and easily manipulated.  I kind of feel sorry for them, going up against a crack spy team that’s overthrown governments and saved the world from weapons of mass destruction time and time again.  The Hagars are completely out of their league.  And they should’ve been beneath the IMF’s notice.  The very existence of this episode doesn’t make sense.

Categories: Cats, Reviews Tags: , ,

Busy day for DTI

Sorry I haven’t posted in over a week.  I’ve been focusing on the Star Trek DTI outline as the deadline looms.  I’ve been reading a lot of fiction relating to time travel, both Trek and original, and it’s taken up a bunch of my time.

Yesterday in particular was a big day.  First I brainstormed ideas for the book cover with my editor, Jaime Costas, and offered some suggestions she seemed to like.  Later, I wrote pretty much the entire climactic portion of the outline, at least the A plot.  And this morning I added the denouement for the A plot, including a description of the final scene.  But I’m not done yet; I still need to fill in the back half of the B plot, its denouement, and maybe some other bits.

The outline’s turning out to be more integrated than I’d expected.  I was initially thinking of this as being structured with multiple parallel plotlines, each following a different DTI agent, team, or other employee through a separate story, each story illustrating a different aspect of the department’s responsibilities.  Instead, though there are multiple parallel plotlines at first, most of them end up converging.  They still cover a range of different DTI responsibilities, but with more overlap.

Still, I’ve got a few days left to revise the outline.  I’ll probably have a reasonably complete first draft by tonight, and then I’ll have until Monday for revisions.  Maybe some things will be reworked.  Now that I’ve got the overall story figured out, I can concentrate on the specifics of how it unfolds and is presented.

Meanwhile, I got another, smaller writing gig yesterday.  Details later.

Oh, and my signing advance check came a few days ago.  I wasn’t really able to celebrate much because I’ve been too focused on the work, but I’ve bought a few things here and there, and it is a relief to be able to do that again.  Hopefully soon I’ll get my desktop PC repaired so I don’t have to depend on this old, slow, memory-poor laptop for everything.

Old family recipe: Schlung

And now, for my second installment of “Recipes I blog about while I eat them”:

I’ve just made my version of an old family recipe (if you can call something so informal a “recipe” at all).  It’s a sort of mock stroganoff which we call “schlung,” because that’s what it looks like — just a big, gloppy pile of schlung.  Or maybe a bunch of ingredients all schlung together.  (And I find from Googling that this fake word the Bennetts made up for this dish is also unfortunately used on occasion as a slang term for a reproductive organ, but that’s definitely not the intent here.)

The original recipe was made with ground beef, cream of mushroom soup, Philadelphia cream cheese, and diced onions, served over noodles.  Mine is a low-fat, vegetarian variant that evolved over time.  Here’s how it works:

Preheat a large nonstick skillet to medium heat; spray lightly with cooking spray. Brown about 4 oz. of veggie crumble (1/3 of a typical package) for 2-3 minutes.  Add about one medium-thick slice of onion, diced (maybe 1/4 cup or so?  Feel free to adjust to your taste) and a comparable amount of diced green pepper (I use frozen); heat and stir for a couple more minutes.

Add 1 can of condensed cream of mushroom soup (I use low-fat), plus about 2/3  can (the same can) of skim milk.  Add 2 1/2 to 3 oz. of Neufchatel cheese, in about 4-5 installments, and stir in each piece until it’s mostly melted before you add the next.  (Neufchatel is often marketed as low-fat cream cheese, which is ironic, since Philly cream cheese was invented as an imitation Neufchatel.)  Continue to stir over medium heat for a few more minutes to boil away some of the excess moisture.  When it starts getting crusty on the outer rim, and maybe a little bit crusty on top, that’s good enough.

The classic presentation is atop wide egg noodles, but I take mine three different ways — over whole-grain noodles; over brown rice; or, like today, atop two pieces of whole-grain toast.  If you don’t know how to prepare any of those, you’re on your own.  Since it’s relatively labor-intensive, I like to make it when I already have leftover rice or noodles, and failing that I just use toast.  Then I can make rice or noodles the next day and have leftover schlung on that.  It makes 3-4 servings, depending on how liberally you slop it on, so I can go through all three substrates with one batch.

My father would always sprinkle paprika on top of his, though I’m not partial to it.  I’m in the habit of having a serving of canned pear halves as a side dish.

This will make kind of a mess.  Rather a lot of it will stick to the pan, the spoon, the containers you put leftovers in, etc.  And depending on how big your skillet is (or how steady your hands are), there may well be some spillage from all the stirring.  However, in a nonstick skillet, if you let the residue sit for a while, it’ll dry out into a solid film that easily flakes off the pan.  EDIT: No, apparently it won’t.  It used to do that in the old days, but when I tried it today, it just made the stuff stick rather solidly to the pan.  Maybe it’s because the ingredients are different or the pan’s composition is different.  Or maybe I’m confusing it with my memory of some other recipe.  Anyway, probably best to rinse the skillet out ASAP.

I know this isn’t a very precise recipe.  But schlung, by its very nature, is an inexact science.

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DTI outline underway

I’ve been developing my ideas for Star Trek DTI in the form of concept notes written down and plot and character pieces floating around in my head, but yesterday I finally started writing the actual proposal or plot outline.  I still have a number of specifics to figure out, but putting things on paper (as it were) helps me to focus and organize my thoughts.  Also, in a way, getting them out of my head and into print gives me more “room” to think of new stuff.

One way it helps is by forcing me to come up with at least tentative names (and in some cases, sexes) for some of the characters I’ve had in mind.  And somehow, having a name, a label, makes it easier to think of a character as a person rather than a general type or a story device, and that makes it easier to visualize them and come up with plot and personality for them.  For instance, there’s one vague character idea I started locking down in more detail in the outline yesterday, and while I went out to buy lunch (going on foot to and from a sandwich place about 10 minutes away, a good opportunity to think), I came up with a story arc for that character that will add something powerful and important to the storyline of the novel, and help me illustrate something I hadn’t quite figured out how to illustrate.

Actually, what gave me the idea for that story arc was something rather simple — I tentatively had this character paired with another character on one investigation, but I intended that other character to be working with someone else later on, so I needed a reason for this character to take a different path.  And that gave me this idea.  But then I eliminated the part that had this character on that first investigation at all.  So the original need that inspired this idea no longer exists — and existed for less than an hour overall — but it now serves a different and greater purpose in the narrative.  Such is the serendipity of story development.

I’m pleased with how much of the outline I got done yesterday.  I guess I already had the early part of the novel worked out pretty well.  But although I know overall what I want the story arc to be — and although I have a very clear and very satisfying idea of how it ends —  I still need to work out a lot of specific plot beats and other details.  I’m a little nervous that I only have two weeks to do it, but the fact that I got so far on my first day of outlining is reassuring.  Heck, over the past few months, I’ve conceived and written entire short stories in less than two weeks each.  So I should know by now that my insecurity over my ability to produce is unfounded.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading some classic SF time-travel fiction, as I mentioned before, in hopes of getting inspiration for my approach to time travel in DTI.  I already have well-developed ideas of my own, but you never know what seeds might inspire new insights.  But as it happens, the book I was reading last night (Stephen Baxter’s Manifold: Time) involved some ideas that instead gave me valuable technical insights about a key concept in the original spec novel I’ve been working on.  Serendipity again.

I can buy stuff again!

No, I haven’t quite gotten my first novel advance yet, but I had a small certificate of deposit that matured today and is more than enough to tide me over until the advance arrives.  I’ve scrimped and saved to get by until this day, since withdrawing the money early would’ve incurred a substantial penalty (though honestly I don’t know if it would’ve been more than the credit card fees I’ve been accumulating), but now it’s in the clear.  So I went on sort of  a shopping spree today — not a huge one, but enough to get some things I’ve needed and a few luxuries too.

First I went to Bed Bath & Beyond to buy a new set of tumblers (after a quick stop at the eyeglasses place to get my screws tightened, which is free).  As I mentioned back in January, the last set of four I got there is down to one.  So I got another set, not exactly the same, but as close as they had.  I tried looking for some lunch plates too, but they didn’t have any cheap ones except for some made of melamine, which isn’t really microwave-safe.

After that, I was going to go have lunch at Roly Poly, a chain I like that specializes in wraps.  But I belatedly remembered that the one in that area was closed.  Oh, well.  So after a quick stop at the local library, I decided to go up to the Half Price Books in Kenwood and see what kind of dining options they had in the area.  I was already heading for the freeway when I remembered I’d been planning to go to the Kroger in the same vicinity where I was, but I figured I’d come back later if I didn’t find a Kroger up in Kenwood.  Naturally groceries would have to come last for the sake of the frozen foods.

Anyway, at Half Price Books I picked up several old Trek books that might be useful for researching ideas for my new novel, so I can write those off as business expenses, yay.  Then I couldn’t find the way out of the store until I completely circumnavigated it and found that it had been just to the right of where I’d been (imagine that, putting the exit right next to the checkout counter!).  Then I saw a Panera across the street, and thought I’d have lunch there.  But the parking lot for that entire sub-mall area was completely full.  I thought, “Oh well, there’s a Panera near the Kroger, I’ll have lunch there.”  So I took the freeway back down toward where I’d been.

Here’s the thing, though — I’m not familiar with navigating that area by freeway, and I chose the wrong exit.  Worse, it was an exit that transferred me to a different highway, the Norwood Lateral.  So when I got off the highway, I was in the wrong part of town, though eventually I ended up in familiar enough territory that I’d be able to navigate back to my intended destination, though by a much more roundabout route than I’d intended.

But then I saw there was a Kroger in the mall I was passing and I decided to save gas and go shopping there.  The problem was that there weren’t any good lunch options in the area, just fast-food joints and one place that was too pricey.  But it was getting too late and I had to eat something.  I had a modest and disappointing meal at KFC and then I went grocery shopping.  I got a number of things I haven’t had in a while, some new things I’ve been curious to try, and a few Corelle lunch plates.  Then I came home.

And in a bit of great timing, my credit card bill came in the mail this afternoon, so I can start paying it off right away.  I’m only paying half of it this month, but I should be able to pay off the rest next month.

And all this left me comfortable enough to finally commit to buying a couple of luxury items — ones I’d normally hold off on but can’t really since they’re limited editions.  Back in February, La-La Land Records, which specializes in film scores, notified me of a limited release of Shirley Walker’s score to the 1990 The Flash TV series, which predated her Batman: The Animated Series work by a couple of years and presaged its style.  I couldn’t stand to miss my chance at that, but I couldn’t afford to buy it, so I’ve been on tenterhooks hoping they didn’t sell out before I could get one.  Luckily, they still have copies available.  Also, just recently they announced a limited-edition re-release of a soundtrack I’ve always wanted but didn’t know had ever been released at all: Nelson Riddle’s score to the 1966 Adam West Batman feature film (source of the classic line, “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”).  Naturally I was dying to grab that too, and now I’ve finally been able to buy them both.  It’s such a relief not to be broke anymore.

And there’s a Panera right up the street from me, so I guess I’ll go have dinner there to compensate for missing my lunch opportunity.

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I’m too disorganized

Since Star Trek DTI is such a blank slate of a concept, I’m seeing it as an opportunity to explore some ideas I haven’t had a chance to do anything with before.  For instance, there’s a certain established Trek species that I’ve long wanted to do some serious worldbuilding for.  They haven’t been featured much onscreen, and what little has been done with them in prose either plays up a certain attribute of their species to the point of caricature or avoids it to the point that they’re rendered generic.  And a lot of the behind-the-scenes worldbuilding that was developed for them has never really been built on in prose.  Now I finally have a chance to feature a major character of that species and get my ideas about them on paper.

One of those ideas I came up with was identifying their fictional home star with a real star.  The way I did this was, I think, rather obsessive but rather clever.  The book Star Trek Star Charts by Geoffrey Mandel, which is generally treated as authoritative by the novelists, includes that star but doesn’t identify it with a real star.  So what I did was to use the Celestia space simulator, which lets you see the known stars in 3D from any position in space, and find an angle that matched the positions of the major stars as featured in the STSC maps (i.e. which is more or less looking directly “down” on the plane of the galaxy).  Then I highlighted various stars which were roughly in the same position, as seen from that angle, as the fictional star in question was in STSC.  With them highlighted, I changed my angle to see where they were along the Z axis (the axis perpendicular to the galactic plane) and thus how far they were from Earth and other major stars.  Based on position, spectral type, and so on, I settled on one of them as the most reasonable candidate for this species’ home system.

And I wrote it down.


The thing is, I did this sometime last year, as part of development for a pitch that didn’t go anywhere, or maybe for a subplot I considered while developing a novel but decided not to use.  When I decided to use this species for DTI, I opened the file containing that unused pitch and I found a reference to the species’ home star having periodic x-ray flares, a property of the real star I had picked for them.  That reminded me of the work I’d done to select that star.  But there was nothing in that proposal that named the star.  And when I looked through all my other possibly relevant notes files on my computer, I couldn’t find it anywhere.

So I thought maybe I’d done it as part of a technical discussion on the TrekBBS.  So I searched there for posts by “Christopher” that contained the name of the planet in question, and found nothing.

So I was stumped.  But I had a memory of writing something down somewhere.  Maybe it was on a piece of paper somewhere, but my desk, table, etc. are very cluttered and it’s hard to find any stray piece of paper.

Then I remembered this 8 1/2 x 11 spiral notebook I use for various things.  I looked through it, but there was nothing.  Finally I remembered my 3 x 5 notepads.  I have a couple of these which I’ve used alternately for various things, one of which was completely filled up a while ago.  I haven’t used them much lately, so I guess I kind of forgot about them.  Anyway, I spotted the filled-up one under the mess on my table, I looked through it, and after just a few pages I finally found what I’d written down about the star I’d chosen.  Yay!

This time, I hastened to transcribe the information from the notepad into my story notes file for DTI.  That way I won’t lose it again (unless something disastrous happens to both my laptop and my thumb drive).

It goes to show that a writer shouldn’t throw anything away.  You never know when an old idea or bit of research might come in handy.  But it also shows the importance of a decent filing system so you can find stuff again.  That’s the part I need to work on.


I finally got Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths from Netflix — which may have been the wrong way to go, since their version lacks the DC Showcase: Spectre short film.  Anyway, this latest entry in the DC Universe animated film series is an adaptation of Worlds Collide, a planned direct-to-DVD film in the continuity of the Justice League/Justice League Unlimited television series, which would’ve bridged the gap between JL and JLU.  Dwayne McDuffie’s script was rewritten only slightly for this version, which is nominally a separate continuity, but you can still see the signs of its JL/U origins (the League building a new Watchtower complete with teleporters, deciding to add new membership, etc.) — so much so that you wonder why they didn’t either do it in the DC Animated Universe as originally intended or else rewrite it more heavily to make it stand more apart.  As it is, it’s kind of betwixt and between.

Although maybe that’s fitting, since the story does postulate a multitude of parallel worlds, some of which are wildly different, others nearly identical.  The two Earths in question are the world of the Justice League we know (or this version of them, which differs from the DCAU version only in having Hal Jordan as Green Lantern instead of John Stewart, and of course in the character designs and voices) and the world of the Crime Syndicate of America.  The CSA is a concept from the Silver Age of comics, coming from “Earth-3,” where the morality of the characters we know gets inverted: the heroes become the villains and vice-versa.  Instead of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, we have Ultraman, Owlman, and Superwoman.  And so on.

The story’s pretty straightforward; good-guy Lex Luthor comes to the JL universe to recruit their help against the CSA, they go to the other world to do battle, some of the CSA come to our world to fight our heroes, and ultimately the whole multiverse needs to be saved from destruction because Owlman’s a nihilist or something.  And of course, with all these superbeings around, the salvation of the universe comes down to Batman alone, because he’s Batman.

So yeah, it’s a pretty flimsy story.  It doesn’t have the depth of JL’s classic “A Better World,” where the evil JL counterparts were the same people who took their heroism too far and became benevolent dictators.  Here there’s no moral ambiguity or introspection, just clear-cut heroes and villains.  It’s basically just an action romp.

But accepting that, it was executed very well for the most part.  McDuffie’s story may not be the deepest thing ever, but it’s got a lot of the clever dialogue he does so well.  The animation, co-directed by Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery, is fantastic.  In past projects, Liu has shown a knack for really big action and Montgomery has demonstrated great skill with subtle, expressive character animation, so putting them together results in a film that’s really compelling to look at.  The music, by James L. Venable using themes by Christopher Drake, didn’t really grab me but was pretty good.

The casting, however, was a mixed bag.  Of all the actors that Warner Bros.’ legendary voice director Andrea Romano has cast as Superman and Batman, this film’s choices of Mark Harmon and William Baldwin, respectively, are probably the weakest.  I thought Harmon would be an interesting choice for Superman, but he was just too strident and unsympathetic throughout.  And Baldwin… well, I’m being too harsh.  He didn’t do a bad job, it was perfectly serviceable, but his performance didn’t stand out the way a Batman voice should.  It paled in comparison to James Woods’s extremely creepy and menacing Owlman.  (Yes, for whatever reason, the Crime Syndicate counterparts were given different appearances and voices, even though in most other incarnations they’re supposed to be actual evil twins of the heroes.)  Not to mention Chris Noth, whose heroic Luthor kind of stole the show, really sounding the way a superhero should sound.  And Gina Torres was devilishly sexy as the psychopathic Superwoman.  Josh Keaton (the lead on The Spectacular Spider-Man) made an excellent Flash.  Vanessa Marshall (Mary Jane on the same show) was a serviceable Wonder Woman, neither better nor worse than Susan Eisenberg from JL/U (who barely beat out Marshall for the role in that version), and nowhere near as impressive as Torres.  So kind of a pattern: Noth would’ve made a better Superman (if a tougher one than usual), Woods a better Batman, and Torres a better Wonder Woman.

I think this review sounds more critical than I intended.  I found the movie a satisfying experience, but it’s a thing better just experienced than analyzed.  It’s a popcorn flick, and a good one, aside from the disappointing casting of the Big Three heroes.

There’s one bit of controversy I wanted to address, but it involves the ending, so stop now if you don’t want to be spoiled:






Some have complained that Batman is essentially directly responsible for the deaths of Owlman and Johnny Quick, something that’s out of character for him.  As a rule, I agree that Batman shouldn’t kill, even by omission.  But given that the fate of the entire universe was at stake, I can see how Batman might’ve been willing to do what had to be done.  And he did give both of them an out.  Yes, he sent Owlman to an abandoned Earth where the QED wouldn’t destroy everything, but he left the “ABORT YES/NO” dialog box active, so Owlman could’ve shut the bomb down, saved himself, and used the dimension-hopping device to escape to a habitable world.  He just chose not to.  As for Johnny Quick, Batman tried to get him to stop as soon as he got back, but it was too late.  He knew there was a risk, but it wasn’t necessarily a suicide mission.

Okay, admittedly those rationalizations are a bit flimsy.  And I’m not saying Batman shouldn’t be haunted by his decisions here.  But it’s not as badly out of character as the Tim Burton movies where Batman blew up a warehouse full of bad guys or the ’80s comic where Batman sealed up a villain and left him to die of starvation.

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Temporal investigation

I’ve been doing a good deal of temporal investigation of my own recently in preparation for Star Trek DTI: Department of Temporal Investigations (as I’m calling it at the moment).  To wit, I’ve been going through just about everything canonical ST has established about time travel, plus certain things from certain books and comics, as background material for building my outline.  I’ve happened across some details that will be very useful to me, and I’ve thought of some interesting ways to connect a number of these bits and pieces together into a larger tapestry.  I think this book will answer a number of questions about time-travel events in the Trek universe, and I think some of the answers will be nicely unexpected.

This is pretty much the same process I used in approaching spacegoing organisms in Orion’s Hounds, galactic prehistory in The Buried Age, and Borg anthropology in Greater Than the Sum: gather everything we know about the subject and try to construct a unified theory that explains or reconciles as much of it as possible.  It’s just the way I think; I’m a student of physics and history, so I approach a subject like a researcher, gathering evidence and then drawing conclusions from it.

Of course, the trick is to work it all into the story in a smooth and integral way that doesn’t feel like a gratuitous exercise in continuity porn.  It needs to feel like I’m telling a story and including information that’s organic and important to that story, rather than just using the story as an excuse to offer my explanations for Trek continuity holes and such (though admittedly that kind of is what I’m doing).  And it needs to be accessible to someone who lacks prior familiarity with the ideas and characters being covered, so that they’ll be able to enjoy it as a self-contained, cohesive story in its own right rather than just a series of continuity nods and winks that you’d have to be a loyal fan to understand.  You have to give a full explanation of everything that’s important to the story, without going overboard lecturing about continuity tidbits that aren’t important to the story.  And you have to make the references that are continuity nods feel indistinguishable from those that are created just for the novel.  It’s a delicate balance.

I’m also planning to do some time-travel reading beyond ST.  I like to draw on original SF as well as real science for inspiration in my Trek work, so I’m planning to read or reread some major works of time-travel fiction.  To that end, I’ve gotten Poul Anderson’s The Time Patrol (the omnibus collecting that entire series except the novel The Shield of Time, which I have on order) and Steven Baxter’s Manifold Time from the library.  I’m also going to reread Asimov’s The End of Eternity and maybe Baxter’s The Time Ships, a sequel to H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine.  I’m debating whether I want to reread Robert L. Forward’s Timemaster.  The science in that book is pretty solid, but it’s rooted in the self-consistent model where history can’t be changed, so its ideas may not be of use to me in DTI.  Also, Forward’s books aren’t really interesting except for the sciencey stuff.  He was a wildly imaginative physicist but not much of a fiction writer.

I’m realizing it’s just as well that my efforts to get a part-time job lately haven’t borne fruit.  I could’ve used the extra money, but with this novel contract I’m now essentially out of the hole for the near future, and I’m going to need to be able to focus pretty heavily on research and outlining for the next few weeks.  I’ll want to resume my job search later on, though, since living from book contract to book contract is too tenuous, and I’d really like to be able to start saving up for a better car or a better apartment or whatever.  But that’s for…


This deja vu seems familiar…

Today I’m taking a couple of stories that have recently been rejected and sending them to new magazines.  One of them is going to print magazines and is being submitted the old-fashioned way, through the mail.  It’s just come back from one magazine and now I’m sending it to a different magazine with a different editor — at the exact same address.  I wish I could’ve just told the first editor that if she rejected it, she should just send it across the hall to the other editor.  Would’ve saved some postage.

The other story is one I’m currently shopping to online magazines that take electronic submissions.  The first of those online mags rejected it yesterday, so I submitted it to another one today — and it turns out they use the exact same submission form.   At least in this case there’s no postage involved.

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