Archive for January, 2011

Home improvements, marginal

I just got back from an impromptu trip to pick up a book from the library.  I could’ve just requested a hold and picked it up from my local branch in a few days, but I wanted it promptly and I wanted an excuse to get out of the apartment, so I drove to the nearest branch that allegedly had it available according to the online catalog, namely the main branch downtown.  It was hard to find parking, which I should’ve expected on a Monday morning, I guess, and when I finally got in, they didn’t have it on the shelf.  I could’ve asked about it, but I’d hit the button for ten free minutes on the meter rather than putting any coins in, so I decided I’d drive over to another branch that claimed to have it, the one in the neighborhood where I grew up.  They weren’t open until noon, though, so I drove up to the mall a few blocks away to go to the household-goods store they have there and look for a couple of things I’ve been wanting for a while now: 1) An area rug to put under my “office” chair so its wheels wouldn’t do more damage to the carpet, and 2) some sort of table thingy I could put near the bathtub to rest books on, but small enough not to be an obstruction.  I found both.  I’m not sure how well the rug will work out, since it doesn’t stay in place as well as I’d hoped, but the little corner-table thing I found looks like it’ll work nicely for my needs.  It’s used and a bit decrepit, but I was more concerned with functionality and economy than aesthetics.

Then I went to lunch at the Donato’s nearby, because I love their Hawaiian pizza.  I know some people find the idea of ham-and-pineapple pizza to be strange, unpleasant, or blasphemous, and I have had at least one variety (frozen/storebought) that I disliked, but the Donato’s variety (which uses thin-shaved ham and also includes almonds and cinnamon as toppings) is delicious.

Then I went to the library and found the book I wanted, and then I was going to go to the grocery store, but I realized en route that I didn’t have a bag for my household purchases — I just carried them to the trunk — so it would be difficult to carry those and groceries at the same time.  And there’s really nothing on my list that can’t wait another day or two.  Groceries had just been an excuse to justify the trip if I didn’t achieve my other goals, but I did, so the trip was adequately justified already.  So I just came home.

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GALACTICA 1980 thoughts — Eps. 4-6

January 29, 2011 2 comments

“The Super Scouts”: ABC wanted more kids in the show, so the producers decided to inundate them with kids.  The great and powerful Dr. Zee has unilaterally decided (yes, Dr. Zee, it’s a good thing you did) that the fleet’s children need to be sent down to Earth so they’ll survive in the event of a Cylon attack.  (Instead of the pilot’s Robbie Rist, Zee is now played by a different child actor named Patrick Stuart, not to be confused with Sir Patrick Stewart, who was 40 at the time.  Unlike Rist, Stuart’s real voice is not dubbed over — more’s the pity, because his diction isn’t great.)  Finally we get a decent explanation for why they’re operating in secret: since Earth is so divided, if the Galacticans dealt with just one government, it could spark paranoia among its rivals and trigger global war.  I was surprised to hear an explanation on this show that actually seemed intelligent.

Dillon is inexplicably teaching the children on the school ship which is lagging behind for repairs, and inevitably Troy shows up soon, just in time for the Cylons to attack it (Dr. Zee psychically intuits why — they’ve “evolved” new technologies and are testing them out by shooting at people — yeah, let’s go with that).  There’s a mix of stock and new battle footage, so that parts of the freighter occasionally become parts of Galactica.  Meanwhile, Trillon try to protect the kids from the stock-footage fires and badly double-exposed smoke, and get the last dozen off in a shuttle which is damaged and leaking fuel.  Unable to get back to the fleet, they take the kids to Earth.

What follows is pretty tedious and didn’t need to be 2 hours.  They land in the woods and try to be inconspicuous.  But guess what!  Suddenly we learn that the fleet’s standard gravity is higher and its atmosphere denser than Earth’s, so that Colonials have superstrength and can jump real high (albeit in slow motion and with a pseudo-bionic sound effect) which the kids can’t resist playing around with.  Gee, Jamie didn’t seem to have any trouble walking around on the Galactica.  (Also, if Earth’s air is thinner than theirs, shouldn’t it make them weaker?  This is paid lip service and then forgotten.)  There’s some padding as Trillon go into town on their bikes and get chased by a couple of CHiPs-knockoff motorcycle cops, whom they elude by going invisible, of course.  They intend to trade gold cubits for currency and buy local clothes for the kids.  Troy decides to buy a bunch of scouting gear while Dillon accidentally manages to rob the bank, and they make an invisible getaway after overpaying the clerk.  Air Force Col. Sydell, played by Alan Miller (“Genesis allowed is not!  Is planet forbidden!”), is investigating a possible UFO landing, and questions Trillon and the “scouts,” who deny having seen anything.  Jamie happens to show up (at last, someone appealing) to investigate the UFO reports, and is unsurprised to see Trillon there.  She sticks with them, and that night, three of the kids fall deathly ill and are rushed to the hospital.  Turns out they’ve been poisoned by evil pollution!  Since this is an “educational” show, it has to be socially conscious.  Troy or Dillon or whichever interchangeable guy says his wrist “computron” (basically a tricorder/Dick Tracy radio/Speak’n’Spell that does whatever the story needs at the moment, naturally invented by Dr. Zee) can’t identify the chemicals because there’s no Galactican equivalent, yet the display screen clearly shows terms like dioxin and benzene.

Trillon go to complain to the chemical company’s boss Stockton (Mike Kellin), who insists he and his fellow locals are perfectly healthy (though when a man that cadaverous says “Do I look like I’m dying?” one must consider one’s answer carefully).  He calls the local stereotyped fat hick sheriff and tells him to do something about them, since he doesn’t want the plant closed down again.  The sheriff, Ellsworth, has found that the scouts have no official existence.  There’s some padding as the Galacticans elude the law (stealing the cop cars while invisible) and the chemical-plant employees harass our heroes, and the doctor rants to Jamie about how the kids’ blood doesn’t look at all human (which doesn’t make sense, since the whole conceit of the franchise is that they are human and share a common origin with us) before suddenly going on a non sequitur about the pollution from the plant.  But then the hospitalized kids take a turn for the worse and Stockton follows our bunch to the hospital.  One of the kids is dead and on life support, but Troy says that by his people’s standards, he’s alive and can be saved.  Dillon calls the Galactica for help, his signal “encrypted” simply by speeding it up to trans-Chipmunk levels (which the monitoring military officer says is unlike anything he’s ever heard before — must not have a tape deck).  Turns out Dr. Zee has invented a uniquely advanced and powerful antigravity ship that happens to be a flying saucer, and he and Adama take it to Earth to save one kid, even though both the ship and Zee are too unique and valuable to risk.

Trillon take the kids and their life-support equipment in Stockton’s van, and Stockton gets to witness the whole “flying saucer” experience, and is timorously taken aboard, begging the “Venusians” not to abduct him.  The interior is a pretty weird environment with lots of open black space and red-lit lucite arches and creepy masked medics who surround the kid to treat him, and one wonders what the hell could possibly be the throughline uniting any of this weird stuff to the familiar technology of the Colonial fleet.  Okay, sure, it’s the invention of Dr. Zee, the one-boy Singularity, but still, he only has existing fleet equipment to work with, right?  (And even Dillon gets inexplicably formal and alien, telling Stockton “Come” instead of a more characteristic “Come on”, and intoning something about “The glory of the universe is intelligence” or whatever.)

While the synchronized surgery team saves the super-scout (sssibilant, isssn’t it?), Dr. Zee plays Ghost of Christmas Future and shows Stockton a computer projection of his son’s funeral ten years hence, making him see the error of his ways and promise to clean up the pollution.  Adama orders Troy and Dillon to remain on Earth with the kids (there’s a nice little reprise of the Serena/Boxey leitmotif as Adama speaks to his grandson), and the Zee-Saucer flies away just before Sydell, Fat Hick Sheriff, and the National Guard get there.  As always, Trillon and the kids get away by turning invisible, the world’s second-cheapest special effect.  (Second-cheapest because they fade in and out.  Cheapest would be a jump cut.)  But later they return Hick Sheriff’s car along with enough gold cubits to repay the bank twice over.  From the slimy smiles on the sheriff’s and deputy’s faces, I doubt they’re going to turn over the entire amount.

But typically, the boys soon get called away “on a mission” (yeah, right) and dump responsibility for these twelve superstrong, dangerously naive children onto poor Jamie Hamilton with no advance warning.  What a couple of deadbeats.

Hilariously, the episode ends with an incongruous text disclaimer (looking uncannily like a Jeopardy clue) reassuring its viewers that “The United States Air Force stopped investigating UFOs in 1969. After 22 years, they found no evidence of extra-terrestrial visits and no threat to national security.”  Even more hilariously, this disclaimer is shown at the end of the next four episodes as well.  I know ABC wanted the show to be educational, but were they really so afraid kids would take the stories seriously that they felt the need to throw this in?

While “Galactica Discovers Earth” had enough going on to be mildly entertaining if you just turned off you critical faculties and went with the stream of consciousness, “The Super-Scouts” is pretty tedious and bizarre.  Why this sudden retconning of the Galacticans into something so alien?  Why give them bionic jump powers and a flying saucer?  I think Larson, who really had no interest in doing this show, was just throwing in whatever random stuff he thought of, hence the ripoffs of CHiPs, the bionic shows, Close Encounters, and A Christmas Carol.  It also suffers from a relative lack of Robyn Douglass screentime, and a complete lack of Robyn Douglass in tight clothes.

“Spaceball”: In this episode, Troy and Dillon must stop President Skroob and Dark Helmet from stealing Druidia’s air and…

No, wait, that’s Spaceballs.  Sorry.

We pick up right after the last episode, with Trillon arriving for their sudden special mission, and they’re met by holy frak it’s Sherlock Holmes! Jeremy Brett climbs out of the Viper and introduces himself as Lt. Nash, speaking in an odd accent that I think is supposed to be German but at times makes him sound like a Swedish Dracula.  He sends Trillon off in the Viper in pursuit of Xaviar, who’s returned to the present (though why nobody’s chasing him through history anymore is never explained).  Meanwhile, Jamie brings the super-scouts to work with her, where they disassemble a TV camera, get caught, then reassemble it before the boss arrives, so the camera guy is humiliated.  Anyway, Jamie snaps up the opportunity to cover a story about a kids’ camp, thinking it’s her opportunity to ditch the little terrors.  But when she gets there, she discovers it’s a baseball camp, and she’s afraid of the kids showing off their superpowers (and that is definitely a stock sound effect from the bionic shows when little Starla sends a baseball flying past the treeline).  Meanwhile, Trillon’s Viper shuts down and strands them in space (depicted hilariously by pulling in on a freeze-frame of a Viper in flight, complete with motion blur), leaving Jamie and the kids unprotected from Sherlock Holmes, whom they realize is actually Xaviar in disguise.  (Zee is blase about this “epidermal restructuring,” saying that “Ours” — yep, he speaks of himself in the royal we — went flawlessly.  So at least they’ve handwaved his recasting.)  Sherlock Xaviar apparently plans to use the kids as bargaining chips with Adama.  He shows up at the camp as Lt. Nash and tells Jamie he’s there to help with the kids.  He assures her “I love children” in a tone so sinister you expect him to add “with fava beans and a nice Chianti.”

Now begins the whiplash portion of our program.  Jamie’s told the kids to play to lose in order to keep their secret.  But then she learns that the moustache-twirling landlord is going to evict the camp if they don’t field a winning team at the playoffs the next day, so she tells the kids to play to win.  But when they get to the playoffs, Jamie learns that Col. Sydell is on his way, still suspicious that the kids are Not Of This Earth.  So she tells them to play to lose, which they do for the first six innings.  But then Jamie overhears Sherlock Xaviar threatening to kill the kids after Adama rejects his demands, and so she tells them to start playing to win, since the press of the crowd around the winners will protect them.  So it’s your classic Harlem Globetrotters scenario where the hero team sucks at first and then calls on their special skills and comes from behind.  So the scouts win and the crowd surrounds them, protecting them from Sherlock Xaviar.  This has made Sydell all the more interested in them, but Jamie pits Sydell and Xaviar against each other, delaying them long enough for Trillon to get back.  (They did a spacewalk to repair their Viper, somehow changing into spacesuits in that tight cockpit; in some shots the wires are painfully obvious.  But at least the spacesuit helmets aren’t as stupid-looking as the ones from “Fire in Space.”)  A laser shootout ensues and Xaviar shoots Sydell, but one of our interchangeable heroes says he’ll survive with proper medical attention.  But we don’t find out for sure, since it’s time for the obligatory funny tag where little Starla lands a basketball in the hoop on her first try and Jamie’s all “Oh no, here we go again.”

I guess this could be considered a conclusion to the Super-Scouts trilogy, since it’s pretty closely tied to the previous two.  But it’s a rather tedious hour, and even Jeremy Brett can’t save it, given the bizarre accent he’s hampered with.  (And what’s up with that?  The original Xaviar spoke with Richard Lynch’s normal New York accent.)  It does, however, underline the extent to which Robyn Douglass has been the real star of this series up to this point.  Basically she’s Mindy with no Mork to overshadow her, the everywoman coping with strangeness and serving as a point of audience identification.  She carries most of the episode herself while Trillon are sitting uselessly out in space.  And as boring as the episode is, I can’t really fault her for it, since she’s more watchable than the other two leads.  She’s not a great actress, but she’s got more charisma than any of the original show’s female regulars had; and while she’s not quite as hot as Maren Jensen, she’s close.  Unfortunately, this is the last episode where she plays more than a small supporting role.

And you know something?  After seeing this episode, I’m not convinced Xaviar is the villain.  He might be secretly the hero of this show.  Why?  Because he doesn’t want to follow Doctor Zee’s orders. He’s the only person in the Colonial fleet who hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid, who doesn’t worship this pompous 10-year-old mutant as an infallible oracle.  Maybe he’s the one person who’s contemplated the fact that a child who has an intellect none of them can begin to match, and  minimal life experience to temper it with wisdom or humility, might not be entirely trustworthy, and that it might be a bad idea to encourage him to think of everyone else in the fleet as his willing and obsequious servants while simultaneously giving him unlimited resources to invent technologies of incredible power.

Okay, so Xavvy tried to share advanced technology with the Nazis, but in his defense, he only sided with them because they had the most advanced rocketry, and he probably didn’t know about the whole genocide thing.  And sure, he threatened to kill a bunch of kids, but perhaps he feels such desperate tactics are his only recourse given how completely the rest of the fleet is under Zee’s power.  Besides, some of the super-scouts are geniuses themselves, so maybe Xaviar’s afraid there may be a whole race of superchildren emerging, ready to leave Colonial humanity to go the way of the Neanderthal (did they have Neanderthals on Kobol?).  Maybe Xaviar is a Tom Zarek figure, to draw from the revival series — willing to use violent means, but toward the end of freedom from oppression.

Or maybe not.  Still, Xaviar is the one character who has a dissenting opinion about Dr. Zee, and I have to respect that.  That kid is scary.

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GALACTICA 1980 thoughts — Eps. 1-3

January 27, 2011 4 comments

Well, as I promised, I’m moving on to review Galactica 1980.  This is a show that nobody involved really wanted to do.  Apparently the ABC network “strong-armed” Universal and Glen Larson into doing it.  Battlestar Galactica was so expensive to make that even after it was cancelled, ABC wanted to amortize their investment in its sets, props, costumes, and stock footage by repurposing them in another, cheaper show, one which would be set largely on Earth with cheaper actors.  However, despite their intentions, Galactica 1980 went heavily over budget in almost every episode, and thus only lasted ten weeks.

Of course, after BSG’s cancellation, most of the cast and crew had moved on to other work, so new actors and production staff had to be assembled.  The result is a show that’s rather different in look, feel, and content from its predecessor.

The network also scheduled G80 in the 7 PM timeslot and insisted that it be kid-friendly, with diminished violence, “educational” content, and a lot of child characters.  Which worked for me when it first aired, since I was 11 at the time.  So how does it hold up now?  Let’s find out!

“Galactica Discovers Earth”: This 3-parter opens with a title sequence featuring randomly chosen BSG clips over a slightly modified arrangement of Stu Phillips’s main title theme.  The series title is rendered in an MICR-type “computer” font, but the rest of the titles are in the same typeface used in BSG.  The story doesn’t waste time; we open with Adama’s log announcing that Earth has already been discovered.  It’s 30 years since BSG, and most of the familiar cast is dead (Jolly! Nooooo!!!).  Adama doesn’t look any older aside from sporting a (fake) white beard to make him look more patriarchal.  Not too implausible, since BSG established that Colonial humans have a 200-yahren lifespan.  The only other returning cast member is Herbert Jefferson, Jr. as “Colonel Boomer,” filling Tigh’s role with some Tigh-like grey in his hair.

We cut to a cheap, almost empty set in which Adama is consulting with Doctor Zee, a 10-year-old “cerebral mutation” supergenius who’s the fleet’s resident oracle, handing out wisdom which Adama considers infallible.  (In the pilot, he’s played by Robbie Rist, The Brady Bunch‘s infamous Cousin Oliver, who has since gone on to become a successful voice artist whose roles include Michaelangelo in the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies.  Ironically, Rist’s voice here is dubbed over by an uncredited adult’s voice electronically processed to sound higher.)  Being a 10-year-old with nigh-absolute power, Zee has naturally surrounded himself with televisions, with which he’s determined that Earth’s technology is too primitive to help fight off the Cylons.  (By an astonishing coincidence, all his TVs are tuned to programming owned by Universal, including Rod Serling’s Night Gallery and a Woody Woodpecker cartoon.  The video-wall montage goes on interminably, helping to pad this story out to three hours.)  What’s more, Zee has also somehow determined that the Cylons, who haven’t been encountered in “a billion space miles,” have been following the fleet all along, hoping it would lead them to Earth so they could destroy the last remaining population of humans in the universe (aside from all those Convenient Human Colonies of the Week from BSG).  How Zee knows this is never explained, since the Cylons don’t make any actual appearances here.  He’s just such a syooper-geeenius that he pulls this information out of the aether and nobody questions its accuracy.  Neither is it explained why Adama never considered the possibility that Earth might be too primitive to help them.

Just from these initial minutes, a number of continuity holes are evident.  The Terra episodes clearly implied that BSG was in the future, with Terra most likely being a colony of Earth.  Moving it to 1980 is an understandable if awkward retcon, since it’s cheaper to produce a show set in the present day.  But suddenly the Colonials use years and miles instead of the “alien” units they used before.  And there are other discontinuities to come.

Zee shows a computer simulation of Cylon Raiders blowing up LA, which is largely made by superimposing Raiders onto stock footage from Earthquake and setting off some “strafing” squibs on the Universal backlot with extras running around.  Adama and Zee decide that the fleet must subtly infiltrate Earth, contacting its scientists and helping them advance Earth’s technology to a level where it can defend against the Cylons, while the fleet leads them away from Earth.  An objection is raised by Xaviar (Richard Lynch), apparently another commander within the fleet, though what ship he commands is not established.  But Xaviar is overruled.

The main characters of the show are Captain Troy (Kent McCord, later to play John Crichton’s father in Farscape) and Lt. Dillon (Barry Van Dyke, son of Dick Van Dyke).  They’re a bargain-basement Apollo and Starbuck, except that they have no personality and are essentially interchangeable.  There’s a bit of clunky exposition to establish that Troy is actually a grown-up Boxey, Apollo’s adopted son, but this is the extent of the character development Troy gets.  Anyway, they’re one of several teams sent down to Earth clandestinely.  They can’t risk revealing themselves (for nebulously explained reasons), but luckily Dr. Zee’s genius is a magic cornucopia, and he’s invented invisibility “forcefields” they can use to cloak their Vipers and themselves, along with “turbines,” i.e. fancy motorcycles that can fly.  Troy and Dillon go down to LA, and no sooner does Troy advise Dillon that they’d better avoid doing anything conspicuous that they get harassed by a gang of bikers (including Mickey Jones, who was required by law to appear in any ’80s TV episode involving bikers) and immediately fly away, causing the entire bike gang to wipe out in reaction to this highly inconspicuous event.  (The turbine bikes have their own musical leitmotif which is basically a funky disco-ish remix of the Galactica theme.  I was expecting the show to rely mainly on stock BSG music, but mostly Stu Phillips’s score is original and has much more of a contemporary sound.)

Anyway, Trillon (I’m just going to call them that now because they’re so interchangeable they might as well be just one guy) get into the usual “stranger in a strange land” schtick you get in any story about aliens trying to deal with present-day Earth — not knowing how a phone works, speaking in overly stilted terminology, etc.  The Warrior characters in BSG were never this stiff and formal.  And after a whole lengthy scene of Trillon being totally stymied by the operation of a pay phone, I laughed out loud when two hours later we saw Adama talking to them from his office using a handset that was very much like a telephone’s.

But the pay phone  scene is when the episode gains its most watchable character, Jamie Hamilton, played by the lively and delightfully curvaceous Robyn Douglass.  She’s an aspiring reporter hoping for a TV gig, and somehow Trillon convince her to give them a lift to meet a noted scientist, Mortinson — played by Robert Reed, Mike Brady himself, making him Dr. Zee’s uncle.  He’s a nuclear physicist, and there’s a huge anti-nuke rally outside when Trillon arrive.  Mortinson gives his assistant a long, awkwardly expositional speech about how nuclear power shouldn’t be abandoned just because its problems aren’t solved yet, something she presumably already knows unless she just got hired or something.  Anyway, he’s out of the office when Trillon arrive, so they take a page from The Day the Earth Stood Still and rewrite Barnhardt Mortinson’s formula to solve his problems for him.  The assistant thinks they’re vandals, so she calls the cops and gets them arrested, but Mortinson returns, sees the formula, and somehow concludes that since he’s not aware of anyone else on Earth who could have these answers, the intruders must’ve been aliens.  (What, there couldn’t be a reclusive genius out there or something?)

Fortunately, Trillon left Jamie’s name as their point of contact, so Jamie’s prospective boss is thrilled when the secretive Mortinson calls her, and insists she set up an ambush interview with the guy.  Meanwhile, the cops discover that Trillon have no fingerprints (that’s new), and then they escape from jail with their invisibility gizmos, to the shock of the obligatory drunk in lockup.  Trillon intercept Jamie and Mortinson and try to go off to talk to the doctor alone, but Jamie declares she’s going wherever Trillon go and forces herself into the car with them.  I have to admire Jamie’s Lois Lane-esque doggedness in pursuit of a story, if only because it makes her the only one of the three lead characters to have any actual character traits.  Anyway, the cops show up and a long, gratuitous car chase ensues, culminating in a crash into a shop window with an obvious bewigged stunt driver in the car and a dummy in the back seat.  Trillon and Jamie escape by being invisible, and Trillon are called back to the Galactica, with Jamie inviting herself along.

It was at this point that I realized the Viper cockpits have been refitted as 2-seaters, with the canopies modified to match.  Which creates a mismatch with the stock effects footage.

At this point, the story veers into left field.  Off-camera, Commander Xaviar (who must be evil since his name vaguely resembles “Baltar”) has stolen — get this — Dr. Zee’s experimental time-travel technology (stop him before he invents again!) and gone back to 1944 to accelerate the Nazis’ rocket technology.  Why the Nazis? Because he’s evil, of course, and because there’s plenty of WWII stock footage and costumes available.  We get an “educational” moment as Jamie fills in the Colonials about WWII, and she convinces them that they need her along as a source of information on Earth history.  So our three leads (with one personality among them) fly off in Vipers and use a time-travel mechanism that seems largely similar to Superman’s: fly around the world faster than light until you’ve completed enough reverse orbits to get back to your target date.  The time warp is a nifty psychedelic slit-scan effect like a disco-era version of 2001‘s Stargate, and it somehow causes their uniforms to change into the white versions that Apollo, Starbuck, and Sheba wore aboard the Ship of Lights in “War of the Gods.”  And Robyn Douglass looks fabulous in those tight white trousers.

(By the way, in my “Take the Celestra” review, I commented on how it bugged me that the uniform jackets had these big shiny buckles that were never fastened.  Well, on this show, thanks to a different costuming staff, they’re almost constantly fastened, so I finally get to see what they look like that way.  I can kind of see why the original staff didn’t fasten them.)

So there’s a strange hourlong interlude spanning parts 2 & 3 where they try to find Xaviar in 1944 Peenemunde and prevent him from changing history while simultaneously taking care not to change history themselves — which naturally goes out the window as soon as there’s an American agent and a bunch of Jewish prisoners to help out.  But the agent wants to blow up the V2 super-rocket Xaviar’s helped make, so Trillon and Jamie help him do it and catch Xaviar, and then they free the prisoners, but there’s no worry about history being changed since it’s conveniently the night before D-Day and they would’ve been okay anyway, so what the frakking felgercarb was the point?!  (Apparently in the G80 universe, the Nazis never tested the V2 until June 5, 1944, rather than October 3, 1942 as in reality.  So much for Xaviar trying to speed up their tech development.)  And Trillon rather foolishly fail to relieve Xaviar of his invisibility wristwatch, so he scarpers and leaves them no choice but to return to 1980 where their clothes are the right color.

But conveniently, Xaviar has decided to follow Trillon’s example and talk to Mortinson (remember him?), claiming that Trillon are the history-meddling villains and getting his advice on where “they” might strike next.  Jamie calls and warns him, but Xaviar catches on and takes him captive.

Okay, now I need to go back and mention an irritating subplot that’s run through all this.  Dr. Zee’s invisibility fields are power hogs and run out quickly, so Trillon’s Vipers were discovered by a child actor so abominably bad that he makes Noah Hathaway seem like an Oscar contender.  He told his daddy that he’d found spaceships — though why he’d think that is unclear, since Vipers pretty much look like fancy fighter jets.  Anyway, word eventually reached the military and they confiscated the Vipers, so Trillon went to talk to the annoying kid at school and find out where they’d taken them.  Fortunately, the kid is the worst secret-keeper on the planet, unhesitatingly blabbing to his classmates about seeing spaceships even after swearing to the US military that he wouldn’t (oh, what an adorable traitor to his country!), so all Trillon have to do is let him use an invisibility watch to humiliate a bully (oh, how educational) and he spills national secrets to them.  Including the fact that the military impounded three ships, including Xaviar’s.  So they can find him at the military base.

Jamie helps distract a guard so Trillon can sneak in, and Xaviar apparently sets Mortinson free off-camera (most of what Xaviar does is off-camera) and begins powering up his Viper by draining the base’s generators.  He flies off and Trillon chase after him, but not before Jamie secretes herself in the back seat of one of their Vipers (they didn’t take her invisi-watch away either).  They chase after Xaviar, but he goes invisible and they can’t tell if they hit him.  So they go back to Galactica and Adama says that Zee has tracked Xaviar to colonial America (because Zee knows everything, that’s how) and asks for Jamie’s help in pursuing Xaviar through history.  And that’s the end of the pilot.

It seems they were setting up for a series that used time travel both as an educational device (like early Doctor Who or Voyagers) and as a means of recycling stock footage (like The Time Tunnel).  But the whole time-travel angle would never be used again, the dangling thread of Xaviar’s trip to the 1700s ignored.  Welcome to Galactica 1980.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

I wish I could go for a walk…

January 21, 2011 2 comments

…but it’s 9 degrees Fahrenheit outside with a predicted high of 18 F.  Yeegh.  Plus we had some moderately heavy snowfall yesterday.  So I’m pretty much stuck in my little apartment.  Which is making it hard for me to focus on my writing, since it’s too easy to waste time browsing the Web.  I can think better when I can get outside, away from distractions.  Plus it helps to be physically active and to get a change of scenery.

But it’s not a total loss.  I’ve actually started to make some significant progress on a new Star Trek idea I’m planning to pitch soon.  It’s still pretty tenuous, but the ideas are starting to come more rapidly and I’ve got enough of a conceptual framework to help me build further.  Though that means the new Hub story I started recently is stalled for now.  The last work I did on that was actually un-writing; I added a scene that I subsequently decided was unnecessary to this story, so I lifted it out and set it aside for possible future use.

I did go out for a bit yesterday, since I had library materials due and also needed to stop by the post office to renew my PO box.  I was hoping I could walk, but that was when the snow was coming down pretty heavily, and it was still fairly loose and slippery on the sidewalks.   Also, it’s a 2-mile round trip, and being out in that kind of cold for any length of time is enervating.  If I’d walked the whole way, I would’ve been useless for the rest of the day.  Heck, it was rough enough just brushing off the car and driving through the falling snow.  No snow falling now, but… 9 degrees F.

Anyway, when I got back, I was a bit concerned about the slipperiness of the steep sidewalk I’d have to negotiate to get down to my apartment building’s front door, something that’s given me trouble in past winters.  But I had an idea — I could just walk from the parking lot to the entrance of the building that houses the office, then go downstairs to its lower level and out its rear door, which (due to the vagaries of the complex’s construction) is just a short walk from the front door to my building.  And that way, all my outdoors walking is on level ground (except for the stairs up to my building’s front door), no slippery slopes to worry about.  It worked superbly, and I realized it would work just as well in the other direction.

And what gets me is that I’ve lived here over seven years now and I’ve only just figured that out.

Okay, granted, I’ve only had a car, and thus a reason to go to the parking lot, for just under three years.  Still, I’ve gone that route often enough to get to the office, and I should’ve realized that it works as an alternative way to get up to/down from normal street level.  If I’d thought of it years sooner, I could’ve avoided a lot of icy sidewalks.


January 19, 2011 1 comment

I waited to see Tron: Legacy until I could see the original Tron again, so I could see the whole story straight through.  Easier said than done, since for some reason Disney didn’t want the original film available on DVD until after the sequel came out, but I was able to reserve a copy from the library and it finally reached me last week.  I’ve just gotten back from seeing the sequel, and I’m able to compare the two now.

1982’s Tron, written and directed by Steven Lisberger, was quite innovative for its day.  It was the first film to make heavy use of computer graphics, but its technical innovations went beyond that.  This was a time when computer animation was very basic and clean — there was essentially no chance of replicating reality, but the uncanny smoothness and purity of CG imagery was a striking novelty then.  The goal of Tron was to make a whole film that embraced that artificial aesthetic, to make even the live-action characters look like constructs painted in lines of light.  But contrary to what many people assume about the film, they didn’t have computer technology to let them achieve that.  The animation of vehicles and many of the landscapes was CGI, but all the shots featuring live actors, and a lot of the scenery of the computer world itself, were hand-animated using standard optical techniques and backlit animation cels.  The actors were filmed in black and white and each frame was blown up onto cels, with photographic and hand-rotoscoped mattes being used to isolate the lines on their costumes so that a backlit glow could be composited into them.  They were then matted into hand-painted backgrounds which were backlit in similar ways or used airbrushing to create the appearance of a glow.

The film that resulted was an ambitious technical marvel, but perhaps a bit too far ahead of its time, for the results were somewhat flawed-looking, the actors’ images too degraded and flickery due to the photographic blowups and multiple exposures.  And the backlit mattes aren’t as successful as they could’ve been at making the characters appear to be formed out of light, as was the intent.  It’s one of the most visually unique films ever made, but the execution doesn’t always live up to the ambition.  Still, a lot of it is highly impressive, especially in the way it’s able to make hand animation look like a continuation of the CG imagery.

As for the story, it’s rather basic, but it’s just a frame to hang the visuals on.  Edward Dillinger (David Warner) and his Master Control Program (voice of Warner — the programs carry the “spirit” of their creators  — the “Users” — and are thus played by the same actors) run the company Encom, or rather the MCP runs Dillinger and the company and is about to hack into the Pentagon and Kremlin and basically take over the world.  It and Dillinger are trying to cover up their nefarious activities by cutting off access from the individual programmers, including Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora (Cindy Morgan), who seek help from Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), an ex-employee who’s the real creator of the smash computer games that made Dillinger rich.  When Flynn tries to hack the system, the MCP uses a convenient experimental laser teleporter to beam him into the game grid so he can be killed off by the MCP’s lackey Sark (a third Warner role).  But he escapes with help from Alan’s program Tron and it’s a pretty basic chase narrative until Tron makes contact with Alan and gets a sort of debugging program downloaded onto his identity disc, which is also a frisbee, because this was 1982 and it didn’t yet seem totally hokey for a frisbee to be a cyber-warrior’s superweapon.  It’s kind of a weird story structure, since Flynn’s the main character but Tron is the hero.  But then, the sharing of the heroic role is fitting, since the underlying symbolism is about the struggle between the centralized control of information/technology and a more egalitarian approach where the programmers and individuals have the power.  It’s kind of prophetic, because the decentralized approach won out in reality too.

Tron: Legacy centers on Flynn’s son Sam and his quest to find his long-lost father within the Grid, a new universe that Flynn created as an extension of the original virtual world, though it evolved in isolation from the Internet revolution.  So the story doesn’t have the same kind of allegorical underpinning that the original did.  At the start of the film, it looks like there’s going to be a thread about Sam fighting for free, open-source access to information against the nefarious corporate types who cling to their proprietary software and demand lotsa bucks for its use.  That could’ve been an interesting modernization of the original theme, a more corporate variation of the theme of central control vs. individual power.  But it has no bearing on the story once Sam gets sucked into the Grid.  It also doesn’t work as a continuation of the original film.  Sam is apparently championing free access to proprietary software because it’s what his father would’ve wanted, but Flynn’s motivation in the original film was precisely the opposite: He wanted to reclaim ownership of the software that another had taken from him, and when he succeeded, his reward was immense wealth and control of the entire company.  The Kevin Flynn of 1982 was nothing if not a solidly capitalist, profit-seeking figure.

Here, Flynn doesn’t seem to stand for anything in particular; he’s just the lost father figure that Sam must find and be reunited with.  He created this new, isolated Grid and made a program called Clu — namesake and sort-of lookalike for the original Clu (also Bridges)  who appeared briefly in the original film but was tortured to death (or derezzing) by Sark.  He told Clu to make this digital world perfect, which naturally led him to become a genocidal dictator when emergent AI sentiences began arising spontaneously and he saw them as imperfections to be destroyed.  Clu’s ambition is to capture Flynn and use the special codes on his identity disk (the new model which resembles Xena’s chakram more than a frisbee) to materialize himself and his army in the real world so he can take it over.  This is a plan oddly lacking in vision compared to the MCP’s ambitions.  Why would a computer entity want to take over the world by physically materializing an army?  In today’s wired world, it would make more sense to try to get an Internet connection and conquer by hacking as the MCP did.  So even though Clu’s master plan gets a lot more screen time than the MCP’s did (since its plan for global conquest was essentially an afterthought in the film, a threat that the protagonists never even knew existed), it feels rather more petty.

There are also some credibility and continuity issues raised by the film’s implication that the laser system for crossing between worlds can allow whole virtual armies to be brought to life.  In the original film, Barnard Hughes’s scientist character explained that the laser worked much like a Star Trek transporter: it disassembled a person’s molecules, suspended them in the beam, then later reassembled them following the originally scanned pattern.  Going by that, it seems that there’d be a one-to-one ratio of entries to exits; if only one person came in, there wouldn’t be enough particles suspended in the beam to reassemble more than one person.

Of course, the essence of Tron isn’t the story, it’s the design and technical achievement.  How does this film work as a visual/stylistic continuation of the original?  I have to say, not that well.  The original film embraced the aesthetic of the digital, the unreal, and used it to create a striking, colorful, heightened and distilled reality, even trying to make the live-action characters look computer-generated.  It was an animated film in its sensibilities and execution, even though it contained live actors.   In the features on the DVD, one of the creators of the original suggests that we’ve lost something since then by striving to make computer animation ever more realistic, and thus perhaps failing to make the most of the unique aesthetic it makes possible.  Tron: Legacy illustrates that paradigm shift, the effort to make virtual imagery look realistic, as opposed to the original film’s effort to make real imagery look virtual.  TL’s Grid is a heightened, stylized reality, but it comes off more as a physical world than an ethereal realm of light like the original.  Indeed, much of it is shot on real sets designed to look vaguely Tronnish, as opposed to the original, in which every location in the computer world was a (hand-animated) virtual set.

The most prominent illustration of the modern paradigm of making CGI look real is the much-touted digital recreation of the younger Jeff Bridges’ face as Clu (and in flashbacks).  Many have complained about how it falls short of perfectly replicating reality, how artificial its mouth movements look, and I could see that some of the time.  But really, that’s the one part of it that looked to me like I felt a Tron movie should look.  If all the characters and settings in the Grid had been CGI creations, I think that would’ve been more faithful to the sensibility and intent of the original.  Although it certainly wouldn’t have stood out today as much as the original did.

It’s also very dark and drab compared to the original.  The designers made the mistake of basing the whole world’s look on the monochrome lighting of the characters in the original film — blue for good guys, red for bad guys — instead of the richly colorful look of their environment.  While the Sea of Simulations in the original film was visually lush and complicated with lots of  weird stuff going on in the background, here it’s just a vague, dark mountainous terrain.  And rather than being made from light, the characters are merely highlighted by far more minimalist “circuit” patterns.  Rather than feeling like an evolution or upgrade of the original aesthetic, it feels like a radically different aesthetic with only some minor homages to the original.  It’s far less interesting to look at than the original film was, even though it’s far more technologically sophisticated.

(Also, I’m upset that apparently Syd Mead didn’t get a design credit even though his original lightcycle design appeared in the film, and many of the vehicles were updated from his original designs.  No credit either for Moebius, the film’s other chief designer.  Yet the original film’s sound designer Frank Serafine did get a credit here, presumably for the reuse of some of his sound effects.)

Overall, it’s not a bad film.  It’s not brilliant, but the story is moderately entertaining, with some decent bits, mainly involving Jeff Bridges.   But it might be a more enjoyable film if you don’t watch the original first, or if you haven’t seen the original at all.  If you have expectations based on the original Tron, the sequel will probably fall short.

My first attempt to see Tron: Legacy was yesterday, but the sound system blew a circuit breaker so they cancelled the showing and gave the folks in the theater (all three of us) the chance to pick another movie then and there and a free pass for a second movie later.  I used the latter to see T:L today, but for the former, I decided to see Tangled, Disney’s CGI version of the Rapunzel fairy tale.  I’m not normally a fan of Disney’s fairy-tale/musical/princess movies, but from what I saw in the commercials, this Rapunzel was a gorgeously designed and animated character, and I really wanted to see her in action.  She’s the work of Glen Keane, whose character design and animation work I’ve been impressed by in the past (he also did Disney’s Pocahontas character, who was by far the most appealing thing about that movie).  This is the first time I’ve seen one of his animated ladies in 3D, and the results are indeed spectacular.

I was also interested because I knew the film had a lot of John Lassetter’s influence, and I figured that Pixar sensibility would make for a strong story.  And I was right.  This is a very good film, very funny and well-made.  It follows a pretty standard Disney formula in a lot of ways, but it doesn’t feel hokey or cliched because it’s just too lively and fun and fresh.  The character designs are terrific, the character animation is richly nuanced, the overall visual design is lush and painterly, the voice work is good, even the songs were nice.  And they came up with an effective justification for why Rapunzel’s hair grew so long, and made it a key driving force in the story (which built to a rather shocking climactic moment that I did not see coming).

Though am I the only one whose favorite “sidekick” was not the chameleon or the horse, but Rapunzel’s trusty frying pan?  I loved the frying pan.  It was virtually a character in its own right.  I was upset when it fell into the river and relieved when Flynn (hunh, another Flynn) managed to retrieve it.

Mainly, though, I loved Rapunzel.  Great character, well-played, gorgeously, gorgeously animated.  There were moments when I felt her eyes were a little too big, her features a little too infantile, but there was just so much life and expression and personality to her… fantastic work.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , ,

Sparks in the microwave — without metal! (Don’t try this at home)

January 16, 2011 4 comments

I was using my microwave to thaw some frozen chopped green peppers in a small Pyrex dish (not much, just enough to top a couple of Italian sausages on buns along with tomato and onion), and to my surprise, there was an electric arc within the dish, even though there was no metal within.  I wondered how this might happen, so I did some Googling, and I came upon this page that explains the physics:

That’s about grapes sparking in the microwave, but the principles seem about the same — small objects close in size to the microwaves’ wavelength, with small gaps between them filled with steam as the water inside evaporates.  The pepper pieces were rectangular instead of round, but then, grapes aren’t perfect spheres anyway, so the model presented there is just an approximation.

And I’ll repeat what the link says — this is not something you want to try at home, since you could damage your microwave.  Luckily I caught it and hit the stop button within a second.  But in the future, I should consider finding another way to thaw my green peppers — or maybe just start buying them fresh (although I don’t know if I use them often enough for that — how well do they keep?).

Categories: Science Tags: , ,

Banana quick bread

I tried something new today — banana quick bread.  I’ve used this storebought mix a number of times, but only to make muffins, because, quite simply, I didn’t have a loaf pan.  But when my father passed away and we were taking care of his possessions, one of the kitchen items I brought home with me was a glass loaf pan, and I finally got around to using it for this.

I was going to do this last week, but I was out of bananas.  I wanted to mix one in.  I also took the box’s suggestion to sprinkle 1/4 cup of chopped (or rather, hand-crumbled) walnuts on top.  I think maybe I should’ve used a thicker covering on top, though, because the edges came out pretty black.  But conversely, the interior is a bit underdone and crumbly.  Maybe it would work better with a larger pan or something (mine is 8×4 in.), or maybe my oven rack was too high.

Anyway, I had two slices of it with veggie sausage for dinner, but due to its crumbliness and the resistance of the nut coating on top, I had to cut thick slices, so I ate too much.  I should’ve just had one slightly thicker slice.  Anyway, aside from the burnt edges, it turned out okay — not great, but okay.  I guess I can chalk it up to experience.

But at least I’ve finally used the loaf pan.  I’m tempted to try a veggie-crumble “meat” loaf next, if I can find a good recipe (and if that’s even doable).

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Original GALACTICA thoughts — final 2 episodes and overview

January 14, 2011 2 comments

“Take the Celestra”: Please! 😉  This is a filler episode focusing on characters we’ve never seen before.  Adama’s former commander Kronus (Paul Fix, the doctor from the second Star Trek pilot, and just as unimpressive here as there) now commands the repair ship Celestra, and is being promoted to run all the maintenance ships as his own mini-fleet.  (We learn that, as in the revival series, the Colonial anthem is Stu Phillips’s BSG theme.)  Meanwhile, Starbuck discovers that Kronus’s pilot is Aurora (Ana Alicia), a long-lost love that he thought had died in the Cylon invasion.  Apparently he really really cared for her and searched for her the night of the attack, even though that contradicts his behavior in the pilot and everything we’ve learned about him since.  (He was shown to be involved with Athena at the time, but Athena has now been retconned out of existence, it seems.)  But Aurora wants nothing to do with him.  She has other plans, such as staging a mutiny with her new boyfriend Damon, who sports a very ’70s white-guy Afro.  See, they think Kronus is a slavedriver forcing his crew to work in awful conditions, but it’s actually Kronus’s assistant Charka who’s doing that under Kronus’s nose.  When Apollo and Starbuck (who’s coming to talk to Aurora) happen to show up and stop the mutiny (with a bad camera angle exposing the wooden scaffolding within one of the Viper mockups as they taxi to a stop), they take the mutineers and Kronus back to Galactica to press charges.  But Charka somehow knew all this was going to happen and uses it to take command of the Celestra by sending their shuttle on a course to oblivion.  Somehow Apollo and Starbuck, these experienced space pilots, are completely dependent on flight control to tell them their course and are unable to recognize that they’re off-course until it’s too late.  All those stars in the viewports and they don’t know how to navigate by them.  But once they figure out what’s really going on, they team up with Damon and Aurora and make their way back to the Celestra, almost running out of fuel, since of course this universe is innocent of physics and a spaceship that isn’t exerting thrust will just stop dead.  Also, the Celestra obscures itself from sensors by shutting off beacons and extraneous power emissions, yet somehow the intense, white-hot energy of their engines firing is undetectable.  Yeah, okay.

But they get back to the hijacked ship and there’s a big shootout and Kronus saves the ship from… something… by taking the controls (this is the second time BSG has shown a ship in weightless space going into an apparent nosedive when the control stick was released), but has a heart attack and dies (and somehow the controls no longer need someone operating them at this point).  And Starbuck realizes Aurora loves Damon and he loves Cassie, so he convinces Damon not to be a fool and drive her away.  And Cassie’s a liberated woman who doesn’t need commitment anyway and all but gives Starbuck permission to cheat on her, so it’s a happy ending from a guy point of view.

Not much of an episode, particularly the tedious soap-opera stuff in the first half, though the heartfelt talks that resolve the triangle in the second half aren’t bad.  The mutineers’ complaints about the hardships of the lower-class people in the fleet is a promising thread until it turns out to be just one guy’s corruption.  The budget is clearly tight; there are new FX of the Celestra, but they’re fairly limited compared to what we’ve seen in most of this series.

There’s one interesting bit that I think must’ve been an in-joke.  The costume design for the Colonial Warriors includes brown jackets with these four pairs of big shiny buckles on the front, but they’re never seen fastened for some reason.  That’s been bugging me nearly the whole time I’ve been watching this.  There’s a moment in this episode where Apollo chastises Starbuck about his slovenly appearance and tells him to fasten his jacket before seeing Kronus, but they hear shooting before Starbuck can comply.  I think the writers were poking fun at this oddity of the costuming.

“The Hand of God”: Luckily, the final episode is written (and directed) by Donald Bellisario, not Glen Larson.  Apollo, Starbuck, Sheba, and Cassiopeia go on a double date in an outdated, forgotten astronomy dome atop the Galactica, and its equipment picks up an obsolete “Gamma frequency” signal.  We can tell it’s stock footage of an Apollo Lunar Module, but the episode acts as though we wouldn’t recognize it, even though TV viewers in the late ’70s would’ve probably been even more familiar with the sight than the average viewer today.  Either way, the characters don’t know what it is, so they turn to Boomer (who’s suddenly a signal-tech expert filling Dr. Wilker’s expository role), who suggests it could be from nearby or hundreds of err, light-yahrens away (which would put it in another “galaxy,” since BSG-verse galaxies are teeny little things).  There’s one star system in range along that vector, so the gang goes off in Vipers to check it out — only to discover a Cylon base star!  Luckily, the base star doesn’t see them.  Now, since galaxies are so tiny here, having the Cylons occupying a single star system on the edge of this galaxy means the fleet can’t enter it undetected unless they go a very long way around (which is self-contradictory, but what the frak).  But Adama recognizes they have the element of surprise, and he’s tired of running.  They will launch a surprise attack and destroy the base star.

There’s a nice bit where we cut from a scene aboard the base star to an exterior shot of same — only to pull back and see it’s a tabletop model that Tigh is using to give a briefing to the pilots.  (No doubt it’s the actual FX miniature.)  The plan seems sound, but it depends on the Cylons being too distracted by the Viper attack to notice Galactica coming in from behind the sun (again, tiny tiny space distances, except when the plot requires them to be immense as in the previous episode).  Apollo suggests they can even the odds by using Baltar’s captured Raider as a Trojan horse to board the base star and blow out its sensors.  But they don’t know where to find the control center — unless Adama can convince Baltar to help, which he does by offering to release him on an empty, habitable planet.  There’s also the fact that if the Galactica is destroyed, Baltar will be too. Baltar, ever self-serving, agrees to help.

There’s some soul-searching stuff as Cassie and Sheba confront their respective men (since it turns out Sheba’s falling for Apollo) about their insistence of taking every dangerous mission themselves — a nice attempt to rationalize the dramatic conceit of having the same few protagonists do all the work despite there being plenty of others in the crew.  Sheba brings up Serena for the first time since she died, implying that Apollo’s been trying to get himself killed out of grief, which hardly seems to mesh with his personality throughout the season.  She also says Serena was a lovely person, but how would she know if she never met her?  Well, Serena was a noted TV journalist on Caprica, so maybe Sheba saw her broadcasts before the Pegasus was, err, misplaced.

Anyway, Apollo & Starbuck sneak into the base star successfully and get to the central core, which is actually shot in a mockup of the Skylab space station (not the same backup station I walked through at the National Air & Space Museum back in November, but another one that wasn’t flight-ready).  They set off the charges, and the attack goes off on schedule in an orgy of stock footage, largely from the pilot and “The Living Legend” (but accompanied by new music).  The base star is destroyed, but A & S lost the transponder that identifies them as friendlies, so their Raider almost gets blown up before Boomer notices they’re waggling their wings, as Starbuck had suggested doing earlier in Boomer’s hearing.

The episode ends with Apollo checking for signals in the dome again, but Starbuck convinces him to leave — just before a transmission of “The Eagle has landed” comes in undetected.  Are they recording incoming transmissions, or is this opportunity lost forever?  We will never know, since few would count Galactica 1980 as part of this continuity (insofar as it has a continuity).

All in all, this is a fairly effective episode for what it is, with some decent character moments amid the action, and not much that’s stupid aside from the inept astronomy.  Bellisario started out writing some of the worst episodes of the series, but as the season progressed, his work improved substantially, and his competent dialogue writing was a welcome alternative to Larson’s clunky verbiage.

So what’s my verdict for Battlestar Galactica as a whole?  Well, I still think Glen Larson is basically a hack, but this was the one time he really attempted to stretch himself and do something epic, and the result is in keeping with that — awkward, often silly, but occasionally respectable in its ambition and sometimes even good, or at least entertaining.  It was a good idea executed by people who didn’t quite have the talent or experience to make the most of it, but who were inspired enough by it to raise their game, at least some of the time.

I can see why the show failed; aside from the great expense of making it, those weak 1-parters in the first half-season — and the general lack of direction or clear identity after the pilot — probably caused a lot of viewers to tune out.  Yet I can also understand why it has loyal fans.  If you left out those first four 1-parters and maybe “Take the Celestra,” you’d have a relatively strong core narrative that told a relatively coherent space-opera epic.  (To be specific, such a viewing program would consist of “Saga of a Star World,” “Lost Planet of the Gods,” “The Gun on Ice Planet Zero,” “The Living Legend,” “Fire in Space,” “War of the Gods,” “The Man with Nine Lives,” “Murder on the Rising Star,” the Terra arc, and “The Hand of God.”  You could also leave out “Fire in Space” without losing much, but at least its first act works quite well.)  Unfortunately this still leaves in some weak parts, notably the second and fourth hours of the Terra arc.  But they’re necessary to the core storyline.

Galactica was unusual in its heavy use of 2-part and longer stories, perhaps the first prime-time US genre show to have a hint of the kind of serialization and story evolution that’s standard today.  I wouldn’t exactly call that pioneering, since prime-time soaps like Dallas paved the way, and since a lot of the growth and change was due to network interference and retooling; but it’s worthy of recognition.  It’s certainly not in the same league as Star Trek, Stargate, or its own remake, but it does stand out among genre shows of its era.

One more thing I’ll give the show credit for: it had a lot less cheesecake than one would expect for a show from the late ’70s, aka the Jiggle Era.  Certainly the female characters weren’t treated as equally in the scripts as they are today, but it was about typical of its era, even progressive in including female fighter pilots long before the real US military did.  But the female costumes were a lot less skimpy than they’ve been in most genre shows either before or after this.  There was a bit of cheesecake early on — Athena in her skin-toned leotard “underwear” (which actually showed no flesh beyond head and hands) in the pilot, the female Viper trainees in same in “Lost Planet,” Cassiopeia’s fairly skimpy red dress, Audrey Landers’s Viking/Indian getup in “The Young Lords.”  But for the most part, the female characters on the show tended to be as fully clothed as the males, and sometimes substantially more so.  The male triad players in various episodes were rather scantily attired, and the final episode features a scene of Sheba and Cassiopeia ogling Boomer in his underwear.  I’d always remembered this show as relatively sexist, so it’s a bit surprising to realize this.

The highest points: “Saga of a Star World” (at least the first 60 percent or so), “The Living Legend,” “The Man With Nine Lives,” and the first half of “Greetings from Earth.”  The lowest points: “The Lost Warrior,” “The Long Patrol,” “The Magnificent Warriors,” the second half of “Greetings from Earth,” and “Experiment in Terra.”  The show started out strong, quickly lost it and floundered for half a season, finally found its voice and was solid for about a third of the season, but then started to lose it again toward the end.  Somehow, all the worst parts of the series seem to take place on planets instead of in space, even though the show’s portrayal of space physics and astronautics is insanely bad.  Best planet-based material: the destruction of Caprica in “Saga” and the raid on Gamoray in “The Living Legend.”  Honorable mention to the planet in “War of the Gods,” in which they processed the film to make green plants appear red and create an odd, exotic lighting effect.  (The Battlestar Wiki describes this as a red filter, but that would just make plants look gray or brown.  I’m guessing they took the green negative, printed it in monochrome, and rephotographed just it through a red filter, then recombined it with the other color negatives.)

The best cast members: John Colicos, Dirk Benedict, Terry Carter (once he and the writers settled into Tigh’s dry, sardonic wit and sense of quiet exasperation), and Lorne Greene at his high points, though he far too often phoned in his performance.  However, there’s nobody in the regular cast besides Colicos that I’d consider truly excellent.  The worst cast member: Noah Hathaway.  (I’m being generous by not counting Anne Lockhart, who wasn’t so much bad as miscast.)  The most forgettable cast member: Tony Swartz as Jolly.  I’d forgotten he even was a regular for the run of the show.  (Somehow I’d gotten the impression that he was dropped early on and that Ed Begley Jr.’s Greenbean was a regular throughout, and it’s actually the other way around.)  Best recurring players: George Murdock as Dr. Salik, especially in “Greetings from Earth,” and Jonathan Harris as the unbilled voice of Lucifer.  Best guest stars: Jane Seymour, Lloyd Bridges, Patrick Macnee, Brock Peters, Ray Bolger.  Worst non-child guest stars: Charles Bloom (leader of “The Young Lords”), Randolph Mantooth (Michael in “Greetings from Earth”).  Most successful production values: John Dykstra’s visual effects, Stu Phillips’s music, Andrew Probert’s ship designs (not necessarily in that order).  Overall weakest production values: the writing and guest casting.

Biggest unanswered production question: Who did the Cylons’ voices?  Yes, I know the basic tone was produced by a Vocoder, specifically this Vocoder.  Here’s a neat video showing how that works, albeit with a different model:

But still, someone had to be actually speaking the Cylons’ lines into the mike, and I think it was the same person throughout, since most of the Cylons had a certain distinctive cadence to their voices, and that wouldn’t be the Vocoder’s work.  So who was it?  Someone from the show’s sound department?  Glen Larson himself?  Who?

Is it as good as the remake series?  Not by a long shot.  But it’s generally a lot more fun.  Even when it’s bad, it’s at least goofy and light, not wallowing in self-conscious darkness and despair.  It usually wastes the opportunity to explore the darker issues of survival, but no more than the remake wasted the opportunity to explore the more optimistic and hopeful side of human behavior in crisis.  One thing both shows have in common is that their execution often fell short of their ambitions, but at least this show wasn’t as boastful about its ambitions, didn’t demand to be taken as seriously, and thus was easier to forgive for its shortfalls.

So am I going to keep going and watch Galactica 1980?  I quail at the prospect, but it’s only ten episodes (and six distinct stories), and my curiosity is piqued and must be satisfied.  Damn my thoroughness!  However, it’ll have to wait.  Hulu doesn’t have the full 3-part premiere episode, just a chopped-down VHS version combining parts of it with parts of a later episode and some footage from the original series.  So I’ll have to Netflix it.  Just as well; I have other priorities right now anyway.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

What sounds loud, but isn’t?

Last night, I was kept awake until well after midnight by a persistent low noise of someone playing an electric guitar, just the low end of the bass coming through my walls — not loud, but deep and persistent, enough to distract and annoy me.  I assumed it was coming from some loud stereo somewhere nearby, loud enough to send that deep rumble through my walls, and I wondered why nobody in the adjacent building (where it seemed to be coming from) was complaining.  I finally managed to get to sleep, but just a little while ago, it started up again, so I decided to go over to the manager’s office and complain.  But when I went outside, I couldn’t hear the supposedly loud music.  Nor could I hear anything when I went into the building next door.  And the manager was no help; apparently the vibrations I was hearing were below his lower threshold of pitch sensitivity.  So I tried to seek out the source of the noise.  And I discovered there was a very quiet electric guitar sound audible through the door of my downstairs neighbor.  I guess his amplifier is pressed right up against a wall or building member and is sending low vibrations up to me even when he’s playing quietly.  Like I said, they’re not actually loud at all, just distracting, and I assumed they were from something loud and relatively distant, but they were actually from something quiet and close by.

Anyway, hopefully it won’t be a problem again, at least not late at night.

Categories: Uncategorized

Original GALACTICA thoughts, Eps. 19-22

January 12, 2011 2 comments

“Greetings from Earth”: Adama’s now-traditional log entry is essentially indistinguishable from last week’s, but this time it actually connects to the story.  We cut to Apollo and Starbuck, oddly, asleep in their patrolling Vipers.  I guess that isn’t so dangerous in the emptiness of space, but it’s odd that they don’t nap in shifts.  Anyway, the sleepy ships discover a sleeper ship: an unfamiliar sublight craft with six human life signs in suspended animation.  They’ve moved past the region where Colonial offshoots can be found, so they get excited at what might be their first contact with Earth.  They bring the ship back to Galactica — somehow (Vipers don’t have tractor beams as far as I know).  Study of the ship’s databanks reveals a name, Terra, which Adama recognizes as Gemonese for Earth!

The events that follow read in outline almost like a plot from the revival series, though of course the execution is very different.  The first hour of this 2-parter is driven by the conflicting reactions within the fleet to this ambiguous discovery and the tensions that result.  Dr. McCoy Salik is reluctant to risk the safety of the six sleepers (four of which are children) by tampering with their unfamiliar technology, but the overconfident Dr. Wilker (the fleet’s resident expert-in-everything scientist — every sci-fi franchise has one) is determined to proceed.  Apollo, acting more like his revival counterpart than ever, expresses concern over the rightness of hijacking the Terrans’ ship and risking their lives trying to awaken them, but others argue that the survival of the fleet is more important and the risk must be taken; the argument almost comes to blows, but it’s Apollo, not the hotheaded Starbuck, who nearly starts it.   Adama is caught in the middle as his son and Salik urge caution and the Council, led by Sire Geller (Murray Matheson), bows to the voice of the mob and pushes him to awaken the sleepers.  (No, don’t do it!  They might be eugenic supermen out to seduce your historian, take over your ship, and kill your best friend fifteen years later!)  The ongoing debate over the prickly ethical question of whether the needs of the fleet’s thousands outweigh the needs of a few children who can’t speak for themselves is the most intelligent writing in the series to date, if not in Glen Larson’s entire career.  The focus on ethics and philosophy makes this feel almost like a Star Trek episode.  And as in ST, the military characters are portrayed as more sympathetic and reasonable than the imperious bureaucrats giving them their marching orders.

One of the show’s finest moments comes when the Council orders Dr. Salik to awaken the sleepers and Salik tells them they’ll need to find another doctor.  After he storms out, Adama declaims, “Something magnificent has happened here.  Dr. Salik has just reaffirmed that we are a race worth saving.”

Of course, this isn’t the revival series, so the quandary is rendered somewhat moot when the adult sleepers (Michael and Sarah) awaken on their own.  But we’re not completely out of the woods, for they’re acclimated to a fifth of the fleet’s air pressure and can’t survive long aboard its ships.  They’d be imprisoned for life in decompression tubes.  So Apollo finally convinces his father to clandestinely free the Terrans and let them resume their original course.  The tone shifts more to humor as Apollo and Starbuck sneak the Terrans back aboard their ship under the noses of civilian security and jettison it as a contamination hazard.  Cassiopeia is also aboard to monitor the Terrans’ condition, and Apollo and Starbuck follow in their Vipers.

Unfortunately, the second half of this originally 2-hour episode (which I’m counting as two episodes because that’s how it’s presented on Hulu) doesn’t nearly live up to the sophistication of the first.  Somehow, almost every time this show goes to a planet, its quality plummets.  The planet here is Paradeen (perhaps derived from “paradise” and “Eden?”), an abandoned colony of the Terrans.  Michael and Sarah finally explain their situation.  Terra has two major factions, East and West, whose ongoing war has spread into space.  They’re refugees from a lunar colony (whose low pressure they’re acclimated to) conquered by the Eastern Alliance, who are almost literally Space Nazis, complete with German names and accents.  (They’re led by Commandant Leiter, played by Lloyd Bochner, future voice of Gotham City’s mayor in Batman: The Animated Series.)  They seek refuge at Sarah’s late father’s home on Paradeen, tended by two silly-looking comic-relief androids, Vector and his “son” Hector.  Which would be completely embarrassing if not for the fact that Vector is played by Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow from the 1939 The Wizard of Oz, and he brings an effective comic charm to the role.  (The androids have the exact same electronic vocal treatment as Peepo on Filmation’s Space Academy.)  Anyway, there’s some tedious stuff about Sarah hating technology and falling instantly in love with Apollo and sabotaging their Vipers so they’ll have to stay, while Starbuck gets lost in the tunnels of an abandoned city, and then the Space Nazis track them down and act mean while the kids run for help, and blah blah blah, oh, and the androids do a funny dance.  The most impressive part is the tour of the dead city, which makes very effective use of location shooting at the abandoned Expo ’67 site in Montreal.

Anyway, our heroes defeat the Space Nazis and take their captured kitbash model, err, starship, back to the Galactica, grinning as Space Nazi Leiter’s boasts of being the most advanced force in the universe are deflated when he sees how huge the battlestar is.

So is Terra Earth?  Michael says at one point that he’s heard Terra called Earth, but that conversation is interrupted by something more trivial.  The Terrans have Earthly names (unlike the Colonials, who have names like Apollo and Sheba and… err… Ortega and Carmichael and Reese and… never mind).  They use minutes and days instead of centons and sectons and whatnot.  Their East-West conflict certainly appears to be an extrapolation of the Cold War that still existed when this episode was made.  And oh, Space Nazis.

Even the strong first half has some of the usual flaws, like weak acting.  Randolph Mantooth in particular is painfully bad as Michael.  There are some pointless cutaways to a schoolroom being taught by Athena for some reason (aren’t there any actual teachers among the refugees?  Maybe even a secretary of education?).  These bits of unadulterated padding are noteworthy only as the final appearance of Maren Jensen (Athena) and Noah Hathaway (Boxey) in the series.  The latter departure is welcome, but the former is a shame.  Jensen may not have been a great actress, but it’s not like Laurette Spang and Anne Lockhart were much better.  And she was really hot, and her role as daughter and sister to two of the leads had a lot of untapped potential.

There are conceptual problems; at first, Salik and Wilker have no idea how to read the completely alien controls and markings of the Terran ship, but later we see both species write in English, just in different fonts (and of course they speak the same language despite being separated by millennia).  And the attempt to replace the Cylons with the Eastern Alliance as the big new threat is odd, given how technologically inferior the EA is.  Generally if you introduce a new Big Bad, you make it bigger than the old one, as Count Iblis was.  But these guys were overconfident pushovers, easily captured.  Which leads us into:

“Baltar’s Escape”: Adama interviews the imprisoned Commandant Leiter, who boasts of the natural order dictating that the strong, namely the Eastern Alliance, are destined to rule the weak, namely everyone else in the universe.  Ambiguous villains are not a feature of this show.  But the Quorum (or as they’re called here, the Council) disagrees, convinced that the Alliance can be negotiated with and the military has been on the defensive too long to see it.  So, after offering Adama the sop of a prestigious award, they inform him that martial law has been rescinded and Adama must now answer to civilian control of the fleet.  Apollo and Starbuck are outraged, but Adama sternly intones that if they’ve forgotten their duty to obey civil authority, maybe martial law has lasted too long.  It’s the first of a number of strong lines in this Donald Bellisario script.

Back on the prison barge, Baltar conspires with the Borellian Nomen from “The Man with Nine Lives,” convincing them that the impending transfer of the Space Nazis to meet with the Council is their opportunity to escape.  The Borellians agree, which is odd.  If they’re members of the refugee population, then that means the Cylons destroyed their homeworld as well as everyone else’s.  Given their Klingon-like culture, you’d think they’d be taking blood vengeance on Baltar, not collaborating with him.  But political nuance is ignored; they’re all Bad Guys, and thus they’re automatically on the same side.

A more ambiguous figure is Siress Tinia (Ina Balin), the Quorum/Council member appointed as Adama’s liaison/watchdog.  Although she supports the (oh, I give up) Quouncil’s goal of extending diplomacy to the Alliance and sees Adama as unduly paranoid, she proves more reasonable and approachable than the rest of the Quouncil (which is now led by John Hoyt in a bad toupee; Sire Geller has inexplicably vanished).

The Nomen have another good line while plotting with Baltar: When the time comes to move, they say, “we will momentarily die.”  “Die?” a confused Baltar replies.  “We will do anything to survive.  Even die.”  When the time comes, they somehow suspend their pulses, feigning death, then awake and take the guards by surprise, spring the other plot-relevant prisoners, and capture the shuttle piloted by Boomer and Sheba.  Baltar recognizes Boomer as an old rival and says he wishes Apollo and Starbuck were here too so he could settle all his scores at once.  This is odd, since I don’t think Baltar has ever met Boomer before, or has any reason to hold a greater grudge against the big three than against any other Viper pilots.  Then again, those three are responsible for most of the victories the fleet has achieved over the Cylons, so maybe Cylon intelligence efforts revealed their names to him.  (Could it be that Karibdis from “Murder…” was still funnelling intelligence back to the Cylons?)

Anyway, Omega notes that the prison barge has gone silent, making Adama suspicious, but Tinia resists sending warriors.  Tigh says he needs to go for a walk, and the canny Tinia warns him not to take it in the landing bay.  So he goes to the officers’ club and casually clues in Apollo and Starbuck so that they’ll go on their own initiative.  It’s a fun moment for Terry Carter as Tigh, one of several fun bits of understated comedy he’s had lately.

Anyway, the Bad Guys take the Quouncil hostage and Baltar demands that his Cylon pilots be freed so he can fly away in his Raider (or “fighter,” or — no, I’m not using that gag again), but Dr. Wilker has the Cylons in pieces and the best he can do in reassembling them is a clumsy Cylon who bashes equipment to pieces when trying to operate it. Which gives Apollo an idea.  Adama has a plan of his own, and is pleasantly surprised when Tinia admits her former error and is now firmly on his side.  And when Adama turns himself in as a hostage to buy Wilker more time, Tinia insists on going along to help.  However, Apollo’s plan requires cancelling Adama’s plan, forcing Tigh to pull rank on his own commander.  Turns out that Baltar’s pilot is our old friend Bashy, who goes to town on the Raider’s controls.  Leiter and his Space Nazis get away (allowing them to be tracked back to their base), but Baltar is recaptured.  The chastened Quouncil restores Adama’s emergency powers.  And Adama and Tinia seem to have a bit of a thing going, much to Tigh’s dismay.

Despite some conceptual weaknesses, this is a strong episode, with much better dialogue writing than anything Larson was capable of.  Tinia is a good character, though the rest of the Quouncil is unfortunately caricatured.  And I’m not very comfortable with this show’s persistent mindset that only the military is reasonable and responsible while civilians, especially aspiring peacemakers, are a bunch of self-destructive fools.  Although that attitude is somewhat ameliorated by Adama’s reasoned acceptance and defense of the right of civilians to  hold authority over the military, even if the military disagrees with their decisions.  It’s a damn sight better than his revival-series counterpart’s policy, which is to pay lip service to civilian authority but then stage a military coup the moment things don’t go his way.

Conversely, Baltar here is written in a way that finally makes me understand the roots of Gaius Baltar’s characterization in the revival series.  Here, Baltar is a rather comic figure: manipulative and self-serving, but cowardly, somewhat naive, and easily flustered.  He’s blindly convinced that his plan to use the hostages to stage a safe escape will work, and is surprised when the Nomen inform him that Adama will surely launch an attack at their vulnerable moment.  And, unexpectedly, he seems quite sincere when he tells his co-conspirators that he has every intention of keeping his word to free the hostages once he’s safe.  An odd departure from the Baltar of “Saga of a Star World,” who ruthlessly demanded that the Cylons carry out their directive to slaughter all survivors without mercy.  I wonder if it was decided to tone down his character, make him more sympathetic for some reason.  Anyway, his namesake Gaius is much closer to this episode’s Baltar than any prior depiction of the character.

“Experiment in Terra”:  While Apollo is leading a squad of Vipers to track the escaped Space Nazis to their base, he is overtaken by the Ship of Lights from “War of the Gods.”  The noise of their approach induces an attack of Awkward Exposition Tourette’s in Apollo.  (“What’s that sound?  Too loud!  I can’t –“)  Yes, it’s another Glen Larson script.  Anyway, Apollo awakens in the SoL with his costume and gear spray-painted white, and is greeted by Devon from Knight Rider — err, John (Edward Mulhare), a Being of Light who tells him he’s been recruited to go to Terra and help stave off a war.  Like most all-powerful superbeings in sci-fi, the BoL are forbidden to interfere directly in mortal affairs but can only advise, or in this case, recruit rather clueless agents and drop them in without adequate briefing.  A confused Apollo finds himself on Terra, where he’s seen by others as a missing pilot named Charlie, who’s found by Charlie’s ex-girlfriend (in an amusing bit, Apollo first thinks her name is Amnesia — “That’s a pretty name” — but it’s actually Brenda).  John pops in to give cryptic advice but only Apollo can see him, making Brenda think “Charlie” is nuts.  Hey, John isn’t Devon from Knight Rider, he’s Al from Quantum Leap!  I do wonder if this is where Bellisario got the idea for that show.  Invisible Devon tells Apollo to “let your uniform be your guide” — as long as it’s white, he’s “protected,” but when it returns to normal hue, he’ll be vulnerable.  This never pays off in any way.

Anyway, Brenda sics security on Apollo/Charlie (for his own good) and he’s taken away.  Even though this Nationalist faction is nominally the good guys, their authorities are not to be trusted.  Here’s where Larson’s hawkish politics reassert themselves more blatantly and heavy-handedly than ever before.  In the past, both in the pilot and in “Baltar’s Escape,” he’s painted those who seek peace as clueless dupes.  But here, the Nationalist president is so determined to sign a peace treaty with the Eastern Alliance that he’s knowingly covering up evidence that they’ve conquered all the Nationalists’ satellite colonies.  So he knows full well that the Space Nazis are actively at war with his nation — and winning — and yet he deceptively pushes for a treaty anyway, and imprisons anyone who protests.  It’s rather bizarre, really.  What could possibly be motivating him?  He doesn’t seem to actively want the Space Nazis to destroy his nation, but he has no reason to believe they’d honor a treaty.  He’s a complete straw man whose actions make no sense.

Anyway, Starbuck has followed Apollo to Terra, landing in Vasquez Rocks at night, where he’s confronted by Nationalist troops commanded by Q.  Yep, it’s a young John DeLancie — his face concealed by a motocross, err, soldier’s helmet, but his voice unmistakeable.  Starbuck stuns Q’s troops with his superior zapgun and tracks down Apollo’s comm signal.  He’s intercepted by Angel Devon, who whitewashes his uniform and fills him in on the situation.  Starbuck saves Apollo, along with Brenda and her general father, who’ve also been arrested to keep them from telling the Presidium (or the Preseedyum, as they pronounce it) about the Space Nazis’ conquests.  Deciding they need a demonstration to prove Apollo’s evidence, Starbuck and Brenda drive off to find his Viper.  Apollo vamps before the Preseedyum, telling them the story of the series and becoming a mouthpiece for Larson’s right-wing, peace-through-superior-firepower rhetoric.

But it’s all rendered moot when Alliance leader Nehemiah Persoff decides to launch all-out nuclear armageddon, not only crushing the Nationalists but solving their world’s population crisis by wiping out their own surplus population and leaving only the loyalists protected in bunkers.  Luckily, the Galactica has caught up with the lost Vipers by travelling at “lightspeed” for the first time in many sectars or sectons or whatever, which means that the ragtag, fugitive fleet has come from “another galaxy” and passed through dozens of star systems in less than a year while travelling slower than light.  Yeah, okay.  It also means that Adama’s changed his policy about leaving the fleet behind and largely undefended, perhaps because the Cylons haven’t been seen in some time and the Space Nazis are pushovers.

Anyway, the Galactica folks see the missile launches, get filled in by Starbuck, and deploy a hitherto-unmentioned green ray that somehow covers the whole planet with a glowing shield that blows up all the missiles in flight. (Oh, and apparently Colonials don’t consider the ionosphere to be part of the atmosphere.)  Terra is saved, and the Space Nazis, convinced that the Nationalists have a superior missile shield, meekly sue for peace on the Nationalists’ terms.  It’s rather startling to remember that this was made before Ronald Reagan took office, because it feels like propaganda for his Strategic Defense Initiative boondoggle.  That was nicknamed “Star Wars” by the press, but maybe they picked the wrong franchise.

Apollo slips away with John, who reveals that, despite all evidence to the contrary, Terra is not Earth.  Which further implies that it was intended to be a colony of Earth.  It’s hard to believe that all the similarities of names, units, technology, etc. could be coincidence (although that didn’t stop Ron Moore).

Yes, the sequel series had Galactica reach Earth in 1980, but that was mandated by network bean-counters to save money.  These episodes certainly suggest that the original intent was for the series to be set in Earth’s future.

Well, it seems the peak of this series’ quality has passed.  This is the weakest episode in quite a while.  It’s conceptually awkward, it’s a feeble and somewhat non sequitur ending to the Terra arc, and it’s a profoundly heavyhanded political tract.  Don’t get me wrong, the problem isn’t just that Larson’s politics differ from mine.  It’s a valid thing for a writer to express one’s views in one’s writing, but it’s something very different to paint one’s opposition as fools or traitors.  And it’s just not good writing to paint the bad guys in a story as incoherently as the straw-man president was portrayed here.

Additionally, it’s hard to see why the Beings of Light would intervene to save Terra from annihilation after permitting the Twelve Colonies to suffer the same fate.  It’s harder to see why they’d recruit some guy from Galactica to save Terra and only give him two minutes of preparation.  Also, Apollo is uncharacteristically awkward and slow to catch up here, no doubt because the script was originally written to focus on Starbuck.  Richard Hatch pushed for the change because Starbuck had gotten too many focus episodes, and apparently Larson simply swapped the names “Apollo” and “Starbuck” in the script without changing the actual lines.  So Apollo is playing Starbuck, Starbuck is playing Apollo, and thus they’re both out of character.  That’s just inept.

But it’s interesting to note the presence of the John character — a messenger of a higher, seemingly divine race, using a human as an agent, making himself visible and audible only to his chosen agents so that they seem to be talking to thin air as far as others are concerned.  It’s a striking parallel to “Head Six” and the other “Messengers” from the revival series and Caprica.  I always thought that concept was original to the remake, but perhaps it was based on this episode.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

A lot more useful

January 11, 2011 2 comments

Well, today made up for my recent uselessness.  I finished the leftover dishes from last night (though I haven’t done today’s yet), I did the laundry, I cleaned the bathroom, I spent some time working out on the ski machine, and I got some proofreading done, and even managed to catch a lot of Syfy’s marathon of the 1966 Green Hornet series (I think that after this, I’ll have seen every episode one place or another).  And I did all that despite not getting enough sleep last night.  Which is odd, since I think I got less sleep last night than the night before, or at least no more sleep, yet yesterday I was completely zonked out while today I’ve been awake and active.

Categories: Uncategorized

Even less useless

Well, I’ve done the majority of my accumulated dirty dishes, though there are still several large items and a few small ones left.  I decided to listen to my new CD of the complete Jerry Goldsmith score to Star Trek V; now that I have a compact CD player in my bedroom, I can put it on a chair and roll it into the hallway so I can listen to music in the kitchenette, which can be a nice way of making it less tedious to do the dishes.  It took me just about 24 of the disc’s 26 tracks to finish the dishes (or at least as many as I could), about 68 minutes.  That’s maybe 3 times longer than it usually takes me, which makes sense since I had about 3 days’ worth to get through.  Though admittedly I was occasionally stopping to listen to a really great bit of music.  I finished off the remaining 5 minutes of the disc by cleaning the stovetop and refilling my filtered-water pitcher.

I guess laundry will have to be tomorrow.  Too bad I only have one clean, intact sock left.


Categories: Star Trek, Uncategorized Tags: ,

Not completely useless

Well, just after I made my last post promising to go out and buy stuff immediately thereafter, I realized that there was a show on at 4:30 I intended to watch.  But then, I was planning to tape it anyway.  (The Hub network — a kidvid channel owned by Hasbro, no relation to my Hub stories — is rerunning the animated Men in Black: The Series, and I’m taping the first season, the only one really worth keeping.)  So I waited until 4:30, started the tape, and then went out.  I was tempted to walk it, but it was below freezing and I knew it would take too long.  Plus I was getting things from more than one place, so it was handy to be able to leave them in the car.  Anyway, it all worked out.

Now I just have to do the dishes I’ve allowed to pile up over the past 2-3 days… and the laundry… and proofreading the DTI galleys… and…

Categories: Uncategorized

Useless today

Last night I let myself get too caught up in doing stuff online late into the night and went to bed far too late.  As a result, I’ve been feeling vague and useless all day, and totally losing track of time.  Is it really quarter after four already?  I feel like I just had lunch (and that was late, at 1:30 or something).

But I need to go out and buy some things I forgot when I went grocery shopping yesterday.  I need to force myself to stop loafing around and do something, at least so I can get out of my extended rut at the computer for a bit.  So I’m going to declare this now: after I post this, I will go out on errands.  Once I do that, I’ll be committed.

Categories: Uncategorized

Original GALACTICA thoughts, Eps. 17-18

“The Man with Nine Lives”: It’s downtime in the ragtag, fugitive fleet, with no Cylons in sight and the people feeling hopeful in the wake of recent events.  The legendary Fred Astaire guest stars as Chameleon (pronounced with a “sh” sound at the start for some reason), an elderly con man on the run from Borellians, a Klingonish warrior culture within the survivor population.  To get away from their “blood hunt” squad, he takes advantage of some things he learned about Starbuck from a TV talk show to con the orphaned Starbuck into thinking Chameleon might be his father, so he can be taken back to the Galactica with a warrior escort.  It brings out a side of Starbuck we’ve never seen before as he bonds with the old man and considers resigning his commission to reconnect with family.  But the Borellians are still determined to hunt the old man down to keep him from revealing what he knows about their private stockpiling.

This is another side story by Donald Bellisario with no connection to the core narrative, but unlike his disastrous planet-of-the-week stories, it’s actually quite strong.  It’s an effective character-driven story with some real emotion, particularly at the end when (spoiler alert) Chameleon learns he actually is Starbuck’s father, but refuses to tell him in order to protect him from giving up his life and loved ones.  And it’s a rare look at life in the fleet beyond the military.  We get a glimpse of the fleet’s broadcasting system, the civilian travel and commerce among ships, etc.  We see Omega narrating a “We want you” recruitment video for new Viper pilots.  There’s only lip service paid to the hardships of the refugees, since the focus is on the recreations of the wealthy and important people aboard the luxury liner Rising Star.  But it is a nice change of pace from previous episodes, and by developing the culture and characters within the fleet rather than going off to some random planet, Bellisario finds a far more successful way to tell a side story.   (One nice subtle touch is that Sheba is the one most invested in believing that Chameleon is Starbuck’s father, implicitly reflecting her own hope to be reunited with her father Cain.  It’s nice that the script respected the audience’s intelligence enough not to spell out her motives explicitly in dialogue.)

The Borellian Nomen, though, are a bit odd.  They’re said to be humans from a forbidding region, and there’s a bit of a Bedouin look to their attire (“Noman” is probably meant to suggest “nomad”), but the actors are wearing Neanderthalesque prosthetic brow ridges.  It’s an odd decision.  And why make up a name like “Borellian?”  Why not use one of the zodiac-based planet names?  The idea of twelve colonies has been pretty much forgotten by this point, with only Caprica getting mentioned anymore.

Of course, a guest star of Fred Astaire’s magnitude is a real high point, though I found his performance a bit unfocused.  And there’s a sadly missed opportunity.  According to the Battlestar Wiki,  Chameleon’s brief dance with his romantic interest Siress Blassie in the Rising Star‘s disco is the last time Astaire ever danced onscreen — yet it’s way in the back of the crowd and you can barely see him.  Maybe that was intentional, since Astaire was reportedly reluctant to dance onscreen at that point, perhaps aware that he couldn’t live up to his past brilliance and not wanting to let his fans down.  Still, it’s kind of sad.

But the real standout here is Dirk Benedict, who’s called on to take Starbuck in directions he’s never been before, and who rises to the occasion.  I understand now why Starbuck was such a popular character.  Benedict is one of the strongest actors on this show, though admittedly he has very little competition.

My one gripe is that I’m getting sick of all the corny space terminology, which is getting increasingly lazy as they just stick “-on” at the end of everything.  It was one thing to have Cylons and centons and microns, but now a furlough for soldiers is called a “furlon” and weapon power is measured in “voltons.”  Although I guess it could’ve been worse.  “Fleeing from the Cylon tyrannon, the laston battlestaron Galacticon leads a ragton, fugiton fleeton-on-on-on-on…”

Is this thing -on?  In the BSG universe, yes, it probably is.

“Murder on the Rising Star”: For the second week in a row, we open with Adama recording a log about their ongoing search for Earth, including the discovery of multiple planets showing signs of the Thirteenth Tribe.  And for the second week in a row, it has nothing to do with the actual plot.  Again, Apollo and Starbuck are playing triad (and the costumes are extremely skimpy, the kind of abbreviated halter-and-briefs getup you’d expect to see as an exploitative costume for female characters in a ’70s genre show, but instead worn by the males), but this time they’re up against a team including Ortega, a hitherto-unknown longtime rival of Starbuck.  Naturally, Ortega gets killed after a public fight with Starbuck, and everyone’s favorite rogue is arrested for the crime — and prosecuted by Brock Peters!  There’s a nice bit of futuristic forensics to determine that Starbuck’s laser is the “termination weapon,” although again the clunky “alien” terminology gets in the way (energy is measured, predictably, in “ergons”).  Apollo turns out to have studied law (or “the codes”) in the Academy, allowing him to serve as Starbuck’s “protector” (defense attorney) — a bit of characterization that the revival series picked up on and ran with.

Except Apollo never sets foot in the courtroom, since that’s not action-heroey enough.  He’s out investigating another lead — Ortega’s wingman says the deceased once boasted that no one but Karibdis would dare kill him.  Karibdis, as Adama reveals, was a hitherto-unknown ally of Baltar’s who sabotaged the Caprican defense computers on the night of the Cylon attack (again a bit of new-series foreshadowing, since that’s what Gaius Baltar himself inadvertently let the Cylons do in the revival miniseries).  So what seemed like a standalone murder-mystery episode takes a twist that connects to the core mythology of the series, flashing back to the destruction of Caprica (though mostly through stock footage and narration) to reveal that three men had bribed Ortega to escape Caprica under false names, and he was blackmailing them all.  Apollo realizes that one is Karibdis, and uses Baltar himself, the only other man who can identify him, as the bait to draw him out.  (Why did Karibdis wait this long to kill Ortega, though?)

Now, the logical thing to do here would be for Apollo to go to the courtroom where he belongs and send Boomer to draw out Karibdis, but of course, this is ’70s TV and you can’t have the second banana stealing the hero’s glory.  So Boomer vamps awkwardly in court until he can turn on the radio channel allowing everyone in the courtroom to hear Karibdis’s convenient confession (although no one questions the authenticity or admissibility of this highly irregular evidence).  Before Karibdis can shoot them both, Baltar fights back to save himself and inadvertently saves Apollo in the process.

This is another standalone that actually more or less works because it derives from the characters and concepts of the series premise rather than random planet-of-the-week ideas.  Maybe a budget crunch was also a factor; both this and “The Man with Nine Lives” are clearly money-saving bottle shows shot on standing sets and keeping action and new FX footage to a minimum.  That kind of episode forces the writers to depend more on characters and ideas, and that leads to stronger storytelling.  (Cf. ST:TNG’s “The Drumhead” or ST:DS9’s “Duet.”)  This episode, however, does feature some evidently new FX footage of the Rising Star and some original scoring (which, alas, is not included on the soundtrack CDs I have).

Baltar’s imprisonment turns out to be a good development in that it allows Colicos to play off other regulars instead of being stuck talking to guys in robot suits all the time.   Otherwise, Starbuck’s still getting the bulk of the attention, and while he showed a softer side last time, here he’s angry and embittered, even staging a prison break and almost going on the run until Apollo talks him out of it.  On the other hand, he seems to be getting more domesticated romantically, even telling Cassiopeia that he loves her.  While Athena seems to have accepted that she’s been sidelined in Starbuck’s love life, now seeming to be more a friend to Cassie than a rival.  Which is part and parcel of how she’s been sidelined overall.

Next begins a new, 4-episode arc which I’ll cover in one post, which is why I only included these two standalones here.

DTI galleys are here!

January 7, 2011 1 comment

The galley pages for Star Trek: DTI: Watching the Clock arrived a little while ago (and judging from the stench on the envelope, the UPS driver must be a chain smoker — icchhh!).  It’s a hefty pile of pages.  It looks as if the final book is going to be just about 500 pages long.

This is my first chance to see the typesetting being used for the chapter and scene headings and so forth, and it looks pretty good.  I hope it’s not long before I get to see the final cover.

Original GALACTICA thoughts, Ep. 14-16

January 7, 2011 1 comment

“Fire in Space”: In a tense opening, a massive Cylon attack turns into a suicide bombing run that heavily damages the bridge and the landing bay.  Yet somehow, even though the sensor screen showed hundreds of Raiders and two base stars closing in, once the two suicide Raiders have done their job, the Cylons disappear, and the rest of the episode is The Towering Inferno in space as the crew struggles to put out the spreading fires inside the ship; Adama is injured and in need of surgery under risky battlefield conditions; and Boomer, Athena, and Boxey are trapped by the fire and running out of air.

The first act or so is very effective.  No episode since the pilot has been as effective at creating a sense of danger for the Galactica and its crew, and the scenes of the bridge blowing up are very effective (a particular highlight is the shattering of the glass map display that’s been such a prominent element of the bridge set).  What follows is a workmanlike disaster episode, one that gives the whole cast a chance to contribute.  It’s Athena’s biggest role in a while, Boomer gets to be more than just the sidekick, Tigh commands the bridge, and even bit player Omega gets his most lines yet.  It’s also the biggest role yet for George Murdock, who does a passable Dr. McCoy impression as Dr. Salik.  On the downside, there’s also a big focus on Muffy, who uses his skill to sniff out “mushies” (some kind of pastry) to travel through the ductwork to the bridge in order to bring breathing masks to the trapped personnel (and for some reason Tigh handles this personally instead of delegating it to one of the dozens of background crew).

The episode unravels when you think about the logistics and physics involved.  How can the landing bay be on fire when it’s open to the vacuum of space?  The fire is ultimately quelled by blowing hulls in the hull and letting the vacuum “smother” the fire, and yet the landing bay fire that’s already in vacuum is burning unabated.  It’s one thing for a fictional story to contradict real physics, but if a story contradicts its own rules, that’s a much bigger problem.  Even a pure fantasy should be consistent within itself.

Realistically, putting out a fire in a spaceship should be easy.  You don’t even have to vent atmosphere, so long as you have the ability to shut down the artificial gravity.   Under gravity, the air heated by a fire becomes lighter and rises, carrying it away from the fire and allowing new air to rush in, maintaining the fire’s oxygen supply.  This is why flames lick upward.  But in microgravity, that convection process doesn’t happen.  Unless there’s some other source of air circulation, the oxygen-depleted air around a flame just stays there and smothers it.  So you could put out a fire in a spaceship just by shutting off the gravity and the ventilation fans, if you were unable to vent the compartment to vacuum.  But of course, spaceships that are actually Hollywood sets never lose gravity.

And yet when Apollo and Starbuck go out on top of the ship to plant charges and blow the hull, they’re in complete weightlessness, even though there’s gravity inside the ship just a few meters below them.  Every sci-fi show and movie does this, assuming that a ship’s artificial gravity comes to an abrupt halt at the hull, as if gravity were conducted by atmosphere or something.  It doesn’t make a damn bit of sense; obviously solid matter is not opaque to gravity, or we’d all be floating weightless right now.  So a ship’s gravity field should realistically extend beyond its hull.  I know I shouldn’t expect this show to get that right if even Star Trek gets it wrong, but it’s a chronic pet peeve of mine and I can’t resist griping about it.  Also, the spacesuits and the wire work here are just so cheesy.  When Apollo misses a handhold and goes flying, he doesn’t continue on a ballistic trajectory — he swings backward and then forward again like an actor hanging from a wire.

But despite the episode’s conceptual holes, it’s still tons better than any prior one-part episode of this show, simply by virtue of having no Convenient Human Colony of the Week.  True, it’s just as much a disaster-movie knockoff as two of the previous one-parters were Western knockoffs, but as imitations go, it’s a much better fit.  It feels like a story that belongs to this show’s particular narrative rather than being a generic ’70s space opera episode shoehorned into it.

“War of the Gods”: BSG’s mythology jumps to a new level in a 2-part episode that crosses Close Encounters of the Third Kind with a Biblical morality tale.  When Viper pilots begin disappearing, abducted by a mysterious cross-shaped UFO known behind the scenes as the Ship of Lights, Apollo, Starbuck, and Sheba head to a nearby planet to search for them and instead find Count Iblis, played by Patrick Macnee, whose voice has been heard every week as the pre-title narrator as well as the Cylon Imperious Leader.  Iblis presents himself as the survivor of a mysterious crashed ship, but he’s evasive and manifests signs of strange powers.  He gains a hypnotic control over Sheba and spreads his influence throughout the Fleet, boasting of his infinite power (he uses the word “infinite” at least three times in the first half of part 1 — more of Glen Larson’s clunky use of language) and offering to lead them to Earth in exchange for their obedience.  He even uses his mind mojo to make Baltar turn himself in, as well as seemingly making the crops grow overnight.  But Adama draws on his knowledge of ancient lore to recognize that Iblis is a representative of a more highly evolved ancestral race of humanity, one with nigh-godlike powers.  They are like unto angels, and he is the fallen one who leads mortals into temptation.  Could he be, hmm, oh, maybe… Satan? (As Dana Carvey used to say.)

Well, yes and no.   Larson is clearly going for religious allegory here, but he does in in a sci-fi vein, painting the demonic Iblis and the angelic inhabitants of the Ship of Lights as highly evolved humanoids with a more advanced version of the mental powers that are allegedly innate in Colonial humanity — Adama himself manifests a hitherto-unsuspected telekinetic ability, something he says was a subject of study at the military institute (so I guess Adama was one of The Men Who Stare at Goats — as befits a Caprican).  Still, it couldn’t be more faux-Biblical in the way it’s presented, right down to the angelic choir in the soundtrack when Apollo, Starbuck, and Sheba are taken to the heavenly “dimension” of the Beings of Light at the climax.

I’m having a hard time assessing the quality of this episode.  My tendency is to look askance on stories with this kind of religious symbolism — not just as a matter of belief, but because it’s something of a cliche.  I prefer stories with more nuance, ambiguity, and individual free will to those where everything can be reduced to a simple, Manichaean good and evil.  But to be fair, religious allegory was part of Larson’s intent in creating this show, and this is really the first time since the pilot that he’s managed to develop that aspect of the concept.  At least it’s truer to the show’s intent than Westerns in space.  The show seems to be asserting its own voice better now than it did in the first half of the season, when it couldn’t seem to decide what it was about.

On the other hand, I’m not sure there’s really two hours worth of story here.  Iblis is so clearly untrustworthy from the beginning that it doesn’t seem it should take as long as it does for his malevolent intentions to be confirmed.  If there’d been more ambiguity, if it had been credible that he might be well-intentioned so that the people who followed him didn’t come off as chumps or mind-control dupes, then two hours of this would’ve been more interesting.

And Sheba in particular comes off badly here.  I said in reviewing “The Living Legend” that I hoped she’d come off stronger as time went on, but my initial assessment of her as weak and simpering was only strengthened here.  It’s very ’70s writing — more like ’60s, in fact — in that the woman is weak-willed and easily seduced by the charismatic man that the smarter, less emotional males see through right away.  Sheba, meet Marla McGivers and Carolyn Palamas.  But it’s not just the writing.  Anne Lockhart may be nice to look at, but I’m getting annoyed just listening to her mewling voice.

Still, this is the first episode in a while where Lorne Greene actually seems to be making an effort.  For weeks now, when Adama hasn’t been sick or injured, he’s been weak and distracted.  Here, though, Greene seems to be finally back in the game, giving Adama the strength in standing up to Iblis that he lacked when standing up to Commander Cain.

One strength of the episode is that it gives us a look at the ragtag fleet for the first time in a while; in particular, the fact that some of the poorer refugees are still undernourished and malcontented is revisited for the first time since the pilot.  Yet at the same time, a lot of the episode focuses on sports.  Apparently Apollo, Starbuck, and Boomer are not just top fighter pilots, but suddenly top athletes as well, fleet champions in the basketball-like game of triad.  (In this continuity, pyramid is a card game and triad a team sport; for some reason, the names are transposed in the revival continuity.)  There’s an attempt to rationalize it as a necessary escape for the war-weary populace, but it seems incongruously frivolous.

Also, it’s never explained why the Beings of Light abducted nine Viper pilots if it was Iblis they were after.  It was just thrown in because abductions are part of the UFO lore that was experiencing a surge of popularity in the wake of CE3K.

The arrest of Baltar and the introduction of the Ship of Lights herald a new direction for the show, getting away from the whole “fleeing from the Cylon tyranny” angle for most of the rest of the season.  The abruptness and casualness of Baltar’s arrest, which is practically an afterthought, has the tinge of a network-mandated retool.  But Larson manages to spin it as an enlargement of the story rather than a derailment — the human war with the Cylons is just one battle in the larger war of cosmic good and evil.  (The familiarity of Patrick Macnee’s voice is even acknowledged by Baltar, with a hint that Count Iblis was the one who programmed the first Imperious Leader and started the Cylons on their path to conquest.)  Too melodramatic for my tastes, but in a way, it foreshadows the revival series and its more subtle “angels” manipulating events from behind the scenes.

One notable detail about this 2-parter: it guest stars both Superman and Batman.  An elderly refugee is played by Kirk Alyn, the first actor to play Superman in live action (in the 1948 and 1950 film serials), and the caretaker of the “Agro ships,” Carmichael (previously seen in “The Magnificent Warriors”), is played by Olan Soulé, the first actor to voice Batman in animation (in Filmation’s 1969 Batman cartoon and later in Hanna-Barbera’s Superfriends).

So all in all, this isn’t my favorite, but it’s not actually bad, and it’s certainly one of the more important storylines of the series.  And one of the more memorable.  Even after I outgrew this show back in the ’80s and my memories of it faded, I still remembered Patrick Macnee as Iblis.  Though maybe that’s more due to having once owned the novelization than to a direct memory of the episode itself.  (Although I misremembered the climactic confrontation on the planet — I thought it was Iblis against Adama, not Apollo.)

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

Close call with DTI galleys

Whew, I was getting worried there for a bit.  I realized that the scheduled deadline for turning in the 1st-pass galley proofs (the pages showing the text of the novel as it will be formatted in the final novel, which are sent to the author for proofreading) was coming up this Friday (i.e. today), and I hadn’t gotten them yet.  And there are a half-dozen or so fixes I want to make, errors and conceptual problems I didn’t catch until I was putting together my website annotations for the book.  Luckily, I heard from my editor, who explained that things have been delayed unavoidably.  I should be getting the galleys very soon — probably today — and I’ll have nearly two weeks to proofread them.  So I’ll be able to clear up those glitches.  And the novel is still on track for its planned late-April release.

In other good writing-related news, I got a new magazine article gig the other day, and I got a decent-sized royalty check this week (keeping in mind that royalties for books generally aren’t very large).

Still not making much progress on my short story, though.  I made a point of sitting down and writing a scene the other day, but once I was done with it, I realized the scene added nothing to the story and should be cut.  Sigh.  Well, maybe I’ll find a use for it in a later story.

Original GALACTICA thoughts, Eps. 10-13

January 3, 2011 1 comment

“The Magnificent Warriors”: This episode is another illustration of the fatal mismatch behind Glen A. Larson’s proclivities as a storyteller and the nature of the series premise he came up with for Battlestar Galactica.  The setup for this episode is quite grave: a Cylon raid manages to destroy two of the fleet’s three “Agro ships” (represented by stock footage from Douglas Trumbull’s film Silent Running) and destroy the crop in the third, leaving the populace of the fleet in imminent danger of starvation.  And yet this is nothing more than a pretense for a lame comedy episode that’s also the show’s second lame Western-movie knockoff, this time a blatant pastiche of The Magnificent Seven.  Lorne Greene gives a distracted, fumbling performance as Adama fends off the allegedly comical romantic advances of spinster Siress Belloby, played by Brett Somers, whom I knew at the time as a fixture of the game show Match Game.  This is part of a tedious and rather incoherent hour in which the cast fumblingly tries to get fresh seed from the Convenient Human Colony of the Week and is stymied by its corrupt boss (played by an enormous toupee resting atop the head of Barry Nelson, who was once the first actor to play a version of James Bond), who cons Starbuck into becoming the new constable, a de facto sacrifice to the raiding Borays (a term previously used as an unexplained derogatory epithet, now revealed to be a race of pig-ape aliens with a herd mentality).  And yet Nelson and his hairpiece suddenly become all nice and respectful once he figures out from their bravery that our heroes must be Colonial Warriors (and for some reason there’s no worrying that this lying manipulator might sell them out to the Cylons — though again there’s the bizarre conceit that Colonials are the only humans who actually have to worry about being exterminated).  Oh, and Boxey and Muffit are brought along just for the hell of it,  which comes in handy because somehow the only sophisticated tracking sensor this advanced civilization has is built into an experimental robot dog.  (Every time I see Muffit, I can’t help feeling sorry for the poor baby chimp stuck in that costume.)

The episode does have a mildly amusing twist at its resolution, though a somewhat disturbing one if you consider the ramifications.  And it’s mildly of note for introducing the Silent Running agro-ships to the Fleet complement, and for introducing the first non-Cylon aliens we’ve seen since the pilot.  Overall, though, it’s a waste of an episode.

“The Young Lords”: Another “Starbuck gets shot down and has a solo adventure while the others try to find him” episode, this time with Starbuck crashing on a Cylon garrison planet and rescued by a band of preteen-to-young-adult survivors dressed as some sort of Ren Faire/Native-American hybrids and engaged in an ongoing guerrilla war against the Cylons who hold their father captive.  At first they plan to trade Starbuck for their father, but Starbuck convinces them to meet the Cylons’ inevitable double-cross with one of their own and then stage a raid to liberate daddy (all while engaging in borderline-creepy flirtation with the local jailbait, played by the then-22-year-old Audrey Landers but implicitly not quite an adult).

This is the first one-part episode that hasn’t been a complete waste of film, though it’s mediocre at best.  The guest acting (especially by the leader of the kids) is pretty bad, there’s a pointless and maudlin subplot about Adama being sick in bed and getting comforted by Boxey, and the climax is built around Starbuck teaching the cute kids an annoying doggerel verse to help them remember the strategy for their violent, lethal assault on the Cylons, an off-putting tonal mismatch that kind of sums up the entire series’ fatal weakness.

The most entertaining part of the story is the subplot revolving around the Cylon garrison commander Spectre (voice of Murray Matheson), a member of the same pointy-headed, English-accented Cylon caste as Baltar’s advisor Lucifer.  Spectre lies about his setbacks and flatters Baltar outrageously to curry favor, and while a jealous Lucifer sees right through his felgercarb, Baltar falls for it completely.  But amusing though it is, it makes Baltar look like an idiot.  Also, oddly, Baltar’s throne room set has been replaced with a much less impressive computer-center set including a narrow computer room that’s identical to Galactica‘s, only darker.

And the episode has the same overarching conceptual flaws as the other Convenient Human Colony of the Week episodes.  I can’t put it better than the Battlestar Wiki did in its entry for this episode: “Why do the Cylons so ruthlessly pursue the Galactica as the ‘last remnants of humanity’ when, in reality, humans clearly exist in abundance everywhere they go? Nearly every episode has them encountering some forgotten “fringe colony” teeming with humanity, yet the Cylons turn a blind eye toward them and myopically follow the Galactica.”  Not to mention the continued failure of the fleet to consider settling these worlds or at least evacuating their populace.  Moreover, even though the fleet supposedly passed into uncharted territory some time ago, here they’re already aware of the indigenous name of the planet that Starbuck crashed on (which is Attila for some reason).

“The Living Legend”: Possibly the most famous storyline of the original series other than the pilot, in part because it’s the only storyline other than the pilot to be remade in the 2004 series.  The legendary Commander Cain (Lloyd Bridges), a gung-ho Pattonesque military genius thought to be a casualty of war, turns up alive along with his battlestar Pegasus.  He and Adama clash over strategy, with Cain’s desire to go on the offensive against the Cylons conflicting with Adama’s responsibility to protect the unarmed civilian fleet.  Meanwhile, Cain turns out to be Cassiopeia’s old flame, creating a triangle with Starbuck, and a different kind of triangle with Cain’s daughter Sheba, who resents Cassiopeia (presumably for taking her mother’s place in Cain’s affections while being barely older than she is — and the long-ignored fact that Cassie was a professional sex worker at the time is probably an implicit factor as well).

To my surprise, this 2-part episode is actually good, despite being scripted by Larson (from a story by Ken Pettus and Larson).  It’s a strongly character-driven story; the introduction of the new characters and their clashes with the established cast give a lot of nice dramatic moments to a lot of characters.  This Cain is actually a more nuanced and textured character than his namesake in the revival series, who was simply a straw-woman psychopathic bully in command of a crew of psychopathic bullies.  (Pardon the digression, but that was one of the most implausible and ill-conceived things about the allegedly more realistic revival series.  The original premise of that show was that Galactica‘s crew was the dregs of the fleet, surviving in part because they were an unimportant crew on an obsolete ship.  The Pegasus was supposed to be the best and the brightest.  But the Pegasus crew turned out to be so exaggeratedly corrupt and cruel that they made Galactica‘s dysfunctional bunch seem like paragons.  And any hope of rationalizing that as the result of long, traumatic months battling the Cylons was scuttled by the movie Razor, which established that Cain and her crew were just as malevolent from day one, and never bothered to explain why.  I found that every bit as cartoony as anything from “The Magnificent Warriors” or “The Long Patrol.”  Just being dark doesn’t automatically make a story smart or sophisticated.)

Uhh, where was I?  Oh yeah, the original Cain.  He’s a piece of work, to be sure — arrogant, domineering, too quick to believe his own press.  He’s so determined to attack the Cylons that he sabotages Adama’s more defensive plan, wilfully destroying two Cylon fuel tankers so that Adama will be forced to agree to Cain’s plan to conquer a Cylon planet for its fuel supplies.  But when his deception is uncovered and he’s relieved of command by Adama (his superior officer here, the inverse of the rank relationship in the remake), this supremely arrogant man actually has the maturity to admit that he was wrong.  Far from being a one-note caricature, he’s a multifaceted figure, flawed but redeemable.

Lloyd Bridges’s charisma certainly helps make Cain sympathetic.  In fact, Adama rather suffers by comparison.  Supposedly Adama is the voice of wisdom and Cain the dangerous renegade, but Lorne Greene just doesn’t seem to be all that invested in the role anymore, and so Adama comes off as meek and hesitant in comparison to Bridges’s confident, compelling Cain.  And after weeks of seeing Adama wring his hands, passively worry, and give orders to leave family and friends to die rather than risk jeopardizing his grand “run and hide” initiative, it’s kind of refreshing to see a commander who’s willing to take bold action.  On the one hand, Greene’s weakness opposite Bridges is one of the few things that undermines the episode.  But on the other hand, it helps enhance the sense of ambiguity, the lack of a clear-cut right and wrong.  Both Adama and Cain are well-intentioned and both have valid arguments; they’re just approaching the problem from different perspectives.  That’s my favorite kind of conflict in fiction, the kind where both sides are in the right and there’s no easy answer.  (Too often in the revival series, the ambiguity came down to both sides being in the wrong, which isn’t as satisfying.  It’s lazy to generate conflict from characters being too screwed-up or mutually hostile to cope with an easily-solved or easily-avoided problem.  Better to devise a really challenging problem that even well-adjusted, highly competent characters can’t easily resolve.)  And it’s a level of nuance I’m surprised to see on this show.

The Cain-Cassiopeia subplot is effective too, because it has so many facets — not just those two, but the added interactions with Starbuck and Sheba.  It’s profoundly contrived that one of the series’ female leads (arguably the main female lead at this point, since the gorgeous Athena has unfortunately been marginalized for some reason) should happen to be Cain’s old flame, but it opens the door to a lot of character-oriented writing, and that enhances the episode.  Even Starbuck does a little soul-baring, explaining that he resists close attachments because he lacked a family like Apollo’s and is afraid of getting hurt (though he doesn’t admit that part aloud).  The downside is Sheba.  She’s supposed to be this tough, hotshot warrior, a chip off the old block, but Anne Lockhart comes off as more simpering and overemotional than anything else.  Maybe that’s more the fault of 1978 expectations about female behavior than Lockhart’s fault, but I can’t help thinking that the part could’ve been better cast.  But Sheba is a regular from this point on, so we’ll have to see if she improves.

Another significant flaw is in the pacing; the cliffhanger at the end of part 1 is in entirely the wrong place.  It should’ve come a moment earlier when the Cylon fighters were bearing down on the Galactica and Baltar was crowing about it being doomed.  Instead, we saw the Pegasus arriving to save the day and the freezeframe came on Baltar’s expression of panic as the battlestar came right for his ship.  A cliffhanger should come at a moment when the heroes are in danger, not when the villain is in danger.  It makes me wonder if this 2-parter was intended to be aired as a 2-hour episode and got hastily edited at the last minute.

But part of why the story works is that it lacks a lot of the usual flaws.  There’s no Convenient Human Colony of the Week, none of the prickly questions they raise, none of the pointless side stories and inappropriate comedy.  The tone is serious, tense, and dramatic, the dangers facing the fleet treated with due solemnity.  (What understated humor there is comes mainly from Baltar’s arrogance, vanity, and cowardice and the Cylons’ reactions thereto.)  Inept attempts at high-concept sci-fi are avoided in favor of a story that arises organically from the core premise and characters of the series.  There’s a wider range of action than the usual recycled dogfight footage, including a parachute drop to the Cylon planet and a climatic confrontation with two base stars.

We even learn more about the Cylons, seeing a Cylon city complete with “civilians” for the first time.  In addition to the three known types of Cylon — the Centurions, the Lucifer-type IL series, and the Imperious Leader — we glimpse a fourth type, presumably the aforementioned civilians, represented by extras in hooded gold cloaks and metallic face masks with blinking white eye lights (rather than the trademark sweeping red lights).  A rather cheap way of creating a new type of Cylon in large numbers, and we apparently never see this model again, but it’s interesting to discover that there’s more diversity among the Cylons than we’d known.  (Indeed, we arguably see a fifth type as well, the golden Command Centurion.  So this episode, and only this episode, features every type of Cylon established in the original series — unless you count the budget-saving, human-appearing “evolved” Cylons from Galactica 1980, a coincidental forerunner of the revival’s “skin jobs.”)

We’re halfway through the series now, and it took this long to get a story that fired on nearly all cylinders (with the main disappointment being the acting rather than the writing or concepts).   It continues the pattern of the multipart stories being the only ones worth a damn, but it’s not as uneven as the prior multiparters.  I’m hoping the episodes that follow are more like this than like what came before.

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DC Showcase Original Shorts Collection: Review

January 2, 2011 1 comment

Netflix just sent the DVD featuring the new DC Showcase short Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam, which is packaged along with extended versions of the three previous shorts: The Spectre, Green Arrow, and Jonah Hex.  Which is a good thing for us renters, because the rental versions of the DC Universe movies that these shorts were originally appended to didn’t include the shorts.  So this is my first chance to see any of them.

All four shorts are directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, a veteran of Justice League Unlimited and Avatar: The Last Airbender.  I daresay he’s the best director Warner Bros. Animation has working for them today, even better than Lauren Montgomery, whose work on movies like Superman/Doomsday and Wonder Woman I’ve quite enjoyed.  So it’s disappointing that Dos Santos is only doing these shorts instead of full-length features.  Not that there’s anything wrong with shorts, but the more of his work we get, the better.  Though on the other hand, maybe having a shorter runtime allows him and his collaborators to put more care into the work.  Superman/Shazam! is perhaps the most gorgeously animated film to come out of the DC Universe DVD program yet, and the other three are all excellently made too.  (And not just the animated parts are great.  The background paintings are gorgeous too, with a realism, detail, and color palette that reminds me of high-quality anime.)

As far as the stories and performances go, to cover them individually:

The Return of Black Adam is basically an origin story, the only one of the shorts that is.  That’s a little disappointing in itself, since origin stories are a dime a dozen.  And Michael Jelenic’s script basically just rehashes the same story beats that were already covered in the Batman: The Brave and the Bold episode “The Power of Shazam,” which aired less than nine months ago.  So there really weren’t many surprises.  The one new element is the inclusion of a version of Mister Tawky Tawny, who in the classic Fawcett comics was an anthropomorphic tiger who was a friend of Captain Marvel, but here is… well, I don’t want to spoil it.

Casting-wise, this film reunites two DC Animated Universe cast members, with George Newbern reprising Superman and Jerry O’Connell reprising Captain Marvel.  Both do workmanlike jobs.  Arnold Vosloo is okay as Black Adam, basically sounding like Hector Elizondo with more of a Middle Eastern accent.  I wasn’t as impressed as I was by John DiMaggio’s Black Adam on B:TB&TB.  Kevin Michael Richardson was his usual self as Tawny, and Zach Callison was pretty good as Billy Batson.  No real standouts, except insofar as Richardson’s booming voice always stands out.

So the main appeal of this short is in its brilliant storyboarding and animation.  The action choreography and character animation are magnificent to watch, if you’re a fan of such things.  There’s a lot of Avatar:TLA in it (there are moments where Billy’s facial design and expressions make him look like Aang with more hair).  But it’s a brilliant execution of a fairly ordinary story, and a very familiar one to viewers of B:TB&TB (or, of course, readers of Fawcett or DC comics).

The Spectre, written by Steve Niles, is done in the style of a noirish ’70s cop show, complete with period-styled music and fake film grain and deterioration.  Cute touches, but the story completely turned me off.  The Spectre, so I understand, is the spirit of vengeance; when people do evil, he tracks them down and uses his supernatural powers to make them endure gruesome deaths that fit their crimes — though in this case it’s more about fitting their professions, since the special-effects guy is killed by his creatures and the stunt driver is killed by his car, even though they used a bomb to kill their victim.  But really, how am I supposed to root for this monster?  The nominal bad guys only killed one person, but the Spectre murdered several people in quite sadistic ways, violating the law while hiding behind the guise of a lawman.  He strikes me as far more evil, and far more hypocritical, than anyone else in the film.  I found the whole thing an odious exercise, worth watching only for the quality of the animation.

Gary Cole did an okay job as Jim Corrigan/The Spectre, and Alyssa Milano was adequate but not a standout as his romantic interest.  Jon Polito, noted for his gravelly voice, had one scene as a cliched ’70s police captain who chews out the protagonist, and it came off too broad and cartoony for this short.  By contrast, animation stalwarts Jeff Bennett and Rob Paulsen filled multiple supporting roles each, and both (especially Paulsen) proved that when called upon to give more realistic, less cartoony performances than they usually give, they can rise quite well to the occasion.

Jonah Hex is in a similar vein, a dark short about an amoral protagonist.  Hex isn’t as bad as the Spectre, though; in fact, in this short, he doesn’t directly kill anyone except in self-defense.  The script is by noted horror and comics author Joe R. Lansdale (who previously wrote Jonah Hex for animation in the Batman: TAS episode “Showdown”) based on a comics story by Justin Gray, Phil Noto, and Jimmy Palmiotti, and revolves around a beer-hall madam who ropes in wealthy johns and kills them for their money.  Hex comes in looking for a man she killed, and basically just takes her on so he can find and claim his bounty (dead or alive, I guess).  She gets her comeuppance in a way that’s theoretically as horrific as the Spectre’s tricks, but not as immediately or flamboyantly lethal.  I guess Hex didn’t bother me as much as the Spectre because he’s not going out of his way to kill people, just doing whatever it takes to get his bounty.  Hardly admirable, but not quite as vile.

All the shorts take advantage of their PG-13 rating to show more violence than a TV cartoon could get away with, but this is the only one that pushes the envelope in terms of sexuality, dealing as it does with a number of prostitute characters.  Still, it’s kept fairly implicit, and there’s no skin beyond cleavage and legs.  But my main problem with the character design is one that’s pretty much endemic to modern comics — all the prostitutes seem to have uniformly large and round busts, which would be statistically unlikely in the days before silicone implants.  On the other hand, they seem to be fairly full-figured otherwise too, not ultra-skinny.

Thomas Jane is adequate as Hex, and Linda Hamilton is effective as the madam.  The surprise here was Michelle Trachtenberg, who gave a very good vocal performance in a minor role as a bar girl.

I’ve saved Green Arrow for last because it was the most satisfying of the shorts, thanks to a strong and enjoyable script by Greg Weisman (Gargoyles, The Spectacular Spider-Man, Young Justice).  Weisman has a flair for witty dialogue as well as strong characterization, and both are on display here.  This is a light, upbeat version of Oliver Queen, superbly played by Neal McDonough.  He’s at the airport to meet Dinah Lance/Black Canary when he gets caught up in rescuing a 10-year-old (but precocious) princess from assassination.  The action isn’t quite as spectacular as in the Captain Marvel short, taking place more on a mortal plane (no airport pun intended), but is quite well-handled, aside from the implausible ease with which Ollie shakes off being shot through the leg by an arrow.  (Also, there’s a regrettable mismatch in tone when Green Arrow arrives and makes a “Sorry I’m late” wisecrack just after all three of the princess’s security guards have been killed.  Being late cost three lives — hardly something to make light of.)  Black Canary shows up at the end, and her character design is particularly beautiful — and mercifully they left out the stupid fishnet stockings of her comics design in favor of more conventional hosiery, presumably because fishnets are hard to animate.

There aren’t any real cast standouts other than McDonough; Malcolm McDowell (Merlyn) and Steve Blum (Count Vertigo) have too few lines each to make any real impression.  But it’s always good to hear Grey DeLisle, who briefly reprises her B:TB&TB role of Black Canary (though with a more natural voice than the 40s-vamp TB&TB version), as well as doing every other adult female voice in the short.

The special features on this DVD include four episodes of past DC-based animated series, one for each of the featured characters.  Most of the choices are obvious or inevitable.  Jonah Hex is represented by the aforementioned “Showdown,” the larger of his two DCAU appearances.  The Spectre is represented by B:TB&TB’s classic “Chill of the Night!,” the only episode of any animated DC series to focus on the Spectre (his only other appearance is a brief one in the teaser of a later TB&TB episode).  Captain Marvel is represented by Justice League Unlimited‘s “Clash,” the episode where Jerry O’Connell first played the Big Red Cheese and his only focus episode of that series.  (I assume they didn’t go with TB&TB’s “The Power of Shazam!” because it would’ve been largely the same story as the short.)  But Green Arrow is represented by JLU’s “Initiation,” which was his debut appearance in that series, but far from the strongest episode to feature the character.  I would’ve gone with something like “The Cat and the Canary” or “Double Date.”

Anyway, what this means is that the special features add up to about 88 minutes of material… while the main features on the DVD add up to only about 61 minutes.  That’s just kinda weird.  I wouldn’t have liked having to wait longer to see these shorts, but I wonder why they didn’t accumulate a few more before putting out a collection of them.

And while I’m at it, I should mention that, although its animation wasn’t on the feature-quality level of the shorts, “Chill of the Night!” is the most satisfying production on this entire DVD.  It’s the best handling of Batman’s origin story ever made for film or television.  It’s a shame that Batman: The Animated Series never got to tackle the origin because of FOX Kids’ strict censorship of violence, but if they had, I doubt they could’ve done it better than this.

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