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What would SFTV have been like in the STAR TREK universe?

One of the characters in my novel Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations: Watching the Clock was Clare Raymond, the 20th-century housewife from TNG’s “The Neutral Zone,” and while working on scenes involving her thoughts and recollections, I got to wondering what mass-media science fiction would’ve been like in a universe where there was no Star Trek TV series in the ’60s. I vacillated between positing a reality that simply lacked such a series altogether and inventing a substitute series that could go in its place and fill the same role. (I was tempted to use Astro Quest from the CSI episode “A Space Oddity”. Galaxy Quest wouldn’t have worked, since it was supposedly made in the ’80s.) I ended up going the former route, but I didn’t really develop it in detail.

But the subject recently came up in a thread on the TrekBBS,  and I got into a more in-depth analysis of the subject, which I want to repost here.

The thing is, Star Trek had such a major influence on popular culture that it’s hard to imagine how different the media landscape would be without it. Star Trek did a lot to make science fiction a more respectable genre in the mass media. It pioneered or popularized many aspects of the modern fandom experience — conventions, fanzines, even slash fiction. The success of ST in syndicated reruns proved that reruns were more viable than broadcasters had thought and led to a rise in rerun use and a decrease in season lengths. Later on, TNG’s breakthrough success in first-run syndication paved the way for the syndication boom of the ’90s.

So without Star Trek, there might never have been a Xena or a Babylon 5. Not to mention all the shows that have spawned directly from Trek veterans like Michael Piller, Ron Moore, Ira Steven Behr, Robert Hewitt Wolfe, Rene Echevarria, and so on. There’s no telling if they would’ve ever gone into SFTV if not for ST. If it hadn’t existed in the ’60s, then SFTV and first-run syndication in the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s would be a lot sparser. Heck, without B5 breaking new ground in serialized storytelling, we might not have as many of the heavily arc-driven shows we have today, in SF or otherwise. It’s a ripple effect.

Without ST, sci-fi would probably have maintained a reputation as kid stuff, since the most successful exemplars of the genre in TV would’ve been Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Lost in Space. I think my conjecture in Watching the Clock that the bionic shows would still exist is pretty sound, since they were based on a novel and weren’t really seen as hardcore sci-fi; series producer Harve Bennett wasn’t an SF-oriented type and wasn’t very familiar with Star Trek prior to being pegged to produce the movies, so his ’70s career wouldn’t have been affected much by the absence of ST. Ditto for Bionic Woman creator Kenneth Johnson, who went on to do The Incredible Hulk, V, and Alien Nation. If Roddenberry hadn’t made his mark in SFTV, maybe we’d look back on Johnson as the man who proved that science fiction could be an adult genre, though that proof would’ve come along much later. And we might’ve still gotten Earthbound genre shows like The X-Files and Buffy.

And would there even have been a Star Wars without Star Trek? In the Trek Nation documentary, George Lucas says he’d attended some Trek conventions before creating Star Wars, and he says ST helped pave the way for SW by proving that sci-fi could be successful — and that it could be produced impressively on a tight budget. So without ST, with mass-media American science fiction in the ’70s lacking that one massive success story, would any movie studio have been willing to take a chance on Lucas’s idea to do a Flash Gordon pastiche as a big-budget movie? If they had, it probably wouldn’t have been called Star Wars, a name that I’ve read Lucas chose because it evoked Star Trek. And it might’ve been a much smaller, lower-budget film, and there would’ve been less of a pre-existing genre fanbase for it. And its effects might not have been as sophisticated, since the FX studios for Star Trek pioneered new techniques on that show. Without Star Wars as we know it, there wouldn’t have been an ILM, let alone a Pixar. Sci-fi and fantasy wouldn’t have become the giants in the motion picture industry that they are in our world; the films and franchises that would never have been made are too numerous to list. Nor would there have been a Battlestar Galactica or Buck Rogers in the 25th Century or Jason of Star Command. And without Donald Bellisario cutting his genre teeth on Galactica, there might never have been a Quantum Leap.

So probably the biggest SF fan community would be for Doctor Who, and maybe Blake’s 7 would have a big following too. England would most likely be seen as the vanguard of science fiction in popular culture, though SF would be seen as a genre characterized by cheap production values, and thus would have trouble gaining more than a niche fanbase in the US.

And what about all the people inspired to become scientists and engineers because of Star Trek? If that show had never existed, then modern technology might be less advanced in some respects. There might not have been as much incentive driving people to invent flip phones or pad-style computers. Which might explain why some aspects of technology do seem to have advanced more gradually in the Trek universe itself, although its 20th century clearly had much more impressive progress in crewed spaceflight and genetic engineering than ours.

So all in all, as utopian as Star Trek‘s 22nd through 24th centuries are, it looks like their 20th and early 21st centuries would’ve been rather deprived where mass entertainment was concerned. Maybe that’s why ST’s characters are mainly fans of detective fiction and Westerns and gothic romances and the like — maybe science fiction never really caught on outside its particular niche audience.

THE LEGEND OF KORRA: Thoughts on episodes 1-2 (Spoilers)

This past weekend, the premiere episodes of The Legend of Korra, the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender which debuts on television next month, were made available for legal online viewing on KorraNation.com.  They were only up for the weekend, and are apparently gone now, but I watched the episodes twice, and here are my thoughts.  If you didn’t catch them over the weekend, then you may want to hold off reading this until after they premiere on Nickelodeon on Saturday, April 14 at 11 AM Eastern.  I’ll try to avoid any huge spoilers, though.  (This is mostly a repost from my review on the Ex Isle BBS.)

This was a great beginning, a gorgeously made continuation of the Avatar universe. The animation was spectacular, feature-quality work, continuing everything that was great about the original but ramping it up. It felt like a Miyazaki film, even more than A:TLA did. Even the 3D computer animation on the cityscape and airships was very smoothly integrated with the 2D animation; the opening shots of the cityscape and the statue of Aang looked like paintings but had 3D movement. The “satomobiles” (cute) looked a little more like digital constructs when in motion, but I guess that’s been done for so long that today’s viewers are probably used to it, and it’s certainly not unprecedented for this franchise.

Korra is a good character, well-played by Janet Varney. She’s got a nice strong voice that reminds me of both Mae Whitman (Katara) and Cricket Leigh (Mai). It took me a few minutes to realize it, but in a real sense, Korra is Aang, or rather the same soul in a new life. And she does have Aang-like qualities in her impetuousness and self-doubt, and in her impulse to heroism. But she’s different too, and her difficulty with airbending drives that home. She’s a lot more aggressive than Aang, and a lot less polite.

Great to see “Master Katara” again, but it’s a shame that Aang, Sokka, and evidently many of the others are gone. That’s surprising, really, considering that it’s only been 70 years and A:TLA showed us a number of characters who were well over a century old. I guess they wanted to keep the A:TLA characters’ presence to a minimum so they wouldn’t overshadow the new cast and storylines, but it’s still a bit odd.

Oh, and that was wicked of them to tease us about what happened with Zuko’s mother. (I think that story’s being told in the new comics.)

It’s interesting to hear J. K. Simmons as Tenzin; I’m used to hearing him play angrier, sterner characters (J. Jonah Jameson, Generator Rex‘s White Knight), so I didn’t initially recognize him in this softer-spoken role. Although Tenzin does seem to have a Jameson-esque temper boiling beneath the surface. It’s interesting… he’s Aang and Katara’s son, but he takes more after Sokka in appearance and maybe in some aspects of personality (though he’s serious, not the jokester Sokka was).

And I guess that “roll eyes skyward, then give a world-weary sigh” business is pretty clearly going to be Tenzin’s “thing,” but what’s impressive is that the animators have him do it a bit differently each time. I love the attention to detail. Joaquim Dos Santos is probably the best animation director in television (though credit should also be given to his co-director here, Ki Hyun Ryu), and it’s great to see his work again.

Not sure I’m crazy about the sports focus that emerged in episode 2, but it was well-handled. The climax was entirely predictable, but the execution still moved me.

I still find it surprising that they’ve gone so quickly from the early-industrial tech of A:TLA’s Fire Nation to this early-20th-century environment with cars and electricity and radio and cameras. But then, this is a world where it took them about six months to go from the Mechanist’s first prototype hot-air balloons to a fleet of massive war zeppelins. I guess they’re just very, very efficient. But I would’ve liked it if the tech had been a little less advanced, a little more steampunk and bending-based.

By the way, if Republic City is in the former Fire Nation colonies, then Air Temple Island can’t be older than about 70 years. So how come there’s a 2000-year-old teaching aid there? I guess it could’ve been moved there from somewhere else, but that line still threw me. (Not to mention that I doubt wooden flats like that could survive 2000 years outdoors.)

In episode 2, the pro-bending folks are surprisingly blase about discovering the Avatar is on their team. I mean, the Avatar’s kind of the most important person in the world, this deeply sacred figure. It’s kinda like having the Dalai Lama or the Pope join a sports team. Yet the sports folks merely had a few moments of surprise and then just rolled with it. That seemed like something got glossed over for the sake of pacing.

Also, one thing that concerns me a bit is that so far, all the bad guys seem to be male. I know Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee are tough acts to follow, but it’s just not an Avatar-verse show without awesome, kickass young ladies on both sides.

On reflection, one other thing has been bugging me a bit.  Korra is worth watching for the gorgeous animation and rich characterizations and good music and such, but so far there’s very little sense of danger or high stakes.  By the end of episode 2 of A:TLA, we knew that the world was torn apart by war, that Aang had an urgent mission to pursue, that he felt guilty for abandoning the world and allowing the war to happen, and that he and his friends were being pursued by a driven and capable enemy who’d already done a lot of damage to Katara and Sokka’s home and would stop at nothing to capture Aang.  There was a clear, palpable sense of danger and urgency.  Here, though, the stakes don’t seem all that high.  The opening narration sets up the current situation but doesn’t give any indication of danger or trouble.  The first episode does establish the core conflict in Republic City — the unrest between benders and non-benders, the crime and social inequality, the risk of failing to fulfill Aang and Zuko’s vision for the city.  It suggests that Korra has a role in resolving those problems, and it introduces the villain Amon who will be her main rival.  But this is all more potential than actual at this point, and then episode 2 de-escalates things and spends the whole time focusing solely on Korra’s training and character interactions.  So any sense of high stakes hinted at in episode 1 faded in episode 2, and it’s hard to feel at this point that what we’re seeing is anywhere near as important as A:TLA’s saga.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional episode that has low stakes and focuses on character rather than danger and fighting.  “The Headband” in A:TLA’s season 3 is such an episode, and it works very well.  But if the intent was to debut the series with two back-to-back episodes, then it would’ve worked better to have a second episode that escalated things like “The Avatar Returns” did.  As it is, it feels kind of like the producers are coasting — like they expect us to watch out of loyalty and so aren’t trying as hard to give this series a really compelling storyline.  I’m hoping that subsequent episodes will prove otherwise, but the opening of this series is simply not as narratively strong as that of its predecessor.

Unreality SF Story of the Year voting — final ballot

Thanks to your nominations, Star Trek: DTI: Watching the Clock has made the top ten list and is thus on the final ballot.  Here’s the page where you can cast your vote for the final award:

Ten top tie-ins

The top ten list includes three Star Trek novels, two Star Wars novels, a Doctor Who novel, three Doctor Who audio dramas, and a Torchwood radio play.  You can vote for only one winner (multiple votes from the same IP address will be disregarded), and the poll is open for the next seven days (through the end of Sunday, April 1).

What a ravioli-ting development!

Last week, I got a bag of frozen spinach-and-cheese ravioli at the store, and I failed to realize how big it was before I dumped the whole thing into the pot.  (It’s been a while since I had ravioli, so I’m a little rusty.  I was thinking in terms of those smaller packages that are only 2-3 servings.)  So I ended up with a whooollle lotta leftover ravioli in the fridge, four meals’ worth in addition to the first helping I had.  Thus, I’ve spent the past several days trying to devise a different topping for each one.

I had the first helping with alfredo sauce (so I could finish off the jar), which was okay.  But for the second, I decided to do something experimental as a way of using up some more leftovers.  Earlier I’d gotten a jar of vegetarian Cincinnati-style chili, which I hadn’t enjoyed too much in the context of a 4-way (served atop spaghetti with diced onions and grated cheddar) or a cheese coney (same toppings on a hot dog), but that was reasonably good when I got a can of kidney beans to make a 5-way (which should be self-explanatory at this point).  But that left me with a lot of leftover kidney beans as well as chili, and I decided to top my second helping of ravioli with chili and beans.  Which worked surprisingly well, I thought.

The third serving was topped with red sauce and sauteed onions and green peppers — which was kind of disappointing, I think because that brand and variety of red sauce didn’t work well in that context.  The fourth was simply with olive oil, a chopped garlic clove, basil, and oregano, along with a salad.  That was rather good, particularly thanks to the garlic.  And today I had the final serving, which I had with the same red sauce (I usually only have one jar at a time), but I added turkey meatballs and peas to the mix and sprinkled on some parmesan.  That was actually pretty interesting too.  Though maybe not quite as interesting as the chili ravioli.

Now I’m finally out of leftover ravioli.  So what’s for supper…?

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Nominations now open for Unreality SF Story of the Year award

The Unreality SF blog, which concentrates on SF/fantasy media tie-in fiction, is taking nominations for its annual Story of the Year award.  As they put it:

 Starting today, you can nominate three stories. At the end of the week, we’ll count up the suggestions to find the ten that are most popular.

Next Monday, we’ll post that final shortlist and give you seven days to pick one absolute favourite.

And then the authors of the first- and second-placed stories each get a block of glass with their name engraved in it.

This is for any licensed work of prose or comics tie-in fiction published between the start of March 2011 and the end of February 2012.  Two of my own works are eligible:

  • Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations: Watching the Clock, Pocket Books (May 2011).
  • Star Trek: Typhon Pact: The Struggle Within (eBook), Simon & Schuster Digital Sales Inc. (October 2011).

And if you need suggestions on how to fill that third nominating slot (or, heck, the first and second as well if you prefer), here are links to some of my fellow tie-in authors’ posts listing their eligible titles:

Keith R. A. DeCandido

David Mack

Dayton Ward

So go and do as you will with this information.

ONLY SUPERHUMAN now available for pre-order!

Looks like Only Superhuman is starting to show up online.  A book database called Risingshadow.net has posted the cover blurb for the novel (though it may be tweaked a bit before publication):

 In the future, genetically engineered superhumans, inspired by classic Earth comic book heroes, fight to keep the peace in the wild and wooly space habitats of the Asteroid Belt

Only Superhuman by Christopher L. Bennett2107 AD: A generation ago, Earth and the cislunar colonies banned genetic and cybernetic modifications. But out in the Asteroid Belt, anything goes. Dozens of flourishing space habitats are spawning exotic new societies and strange new varieties of humans. It’s a volatile situation that threatens the peace and stability of the entire solar system.

Emerald Blair is a Troubleshooter. Inspired by the classic superhero comics of the twentieth century, she’s joined with other mods to try to police the unruly Asteroid Belt. But her loyalties are tested when she finds herself torn between rival factions of superhumans with very different agendas. Emerald wants to put her special abilities to good use, but what do you do when you can’t tell the heroes from the villains?

Only Superhuman is a rollicking hard-sf adventure set in a complex and fascinating future.

And we’re starting to see some pre-order links showing up too!

Pre-order Only Superhuman at Barnes & Noble

Pre-order Only Superhuman at Amazon.com

The Risingshadow site has a page of multiple ordering sites for the novel, most of which don’t have the book yet, but if you’re interested in alternatives to the big vendors, you might want to bookmark that page.

Both the big vendors have the book at a considerable discount, currently marked down to $14.50 from the list price of $24.99, but don’t worry — my royalties are based on the list price, so I still earn the same amount even when you pay less (as long as you buy it new rather than used).

So far only the hardcover edition is available for pre-order, but I’m told there will be an e-book version released the same day as the hardcover.

Revisions and rewrites

I’ve been occupied lately with revisions on the spec novel I recently finished.  So far I haven’t had any luck reducing its length, but I’ve been able to make some refinements.  In particular, I realized that I hadn’t done enough to develop the setting for Part 3 of the book.  I’d been too focused on what made it a physically impressive environment and hadn’t done enough to establish it culturally.  So yesterday I reworked a significant scene, changing its setting and action to one that gave a better sense of the character, life, and history of the place.  It was a better context for the dialogue in the scene as well, letting them both work together to convey the things I was going for.  I may need to make a few more adjustments in that vein, but it’s definitely a major improvement.

Hopefully I can finish this draft over the weekend, though, since I’ve got the first-pass galley pages for Only Superhuman coming soon.  I’ve already gotten the PDF, but I don’t have the means to edit it (no Acrobat, only Reader), so I’ll need good ol’ paper and red ink again.

SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: The rest of Season 1 (spoilers)

Continuing my run through the Season 1 DVD set:

“Little Orphan Airplane”: The most entertaining episode yet, courtesy of writer Elroy Schwartz (brother of Gilligan’s Island creator Sherwood Schwartz, though some sources say he’s Sherwood’s son and IMDb says both).  A US agent played by Mission: Impossible stalwart Greg Morris is shot down over Africa, Steve parachutes in to save him, they’re taken in by a pair of very funny Dutch nuns, and Steve bionically rebuilds the plane so they can escape.  Effective and fun on every level, except for the fact that most of the anti-American rebels in this African country have wholly American accents.

“Doomsday, and Counting”: Gary Collins plays another cosmonaut friend of Steve’s who’s working to convert an old Soviet missile base into a base for a joint US-Soviet Mars mission, but an earthquake endangers his fiancee and they must go down into the depths to save her, oh, and defuse the nuclear self-destruct mechanism while they’re at it.  William Smithers is a Soviet general who bonds with Oscar as they mutually agree to stay and support the people down below in their hopeless effort to defuse the bomb.  A nice one, though it again suffers from the blatantly American accents on the Russian characters.  (Collins’s lines were clearly written to convey “foreigner speaking slightly stilted English,” and he even delivers them that way, yet without trying to change his accent at all; it’s bizarre.)  It’s fascinating to see the Soviets again portrayed in such a friendly light; the episode basically treats the Cold War as a relic of the past and looks forward to a new era of cooperation.  I wonder, were US-Soviet relations really this warm in 1973-4, or was this a consequence of US television being reluctant to risk antagonizing the Soviets by portraying them as outright bad guys?  And Collins’s proposal for a nuclear-powered Mars rocket was poignant to hear, given that in 1974, this would’ve actually been seen as a realistic possibility for the relatively near future.

“Eyewitness to Murder”: Steve identifies a sniper (Gary Lockwood) with his bionic eye and must try to save a federal prosecutor while keeping his classified abilities secret from the authorities.  Decent, but a classic example of the much more leisurely pace of ’70s TV, to the point that it gets tedious at times.  The best part is the interplay between Oscar and Steve early on, when Oscar is trying to talk Steve out of getting involved in a civilian matter.  The dialogue between friends on opposite sides of an issue feels very real and natural and Anderson is in superb form.

“The Rescue of Athena One”: This episode by former Star Trek story editor D. C. Fontana comes close to being an absolute classic.  Majors’s then-wife Farrah Fawcett-Majors plays the first American female astronaut, trained by Steve and clashing with him at first.  (And yes, her famous hairdo is there as well at the beginning and end, though she spends most of the episode with her hair tied back and is hardly recognizable.)  When her mission suffers an accident that injures her copilot, a rescue mission led by Steve must rendezvous with them at Skylab and figure out how to get them down safely.   The early stuff at NASA is magnificent; as with the pilot, it has great verisimilitude and feels like the Moon-landing stuff I actually watched on the news when I was a small child.  It’s a palpable reminder of how the Space Age looked to us back then in the early ’70s, when we really believed we’d continue forward from Apollo rather than all but giving up on manned spaceflight.  I almost wept at getting to relive what it felt like to be in those times.  And the idea of the US sending a woman into space nearly a decade before Sally Ride was an engaging fictional premise, another facet of this show’s delightful optimism about the possibilities of spaceflight in the ’70s.  Unfortunately, this marvelous vision of spaceflight is badly undermined by the episode’s zero-budget effects (pretty much entirely stock NASA footage and simulation animations/paintings) and the worst attempts to fake zero gravity that I think I’ve ever seen (you could see the characters moving their upper bodies as if to pretend they were floating between handholds, but due to inept directing, the camera was far enough back that you could clearly see them walking).  So, yeah, a marvelous evocation of the golden age of spaceflight, except for the actual spaceflight parts.

“Dr. Wells is Missing”: Alan Oppenheimer makes his first post-pilot appearance as Rudy, who’s lured to Austria and kidnapped by a bad guy hoping to force Rudy to make a bionic goon for him.  Steve tracks him down and manages to get himself caught, but Rudy is clever and resourceful at conning the bad guys.  But the head bad guy tricks Steve into revealing his bionics and pits him against several of his goons in a slow-motion gauntlet.  A mediocre episode aside from Rudy’s resourcefulness, and there are moments where Steve is remarkably callous about dealing with bad guys in lethal or potentially lethal ways, more so than I remember him being or than was typical for ’70s action heroes (indeed, in the pilot and “Little Orphan Airplane,” Steve made a point of not wanting to use guns or lethal force).  It is notable, however, as the first time that the later-familiar “ta-ta-ta-ta-tang” sound effect was used to represent Steve wielding his bionic strength — although it’s only used once that way and is then, bizarrely, used twice more to accompany a freakishly but naturally strong goon swinging a lamppost at Steve.

“The Last of the Fourth of Julys” (Shouldn’t that be “the Fourths of July?”): Bad guy Steve Forrest (plus a young Kevin Tighe) plans to use a laser in a major terrorist strike, and Steve must be trained for an infiltration mission involving being launched in a torpedo, climbing a cliff, and pole-vaulting an electric fence.  (Here it was established that jumping a 30-foot fence even with a pole was at the very limits of Steve’s capabilities; I think maybe later his jumping ability was amped up in the usual sort of power drift that superheroes tend to get.  But then, maybe Rudy made some improvements.)  But the radiation from his nuclear-powered bionic limbs tips off the bad guys’ sensors (hope you weren’t planning on having kids, Steverino) and he’s caught.  But not to worry, double agent Arlene Martel helps him escape and sabotage the laser, and again Steve is a lot more casually lethal in dealing with the bad guys than I remembered.  Interesting mainly for the training sequence, the idea that Steve had to be specially prepared for a mission instead of already being a superagent ready for anything.

“Burning Bright”:  This is William Shatner’s notable guest turn as Josh, an astronaut friend of Steve’s whose brain gets supercharged by some kind of “electrical field” in space, rendering him superintelligent but unstable.  It’s an interesting and unusual episode by screenwriter Del Reisman, more a character drama than an action piece, and at times quite a compelling one as Steve tries to help a friend who’s becoming increasingly, tragically beyond help.  I’m enjoying the extent to which this season has embraced Steve’s astronaut identity almost as much as his secret-agent identity, and the way it continues to reflect the seventies’ sense of optimism about the future possibilities of manned spaceflight.  Of course, even watching the show back in its initial run (though probably a couple seasons later than this), I was aware that the show’s space program was a whole lot more active than the real one, but still, it’s an enjoyable alternate history to revisit.  The episode does have a few drawbacks, though.  There’s some silly technobabble about “the Sun as the origin of space” (origin in the coordinate sense, not the generative sense, so it could be worse) and about how Oscar’s OSI computers are somehow able to prove the validity of Josh’s ideas from a distance and with only Steve’s single-sentence summaries to go on (and it’s amusing to see the idea of testing something on a computer presented as a major investment of funds and effort that only a government agency was capable of).  In fact, Oscar’s whole presence serves little purpose beyond contractual obligation.  There are some silly bleepy sound effects representing Josh’s “computer brain.”  The climax is a little weak, and Shatner is kind of hammy at times, though otherwise not bad.  Also, Shatner’s wearing the scraggliest and most unflattering toupee I’ve ever seen on him, though not the fakest (that would be the one in the first TekWar movie).  Overall, though, it’s still an excellent episode (and is producer Harve Bennett’s favorite, as well as his first time working with Shatner, whom he’d later work with on several Star Trek movies).

“The Coward”: Another strong dramatic episode, though with an action plot too.  Steve is sent to retrieve sensitive files from a recently-discovered WWII plane that crashed just outside of China, and learns that his long-lost biological father was accused of bailing out of the plane in cowardice and causing his crewmates’ deaths, so he’s on a quest to learn the truth about his father as well.  It’s an excellent script from Elroy Schwartz (and uses the same location seen as the mission house in Schwartz’s earlier “Little Orphan Airplane,” also involving a plane wreck), and in addition to giving us a couple of nifty scenes with Steve and his mother (Martha Scott), it features a bumper crop of Star Trek veterans, predominantly George Takei as an Army mountain-climbing instructor who trains Steve, and also including France Nuyen (“Elaan of Troyius”), Ron Soble (“Spectre of the Gun”), and stuntman/actor Robert Herron (“Charlie X,” “The Savage Curtain”).   Also notable for two more uses of the “ta-ta-ta-ta-tang” sound effect for Steve’s bionics in action in the climactic fight, once when he swings a heavy pole, once for a flying kick.  So far if there’s an underlying theory to their use of that sound effect, it seems to be “use for things forcefully swung through the air during slow-motion shots.”

“Run, Steve, Run”: After two gems, the abbreviated first season ends with a whimper, and worse, with a clip show.  Well, it’s only partly a clip show.  Dr. Dolenz (Henry Jones), the robot builder from “Day of the Robot” (who pronounces it “robut” like Dr. Zoidberg on Futurama), has been hired by George Murdock to build more robuts, but he wants to build bionic robuts so he observes Steve from afar and causes an accident to test his strength.  Even though it looks like an assassination attempt, Steve somehow deduces that it was the work of someone who knows he’s bionic, and spends a lot of the episode reminiscing about villains who knew of his abilities, starting with the bad guys from “Population: Zero” and “Dr. Wells is Missing” before finally remembering “Day of the Robot.”  Oscar, however, is bizarrely complacent for the head of an intelligence agency; when presented with the possibility that his most secret and valuable asset might be under threat, he doesn’t take even the most rudimentary precautions, but just dismisses Steve’s concerns as his imagination and tells him to go on vacation.  So we get a bunch of fairly tedious horse-ranch stuff (mainly involving convincing a highly skilled, tomboyish young horsewoman that she should stop trying to compete with men and embrace being pretty and feminine) before Dolenz finally captures him.  (The fact that half of Murdock’s lines are complaints that Dolenz’s plan is taking too long to get anywhere should’ve tipped off writer Lionel E. Siegel that he was in trouble here.)

In general, I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed Steve’s wit, the casual, deadpan snark with which he deflects questions about his bionic powers (“I eat a lot of carrots”) or interrogation by villains (“What is your name?” “Must’ve slipped my mind.  It’ll come back to me.”)  He was quite the wisecracker, and it’s a style of wit that Majors’s particular, narrow range as a performer is well-suited for.  Still, there were times in the more dramatic episodes — particularly when playing against Shatner in “Burning Bright” and doing emotional scenes with Steve’s mother in “The Coward” — where Majors’s limits as an actor work against the story.

Overall, though the Larson-produced pilot movies and some episodes like “Operation Firefly” were in the vein of the cheesiness I thought I remembered, the first season as a whole was much smarter and more sophisticated than I remembered, especially in the latter half.  (And you know, I’m surprised how much I’ve forgotten about this show, given how constantly I used to watch it in first run and reruns in my younger days.  I guess it’s been off television for a pretty long time now.)  On the other hand, I hadn’t realized just what a low budget this show had, with very little in the way of optical effects aside from Albert Whitlock’s work in the second movie.  It relies mostly on stock footage, slow motion, and judicious editing to convey action (or sometimes not so judicious, as for instance in “The Last of the Fourth of Julys” where a shot of Steve grappling a rock in stateside training is reused when he’s on the actual mission in the Pacific).  I wonder if that continued in later seasons.

The bonus features on the season 1 DVD set aren’t that great.  The highlight is a 74-minute interview feature with Harve Bennett, just him talking about the show without any cutaways or clips or images.  It was mostly interesting, and I learned some things, like the fact that the voice in the opening titles saying, “Steve Austin.  Astronaut.  A man barely alive” was Bennett himself.  But it went on maybe a bit too long, and some portions of it are used in three of the other features.  There’s a feature on real-life bionics which is kind of interesting but a bit superficial.  There’s one on the construction of the main title sequence which is pretty interesting, and one about the first-season guest stars that’s kind of dull (and mis-edits a part of Bennett’s interview talking about Majors’s relationships with Farrah Fawcett vis-a-vis Lindsay Wagner so that something he actually said about Majors & Wagner’s friendship and chemistry was misrepresented as being about Majors & Fawcett).  And there’s an “interactive dossier” about the bionic parts that’s really just a bunch of clips of their various uses in the show — cute at first but not worth watching every clip.  And the features don’t include things I would’ve liked, such as more discussion of the pilots and maybe an episode commentary or two.  So all in all, not a great set of features.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid I have to stop here, since Netflix doesn’t yet have the later seasons available for rental.  I guess this turned out to be a pretty brief review series, at least for now.  (They do have The Bionic Woman, apparently, but I don’t want to revisit that until I’ve gotten through season 2 of 6M$M, since I don’t want to jump ahead in the continuity.)

Finished! (sort of)

I just completed writing the epilogue of my spec novel.  After doing the last scene of the climactic chapter yesterday, I wrote the last two chapters (counting the epilogue) today.  I don’t know how many words that was, but it was a lot for a single day’s work.  Things tend to go faster when I’m wrapping a story up.

All in all, I’m fairly pleased with how it turned out.  It still needs some refinement, probably some streamlining of the first two parts, but I’m pretty satisfied with the climactic third “act” and the ideas and worldbuilding I got to develop, not to mention the characterizations (and this book has a pretty large cast of characters that was a challenge to keep track of and serve adequately; I needed to keep extensive notes).  For a while I didn’t think it would ever come together cohesively, and I had my doubts about the revised premise, but right now it feels like it works.  Which, of course, is not definitive, not so long as it’s purely my opinion.  I’ve gotten a lot of rejection letters for stories that felt to me like they worked.

But at least I have a complete manuscript, a story with a beginning, middle, and end.  So I can look at it as a whole, revise it, and eventually shop it around.  If nothing else, I’ve finally reached a completion point after being stalled for a couple of years, and I can move on to new goals.

Which is good, because it’s the start of development season for 2013’s Star Trek novels, and I need to come up with a proposal.  Plus I need to get back to that Hub story in progress.  Still, I’ll probably do a full revision pass or two on the spec novel first.  And I’d like to cut it down some.  It came out to a whopping 138,600 words, which I think is a record for me.  Hopefully I can trim off a fair amount of chaff.

Go back east, slightly less young man!

Like I briefly noted on Facebook yesterday, I’m back home from my trip to Madison now.  It was a pretty good family visit, though there were some family members I only saw briefly.  I spent most of Friday by myself in the hotel, since I got in early, and since the rest of my family members who came into town arrived at the Milwaukee airport Friday afternoon and needed to drive very, very slowly through the snowstorm to get to Madison.  I finally met them for dinner in the hotel restaurant, and finally got to meet my near-namesake cousin, S. Christopher Bennett, the paleontologist.

Yes, for some reason, a lot of the naming choices for Uncle Emmett’s children were duplicated by his younger siblings when they had kids.  So in this gathering we had two Christophers, two Cynthias, and two Kathleens.  Fortunately we had one each who preferred to go by the full name and one each who used a nickname, so we had Christopher (me) and Chris, Cynthia and Cyn, and Kathleen and Kathy.

The big event on Saturday was the memorial service for Emmett at the care facility where he spent the last years of his very long life.  I learned a lot about my uncle and his historic career.  I heard from his colleagues and students about his work as a classical scholar and teacher, the Socratic way he guided his students to answer their own questions rather than just giving them the answers.  I learned from Uncle Clarence about Emmett’s work decoding Japanese transmissions during WWII; he didn’t speak Japanese, but he used his brilliant pattern-recognition skills to decipher the codes.  I learned from his friends and family about his personal reserve and quiet nature.  A lot of the gathering consisted of long silences as we just sat together and thought, and I think that was a very fitting tribute.  I learned about qualities in Emmett that I have in myself, but that he had the dedication to take much further, like the way he made it a personal project to ride his bicycle along every single stretch of road in Madison, and kept a detailed map marking his progress.  I have that same near-compulsive completism about some things, and the same desire to list and catalog things, though I wouldn’t have the energy to take it that far.  He never cheated by driving out to a distant road and doing a token ride along it; he always started from home and rode out all the way, no matter how remote the road.

I also got to page through a copy of Emmett’s seminal dissertation, the analysis and detailed charts of Linear B symbols that were the key to allowing Michael Ventris to translate the script.  The sheer meticulousness of it is astounding.  And I got to see some family photos I hadn’t seen before, including one from the early ’40s of my grandparents, their four children of varying ages, my great-grandmother, Emmett’s wife, and one of Emmett’s children (he was considerably older than his siblings, and my father was the youngest).  That was quite interesting.

So after that we went back to the hotel and had a big family dinner in the restaurant, 13 of us in all.  I’d had some cookies and juice at the reception so I wasn’t too hungry, so I just ordered a salad and a bowl of turkey and rice soup that turned out to be delicious.  I thought the salad would be smaller than a dinner entree, but it actually turned out to be bigger, at least in volume.  I had leftovers which I took back to my room and had as an early breakfast the next morning, since it was a few hours before the remaining family members in the hotel (some had left early) got together for Sunday breakfast/brunch.  Immediately after that, we went out to the Olbrich Botanical Garden.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to come along, and only got talked into it because it would be more convenient for the others if I brought my car so they could split up into two groups for different events afterward.  But I’m glad I went.  I didn’t know in advance that it was a tropical conservatory we were visiting.  There were a lot of cool and interesting tropical plants there, some of them very interesting to look at, others interesting for their important uses as food, medicine, etc.  When we got to the chocolate tree (cacao), I bowed to it in obeisance.

Afterward, I drove Uncles Clarence and Harry (both retired physics professors) over to the University of Wisconsin for a tour of the physics department.  We got lost, because Clarence hit the “Campus” entry on his GPS thingy and for some reason it turned out to be the campus of a tiny elementary school a couple of miles from the university.  So he had to call his friend who was meeting us and relay directions over the phone while I drove, and let me tell you, I never want to do that again, because it’s not very safe.  One shouldn’t drive while distracted; it splits the focus too much.  (Using hands-free phones doesn’t help, contrary to popular belief.  The danger isn’t having your hands occupied, it’s having your brain occupied with conversation rather than paying attention to the road.)  We eventually got there in one piece, though, and it was a cool tour.  They had all sorts of nifty gadgets and Mythbusters-esque devices for demonstrating physics to students, and some fancy classrooms with elaborate audiovisual systems and gas, electric, and water taps for demonstrations.  I was jealous, because my physics classes in college were in an outdated, poorly lit, depressingly painted building with no display technology more advanced than overhead projectors and chalk.

The three of us ended up going back to the hotel and having to forage for lunch, and I ended up splitting some of Harry’s leftovers from previous meals with him while we talked.  Uncle Harry (actually my uncle-in-law, Aunt Shirley’s husband) has had a pretty impressive career in physics himself.  I was deeply impressed to discover that when he was in grad school at the University of Cincinnati, his advisor was Boris Podowlsky, one of the three physicists (the others being Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen) who first proposed the concept we now know as a wormhole.  I had no idea that Podowlsky had taught at UC, even though I was a physics major there for five years.  And that puts me only three degrees of separation from Albert Einstein!

Dinner on Sunday was a couple of pizzas that we had delivered to the hotel, one Mediterranean and one chicken Alfredo, which were both pretty good.  I got to keep all three leftover pieces (2 of the former, 1 of the latter), since I was the only one whose travel plans made it feasible to take them with me.  Luckily I kind of like cold pizza, and I had an in-room fridge.  I had the chicken piece for breakfast Monday morning; since it had meat, it was better to eat it right out of the fridge rather than after several hours of driving.  The other two slices became lunch.

Aside from all these family events,  I luckily managed to get a lot of writing done on my spec novel’s climactic sequence.  I didn’t quite get it finished before Monday morning, though.  I did spend a fair amount of time writing on Monday morning, so that I ended up leaving toward the end of my preferred departure window (I had to leave fairly early if I wanted to get home before dark).  But I still had the end of one scene and the entire climactic scene (well, the first of two consecutive climaxes) unwritten, and I wrote them in my head while driving — so I just had to take out the computer and write them down when I stopped for lunch at a “travel oasis” just west of Chicago.  Which meant I spent an hour at lunch, which meant I was still in eastern Indiana when sunset came.  However, the skies were clear, so there was plenty of twilight and it didn’t get genuinely dark until I was just minutes from home.

Oh, and it turns out that the timing of events was such that I was in my hotel room during most of the airtimes for TV shows I wanted to see, and they had all the appropriate channels, so I only missed one show — and I just found out that my damn DVR didn’t record it.  (It’s gotten increasingly unreliable — I should get it replaced, but I’d probably lose the shows I have stored on it now.)

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Very good timing

I got into the hotel in Madison around 11 Central this morning, and luckily they had a room already prepared, so I’ve spent the past few hours doing some writing and taking a nap.  Then I turned on the TV to see reports of tornadoes tearing through southern Indiana.  Granted, if I’d left home this morning instead of the day before, I’d probably be near Chicago by now, but I’m sure I would’ve had some rough weather to pass through even without the tornadoes.  On top of what’s going on elsewhere, the snow’s been coming down outside my hotel window since shortly after I arrived.  So I got very lucky at dodging the weather, which is a nice change from my last road trip and the near-constant downpours I had to endure.

I just hope the weather doesn’t cause problems for my family members who are flying in this afternoon.

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Not quite there yet…

I’m posting from a motel in southern Wisconsin, about 40 miles from my destination.  Seems odd to stop so close, but I set out a little too late this morning so I wouldn’t have been able to make it before it got dark (since it was pretty heavily overcast), plus I didn’t have anyplace to stay in Madison yet, plus there was a coupon for this motel in one of those rest-stop coupon circulars. Plus it’s an extremely inexpensive motel (with the coupon), which is good, because I neglected to choose a Google Maps route that minimized the amount of tollway travel.  The way I-90 in Indiana/Illinois handles tolls is strange to me, after having experience mainly with the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  On the latter, you get a ticket when you get on and pay when you get off, proportional to how far you traveled.  Here, you just have to go through a bunch of different toll booths scattered seemingly at random along the route, and charging widely varying fixed amounts from 0.60 to 3.50.  It seems rather inefficient by comparison.

Although the most surreal moment was when one of the tollbooth cashiers asked me, “Are you finding everything okay?”  I guess she formerly worked in retail or something, because I don’t know what that question would mean in the context of tollway travel.   Unless it’s “are you finding your exits/turnoffs okay,” which would make it a roundabout way of asking, “Are you lost?”

Looks like southern Wisconsin is in for snow and rain tomorrow, so I’m probably best off waiting until mid- to late morning to get back on the road.  Which will hopefully give me more time to get some writing done.

Oh, the coolest thing I saw on the road today was in Indiana, when I passed through the most enormous windmill farm I’ve ever seen — literally dozens if not hundreds of windmills stretching as far as I could see.   Not only fantastic to see so much clean energy being generated, but it’s just awesome to look at.

(What they really ought to do is put a bunch of little wind turbines alongside all the freeways, harvesting energy from the wind of cars and trucks zooming by.  I’ve seen it seriously proposed, and I think it’s a great idea.)

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