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SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps. 17-18 (Spoilers)

January 30, 2014 1 comment

Just doing two in this post, since these next few came out pretty long:

“Look Alike”: As the title suggests, this is our second impostor story in three episodes (although it aired after a 2-week hiatus, so it was just under a month after “The Return of the Robot Maker”). While Steve is on a fishing vacation, using his bionics to cheat and catch more fish, a lookalike for Steve shows up at the OSI and convinces Oscar to leave him to lock up his top-security vault for the night, whereupon he takes spy-cam photos of everything in it. He also convinces Oscar to show him “the Omega Project,” which seems to be just a laser/holography research project, so it’s unclear why it’s so top-secret or has such an ominous name. And I have to say, for someone who was replaced by an android duplicate less than a month before, Oscar is remarkably unsuspicious about the flaws in the fake Steve’s impersonation. Anyway, the impostor’s employers — including a man called Breezy (Robert DoQui) — have sent some thugs to take out the real Steve at the lake, but he bionics them into submission and goes back to Washington. On spotting him, the impostor anticlimactically runs into traffic and gets killed. Learning that he’s an ex-boxer, John Dine, who had plastic surgery and studied recordings of Steve’s voice, Steve decides to turn the tables and impersonate Dine to get to his employers and the stolen films.

Making time with Dine’s girlfriend, Steve learns of his manager Jasper, who’s played by The Incredible Hulk‘s Mr. McGee himself, Jack Colvin. Steve tries to get info from him about Breezy’s bosses, but Mr. McGee warns Steve that he wouldn’t like Breezy when he’s angry. (I’m sorry. I had to.) Indeed, Breezy tries to have him killed, but Steve survives (in part by throwing a piece of wood at a stuntman who would’ve been missed cleanly if he hadn’t deliberately lifted his arm to be struck), then bionic-boxes Breezy into submission to get him to take Steve to the big boss, leading to a climactic fight with a bunch of thugs (including Dick Durock) in a boxing arena, one which I recognize from other Universal shows including an Incredible Hulk episode or two. Boxer George Foreman is crowbarred into the story as an OSI agent who shows up in the last act to help Steve pummel the thugs, and then grills him (I’m sorry, I had to) about where he got such a strong right hook.

This is a mix of a formulaic plot used in countless old TV series with a contrived setup for a George Foreman guest appearance, so it’s not all that impressive, but it has a few noteworthy features. For one thing, Lee Majors is surprisingly good at giving Dine a different voice and personality in the one scene where we get to see him out of character. Sometimes Majors proves he’s a better actor than he usually seems to be, and that just makes me wonder why he doesn’t do it more often. There’s also a full original score which is pretty good, and amusingly features some Nelson Riddle-ish trumpet stings when Steve bionically punches Breezy in their bout (although there’s no BAM! or POW! superimposed on the screen).

Most notably, this is a key episode in the evolution of the “ta-ta-tang” sound effect. It’s consistently used for everything Steve does with his bionic arm, as well as for a bionic kick — and at one point it’s even used in the boxing ring to represent his footwork on the mat (I guess he was moving his feet really fast or something?). And it isn’t used for George Foreman’s punches, even though he’s shot in slow motion too. It still isn’t used for bionic jumps, but this is the first time it’s been unambiguously coded as a “bionic” sound effect rather than a “forceful motion through the air” sound effect.

One thing that struck me — the last episode ended with Steve taking some vacation time, and this one began with Steve on vacation. It made me realize — for a show about a government agent, 6M$M has surprisingly few episodes involving government missions. I’d say only five of the season’s seventeen episodes so far (“Nuclear Alert,” “The Pioneers,” “The Pal-Mir Escort,” “The Cross-Country Kidnap,” and “The Last Kamikaze”) have had a government mission for Steve as the driving factor of the plot, although a few others (including this one) have had him take on an assignment as a consequence of the inciting incident. And the international-intrigue elements are always so nebulously defined. This isn’t the spy show the pilots set it up to be.

“The E.S.P. Spy”: Okay, so sometimes it’s a spy show. One of Steve’s many never-before-seen friends, Harry (Dick Van Patten), is arrested for selling secrets to the enemy, since he’s the only person who knows all the details of the laser weapon he’s designing (not the same laser project as last week, apparently) and a component he hasn’t even put on paper yet has been built in the Ukraine (the closest the series has come yet to identifying the USSR as an enemy; in the pilots and season 1 they were portrayed in more friendly terms). We’ve already been shown that it’s actually the titular psychic spy reading his mind with the help of a mental power booster device. Oscar lays out the damning evidence that Harry’s the only possible culprit, but as a total non sequitur, Steve guesses that his mind has been read. Oscar is a skeptic, even though he’s already met a telepathic alien in “Straight on ’til Morning,” but Steve takes him to meet a “super-psychic,” a teenage girl named Audrey (Robbie Lee), who has an annoying, maudlin voice that sounds very much like Sniffles, the cutesy mouse character from those very early Chuck Jones cartoons before he learned how to be funny. Audrey can read minds with perfect clarity, but still struggles to learn her school subjects. Huh?

Somehow, just being shown that psychics exist in general is enough to convince Oscar that a psychic is actually being used in this specific instance, which doesn’t make any sense. Not only is this a basic logical fallacy, but the scientist studying Audrey claims there are only 4-5 “super-ESP people” in the world, so statistically speaking it’s still overwhelmingly more probable that Harry just turned traitor. Nonetheless, Oscar and Steve free Harry and tell him to pretend to work on a fake project. Dudes! Don’t tell him that, the psychic’s going to know what he thinks! Except we later see Harry working on the fake project with an echoey voiceover of Oscar’s instructions, which is a standard Hollywood device to tell us that he is thinking about that, and yet somehow the power-boosted psychic doesn’t notice it. Meanwhile, Steve and Audrey drive interminably around Malibu psychically scanning houses (which surely constitutes an illegal search and violates an amendment or two) until they find where the bad guys are, and…

Um. You know how I’ve been saying they sometimes cheat by applying bionic effects to actions any ordinary person could perform? This time, Steve, while parked on the street in front of the house, uses his bionic eye to zoom in on… the address plaque by the front end of the driveway.

Yes. He needs his bionic eye to look at the one part of the property that’s specifically designed to be legible from the street.

Oh yeah, and then there’s the part where Steve is attacked on the beach by some thugs, and then later — while he and Audrey are searching for a mind-reading enemy agent — he wonders how the enemy could possibly have found out where he was.

(Safety tip: facepalms and bionic arms don’t mix.)

So Steve decides the way to keep this teenage girl safe while he goes after the bad guys is to drop her at a gas station, give her money, and tell her to go to the airport and fly home all by her lonesome. Were the ’70s really that innocent? He needs to drop her at the gas station so she can call Oscar from a phone booth, since for some reason they’ve switched cars since an earlier scene where they had a car phone. There’s actually dialogue earlier mentioning the car switch, but it feels kind of arbitrary. And why wouldn’t the new car also have a phone in it? If Steve could afford to rent one car with a phone, why not two? The OSI is paying his expenses, after all.

Okay, so Steve breaks into the bad guy’s house and gets captured, and the first thing he does is tell the bad guys that the false intelligence Harry’s been feeding them to sabotage their project is false. Um, why, exactly? Doesn’t that kind of defeat the whole purpose of feeding them false intel? Gee, he goes on so few spy missions that he must be out of practice. Anyway, he gets a tranquilizer injected into his bionic arm (how the heck did the bad guy find a vein?) and fake-thinks something that the enemy psychic reads that convinces the bad guys to bug out, I’m not sure how or why. Then he just attacks them and beats them up anyway, and I wonder why he didn’t do that to start with. And then we get an awkward scene on the beach where Steve tries to teach Audrey a shallow self-affirmation mantra to compensate for the crushing insecurity about being a weirdo that she’s exhibited exactly never prior to this scene. Which means my final auditory memory of this episode is that whiny voice just going on and on and on and oh gods why did this have to be the last episode I watched before going to bed?

And it won’t even be the last time we have to endure her voice. She’ll be back in another episode in season 3. *shudder*

So… yeah. The worst episode yet. It combined the ’70s obsession with “ESP” with a story seemingly written largely as an excuse to let the production crew spend a week in Malibu. No new music, but there were some brief reprises of some very nice cues from earlier episodes, which were just about the only worthwhile things here.

Well, I lived through the ordeal of “The E.S.P. Spy,” and now the healing can begin, for next comes the long-awaited debut of “The Bionic Woman!” Oh, Lindsay Wagner… you make everything better…

New Star Trek projects: DTI: The Collectors and two more Rise of the Federation novels!

January 27, 2014 7 comments

Now that the contracts have gone through (after some delay), I’m finally able to announce my next three Star Trek projects.

DTItentativeFirst, probably sometime later in 2014, is my return to the Department of Temporal Investigations series, in an e-novella exclusive entitled The Collectors. That’s right, it’s not a full-length novel and it won’t be on paper, but at 35,000 words it’s a pretty hefty novella. And it’s a story I had a great deal of fun writing, delving deeper into two elements from Watching the Clock that I’ve been eager to explore in more depth: The Eridian Vault, where the DTI stores dangerous temporal artifacts (sort of a Warehouse 13 for time travel), and the mysterious Agent Jena Noi of the 31st-century Federation Temporal Agency. Unlike WTC or Forgotten HistoryThe Collectors isn’t about weaving together time-travel episodes from the TV shows, although it does feature one significant onscreen guest star in addition to established DTI characters like Lucsly and Dulmur. Instead, this was my chance to tell an original story driven by the DTI characters and concepts themselves, to just cut loose with them and play with the potentials of a time-travel narrative unfettered by the need to fill in the blanks of this episode or that movie. It was enormously fun to write, and I hope it’s as much fun to read.

Tower of Babel coverMy other, probably less surprising, announcement is that I’ve been signed for two more Enterprise — Rise of the Federation novels to follow this April’s second installment in the series, Tower of Babel. Book 3, tentatively titled Uncertain Logic, will be out in early 2015, and Book 4 will probably arrive in early 2016 (there’s a 10-month gap between the due dates for the two manuscripts, so the interval between publication dates may be about the same). The two books will each stand on their own but have a common story arc connecting them, with the latter story arising from the consequences of the former. (That’s why I got contracted for the two books together. I thought I’d have to talk my editor into that, but she was just, “Sure, I’ll start the paperwork.”) And both books will continue to flesh out ideas from Enterprise, reveal the origins of elements from The Original Series and beyond, and feature original worldbuilding and exploration as well.

In this case, I haven’t started the manuscript yet; indeed, I turned in the outline for Book 3 just last night, and the outline for Book 4 is in more skeletal form, to be fleshed out more once Book 3 is written. But I feel pretty confident about where I’m going with the storyline, which will continue to challenge, deepen, and evolve the characters and hopefully bring some surprises. Oh, and the good news is that I’ll have more room for it. The first two RotF books were in the 80 to 85,000-word range, but these will be heftier tomes; I’m free to go up to 100,000 words. (Which means I should be able to include a subplot I had to cut out of Book 2 for length. Technically I’ve already got 4000 words of Book 3 written!)

SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps. 13-16 (Spoilers)

January 25, 2014 2 comments

“Lost Love”: Steve is reunited with Barbara Thatcher (Linda Marsh), an old flame whom he was willing to marry but who couldn’t stand to compete with the time demands of his astronaut training, so she left him and married an older man, scientist Orin Thatcher. But Oscar tells Steve that Dr. Thatcher died in a plane crash at sea three months ago, so Steve promptly shows up at Barbara’s door (he says he got her name from the phone book, but didn’t do her the courtesy of calling first) and starts in with the re-romancing. He promises to take it slow, but Steve Austin doesn’t do “slow” (unless you count slow motion), so we go right into a courtship montage consisting mostly of stock footage of Washington, DC landmarks at which Majors and Marsh are conspicuously not present. After he drops her off that night, she’s attacked by a couple of badly-acted thugs (neither of which is even credited) and Steve saves her. Oscar explains her late hubby was working on a gas to purify the air in case of bioweapon attacks, and the baddies may think she knows the formula, so he assigns her protection, though Steve insists on doing the bulk of it himself. Although when he’s with her, he’s clearly not only interested in guarding her body.

But before he can get past first base, Barbara gets a phone call from her not-dead hubby, who’s apparently defected to the “Begarian” embassy in Lisbon and insists she come to him immediately. Steve insists on tagging along, and they’re met by the embassy attache Markos (Joseph Ruskin), who explains to Steve that Thatcher has defected. (Orin Thatcher is unfortunately not played by Torin Thatcher — they got Jeff Corey instead.) Steve is shocked when, after talking with her husband, Barbara says she’s staying with him. But all is not as it seems; he’s actually faked his own defection to help another scientist defect in the other direction (by insisting they work together in a neutral country, thus getting him out from behind the implied Iron Curtain). Steve helps them escape the embassy, and naturally Barb goes back to her heroic hubby.

This is a decent episode, but it’s undermined by the fact that Linda Marsh, to put it simply, is no Lindsay Wagner. She’s blandly pretty, but doesn’t have a great deal of charisma and tends to overact. Plus the outcome of the relationship is rather predictable, although one could say that about every romance episode in a ’70s TV show. Still, maybe it’s unfair to “Lost Love,” but I can’t help being aware that the 2-parter “The Bionic Woman” begins only six episodes from now, making this episode feel rather extraneous, like a failed first draft.

I’m starting to realize that a lot of the bionic stuff in this show consists of beats that could’ve easily been done without bionics — like Steve using his bionic eye to look at someone who’s just downstairs and across the room, or using his bionic arm to shove one of the thugs into a wall. A lot of the time they’re just using slow motion and sound effects to make fairly conventional beats play as superhuman. Although he did get a fair amount of legitimate bionicking, like jumping over a car when the thugs tried to run him down (though the wire catches the light and becomes quite visible when the stuntman descends), breaking a wooden beam he’s been chained to (though one would think his left arm would’ve been broken/dislocated in the process), and using infrared vision to take out the bad guys in the dark. The “ta-ta-tang” is used for Steve jump-kicking a door open, so it’s still technically being used for people or things moving sideways in slow motion, but the lines are starting to blur a bit more. It’s still never been used for bionic running, jumping, or feats of strength that don’t involve rapid horizontal motion of some sort.

“The Last Kamikaze”: A private defense contractor (Ed Gilbert) confesses to Oscar that they were illegally shipping a prototype tactical nuke aboard a passenger aircraft that just went down on an island in the South Pacific. The contractor warns that the prototype could be detonated by fire or shock (seriously? A nuke?), not to mention the danger if it falls into the wrong hands. Cut to the wreckage on the island — and at this point I was thinking it would be so perfect if Gilligan came into the frame. But no, it’s John Fujioka as Kuroda, your standard “WWII Japanese soldier who doesn’t know the war is over” type. (Come to think of it, Gilligan met one of those too.)

The first team sent in gets attacked by Kuroda, and the island is in “another country’s” territory, so Oscar sends in Steve along with a Filipino guide, Gabella (Robert Ito), who has experience tracking down Japanese soldiers who don’t know the war is over (were they really that common?). He guides Steve through various booby traps but then falls afoul of one himself; Steve saves him from a grenade but gets caught in the blast and knocked out. Gabella feels his bionic arm and gets no pulse, so assumes he’s dead and reports to an ally, revealing he’s an enemy agent looking for the bomb. (That’s hard to reconcile — why not just let a booby trap get Steve?) Kuroda shows up and conveniently chooses Steve’s left wrist to feel for (and find) a pulse. He also rifles through Steve’s wallet, revealing that Steve’s address is 13537 Federal St., Washington, DC, and his number is 555-7892. (Oddly, that info is on his OSI ID card rather than a driver’s license.)

Anyway, what follows is a rather predictable tale of Steve trying to convince Kuroda that the war is over and Kuroda being all kamikaze this and bushido that, with Steve eventually protecting Kuroda from Gabella’s men and winning his respect. It’s kind of a nice character interplay, and it comes to a rather touching resolution, but it has some conceptual problems. For one thing, there’s the episode’s assumption that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were something unprecedented, that those were the only two Japanese cities destroyed in the war. In fact, at the time the atomic bombs were dropped, most of Japan’s major cities had already been destroyed by a systematic Allied firebombing campaign, some of them suffering even greater damage than the atomic bombs inflicted (at least in the short term). The other problem is that the episode treats convincing Kuroda that time has passed and technology has advanced as equivalent to convincing him that the war is over. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. Okay, he’s probably lost track of exactly how much time has passed, but he was a teenager when he crashed on the island and is fiftyish and bald as of this story, so surely his own body must be sufficient proof that a long time has passed. It shouldn’t be a shock to him that it isn’t the 1940s anymore, so there’s no reason that alone should convince him that America is no longer Japan’s enemy.

There’s also a bit of a conceptual mismatch toward the end, since in the climactic action it looks very much like Gabella shoots one of his own men (whom Steve has hurled toward him) and then gets felled by a land mine, but then in the tag Oscar says he and his men will be put on trial. I understand they wanted to tone down the violence, given the show’s popularity among children, but this one seemed to be sending mixed messages.

Oliver Nelson contributes a mostly original score again, with some Japanese-sounding elements to it, but not to the point of caricature.

“Return of the Robot Maker”: Henry Jones is back as Dr. Dolenz, last seen in the first season finale “Run, Steve, Run.” This time, Dolenz has built a near-perfect “robut” replica of Oscar (he still pronounces it Zoidberg-style), one that can even eat and drink — and it’s supposed to be unclear who it is until he puts the face on, but it’s clearly Richard Anderson’s voice coming out of the robut (though the hairline of the faceless robut is completely different). While Dolenz tranks Real Oscar and substitutes Robut Oscar, Steve is chatting with Barney Barnes (Troy Melton), a wannabe Q who’s kind of the inverse of a cliche: a field agent who desperately wants to get into the lab. So he’s invented various spy gadgets he shows off to Steve, all but one of which will inevitably come into play in the course of the episode. (The odd one out is a bulletproof glove to protect Steve’s bionic hand. Wouldn’t it make more sense for the left glove to be bulletproof?)

So anyway, Robut Oscar is a great improvement over Dolenz’s first robut, giving a performance that totally convinces Steve, aside from the minor glitch of being able to drink large quantities of wine or scalding coffee without being affected. (But he has a pretty good sense of humor, chalking it up to a cast iron stomach.) At dinner with Steve and a couple of ladies (and Steve’s date seems more into Oscar), he gets a call from Dolenz and pretends it was “the Secretary” ordering Oscar to use Steve to test the defenses of a secret government facility. He tells Steve it’s a mock exercise that the facility will be in on, but of course that’s a lie. This serves two purposes: one, as a distraction to let Robut Oscar photograph the secret plans (which are in a heavy vault that for some reason is not locked), and two, to kill off the one person who could detect and stop Robut Oscar. (Does this mean Steve is Oscar’s only friend close enough to recognize any flaws in the impersonation, or the only one familiar with Dolenz robuts? What about Rudy Wells?) But one of Barney’s inventions is a really thin bulletproof vest, so when Robut Oscar and Dolenz think Steve is dead (overlooking the conspicuous lack of blood), he’s able to trail the automaton and interrupt him and Dolenz before they can bump off the real Oscar. There’s a half-hearted attempt at “which one is the real Oscar,” but Dolenz forgot to design his robut to sweat, so Steve has no trouble discerning them. A superfight ensues, with plenty of ta-ta-tanging from both Steve and Robut Oscar, but still in the usual contexts. Steve ultimately karate-chops the robut’s head off, and Oscar decides to keep it as a macabre souvenir. The last shot is a closeup on the robut’s head in Oscar’s hand, actually Richard Anderson’s head matted into the shot and turning back and forth — which I think is the most elaborate optical effect this show has ever done up to this point, and surprisingly well-done by this show’s primitive VFX standards. When you throw in the split-screen shots of the two Oscars, this is probably the most opticals-heavy episode in the series so far.

Oh, one more category of opticals in this episode: Shots of Steve running are matted into the security monitor in the installation. Hilariously, Steve is running in slow motion on the monitor while the security officer’s hand is moving at normal speed — and then the officer voices amazement at how fast he can run!

One more case of the show dressing up normal action as bionic: A bionic-jump sound effect is added to a shot of Lee Majors vaulting a low fence entirely by himself, no stunt doubles, no springboard, no cutaways, no slow motion. Okay, technically any jump made by Steve is a bionic jump, but it wasn’t a super-jump, so it’s kind of stretching the point.

Despite the quibbles, this is actually a pretty fun episode. It’s quite insubstantial, with no real character drama or emotional conflict or thematic weight, just pure plot and action. It’s probably the shallowest episode of the series so far, though probably just the kind of episode the network wanted. It has another original score, though not as strong as the “Day of the Robot” score was. I’m actually surprised Nelson didn’t reprise the robot motif from that episode.

“Taneha” is the name of an endangered cougar, the last male of his subspecies, that ranger Bob (Jim B. Smith) is trying to capture and take to a preserve. But E. J. Haskell (Jess Walton) wants to kill it to avenge her father’s death, and the local ranchers want to kill it for preying on their livestock. When Bob is injured by the very cougar he seeks to protect, he calls in his old friend Steve, the only man he knows with government contacts, to try to get an injunction to protect the cougar. It must be a slow week at the OSI, since Oscar tries to help Steve with this problem (in his one brief, contractually obligated scene in the episode), but doesn’t have the right contacts in that branch of the government. (Maybe he should’ve said he wanted to make the cougar bionic.) So Steve decides to catch Taneha himself. The ranchers tell him to take E.J. as his guide, knowing she’ll do her best to sabotage his efforts. (They insist on calling him a “dude,” i.e. a city boy/Easterner out of his element in rural country,  despite Lee Majors’s downhome accent coming out more strongly than usual.) Indeed, she tries to ditch him, but isn’t counting on his bionic speed.

Of course, this is 1975, so even though the episode is written by a woman (former Star Trek scribe Margaret Armen), E.J. can’t just be a tough woman, she has to be a tomboy desperately trying to be the son her father wanted and ashamed even to acknowledge her feminine given name (Ellen Jane). She’s got such a huge chip on her shoulder about Taneha that she seems to genuinely believe the Paiute legend that the cougar is a demon. She’s so broadly painted in her hatred that it’s unconvincing when a little talking-to by Steve in the climax leads to a complete turnaround as she protects Taneha from the hunters.

For the most part, this is a weak episode. Even by the standards of a ’70s show with no story arcs, it feels like filler, and the conflict is too histrionic and melodramatic. Jess Walton is striking to look at, with beautifully dark, intense eyes — the kind of woman who makes me understand the saying “You’re beautiful when you’re angry” — but prone to overacting. And the ’70s gender attitudes make it hard to like her character or Steve’s relationship with her. On the plus side, though, she and Majors have pretty good chemistry. The high point of the episode is the final scene where, their mission achieved, Steve and E.J. just hang out on the courthouse steps watching small-town life go by, and Steve is happier and more in his element than we’ve ever seen him. It feels like they just pointed a camera at Lee Majors and let him ad-lib — he’s never been so animated and natural and charming, never come alive so much until this scene. It’s loads of fun to watch, and almost worth sitting through the rest of the episode.

Nothing gets bionically thrown or swung through the air here, so no ta-ta-tangs, though the bionic-eye boops get quite a workout as Steve scans for the cougar by day and night. (I was about to say I’d forgotten how much use the show made of Steve’s infrared vision, but then, when I watched this show growing up, it was on a black-and-white TV, so I just wasn’t aware of the red filter they used for that effect. I’m sure I saw it in color later on at least once, but not enough that I remembered this.) The most interesting thing here technically is that several shots use what we now call speed ramping, going from regular speed to slow motion and back within a single continuous shot to show Steve shifting gears. Presumably they shot the whole thing with a high-speed camera and removed frames from the portions they wanted to play at normal speed. But it’s an interesting stylistic innovation in a mostly unremarkable episode.

We’ve found water on Ceres!

This just in from Space.com:

Water Found on Dwarf Planet Ceres

Astronomers have discovered direct evidence of water on the dwarf planet Ceres in the form of vapor plumes erupting into space, possibly from volcano-like ice geysers on its surface.

Using European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory, scientists detected water vapor escaping from two regions on Ceres, a dwarf planet that is also the largest asteroid in the solar system. The water is likely erupting from icy volcanoes or sublimation of ice into clouds of vapor.

This is big news. It’s a major scientific breakthrough, proof of something that’s only been suspected about Ceres up to now, and it comes a year earlier than I expected, since the Dawn probe won’t reach Ceres until early 2015. It also has important ramifications for our future in space. In Only Superhuman, I established Ceres as the primary source of water and organic molecules for space habitats throughout the Main Asteroid Belt and inner system. This was based on astronomers’ estimates that Ceres might potentially have more fresh water on it than Earth does (since most of ours is salt water). Now we have verification for that, and it confirms (or at least makes it far more likely) that future space colonists and asteroid miners will have access to abundant sources of water without needing to lug it up out of Earth’s gravity well or go clear out to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

It’s also nice to get confirmation that what I put in my novel wasn’t wrong. Although it never occurred to me to mention a water-vapor atmosphere or cryovolcanoes in my descriptions of Ceres. Just as well, I suppose, since the volcanoes are unconfirmed. If and when I get to do a sequel, hopefully the timing will be right to work in Dawn’s findings. Hmm, the article says it’s more likely just sublimation, but I’m hoping for icecanoes (to use the Doctor Who term). Those would be cooler to write about. (Literally…)

Categories: My Fiction, Science

SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps. 9-12 (Spoilers)

January 22, 2014 1 comment

“Act of Piracy”: Steve is on a research vessel laying earthquake sensors in the Caribbean (introduced via an oddly antique map at the start of the episode), near the island nation of Cuba Santa Ventura, which has just broken off diplomatic relations with the US. Oscar warns Steve to get out of there, but Steve can’t be bothered with petty politics, since he has important sciencing to do. Not to mention flirting with team member Sharon (Lenore Kasdorf), who’s really hot (and braless — I love the ’70s) but only has eyes for the sciencing. Anyway, there’s a spy on board who arranges for the ship to cross within the 12-mile limit so that the Venturan General Ferraga (Carlos Romero) can arrest them on trumped-up espionage charges to embarrass the US, or something. (The Santa Venturans have no specified political ideology beyond general villainy.) They strike just when Steve is down in a diving bell that looks antiquated even by ’70s standards, and the spy makes sure he isn’t brought up before Ferraga’s lieutenant cuts Steve’s line and sends him to the bottom (leading Sharon to lament later that she wasted the opportunity to be his latest weekly conquest). Not to worry, though! Steve has his bionic powers, so he escapes certain death by… um… putting on an oxygen tank, opening the bell’s hatch, and swimming to the surface, just like any other competent diver could probably have done in the same circumstances. I dunno, maybe he was supposed to be kicking the hatch open with his superstrength, but it didn’t play that way. (The lack of a standardized bionic sound effect at this point may be creating confusion.)

Okay, I guess it would take bionic legs to swim the 10 miles to Santa Notcuba. Once there, he hooks up briefly with a token member of the resistance who only seems to be there to give Steve someone to talk to and to forward a message to Oscar, who’s on his way to an aircraft carrier to supervise… things. Then Steve breaks into Ferraga’s compound to rescue his friends, and the spy tries to warn the lieutenant, but the Santa Venturan military is kind of a bunch of overconfident idiots, which may be some kind of “lazy Latinos” stereotype, I suppose, and really undermines them as a threat. So it’s not really all that hard for Steve and his pals to escape, although Ferraga’s men chase them in a motorboat (Steve disabled their patrol boat) and Steve has to stop them from… err… shooting a few rifles at a much larger boat and somehow theoretically impeding its escape by doing so.

So, yeah, not a very substantial narrative. And it’s hampered by an apparently severe lack of budget. Oscar’s entire subplot, aside from the closing scene aboard the sciencing yacht, takes place in his car (don’t phone while driving, Goldman!) and in a tiny set representing an aircraft carrier’s cabin; the rest is Oscar talking to disembodied voices speaking over stock footage of Washington buildings, aircraft, and carriers. And there are a couple of points where Steve does underwater sabotage to Venturan boats, but they couldn’t afford the stunt/FX work so it’s all sound effects. I also could’ve done without the cheesy Latino accents. Basically all this episode has going for it, aside from Lenore Kasdorf, is the musical score. Oliver Nelson provides two new musical motifs, breaking down more or less as one for the Americans and one for the Venturans, and in the climactic action he has both of them and the main title/Steve Austin theme playing simultaneously, which is kind of confusing, but he somehow makes it work.

“Stranger in Broken Fork”: Man, does this episode have a lame beginning. While Steve is up in a jet, Oscar is meeting with Dr. Carlton (Arthur Franz), who was obviously meant to be Rudy Wells, but Alan Oppenheimer must not have been available. Dr. Fake-Rudy warns Oscar that there’s a “short” in Steve’s nuclear power pack that will cause a “bionic spasm” and nerve damage to his shoulder and neck, which Dr. Fake-Rudy reports will cause amnesia — “Amnesia!” Oscar gasps in full-on soap opera mode — and then kill him. Okay, I’m really not clear on the pathogenesis here. Shoulder damage causes amnesia, so predictably that Dr. Fake-Rudy can know in advance it will happen? Anyway, Oscar gets on the phone to try to reach Steve, but of course it’s a given that Steve will develop bionic spasmnesia while he’s up in the jet, and Dr. Fake-Rudy’s dialogue telegraphs that likelihood just like it’s telegraphed the rest of the plot. Naturally the jet goes out of control, flips over, and is going down — and the clouds behind it are upside-down too! Gee! Almost like they took stock footage of a climbing jet and inverted it. Then they cut from this scene of Steve Austin crashing an aircraft to… the main titles, in which Steve Austin crashes an aircraft. Why do they keep letting him up in these things?

Hey, this episode is directed by Christian Nyby, and the previous one was directed by Christian I. Nyby II. Son and father doing back-to-back episodes. Cool! I don’t think I ever quite realized there were two Christian Nybys.

Anyway, Steve bailed out during the commercial (cheaper that way), but now he’s lost in the woods without his memory. He runs across Angie (the striking Sharon Farrell, whom I recently saw in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘s “The Minus-X Affair,” though she’s 8 years older and more Farrah-haired in this one), who’s a psychologist running a sort of halfway house for nonviolent mental patients (which this episode interprets as mute and withdrawn — perhaps she specializes in autism?). The house is on the outskirts of a small town of bigoted hicks who hate and fear the mentally ill, because apparently Angie’s boss thought that would be therapeutic, I guess? The lead bigot, Horace, is played by the go-to actor for violent small-town bigots or fanatics in ’70s and ’80s TV, Robert Donner. He’s trying to bully Angie and her people into leaving, and takes an instant dislike to Steve when he stands up for her. Horace tries to manhandle the amnesiac Steve, who pushes his arm away without knowing his own strength, and somehow just tosses Horace bodily into a stack of cans rather than fracturing his arm or dislocating his shoulder or something.

Anyway, the rest is Steve not remembering who he is and being disturbed by the powers he’s discovering, while occasionally confronting Horace’s goons and having to fight them off. Interestingly, during the first big fight, he’s using his bionic strength, but without slow motion being used — perhaps because he doesn’t know he’s doing it? Oh, and he’s periodically experiencing twinges of pain in his shoulder, because apparently that’s where his memory center is located. Amnesia! Plus there’s a subplot about a little neighbor girl who’s curious about one of the mental patients, an elderly gardener, and whose mother is a bad guy for telling her to stay away from him, because this was the seventies and times were still innocent enough that encouraging a little girl to reach out to a strange older man wasn’t seen as a dangerous thing. Although it plays out very awkwardly, not for those reasons but just because it’s ineptly written. And in the climax, when Horace’s goons try to drive the patients away and take Steve off to be killed, and afterward when Steve has been rescued by Oscar and makes a speech to the watching townspeople about the terrible thing they almost allowed to happen, many of the shots of the townspeople (who are just standing there watching dully, pretty much indistinguishable from the borderline-catatonic mental patients) are shot in very poor quality, like 8mm home movies or something. I’m not sure if Nyby was trying to be stylish and experimental or if it was just sloppy work. Either way, it’s bizarre.

So yeah, this is a mess. It doesn’t even have new music. Farrell is a fairly entertaining presence, though, perpetually bright and brassy and optimistic and rather nice to look at.

“Stranger in Broken Fork” feels like one of those ’70s TV scripts that got dusted off and rewritten from some earlier show. The bionic elements seem tacked on to a rather generic “hero wanders into small town and helps the locals” plot. But I can’t find any similar episodes in the bios of the credited writers, Bill Svanoe and Wilton Denmark. Maybe it was a generic spec script that got tailored to this show on its first and only outing.

Sound effects watch: We get a couple of “ta-ta-tang”s for Steve throwing people through the air, and the standard bionic-jump sound effect seems to be in place now, along with the “ballistic whistle.”

“The Peeping Blonde” is the unflattering nickname for Farrah Fawcett-Majors in her second guest role on her husband’s series. She plays Victoria Webster, an ambitious reporter for KNUZ TV (pronounced “Kay-News”), who stumbles upon — and films — Steve using his bionic strength to fix a malfunction at a rocket-launch site. She tells Oscar and Steve what she’s got and that she plans to expose them, for the good of the world but mainly for her own career advancement. Even after she finds out that her film was somehow left blank, she continues to bluff them into giving her more, and Steve convinces Oscar (who’s making insinuations about having her bumped off for national security) to take them with her on their Baja vacation so they have time to convince her to keep the secret. But Victoria’s unscrupulous (and sexually harassing) boss Colby (Roger Perry) has actually swapped the films, and calls some unspecified foreign power asking how much they’ll pay for a bionic man. He hires a couple of thugs led by Karl (Hari Rhodes) to hunt down and capture Steve, and insists on coming with them.

Now, a plan depending on Steve Austin’s eloquence is flawed on the face of it, so they don’t have much luck dissuading Victoria, who goes so far as staging a literal cliffhanger in order to get film of Steve bionically rescuing her. But since she’s played by the lead actor’s wife, it doesn’t take long before she finds herself overcome by Steve’s laconic charms and begins doubting her laser focus on her career instead of all that touchy-feely stuff that wimmenz is supposed to care about. She’s almost won over when the bad guys arrive, which she takes as a ploy by Oscar to convince her of the danger she’s putting Steve in, until she discovers Colby’s really behind it — while Karl is tying her up in her camper with the gas stove turned on. (Why not just shoot her? He’s been making tough and ruthless noises all episode, and they’re in the middle of the desert with plenty of handy places to bury her body.) This, of course, gives Steve time to break free, disable the baddies, and save Victoria (the gas flow in that range must’ve been really feeble). And she’s naturally convinced to squelch the story — though she and Steve (who’s on her side) use that last can of film to blackmail Oscar into getting her a job at a Washington news station. (He demurs that he has little clout with TV news people, which is unconvincing when it comes just seconds after he was threatening to ensure her story never got broadcast.)

This is certainly an improvement over the last two episodes, and actually ties into the core ideas of the series rather than being a generic adventure. Fawcett is pretty good in her way, and we get a few minor moments of character insight into Steve as she interviews him about what he went through after the accident. There are some awkward contrivances in the story, but mostly it works reasonably well.

Musically, the score is largely stock (drawing heavily on “Act of Piracy”), but I think there’s an original motif used for Steve and Victoria’s romance (at least it’s a consistent motif, and I don’t remember hearing it in previous episodes). Sound-effects-wise, we get two uses of “ta-ta-tang,” once for Steve kicking someone out a camper door and once for him throwing someone through the air. It’s still fitting the “lateral movement through air” motif for that sound effect, but particularly in the former case, it’s starting to move toward becoming a “bionic exertion” sound effect at last. There’s also a new sound effect, a jackhammer sound as Steve drives a metal tube into a rock face to restrain the bad guys.

By the way, IMDb says that Hari Rhodes was billed herein as Harry Rhodes, but that’s wrong. It definitely said Hari.

“The Cross-Country Kidnap”: Liza Leitman (Donna Mills) is a top computer scientist who’s just programmed the government’s secret communications network, making her a target for kidnappers working for the usual undefined enemy powers, and led by Ross (Frank Aletter). She’s also an equestrian determined to compete in the Olympic trials despite Oscar’s concerns about the kidnapping rumors he’s picked up. He insists that Steve shadow her for her protection, but she insists that if she sees him, she’ll call the police and “scream rape” — and I’m not crazy about the implication of women using rape charges as deception, but, well, I don’t always love the ’70s. Although when she does catch him shadowing her anyway, he manages to convince her to tolerate his presence as a bodyguard. Which provokes the kidnappers to try to bump Steve off so they can get to Liza, it seems. And Liza’s trainer buys it in the crossfire, driving home the seriousness to her. But there’s a deeper level to the villains’ plans; the hitman they’ve hired is really a diversion for something else (though I don’t want to spoil it).

This episode seems like mostly an excuse to show off a lot of horse-jumping, though it’s not a bad story. There’s a moment where a couple of random people with no other role in the episode and no evident acting talent congratulate Liza on her form, making me think they were real Olympic equestrians making a cameo, but IMDb says nothing about them. There’s also something unusual for the ’70s under the Act 1 credits: a flashforward to action from later in the episode. (Which is something The Outer Limits did all the time in its teasers, but is generally seen more as a modern trope.) But the footage also freeze-frames under each credit, which is very ’70s.

Random production glitches: Both the villains and the OSI evidently rent their helicopters from the same company, for its logo is on the side of both. And when Steve breaks into the villains’ facility and trips their security camera, the footage on the security monitor is from a handheld camera aimed at his feet — and showing the same footage of him that’s used several shots later (another flashforward!) Musically, we get another mix of new and stock cues. Sound effects watch: We get the first use of the “ta-ta-tang” for an action that doesn’t involve something flying or swinging horizontally through the air, for a shot of Steve swinging his arms upward to disarm two guards flanking him (and somehow both arms are equally effective at this), as well as a more conventional use when he hurls a bale of hay to knock down a sniper. In any case, it’s coming to be more consistently used for Steve; it’s been a while since we’ve heard it used for anyone else.

Site update — TOWER OF BABEL discussion

Tower of Babel coverI’ve now updated my website with the Rise of the Federation: Tower of Babel cover and preliminary/non-spoiler discussion about the genesis and writing process of this book (much of which is already known to readers of this blog, but there’s some new stuff):

http://home.fuse.net/ChristopherLBennett/Trekfiction.html#ROTF2

The page also includes ordering links, hint, hint.

Hey, I just realized how much this cover resembles the cover of the latest Analog I was in:

Analog November 2013

Asking a favor of my readers

January 19, 2014 2 comments

I’ve noticed that Only Superhuman has very few reviews posted on its pages at Amazon (11 as of this writing) and Barnes & Noble (7 as of this writing). I’ve gotten a fair amount of feedback for the book in various places, so I know people are reading it and talking about it, but surprisingly little of it is showing up on those two pages. Yet I gather that the reviews on those sites help generate attention for a book, at least among their customers. So I wonder if I could ask folks who’ve read the novel to post reviews on either or both of those pages. It doesn’t matter whether you bought the book there; this is about increasing attention and discussion. And of course I’m not just soliciting positive reviews. Please be honest, but make your thoughts heard. And feel free to use the like/share buttons on those pages too. And if you’ve listened to the audiobook versions of Only Superhuman or Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder, feel free to post reviews on their GraphicAudio pages.

Only Superhuman MMPB coverIf nothing else, getting more reviews might produce a more statistically useful sample size. As it stands, OS is averaging 2.8 stars out of 5 on Amazon and 4.5 out of 5 on B&N, so clearly the samples are too small to give representative results. Of course, what I’m asking for isn’t going to produce statistically unbiased results either, but it couldn’t hurt.

Feel free to do the same for any of my other novels as well, of course, although my Star Trek novels generally get more reaction already, and my Marvel novels are out of print. Only Superhuman is the one that I think could benefit the most. Plus it would just be nice to get more feedback from my readers.