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Thoughts on BIG HERO 6 (Spoilers)

November 18, 2014 5 comments

I got my latest Star Trek novel advances yesterday, two at once (the benefit of turning in the Book 3 copyedits and the Book 4 outline pretty much simultaneously), so I braved the sudden snowburst to deposit the checks and then I went to the nearby theater to see Big Hero 6, which has been getting rave reviews. It was either that or Interstellar, but that theater has apparently stopped showing Interstellar in 3D, so I’m considering other options for that film.

So anyway, BH6 was a lot of fun, a smart and well-made film with fun characters and a nice core story about Baymax helping Hiro recover from the loss of his brother, with help from his friends. It was very well-made with some gorgeous visuals, and yes, Baymax is a very fun and charming character. Hiro was cool too, and I like the movie’s “science is awesome” message, which hopefully will inspire a lot of kids. I particularly love Honey Lemon, who’s adorable and warm and funny, and who nicely subverts gender stereotypes by being both extremely girly and extremely smart and excited about science. Hopefully she and Go Go will serve as role models to get young girls interested in science and engineering, something we need more of.

The “San Fransokyo” setting was pretty cool too, and I loved the way the city got its power from wind-turbine blimps styled as Japanese lanterns. Both gorgeous and functional. Okay, it was never actually stated outright what those things were, but I’ve heard proposals to get power from that kind of high-altitude balloon-turbine, since the winds are stronger at altitude. It’s a great idea and the movie made it beautiful — although I’m not sure it’s wise to have those things hovering directly over the city, in case they break and fall down.

I do have some quibbles. Given that the original comic this was (very, very loosely) based on was set in Japan, I’m disappointed that we got so few Japanese characters in the supporting cast. I mean, we did get Hiro, Tadashi, and Go Go in the core cast, but aside from them, the only Asian characters I recall were the participants in the underground robot fight at the beginning. Aside from them, Wasabi was black and Honey was perhaps Latina (at least, her voice actress is), but otherwise the city seemed to have a pretty whitebread population as far as speaking characters went — Fred, Aunt Cass, Callaghan, Krei, Abigail, Heathcliff, the cop, the general, Stan Lee. (Yes, Stan Lee is in this movie. I’m astonished that I was the only person in my theater, cleanup crew excluded, who stuck around for the post-credits scene and saw his cameo. You’d think people would know by now to stick around for those.) It’s nice to see such a diverse core team, full points there — but the larger world they inhabited could’ve used more than a visual veneer of Tokyo-ness. The movie’s San Fransokyo is supposed to have a more prominent Asian presence than the real thing, but it actually has a higher percentage of Caucasians than the real city does and a fractionally smaller percentage of Asian characters; the main difference is that the film’s Asian characters seem to be exclusively Japanese (the only ambiguous one being the unnamed bot-fight ringmaster), when in the real San Francisco the largest ethnic minority is Chinese. It’s commendable that the movie tries to be more ethnically diverse than most American movies, but frustrating that even such a movie still ends up with slightly less diversity than the real United States, or certainly the real San Francisco — though at least it comes relatively close to reflecting reality for a change.

I also wish the supporting team had been developed more. Go Go, Wasabi, Honey, and Fred were fun, but pretty one-dimensional, defined by one character trait each. This was mainly Hiro and Baymax’s story, and the others were secondary to it. I think if you’re going to do a movie about the origin of a hero team, there should be more development of the full team. I also would’ve liked to see them do more science and creative problem-solving in the climactic battle. There was a bit of that, with them individually “finding a new angle” to deal with their dilemmas, but I would’ve liked to see them brainstorming as a team and applying scientific principles more.

And while the climax was effective in its way, I was hoping for more. The villain (called Yokai officially, though never named that onscreen) was driven by grief over the loss of his daughter, just as Hiro was driven by grief over Tadashi’s death. We saw in Act 2 how Hiro almost went down the same path as Yokai and gave into revenge, but Baymax and the others helped him heal himself instead. I was hoping the climax would come down to Hiro talking to Yokai and helping him find a better way of facing his own grief. I think that could’ve been more powerful and moving. Okay, the climax we got tugged at the heartstrings, but in a more superficial way, since it was obvious that Hiro would find Baymax’s chip in the rocket fist’s grip. So I feel the climax was more superficial than it could’ve been.

Maybe that’s my problem — I’ve been spoiled by the best of Pixar and I was hoping for more depth and complexity in a lot of ways. Maybe I should just set my bar lower. This film may not be quite as rich as I hoped, but it’s still well-made and a great deal of fun. It more than deserves a Baymax fist bump and “Bi-de-li-de-lih!” (Or however you spell that.) I am (mostly) satisfied with my care.

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THE BIONIC WOMAN thoughts, Season 1: Episodes 10-13 and overview (spoilers)

“Fly Jaime” is a remake of the Six Million Dollar Man episode “Survival of the Fittest” by Mann Rubin, with the screenplay credited to Rubin and story editor Arthur Rowe. The story structure is about the same, except that Steve and Oscar are swapped out for Jaime and Rudy Wells, who’s making his second appearance in TBW itself — really his first, technically, since “Welcome Home, Jaime Part 1” was filmed as a 6M$M episode. In this version, Rudy is bringing home a formula for some kind of weapony McGuffin thing, which doesn’t really come up beyond the teaser except as a motivation for the bad guys to want to kill him. Jaime is undercover as the flight attendant on the charter plane taking him home, because of course she is. (She’s chosen the, um, imaginative alias of Jaime Winters.) The supporting characters are much the same — the two main bad guys with an undercover boss called Bobby, the guy with medical training who’s too squeamish to use it, etc. — but with the addition of Vito Scotti as Romero, a lecherous Italian who spends the whole episode ogling and hitting on Jaime to an extent that was creepy even by ’70s standards, although it’s still played mostly for laughs. Steve didn’t have to contend with anything like that. But the story unfolds the same way: The plane crashes, the survivors end up on an island, and the bad guys try to kill their target before the rescue plane arrives (with Oscar aboard it, making him the one character who’s in both episodes, though he doesn’t comment on the similarity).

The emphasis on Romero seems to come at the expense of another plot point or two, since the original episode’s trick of having several characters named Robert, Bob, or Roberta as red herrings for “Bobby” is dropped; there are never any real suspects for the unidentified boss. I felt the choice-of-Bobbies thing was very contrived in “Survival,” but its absence isn’t really an improvement.  There’s also a part where Jaime must reveal her bionics to the washed-up med student when he needs wires to cauterize Rudy’s bullet wound; I think that part was in “Survival” too, but it’s more awkwardly handled here, because apparently they couldn’t afford to rig up a prosthetic hand, so the whole thing is done off-camera and described in dialogue. It isn’t very convincingly played. All in all, this is an even more mediocre remake of an episode that was very mediocre to begin with.

But my favorite blooper is in the end credits. The white text of the credits had slightly offset black “shadow” text underneath to give it more contrast and legibility, but one of the white letters is missing and only the black “shadow” is visible. Amusingly, it’s on the credit that reads “Titles & Optical Effects: UNIVERSAL TITLE.” How embarrassing to make a mistake on their own name!

“The Jailing of Jaime” by Bruce Shelly is mercifully not the women-in-prison exploitation episode I feared from the title. Instead, it has Oscar assigning Jaime as a courier for a cryptographic analyzer invented by Dr. Hatch (Barry Sullivan), because — as Hatch patronizingly notes — she’s too “young and pretty” for anyone to suspect that she’s the actual courier (rather than the heavily guarded decoy). Although, of course, the teaser ends with a bad guy identifying her as the courier and assuring his boss that it’ll be the last delivery she ever makes. Dramatic music sting!

The plan is for Jaime to be helicoptered to the secret test center that night, and she meets the pilot at Ventura AFB. She doesn’t ask him for any kind of credentials or proof of identity, and at night she has no way of telling where they’re going, so it’s already obvious that she’s being set up, and that the general she meets is a fake. The next day, she finds out the analyzer is missing, and “National Security Bureau” investigator Gregory (Skip Homeier) is quick to presume Jaime guilty of selling out, throwing her in a private cell with absurdly clean grafitti on the walls (how many hardened criminals are named “Foo-Foo”?). “The Secretary” pulls Oscar off the case since he’s too close to Jaime, but he advises Jaime not to break out after she demonstrates how easily her bionic arm can bend the bars. Amusingly, once she bends the bar, it’s totally flattened by her grip, but when she bends it back, it’s perfectly cylindrical again. Who knew her arm had time-reversal powers?

Anyway, it isn’t long before she breaks out after all, which she does in order to call Oscar (breaking into a pay phone’s coin box, shame on her) and tell him about the license plate of the woman who dropped the pilot off, so she can get her address and go investigate. Why didn’t she just tell Oscar and Gregory about that right away? The whole thing could’ve been cleared up easily. The car’s license plate read “MILLE 3,” but apparently the script intended it to point to Milly Wilson (Anne Schedeen), the accomplice in question. Anyway, Jaime gets there just in time to see Milly visited by the fake general (Philip Abbott), and she follows them to Hatch’s company, finding that the “general” is actually Hatch’s assistant Naud (which was already revealed to the audience earlier). She breaks in to tell Hatch, somehow aware that Naud is pronounced “Node” even though she’s never heard it spoken. (Well, I wouldn’t have known that.) Hatch pretends to call Oscar, but of course he’s really calling Naud; he arranged the theft of his own decoder because it doesn’t work, and the whole thing was just a scheme to embezzle from the government. He plans to lock Jaime in the vault and set off the self-destruct, destroying the incriminating files, but Jaime drags Hatch into the vault with her and holds the door shut until he retrieves the incriminating files. But Naud locks them in, planning to abscond with all the loot. Gregory and Oscar arrive in time to stop him, and Oscar rather redundantly calls to Jaime about the self-destruct countdown that she can clearly see inside the vault. She manages to get out with the files and Hatch just in time. Just in time for Oscar to make a lame joke about almost going out with a bang. Then in the tag, Jaime gets a personal call from The Secretary, assuring him she has no trouble understanding his German accent. This is no doubt a reference to Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state under President Gerald Ford at the time. That’s surprising, because I would’ve assumed that “The Secretary” that Oscar answered to was the secretary of defense, who at the time would’ve been Donald Rumsfeld (in the first of his two stints in the post). But I guess Kissinger was an easier figure to make indirect allusions and jokes about.

Kind of a mediocre episode that depends on some rather nonsensical premises — Jaime not verifying the pilot’s identity, Jaime not giving a full accounting of events before her jailing. As usual, the main appeal is in Wagner’s charm and interplay with Anderson.

“Mirror Image” by James D. Parriott is almost a remake of The Six Million Dollar Man‘s second-season episode “Look Alike.” At least, the first half uses nearly the same plot beats: Protagonist goes on vacation, is replaced by a plastic-surgery double who’s sent to spy on Oscar, survives a murder attempt, exposes the impostor, then takes a chance on going undercover as the impostor despite knowing virtually nothing about them. But the specifics are different. The double is Lisa Galloway, secretary of the villainous spy Dr. Courtney (Don Porter), and she’s defined by a few simple character traits: Southern-caricature accent, chain smoking, and amorous relationship with boyfriend, all of which Jaime discovers and has to contend with in the course of her impersonation. Before then, Jaime’s vacationing in Nassau, and we get a nice look at her in a very tiny bikini before she discovers that bionic limbs don’t tan and has to cover up to maintain her secret. A henchman of Courtney’s (Herbert Jefferson, Jr.) pretends to recognize her from her tennis days and tries to murder her by drugging her drink and dumping her into the ocean in a box, an overly elaborate scheme that serves only to give her a chance to break out bionically. (One would think, also, that her reduced organic body mass would mean that a given dose of sedative would have a greater impact.) And while Steve’s double in “Look Alike” was killed before long, Lisa just gets captured but refuses to say a word. Eventually she escapes and gets to Courtney’s clinic, which Jaime has already infiltrated as her, so there’s a comedy of errors for a while before the bad guys figure out that their impostor has been… err… imposted. Leading to a showdown in the laundry room where Courtney’s vault is hidden, ending up with Oscar arriving and not knowing which “Jaime” is which (even though the real one should have Lisa’s poison darts embedded in her bionic arm, but they disappear until later in the scene), so Jaime jumps to the ceiling to prove her biona fides. Then there’s a tag scene where Jaime teases Oscar about having a double by using the life-size photographic standup of him that Courtney was inexplicably using as a target for Lisa, and it’s cute, but Oscar seems to have forgotten his own robot-double experience from the year before along with Steve’s doubling.

I guess it’s fitting that an episode about a double would end up being remade. But the episodes they’re choosing to redo are very formulaic ’70s-TV tropes, the kind of story that could be repurposed for just about any show and thus don’t have a lot of real substance or character relevance. It’s all rather superficial. And while I was pleasantly surprised at how well Lee Majors altered his performance as his double, Wagner doesn’t really do much as Lisa besides putting on a broad Southern accent. But then, the script didn’t really give her anything to work with. Lisa will return, however, in the second-season 2-parter “Deadly Ringer.” Maybe she’ll get more personality there.

The first season wraps up with “The Ghost Hunter,” written by Kenneth Johnson & Justin Edgerton. Oscar is concerned when an invisible, seemingly supernatural force is disrupting the Alpha Sensor project of Dr. Alan Cory (Paul Shenar), since it’s important to watch out for those pesky alphas, I guess. So he sends in Jaime to be the governess to Cory’s daughter Amanda (Kristy McNichol), who misses her deceased mother and feels neglected by her father, and who’s the descendant of a woman convicted of witchcraft in the Salem trials. Dr. Cory initially comes off as a cold, aloof scientist who would’ve been perfectly at home in a ’50s B-movie, but just one conversation with Jaime switches him to goofy flirtation mode with whiplash-inducing speed, and she clearly reciprocates. Cory lets on that his late wife was telekinetic, like her “witch” ancestor, before taking Jaime and Amanda out for a picnic by the lake, leading to a strange sequence where he and Jaime are attacked in their canoe by a supernaturally propelled log. There are attempts to pin the supernatural occurrences either on the ghost of Amanda’s mother or on the creepy Emil Laslo (Bo Brundin), a psychic researcher/illusionist from East Germany, who talks like a townsperson straight out of a Frankenstein movie and who may be a spy trying to sabotage Cory’s project. But it’s already obvious at this point that Amanda’s the one causing it all out of her subconscious resentments toward her father’s work and toward Jaime. After Laslo is injured (and cleared) while saving Jaime from a falling bookcase, he utters the word I saw coming a mile away, “Pol-ter-geist!” Jaime and Cory figure out what’s really going on, that Amanda’s subconscious is attacking the things she fears, so Jaime must get home, wake Amanda up, and help her understand what’s really happening — which requires getting past the Collapsing Bridge attraction from the Universal Studios Tour, which the episode was written to make use of. So Jaime uses her bionics to dodge Amanda’s subconscious attacks and gets through to Amanda in time to calm her, though not before an Exorcist riff with Amanda’s bed jumping around “telekinetically” (thanks to some special-effects air rams underneath). And afterward, Amanda is disturbingly chipper about her father’s plan to study her like a lab rat for the rest of her life, because it means she’ll finally get to spend time with him. That gal’s got problems.

A pretty predictable and corny episode, and undermined by a really lifeless, blank-eyed performance from Kristy McNichol. I remember McNichol being a really big deal back in the day, an extremely popular child star, in particular for her work in the TV series Family starting the season after this. Apparently she won a couple of Emmys. But you’d never know it from this episode, because she’s terrible in it. Paul Shenar was given such an inconsistent character that he didn’t come off too well either. The main point of interest is an early sequence where Jaime is reading a book about the ordeal of Amanda’s ancestor during the Salem witch trials, illustrated by a sort of audio flashback to the trials accompanying closeups of a painting of same. (Oddly, the accused witch is named Rebecca Putnam, which in real life was the name of one of the accusers in the Salem trials, not the accused.) It’s an interesting sequence, but has no real relevance to the story and is thus kind of a self-indulgent digression. The most noteworthy feature of the episode is that it has an almost entirely original score, by Luchi de Jesus in the first of his four scores for the bionic franchise.

The last two episodes have commentaries, “Mirror Image” by writer James D. Parriott and director Alan J. Levi and “The Ghosthunter” by Kenneth Johnson. The former commentary isn’t that good, just a couple of guys trying to remember what was going on in an episode they made decades before and being overly self-congratulatory about a rather weak episode. The latter is a thoughtful and detailed technical discussion of the production, as Johnson’s previous commentaries have been, but the mediocrity of the subject matter doesn’t help.

But I found something out. When I listen to DVD commentaries, I tend to turn on the episode subtitles so I can follow the dialogue. And the subtitle interpretation of the bionic “ta-ta-ta-tang” sound effect is “[BIONIC POWERS ACTIVATING].” Is that anything like Wonder Twin powers?

The brief first season of The Bionic Woman unfortunately didn’t live up to its early promise. Johnson’s three 2-parters that shepherded Jaime Sommers from her introduction as a guest star to her debut on her own spinoff were all quite solid and engaging, but most of the rest of the season was fairly mediocre. After “Welcome Home, Jaime,” the only really strong dramatic episode we got was the excellent “Jaime’s Mother.” “The Deadly Missiles” was relatively strong, but mostly the rest of the season consisted of fairly routine, often formulaic adventure stories that often labored to find an excuse for Jaime’s involvement in an OSI mission. Ironically, though, the percentage of episodes featuring Jaime on official missions is much higher than on the Six Million Dollar Man seasons I’ve seen. Only “A Thing of the Past,” “Claws,” and “Jaime’s Mother” don’t involve Jaime going on missions for Oscar, although “Canyon of Death” was only peripherally about a formal OSI assignment and “Mirror Image” only had the mission kick in midway through the story.

But while there were few high points, there weren’t any terribly bad ones either, just fairly run-of-the-mill ones. My least favorite were “Canyon of Death,” due to its awkward treatment of Native American issues and a really weak performance by its adolescent guest star, and “The Ghosthunter,” due to its schlocky horror-movie qualities and a really weak performance by its adolescent guest star (I detect a trend). “Claws” was pretty weak too, and frustrating in that its supposedly humane treatment of animals was actually pretty inhumane by modern standards. (I still feel sorry for that poor elephant.)Beyond the general bionic stuff, the season was remarkably light on science fiction premises. There are a few high-tech McGuffins like the radar jammer in “The Deadly Missiles” and the jet pack in “Canyon of Death,” but nothing especially beyond the state of the art for the day. The only episode that was really driven by the speculative was the telekinesis/poltergeist-driven “The Ghosthunters,” and that was more fantasy than science fiction, despite the popular belief at the time in psychic pseudoscience. This is the most SF-light season of the series, since the remaining two seasons will feature Bigfoot, the Fembots, the mad computer of “Doomsday is Tomorrow,” and the occasional alien.

All in all, this season was a reminder that American sci-fi TV in the ’70s wasn’t really all that good. The main thing the season had going for it was Lindsay Wagner’s immense charm and her interplay with the also-charming Richard Anderson. Also, it managed to be reasonably feminist and non-objectifying, perhaps thanks to Lindsay Wagner’s clout as a breakout star and her thoughtful involvement in the production. Wagner, reportedly, took her position as a role model seriously, and I definitely respect that, although I wish she’d had better stories in which to be impressive.

“The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing” now available on Buzzy Mag! (Updated)

I’m happy to report that my new novelette “The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing” has now gone live on Buzzy Mag‘s site, a day ahead of schedule. Here’s the link:

http://buzzymag.com/caress-butterflys-wing-christopher-l-bennett/

And here’s their description:

A tale of love and transhumanism in a remote and dangerous star system. There has been a division in humanity due to a horrendous accident, followed by an even more divisive war. The chasm between those two halves seem unbridgeable. Suddenly due to unforeseen circumstance, the chance to reconnect becomes a real possibility.

And they’ve been kind enough to post ordering links to Only Superhuman and The Buried Age at the bottom of the story. I appreciate that, since sales of OS have pretty much stalled; in fact, the mass-market paperback is out of print, although there is a print-on-demand trade paperback edition available as well as the e-book edition. Buzzy’s link is to the TPB ordering page, which hopefully would raise its profile a little. Which would be good, since it looks like TPB and e-book sales are the only prospects I have for earning future royalties on the book.

My home page has been updated (belatedly) with background info on the story, and I’ll try to get annotations done before too long. UPDATE: The annotations are now online. I don’t like to link directly to spoiler notes, so click the background info link, and you’ll find the annotations link there.

Please spread the word about the story on the social media outlets of your choice!

THE BIONIC WOMAN thoughts, Season 1: Episodes 6-9 (spoilers)

“Bionic Beauty”: It figures that they wouldn’t have taken long to foist a beauty-pageant plot on Jaime; this one is courtesty of writer James D. Parriott. At least Jaime herself is totally unenchanted by the prospect when Oscar pressures her into becoming Miss California to investigate some nebulous security threat at the Miss United States pageant. Helen (Jaime’s foster mother, remember), who comes along as her chaperone, is much more into it, and is disappointed when Jaime eventually confides that she’s really on a mission. The OSI has learned that Miss Florida, aka Sally (Cassie Yates), would be picked as the winner and used for some nefarious espionage-related purpose, so Jaime has to try to figure out what’s going on. It’s a pretty vague justification for the plot. Anyway, Sally turns out to be in cahoots with the pageant host Ray Raymond, who is actually played by perennial Miss America host Bert Parks, playing an evil version of himself. He and his henchman Brady (Gary Crosby) are going to use her as a courier to smuggle a stolen defense circuit, as Jaime learns upon sneaking out of her room, whereupon Sally gets her in trouble with the pageant officials. But Jaime still plays along in the competitions. I was expecting her to do some bionic karate or something for the talent show, but instead she sings. She sings… “Feelings.” The most stereotypically ’70s pop song of all time. And as much as I admire Lindsay Wagner, her singing voice is not spectacular. Not actually bad, but not good enough to earn her the finalist status the script conveniently affords her. Although that may have had something to do with the swimsuit competition. Jaime tells Helen that she liked her old legs better, but the bionic ones look pretty darn impressive to me.

Anyway, Brady catches her snooping around and chloroforms her, but when Raymond tells him to knock her out for longer, he conveniently injects the sedative into her bionic arm, so she’s up and about quite soon. But Raymond and Brady spot her and control her both by putting her on live TV and holding Martha at gunpoint in the wings. But she manages to get a message to Oscar in her finalist speech. The bad guys change their plan and keep her under control by naming her, rather than Sally, as the winner, planning to deliver the circuit themselves as her escorts — which makes me wonder why they needed to bother colluding with Sally in the first place. But when Sally follows them to protest, Jaime gets the bionic drop on them and has them beaten when Oscar shows up, just in time for Jaime to reveal the already-obvious fact that the circuit is in the winner’s scepter. We then get a final scene where Jaime tells Sally that the judges actually picked her fair and square, though neither woman seems to place much stock in a beauty-contest crown anymore.

I guess that, for a ’70s beauty-pageant episode, this could’ve been worse. It’s contrived and silly, sure, but Jaime wasn’t particularly objectified, and her total disenchantment with the whole thing helped her maintain her dignity. I could’ve done without the two (live and taped) performances of “Feelings,” though. But aside from that, the episode is notable musically, for it features the debut of Joe Harnell, who would become the series’ main composer starting with season 2. Interestingly, the theme and ostinato that would form the basis of Harnell’s main-title theme and episode scores for seasons 2-3 are already fully developed in this score, without any references to Jerry Fielding’s theme. It’s like a season-2 score that somehow ended up in season 1. I remember being rather confused by that when watching the series in TV reruns in the ’80s or ’90s. (Harnell would collaborate with Kenneth Johnson on an ongoing basis, not only on this series but later on The Incredible Hulk, the original V miniseries, and the Alien Nation pilot movie.)

“Jaime’s Mother” is a surprisingly potent dramatic episode by Arthur Rowe, from a story by Worley Thorne. We see a couple of bad guys pursuing a woman with lethal intent; one of them learns that she was headed to Ojai, and they’re concerned that she’ll tell Jaime Sommers that she’s her mother. By coincidence, Jaime is dreaming about her mother, whom she believes was killed in a car accident along with her father — and the date of that accident seems to have been retconned, since “Welcome Home, Jaime” said that Jim and Helen had been her legal guardians since she was 16, but she’s a child in the flashbacks. Anyway, she starts to see signs that her mother may still be alive and watching her, but Helen is concerned she’s hallucinating, given Jaime’s past mental problems (as seen in her first and second appearances). There’s some rather tense stuff as Jaime begins to question her own sanity. Oscar shows up, believing that her hallucinations represent the reawakening of some lost memories, so he thinks it might help to reveal something she may have forgotten about her mother: namely that, in an Alias-worthy plot twist, Jaime’s mother also happened to be a secret agent. But Jaime never did know that after all, and Oscar fears he’s only made things worse for her by revealing that her mother was not who she thought.

Jaime eventually she tracks down the woman (Barbara Rush, with the hugest, poofiest ’70s hairdo I think I’ve ever seen) and is convinced that it really is her mother Ann Sommers. (Her father’s name, by the way, was James.) The woman is reluctant to admit it at first, but then breaks down and confirms that she is Ann. Still unsure, finding the woman far more melancholy and self-pitying than the mother she remembers, Jaime takes her to Helen, who is stunned to see Ann apparently alive again, but still isn’t completely sure. Jaime pulls the old “Tell me something only Mom would know” routine, and the answer, about a locket her mother gave her just before the car accident, is enough to convince her that this is really Ann. Giddy at being reunited with her mother, Jaime rather recklessly spills the beans about her bionics, showing off her abilities (including a jump down from a tree by a rather obvious male stunt double). Okay, maybe she figured it was okay since Mom was also an agent, but still, it wasn’t a great idea. Especially since Oscar has discovered that Ann had a double named Chris, a woman who stood in for her as a decoy while she was on missions, and he’s not sure which woman is in the grave and which is with Jaime. Ann has independently told Jaime about Chris, saying she was the one who died in the car; but Oscar is unconvinced and has the grave exhumed so they can check dental records. (See how much easier DNA has made things?) After all, Chris became a double agent, and the enemy wants her dead. Selling them the secret of Jaime’s bionics could be her only way out.

Ann, or Chris, tells Jaime about her double agency and the fact that both sides are after her, and Jaime is willing to empty her bank accounts to help her mother get away. But the exhumation confirms to Oscar that it is Ann in the grave, and Chris now has Jaime right where she wants her. But when they end up confronted by the bad guys and Chris goes to talk to them, leading us to expect that she’ll turn Jaime over, Chris instead pleads to them to take her and leave Jaime alone, since she’s just a harmless schoolteacher. But when they drive off with Chris, Jaime proves she’s far from harmless, felling a tree to stop their car. Chris takes a bullet to save Jaime, and Jaime bodily drags the shooter out of the car and throws him aside — which I think is the most direct act of personal violence she’s ever engaged in. (There was that time in “A Thing of the Past” where she landed on the bad guy’s shoulders and knocked him, err, forward, but that was more impersonal.) But the paramedics are conveniently at hand and Chris ends up alive in the hospital, with the prospect of a suspended sentence if she shares some information. She may not be Jaime’s real mother, but Jaime has still bonded with her. Yet Jaime later reassures Helen that she (Helen) is Jaime’s real mother in every way that matters.

Okay, there are a few minor plot holes, but this is a surprisingly tense and moving episode, with some solid dramatic acting from Wagner and Martha Scott as Helen. Barbara Rush does a good job too, although that huge hairsprayed coif was rather distracting. The music is a mix of stock Fielding and Nelson cues and what sounds like some new Harnell cues, although Harnell is uncredited; that means that this episode’s score features all three of Jaime’s themes (though only a fragment of Fielding’s is heard outside the titles).

“Winning is Everything”: James Parriott’s latest story has Jaime coming to Oscar’s Washington office for the first time, as he assigns her to be a navigator in an international dune-buggy race in Taftan, a Southwest Asian country that’s been taken over by a military junta, in order to retrieve a tape with vital intelligence info from a town along the route. The race, which always features man-woman teams (for no reason except to justify Jaime’s involvement), is a big tourist attraction, so the junta hasn’t shut it down. Oscar escorts Jaime to Taftan, playing a racing promoter called Oscar Bartholemew, observing that the name “Goldman” wouldn’t be well-received in this part of the world — which is odd, given that we later learn that there’s an Israeli car in the race, and one of the navigators on the position board is named Rubinstein. Anyway, the driver for whom Jaime will be navigating is a Grand Prix star named Tim Sanders (John Elerick), who used to be the greatest but has lost his nerve after a major crash. Jaime has to help him regain his edge and try to identify the enemy agents who are  sabotaging other cars, all while hiding her bionics from Tim — much the same formula as Parriott’s “Angel of Mercy” earlier this season. Except it looks like the kind of episode that was written around stock footage, since a lot of the race footage has a grainier look than the rest of the episode. IMDb doesn’t say anything about what film the footage may have come from, though.

Anyway, I don’t feel very motivated to give a play-by-play, since it’s just race footage, setback, bionic repairs, pep talks, repeat. There’s a stereotyped Italian racer set up as a rival for Tim, a Russian team who are red herrings for the sabotage, and a Hong Kong team in a pickup truck — the only one where the woman is the driver rather than the navigator — who turn out to be the real bad guys (even though Hong Kong was a British colony at the time, an anomaly that goes unexplained). Jaime convinces Tim to stop blaming his poor performance on the car, the route, etc. and believe he can do better. They manage to get to the town ahead of their rivals despite all the setbacks, but when Jaime stops to pick up the McGuffin, Tim drives off without her — only to have a crisis of conscience portrayed through audio and video flashback clips, causing him to go back and help Jaime, who’s fleeing from the bad guys. Yet his epiphany that helping his friend is more important than winning is promptly discarded when the script then has Tim and Jaime striving to win after all and somehow managing to catch up with and surpass the obnoxious Italian racer despite his enormous lead.

As with “Angel of Mercy,” Parriott seems to want to play up Jaime’s vulnerabilities, having her not too thrilled about participating in a high-speed race. Yet she uses her bionics pretty effectively, particularly in the climax, where she’s shown keeping pace with a pursuing truck driving at nearly 100 MPH — faster than Steve Austin has ever been shown to run. Although that may have been a continuity error due to editing in stock footage.

“Canyon of Death,” by Steven Kandel, is a rarity — an episode I almost kinda remember, though not in a good way. It revolves around a new student in Jaime’s class, a Native American boy (Guillermo San Juan) nicknamed Paco (pronounced like “pay-ko” for some reason), who’s really caught up in a rather exaggerated version of his Indian heritage, to the point that it makes him a disobedient student and earns the ridicule of his classmates (with Robbie Rist’s Andrew in particular being a real jerk, making all sorts of Indian-stereotype wisecracks that he imagines are clever). Jaime soon learns from his aunt that he’s never actually been on a reservation and all his tales are from a book written by a Caucasian writer who never got out of New Jersey. He pathologically lies about his proud heritage because his grandfather really drank himself to death. And he’s constantly running off to the burial grounds next to the restricted land of Ventura Air Force Base, where Jaime teaches. This area is represented by the familiar Vasquez Rocks location, which is actually some 60 miles east of Ojai and Ventura, CA.

Meanwhile, Oscar is preparing to test a top-secret prototype personal jetpack at the base, and he brings Jaime in for the tenuous reason that the general who authorized her bionics is overseeing the test and wants to meet her. (He gives the exposition in a scene with terrible sound mixing, since the dialogue is barely audible over the chatter of the film projector he’s using.) But the security officer for the jetpack, Mallory (Gary Collins), plans to steal the suit and sell it to guerrillas overseas, and his henchmen are holed up in Vasquez, err, the land outside the air base. Jaime tries to get Paco to stop lying by betting him she can track him down in the desert, which she does bionically, of course — and her guy-in-a-wig stunt double makes a return appearance. They run afoul of the henchmen, who ambush them with an assortment of fake round boulders that just happened to be lying on top of a cliff (maybe the Metrons left them there?). After Jaime bionics them out, convincing Paco that she’s a spirit, she sends him back to the base on his horse (of course he has a horse) to warn Oscar, then gets herself captured. The teacher Paco encounters doesn’t believe his story, but Oscar conveniently shows up, and the mention of a “silver man” and Paco’s drawing of the helmeted figure on the chalkboard convince him to believe the story. But Oscar gets waylaid at gunpoint by Mallory and forced to go along with the theft, so Paco has to go find Jaime and gives her an opportunity to escape the henchfellow holding her at gunpoint. Then she (and sometimes her male double) runs to the base just as Mallory’s remaining henching professional takes off in the jetpack. Jaime makes the bionic leap of her life to catch the guy — who’s quite blatantly hanging from wires when she grabs him — and mashes the controls until they fall back down. Whereupon she asks Oscar to summon a blacksmith, for “I landed so hard I’m bowlegged.” She and Paco then have a final bonding moment talking about how it’s good to study his heritage but he needs to get it from authentic Indian sources.

I guess I appreciate Kandel’s effort, however clumsy, to subvert “Indian” stereotypes and portray Native Americans sympathetically, but the boy’s reliance on fake heritage kind of gives the impression that Kandel didn’t know much real heritage to write about. And it is kind of heavy-handed overall. The biggest problem is that San Juan is a very annoying performer, a mediocre actor with a creaking, whiny drone of a voice, and his character is so full of hot air that there’s nothing sympathetic about him. Also, the story is full of contrivances — not only the contrived way Jaime was involved in the jetpack storyline, but the way she conveniently neglected to tell Paco to stay off of restricted land when they made their hide-and-seek wager. Still, it’s a nifty showcase of the Vasquez Rocks scenery, and it features a really nice score by a new composer for the series, Richard Clements.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

THE BIONIC WOMAN thoughts, Season 1: Episodes 3-5 (spoilers)

Past the pilots now and into the regular series. By the way, I’ve realized the main titles are lying to us. After the recap of Jaime’s operation, the onscreen “computer” text says “Second bionic replacement complete.” But we know she’s not the second bionic human; she’s at least the third, after Steve Austin and Barney Miller. Also that premier in “The Pal-Mir Escort” got a bionic heart.

“Angel of Mercy” is written by James D. Parriott, making it the first time anyone other than Kenneth Johnson has written about Jaime Sommers. It’s also the first story about Jaime in which Steve Austin is neither present nor mentioned. The episode also introduces a new, revised version of Jerry Fielding’s main and end title themes.

We open with Jaime teaching her class at Ventura Air Force Base (consisting of the base personnel’s children), including a precocious kid named Andrew played by a very young Robbie Rist, whom I’ve mentioned before as the first portrayer of the dreadful Doctor Zee character in the pilot of Galactica 1980. Rist will be in several episodes this season. The story involves Oscar calling in Jaime to rescue a US ambassador trapped by a civil war in the small South American country of Costa Brava. His thinking is that if she goes in as a nurse, the guerrillas might let her pass. This gives Jaime pause, since she has no medical skills of any kind. I’m not sure I buy that; I’d think a tennis pro would have some familiarity with first aid and injury treatment, if only from being on the receiving end. Anyway, her ride into the country is provided by none other than Andy Griffith as hotshot chopper pilot Jack Starkey — who has the dubious honor of being the first character in the series to overtly question Jaime’s qualifications on the basis of her sex, something that was mercifully avoided in Johnson’s episodes. I should’ve known that as soon as anyone else wrote a script for the series, the issue would crop up.

Anyway, under protest, Starkey choppers her into the country, and the guerrillas shoot them down, with Jaime secretly using her bionics to work the chopper’s busted control cables so they land safely, then tearing off the door to save Starkey, and giving him all the credit. Now they’re stuck in a “jungle” that looks exactly like the sparse forest of the Los Angeles hills, and Jaime does a mediocre job of bandaging Starkey’s head. So far she’s not impressing him much. Soon we discover that Jaime has a fear of snakes that makes her all whiny and panicking, not a good look on her, but also causes her to rather brutally crush a snake to death with her bionic grip, which seems a little out of character.

They soon pick up a straggler, an orphaned local boy named Julio (Claudio Martinez), and have little trouble evading the searching guerrillas. They make it to the base and discover the ambassador and his wife are trapped under tons of rubble, but naturally Starkey conveniently goes searching for a ride home and leaves Jaime alone to remove the rubble. Once she gets them out, Starkey boggles at how she was able to move the rubble. He insists the plane he found can’t fly because its landing gear is bent, but by this point Jaime’s gotten sick of Starkey telling her what she can’t accomplish and starts using her bionics openly. Then the guerrillas, who’ve been driving around rather pointlessly for most of the episode, show up in time to shoot at them as they fly off.

All in all, not a particularly noteworthy story. Jaime’s still coming off as a pretty brave and confident character, determined to get the job done and not quailing from danger, but Parriott’s script undermines that a bit with her anxieties about medicine and snakes, which seem to have been put in to make her seem more conventionally, vulnerably feminine. Which makes for an odd contrast in an episode that’s mainly about her proving how awesome she is despite the doubts of a crochety old chauvinist.

Still, Lindsay Wagner is a delight to watch. It is endless fun to observe the play of expressions across her ever-kinetic face. There’s a terrific moment where Griffith is chewing her out nose-to-nose, and her silent reactions during his colorful diatribe are hilarious. A big part of acting is reacting, showing that you’re listening to the other characters’ lines and playing off their performances, and Wagner is a master of that.

What strikes me is how much high-speed aerial commuting Oscar Goldman is doing these days. In The Six Million Dollar Man, Steve is generally based in Washington, DC and can just drop in to Oscar’s office. But Jaime lives in Ojai, CA, yet Oscar is constantly showing up in person to check up on her or give her assignments. Even with his top-level access to military aircraft, that’s got to be a fairly lengthy commute. It probably would’ve made more sense to introduce a new character to be Jaime’s handler, based in Ojai and reporting to Oscar back in Washington. But I guess the show wanted to capitalize on Richard Anderson’s popularity and use him as a bridge between the series, and really, who can blame them?

“A Thing of the Past” is written by story editor Philip DeGuere Jr. (who would later produce the first Twilight Zone revival) from a story by Terrence McDonnell & Jim Carlson. It revolves around Harry (Donald O’Connor), the beloved local school-bus driver that Jaime’s supposedly known for 15 years (and there’s some playful flirtation between them about how she was in love with him as a kid and he was waiting for her to grow up, which sounds so much creepier to modern ears). We get to know him during a school picnic where Jaime teaches the boy students that girls can play baseball too (though her use of her bionics to prove her point actually kind of works against it), but then there’s a random bus accident and Harry rushes back into the burning bus to save a child who was left behind. So he gets his photo in the papers and is recognized by thug Morgan (Don Gordon) as a witness to a mob killing 15 years earlier. Morgan finds out that the killer, Stone (Roger Perry), will pay him for Harry’s location, but Morgan wants to extort money out of Harry not to turn him over, then turn him over anyway for a double payday.

Eventually Jaime figures out what’s really going on (after Morgan questions her under the guise of an insurance man but asks nothing about the actual accident) and convinces Harry to testify, calling Oscar to make the arrangements. She fights off Morgan and his sidekick when they show up at Harry’s garage, then takes Harry to the Air Force base to keep him safe. There’s a random cameo by Lee Majors as Steve Austin flies out to Ojai to pick up the bus driver. But while he’s en route, Stone sneaks into the oddly deserted airbase (it’s Saturday, but still) and happens across Harry while Jaime’s conveniently on an errand. (What, they couldn’t have spared an airman to guard a federal witness?) So Jaime has to save him once again with some rather awkwardly executed slow-motion stunt work, including one bit where Jaime(‘s stunt double) jumps from a plane in a hangar and lands on Stone’s (stunt double’s) shoulders from directly above, which somehow causes Stone’s double to run forward several steps so he can crash into some barrels and boxes that are farther in front of him than I think the intent behind the stunt warranted. And that’s about it aside from a very brief tag with Steve.

Kind of a mediocre one overall, and like “Angel of Mercy” before it, it suffers from the rather crude production values of Universal’s ’70s shows — such as a part in Jaime’s classroom where a wide shot of Jaime, Harry, and the students was grainily blown up to focus only on the two adults because the director evidently failed to get closer coverage for the scene. But it is notable as the debut of the standard “sonar chirp” sound effect for Jaime’s bionic ear. Composer John Cacavas, who was the main composer for Kojak and whom I know from a few Columbo revival movies, contributes his only score for the series.

“Claws,” by Sue Milburn, opens with Jaime’s student Katie (Alicia Fleer) bringing a live lion to show-and-tell, courtesy of Susan Victor (Tippi Hedren), who runs a local preserve/halfway house for wild animals, where Katie volunteers. Yep, the lion, Neal, is actually there in the classroom set with the child actors, no split screen or special effects, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the lion was sedated. Even so, I doubt that would be allowed today, and it struck me as a bad idea both in-universe and in reality, even given that the lion was tame — in story, a former circus lion driven to panic by his trainer’s gunshots. Susan favors a technique called “affection training,” which is basically taming wild animals by being really, really nice to them — which sounds a little idealistic even to me. The preserve is a very ’70s view of “kindness” to wild things; the episode assumes that making lions and bears tame and obedient to humans, even if it means giving up their natural behavior patterns, is the most humane way of treating them. And don’t get me started on their poor elephant, living apart from others of its kind and with a chain around its leg. Today we understand how abusive it is to force such highly social creatures to live in solitude.

Anyway, Jaime ends up taking over the ranch for the weekend when Susan gets an offer to use her animals in a TV series and she has to fly off to New York for the weekend. Surprisingly, there’s a parrot in the scene where she gets the phone call; I would’ve thought Tippi Hedren had had her fill of birds some years earlier. Anyway, a local cattle rancher, Keys (Jack Kelly), shows up and accuses Neal the lion of killing his cattle. He’s accompanied by Jaime’s “uncle” Bill Elgin (William Schallert), the brother of her foster father — introduced here and never seen again, probably because Ford Rainey was unavailable to play Jim Elgin that week. Jaime insists the free-roaming lion is harmless, but Keys is convinced he’s the killer, and this goes around and around for half the episode before we finally discover there’s a cougar killing the livestock, but by the time Jaime helps Bill catch the cougar, Keys has organized a posse and driven the lion to hole up in a barn that they intend to burn out (not bothering to ask the barn’s owner, apparently). Jaime actually had the lion caged at the preserve on the sheriff’s orders, but Keys lets him out so he can drive the lion to his own property and shoot it there so he’ll be in the clear. Anyway, Jaime goes into the barn and has to use bionics and affection training to talk the injured lion down (if garishly colored fake TV blood smeared on one of his paws constitutes “injury”). The most hilariously awkward moment is when Jaime supposedly kicks the lion across the room, which is accomplished by: 1) Showing the stunt performer”s legs kicking the lion’s side; 2) playing the stock sound effect of a bionically propelled object flying through the air (the “ballistic whistle,” as I call it) during a close-up on Jaime’s face; 3) playing a shot of the lion leaping up from a bale of hay in reverse, so that it seems to land backward on its hind legs; and 4) cutting away midway through said shot so that it doesn’t look any more ridiculous than it already does.

Oh, and then there’s the part earlier where Jaime’s spending the night in the house with Neal to keep an eye on him, and he sneaks out while she’s asleep by opening the front door. Now, I can buy a cat opening a door. It’s one of their well-documented skills. But the fake paw that’s shown operating the doorknob is laughable.

This is a weak one, though there are some intense moments with Jaime bravely facing down the wounded, angry lion. She continues to be quite headstrong about rushing into danger, and I wonder how much of that is the bionics giving her confidence and how much is just her natural impulse. But it’s quickly become clear that Jaime has to deal with something Steve never did, which is having the men around her constantly assume, with the best of intentions, that they need to protect her. Which could get irritating if Jaime weren’t so easygoing and patient about it, either reasonably persuading them to let her act or just finding ways to divert their attention while she does. It’s a good thing Lindsay Wagner has such a bottomless well of charisma, because it’s the only thing that carries episodes like this.

Also, I’d forgotten how lush and flowing her hair was in this show. Well, it was the seventies.

“The Deadly Missiles”: Writer Wilton Denmark gives us a lame title but a more intrigue-driven story as an unarmed missile is fired into the Los Angeles Reservoir. Steve Austin is on the scene as Oscar’s people retrieve the missile, and he reports that the military radar system in the region (the charmingly named MEWS, for Military Early Warning System) was mysteriously jammed. Oscar recruits Jaime to investigate the ranch from which the missile was probably launched, because its owner, defense contractor J.T. Connors (Forrest Tucker), is an old friend of hers and the first sponsor of her tennis career. He’s also a loudmouthed right-wing Texan who’s become even more hawkish and contemptuous of the long-haired hippies in government since his son was killed in Vietnam — which suggests a rather poor understanding of the issues involved in the war, but that’s another discussion. Jaime refuses to believe her old friend could have evil intentions, but she grudgingly agrees to investigate.

At Connors’s ranch, she meets Rayker (Ben Piazza), an engineer who’s helped Connors with his research, including a security installation he won’t tell Jaime about. She goes in that night to investigate and finds that it is indeed a radar jamming system. But she triggers a security sensor, and apparently Connors hired Gary Owens to record the security system announcements, which helpfully tell Jaime exactly what security is in place so that she can evade it with her bionics. But she gets a bad electric shock kicking through the door, causing something to blow out in her right leg. Unable to walk, she lets a solicitous Connors take her back to her room over Rayker’s objections, and she’s alarmed when he slips her a sedative. But in the morning, she’s still in her room and Connors is still solicitous, so she decides to trust him and tell him why she’s there. Turns out he was testing the jamming system to sell to the US government, not to its enemies. Naturally it turns out that Rayker’s been doing all the missile-launching stuff behind J.T.’s back, and he has them captured and makes Jaime call Oscar so he can demand ransom — the then-princely sum of 15 million dollars — lest he launch an unstoppable missile at the target of his choice.

Steve is still overprotective, wanting to rush in to save Jaime, but Oscar shows commendable faith in her abilities and leaves Steve behind to monitor the MEWS system, which apparently he’s suddenly the greatest available expert in. But Oscar’s right; Jaime confides in J.T. about her bionic injury and gets his help to make temporary repairs, enough to let her break them out.  (J.T. is the one to knock out the guard once she kicks down the door; I’d initially assumed this was because the network censors wouldn’t let a woman throw a punch, but on the DVD’s bonus feature they talk about how Wagner herself didn’t want Jaime to use her bionics offensively, since she saw herself as a role model for young viewers.) They get to the jamming installation, where she gets pretty far in a plan to take out the radar dish before Rayker’s men catch her and J.T. and take them to the rendezvous with Oscar.  J.T. pounces on Rayker, which triggers the radar jamming and the missile launch (way to ruin everything, man), and the missile’s aimed directly at MEWS, where Steve is. So Jaime has to run for the installation to take out the dish, even though her leg is failing again. But the ex-tennis pro is surely an old hand at playing through injury (not stated, just my extrapolation), so she keeps going and eventually takes out the dish with the old “pull a pole out of the ground and use it as a concrete-tipped javelin” trick. (The rather elaborate radar dish was evidently a real installation they got to use, so they couldn’t actually destroy it, just set off some pyrotechnics around it to make it look like it blew up.) That clears the radar jamming so that the military can intercept the missile.

Afterward, she and Steve finally get together at her place, and Oscar tells them that the government’s finally interested in buying J.T.’s radar jamming system. Once the older men leave, Steve and Jaime get surprisingly romantic before the freeze-frame — much more so than I remembered them being once Jaime got her spinoff. It’ll be interesting to see whether that continues or gets dropped.

A much more solid episode than the previous two, with some effective action and danger and a nice chance for Jaime to be the rescuer and Steve the damsel in distress for a change.

Remember to vote!

Even though I’ve been busy with other stuff, I took time out over the weekend to research the candidates and issues in tomorrow’s election so that I could make a responsible decision at the polls tomorrow. After all, even though the midterm elections aren’t glamorous, every election is important — and those overlooked local races for “little” things like the board of education and the court of common pleas can be very important to people’s everyday lives.

I know there’s a lot of cynicism over the political process leading to low voter turnout. But low turnout is the root of the problem. As CJ Cregg said once in The West Wing (probably quoting somebody else), “Decisions are made by those who show up.” If most of us choose not to vote, then we surrender the decision-making process to the political machines and the lobbyists. Injustice thrives on the passivity of the electorate. So the only way to fight the things that make us cynical about the process is to vote more, not less. Even if we feel there’s no point, that the outcome is already decided or the candidates are all lousy, voting is still a good habit to get into, because if more of us vote regularly, then we can start having more influence in future elections.

So it’s important, not only to vote on election day, but to make the effort to vote responsibly, to research the candidates and the issues and try to make our choices on objective, non-partisan sources of information rather than campaign ads. Those can be hard to find, sadly, since news outlets are generally more concerned with reporting on the horse race and the conflicting claims of the candidates than with checking them against the evidence. But that’s why it’s important to be active rather than passive, to seek out better sources of information. The League of Women Voters offers a website for nonpartisan voter information (although I don’t have a good link to offer, since they’ve been rearranging things this year, and the link I found was local only), and there’s also a Ballotpedia for political races and a Judgepedia for judicial elections. Unfortunately, Ballotpedia is lacking information on some of the smaller local races, but I found it helpful. It also has a good list of voter education resources.

I suppose posting this the day before Election Day is too little, too late to convince many people to change their minds about going to the polls or researching the issues. But then, not a lot of people read my blog anyway. It’s still something that should be said.

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