Archive

Archive for February, 2020

Reaching a crisis point

February 29, 2020 5 comments

For the past few years, I’ve been caught in a pattern I don’t know how to get out of.

Before then, for more than a decade, I managed to get by modestly on my income from Star Trek novels and occasional original fiction. So I settled for being a full-time writer and didn’t try very hard to pursue alternatives. Then Pocket Books’s Trek license came up for renewal and was badly delayed, so for more than a year I wasn’t getting Trek work. I kept being told it would resolve fairly soon, and I was expecting income from several other sources that I was told would pay off fairly soon, so I just waited for those payoffs, and they all improbably got delayed at once, so I ended up very nearly broke, coming close to the brink of not being able to pay my rent or my bills anymore.

Eventually, I got help from family and from reader donations, and then Trek contracts started to come through again, but even those advances were not frequent or large enough to do more than let me ease away from the brink for a few months and then wind up back on the edge before I could find other work. Because I’ve been a full-time writer so long, I never developed the skill of looking for other kinds of work. I’ve gotten a few interviews here and there, but none have led to a job.

All of this, I realize, has left me suffering from depression, something I’ve been wrestling with on and off all my life. The closer I get to the brink, the worse my depression and anxiety become, which makes it harder to look for work or find solutions. I keep hoping a new Star Trek contract will come through in time and give me enough of  a financial cushion to find a more lasting solution. But depression doesn’t go away that easily. Every time I do get a novel advance or a loan, I try to take some time to recover emotionally and work on my writing for a while, thinking “It’s okay, I have some time before I have to start seriously looking for other kinds of work.” But because depression makes it harder to work, I always take longer than I expected and lose track of time. And I always underestimate how quickly I’m losing money, because I keep forgetting to account for the massive credit card fees that effectively cancel out my efforts to pay down my debt. And once I notice that I’m too close to the brink again, I start panicking again, and the cycle continues.

I’ve known for a while now that I had to stop depending on Star Trek alone as my lifeline. I needed to reorient my life and find some stability, and just get out of this rut I’ve been in for years. But I was slow to act on that, clinging to the hope that rescue would come in the nick of time as it has so many times before. (Being depressed is weird. I keep bouncing back and forth between “I hate being trapped in this rut and need to make a change!” and “I’m afraid to change anything, I just want to stay in my rut where it’s safe.”)

Now, though, I know that’s not going to happen. I assume that, with fewer Trek novels per year these days, and with the uncertainty resulting from the new Trek shows and the re-merger of CBS and Viacom, I can’t rely on Trek offers coming my way like clockwork, and can’t pin my hopes on something materializing just in time. It’s already too late for that now, with tax time looming. I’ve feared this for years, but have still clung to the old way and just hoped things would go back to the way they were somehow. And as a result, I now find myself at a crisis point where I have to change.

Even before I recognized this, I’d begun making some efforts to look for work. I’ve continued to submit game outlines to Star Trek Adventures and I’ve been working on those, but they pay a lot less than a novel and I have to wait for approval. I’ve made a connection that could potentially lead to other tie-in work, but I’m still waiting for an opening to emerge. I have my Kickstarter coming up for Arachne’s Crime sometime soon, but I don’t expect the royalties from the novel or its sequel to be anywhere near the size of a tie-in advance. I’ve joined an online audio transcription service, though it’s turned out to pay hardly anything. I’ve applied to work for the 2020 Census — no reply yet. This past week I found a temp agency that specializes in creative work and signed up for it, hoping that its agents would help me find work since I’m so bad at looking for it myself; but it turned out that it’s more just an online job alert service that informs me of opportunities to apply for, and I’m still waiting for results. Last night I thought I’d found a good option in a freelancer service called Upwork, but on further examination, it seems I’d have to pay to make bids for work with no guarantee of a return on my investment.

It’s not all bad news. I’ve actually made a few hundred bucks this past week or so, helping to stem my losses slightly. I got paid for a bit of Star Trek Adventures writing that I did last year but can’t announce yet. I got a refund on the last monthly bill I paid after I cancelled my cable, which I was apparently charged in error. And I finally got some overdue Only Superhuman royalties that had fallen through the cracks. But it’s not nearly enough, especially with tax time looming in six weeks or so.

The realization that this time I’m definitely not getting a new Trek contract in the nick of time has been terrifying. When it finally hit me, my depression and anxiety reached levels I don’t think I’ve felt since an epic bout of unrequited love back in college 30 years ago. I’ve been going through ups and downs since then, and I’m hampered by the fact that every time I try to confront the situation to look for a solution, it just brings back my anxiety and makes it harder. (I got maybe 3 hours of sleep last night, tops.)

I know this is a very personal thing to broadcast to my fans, but I realized I need to talk about this for my own mental health. I need to share it with someone, and because of my (inherited) proclivities toward depression and self-isolation, I don’t really have any family or good friends close at hand to unload my burdens on, and haven’t done enough to cultivate what local friendships I do have. I’m not always comfortable talking on the phone, I never got the hang of texting, and I’m too broke to go out much, so my online life is really the only way I have of reaching out to friends and family. And my fans have been a great comfort to me these past few years, through your generosity and patience. You’ve been part of my support structure too, and I’m very grateful. (But I’d be glad to hear from any family and friends who wanted to reach out more privately.)

I’ve been giving serious thought to starting a Patreon page. That way, instead of periodically and haphazardly begging for donations all at once, I could offer my fans regular new material in exchange for small, regular monthly donations. It seems a natural thing to migrate my movie and TV reviews there and start monetizing them. (There is a way to add a Patreon plug-in to an existing WordPress blog like this one, but I’d have to upgrade and pay a fee, and I don’t know if I’d make enough profit to offset that.) I’d also try to offer original fiction content alongside the reviews. I have a few unpublished stories I could premiere there, along with my three published but uncollected stories, and maybe some deleted scenes from Only Superhuman, worldbuilding notes, behind-the-scenes stuff like that. I think I might have enough to provide fairly regular content for several months, and if that were profitable, it would hopefully give me time and incentive to create new reviews and original fiction for the platform on an ongoing basis. My fans have been so generous with your donations that I hope a lot of you would be willing to invest a few dollars per month to read my reviews, original fiction, essays, and the like.

But again, getting a Patreon page up and running and earning a profit would take time, and wouldn’t help enough in the immediate term to get me through tax time. It’s the same boat I’ve been in for years — none of the plans I’ve already made or can make going forward will pay off soon enough.

In the meantime, I’m always open for reader donations, and my book sale and naming rights bonus offer are still on. I hate having to keep pleading to my fans and offering so little in return, which is why I’m hoping to make the jump to Patreon. But I’m hopeful that by now I’ve planted enough seeds that something will start paying off soon and finally help me get out of this rut over the months ahead. It’s just that, one more time (and hopefully for the last time), I need some extra help staying afloat until they can.

Interesting casting news for MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 7 & 8 (spoilers)

I came across an announcement today with some casting news for the next couple of Mission: Impossible movies being directed by Christopher McQuarrie:

New Character Details For Mission Impossible 7 & 8: EXCLUSIVE

According to the article, the film features a former IMF agent being referred to as Rollin Hand, with a pair of younger associates called Lambert and Paris. These, of course, are the names of the Mission: Impossible TV series regulars played by Martin Landau, Lesley Anne Warren (as Dana Lambert), and Leonard Nimoy, respectively. There hasn’t been an M:I movie character with the same name as an M:I television character since Jon Voight’s “Jim Phelps” in the original film, though Paula Patton’s Jane Carter had the same surname as Barbara Bain’s Cinnamon Carter.

Now, as I see it, there are two possibilities. One is that these are just placeholder names in the casting sides, meant to conceal the characters’ real names. Movies often do this to avoid spoiling too much. But then, why use the names of familiar characters to conceal the identities of new, unfamiliar characters? Usually it’s done the other way around.

The other possibility is quite interesting. If these upcoming characters really are named Hand, Lambert, and Paris, then it will finally answer a question that’s been unresolved for 24 years: Is the movie series a sequel to the TV series or a reboot of it? Was Voight’s traitorous Phelps the same person that Peter Graves played or merely a namesake in a different reality?

Up to now, the only thing that’s hinted at an answer was Hunley’s statement in Rogue Nation that the IMF had been operating for 40 years, i.e. since 1975, nearly a decade too late to be consistent with the show. But that could’ve been a script error, so it wasn’t conclusive. If these reported character names are real, then it would seem to confirm that the M:I film series has been a reboot all along. Which will certainly be a load off the minds of those of us who hated seeing Jim Phelps turned into a traitor. He never really had anything in common with Graves’s Jim anyway (I felt he acted more like Jim’s predecessor Dan Briggs), so it makes a lot more sense if he was a reinvention. (Although there goes my theory that Voight-Phelps was an impostor and the mission Ethan was sent on at the end of the first film was the rescue of the real Jim.)

Of course, I could be jumping the gun by reporting on an Internet rumor. I generally prefer to wait for hard facts. But this particular rumor struck my fancy because of the unexpected connection to the original series and the possibility of finally being able to define the relationship (or lack thereof) between the TV and film incarnations. We’ll see how it pans out. If any of your IM Force are recast or rebooted, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of their original versions.

Another take on THE TIME MACHINE — the 2002 remake (spoilers)

February 19, 2020 2 comments

I recently decided to put my Netflix subscription on hold to compensate for resubscribing to CBS All Access for Star Trek: Picard, and yesterday I was looking for something in Netflix’s library to watch in these last few days while I had the chance. I came across the 2002 remake of The Time Machine directed by H.G. Wells’s great-grandson Simon Wells, written by John Logan based on the 1960 movie script by David Duncan as well as the original H.G. Wells novel. This is a version of the story I’m fairly sure I’ve never seen before, since I’d read a number of bad reviews of it and never sought it out. But in recent years I’ve heard some more complimentary opinions toward it, and since I figured it couldn’t be worse than the dreadful 1978 TV movie version I reviewed last month, I decided I’d finally give it a try. As it turned out, I thought it was actually pretty good. It had a number of plot holes and credibility issues, but overall it was quite well-made and had some really impressive bits.

In this version, rather than a nameless English gentleman, the Time Traveller played by Guy Pearce is American physics professor Alexander Hartdegen (rhymes with “cardigan”), who teaches at Columbia University in New York City in 1899 (and seems to have already invented time travel since he’s corresponding with a young patent clerk named Einstein three years before Einstein became a patent clerk). He’s a nerdy type absorbed in his work but madly in love with Emma (Sienna Guillory), whom he proposes to just before she’s killed by a mugger — which is essentially Alexander’s fault because he fought with the gunman rather than giving up the engagement ring. Since he’s too old to train for decades to become Batman, he instead devotes the next four years to inventing a time machine which he uses to go back and save Emma. (Note that this proves that becoming Batman is harder than inventing time travel.) But the universe is mean to him and ensures that Emma gets fridged in a different way, this one even more ironic, since she dies in a traffic accident involving a steam-powered motorcar that Alex was admiring in the original timeline. (It happens while he’s getting flowers from Alan Young, who was Filby in the 1960 film and who gets major billing in the opening credits despite having only one line.)

Afterward, in a conversation with this film’s version of Filby (Mark Addy), Alex has somehow concluded based on this one attempt that Emma will die again and again no matter how many times he tries. How does he know it wasn’t a fluke? It takes more than one test to verify a hypothesis. But anyway, after this rather dumb moment, he makes a fairly clever decision: to go into the future and consult what he presumes will be its more advanced knowledge of temporal theory to answer the question of why he can’t save Emma. Although he phrases it as “Why can’t I change the past?”, overlooking the fact that Emma dying in a completely different way still counts as changing the past.

Anyway, it’s not until the second time trip that we actually get to see the time machine in operation, and it’s a pretty nifty CGI updating of the 1960 time travel sequence, though it gets a bit too extravagant as it zooms out to show skyscrapers rising and then clear out into space to show a lunar colony being built — though this actually does serve a story purpose. (Though weirdly there are planes flying by at normal speed over a city growing in superfast time-lapse.) Alex stops in 2030 and visits the New York Public Library, where he meets Vox (Orlando Jones), the library’s AI database who projects himself as a hologram — although it’s a much more plausible hologram than the free-floating kind you usually see in movies/TV, since it’s a projection inside several upright panes of glass, merely creating the illusion of Vox standing behind the glass. It’s a very nice bit of design, and Vox is a fairly entertaining character. Although there’s a logic hole here, since when Alex asks Vox about time travel, Vox specifically mentions H.G. Wells, the novel The Time Machine, and the George Pal movie thereof. How can those exist inside the world of a movie that features Wells’s and Pal’s characters and concepts as real entities?

Since 2030 still considers time travel the stuff of fiction, Alex decides to quest farther forward, only to get caught in a quake that turns out to be due to one of the film’s most implausible concepts, the Moon shattering in 2037 due to nuclear explosions intended to create underground cities. (The Moon has survived many, many far worse explosions from asteroid impacts, which is where all those craters came from.) He gets knocked out and continues to race forward in time through some gorgeous animation of what should be tens of millions of years’ worth of geological change and glaciation, yet when he wakes up and stops the machine, it’s only 802,701 CE, as in the novel.

He gets taken in by the Eloi, who in this version have a multiracial appearance as if blended from today’s ethnic groups, a plausible projection of future human development. I love their dwellings, which are these amazing shell-like wooden huts built on the sheer vertical cliff sides of a deep river valley, a really imaginative and beautiful piece of design — and a clue to the peril that lies ahead, since there’s a reason their homes are so high off the ground. Rather than Weena, Alex is tended to by a young woman named Mara and her younger brother Kalen, played by siblings Samantha and Omero Mumba. This was Samantha Mumba’s feature debut, just as Weena in 1960 was Yvette Mimieux’s feature debut, but Mumba gives a much better debut performance than Mimieux did, while being just as lovely in her own way. Conveniently, Mara and Kalen speak English, which they call “the stone language,” learned from fragments of carved wall inscriptions collected from the ruins of New York City. This is not at all plausible, since there’s no way the stone would survive the elements for more than a few centuries without being well-tended, and it sure as hell wouldn’t survive being ground under a glacier. Also, it’s hard to believe they could get a complete working English vocabulary from the few hundred words on those slabs, let alone know how to pronounce them with an epoch-2000 American accent. (Indeed, even the Eloi language’s vowels and consonants are pronounced exactly as in American English.)

Eventually Alexander discovers the darker side of the Eloi’s life when the Morlocks attack, and there’s a bit of an inconsistency here, since it was implied earlier that the Eloi were afraid of being attacked at night, but unlike earlier versions, this breed of Morlock is able to strike in broad daylight, taking many captives including Mara. They’re pretty well-made animatronic creatures by Stan Winston Studios, though I gather SWS was unhappy with the result because director Wells decided to make them more humanoid than the original Winston design. Still, they worked well for me. In any case, Alexander convinces Kalen to tell him about the Morlocks, which entails taking him to a cavern to see “the ghosts,” which turn out to be a still-functional Vox, who also somehow miraculously managed to avoid getting crushed by the glaciers and still has power despite Con Ed of New York not existing for the previous 800,664 years. As nonsensical as this is, Jones gives a nice performance as an AI haunted by his infallible memory of everything he’s ever experienced, including the end of the world and the long loneliness since.

Vox tells Alexander where to go to access the Morlock tunnels, and he quickly, gruesomely finds that the fate of most of the captive Eloi is the abbatoir and the dinner table. But he gets captured and taken to a chamber where he finds Mara alive and caged by the Uber-Morlock (Jeremy Irons), a more humanoid subspecies who’ve bred the other Morlock strains for servitude (and day vision in the hunters’ case) while breeding themselves for mental powers including telepathy and telekinesis, an idea that’s almost endearing in what a throwback it is to ’60s B-movie evolutionary logic. So Uber speaks fluent English (this time with a British accent, I guess since that comes automatically with being a villain) and knows all of Alexander’s secrets. And here the story kind of goes off the rails. Uber and Alex argue for a while about the awfulness of how the Morlocks live, then Uber just happens to give Alex the answer to his question: He couldn’t use the time machine to save Emma because Emma’s death is what led to the time machine’s invention. And then, inexplicably, he just lets Alex go back to his own time, offering only some vague statement about his existence being the consequence of Alex’s actions, though not explaining why that is. But Alex instead drags Uber into the time machine, flings it forward in time, and fights him until he finally kicks him out of the time field and holds him there until he decays (and his body and expressions are still moving at normal speed from our POV even though his body is decaying as if years were passing — huh?). He stops in the far future and finds a Morlock-ruled hellscape, so he comes back, frees Mara, and sets the time machine to self-destruct, killing all the Morlocks in a wave of entropy that decays them all to dust in seconds. (Apparently this was originally scripted to be an Eloi paradise in the far future, which left it unclear why he felt the need to go back and change things.)

Okay, so the Time Traveller in previous versions always went back, err, forward to live with the Eloi at the end, but this time he doesn’t make a brief stop in the Victorian Era to pick up any books. Instead we get kind of a nicely made finale where Alexander shows Mara and Kalen the spot where his house used to be (never mind the supposed complete reconstruction of the landscape over geologic time — I’m starting to think that whole animated sequence was tacked on as an afterthought, explaining the inconsistency) while in a soft split-screen and slow dissolve to Filby and Alex’s housekeeper back in 1903 wondering where he’s gone.

So, yeah, the story is kind of silly and full of implausibilities, but it’s an enjoyable movie, nicely made and entertaining. The design work is superb and the production values excellent, and while Guy Pearce didn’t leave a particularly strong impression, there are nice performances from Mumba, Jones, Addy, and Guillory (well, actually it’s one of Addy’s less impressive performances, but that’s because he’s usually really good). It won’t make anyone forget the 1960 original (indeed, it depends heavily on invoking nostalgia for that movie), but in many ways it’s a creative and effective complement to it.

THE STRANGER (1964): Australia’s first sci-fi show now online

An interesting piece of lost science fiction television history has recently resurfaced. The Australian Broadcasting Company has restored and re-released Australia’s first homemade SF series, The Stranger, starring Ron Haddrick as a mysterious, seemingly amnesiac man who calls himself Adam and ingratiates himself with uncanny ease to an Australian schoolmaster named Walsh and his teenage children, who subsequently discover he’s actually an alien scouting a new home for his people, a small group of refugees from a dead planet. The show had two 6-episode seasons, aired a year apart but telling one continuous story, and in the second season the story opens up considerably as the authorities and the world learn of the aliens’ existence and respond with predictable fear and mistrust, with hardline factions on both sides threatening to escalate the situation to violence.

There’s a good article about the show on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s site, and the entire series is available to US audiences on YouTube here:

The Stranger (1964)

The show has been compared to Doctor Who, and it does have a few similarities — it’s a children’s SF show with a (mostly) benevolent alien as its title character, and it’s shot in a similar way, recorded mostly in continuous takes as if live, with occasional flubbed lines and visible mikes as a result. But it’s a more grounded series, going for scientific credibility in most respects (aside from the humanlike appearance of the aliens), and telling a first-contact story that engages intelligently with the question of how humanity would react to alien contact, and works as a timeless (and currently quite timely) allegory about how we treat immigrants and refugees. Given that message, I wonder if there’s an ulterior motive to the decision to release this series for free viewing to American audiences now. If so, I approve.

Overall, I like the series. Haddrick is effective in the lead, reminding me of a cross between Martin Landau and Sherlock Holmes. His “Adam Suisse” strikes a good balance of amiability, otherness, and occasional menace when it’s called for. The story is effective, though very slow-paced, taking two episodes before revealing any overt science fiction elements. Yet in other ways it seems to rush through the plot; in early episode 2, it’s supposedly been just over a week since Adam started teaching at the lead characters’ school, yet the kids are talking about how he “always” goes bush-walking (Aussie for nature walks, I guess) on his days off.

It seems to me that the first season must have been quite popular, since in season 2 it appears to have gotten a major budget upgrade. There’s a lot more location shooting and action, as well as the story opening up to a much more epic scale. The aliens’ asteroid home Soshuniss (their language is incredibly heavy on sibilants) is represented in season 1 by a very Doctor Who-ish cave set, nothing but bare rock walls, but in season 2 there’s an elaborate high-tech command center plus an exterior ship-landing scene in a quarry. Okay, an SF show shooting in a quarry doesn’t scream high-budget, but overall the last half feels much more cinematic than the first, with some terrific location shooting at the Parkes Observatory in the outback, including a really suspenseful (if slightly gratuitous) chase sequence across the dish of its big radio telescope in the penultimate episode, compellingly vertiginous because the actors (and stuntmen in long shots, no doubt) are actually up there for real. I’m amazed the observatory allowed it. They were also allowed to shoot the finale on the steps of Sydney’s Town Hall and film inside the actual Prime Minister’s office.

Additionally, although the Soshuniss saucers were not a particularly impressive design, there were some pretty clever forced-perspective shots of them landing and taking off. There was one night shot that credibly appeared as if a full-sized saucer was landing on the lawn in the background between two actors in the foreground, but then I noticed a slight wobble in the “landed” saucer that revealed it was actually a model hanging on wires close to the camera. Aside from that wobble, though, it was a convincing illusion. They even made it look as though the pilot stepped out of the saucer — presumably the actor was on a ladder in the distance behind the foreground model. (This is why I love pre-CGI effects. The results are imperfect, but the various tricks they used to create the illusions were ingenious.)

The story got pretty suspenseful too, following the Doctor Who-ish formula of an ideally peaceful situation being sabotaged by fearful and militaristic factions on both sides, plus a devious billionaire trying to exploit the situation for profit and adding further complications. Although I feel that after all that buildup of danger and threats and ultimatums, the whole thing ended up being resolved a bit too easily and happily in the final part. There were also some ambiguities the show never really confronted, like Adam’s willingness to use his species’ hypnotic power over humans to achieve his ends and his sympathy toward the more hardline faction of his people in season 2. It’s understandable that he was willing to do whatever it took to save his people, and gray areas in a lead character can be good, but it often came off more as inconsistent writing.

All in all, though, this was a pretty good show, allowing for the occasional clumsiness of mid-’60s TV production. I do think a few of the actors had a tougher time with that kind of acting than others, fumbling a fair number of their lines (like when Owen Weingott’s Professor Mayer was commiserating with Walsh about his kids and said “I have a teejaner back home myself”). So it could’ve done with better casting in some cases and some improvement to the story pacing.

Overall, The Stranger is an effective series that handles the premise of first contact and the reaction to alien refugees in a plausible way, both scientifically and socially, and the second half is quite impressive from a production standpoint as well. I’m glad we got to see this, and I recommend it.