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Fall TV, Week 2 (spoilers)

First, a couple of updates, since my second looks at a number of shows have caused me to reappraise them:

Minority Report: I’m afraid episode 2 didn’t work as well for me as the pilot. There was some nice tech futurism (the microbiome analyzers were interesting, and the future version of a tablet is nice), but it wasn’t matched on a cultural level. All that pickup artist stuff and people using slang like “negging” and “booty call” is way, way too present-day for a show set 50 years from now, and that really damaged the credibility of the story and the world. It felt like a script for some ordinary, present-day cop show that was rewritten for this show. Which I doubt it really was, since it was written by the showrunner. But it doesn’t bode well for the quality of the mysteries — or the worldbuilding — going forward.

Some decent character work with Dash and Vega dealing with the aftermath of Dash killing the bad guy last week. I’m glad they addressed that instead of dismissing it. But I’m finding Stark Sands rather underwhelming as a lead. And the stuff about his inept attempts at detective work is getting old really fast.

Blindspot: I gave this one more chance, after reading an interview with the showrunner saying that there would be some major revelations this week.  I think I’m getting a little invested in it now, or at least curious enough to stick with it for the moment. Jaimie Alexander is definitely the main draw. Although it’s kind of nice to see Ashley Johnson — or rather, to hear her, since I know her mainly from her animation roles such as Gwen in Ben 10 and Terra in Teen Titans.

It’s occurred to me: We now have two series on the air, Dark Matter and Blindspot, that revolve around characters who’ve had their memories wiped and are wrestling with the question of whether they were good or bad people in their previous lives. And they’re both created by veterans of the Stargate franchise — Joe Mallozzi and Paul Mullie for the former, Martin Gero for the latter. Is there some causality there, or just coincidence?

The Muppets: I’m out. I was open to a more adult and “edgy” version of the Muppets, getting back to their roots in late-night TV, but last night’s episode was something I don’t think the Muppets have ever been before: mean-spirited and cynical. Kermit has become an angry, neurotic jerk, Fozzie is committing felonies, and the characters are just being generally nasty to each other, with no sign of the affection that always underlaid their squabbles in the past. It didn’t feel like a story about the Muppets; it felt like a generic modern sitcom plot acted out by the Muppets. Which is lame. If the Muppets are going to do something in the vein of a contemporary TV trend, they should be spoofing and subverting it (Veterinarian’s Hospital, Pigs in Space), not just playing it out by the numbers. More importantly, it just wasn’t very funny. In the pilot, I laughed a good number of times, but very little amused me here.

The one good point is that Pepe the King Prawn, the most annoying Muppet ever, was more subdued and less obnoxious here. But he was the only Muppet who was less obnoxious. And maybe it’s just symptomatic of the general out-of-character writing.

And now to the new stuff:

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Tuesdays, ABC): Pretty solid opening. Things have ramped up to a new level. More superpower action, new threats, new status quo for various characters. Daisy (formerly Skye) is looking pretty good in her action gear and new haircut. And a passel of movie references — nods to the alien attacks on New York, London, and Sokovia (though Ultron was kind of indirectly alien), an appearance by President Ellis, even a nod to “the Pym Technologies disaster.” (Which is perhaps an overstatement given that nobody died in that.) And the lines about the laws of man catching up with the laws of nature could be foreshadowing Captain America: Civil War.

Sleepy Hollow (Thursdays, FOX): This just screamed “soft reboot.” Last season ended with the core foursome reunited and standing together; now suddenly we learn they all went their separate ways and are only grudgingly coming back together, with Irving gone for good. That’s kind of an awkward transition. And the episode was so much about setting up the new status quo that it’s hard to get a sense of what the season will be like.

But while the core cast was still fun to watch, the episode felt like it was going through the motions. The Horseman was swept aside very cursorily. Abbie was given a new grizzled mentor figure to suffer a predictable, telegraphed death at the hands of a demon, like Sheriff Corbin 2.0, but we didn’t see any emotional aftermath to the event, any reaction from Abbie once the scene was over. Crane and Abbie cursorily reasserted their friendship, but the sense of deep warmth and connection between them wasn’t as strong. Crane was given a new Colonial-era love interest in Betsy Ross, but without the depth of feeling and need he had for Katrina — and so far, the only impressive thing about Nikki Reed in the role is that she makes Katia Winter seem interesting in comparison. And Jenny was just there to help out and make wisecracks. Before, it was the depth of feeling behind the characters and their relationships, the underlying passion, that made the show engaging and grounded its insanely silly plotlines. There didn’t seem to be any passion here.

Also, how is it that an experienced demon-hunter and FBI agent like Abbie can run into a woman named Pandora, who’s into ancient history and lore and who’s just arrived in Sleepy Hollow at the same time a new evil descends upon the town, and not immediately suspect that it’s the Pandora? That’s just dropping the ball.

Thoughts on fall SFTV so far (spoilers)

September 28, 2015 2 comments

Just to keep this blog active, some reactions to the first week of fall TV:

Doctor Who (Saturdays, BBC America): Still fun to watch, but problematical. Steven Moffat’s execution is brilliant, but his concepts are limited. He keeps doing riffs on the same few ideas. How many times has he repeated the premise of the Doctor facing the end of his life and trying to hide from it? Shouldn’t we have gotten past that after Trenzalore? (And why didn’t he give someone his confession disc the last two or three times he thought his life was ending?) And most of Moffat’s plots are driven by bad guys trying to find, capture, or destroy the Doctor. This is no longer a show about the Doctor exploring the universe, it’s a show about the universe obsessing over the Doctor. It looks like this season is continuing in that vein, with the questions being raised about the Doctor’s confession and why he truly fled Gallifrey.

Moffat’s writing is essentially professional fanfiction. It’s all an expression of his deeply felt fandom for the character and the mythology — both here in and in Sherlock — and the problem is that he gives all the characters in his stories the same fixation on the hero that he has. Not only that, but he writes stories that are basically dramatized essays about the franchises he’s writing in, with the characters analyzing and deconstructing the leads and the basic tropes. I noticed that way back in the Sherlock debut episode, where the villain discussed Sherlock Holmes in a way that more fitted a literary critic analyzing an iconic character than a real-world criminal doing research on some private detective. Sometimes Moffat’s deconstructions can be brilliant, but sometimes they’re more self-indulgent, and he tends to repeat the same ones over and over.

Still, the second part of the opening storyline worked better than the first, with less padding. And Michelle Gomez isn’t quite as annoying as the Master/Missy as she was last season, though I still miss the original Masters whose acting was more in the vein of Vincent Price than Robin Williams.

Gotham (Mondays, FOX): Okay… just… no.

This is Jim Gordon. The epitome of the one good cop. Maybe willing to bend the rules for the greater good up to a point, but still an intrinsically honorable figure.

But now the show has crossed a line. It’s had Jim kill in service to an organized crime boss. Now, I’ve been engaged in online debates about whether it would constitute self-defense, since Jim was the one who started the confrontation. I posed the question to James Daily of the Law and the Multiverse blog, who provided a timely answer. Apparently Jim’s killing of the mobster would constitute justifiable self-defense, because it meets the two exceptions that allow the aggressor to make that claim: one, that he attacked nonlethally and was met with a lethal response, and two, that he ended the confrontation and was pursued. However, that doesn’t matter, because the killing happened as a result of a felony Jim committed, which makes it felony murder, and that overrides the justification defense.

So the show’s Jim Gordon is now a murderer. There is no coming back from that. This goes beyond Superman snapping Zod’s neck. There was at least a flimsy self-defense justification for that. This is a permanent stain on Gordon’s character (the show’s version of it), and it destroys the moral core that has always defined him and taints everything he achieves from now on. This was supposed to be a show about how Gordon cleaned up the corrupt Gotham establishment, not a show about how he became part of the corruption. He’s no longer someone I can root for, because he’s a murderer. The only options are that he either confesses and pays his debt — which he won’t do since it would end the show — or he spends the rest of his life covering up the fact that he committed murder in service to the Penguin. No matter how much good he does from now on, he will have to keep lying and covering up the truth in order to remain in a position to do it, and that means there will always be corruption at the core of it. That is not the show about Jim Gordon I wanted to see, and I don’t know if it’s a show I can continue to watch.

Also, Bruce, who was the one good thing about this show, has been dumbed down. He should’ve been able to crack that door code methodically just by entering numbers until he got a hit — and it shouldn’t have been that hard to guess that the code was his name. And in his scene with Jim, he should’ve seen that doing an “ugly thing” to do good wouldn’t work, because it would put him under Penguin’s thumb forever. This show has been stupid and incomprehensible in its choices from the start, but the one thing that really worked about it was the portrayal of young Bruce Wayne. It really captured his intelligence, his discipline, his ethics, and his reasoned choice to cope with his grief by dedicating himself to protecting others from having to suffer it. Now, I no longer have faith that will continue to be the case.

So I do not plan to watch Gotham anymore. Just thinking about last week’s episode makes me feel dumber. I no longer have any interest in this mess of a show. There has been some morbid entertainment value in watching it just to see how insane and incompetent it got, but at this point I just find it depressing.

Minority Report (Mondays, FOX): This show got poor ratings and reviews, but I liked it quite a bit. It’s a logical continuation of the movie, even if its lead characters’ point of view about Precrime is sort of the opposite of how the movie turned out — although the complications and moral questions of the process were raised, and hopefully the ethical ambiguity of psychic crime prediction will be explored.

While several characters are returning from the movie, the only returning actor is Daniel London as Wally the Caretaker. The others have been recast, though Laura Regan resembles Samantha Morton enough (from what I recall of her) that I can buy her as the same person. I like Meaghan Good as Detective Vega. She comes off as a competent detective and a reasonably charismatic lead, and is also really hot. The pilot maybe played up her sex appeal a bit much, with the bikini photo and the plunging necklines and such, but I’m not complaining. The tech-support woman with the tattoo on her face (Akeela, played by Li Jun Li) is pretty hot herself.

I liked the futurism. The environment wasn’t quite as consistently high-tech as it was in the movie, and I doubt the show will be able to sustain the level of CGI that the pilot was able to feature, but it was a reasonable continuation within those budgetary limits. But the futurism is good in another way, namely in acknowledging the demographic trends of the American population and giving us a nicely diverse cast, much more so than the overwhelmingly white cast of the movie. Also — “Washington Red Clouds” instead of Redskins. I like that.

I didn’t find the time to rewatch the movie before this, so I’m not sure if there are any subtle inconsistencies. So far it seems pretty solid, although I’m not sure whether the twins were fraternal or identical in the movie.

Blindspot (Mondays, NBC): Jaimie Alexander made it watchable, but the FBI guy is kind of dull. The premise feels like a rehash of John Doe but with a built-in excuse for more pseudo-topless scenes. And the mystery seems absurdly convoluted. They were all asking “Why would someone do this overcomplicated and weird thing to this woman,” and it all just seems to underline that whatever explanation we eventually get will just be a contrived excuse for this premise.

Plus I don’t see how it’s sustainable. If the bearded guy faked the terror threat to make the FBI trust “Jane,” does that mean all the tattoos will point to fake crimes and false leads? If so, what’s the point? This is another show I don’t feel any desire to keep watching.

Also, how can they possibly do a show about a tattooed lady and not name her Lydia?

The Muppets (Tuesdays, ABC): I found this amusing at times, although the “reality show” format isn’t my cup of tea, and the modern Muppets are a shadow of their original selves. Still, I appreciate the effort to bring back some of the original edginess to characters who have become perhaps a bit too Disney-sanitized, though maybe the show takes the “edge” a bit too far into cynicism. And it does seem there’s an effort to give the characters some real dimension and “humanity,” so to speak. I’m still not sure about this one, but I guess it’s worth a further look.

Limitless (Tuesdays, CBS): I waited to watch the pilot until I had a chance to see the movie, which I hadn’t seen before. And I kinda hated the movie. Stylistically, directorially, it was impressively done, but the lead character was basically reprehensible, and the movie was entirely too much on his side. The whole thing was about this guy using illegal and dishonest methods to gain wealth and power, and he ended up succeeding — not because he deserved to, but because he lucked into something that let him cheat his way to the top at the expense of everyone who got in his way. No moral, no lesson learned, no consequences for his misdeeds except to the people around him, just pure self-serving wish fulfillment in a dog-eat-dog world. The movie never even bothered to make clear whether he actually murdered that socialite or was framed for it, because the movie was so completely amoral that it didn’t matter to the narrative if he did murder her, so long as he got away with it and continued his rise to the top.

Now, the only reason I bothered with the movie — having concluded from the reviews at the time that it wouldn’t be my cup of tea, and boy, were they right — was because I’d heard the series pilot was so well-received by critics. But the pilot didn’t blow me away. Its protagonist is definitely an improvement over the smug, selfish, contemptible slimeball that is Eddie Morra; Brian is just as much of a loser to start out, but he’s a decent guy who’s motivated more by helping other people than by advancing himself. But in a lot of ways, the pilot just felt like an imitation of the movie, right down to repeating some of the same plot beats and copying its stylistic devices.

The show has a bit more diversity in its cast than the movie did (the film’s cast was almost exclusively white despite being set in New York City), but I don’t find the FBI-agent partner all that interesting. And I’m not sure the premise or the execution is enough to make it stand out from the procedural pack. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of a show about a protagonist whose advantages come from using an illegal drug — particularly with the downside of the drug being conveniently swept aside. It would’ve been more interesting if he did have to deal with the downside, if there were risks and costs to using it too often. It’s not good to make things too easy for the hero. This is another show that I don’t find a compelling reason to keep watching.

Heroes Reborn (Thursdays, NBC): I was really, really skeptical of this going in, unsure if I even wanted to give it a try. But it started out very strong, with the opening sequence in Odessa and the montage that followed it. It started to get a bit less interesting once it got to “Now,” but it’s still a lot better than the later seasons of the original, perhaps because it has less baggage.

It’s weird to hear the powered people called Evos, because the same name (as an acronym, E.V.O.) was used for the nanite-created mutants in the Generator Rex animated series. Also it bugs me that it’s using the same conceit as so many other similar series and using the term “human” for people without unusual abilities, implicitly defining the powered as nonhuman rather than just another subset of humanity.

The “El Vengador” plot kind of makes sense. If anyone were really going to fight crime in a mask, it’d probably be someone steeped in luchador culture. Although the plotline with the brothers and the mantle being passed on was kind of predictable and hokey. And I would’ve preferred it if the priest had been a normal person and had just been helping evos because helping the downtrodden is what priests are supposed to do.

The Evernow manga was put together wrong, bound on the left like an American book. Plus it was wider than it was tall, which isn’t like the manga I’ve seen, though I can’t rule out that there are some like that. And… seriously? She turns into a video game character? What kind of power is that? (Although I suspect she’s actually a game character turned into a flesh-and-blood girl by her father/creator’s power. She seems a bit too unreal in the flesh, in the way she dresses and the fact that she’s somehow unaware that her father created a game/manga character identical to her.)

I’m not thrilled by all the “It’s coming” stuff. Building the season around a looming apocalypse is a well the original series went to repeatedly, and I was hoping the revival would have some new tricks. Still, it’s got my interest enough to keep me watching.

Continuum (Fridays, Syfy): This is actually already halfway through its 6-episode final season, and it feels a bit rushed. But it does mean that a lot is happening in every episode. Although some of it feels a bit too abbreviated, like how quickly Kiera and Alec have gotten chummy with the surviving members of Liber8 after being at odds with them for so long. I mean, I know they have a common enemy now, but still, she sure warmed up to them in a hurry. And Brad Tonkin has become kind of a vague figure; his ambiguous agenda is critical to the story, but we aren’t getting any insights into what’s happening in his head. It also feels like they’re trying to have it both ways on the question of whether it’s possible for Kiera to return to her timeline and her family, which it really shouldn’t be anymore.

I’ve been having trouble with the idea of Kellog, of all people, being the ultimate big bad (although I think he may be a red herring with Curtis and the Traveler being the real threat), but Travis summed it up effectively in “Power Hour,” the latest episode aired in the US. Kellog represents greed, the profit motive above all other priorities, and that’s the same mentality that led to the dystopia of Kiera’s future and the worse dystopia of Brad’s future, as well as the mentality behind Piron’s co-opting of the police force and Other Alec’s turn to the dark side. (You could throw in Dillon’s moral degeneration, though in his case it was a greed for control and authoritarian power rather than wealth.) Greed is essentially the ultimate evil in the series, and out of all the time travellers, Kellog is the only one whose primary allegiance is to greed. So maybe it’s fitting that he ended up at the main villain. And his apparent benevolence early on could’ve been part of that, showing how harmless and appealing greed can seem to be. Although that’s probably reading too much into it.

Okay, so overall I’m not that impressed with last week’s crop of new shows. The imports Doctor Who and Continuum are the big ones for me so far, and otherwise, Minority ReportThe Muppets, and Heroes Reborn are the only ones I find worth continuing with, and none of them has unambiguously impressed me.

Luckily, the big guns are coming back pretty soon: Agents of SHIELD tomorrow night, Sleepy Hollow this Thursday (although with another new showrunner, so there’s no telling if it’ll recover in quality after the weak second season), and, thank goodness, the return of The Flash, Arrow, and iZombie next week. Still a month from Supergirl, though, and we have to wait until November for The Librarians, Elementary, and Jessica JonesPerson of Interest isn’t even scheduled yet. (I’m not counting Grimm, since I’m not watching anymore. It’s been getting increasingly bad for the past two seasons, and last season’s finale was enough to turn me off for good.) Will I post about those shows? Probably not regularly, but we’ll see.

I’m still here…

September 22, 2015 2 comments

Wow, I haven’t posted in over a month! Sorry about that. What have I been up to this past month? Let’s see…

Mostly I’ve been writing my DTI novella Time Lock, which I finished last week. It was rather involved, because the premise entails some complicated timey-wimey stuff that required a fair amount of math. Not very complicated math — I’m not up to that — but just a single formula that I had to apply scene-by-scene to keep track of certain interrelationships. I also had to read a bunch of scenes aloud after writing them and time them on a stopwatch. The reasons for this will become clear when the story is published. Let’s just say I’ve found a way to play with time that Star Trek has almost never used before, certainly not in this way. I’m rather pleased with how the story turned out, but it was hard work getting there. I’m also pleased that the story gave me the opportunity to pick up on a thread or two from one of my older Trek novels — and to fix a continuity error I discovered in my own prior work.

After that, I reviewed the copyedits for Rise of the Federation: Live by the Code, which I just finished yesterday. Dealing with copyedits can be frustrating. Copyeditors… well, their job is to focus on grammar and usage, but sometimes they forget that spoken dialogue isn’t always grammatically perfect, and that trying to make it so can rob characters of their individual voices. Some copyeditors also tend to be too intolerant of repeated words. Sometimes it’s good to avoid repeating a word or phrase within the same couple of lines, sometimes it’s redundant, but sometimes repetition is a valuable device. Sometimes repetition is for emphasis. Sometimes repetition is for rhythm. Sometimes repetition is just the way people talk. Sometimes… okay, point made.

There are also some really arbitrary grammatical preferences that copyeditors seem to think are actual rules, like insisting on “more than x items” rather than “over x items,” or on “the thing that is” rather than “the thing which is,” the latter being the way I happen to talk and write, a usage which is commonly found in countless older works of fiction but has somehow randomly come to be seen as inappropriate today.

So now I’m free of immediate deadlines. I still have to get started on my original-series Star Trek novel The Face of the Unknown, but I have enough leeway there that I can spend the next month or so focused on my original writing. I’m going to do one more pass on a spec novel I’m about to submit, then hopefully make some progress on a couple of original stories.

What else has been going on in my life? Well, my computer is acting up, and I’m far from competent to deal with it. Twice in one day, I had Firefox freeze my computer completely and force me to reboot by holding the power button down for five seconds until it shut down. I had a scare when the computer kept shutting off right after I tried turning it back on, eventually giving me a screen that let me restart it in “last safe mode” or something. I’ve been afraid to use Firefox since then and have been using Chrome, but I don’t like Chrome. I hate the way it won’t let me open a new tab in a foreground window. I don’t like it that there’s no good Chrome extension for toggling animated gifs on and off like there is for Firefox. And for some reason, I can’t get decent resolution watching Netflix streams on Chrome. (Although YouTube’s new video format doesn’t play right on Firefox — I hate the lack of a uniform standard for online video.)

Yesterday, though, something else happened — a file within my Avast antivirus program called avastSvc.exe was taking up 99 percent of my CPU usage and wouldn’t stop until I did another power-button forced reboot. (It’s possible that this was the real cause of my Firefox problems, though I’m not sure.) I looked into it, and while I gather there are some malware programs using that filename, I checked and this file is in the Avast directory where it belongs. Also, I couldn’t get Avast to open while it was running, meaning it probably is connected. I looked into some instructions about how to deal with the problem, but the thing about looking online for computer advice is that you tend to get multiple conflicting suggestions, and that just confuses me more. Yeah, I know I write science fiction for a living, but I’m really dumb when it comes to working with actual computers. I’ve never had an aptitude for electronics or programming or anything really practical or applied. I’m really not sure what to do, and I’m just hoping it doesn’t recur.

I’ve also been having a bit of a problem with my remote controls. I use a rather old Sony amplifier/receiver thingy to feed from my TV, DVD, etc. to my speakers, and the mute button has gotten increasingly unresponsive, so that I had to wrestle viciously with it to get it to mute the sound. And I’d never been able to get the universal remote that came with the cable box to work with the amplifier. So I looked into the problem online and found that there was a sneakily hidden, sort of easter-egg command I could use to switch a setting on the amplifier so that it would work with universal remotes, and yay, it worked! But then I discovered that the original remote no longer worked on that setting (some models of remote could be switched to that channel, but not this one), and I couldn’t use the universal remote to switch the input channels from, say, TV to DVD. I can only do that by manually pushing a button on the front of the amplifier now. Also, I have to remember to switch modes on the universal remote between controlling the cable box and controlling the volume. I’m adjusting to that, but the ideal would be to get the old remote working again. I looked into some online instructions for taking a remote apart and cleaning the contacts, but I couldn’t get the remote to come apart. I was able to pry it open on one end after a lot of trial and error, but I couldn’t get it open beyond that no matter how I tried. And buying a replacement online would cost 25-30 bucks. So I guess I’m stuck with the current state of affairs, which isn’t perfect but is better than it was.

Oh, yes, and my watch band broke. It’s a fabric band, but it’s plastic where it attaches to the watch, and I guess it got bent too far or too often at that point and split nearly all the way through. I looked for a replacement band online, but apparently the fabric bands have been discontinued, although you can still get new watches with them, which is bizarre. I could’ve gotten a latex band, but I don’t like those because they tend to break easily. So I took the watch back to where I’d bought it to see if they could get me a replacement band, and they sent it back to the manufacturer to get it repaired… and that was 16 days ago. I called last week, and apparently it only reached the manufacturer 5 days later. I haven’t heard anything back, and I’m getting annoyed. I’ve been wearing my previous watch, whose case and latex band are deteriorating, but which still tells the time well enough. I’m lucky its battery was still good after four years, though I think it’s borderline, since the display faded out when I held the buttons down to reset the time. Still, I want my current watch back. This wait is ridiculous. I probably could’ve just taken it to some other store that sells watch bands and found a suitable substitute much quicker than this.

Let’s see, I’ve also been getting a bit more exercise lately. I’d really let myself get sedentary this past few months, but I’m trying to change that. I put air back in my bike tires and have done a bit of riding. The other day, I walked down the really steep steps and hills to Findlay Market to get some fresh produce, then walked back up the longer and slightly less steep way, which was very tiring in my current out-of-shape condition — but I felt invigorated afterward, not just for the rest of the day but on following days as well. Also, last week, I drove over to the lake area in Burnet Woods — which is within walking distance, but I had other errands to run in that area and I just wanted to hang out in the park a bit first — and that was really pleasant. My little local park is okay, but the lake (well, large pond) and the woods around it are really a soothing environment. I think I should go there more often, and walk next time. In theory it’d be nice to ride my bike over there, but it’s somewhat downhill from here, and I know from experience that biking back up from that vicinity takes a lot out of me, far more than I could handle in my current condition. It’s a lot harder to bike uphill than to walk uphill.

Oh, and when I went down to Findlay Market, I saw that the downtown streetcar project is making good progress. There’s actually a streetcar maintenance building around there now, with side tracks that go around and through it, which is rather neat, like a miniature railroad depot. There are also streetcar stops in place on raised sections of the sidewalk, and the overhead wiring is in place along the part of the rails I saw. This is really happening! Though apparently it’s still about a year from completion, darn it.

The reason I went down to Findlay Market for produce — and on those errands last week — is because the local Kroger has closed for a year to get rebuilt into a bigger superstore, and I need to find other places to shop. There are a couple of other Krogers that aren’t too far away, but they’re far enough that I’d prefer closer options when practical — convenience stores, the pharmacy, that sort of thing. The nearest open Kroger is three times as far and doesn’t have as good a selection. There’s a slightly closer market, a former IGA that’s been taken over by a local co-op, but I don’t think it’s reopened yet. When it does, it might be my best option. Still, I saw the plans for the new local Kroger, and it’s going to be quite an improvement, particularly where parking is concerned, since the new lot will be on nearer side of the block and have an exit near the corner closest to my home, instead of the opposite corner where it is now. Hmm, I guess it and the streetcar will be opening around the same time.

I suppose I could talk about the TV shows I’ve been watching, but maybe I should save that for another post, covering the new fall shows and my thoughts on them, and maybe some other recent shows. I’ll just say that I’ve decided to work my way systematically through all of classic Doctor Who, instead of just borrowing DVDs randomly when I happened to find them at the library. The thing is, I want to do it on DVD whenever possible so I can watch the wonderfully in-depth bonus features they have, so it’s slow going — I’m still early in season 2. But I’ve decided I’m also going to watch the missing-episode reconstructions that can be found online, using the surviving audio and set photos. I’ve read the novelizations of those episodes, seen the surviving bits and pieces, but I’ve never watched the recons, so I’m finally starting to do that. The reconstruction of “Marco Polo,” the first missing serial, was terrific. The recons of the missing episodes of “The Reign of Terror” weren’t as good, but I think I prefer them to the Flash-animated recreations that were released with the DVD.

Well, I suppose that’s enough catching up for this morning. Especially since it’s now just after noon.

Oh, how about that… my computer’s clock is running over (or more than) five minutes ahead of the actual time. It often runs a minute or two fast, but five is unusual. I wonder if that’s a symptom of its problems.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — ROGUE NATION (2015) Movie Review (Spoilers)

The newest Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation, was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects and Edge of Tomorrow, director of Jack Reacher) from a story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce. It’s the second M:I film produced by Bad Robot, and thus the third with involvement from J.J. Abrams (who directed M:i:III but apparently did not produce it, I was surprised to learn recently). It continues the trend of continuity between films and the ensemble flavor of Ghost Protocol, with Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn and Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt returning from that film, alongside Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and Ving Rhames’s Luther Stickell, who has a sizeable role this time after having just a cameo in GP. Having both Benji and Luther prominently in the same film could be a problem, since they fill the same role on the team, but this is resolved by having them spend a lot of the film apart, with Benji supporting Ethan and Luther supporting Brandt. Paula Patton’s Jane Carter is neither seen nor mentioned, with the female lead instead being Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a disavowed British agent whose loyalties are unclear for much of the film.

The film rather wisely starts out by immediately disposing of the big vertiginous Tom Cruise stunt sequence that was inevitably going to be plastered all over the trailers and promotions and thus wouldn’t be a surprise anyway — namely, the scene where he clings to the side of a cargo plane as it takes off. Fittingly, Ethan’s first appearance in the film has him doing a Patented Tom Cruise Run to leap onto the plane, and his plane cling isn’t exactly Ethan Hunt Climbs Things but is pretty close. (Previously, Cruise has had short hair in every odd-numbered picture and long hair in every even-numbered one; here he’s sort of in between.) The sequence is fun and deftly directed, and Joe Kraemer’s score immediately makes an impression equal in strength to Michael Giacchino’s work on the previous two films. Like Ghost Protocol, the teaser leads into a main title sequence that homages the titles of the original series, complete with flashforward clips of the action to come, but in a more conventional way than GP’s titles — rather evocative of the original 1996 film’s title sequence, in fact. The main title arrangement is big and brassy in a way that evokes both the 1996 Danny Elfman version and the Ghost Protocol Giacchino version.

The evocation of the ’96 film is perhaps appropriate, since this is the first sequel to directly acknowledge any events from that film. CIA Director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) mentions Ethan’s iconic Langley break-in from said film, along with the destruction of the Kremlin and other events of Ghost Protocol, as part of his case that the IMF is a renegade organization that should be shut down. He actually makes an objectively good case that its secretive methods are ill-suited to the modern age of transparency and accountability, but of course we’re supposed to be rooting against him and for Brandt, who argues that the IMF has been doing good work for 40 years — which is short by about nine years, I’d say. Has the original series suddenly been retconned out of existence? Is this proof that the movies are in a separate reality from the show? Or did Brandt just misspeak? In any case, the nebulously defined committee that they’re testifying to agrees to shut down the IMF.

But Ethan doesn’t know this, as he’s going to a message drop in London to get his next assignment. I had to squee at this sequence, because the drop is in a record store and the message is encoded on a vinyl phonograph album — a callback to the 1966 pilot episode!!!!! But with a couple of twists — first, that it uses a modern laser thingy to project graphics onto the turntable lid… and second, that it turns out to be a trap laid by the Syndicate, an evil organization that Ethan’s been hunting down since the closing moments of Ghost Protocol (said to be a year before, even though that was four years ago). It’s fun to hear the formula of the message subverted by the bad guys. Ethan sees a mysterious bespectacled man gun down the pretty store clerk who was his contact, before he’s gassed unconscious as the “self-destruct” part of the message.

Ethan awakes in the clutches of the Syndicate, which apparently plans to use torture to break him and turn him to their side. He’s helped to escape by Ilsa Faust, a mole within the Syndicate, but he finds from Brandt that he’s out in the cold and that Hunley doesn’t believe in the Syndicate’s existence. But he’s determined to find the bespectacled man and get justice, so he goes rogue. Cut to six months later, with Brandt working under Hunley and Benji as a CIA analyst who has to trick weekly polygraph tests to insist he has no loyalty to Ethan. But Ethan arranges to get Benji’s help at an opera in Vienna, whereupon he encounters Ilsa apparently trying to assassinate the Austrian chancellor, though there are two other assassins on hand to take her out if she fails. Ethan foils the assassination — the same way Ilsa had planned to — and they escape together, but the Syndicate has a backup plan and foils their foiling.

Ilsa breaks away to preserve her cover and report to Syndicate head Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), who keeps letting her live despite her “failures” because it’s convenient to the plot — err, because he sees “potential” in her. Meanwhile, Ethan explains to Benji that the Syndicate is an “anti-IMF,” consisting of former spies believed dead or missing and employing IMF-style tactics to fake deadly accidents in order to tear down the world order.

Lane gives Ilsa one more chance, sending her to Casablanca to break into an ultra-high security data vault, a job that Ethan and Benji end up helping her with when they learn it’s to access Lane’s ledger listing all the Syndicate’s agents. This is the sequence with Ethan diving into an underwater facility and trying to hold his breath for several minutes, and it’s another tour-de-force action set piece, with the underwater sound design being particularly impressive. Ilsa saves Ethan’s life when he drowns — the second time in the series that the female lead has gotten to bring Ethan back from the brink of death — but then she breaks away with the retrieved data, and Ethan and Benji literally run into Brandt and Luther as they chase after her. A car chase reminiscent of The Italian Job gives way to a motorcycle chase reminiscent of M:I-2, but Ilsa gets away.

She takes the data to Attlee, the head of British intelligence, and demands that she be brought in, but he turns out to be a ruthless bastard who insists she go back in and assassinate Ethan to prove her allegiance to Lane. He also deletes the stolen data on her thumb drive, though of course Benji made a backup, so Ethan’s team now has the only copy. And it’s not a ledger, but a “red box” file that only the Prime Minister of the UK can open. Clearly Lane intends to kidnap the PM. But when the team tracks down Ilsa to confront her, Lane kidnaps Benji in order to force Ethan to kidnap the PM. This was the plan all along. (Why? Seems needlessly convoluted.)

It looks like Ethan’s going to go through with it, and Brandt argues against doing something so insane. We cut to Brandt calling Hunley to tell him what Ethan’s planning. It’s pretty easy to guess that in between scenes, Ethan spelled out a con game that Brandt is playing along with, only pretending to betray him. Brandt lures Hunley to London, where they end up in a room with the PM and Attlee, the latter of whom maneuvers the PM into revealing to Hunley that the Syndicate was a proposal of Attlee’s to found a rogue agency that could act with impunity — a proposal that the PM rejected but that Attlee carried forward anyway. I guessed pretty early in the scene that Attlee was actually Ethan in a mask, since the actor they cast, Simon McBurney, seemed similar to Cruise in size and facial structure. And of course it was, though it’s unclear how Ethan deduced some of the things he reveals as Attlee. They’ve also lured the real Attlee to take the fall, while arranging for Hunley to take the credit for catching him. With Hunley now on their side, they use the PM’s biometrics to open the file, which is Attlee’s financial records intended to fund the Syndicate. (The most awkward moment in the film is here — just before the truth is revealed to Hunley, when he still thinks Ethan is coming to kill the PM, he issues an overwrought warning about how Ethan is this unstoppable force, “the living manifestation of destiny” or some such thing, which just comes out of nowhere and is way too aggrandizing to Ethan. We don’t even get a comedy beat of embarrassment when Hunley realizes that Ethan was standing right there listening to his overeffusive words.)

Lane sets up a trap to force Ethan to turn over the account numbers lest Benji and Ilsa be blown up, but Ethan outmaneuvers him — he memorized the data and erased the disk, so now Lane needs him alive. He gets Benji released and then protects Ilsa from being shot by Syndicate men, and this leads into a final chase through the streets wherein Ethan and Ilsa eventually get separated so that they can each have their own individual action climax. Lane shows up to confront Ethan directly, conveniently forgetting that whole “need him alive” thing, and Ethan leads him into a nice little trap set up by Luther and Benji — a trap that, refreshingly, ends with the villain apparently still alive and unconscious. And the way it’s done, which calls back the record-store incident that was Ethan and Lane’s first meeting, is more satisfying than Lane’s death would’ve been. Anyway, Ethan and Ilsa say their farewells — platonically, I’m glad to say, though that’s as close as the film comes to acknowledging that Ethan still has a wife out there somewhere.

The movie ends with an odd little scene where Hunley convinces the Nebulous Committee to reinstate the IMF, whereupon Brandt tells him, “Welcome to the IMF, Mister Secretary.” Now, that’s very odd. It implies that the Secretary is the head of the IMF. In the past, it always seemed that he was the secretary of defense or state, a cabinet-level post that oversaw the intelligence community. Having him be exclusively attached to the IMF and appointed by some kind of committee is hard to make sense of. It’s also a disappointing ending in another sense, because when Ilsa went off to her ill-defined future, I imagined the closing scene I wanted to see: Ilsa some time later showing up to a message drop and then hearing Ethan’s voice say, “Good morning, Ms. Faust. Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” I think that would’ve been a perfect ending. Concluding the film without formally bringing Ilsa on board feels incomplete, particularly since it leaves the IMF as an all-male outfit throughout the film.

Rogue Nation was a pretty solid action movie, very well-made. It doesn’t seem to have the plausibility problems of the first two films, and it has a level of humor close to that of Ghost Protocol. I’m getting tired of Ethan always being on the run from his own government, but at least it was set up as a continuation of the events of previous films. Indeed, I enjoy the way this film felt like a continuation of the previous one, even more so than GP did; it’s a refreshing change from the first decade of the franchise, where each film felt like an unrelated standalone. RN didn’t have as strong a character story at its core as the previous two, but what filled that void was the interplay and friendship among the core cast. This is the first M:I film where every member of Ethan’s team is a returning character, and that history gives weight to the character interactions, which is good, because the characters are given little development otherwise. There’s also Ilsa’s story as a reluctant double agent trying to balance her allegiances and stay alive — perhaps not very deep or emotional, but well-handled by Ferguson, who’s a very strong presence and an effective counterpart to Cruise. There’s a degree of male gaze directed toward her by the camera on occasion, but she never really feels objectified, since she’s so poised and in control.

I have particular praise for Joe Kraemer’s score. It integrates the Schifrin themes as strongly as Giacchino’s did, if not more so, and builds new motifs on similar chord structures so that it all feels of a piece, not only with the Schifrin themes but with the Giacchino scores, which did much the same thing. Kraemer actually uses “The Plot” more extensively than Giacchino did, accompanying a lot of the team’s machinations; although, like Danny Elfman in the first film, he never quotes the entire melody, sticking mainly to the first few bars. The most extensive use of “The Plot” is in the Casablanca sequence, where it gets reworked to have an “Arabian” sound to it.

The movie is not without flaws, though. For one thing, it fails the Bechdel test. Ilsa is the only significant female character; of the two others, one (the doomed record-shop clerk) is just there to be killed to motivate Ethan, and the other (an aide to Hunley played by Chinese actress Zhang Jingchu, who’s prominently credited for less than a minute of screen time) is apparently just there to satisfy the Chinese funding partners. Neither of them interacts with Ilsa at all. I’d say it passes the Mako Mori test, in that Ilsa has a clearly drawn arc of her own that isn’t about supporting a male character’s arc, but the overwhelming maleness of most of the cast is distracting. (The Nebulous Committee, for instance, consists entirely of old white men plus one token old black man.) Looking back over the series, though, it seems that none of the films pass the test fully, except maybe the first, which has three named women on the initial team, participating in the group conversation about the mission.

It also doesn’t feel as much like Mission: Impossible as GP did. It’s more in the vein of the second and third films in being driven more by big action than by devious con games. The sequence with the Prime Minister and Attlee comes the closest to an IMF-style con game, and the infiltration of the Casablanca vault has a touch of it (since it’s basically a variation on the classic IMF tactic of inserting fake credentials for a team member into the target’s records). But mostly it’s action over calculating schemes and deceptions, and Ethan and the team spend too much time improvising rather than playing out intricate chess games plotted in advance. The Nebulous Committee even argues that Ethan’s methods are “indistinguishable from luck,” which is pretty much anathema to the IMF of the TV series, wherein every move was calculated from the start and very little was ever left to chance. I regret that the film series has become so defined by its big action, because I’d love to see an M:I movie that was all about a big sting operation. Oh, and the Syndicate is said to be an “anti-IMF,” but its methods seem to consist mainly of snipers and bombs and the like. Dougray Scott in M:I-2 was more convincing in his use of IMF-style tactics for evil, and loyal readers, I’m as astonished as you to hear myself saying something positive about M:I-2. Granted, though, lack of IMFery isn’t a dealbreaker for an M:I movie; the third film had little of it, but it’s still one of the two strongest films in the series. It’s just that GP was the first film in the series that actually felt like Mission: Impossible rather than The Adventures of Ethan Hunt, and I was hoping RN would continue the trend. It did not.

And the lack of character development compared to the previous two films does disappoint me in retrospect. The dramatic tension among the team members played well, but there was little sense of backstory or personal lives like there was in the previous two films. It was all about the job and the plot business they were dealing with. The past two films gave Ethan a personal life that humanized him, but that was totally absent here, with Ethan defined totally by his quest to bring down the Syndicate. So it’s shallower overall, though not as shallow as the first two films.

If anything, RN reminds me of M:I-2 in a lot of ways. It’s a heavily action-driven film featuring a lengthy motorcycle chase; it features a villain using IMF-style tactics for evil; and it centers on Ethan’s competition with the villain for the allegiance of the sole significant female character in the film. But it’s much better in most respects: the action is less cartoony; the female lead is a protagonist in her own right and not merely a lust interest; and the rest of the IMF team functions as a full ensemble rather than just being tacked on.

So out of the five films so far, I would rank Rogue Nation as a close third behind the previous two films, and well ahead of the first two. I still think of the first two as failed pilots for a series that didn’t really get underway until J.J. Abrams took the helm. That series proper is now up to three films that have maintained a pretty consistent level of quality throughout. This is the weakest of the three, but by a narrow margin.

Shore Leave 2015 report

August 13, 2015 1 comment

Um, okay, I guess I’m nearly recovered enough from Shore Leave to finally get around to posting about it… if I can remember enough.

Let’s see, I set off relatively early on Thursday morning, since it was raining in southwest Ohio and I hoped to get past the weather as soon as I could, before the really harsh stuff caught up with me. Once more, the weather radar app on my smartphone was very helpful in tracking the storm. I did get caught in one pretty heavy downpour, but it was brief.

Oh yes, but before I did anything else, I went to the nearest Kroger gas station to use my fuel discount, and then I went to the Starbucks in the same mall to get coffee for the road. It took me a moment to spot the store, because it didn’t have its name on the sign, only its logo. I suppose that reflects how ubiquitous Starbucks has become, but it’s also a worrying sign that we’re becoming a non-literate society. (Even the New York Times crossword page has redesigned its format to be mostly pictures rather than words. I mean, a crossword page. Think about that.) Anyway, I asked the clerk (barista? I don’t know this arcane terminology yet) for some advice on picking a beverage, something mild and sweet and not bitter, and ended up going for a white mocha thingummy with whipped cream, which wasn’t bad. Still, I found I needed more of a caffeine boost on the road, so over the course of the day I had both of the iced-coffee drinks I’d bought the day before just in case. I’m starting to think that caffeine doesn’t have that much of an effect on me. But the other part of the problem was that I’m out of shape. I’ve been too busy writing lately, too sedentary, so my general endurance and energy levels are down. Driving may be a sedentary activity, but it’s a draining one. I’ll have to remember that in the future, and try to get in better shape before my next long drive. As usual, I had an essentially sleepless night in the motel where I stayed, but the coffee I had the next morning did help me stay reasonably alert for the rest of the drive. I got in to the hotel at just about 3 PM on Friday, and my room was ready promptly.

So anyway, my phone rang while I was on the road Thursday afternoon, but I couldn’t answer it while driving. When I stopped for dinner a bit later and checked my messages, I learned from my cousin Cynthia that our mutual cousin Scott, whom I’d never met, would be attending Shore Leave with his son and hoped we could get together. I was expecting him to show up at Meet the Pros on Friday if he didn’t find me sooner, but he never appeared that night. I contacted him later and found he wouldn’t be in until Sunday.

My first panel on Friday was at 5 PM, so I didn’t have time to rest much in my room, though I did shower and change and transfer stuff into my trusty but worn Shore Leave tote bag that I’ve had since my first visit over a decade ago. The panel was “Keeping it Real: Using Facts in Fiction,” and I and the other panelists, including my friend David Mack, had a pretty good discussion about incorporating real scientific and historical research into our work. After that, I tagged along with Dave and his wife Kara as they checked out the vending area, and then later we got together with a bunch of the other writers and went over to a sports bar in the mall across the way for dinner. We had an interesting conversation, and I had a pretty good chicken wrap with cheese sauce, but I had to step out early because I had an 8 PM panel. I took the second half of my wrap with me to have later, and I hurried back to the hotel on foot, expecting to be late for the panel. I managed to get there just one minute late — only to find that I was the first panelist to arrive, and that the auction scheduled for the previous hour was still going on. The panel I’d rushed to reach started over 15 minutes late, and I had enough time to wolf down the rest of my wrap. Fittingly, it was a panel on SF humor. I used it as a chance to plug Hub Space, but I didn’t have much to contribute beyond that. Fortunately, Peter David was on the panel, so I didn’t have to say much.

I stuck around briefly for the start of Marco Palmieri’s annual 9 PM panel announcing upcoming Tor books, but then I decided I needed to go back to my room and rest up a bit before Meet the Pros at 10. At MtP, I was seated between Dave Mack and a relative newcomer to the Trek line, John Jackson Miller, who’s already known for his Star Wars stuff. Of the three of us, I was the one who got the least attention, because I had the least to promote. Uncertain Logic came out months ago, and I don’t have anything new coming up for a while. I did print up a sort of flyer to promote Hub Space, just a single sheet that I had on display, but nobody took much interest. Maybe I should’ve printed up multiple cards and handed them out, but it was too much of a last-minute decision. Which is not to say that Meet the Pros was a disappointment for me. In addition to meeting my fans (and putting a face to the name of one of the regular commenters over on, I got to catch up with some of my friends and colleagues, and talked a bit of business with one of them, which hopefully will turn out well, though I shouldn’t get my hopes up yet.

The new hotel management doesn’t continue the practice of putting preorder menus for Saturday breakfast in our rooms, so instead I just went down to the former Hunt Cafe, which is now yet another Starbucks, and got breakfast there, including another white mocha thingummy (I’m a veteran now!). I don’t remember doing much before my Sherlock Holmes panel at noon. I’m not sure I contributed much there, since the moderator, Kathleen David, wanted to focus on literary Holmes continuations and pastiches, while I was expecting something more screen-oriented. But there was some talk of screen adaptations, so I was able to contribute somewhat. Still, I made a point of seeing Ian McKellen’s Mr. Holmes beforehand, and I don’t think it would’ve made much difference if I hadn’t.

I lucked into a free lunch on Saturday, since I ran into Keith R.A. DeCandido, who brought cold cuts from New York City to provide his friends and colleagues with a less expensive alternative to the hotel restaurant and cafe. I had roast beef with mustard, and it was pretty good. Thanks, Keith!

At 2 PM was the sole Star Trek literature panel, where all of us Trek authors with books coming out in the rest of 2015-16 got together and announced our stuff, as well as the upcoming titles by the authors who weren’t in attendance. You can see the list of titles at Memory Alpha’s Upcoming productions page, including a TOS 5oth-anniversary trilogy by Greg Cox, Dave Mack, and Dayton Ward & Kevin Dilmore, and a TNG trilogy by John Jackson Miller. My own announcements were of two upcoming projects: a 5-year-mission-era TOS novel called The Face of the Unknown, scheduled for January 2017 (released in late December, so just barely squeezing in as part of the 50th anniversary), and a second Department of Temporal Investigations novella, Time Lock, which is not yet scheduled.

After sitting in on the last half of Keith’s Stargate fiction panel from 3-4, I went to the book vendor’s table and did my hour signing autographs in the Author Chimney, the enclosed space between brick pillars where authors sit to do signings. Actually there were one or two non-Chimney spaces for writers at the table this year, but Dave Mack was already there, so I ended up in the Chimney. I actually found the enclosed space kind of comforting. After that, I participated in the annual authors’ ritual of the Saturday night mass visit to Andy Nelson’s Barbecue. I had the same thing I had last year — a pulled turkey barbecue sandwich with cole slaw and cornbread, because Nelson’s makes the only good cole slaw and cornbread I can ever remember having — but I’m thinking that maybe next year I should try something different.

While I was in the Chimney, Kara came up and told me where I could get a new Shore Leave tote bag, since my trusty old one isn’t as trusty anymore, getting kind of worn out and frayed. The vendor was closing up by the time I got there after my signing session, but I went back the next morning and got a new bag, which is fancier than the old one, with more pockets. Hopefully it’ll be useful for years to come.

Sunday morning was the usual authors’ breakfast at the hotel restaurant, but I’m starting to wonder if maybe I should’ve reconsidered that tradition and taken Kevin Dilmore’s suggestion to go out someplace less expensive for breakfast with him and his group. It used to be, back when Pocket Books had an official presence at Shore Leave, that the editor (Marco) picked up the tab for the authors, but these days we’re paying for it ourselves. Still, I’d already told the convention organizers that I’d be at the author breakfast, so I felt obligated to follow through. I had a double-sized breakfast to tide me over and to justify the expense. And I got to chat with some authors I hadn’t already talked to much, including a talk about Gilligan’s Island with Peter David. (Wherein I got to share my theory that Gilligan’s island is the last surviving piece of Captain Nemo’s Mysterious Island. That’s where the 6-foot spider in “The Pigeon” came from!)

I also touched base with cousin Scott and his son before breakfast, and then Scott showed up to watch me at the Orphan Black panel, even though he’s never seen the show. Afterward I showed Scott around the con a bit, and then we joined his son for the back half of John Barrowman’s talk, which was certainly lively — and meaningful, since Barrowman talked a lot about fighting for LGBT inclusion and acceptance, and said a lot of encouraging and affirming things to people from the audience. Afterward, at my suggestion, the three Bennetts went over to the Wegman’s in the mall for lunch — they had pizza, but I was still full from my big breakfast, so I just had a cucumber-blueberry-feta salad (yes, really!) and an iced tea — and then we went back to hang around in the corridor where the actor guests were signing autographs. I’m glad Scott was there, since I usually never get up the nerve to go talk to the actor guests, but I just tagged along with him and thereby got to have conversations with folks like Roger Cross and Jaime Murray. (It was weird getting home the next day and seeing Cross in Dark Matter on the DVR when I’d been talking to him in person just the day before.)

Once Scott and his son went on their way to see other convention stuff and said their farewells, I just hung around and talked more with whatever writer acquaintances were still around — which was serendipitous, since one colleague sounded me out on a very interesting business opportunity that I really hope will prove feasible. That was a good way to end my Shore Leave experience this year, and my mind was racing with the possibilities on the first leg of the drive home. Which is getting ahead of myself, since there are a couple of things I need to find out before I even know whether this is possible; but I always get ahead of myself with these things. Maybe that’s an occupational hazard of a science fiction writer.

I left the hotel at 4:10 PM, which I know because I’ve discovered that my phone’s Google Maps stores a record of my movements — kind of creepy but useful for reference. One reason I’d stuck around was that I’d been hoping for a chance to visit my DC-area cousins Barb and Mark, and I’d texted them to find their plans; but it turned out they wouldn’t be home until late that evening, too late to make it feasible. So I just texted my regrets and headed for home. Given my late start, I was only able to make it midway through Pennsylvania by nightfall — but I had the idea that I should try to make it back to the same motel I’d stayed at on the way out, since I’d been fairly satisfied with it and I didn’t want to take chances with an unknown commodity. Plus, fortunately, I’d picked up two different motel-coupon booklets at a rest stop on Thursday, and thus I had two coupons for the same motel. It belatedly occurred to me that driving west around sunset was a bad idea, but fortunately the sky was overcast most of the time, so I never had to contend with glare in my eyes. I made it to the motel just shortly before sunset and parked in the same space I’d parked in on Thursday night. I even ended up in a room right across the hall from my previous one, and a single digit higher in number. I’m a little disappointed that it wasn’t the same room, but missing it by one is almost as good.

At the motel’s complementary breakfast, I had two cups of coffee, and toward the end of the second cup, I noticed some grains that I thought were undissolved bits of sugar. It turned out they were actually coffee grounds. The coffee pot had only just been put in place when I filled my cup, so I guess maybe the grounds hadn’t settled. I just looked into whether there’s anything bad about eating coffee grounds, and it seems the only potential problem is the acidity. I didn’t swallow many before figuring out what they were, though.

I set out fairly early, hoping to get home by mid-afternoon, but as always, it took longer than I hoped, since I needed to take a number of rest breaks. I managed to cross into Ohio just before noon, though. I stopped for lunch at a Subway in a convenience store/truck stop in Cambridge, one that had a small dining area where the TV was playing a basketball game. It slowly dawned on me that it must’ve been a replay of a classic game, since I recognized the Chicago Bulls lineup from back when my father was a fan of them — names like Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, and even Michael Jordan. Checking Wikipedia, it looks like that narrows it down to 1995-98. It was against the New York Knicks, but I can’t narrow it down any more than that. I generally couldn’t care less about basketball, but it was interesting to realize that it was a game my late father might well have watched and enjoyed when it was new.

My phone told me there was some rain coming in between Columbus and Cincinnati again, so I decided to wait it out at a rest stop east of Columbus — where I had yet another cup of coffee to stave off fatigue. I thought I’d stayed there for a significant amount of time, but my Maps timeline tells me it was only 22 minutes. Which it claims to be my last stop before reaching home, but I think I stopped briefly at another rest area on I-71, so I guess it doesn’t catch everything. (And maybe it was longer than 22 minutes at that.) Anyway, my timing was pretty bad, since it was rush hour when I got into Cincinnati. I’d just about decided to get off a few exits early and make it the rest of the way home by the surface roads (why do they call them that?? It’s not like freeways are underground or hovering in midair, usually), but the traffic started to clear off and I figured, hey, it’s not likely to crowd up again within the next three miles, right? So I stayed on the freeway. Only to spot another traffic jam — just five seconds too late to make it off onto the last exit before mine. Arrgghhh! I was stuck crawling forward for most of the last mile and a half before my exit. Really, really frustrating.

And then I got home to find a note under my door from the building manager. Turns out the downstairs storage lockers had been broken into while I was out. Fortunately I don’t keep anything valuable in there, so nothing was taken. But the combination lock I’ve had since high school was destroyed. I still have two others, from my gym locker and my shop locker, but that was my main lock! Waaaah!

I’ve spent the past couple of days recuperating and catching up on recorded shows, as well as getting groceries. At the hotel, they had “coffee pods” that were basically tea bag-like filter packets that went into the coffee maker’s funnel, but it occurred to me one could just use them like tea bags, so I took a few of them home with me for later use. I also checked the grocery store shelf yesterday and found actual coffee bags. I just tried my first one of those this morning, and it’s not very good, but at least it’s convenient. The quest for a good coffee option continues. Maybe I should just buy a small coffee maker and filters and get some good grounds from the natural foods store. They have some beans that are infused with sweet flavor and thus don’t need anything added.

So anyway, that’s my combined travel/Shore Leave/family visit post, only three days late. I had a good time this year. Although the long drive is still wearying, the weekend didn’t feel as rushed as it did when I flew last year. And I got to catch up with my friends, I got to meet another cousin, I got to talk to some actors, I got a new tote bag and some interesting meals, and I got a couple of iffy but hopefully promising work opportunities, both from conversations in the same hotel corridor (though at opposite ends of it). With luck, I’ll be able to say more about one or both of those in times to come.

Shore Leave 2015 schedule

I’ve been so busy writing lately that I forgot to post any updates about this weekend’s Shore Leave convention in Baltimore, which I’ll be attending as usual. This year, I’m going back to driving there, since my trip by plane last year made the whole thing feel like it raced by too fast. I like having a bit more flexibility with my comings and goings. The prospect of the long drive each way is a bit forbidding, but now that I’ve started drinking coffee, hopefully that will shore me up (no pun intended) for the effort. I’ve also spent rather a lot on car repairs, including all-new tires, brake pads, drive belt, and transmission seals, to make sure I don’t break down along the way. Well, to make sure the car doesn’t break down. The coffee is to make sure I don’t break down.

Anyway, the schedule is now up at the Shore Leave site:

The writers’ track is surprisingly light on Trek Lit-related panels this year, perhaps because Shore Leave has a more diversified list of author guests these days. Still, I managed to find five panels to be on, and here are my scheduled appearances:


Keeping it Real: Using Facts in Fiction — 5 PM, Salon A

A panel about working real science and information into science fiction is right up my alley, so I’m glad they were apparently able to find room for me at the last minute (although I’m not listed on the published pocket program, which apparently is not completely up to date on panel membership). Also slated to feature Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Kathleen David, Mary Louise Davie, Charles E. Gannon, Amy Griswold, and David Mack.

Humor in Sci-Fi — 8 PM, Hunt Ballroom

A chance for me to talk about Hub Space: Tales from the Greater Galaxy and maybe my use of humor in Only Superhuman and Star Trek. Lorraine Anderson, Russ Colchamiro, Peter David, and Daniel Morris will probably have more to talk about than I do, though. Be sure to stick around Hunt afterward for Marco Palmieri’s annual “What’s New in Tor Books” panel, followed by:

Meet the Pros — 10 PM, Hunt/Valley Corridor

The annual 2-hour mass signing event where all the author guests will be available to autograph whatever you bring or buy.


All Roads Lead to Holmes — Noon, Salon A

Writers being fannish, as we talk about all the various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes out there today. My only writerish qualification for a Holmes panel is that one essay I wrote, but I am a longtime fan. The other Irregulars include Kathleen David, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Robert Greenberger, and Melissa Scott.

What’s Coming from Star Trek — 2 PM, Chase Ballroom

That is, what’s coming in Star Trek literature from Pocket. This (or Meet the Pros) is the place to come if you want to hear about Rise of the Federation, since it’s pretty much the only panel this year that’s specifically about Trek Lit, including all the guests with upcoming Trek books: myself, Kirsten Beyer, Peter David, Kevin Dilmore, Dave Galanter, David Mack, John Jackson Miller, and Dayton Ward.


Orphan Black Season 3 — 11 AM, Salon F

My only morning panel this year — nice. I have no connection to Orphan Black except as a fan, but I’ll be there, along with Kirsten Beyer, Marco Palmieri, Susanna Reilly, and Jennifer Rosenberg.

Beyond that, I’ll be wandering around and will try to do my stint in the Author Chimney at the book table, which is traditionally located on the lower level between the escalators and the Hunt/Valley corridor.

ANT-MAN Review (spoilers)

I’ve seen some reviews criticizing Ant-Man for not being as “necessary” to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe as other films have been. But I think that’s missing the point of the MCU’s interconnectedness. It’s not about how the films serve the universe; it’s about how the universe serves the films. And I think that was very much in evidence in Ant-Man. It’s telling its own story, but it’s a story that’s informed by the larger context it’s part of, and that sense of being in a larger world is useful to the story.

For starters, the ties to the larger universe serve as a shorthand to help us understand the mindset of Dr. Hank Pym, as played by Michael Douglas, who’s very convincingly de-aged in the opening flashback to the 1980s. We already know what SHIELD is (in the person of a mature Peggy Carter), and we know who Howard Stark is (with John Slattery reprising the older Howard), so that gives us context for where Pym is coming from when he walks away from SHIELD rather than share his powerful Pym particles with them. And we know how Howard’s son Tony formed the Avengers and how SHIELD connects to Hydra, so that gives context for later developments such as Pym’s unwillingness to call in the Avengers and the plans of Pym’s protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) for militarizing the shrinking tech and selling it to disreputable parties.

So that background simplifies the exposition and lets the film focus more fully on the story it’s telling in the here and now, with catburglar Scott Lang (star and co-writer Paul Rudd) trying to go straight and be worthy of his totally adorable 5-year-old daughter, but being lured back into thievery by Pym, who intends to recruit him to steal Cross’s Yellowjacket prototype before it can fall into The Wrong Hands. Both Scott and Hank are defined by their troubled relationships with their daughters — Scott close to his daughter but kept away from her by his ex-wife and her cop fiance, and Hank marginalizing his gung-ho daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) in a way she resents, but that turns out to be based on protectiveness and his grief about the loss of his wife Janet, the winsome Wasp. It’s a pretty effective story about well-meaning but flawed people gradually finding their way to the same page. Not profound drama, perhaps, but fine for giving a human core to a comedy-adventure movie.

What’s interesting about Hope’s arc, which is largely about her wanting to don the Ant-“Man” suit herself and resenting Hank’s insistence on recruiting Scott instead, is that it feels like a metatextual nod toward the treatment of female heroes in the MCU thus far. Hank may be acting out of love, preferring to risk the expendable Scott over his own daughter, but it’s still a paternalistic choice and keeps a clearly qualified woman out of the lead role she deserves. Hopefully the resolution of that arc is also symbolic of where the MCU is going with regard to its heroines, but it still feels like too little (no pun intended), too late.

Another MCU trend that this film fails to buck is the tendency toward one-dimensional villains. Darren Cross is an obvious bad egg from the first scene, and he has no character arc. It’s explained that the effect of his knockoff Pym particles has warped his mind, but that’s an easy copout. Making a villain insane is a cheat, because it saves the writer from having to come up with plausible motivations or nuances. And Marvel has had so many rich, nuanced villains in its comics over the decades that it’s surprising the MCU falls so short on that front even while capturing the Marvel spirit so well in other respects.

For me, perhaps the best example of that was the scene where Hank sent Scott on a “trial run” to steal a security bypass device from an old Stark facility which turned out to be the new Avengers HQ, leading to a fight with the Falcon. This was the part that felt the most like a scene out of a comic. You’re introducing a new hero and you want to show his stuff, so what do you do? You bring in an established guest hero and have them fight. That’s a classic Marvel move. And now the MCU is such a well-developed, continuous universe that it feels as natural in the movies as it does in the comics. It’s also good to see Falcon get a featured role after the way he was marginalized in Age of Ultron — though it’s a shame that his first action scene as an Avenger ends with him losing.

Also, I was bugged by Scott’s boastful line afterward about how “I fought an Avenger — and didn’t die!” That implies the Avengers go around killing as a matter of course, and that’s disturbing. That’s another respect in which the movies have consistently failed to capture the comics’ flavor — the casualness with which the “heroes” kill, something that their comics counterparts usually avoid as a rule. I find it ironic that the TV series Daredevil, which is touted as the darkest and most violent incarnation of the MCU yet, is the only one in which the hero has a code against killing. Ant-Man was pretty good in that respect too; both Hank and Scott were opposed to violence, and they and Scott’s comic-relief accomplices made a point of evacuating the building they planned to destroy in the big heist. (Indeed, the moment where Luis went back to rescue the tied-up guard was perhaps the moment when he really crossed the line to the side of “the good guys,” a nice redemptive beat.) Even Yellowjacket’s fate in the end is somewhat ambiguous. This film probably has the lowest body count of any MCU production to date, and that’s refreshing.

Otherwise, I feel the action was very well-done. Ant-Man’s shrinking powers and the microscopic setting in which he operated made for some very novel visuals and action beats, a nice, fresh addition to the usual roster of superpowers. When was the last time we had a live-action movie that played around with miniaturization? Was it way back with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids? If so, it’s a trope that’s been overdue for a revisit with modern effects. The control of ants as a major part of the action was also a novel element, though as a lifelong entomophobe, I appreciate that they made the digital ants “cuter” than the real things would be at that scale of magnification.

The comedy aspects of the film are also pretty effective, and I can tell that a lot of Edgar Wright’s ideas and sensibilities have been retained, particularly the use of super-quick cuts and visual montages. It’s probably more homogenized than it would’ve been if Wright had stayed on the film, but as a middle ground between the Wright style and the MCU house style, I think it worked pretty well.

The theater I went to was pretty crowded, since Tuesday is discount day and it’s the first week of release. (Normally I would’ve waited longer, but there were already so many spoilers out online that I felt I had to see it before I got too completely spoiled.) Nearly everybody stuck around for the mid-credits tag scene, but only a dozen or so people, myself included, stayed for the second tag scene. I found it interesting that the order of the tags was inverted compared to earlier movies. In both Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the mid-credits scene was a teaser for the next film in the sequence, and the final post-credits scene was a tag to the film we’d just watched. I felt it would make more sense the other way around — and this time, it was, with the mid-credits scene being a tag to Ant-Man and the final scene being a setup for (and, I think, an actual excerpt from) Captain America: Civil War. It works better that way, especially with so few patrons being patient enough to stick around to the very end.

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