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Posts Tagged ‘Reviews’

New Troubleshooter vignette on Patreon

I’ve been neglecting my Fiction tier on Patreon lately due to other work, but I’ve finally put up something new, continuing my commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Only Superhuman, my first original novel. “Origin Stories: Homecoming” started as a deleted scene from the original, longer draft of Only Superhuman, depicting the moment when Emerald Blair decided to enlist in the Troubleshooter Corps, a decision she only described in retrospect in the final novel. But the scene by itself was a bit thin, so I ended up fleshing it out into a whole story. It doesn’t really warrant annotations, but I do have a short page of story notes up on the Behind the Scenes tier.

Meanwhile, since even I was having trouble searching for older posts on my Patreon, I went through the whole backlog and put together a Patreon Fiction Index here on my main site. Between that and the Patreon Review Index, it should now be easier to find anything on my Patreon. I’m hoping that seeing everything I have to offer there will inspire some of you to subscribe, at least long enough to read the backlog.

As I say on the index pages, Patreon supporters help provide me with a small but steady income, which is valuable to me given the irregular nature of my writing work. I just had a worrisome week when my payment for a writing project was delayed and I wasn’t sure it would come in time to pay my bills; it ended up arriving just in the nick of time. I’m now out of the woods for at least the next few months, but my work opportunities beyond my immediate next project are uncertain. So any additional cushion I can get is very much appreciated.

New Patreon TV review series: STARMAN (1986)

I’m a bit late in mentioning that I’ve started a new review series on my Patreon site. I’m covering the 1986 Starman TV series which starred Robert Hays (star of Airplane! and the voice of Iron Man in ’90s animation), C. B. Barnes (better known as Christopher Daniel Barnes, voice of Spider-Man in ’90s animation and of the prince in Disney’s The Little Mermaid), and Michael Cavanaugh (Riker’s former captain from one Star Trek: The Next Generation episode). The show was based on the 1984 John Carpenter movie of the same name starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen, and I open the series with a free recap/review of the movie, available for everyone to read, though the rest of the reviews will be on the $5/month tier. The film was a gentle science fiction love story, Carpenter’s attempt to show he wasn’t just a horror director, and was moderately successful. The TV series was a similarly gentle, family-friendly sequel in which the alien “Starman” returned to raise his now-teenage son, retconning the events of the movie back a dozen years, which was problematical due to the film’s dependence on the Voyager space probe launched only 7 years before the movie came out. Despite that, the series was one of the few reasonably good, smart science fiction shows on American TV prior to the late ’80s. Or at least that’s how I remembered it; if you want to see how it holds up for me today, you’ll have to read my reviews.

I’ve also updated my Patreon review index here on Written Worlds, so it’s now current and includes all my Roar reviews.

Patreon review index now up!

This week, I published my 100th weekly rewatch/review column on my Patreon page. With so many reviews, I felt it would be a good idea to create an easier way to find them, so I’ve created an index page here on Written Worlds:

Patreon review index

Time permitting, I hope to create a similar page soon for the reviews I’ve done here on WW, such as my Mission: Impossible and Godzilla review series.

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Thoughts on the Godzilla MonsterVerse comics (spoilers)

November 3, 2021 1 comment

Today (November 3) is Godzilla Day, the anniversary of the release of the original 1954 film and the beginning of the kaiju genre. In honor of that (or really by sheer coincidence, since I was going to publish this today anyway before I found out), I have a bonus entry for my Godzilla/kaiju review series.

Thanks to my library, I’ve managed to get hold of the tie-in comics that Legendary Comics published to supplement its parent company Legendary Pictures’ four movies in the so-called MonsterVerse: Godzilla (2014), Kong: Skull Island (2017), Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), and Godzilla vs. Kong (2021). The first tie-in comic, Godzilla: Awakening, was only available in hardcopy (hardcover, in fact), but the remainder can all be found for free at the Hoopla online library for those with cards from participating libraries. All these comics are theoretically canonical to the MonsterVerse, though like all “canonical” tie-ins, that only lasts until a movie sees fit to contradict them (in other words, exactly like non-canonical tie-ins — or indeed like canonical films, given how many sequels over the decades have retconned or ignored previous films).

As is typically the case with movie tie-in comics, these stories are prequels, sequels, and interstitial stories that attempt to fill in backstory or flesh out side elements of the movies’ stories, while trying not to leave too big a footprint on continuity that later movies might contradict, though some inconsistencies are hard to avoid.

Godzilla: Awakening (2014): Written by Max Borenstein and Greg Borenstein; art by Eric Battle, Yvel Guichet, Alan Quah, and Lee Loughridge

This is a prequel to the 2014 film, co-written by the film’s screenwriter Max Borenstein and expanding on a lot of the backstory only briefly discussed in the film. And it’s pretty deep backstory. The frame is set in 1980, when Eiji Serizawa, the father of Ken Watanabe’s movie character Ishiro Serizawa, calls his son home to tell him the truth he’s hidden all his life. (Just as the film character is named for Gojira director Ishiro Honda, his father is named for the film’s special effects creator Eiji Tsuburaya.)

In 1945, Eiji survives the Hiroshima bombing and rescues his infant son Ishiro, only to see a serpentine monster form seemingly from thin air above the radiation-ravaged city. A year later, resenting the Americans for what they’d done, he’s on a ship which answers a distress call from a US vessel and is called on to serve as translator. He cooperates with an American sailor named Shaw in rescuing the others, and then in rescuing his own men from the attacking aerial kaiju. This cooperation in adversity eases his resentment enough that he agrees to work for the US government on a task force called Monarch, organized by General Douglas MacArthur himself to stop the monster. (This contradicts the film’s claim that Monarch was founded in 1954, but continuity glitches about secretive organizations can always be handwaved as misinformation. However, Ishiro being born in 1945 would make him nearly 70 in the movie, which is hard to credit.)

As Serizawa and Shaw track sightings of the flying creature over the next several years, they hear claims that it was driven off by a second creature, a giant lizard known in island legend as Gojira, which Eiji identifies as a portmanteau of the Japanese words for gorilla and whale (its real-life origin). But Monarch disbelieves the rumors. Eventually they determine that the flying beastie is a parasitic colony creature made of large, spiky single cells that assemble into a macro-organism, and Serizawa dubs it Shinomura, from the Japanese for “swarm of death.” Radiation causes the cells to multiply (as usual with these things, there’s no explanation of where the biomass comes from), and Serizawa deduces that Shinomura and Gojira are fossil creatures from the Permian Era, when Earth was more radioactive (supposedly), and the asteroid impact that caused the Permian-Triassic mass extinction 250 million years ago lowered the radiation level (through some unexplained means) and drove the beasts underground. (In reality, the impact increased surface UV radiation by destroying the ozone layer, though only temporarily.) Now, atomic weapons have drawn them back up.

The Shinomura grown in captivity from a single cell escapes, and Serizawa fears that if it merges with its other half, it will be too large even for Gojira to stop, and its cells will propagate out of control until they overrun the Earth. A year later, in 1954, Monarch responds to a sighting and confirms at last that Gojira is real and fighting the combined Shinomura. Goji kills one of the two, but the other escapes and Goji pursues. Serizawa insists that Gojira is only the enemy of the Shinomura, that they’re acting out their ancient roles as natural rivals, and that Goji will go away once the colony creature is destroyed. The Americans refuse to listen and decide that an atom bomb will take care of both beasts. (General MacArthur anachronistically orders “Nuke ‘im,” a verb not recorded to exist before 1962. But then, MacArthur was supposed to have retired three years earlier anyway.)

Back in 1980, Eiji tells his son how the US military set a trap for Gojira at Bikini Atoll, disguising it as nuclear testing, and assuming they succeeded in killing both creatures. But Eiji remains convinced that Gojira lives, and charges his son with carrying on his mission, leading Ishiro to join Monarch after Eiji’s funeral a year later.

This is quite a good story, adding a lot to the film. In some ways, it’s a more interesting and effective story than the film’s, though it necessarily features little direct interaction between Godzilla and the human cast, mostly cutting between them instead. It contextualizes the film’s backstory nicely, tying the rise of the Titans directly to the dawn of the atomic age, and nicely explaining what led up to the Bikini Atoll attack disguised as a bomb test, as described in the movie. I didn’t like the way the movie replaced the original 1954 film’s allegorical protest against the American H-bomb tests with a more neutral and benign depiction of them as merely a misguided attempt to stop Godzilla. Awakening corrects that somewhat by allowing its Japanese protagonist to protest the arrogance of an American military smugly convinced that atomic bombs will solve everything. It’s nowhere near the level of the original film’s powerful commentary on the ethics of WMD development and proliferation, but it’s appreciated.

It’s not perfect, though. The ending is a little abrupt, and the contrivance of making Ishiro 14-15 years older than Ken Watanabe strains credulity. The science is also a mess; one montage page shows Mt. Fuji remaining essentially unaltered over 250 million years of geological and evolutionary change, even though Fuji-san is an active volcano only a few hundred thousand years old. It also shows the Hiroshima atomic blast being visible from Mt. Fuji, when they’re actually about 700 km apart. But one doesn’t expect credible science from a Godzilla story anyway (with the exception of the recent anime Godzilla Singular Point).

There are a couple of interesting similarities between this and Singular Point. The nature of the Shinomura colony creature and the global threat it poses is highly similar to that of the Red Dust in GSP. And there’s a flamboyant Monarch biologist who refers to the science of anomalous creatures as “Problematica,” similar to the “Biologica Phantastica” that GSP’s Mei studied (though that discipline was theoretical and philosophical in nature). It could be coincidence, but I wonder if the comic could have influenced the anime.

One detail worth noting is that I think this is the only American-made Godzilla story I’ve seen where the creature is referred to exclusively as “Gojira” within the story proper, even by English-speaking characters. If anything, this is another anachronism, since the reason Toei coined “Godzilla” as the official English spelling back in ’54 is because the favored romanization scheme at the time rendered the Japanese syllables as “Go-zi-la” or “Go-dzi-la,” vs. the modern preferred scheme that renders the same syllables as “Go-ji-ra.”

Skull Island: The Birth of Kong (2017): Written by Arvid Nelson, art by Zid

This is a sequel to the 1973 events of Kong: Skull Island. The frame story is set in 2012, two years before Godzilla, and features the character Houston Brooks, played as a young man by Corey Hawkins in K:SI and in the present day by Joe Morton in G:KotM. This comic was probably written and painted (by Mohammad Yazid, a Malaysian comic book artist who goes professionally by Zid) before its creators were aware of Morton’s casting. The 2012 Brooks resembles an aged-up Hawkins, but isn’t too dissimilar from Morton. The story shows Brooks retiring from the monster-monitoring Monarch organization, conflicting with his portrayal in KotM, where he’s still with Monarch in 2019.

The frame involves the discovery of a voice recorder left by Brooks’s son Aaron, who was lost in 1995. In flashback to that year, Aaron argues with his father over Monarch’s decision to trust Kong to protect Skull Island and contain its monsters, and thus he secretly organizes an expedition to Skull Island, apparently just to find out for himself. Their helicopter is naturally attacked by Titans (kaiju) and crashes, and they lose their survival expert immediately. They’re rescued by Kong but barely see him, and are taken in by the Iwi tribe as seen in the movie, specifically a boy named Ato, who’s more verbal than most of his people, having learned English from his father, who learned it from Marlow (John C. Reilly’s K:SI character).

The most significant member of Aaron’s expedition is Walter Riccio, a mythographer, who gets hooked on the Iwi’s medicinal brew and starts having mystical visions revealing Kong’s origins. According to him, Skull Island was the home of Kong’s giant ape species for millions of years, until it was invaded by the Skullcrawlers from the Hollow Earth, wiping most of them out. (GvK would later depict a Kong-species homeland within the Hollow Earth, but there’s no reason the species couldn’t have existed in more than one place. However, island living tends to produce dwarfism rather than gigantism due to limited resources, so the biology of Skull Island makes little sense whether it’s populated by a whole community of Kongs or by the horde of deadly Titans seen in K:SI and this comic.) In Riccio’s visions, Kong’s parents were the last two survivors, who greeted the Iwi when they first came to the island. Kong was then born just before his parents were killed by Skullcrawlers, with their violent demise being his first sight.

Riccio is driven mad by his drugged visions, worshipping Kong as a god and seeking to destroy the Iwi’s protective walls so that Kong will prove himself as humanity’s divine protector against evil. Aaron tries to stop him, and Riccio kills two other teammates (including the female lead) in the battle. Riccio succeeds in bringing down the walls and letting the island’s giant predators attack the Iwi, and Kong indeed comes to their rescue, convincing Riccio that he’s proven them worthy of the god’s protection. But Kong recognizes Riccio as the real threat and smooshes him, then has a bonding moment with Aaron and leaves him be. This convinces Aaron that Kong isn’t just a monster but a guardian, an orphan inspired by his own childhood trauma to protect others. (Sounds awfully familiar for a comic-book plot. Are Titans a superstitious, cowardly lot? Does Kong dress up as a giant bat?)

Aaron stays on the island to help the Iwi rebuild, but sends his recorded log out to sea in the slim hope that it will be found. Seventeen years later, the frame story ends with Houston Brooks hinting that he’ll go looking for his son.

It’s an okay story, I guess, but I have issues. I don’t think there’s any precedent in the MonsterVerse for mystical visions being a thing, and Aaron is far too quick to believe that Riccio’s visions of Kong’s origins are fact rather than drug-induced delusion, given that he doesn’t buy Riccio’s other claims about Kong’s divinity. Relying on shamanistic visions to reveal Kong’s backstory is an awkward plot mechanic, and what we learn doesn’t really add that much to what we already knew from the movie. We know Kong’s a good guy, so a story about proving that to someone yet again is redundant.

I guess the story deserves some credit for having the villain be the main white guy on the expedition, who appropriates Iwi culture and forces his own interpretation of it on the Iwi even if it kills them and destroys their creations. Maybe there’s a point being made about cultural imperialism. But the main thrust of the story is the monster mayhem, with frequent attacks by various improbably vicious and gigantic Skull Island denizens, some from K:SI and others original to the comic. The art is fairly good, with the characters easy to tell apart, though it’s in a painted style that I’ve never really warmed to in comics, and the characters’ expressions often look a bit stiff. Also, it tends toward the modern comics style of having only a few large panels per page, prioritizing the art and reducing the amount of story. Though this is more the case in the action scenes than the dialogue scenes.

The miniseries is collected with the one that follows in the MonsterVerse Titanthology trade paperback, with additional material purporting to be Monarch files and photos about Skull Island’s various species, based on the notes of John Goodman’s William Randa from K:SI. It’s not a bad supplement, but the supposedly technical descriptive text about the Titans tends toward unscientifically lurid descriptions of their savagery and whatnot. The file on Kong’s species inexplicably includes “photographs” which are panels from Riccio’s mystical visions of Kong’s parents and the newborn infant Kong. That’s a hell of a trick.

Godzilla: Aftershock (2019): Written by Arvid Nelson, Illustrated by Drew Edward Johnson

This is theoretically a prequel to Godzilla: King of the Monsters, establishing the backstory of its characters Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), but it’s more of a followup to the 2014 Godzilla, featuring Ishiro Serizawa and his assistant Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins). It centers on a series of attacks on nuclear subs and plants by a creature similar to the MUTOs from the ’14 film, which is recorded in Japanese mythology as the Earthquake Beetle — which ought to be Jishin-Mushi, but is misspelled throughout as Jinshin-Mushi. Emma and Serizawa determine, with help from ancient Phoenician inscriptions that frame the miniseries and equate Godzilla with the god Dagon, that the creatures are MUTO Prime, the mature form of the MUTOs; that they’ve evolved to implant their eggs in Godzillas and kill them; and that these battles correspond to mass extinctions and civilizational collapses throughout history. (These are the second Titan species, after Shinomura in Awakening, to be touted as Godzilla’s ancient natural enemy and counterbalance. Kong’s species will be the third. I guess everyone wants to bring down the top gunslinger.)

Emma uses a prototype of the sonic ORCA device in the movie to trick MUTO Prime with the sound of its already-laid eggs so it will let its guard down while fighting Godzilla, which somehow works. You’d think the critter could tell whether it had actually laid its own eggs yet. Anyway, Prime manages to shatter Goji’s dorsal spines in the climactic battle, which means Goji’s atomic ray energy spews out uncontained from his back, which he uses to defeat MUTO Prime by shouldering underneath it and cutting loose. I suppose this was done to explain why Goji’s spines are larger and differently shaped in KotM; presumably the regenerative process caused them to grow back larger and thicker.

This story works poorly as an origin story for Emma Russell. It features Alan Jonah a couple of times, but in a cursory way that does nothing to explain the partnership Emma has formed with him by the time of G:KotM. Indeed, the story actively works against that. In KotM, Emma was sympathetic to Jonah’s view that human civilization was causing a mass extinction and needed to be wiped out by the Titans to restore the balance. But this story shows Emma learning that it was MUTO Primes and their MUTO spawn fighting Godzillas that caused mass extinctions. So there’s no real throughline between this Emma and the person she was in the film. I suppose that was unavoidable, as the comic was released shortly before the film and thus avoided spoilers. But in retrospect, it makes for a very disappointing attempt at filling in the gaps, utterly failing to tell the story it should have told. (There’s a brief appearance by Houston Brooks that connects to nothing and just serves to call back to the previous tie-in comic.)

The art this time is in a more conventional comics style, and is reasonably good. But the story is even more decompressed than in the Kong book, with a lot of multi-page kaiju (sorry, Titan) battle sequences of 1-3 panels per page with no dialogue. The framing pages of the Phoenician carvings further cut into the limited story time. All in all, a weak effort.

Kingdom Kong (2021): Written by Marie Anello, illustrated by Zid

One of two simultaneously released prequels to Godzilla vs. Kong, this is also a sequel to Skull Island: The Birth of Kong. The story centers on Audrey Burns, a Monarch fighter pilot wrestling with heavy survivor’s guilt after a 2019 battle with bat-like Titans called Camazotz (aha, there is a giant bat after all), in which she lost all her team save her best friend, who’s been in a coma ever since. She and several other hotshot pilots are assigned to the test mission into the Hollow Earth, established in GvK as the mission where Nathan Lind’s brother David was killed. But before that, Burns wrestles with her fears in the training, while Houston Brooks — now looking like Joe Morton and handwaving his abortive attempt at retirement from the previous Kong comic — studies Kong and tracks a mysterious superstorm heading for the island, the same storm established in GvK as wiping out the Iwi. Apparently it was created when King Ghidorah attacked Mexico in G:KotM and has persisted for two years.

A test drilling into the cavern to the Hollow Earth releases a Camazotz attack, bringing back Burns’s fears, but there’s a rather lovely scene where she confesses her survivor’s guilt to her commander, Col. Johanna Edwards (who looks exactly like Angela Bassett for some reason), and the rest of her team, who’ve been skeptical of her up to now, come in and share their own tales of guilt at the loss of loved ones to Titan attacks. Burns rallies and leads her team to evacuate the Monarch crew while Kong takes care of Camazotz, but she naturally chooses to go off-mission and help Kong by stunning Camazotz with a sonic boom. After Kong bashes the bat, he catches the parachuting Burns in his hand and they share a bonding moment much like the one between Kong and Aaron in the previous book.

The epilogue ties in more closely with the movie, showing Brooks retiring at last and turning over command to Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall’s GvK character), telling her to find a way to keep Kong on the island now that they know he’s a magnet for rival alpha Titans. Mercifully, it also establishes that the Iwi are being evacuated ahead of the superstorm, rather than wiped out as the film indicated. David Lind also shows up for his ill-fated mission, while Burns goes back stateside for a happy reunion, implying that she wasn’t lost with the others. This is three years prior to GvK’s 2024 setting, which I guess is enough time to set up the status quo seen at the start of that film.

This was a pretty good one. Burns’s story is effective, and the attempts to fill in the continuity gaps, including the inconsistencies with the previous Kong comic, work reasonably well — although the movie-setup scenes at the end feel tacked on to a largely unrelated story. Zid’s fully painted art has improved in the four years since the previous book, and the character renderings are excellent.

Godzilla Dominion (2021): Written by Greg Keyes, illustrated by Drew Edward Johnson

This is an unusual one, since it’s told entirely from Godzilla’s perspective, following him through various kaiju/Titan battles with narration describing Godzilla’s point of view, elaborating on the movies’ portrayal of him as an instinctive force of balance in Earth’s ecosystem. Writer Greg Keyes novelized the 2014 film, so I suppose he may have gotten into Godzilla’s head there too. It speaks of how, to Godzilla, territory is not a place but a compulsion, and how his senses are intimately linked to the Earth as if he’s an extension of it, bordering on the mystical, like he’s a chthonic deity.

There’s not much plot, though it’s established that his old lair was destroyed by the nuclear bomb in G:KotM and that he’s searching for a new one, as well as hinting at “the Rival” who drove him out of his old home, an adversary eventually established to be Kong. There’s also a passing acknowledgment of how Mothra giving him her life has broadened Godzilla’s awareness, though not much is done with it.

So basically there’s hardly any plot, just a lot of kaiju art and some exploration of what it’s like to be Godzilla. Fine, I guess, if you like that sort of thing. It’s an interesting alternative approach, I’ll give it that, but I found it fairly insubstantial. At least it’s not as dumb as the movie it sets up.

So an inconsistent bunch of stories, much like the movies they tie into. The two best ones, Godzilla: Awakening and Kingdom Kong, both add valuable backstory that enhances the films they tie into, and are both better than those respective films in some ways. The weakest is Godzilla: Aftershock, an attempt at continuity-filling that pretty much has the opposite effect due to its avoidance of spoilers. Skull Island: The Birth of Kong is a decent try hampered by a really clumsy and fanciful mechanism for providing backstory that didn’t really tell us anything new. And Godzilla Dominion is just hard to rate, because its approach is so unusual. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but others might find it brilliant.

One point in the comics’ favor is that they’re better at diversity than the movies. All four MonsterVerse films, to some extent, center on white male leads who are fairly bland (or obnoxious in the case of G:KotM’s Mark), when other characters feel more worthy of focus. The comics feature more diverse leads — two generations of Serizawas, two generations of Brooks, and two female leads, Emma Russell and Audrey Burns. The supporting casts are international and quite diverse, and Burns’s best friend in a coma in Kingdom Kong, featured in flashbacks, is non-binary, a fact treated entirely casually by the comic. I really wish that the feature film industry would catch up with other media in portraying human diversity realistically.

All in all, if you liked the MonsterVerse films, most of these comics are worthy or at least somewhat interesting additions — inconsistent and not always successful, but no more so than the films themselves. The art is generally pretty good, though I think kaiju battles in comics format are an acquired taste. But at their best, these comics expand the films’ universe, flesh out supporting characters, and in some cases correct the films’ shortcomings.

Where things stand with my writing

October 16, 2021 3 comments

Well, the good news is, I’ve now been paid for the concluding volume of the Tangent Knights trilogy. It was cutting it a bit close, which is my own fault for running behind, but the money’s in the bank at last. Also, with TK done, I had time to finally finish revising a couple more Star Trek Adventures standalone games, and I’m awaiting approval and payment on those. So I daresay I’m probably okay for the next half-year or so now, barring disasters.

Things are still a bit iffy going forward, though. I’ve already pitched an idea for more Tangent Knights novels, and I’ve got a couple of new things tentatively lined up with Star Trek Adventures, all of which I’m waiting to hear back on. I expect my projects with both publishers to go forward, but I’m not sure when they’d be likely to pay out. So my long-term prospects are a little uncertain right now, but at least I have time to try to line up some additional sources of income to bridge the gap, if it proves necessary.

You’re probably wondering about Star Trek novels. Let’s just say things are up in the air with those right now, and I’ve learned over the past few years that it was unwise to rely too heavily on them as my primary source of income, given the unexpected delays and slow periods that tend to crop up. So until I hear otherwise, my current priorities are elsewhere — Tangent, STA, my other original work as time allows, and whatever else I can line up over the months ahead. Ideally, I hope to find the time to start writing a third Arachne novel.

Gaining more Patreon subscribers would certainly help. I fell behind on preparing new Patreon content while I was writing TK3, but I’ve been trying to catch up. I’m currently 3/4 of the way through a review of the 8-episode Japanese miniseries Miss Sherlock, which reinvents Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as modern-day women in Tokyo. After that, starting on October 26, I’ll begin covering the mindbending 1998 cyberpunk anime series Serial Experiments Lain, in an edited repost of the detailed reviews I wrote in 2009 for a now-defunct incarnation of the ExIsle BBS, so they probably no longer exist online in their original form. That will carry my review series through to the end of the year, so I’ll hopefully have time to rebuild my inventory.

I’m also working on a new Patreon story that I hope to have ready by the end of October. It’s a character vignette (well, longer than a vignette) filling in a significant bit of overlooked backstory for one of my favorite characters from Arachne’s Crime. Some of it might find its way into the third Arachne novel if I ever get around to it, or at least it might help me flesh out ideas for that book.

Also, I now have an author copy of Tangent Knights 1: Caprice of Fate, so I’ll finally be able to do annotations, which I was waiting to do until I could hear the final version and get the timings for my notes. I want to get the Patreon story finished up before I tackle that, though.

I also have a new Troubleshooter story that I’ve been trying to sell, but a couple of the markets I was hoping to offer it to have dried up recently. If I run out of other options, it’ll end up on Patreon.

I’m wrestling with an idea for what might be a new Hub story. It’s a concept I’ve had in mind for years, a fairly dark comedy premise. I already tried writing it once as a standalone story, but I wasn’t satisfied with the result; it turned out less comedic than I intended. I have an idea for how to take another stab at the concept in the Hub setting, but I’m not sure if the plot specifics can really work there. So that’s still up in the air.

I keep a list taped to my door of the projects I plan to tackle in a given year, and I usually end up disappointed by how few of them I actually get done. I suppose it’s not as bad as it looks, though, since I got most of the biggest things done, except for Arachne 3. The things I haven’t checked off are mostly outlines or tentative short story ideas. My problem is that it’s hard for me to focus on more than one thing at a time. If I were better at multitasking, I could get some of these smaller things done during breaks in the bigger things. But it’s hard for me to split my focus that way. Indeed, part of why I was late with TK3 is because I took a break from it to finish an STA game and it took longer than intended. But then, almost all my writing takes longer than intended.

Maybe I’d do better if I were more financially secure and less stressed. I’m somewhat better off in that regard than I was last year, thanks to GraphicAudio and Tangent Knights. But it’s not as much of an improvement as I’d hoped for, due to various delays. So I’m hanging on, but the long-term uncertainty remains.

Thoughts on Legendary’s GODZILLA VS. KONG (Spoilers)

September 24, 2021 2 comments

The library finally came through with my copy of Godzilla vs. Kong, the climax of what we could derivatively call “Phase One” of Legendary Pictures’ “MonsterVerse” combining Toho’s Godzilla/kaiju franchise with the King Kong franchise. The film picks up the concepts and story threads built up over the previous three films, Godzilla (2014), Kong: Skull Island, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), though the returning human cast members are limited to GKotM’s Millie Bobby Brown (who really needs to be signed up immediately for a Young Princess Leia series or movie before she ages out of it) and Kyle Chandler — and Chandler’s obnoxious Mark Russell character is fortunately reduced to a very minor role. GKotM’s Zhang Ziyi was signed up to return, but her part was cut out entirely (along with Jessica Henwick, who I mentioned in my GKotM review as someone I was looking forward to seeing).

The film opens on Skull Island with Kong waking up to classic rock being piped into his jungle on speakers, a stylistic nod to the soundtrack of KSI. He has a friendly exchange with a young deaf girl named Jia (Kaylee Hottie), who we will learn is the last survivor of the Iwi tribe seen in KSI, and who’s been adopted by Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), the film’s resident Kong expert. But he throws a tree trunk at the sky and breaks a hole in the virtual projection on the vast dome holding him in, built by the monster-regulating Monarch organization introduced in the previous films. Andrews and a colleague exposit to each other that Kong needs to be contained to protect him from Godzilla, who won’t tolerate another alpha Titan, but that Kong has grown too big for his habitat. This addresses both Kong’s absence in GKotM and his much vaster size here than in KSI (which did foreshadow that he was still a growing boy).

We then cut to Brian Tyree Henry as Bernie Hayes, a conspiracy nut and whistleblower within Apex Cybernetics, a powerful tech corporation that he thinks is doing something sinister involving the Titans — something that draws Godzilla to attack an Apex facility, changing his public image from hero Titan to menace to humanity. Bernie’s got a podcast reporting to the public on his secret investigation on a daily basis, surely tipping Apex off to the existence of a whistleblower within their ranks, and he makes no effort to disguise his distinctive Brian Tyree Henry-esque booming voice in his podcasts, which seems contradictory for a paranoid, secretive character like Bernie’s supposed to be. (It’s unclear if his paranoia is an act, since we see him warning a co-worker against eating a GMO apple and then eating it himself, but otherwise he seems sincere.) But it provides an excuse to bring in Millie Bobby Brown’s Madison Russell, Bernie’s most loyal listener, who tracks him down to get his help exposing Apex, along with her nerdy friend Josh (Julian Dennison), who’s mainly just there to complain.

Ilene is approached by her old flame Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), formerly of Monarch, who’s been approached in turn by Apex exec Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) to mount an expedition into the Hollow Earth to find some MacGuffinish “power source” that could save the world from Godzilla in some unclear way. For some unexplained reason, Lind is considered a crackpot for his Hollow Earth theories even though that realm has been confirmed to exist in previous movies. Apparently the Hollow Earth is more than just underground tunnels but involves a “gravitational inversion” that killed Lind’s brother on their last attempt to get in. But Simmons has developed antigravity-powered Hollow Earth Aerial Vehicles that could survive the transition, and somehow their best brains never realized that “HEAV” (pronounced “heave”) is a terrible name.

Anyway, Lind needs Ilene to recruit Kong as a guide to the Hollow Earth power source, on the theory that Titans have a salmon-like instinct to return to their origins (sounds fishy). He somehow talks Ilene into agreeing, and bringing Jia along because she keeps Kong calm. The involved process of sedating and restraining Kong is skipped over, and we cut to him being chained on a flatbed ship in a military convoy heading for the Hollow Earth entrance in Antarctica, where Ilene discovers what she somehow missed, that Kong speaks sign language and converses with Jia, but they kept it from Ilene since Kong didn’t want her to know. (He’s a gorilla the size of a skyscraper under constant scientific scrutiny. How did he hide it?) Anyway, Ilene was right about one thing: taking Kong out of his dome attracts Godzilla, who’s determined to force his rival to submit to his dominance. His attack threatens to sink the ship and drown Kong until Lind hits the button to release the chains, something he argued against before. I’m not sure whether that’s showing Lind’s growth or just making him the designated hero because he’s the main white male in the film.

Anyway, there’s a big Kong/Godzilla throwdown underwater and on top of the ships, quite a massive fight for 3/4 of an hour into the film, and Kong basically loses, getting wrapped in Goji’s tail and half-drowned until the fleet uses depth charges to disorient Goji and let Kong climb to safety, then goes to silent running to play dead.

To avoid Goji’s notice, they airlift Kong to Antarctica in a net carried by a fleet of helicopters, evoking a visual from King Kong vs. Godzilla. Ilene gets Jia to convince Kong he might find family in the Hollow Earth, prompting him to dive in, with the HEAVs following. The gravitational inversion turns out not to be just some kind of weightless transitional zone, but a full-on 2001-ripoff space warp that spits the HEAVs out in the Hollow Earth, a realm sandwiched between two parallel surfaces with opposing gravities and a lot of weightless rocks floating at the midway plane (how’d they get up there?). The space warp seems gratuitous given that this is supposed to be a Pellucidar-like hollow inside the Earth, rather than some alternate dimension or whatever. They seem to be throwing concepts together without worrying about cohesiveness. Oddly, despite what’s been said all along about the Titans being native to the Hollow Earth, there’s no sign of any familiar kaiju from previous films — no other Godzillas, no Mothras, no Rodans, no MUTOs, even. Well, some pterosaurs from Skull Island, but that’s it. There are some original Titans, though, notably some winged-snake things called Warbats that Kong fights.

Kong eventually finds the ruins of a Kong-sized civilization and a giant axe apparently made from a Godzilla spine and bone. Kong somehow intuits to use this scale as the key to unlocking the super-“power source” that Simmons sent the expedition to find. Simmons’s gorgeous but arrogant daughter Maia (Eiza González), sent along as babysitter but too undeveloped a character to be worth mentioning until now, steals a sample of the power source, which Ilene and Lind are startled by, even though it’s precisely what the whole expedition was explicitly sent to do in the first place. Huh?

And then there’s another “Huh?”, because apparently all Simmons needs to harness this power source is to get a scan of its energy signature transmitted to him, whereupon he’s instantly able to replicate it. What? If this is some super-energy source beyond anything human technology has, how does human technology have the energy to replicate it in a matter of minutes? Isn’t the whole point of a power source that you need to harness the actual source itself to provide the power? You can’t fuel a car with a spectrograph of gasoline vapor. You need the actual substance.

I need to backtrack a bit here, since Madison, Bernie, and Josh have snuck into the destroyed Apex facility in Florida and discovered an underground hyper-monorail system that spirits them to Apex’s Hong Kong facility, where Apex is using Skullcrawlers (from Kong: Skull Island) as test victims for their very own Mechagodzilla. (The plot of this film is so cursory that I just didn’t feel the need to keep up with this bunch until now.) Somehow the three intruders go absolutely unobserved for a long time even while standing right in the middle of the heavily monitored Mechagoji test chamber, and they’re able to find that Mechagoji is telepathically controlled from a station built into the King Ghidorah skull salvaged in the post-credits scene of GKotM, with an implicit second KG skull inside Mechagoji (making it a fusion of Mechagodzilla and Mecha-King Ghidorah). The pilot, by the way, is named Ren Serizawa (Shun Oguri), but he’s such a cipher of a character that the implied relationship to Dr. Serizawa from the previous films is never addressed.

So anyway, Simmons wants the Hollow Earth power source to bring Mechagodzilla to full power so that humans can reclaim the “alpha” status from Godzilla. Goji senses MG’s testing and attacks Hong Kong, whereupon he… uh… wait… whereupon he turns out not to be targeting Mechagodzilla after all. Instead he… um… he uses his atomic breath to blast a hole way, way down through the Earth’s crust to blow up the power source in the Hollow Earth temple where Kong is, which… is coincidentally directly below Hong Kong. Yeah. Uh-huh.

WHAAAAAA???????????

This has got to be the lamest way ever to get two disconnected plotlines to converge. I mean, the whole reason Apex needed to use Kong was so he could guide them to the power source, whose location they were unaware of. And it turns out the location was literally right underneath Apex’s main base the whole time???? That is a gigantic cheat. Nobody in the film even remarks on the mind-boggling coincidence or irony of it all. It’s jarring to see what we think is Godzilla reacting to one of the two plotlines and have it instead be a totally random, contrived way to drag the two disconnected plotlines together.

Not only that, but the whole Stargate spacewarp inversion from earlier is gone; now there’s just a big ol’ hole that Kong drops into/climbs out of to attack Godzilla with his new axe. They have a big throwdown that trashes Hong Kong, and unlike the previous MonsterVerse films, there’s no more than the barest token attempt to acknowledge the human impact of this horrendous destruction, with just a couple of brief shots of fleeing citizens. As a result, there’s no sense of stakes to the battle of Titans and it’s all just shallow spectacle and noise. The watching Lind and Ilene show no sense of horror at the cataclysmic loss of life, just idly remarking on who’s winning. If the characters don’t have any strong reaction to what we’re seeing, why should we?

Kong wins the “second round,” in Lind’s estimation, by knocking Godzilla to the proverbial mat, but his ruling is premature; Goji rallies and thrashes him rather decisively, pinning Kong down and only releasing him when Kong gives up the fight. This surprised me; since Kong lost the first bout, I’d expected him to win the second. Indeed, as Jia soon discovers by feeling his heartbeat through the ground, Kong is dying.

Meanwhile, once Simmons brings Mechagodilla to full power, Serizawa loses his connection and the mecha takes on a life of its own, killing Simmons in mid-megalomaniacal speech. Implicitly, King Ghidorah’s consciousness has taken it over, in a beat similar to the one in Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla where Kiryu was taken over by the spirit of the Godzilla skeleton it was built around. Although, like so many things in this film, that part is glossed over. Explanations, connective logic, characterizations, it’s all expendable in favor of the CGI spectacle. So anyway, Mechagoji breaks out of the Apex base and attacks Godzilla. You can surely guess what comes next: Lind uses one of the HEAVs’ experimental engines to shock Kong’s heart (because in fiction, defibrillation to restart a stopped heart magically cures whatever broader systemic damage is responsible for the heart stopping in the first place), Jia convinces Kong that his real enemy is the metal Goji instead of the scaly one, and the two alpha Titans team up to kill the mecha. They even do a combi move (as they call it in Japan) where Godzilla supercharges Kong’s axe with his atomic breath. As the human characters reunite and look on, the Titans face each other off once more, but Kong lets the axe fall and Godzilla leaves him be, returning to the sea.

Well, this is the first Legendary MonsterVerse film that really disappointed me. It’s a silly, shallow mess of cluttered spectacle, feeling like a film whose script was hacked apart and sloppily reassembled by studio fiat, losing most of its substance and coherence in the process. The characterizations established in the first hour, such as they are, get lost in the second half, with the characters becoming little more than tools for exposition and plot advancement and spectators to the CGI carnage. Madison Russell in particular is very poorly served; her ultimate role in the film is simply to stand there and watch events unfolding around her. At the end, Bernie and Josh contribute in their own small way to weakening Mechagodzilla, but Madison, who played a key role in driving events in the climax of the previous film, just stands there uselessly this time while the people with Y chromosomes get all the agency. It’s an utter waste of her character. Indeed, she and her father, the only returning human characters from the previous film, could have been left out of this one entirely without significantly affecting its plot, as she’s only there to tag along with Bernie, the real driver of that half of the film. Which is unfortunate in itself, since Bernie is a conspiracy nut with a lot of nonsensical beliefs, but we’re supposed to believe that he’s a reliable guide to what’s really going on. The film had the misfortune of coming out after the January 6 coup attempt, after which it became impossible to see conspiracy nuts as harmlessly endearing. Even aside from that, Bernie’s eccentric paranoid schtick just isn’t remotely as funny as the film imagines it to be. He and Josh are both rather irritating, making it all the more annoying that they overshadow Madison.

Between Madison’s wasted role and the throwaway treatment of Ren Serizawa — as well as Lance Reddick being credited prominently in the opening titles yet only having one or two lines of exposition to Kyle Chandler — I have to wonder how much of this film’s plot ended up on the cutting room floor in favor of CGI wackiness. (The running time is 1 hour, 53 minutes, the shortest in the series, though only by 5 minutes; GKotM is the longest, but it’s only 2 hours, 11 minutes.) Well, I don’t have to wonder; this Instagram post spells out the massive changes and cuts to the original story, with huge swaths of characterization and story being hacked away in the belief that sacrificing plot and character for empty spectacle would make it “more palatable for general audiences.” It’s a great letdown after Kong: Skull Island, which had rich, effective character work to anchor its monster story. The previous two Godzilla films had more mediocre character work, but even they were substantially richer than anything here. This was supposed to be the pinnacle of seven years of universe-building, but it’s the emptiest, most insubstantial and unsatisfying installment in the whole series. What a waste.

Apparently, despite being so shallow and dumb, GvK was successful enough that Legendary is making plans for more films in the series. Before today, I would’ve been glad to know they were making more. Now, I’m not so sure.

How to find TANGENT KNIGHTS: CAPRICE OF FATE on Goodreads

It’s just come to my attention that the Goodreads page for Tangent Knights 1: Caprice of Fate is hard to find for people who want to leave ratings and reviews. Apparently it only shows up in my list of books on my Author Profile if you sort by title, not by other sorting methods. I’m not sure why that is, but maybe it’ll get more notice once it starts getting some ratings. To that end, here’s a direct link to its page on Goodreads, under Caprice of Fate (Tangent Knights #1):

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/59026840-caprice-of-fate

 

Meanwhile, I’m in the final stages of polishing my draft of the Book 3 manuscript and will be turning it in any day now, completing the trilogy — although I’m hopeful that the series will continue beyond it. I haven’t updated my blog in a month because I’ve been so focused on getting it finished. In contrast to the first book, where I finished well ahead of schedule, I had a harder time with this one, since the storyline has grown substantially in complexity and scope, and I had to make sure all its threads came together properly and were worthy of the grand finale. So I fell well behind schedule and really had to buckle down to catch up. I ended up running a few weeks late, but the folks at GraphicAudio have been very understanding, giving me the time I needed to get it (hopefully) right.

Thoughts on GODZILLA SINGULAR POINT (Spoilers)

Godzilla is back on Netflix, and in animated form again. The first attempt at an anime Godzilla, the 2017-18 3D-animated film series known as the Godzilla Earth trilogy, proved to be ponderous, pretentious, and disappointing. This time, we get Godzilla Singular Point, a 13-episode series in 2D animation (with cel-shaded 3D for the kaiju and vehicles), written by Toh EnJoe and directed by Atsushi Takahashi. This series goes in a very different direction — not only set in the very near future (2030) instead of the distant post-apocalyptic future, but far more lively, fun, and conceptually dense.

The lead characters include the staff of the Otaki Factory, a catchall fixit service run by eccentric scientist Goro Otaki to fund the construction of his robot Jet Jaguar (about one story tall, with an operator’s cockpit in the chest and short, apelike legs), which he believes is needed to defend the Earth against UFOs, kaiju, ghosts, or whatever. Its employees include Yun Arikawa, a Holmes-level deductive genius and programmer who prefers to communicate through his AI assistant Yung because it’s more accurate than he is, and Haberu Kato, who initially seems like a muscular everyman but turns out to be quite scientifically knowledgeable himself, like most of the characters in the series. They’re investigating a radio signal transmitting a mysterious song, which turns out to come from the Misakioku radio observatory. Mei Kamino, a nerdy-cute, purple-haired grad student, is called in by the observatory staff to troubleshoot the problem on behalf of the professor she assists.

Mei’s connection to the other leads is tenuous: She and Haberu went to high school together, and Mei happens to download a free copy of Yun’s AI assistant, which takes over her computer like a friendly virus and customizes itself into a cute avatar she names Pelops II after her late dog. It’s weird that a computer-savvy grad student would be so cavalier about downloading unknown software, especially after its malware-like takeover of her laptop and casual invasion of her privacy to build its personality profile. But it’s played as cute and friendly and propels her into the larger plot, so whatever.

To pay the bills, Otaki and his employees display Jet Jaguar to the public as a novelty for kids at a local summer festival, when a pteranodon attacks out of nowhere. Otaki comes to the rescue in JJ. The battle is comical, but the pteranodon is seriously dangerous (and impressively designed — also a realistic size for a pterosaur, unlike past versions of Radon/Rodan), forcing Otaki out of the cockpit and almost killing him before Yun takes remote control of JJ from a tablet. The fight is a draw, and the pteranodon retreats… and suddenly drops dead.

More pteranodons begin to appear, and are dubbed Radons because they emit radon gas. (In the original, Radon was short for “pteranodon.” It was changed to Rodan for the English dub because Radon was the brand name of a laundry soap or something.) They begin swarming en masse, unable to survive long at first but apparently evolving to fit the environment, and are accompanied by a “Red Dust” with strange properties. Yun, Haberu, and Otaki try to draw them away with a radio signal and protect the citizens from them, with help from a robot drone remote-piloted by Pelops II, leading to online contact between Yun and Mei.

Meanwhile, Pelops II continues to cutely take over Mei’s life, organizing her loose research notes into extra-dimensional biology into a preprint paper and publishing it under both their names without asking Mei first. Mei is oddly unoffended by this, and her paper quickly attracts the attention of a Chinese professor named Li Guiying. Mei flies out to Dubai to meet Dr. Li and assist in her work. (Oddly, everyone in Dubai and later in other countries speaks fluent Japanese.) We learn that Mei specializes in “Biologica Phantastica,” the conjectural science of nonexistent species in hypothetical alternate worlds and what rules they would follow (e.g. living backward in time, flying in a 2-dimensional world, etc.). Mei learns that Li has been developing a material called Archetype that seems to violate physical law, and Mei realizes that it transcends time, able to draw energy from the future. She doesn’t think it can be native to our universe.

Yun and Haberu soon encounter an ankylosaur kaiju, Anguirus, that appears able to predict bullet paths and deflect them. Otaki and Jet Jaguar are able to bring it down by firing a harpoon gun at point-blank range (so it has no time to dodge), but Anguirus recovers and trashes JJ, leading Yun to install his digital assistant Yung to operate what’s left of it. Yun and Mei begin to figure out that the Red Dust associated with the kaiju is related to Archetype — and Li eventually lets on that the dust is the basis of the substance. I love how scientifically literate the script is as Mei discusses the physical improbabilities with Dr. Li and with Yun.

So where’s Godzilla in all this? Well, at the end of the first episode, we were shown that the Misakioku observatory has a Godzilla skeleton in its basement. It gradually comes out that it somehow emitted the musical signal that triggered the Radon attacks and the emergence of other kaiju like Anguirus and sea serpents called Manda. The skeleton emits the same Red Dust that’s spreading with the kaiju, allowing them to survive better, as if the swarms of Radons spreading worldwide are terraforming the world for the kaiju.

Along the way, the Factory crew find an ancient artwork which was displayed at the local festival, showing Radons alongside a whale (kujira)-like kaiju named Gojira, said to come when the sea turns red. About halfway through the season, this creature makes an appearance, though it looks far more aquatic than any previous Godzilla, and is recognizable only by Akira Ifukube’s iconic Godzilla fanfare. Yet when it comes ashore, cloaked in Red Dust so it’s hard to see, it begins transforming to fit a land environment, much like in Shin Godzilla. (The initial form is officially called Godzilla Aquatilis; its first mutation is Godzilla Amphibia.)

Other characters and threads are introduced along the way, like a blond guy named Kai who initially pretends to be a journalist but knows about the Godzilla skeleton in the basement, which apparently dates from 80 years before (which would be 1950 — perhaps rounded from 1954?). It’s connected with a crazed-looking scientist from 50 years ago named Ashihara, who had insights ahead of his time about Archetype that nobody understood, but that Mei is able to figure out. Ashihara predicted the evolution of kaiju from the dust’s interaction with living organisms. Red Dust/Archetype is based on a multidimensional, trans-temporal construct called Singular Points. There are 13 levels of complexity for it, of which Li has mastered three. The highest, theorized by Ashihara, is called the Orthogonal Diagonalizer, having something to do with the higher-dimensional physics of the material. (The shared initials with “Oxygen Destroyer,” the weapon that defeated Godzilla in the 1954 original, are no doubt intentional.)

There’s also a group called the SHIVA Consortium operating out of India, led by a creepy white-haired woman named Tilda whose eyes are all black. The SHIVA research director is named BB, and he’s trying to keep a kaiju named Salunga from escaping an underground complex containing a vast pool of Red Dust. These guys apparently have Ashihara’s full research and are closer to building a working Diagonalizer, a prototype of which BB uses to temporarily crystallize the pool of Red Dust to delay Salunga’s escape.

Meanwhile, the Otaki Factory staff rebuilds Jet Jaguar into a 2-story giant with the AI Yung controlling it (and adopting its name), so now JJ has a mind and a voice, an autonomous robot rather than a piloted mecha. It also has a spear made from a future-predicting Anguirus spine, which Otaki believes will give it the edge to defeat Godzilla. But the Otaki team gets sidetracked battling a horde of giant spiders (Kumonga) at the pier. Godzilla apparently self-immolates, but its charred “corpse” turns out to be a cocoon in which it mutates into Godzilla Terrestris, a green form closer to its familiar appearance, but still with a more lizard/fish-like head, and not quite able to summon its atomic breath, instead generating a sort of energy smoke ring. But it’s not done evolving yet.

Li takes Mei to Ashihara’s London home to decipher his notes, and Mei learns that he was using Singular Points as supercalculators to predict the future, but ended up getting conflicting answers as the Points competed with each other, the “Ashihara Catastrophe.” Mei realizes this isn’t just a computational catastrophe, but a real end-of-the-world scenario as physical law breaks down — and Ashihara predicted it happening in 2030, just days away. Mei rushes to warn Li, but she’s talking with the SHIVA people, who seem less concerned about the end of the world than with completing the Diagonalizer to eliminate the Red Dust. As Mei flees a Radon attack on London, she realizes that Godzilla is a Singular Point (ohh!!) and the Catastrophe is centered around it. Dr. Li is lost in the attack due to an ill-timed act of kindness on her part.

Confusingly, this is followed with a flashback where Li and Mei discuss how to send information back in time without violating the laws of physics: by encoding it in a form that wouldn’t be recognized as information. This theory becomes real as Yun and Haberu discover that Ashihara (who observed the first Godzilla destroying a fishing village and being defeated 80 years before, then built the observatory over its skeleton) predicted the current events and encoded them in his journals using a numerical code that wouldn’t be invented until the 1990s, after the journals were written. The Jet Jaguar AI decodes dates and times correlating to specific lines in Yun’s text chats with Mei, including one they haven’t had yet — so they won’t be able to understand the message until that conversation happens in 4 days.

Mei arrives in India and meets BB’s daughter, who takes her to meet him. It becomes clear that SHIVA and Tilda have no interest in preventing the imminent Catastrophe, wishing instead to control the power of Archetype and the Diagonalizer. So BB, who turns out to be working with “freelance spy” Kai, goes rogue, stealing the Diagonalizer prototypes and sending them around the world, then fleeing SHIVA with Mei and taking her to where Ashihara found the first Singular Point — which leads to the Supercalculator (the underground complex where Salunga was captive), which Mei plans to ask how to stop the Catastrophe, as only something not of this universe can solve a problem not of this universe.

Meanwhile in Tokyo, Ifukube’s original Godzilla theme (the main title theme to the 1954 film) is heard for the first time in the series as the king of the kaiju finally Gojivolves to Godzilla Ultima, the gray form that most closely resembles the classic Godzilla design, though with more pronounced fangs, a heavy lower body reminiscent of Legendary Godzilla, and an incredibly long tail like Shin Godzilla. Godzilla Ultima finally fires its atomic breath, with multiple rings of light forming before its mouth to herald it, and it’s a devastating, laser-straight beam that does massive damage to Tokyo’s skyscrapers — not quite as cataclysmic as the corresponding scene in Shin, but more targeted, with striking animation of the damage done to the buildings as the ray burns through them. It’s also an ongoing thing as Godzilla battles other kaiju and does more and more damage to the abandoned Tokyo.

Otaki, Yun, and Haberu take Jet Jaguar to Tokyo by boat to fight Godzilla, but the JJ AI is somehow triggered to start upgrading itself over and over, until it wakes up making baby talk and swiftly re-educates itself from first principles, renaming itself Jet Jaguar PP. I think it’s just achieved its own Singularity (in the Kamen Rider Zero-One sense of an AI gaining sentience).

Mei, Pelops, and BB reach the Singular Point supercalculator and try to find the code to shut down the Red Dust and stop the kaiju, while the Otaki gang hook up the military and get the Diagonalizer that’s waiting for them to enter the code that Mei has been predicted to send in a few hours to a location currently contiguous with Godzilla’s body. The military hooks a propeller pack to JJ to send him up there while Yun awaits the code — but Pelops is having trouble finding it because of the way the future keeps branching and producing contradictory solutions. Space is warping more and more around the calculator, and around Godzilla as well. (I love how this is expressed — a soldier reports that the angles of a triangle no longer add up to 180 degrees around Godzilla.)

Pelops tries going to the past to get more time to do the calculation, as the Catastrophe starts and Mei and BB have to leave Pelops there. Yun flies up in Jet Jaguar PP to get the Diagonalizer code, dodging Godzilla’s atomic breath and ultimately landing on its back, while JJ seems to be trashed. The code doesn’t come through in time — but in cyberspace, Pelops sees a vision of Ashihara in the past, which catalyzes something they were already working on but had forgotten until the right time — a program to “make Jet Jaguar invincible.” Which means inexplicably turning it into a giant nearly Godzilla’s size. (I guess this is an homage to Godzilla vs. Megalon, in which the original JJ somehow “reprogrammed” himself into a giant.) JJPP fights Godzilla and monologues about being the descendant of Pelops II and JJ, and that thanks to the time loop, it’s not only had the Diagonalizer code all along, but is the code. It’s a Pyrrhic victory for JJ’s robot body, which Godzilla destroys, but that destruction catalyzes the Diagonalizer, which turns all the Red Dust into stable blue crystals (instead of the red crystals the partial Diagonalizers turned it into temporarily). Godzilla has vanished, and the narration from the beginning of the season repeats now that we understand it’s the incarnations of Pelops/JJ telling the story to each other. Yun and Haberu finally meet Mei face-to-face, and she’s wearing an Ouroboros/infinity t-shirt.

But wait — there’s a post-credit tease. Kai the spy is working with others to turn the original Godzilla skeleton into Mechagodzilla (echoing the Kiryu films) — and Ashihara is with them!

Well. Godzilla Singular Point is an incredibly dense mindbender of a science fiction tale. I love how grounded it is in real physics, unprecedented in a kaiju production. I love it when I know just enough about the science to recognize that the writers understand it better than I do — as opposed to the usual thing where anyone with a passing grasp of grade-school science can easily recognize it as complete gibberish. The plot isn’t easy to follow with all the characters with mysterious hidden agendas cropping up, but I like the thoughtfulness, the energy, and the humor. The Jet Jaguar battles and the eccentric Otaki are a lot of fun. The story is driven more by plot and concepts than character, but the characters are still distinctive and appealing with subtle texture.

That makes it a massive improvement over the ponderous, pretentious, nihilistic anime movie trilogy that preceded it. Those movies were never fun. The CGI on the kaiju is vastly better done here, and the 2D animation and character design are much better than the video-gamey cel-shaded 3D of the trilogy.

It’s far from perfect, though. The physics and philosophy surrounding the Singular Point and Ashihara and transtemporal communication and all that are so intricate and complex that the bits about giant monsters attacking cities feel like a sidebar, even a distraction from the real story. By the time Godzilla finally mutates into Ultima form and starts trashing Tokyo, it feels like the story is just going through the motions of a kaiju plot. Godzilla isn’t well-integrated into the story except as a MacGuffin, a problem motivating the heroes to try to solve it. Indeed, Godzilla is more like an side effect of the real problem of the Red Dust and the Catastrophe. It feels like the creators had their own deep, complicated hard-SF story they wanted to tell and grafted Godzilla and other kaiju into it, rather than telling a story that was centrally about Godzilla. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the story they told, but sometimes it felt like the cutaways to the kaiju stuff were just getting in the way.

Not only that, but Godzilla becomes kind of static in the last couple of episodes, settling down in the ruins of Tokyo and becoming a stationary goal for the heroes to reach. It’s the one thing about Singular Point that’s reminiscent of the Godzilla Earth trilogy’s weaknesses rather than improving on them.

Also, while I like the lead characters, they’re ultimately not much more than spectators in a story about Pelops II and Jet Jaguar — two incarnations of the same AI — acting out their predestined role in preventing the Catastrophe. Maybe that’s unfair — Yun’s and Mei’s intellectual problem-solving does a lot to lay the groundwork — but the human leads’ role in the payoff is peripheral. It’s the AI that has the most complete and significant journey out of all the characters in the season.

Singular Point is reminiscent of Shin Godzilla in some ways, with its mutating kaiju and its focus on media montages and the like — although it has what Shin lacked, an emphasis on ground-level civilians and scientists dealing with the kaiju crisis rather than just government and military officials.

One thing that surprises me is the absence of Mothra from the first season, except in the end titles, which feature a bunch of classic Showa-era kaiju designs. There is a bit in the penultimate episode with a swarm of golden moths, which I thought might be a harbinger of Mothra, but it had no payoff. Perhaps they’re saving her for next season.

All in all, Singular Point may be an acquired taste, too talky and conceptually heavy for people who just want to see Godzilla smashing stuff; but it’s by a wide margin the smartest Godzilla production ever, and I daresay one of the best, despite its weaknesses. The production values are excellent, the writing impressive, the concepts extraordinary. If the series gets a second season (not confirmed as of this writing), hopefully it will be able to keep what worked and improve on its shortcomings.

ARACHNE’S EXILE on NetGalley

February 3, 2021 1 comment

A quick heads-up for reviewers, librarians, and book vendors: Arachne’s Exile is available for review on NetGalley through the month of February 2021.

https://www.netgalley.com/catalog/book/215070

Arachne's Exile cover

I appreciate any efforts to get the word out about this novel and Arachne’s Crime. Professional reviews are welcome, as are reader reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, etc.

Quick movie review: Netflix’s ANON (spoilers)

I recently re-upped my Netflix account, and I watched a movie last night that was interesting but frustrating. Anon (2018) is written and directed by Andrew Niccol, the writer/director of the classic Gattaca and the writer of The Truman Show. It’s a sci-fi noir detective movie set in a future with a ubiquitous information/surveillance environment, where everyone in linked into an augmented reality network with constant heads-up data about the people and things around them projected into their eyes, and where their own first-person visual records can be shared with others or accessed by law enforcement.

The early part of the movie is the most interesting, as the worldbuilding is deftly established through the work of Detective Sal Freiland (Clive Owen), who easily “solves” crime after crime just by watching the eyewitness records of their perpetrators and victims, until he comes upon the rarity of a murder whose perpetrator went unseen. In a brilliant twist, the killer hacked the victim’s eyes so he saw himself through his killer’s POV, and thus recorded no image of the killer’s face, as well as being too disoriented to defend himself.

Sal’s investigation connects to a mysterious woman (Amanda Seyfried) with no accessible ID, a ghost in the system who turns out to be a hacker called “Anon” who helps people erase their subjective records of their misdeeds, and whose clients are getting murdered one by one. Sal and the other cops think she’s the killer, but naturally not all is as it seems. There’s some cool Ghost in the Shell-style stuff as the hacker-killer stymies Sal’s pursuit, at one point trying to kill him by making him hallucinate a stationary subway car so that he almost steps into the path of an oncoming train.

Unfortunately, once my intrigue in the technological futurism wore off, I began to realize the film was a gross failure of futurism in other ways. The cast is overwhelmingly white, with people of color relegated exclusively to minor supporting roles or bit parts. It’s also overwhelmingly male, with Seyfried as the only major female character (literally credited as “The Girl”), aside from Sonya Walger in a small, incidental role as Sal’s ex-wife. Other female characters, and Seyfried to a large extent, are only there to be sex objects. Anon sleeps with Sal midway through the film for no evident reason other than that it’s expected that the grizzled male lead will get to sleep with the hot female lead young enough to be his daughter. Indeed, the plot establishes that she slept with all her murdered clients, though why she does so is unclear; it’s just an excuse to give the real killer a jealousy motive. (I was actually hoping Anon would turn out to be the killer, just to give her more agency in the story.) The film fails the Bechdel Test; the only interaction between two women is a lesbian sex scene where they’re both killed.

Anon‘s futurism is lacking in other ways too. This is a world where people take ubiquitous augmented reality and the ability to see through others’ eyes for granted, so it must be a generation or more in the future, yet the New York City skyline is no different than it is today (except for the parts filmed in Toronto), the cars are intelligent but not self-driving, and attitudes toward same-sex relationships are no different from today. The cars and fashions are vintage, and Sal chain-smokes like a ’40s noir lead. Now, blending retro style with a futuristic setting isn’t intrinsically objectionable; it worked for Max Headroom and Batman: The Animated Series. But embracing a noir style is one thing; perpetuating the gender and racial norms of an earlier era is another. The social regressiveness cancelled out the imaginative futurism and dragged me out of the story.

It’s also very easy to guess who the real killer is, due to there being only one credible suspect. Anon’s introduction is too coincidental, with Sal passing by her in the street in the first scene and noting her lack of ID; he never would’ve caught onto her otherwise, so that’s contrived. And there’s a part that seems to break the logic of the world in order to get Sal away from the cops after he’s been framed for a murder, with little explanation of how he avoided being tracked for so long.

The film tries to say something about the right to privacy in a world of universal information, and about the dangers of a world where people’s very senses can be hacked, but it’s ultimately too superficial. These ideas have been explored better in prose fiction by the likes of David Brin and Alastair Reynolds, and in works like Ghost in the Shell. And I’m sick of seeing science fiction premises damaged by the American feature film industry’s backwardness about gender and racial inclusion — this being one of the most extreme examples I’ve seen in a long time. There’s half of a good worldbuilding exercise in Anon, but this movie about a world where everything and everyone is seen is ultimately dragged down by its lack of vision and perspective about whose viewpoints are worth showing.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , ,

More free Patreon samples!

I now have free samples up on Patreon for all three of my main membership tiers. I hope they entice at least a few more people to subscribe to my Patreon page.

At the $5 Reviews tier, up since last Tuesday, is the first of my weekly reviews of the 1988 syndicated Superboy TV series:

https://www.patreon.com/posts/40266250

At the $10 Fiction tier is a reprint of my 2017 Analog short story “Abductive Reasoning”:

https://www.patreon.com/posts/free-fiction-41459524

And at the $12 Behind the Scenes tier, I’m offering a glimpse of my worldbuilding notes for the Arachne-Troubleshooter Universe, an overview of the distribution of life in different parts of the galaxy:

https://www.patreon.com/posts/worldbuilding-in-41460817

These are pretty representative of the kind of content I offer regularly. I post a new review every Tuesday (I’ve got enough written in advance to last about a year at this point), and new (or sometimes reprint) fiction and Behind the Scenes content roughly once a month. Also, at the $1 Tip Jar level, I have a couple of posts’ worth of old cat photos you can check out (no new ones likely to follow, alas) and occasional advance glimpses at character and alien design sketches I’ve done for my fiction (which will eventually be reprinted here on Written Worlds).

Feel free to check it out!

Free Patreon review this week!

Today I’m starting a new TV review series on Patreon, of the 1988-92 syndicated Superboy (renamed The Adventures of Superboy for seasons 3-4), which was produced by Alexander and Ilya Salkind of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies and starred John Haymes Newton (season 1) and Gerard Christopher (seasons 2-4) as Superboy and Stacy Haiduk as Lana Lang. It’s a little-remembered series today, as it hasn’t been widely available, but the entire series is on DC Universe. While the first two seasons are inconsistent and often terrible, they do have some noteworthy moments, and are notable for having veteran Superman comics writer-editors such as Cary Bates, Mike Carlin, and Andy Helfer on the writing staff. The retooled seasons 3-4, though are a vast improvement, probably the best live-action DC television prior to Smallville (and I say that as a longtime fan of the 1990 The Flash). Seasons 2-4 also feature Sherman Howard as one of the finest screen versions of Lex Luthor ever.

This will be a long series of reviews, so in hopes of attracting some new subscribers, I’m making this first review available for free to the public. Just click here:

https://www.patreon.com/posts/40266250

Subsequent installments will appear weekly for Patreon subscribers at the $5 level and above. I hope this review will entice at least a few of you to join up — I’d like my reviews to be read by more than 20-ish people.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , , , ,

Thoughts on SHAZAM! (1974)

Thanks to the DC Universe streaming site, I’ve just finished a rewatch of the 1974 Filmation live-action adventure series Shazam!, which I watched in first run on Saturday mornings as a kid. I haven’t seen the show in quite a long time, though I saw its sister show The Secrets of Isis on DVD back in 2009. I was expecting that it would have mostly nostalgia value and that from a mature perspective I’d find it rather silly. But I was actually surprised at how well it held up. Certainly it had plenty of contrivances and limitations and was made with an absurdly low budget, but it managed to be pretty decent in spite of that.

The show had legendary DC artist Carmine Infantino on board as a creative consultant from the company that was still billed as National Comics Publications at the time — and I’m rather surprised that I saw his name prominently displayed in the credits of this show every week in my childhood (at least in the first season), yet failed to recognize it when I saw it on comic book pages nearly a decade later. Anyway, it was a weird mix of fidelity to and departure from the source. Captain Marvel’s costume was an exact recreation of the comics version, his powers worked basically the same way, and there were a few passing references to Billy Batson working for a TV station, as he did in the comics (though nobody ever recognized him in the show, so either he worked for a local station or he wasn’t an on-air personality). But we never saw him at work. Instead, the implicitly teenaged Billy (Michael Gray, who was in his early 20s at the time) spent the whole 3-season, 28-episode series on an incredibly long vacation, tooling around Los Angeles and the surrounding countryside in an RV driven by his elderly mentor named Mentor (War of the Worlds‘ Les Tremayne), a new character created for the show. In place of the Wizard Shazam, the mythical figures who empowered him and provided the initials of the magic word that transformed Bily into Captain Marvel — Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury — appeared onscreen as “the Elders” in barely-animated cartoon sequences (static paintings with animated eyes and mouths) with a live-action Billy matted in, showing up once per episode to give Billy vague warnings about the problems he would face and the moral principles he’d need to apply in solving them. (All six Elders were voiced by Filmation producer Lou Scheimer. Some sources credit Solomon as his partner Norm Prescott, but I grew up hearing all of Scheimer’s voices — there weren’t very many of them — and I know them when I hear them.) As a kid, I saw the whole series in black & white, and I’m startled by how vivid the Elder sequences are in the remastered HD episodes on DCU.

Mentor is a mysterious figure. He seems like just a friendly grandfather tootling around in an RV with Billy, and Gray and Tremayne have a fun comic rapport as they tease each other, joke around, and occasionally get on each other’s nerves. But Mentor seems to have a connection to the Elders, sometimes repeating their words as if he were some Earthbound facet or agent of theirs, and in one early episode he shows up out of nowhere on a tree branch to give advice, as if he just materialized there off camera. Still, if the original implication was that he had some kind of supernatural connection to the Elders, that was abandoned by the second season. (Also, it was originally clear that he “heard” the Elders’ words when Billy visited them, but in seasons 2-3 he needed Billy to repeat them to him.)

(EDIT: Filmation historian Andy Mangels informs me that the series bible explained Mentor as a former host of Captain Marvel. Which makes perfect sense.)

Another change, incidentally, is that the Elders seemed more stern and proactive in season 1, sometimes sending out threatening thunderclaps when Billy and Mentor were tempted to use Captain Marvel’s powers for personal or frivolous reasons. By season 2, they seemed more indulgent, and there was one closing gag scene where Billy changed to Marvel inside the RV to win a petty argument with Mentor (the one and only time he was shown transforming inside the vehicle, although he did once change while tied up in a warehouse). I guess magic lightning isn’t affected by Faraday cages. Well, nobody ever seemed to notice the thunder or lightning when he changed, so I guess it’s pretty unusual.

Captain Marvel was played by two actors. In the 15 episodes of the first season and two episodes in the second, he was played by Jackson Bostwick, a bright-eyed, square-jawed muscleman who looked the part pretty convincingly aside from needing a haircut. But Bostwick abruptly walked out early in season 2 as a ploy to get a raise, and got fired instead, with the producers hastily casting a new actor, John Davey, to take his place for the remaining 11 episodes and three guest appearances on Isis. Davey was a less visually convincing Marvel, an older, rougher-featured, slightly flabbier man (though he was more toned up by season 3) who looked and sounded more like a blue-collar dad than a superhero. I gather that most people prefer Bostwick in the role, but at least in my current rewatch, I liked Davey much better. Bostwick had the look down, and he was amiable enough, but he was a limited performer who never felt natural in the role, affecting a constant grin that seemed forced and almost creepily ingratiating. Davey was a considerably more experienced actor who gave a much more unaffected, matter-of-fact performance. It might not have been as easy to believe he was the World’s Mightiest Mortal, but it was far easier to believe that he was actually a person involved in the story, rather than a performer mugging for the camera and reciting from a script. Certainly he was better than you’d expect from someone hastily cast in a single day after the first guy walked out.

(EDIT: Apparently the claim that Bostwick walked out over money was disproven; it was actually due to an on-set injury, and Bostwick won a Screen Actors Guild arbitration hearing over his firing and got compensated for it: http://www.angelfire.com/tv2/shazam/bostwick2.html )

The change in CM’s appearance was never explained on the show, and indeed, for some reason Davey’s first episode was aired the week before Bostwick’s last, perhaps to soften the transition. Now, since Billy/Marvel is essentially a shapeshifter, it seems there’s a built-in explanation for the change — except in Davey’s second episode, a criminal impersonates Marvel wearing a mask of Davey’s face and the public instantly recognizes him as the hero.

It’s worth noting that Captain Marvel’s screen time increased significantly once Davey replaced Bostwick. In season 1, he mostly just showed up for a minute or two at a time for one or two rescue sequences per episode, but in seasons 2-3, he sometimes had extended roles whose screen time occasionally surpassed Bily’s. (For instance, in the aforementioned episode, when Billy learns there’s a warrant for CM’s arrest, he Shazams and turns himself in as CM, spending most of the rest of the episode in that form.) Now, this happened soon enough that it probably wasn’t cause and effect — my guess is that the network asked for more screen time for the superhero even before the cast change. But I doubt that Bostwick could’ve handled the enlarged role and more extensive character interplay as well as Davey did.

While rewatching the show from my adult, more comics-savvy perspective, I found myself wondering what Billy/Marvel and Mentor did when they weren’t on the world’s longest vacation. Did this Earth’s Captain Marvel ever fight supervillains like Dr. Sivana and Mr. Mind, or did he just deal with bank robbers, catch runaway cars, and save kids from falling off cliffs due to their poor life choices? For what it’s worth, the first Isis crossover episode had the Elders tell Mentor (the one time we ever saw him in the Elders’ cartoon space) that Isis was the only person on Earth who could help Captain Marvel put out a forest fire. So that tells us that their universe had no other superheroes, at least none on a comparable level of power. Of course, the existence of Isis (JoAnna Cameron) invalidates the Shazam! opening narration’s claim that Captain Marvel is “the mightiest of mortals.” He can just fly around and punch through rock and lift cars over his head. She has godlike power over the forces of nature and can reverse time itself.

On the classic “Is Captain Marvel a transformed Billy or another person who swaps places with him?” question, I’d say the show more or less came down on the former side. Marvel sometimes followed through on Billy’s conversations with Mentor or on his goals (e.g. getting a delayed lunch or winning a friendly bet), and Billy once used “I” to refer to something Marvel did. Marvel’s personality didn’t seem quite the same as Billy’s, but this version of Billy wasn’t as boyish as he’s usually portrayed and Marvel’s appearances were usually fairly brief. And we can assume that he’s putting on a more heroic persona for the benefit of the public, though he lets his guard down more with Mentor. To some extent, it depends on the actor. Bostwick’s screen time and talent were both too limited to convey any sense that Billy’s personality was in there. Davey wasn’t doing an impression of Michael Gray or anything, but his manner was similar enough that I can buy that they’re the same person.

The show occasionally had some notable guest stars, either established names from the era or earlier, including Lance Kerwin, Pamelyn Ferdin (who would later star in Filmation’s Space Academy), William Sargent, Ron Soble, Butch Patrick, Hilly Hicks, Dabbs Greer, Kung Fu‘s Radames Pera, Danny Bonaduce, William Campbell, and Linden Chiles, or young actors who would become prominent later on, including Patrick Labyorteaux, Andrew Stevens, and actor-director Eric Laneuville. Laneuville’s episode also featured baseball star Maury Wills in a cameo as himself, which dodged a bullet — I was afraid the episode would get white-saviorish with Billy/Marvel and Mentor showing the light to a couple of black kids, but the producers wisely brought in the African-American Wills to provide the lesson — even making him the only non-regular ever to appear in one of the closing tags restating the moral of the week for the kids at home.  Perhaps the biggest star who appeared in Shazam! was a young Jackie Earle Haley, better known for his work in another DC production, playing Rorschach in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. Quite a difference.

As for the main cast, Michael Gray had about five years of prior TV acting experience, but did very little acting after the show — surprisingly, as I thought he was pretty good. Les Tremayne had decades of experience as a radio actor, announcer, and narrator as well as a screen actor, known for The War of the Worlds and North by Northwest, but after this, he worked almost exclusively in animation through the early ’90s. Jackson Bostwick did a handful of roles in various later films, notably as “Head Guard” in TRON. John Davey went on working as a character actor for the next decade or so, appearing in six different roles in The Rockford Files and five in Barnaby Jones, with his final two credited roles in 1987, as a state trooper in MacGyver and a “Metrocop with Stunner” in the American pilot of Max Headroom.

Shazam!‘s production values were nothing to write home about, of course. The endless vacation was an excuse to avoid standing sets and shoot entirely on location (including several episodes shot at the familiar Vasquez Rocks cliff where Kirk fought the Gorn, and several uses of the Bronson Canyon cave area used as the exterior of Adam West’s Batcave). The visual effects were pretty basic, with flying shots for Captain Marvel not dissimilar to those from George Reeves’s Superman a couple of decades earlier. But they did some interesting flying gags where they tied Bostwick or Davey to a board and drove him around with a camera shooting his torso so it looked like he was flying close to ground level. They did a cool stunt with him dragging down a chopper in one episode, but in the episode where he caught a small plane and guided it to a safe landing, I realized after a moment that they just tied a dummy to the back of the plane. The most notable optical effect was the transformation shot created by the Westheimer Company, with Gray’s image fading into Bostwick’s and then Davey’s surrounded by animated flames and superimposed on live-action light and cloud tank effects. It’s mildly impressive that they actually went to the trouble of recompositing it for Davey rather than just cutting it short or replacing it with a simpler transition. But then, much like the stock henshin sequences in Japanese tokusatsu shows today, the “Shazam!” shot was a highlight of each episode, a ritualized moment the audience came to expect, so it makes sense that they’d put the most care into it.

Despite all this adult perspective, though, it was still a nostalgic treat to revisit Shazam! Filmation’s shows were my jam as a kid in the ’70s, and their music composed by Ray Ellis and supervised by Norm Prescott (under the pseudonyms Yvette Blais & Jeff Michael) was the soundtrack I used in my head to score my own life. I feel their wholesome, liberal, educational focus helped shape my moral compass, along with Star Trek. And early Shazam! fits particularly into my comfort zone, a reminder of that last year or so before I lost my mother, the one time I seem to recall feeling most contented and complete and untroubled, though it probably didn’t seem that way at the time. Maybe that’s why I found it so satisfying to revisit. I felt it was written and (mostly) acted better than I expected, but I could certainly be seeing it through rose-colored glasses. Still, that’s fine. I watch other shows with a more critical eye, but this revisit was purely for nostalgia, and I’m glad it held up for me.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , , , ,

Update on ARACHNE’S EXILE, Patreon, and other projects

We’re still waiting for the Arachne’s Crime cover art to be completed and the book to be released, but in the meantime, I recently got the copyedits for the second half of the duology, Arachne’s Exile. I had to wrap up an assignment for Star Trek Adventures first, but I got that done last week and then applied myself to the copyedits. My editor Danielle correctly pointed out that the opening scene I’d written to recap the first book was unengaging, so I found a way to work the necessary exposition into the subsequent scenes more gradually and organically, and I got a nice new moment of character interaction out of it by turning an internal monologue into a dialogue scene. (To make sure I covered all the relevant exposition, I copied the cut recap scene into another file, bolded the text, and then unbolded each part I worked in elsewhere or decided was unnecessary, so I could be sure I didn’t miss anything.)

Along the way, I also realized that I could improve the pacing of the first few chapters enormously by moving forward a couple of scenes, so the intercutting between the two main groups of characters flows better. The new arrangement lets me re-establish more of the main characters and their emotional arcs and conflicts before getting into the heavy plot and science exposition, and it lets me postpone a crucial revelation so that it comes at the end of a chapter rather than one scene before the end.

After turning in the copyedits yesterday, I took a look at a recently rejected short story to see if I wanted to revise it one more time before resubmitting it elsewhere. I decided it was okay as it was, which is good, because I have another, major project that I really need to get on with, though it’s not something I can talk about yet. It’ll be keeping me busy for the next few months, though.

Also, I had occasion today to reread a story I wrote a while back and decided to abandon because it didn’t turn out the way I wanted. I had what I envisioned as a comedy idea, but the story I wrote didn’t turn out to be all that comedic. I just glanced at it to see if there were character names I wanted to cannibalize, but in reading it again, I realized it might be okay the way it is. Too bad I don’t have time right now to revise it for submission, but I’ll keep it in mind for later.

Meanwhile, I’m told that I’m close to getting an answer about another project I was invited to pitch a few months ago, and the prospects look pretty good. I’m trying not to get overconfident, but if I get it, it will be a great help to me financially and should be pretty fun to write — though it’s likely to make me even busier over the months ahead.

 

On Patreon this month, my fiction post will be a reprint of the Troubleshooter story “Conventional Powers,” originally published in the Sept/Oct 2019 Analog. It’s the first time my Patreon story has been a reprint rather than new/unpublished content, but hopefully it’ll be new for some of my patrons, at least, and I thought it was a good idea to have the story archived for people who didn’t manage to read it in Analog. It goes live on Saturday, August 8, a date I chose because it’s the anniversary of the day I conceived the character of Emerald Blair and the earliest form of the Troubleshooter premise (I remember it because it was 8/8/88). The following day, my Behind-the-Scenes Patreon post will be a glimpse at my Sol System geography notes for the Emerald Blair/Troubleshooter series, including some locations from as-yet-unpublished works. I’m also working on a couple of new pieces of Troubleshooter character artwork to accompany this month’s releases at the $1 level, debuting as a Patreon exclusive, though I’ll eventually repost them here.

Starting next Tuesday, my Patreon reviews return to DC Comics TV shows with a look at the short-lived 1992 Human Target series from the producers of the 1990 The Flash. That’ll be my shortest rewatch/review series yet, covering the unaired pilot and the seven aired episodes in four posts, after which I’ll begin my longest one yet, covering all four seasons of the 1988-92 syndicated Superboy series. That should take the better part of a year to get through, so I’ll probably intersperse some other reviews along the way for variety.

Kaiju review: REIGO: KING OF THE SEA MONSTERS

I recently came across another obscure kaiju movie on the Overdrive online library. While I’ve moved most of my reviews to my Patreon page these days, I figured I should keep my kaiju reviews together here (plus maybe seeing my occasional review for free will prompt some people to subscribe to my Patreon).

Anyway, the movie is known in English as Reigo: King of the Sea Monsters, originally titled Shinkaijū Reigō (深海獣レイゴー, Deep Sea Beast Reigou, with the “kai” meaning “sea” rather than being part of the usual word “kaiju,” though the pun is probably intentional). It’s a 2008 independent film (according to Wikizilla, though the credits say Copyright 2007 and IMDb says 2005) directed and co-written by Shinpei Hayashiya, a Japanese actor-comedian and kaiju buff who had a minor role in 1984’s The Return of Godzilla. Apparently he made a well-regarded fan-film sequel to the superb 1990s Gamera trilogy, which got him the gig making this film. The lead roles went to two kaiju veterans — Yukijiro Hotaru, who was the comical Inspector Osako in all three installments of said Gamera trilogy, and Taiyo Sugiura, who was the lead actor in the 2001-2 TV series Ultraman Cosmos (which, as it so happens, I’m currently watching).

This is an unusual kaiju film in that it’s a period piece, set in the early 1940s aboard Yamato, the iconic Japanese battleship from World War II. This is the only time I’ve seen Yamato depicted onscreen outside of Star Blazers/Uchuu Senkan Yamato, the classic ’70s anime in which the battleship was rebuilt into a starship.

The movie begins with a black and white sequence emulating a period movie, with scenes focusing on two soon-to-be Yamato personnel: head gunner Noboru Osako (played by Hotaru and named for his Gamera character) praying at a shrine for his pregnant wife to give birth to a son (though he phrases it more crudely), and Sub-Lieutenant Takeshi Kaido (Sugiura) talking with his pretty childhood friend Chie (Mai Nanami) about how he might not return from war. The movie goes to color once they’re out to sea on the battleship. Osako smuggles a girl onboard for hanky-panky, but she brings along her grandfather, who warns about a “dragon” (ryuu) named Reigo that’s recently reawakened in the sea due to all the naval activity, and whose arrival is heralded by some nasty “bone fish.” Osako shoos him off, having other priorities. Later, at night, the crew sights what they think is an enemy sub and opens fire, killing Reigo’s baby. Reigo — basically a giant plesiosaur with a Godzilla-ish head and an oversized, spiny dorsal fin that attracts lightning — cries out in mournful rage, and the crew assumes they killed a whale.

Unaware of their bad karma, the crew celebrate their victory with sake, and Osako tells those around him of the legend of Reigo, still not believing it. Later, while paying for his drunknness and leaning over the side, Osako spots and rescues an officer from a downed American ship; the officer turns out to speak “a little” Japanese (indeed, the actor’s Japanese is fluent while his “native” English is spoken with a thick Japanese accent) and introduces himself as Lt. Cmdr. Norman Melville (subtle). The captain, Yamagami (apparently a fictional character standing in for Yamato‘s first captain Takayanagi), insists that the prisoner be treated honorably, without violence.

The crew is soon attacked by the shark-sized bone fish, which kill around a dozen people. Melville tells Osako (a fellow gunner, to their mutual excitement) that his ship was also attacked by bone fish and then destroyed by a giant sea monster, and he alone escaped to tell them. Osako goes to warn the captain, who tries to let his crew hash out a strategy for dealing with it in an unsupervised meeting, but they just end up shouting at each other.

Yamato is assigned to lead a task force of ships, which come under attack by Reigo, with two destroyers being blown up (so I guess they were actually destroyees). The giant battleship’s huge guns are useless because they aren’t designed to work at short range. For some reason, Yamagami is randomly promoted to Secretary of the Navy and replaced mid-movie by Captain Matsuda (based on a real person this time), who’s studied marine biology and thinks they can dazzle Reigo with searchlights and then blast it. It fails disastrously, so Matsuda calls in Kaido, a former student of his who offered a wild theory rejected by naval engineers, that flooding Yamato‘s flotation tanks on one side could tilt the ship and allow aiming the guns below the horizontal. But Matsuda’s junior officers reject the plan as too absurd and dangerous, leaving Kaido embarrassed — though he’s cheered up by a letter from his girl Chie professing her hope to marry him on his return.

Reigo’s next attack on the fleet goes as badly as the previous ones, leaving Matsuda no choice but to try Kaido’s ship-tilting plan. Osako drags Melville out of his cell to help work the giant guns. Tilting the ship downward lets them shoot at the approaching monster, but the gun misfires and Reigo does an improbable twisting jump clear over the battleship, damaging the mast with its tail. It comes back around from the other side, and Osako and Melville rotate the gun around 180 degrees and blast it point-blank as it leaps out of the water again — meaning the whole business with tilting the ship was pointless and they just had to wait until the monster obligingly gave them an easy target. Well, anyway, the gunners on the surviving ships keep pouring on fire with the smaller machine guns until Matsuda and Kaido tell them to stop and let the poor beast die in peace. Matsuda gives the crew a speech about how they’ve won a major victory together and now must take on the far greater challenge of defeating the United States. Yeah, good luck with that, guys.

Indeed, we then get a very weird coda that depicts the 1945 destruction of Yamato by American planes through a mix of stock war footage and kabuki pantomime by the actors. It modifies history by showing Reigo returning from the dead to deliver the mortal blow that finally sinks the ship, getting its revenge at last. Finally, we see Chie and Osako’s wife and son praying at the temple years later on the anniversary of their loved ones’ deaths. (The movie implies that Osako’s young son has the same given name as Gamera‘s Inspector Osako, making me wonder if it’s supposed to be the same character, making this an unofficial, indirect prequel to the Heisei Gamera trilogy. However, the inspector would have to be nearly a decade older than he looked in that case.)

This was an odd film, and I’m not sure what to make of it. It’s basically a historical drama about life on Yamato with a monster story added on, but there’s a good deal of comedy and broad acting. The film is hampered by its poor visual effects; while the design of many of the shots is fairly good, the CGI is incredibly crude, with a resolution and frame rate well below the state of the art for the early 2000s, and even the close-up puppet version of Reigo seems to have been shot at a low frame rate or clumsily composited into the CGI ocean. So the action/FX sequences are murky, jerky, and unpleasant to watch. Thematically, its message is kind of vague, though I think it’s mostly anti-war; while the commanding officers are portrayed as honorable and decent, the crew of Yamato basically bring their destruction on themselves by firing blindly and killing an innocent creature, prompting nature’s retribution. Also, I’ve read that Uchuu Senkan Yamato tended to stress the unity of Yamato‘s crew, putting collective over self and working as one entity to achieve their goals; this film seems to subvert that by showing the crew degenerating into hopeless, ego-driven bickering when asked to solve a problem collectively, though they do eventually learn to come together at the end. I’m not sure what point, if any, is conveyed by having Kaido’s daring plan fail and Osako saving the day through dumb luck. Maybe it’s satirizing the clever, so-crazy-it-just-might-work plans of the heroes in other kaiju movies, or maybe it’s just clumsy writing.

All in all, I didn’t get much out of this one, aside from the novelty of seeing two familiar actors in new roles and finally seeing a production about Yamato in its original oceangoing form (though its CGI representation here looked just as cartoony as the one in the anime). I gather there have been two modern-day sequels to Reigo — Raiga: God of the Monsters in 2009 and Raiga vs. Ohga in 2019 — but they’re not available from the library and I don’t feel any pressing need to seek them out.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , , ,

My Patreon site is up!

Here we go, folks… I finally managed to get a Patreon page up and running:

https://www.patreon.com/christopherlbennett

I’ve decided to start with four membership tiers:

$1/month: The Tip Jar: Help me pay for food, rent, etc. so I can keep writing. In return, you get access to public posts, plus my gratitude and the satisfaction of being a patron of the arts!

$5/month: Reviews: Reviews of classic or recent TV, movies, books, etc. about once a week, plus access to public posts.

$10/month: Original Fiction: Fiction in my original universes, including some previously unpublished stories from my files, reprints of published but uncollected short fiction, original vignettes or bonus scenes featuring characters from novels such as Only Superhuman and Arachne’s Crime, and whatever else I can come up with, roughly once a month. Plus access to all the content from the Tip and Review tiers.

$12/month: Behind the Scenes: Annotations for my Patreon-first stories, as well as various behind-the-scenes content such as worldbuilding notes and articles for my original universes, deleted scenes, concept art, or whatever else seems to fit. Plus access to everything from the Tip, Reviews, and Original Fiction tiers.

 

For the launch, I’ve put up one post in each of the three main categories. For Reviews, I begin a rewatch of the 1990 CBS The Flash TV series starring John Wesley Shipp, commemorating that series’s retroactive addition to the Arrowverse as Earth-90 and its lead character’s pivotal role in the recent Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover. For Original Fiction, I’ve posted the first story I ever attempted to sell, “The Cat Who Chased Her Tail Through Time” from 1991, which was largely a celebration of my new kittens at the time, way too self-indulgent for publication in a pro magazine, but fun as a reward for my Patreon donors. Plus it comes with a few vintage kitten pictures, since cat photos are always a good draw. And Behind the Scenes offers annotations on that story.

Feel free to check it out, and let me know what you think. This is a new experiment for me, and there’s no doubt room for improvement.

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

February 27, 2020 1 comment

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 4 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.

Star Trek: Review: The Captain’s Oath

Star Trek The Captain's Oath coverPaul Simpson of Sci-Fi Bulletin has just posted a nice review of Star Trek: TOS — The Captain’s Oath. (Full disclosure: Paul was my editor on a number of Star Trek Magazine articles I did a decade or so ago.) Here it is:

via Star Trek: Review: The Captain’s Oath

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