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“Hubpoint of No Return” is out!

It slipped my mind that yesterday was the on-sale date for the May/June 2018 Analog Science Fiction and Fact, containing my new story “Hubpoint of No Return,” the first new Hub comedy-adventure in Analog since 2013, and the first new Hub material to see print since the Hub Space collection in 2015. I’m quite honored to see that the story is featured by name on the cover:

Analog May/June 2018 cover

It’s rather mind-boggling to see my name given more prominence than luminaries like Wil McCarthy and the legendary Gregory Benford. I can only dream of being on their level.

The Analog site has a substantial excerpt up from “Hubpoint” available to read, along with a glimpse at the accompanying illustration by Josh Meehan:

http://www.analogsf.com/current-issue/story-excerpt2/

(Note to future readers: The above “current issue” link will probably lead to some other story after the end of June 2018.)

It’s a pretty cool illustration. I never imagined David wearing glasses, and Tsshar isn’t supposed to have a tail (assuming my single erroneous mention of one in the manuscript was successfully corrected in proofreading), but otherwise it looks like it captures the scene and characters quite well.

I learned of the issue’s release this morning in a rather nice way, when I checked Facebook and found a very flattering (though spoilery) review of the story at Rocket Stack Rank:

http://www.rocketstackrank.com/2018/04/Hubpoint-Of-No-Return-Christopher-L-Bennett.html

Money quote: “The best part of the story is the characters, who keep managing to be predictable in unexpected ways.”

I’m pleased that reviewer Greg Hullender plugged (and bought) the Hub Space collection of the first three stories. I’ve been hoping that the release of the new Hub stories would prompt new sales of the collection. But I’m also pleased that the reviewer felt the new story could be followed without prior knowledge of the series, so it could work as a new introduction and interest people in going back to the beginning afterward.

I’ve now updated my Hub page on my site, retitling it “The Hub Series” to account for the new stories (though the link address is the same) and adding non-spoiler background discussion on the story. Spoiler annotations will follow soon, but first I have to get my copies of the magazine so I can get the page numbers right.

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Thoughts on BLACK PANTHER (spoilers)

I finally got around to seeing Black Panther yesterday, since I have a bit of money coming in and figured I could spare a few bucks to see the phenomenon while it’s still in theaters (and before Avengers: Infinity War comes out). I never got around to seeing Thor: Ragnarok in theaters — I’m in the hold queue for the DVD at the library, but there are about 1350 people ahead of me at the moment — but this was a film I had to see, given its rave reviews and its larger importance.

Usually when I go to see a film this late in its run, and in a matinee showing, I’m one of only a few people in the theater. For this film, though, the theater was fairly packed. And I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with an audience that was so emotionally invested in the film — with people who said “Oh, no!” when a supporting character was about to be killed or applauded when the hero made a grand entrance. For once, I wasn’t annoyed when people talked in the theater, because I was interested in the way people were reacting to this movie and engaging with it.

I don’t really want to go into detail about the plot and specifics of the film, since it’s all pretty terrific and it’s all been talked about really extensively elsewhere. I thought it was fascinating on a lot of levels. I loved the portrayal of Wakandan technology and architecture, of African designs and sensibilities extrapolated into modernity and futurism without colonial influence. It made for something really fresh and intriguing to see. And I love it that the film didn’t just depict an Afrofuturist utopia, but made it textured, with its own internal problems and conflicts and mistakes, and also confronted what it would mean to black Americans — both the sense of hope and empowerment it offered, and the harsh question of whether they had the right to maintain their utopia by abandoning others in need. Killmonger is certainly the richest, most sympathetic villain the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had since Loki, if not ever, since he had a legitimate viewpoint to offer, even if his methods were too violent. He was right that his people deserved liberation, but wrong to think that just adding more violence and oppression to the world would achieve that. I could tell from very early on that the film was likely to end with T’Challa realizing he needed to open up Wakanda to the world and offer its benefits to others, to make amends for Wakanda’s past through peaceful outreach and support rather than armed conquest. I’m very interested in seeing the answer to the question T’Challa is asked at the end of the mid-credits scene.

The cast was really solid, excellent all around. Michael B. Jordan is a standout as Killmonger, bringing enormous charisma while still being a credible threat. Chadwick Boseman is effective in the lead. Lupita Nyong’o is very good as Nakia, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. (This is the first movie of hers I’ve seen where I could actually see her face.) Letitia Wright (who had a recurring role in Humans season 2 as a troubled schoolgirl pretending to be an android) is lots of fun as Shuri, and I love it how the film just takes it for granted that their resident Tony Stark-meets-Q is a teenage girl. (She has the kind of vast high-tech underground playroom that I dreamed of having as a teenager.) I was impressed by Person of Interest‘s Winston Duke as M’Baku, a character who had to be handled very, very carefully to skirt the offensive implications of his comics counterpart, the villain called “Man-Ape.” He had to start out as a convincing antagonist and then reveal a more admirable side, and he pulled it off well. Martin Freeman did his usual excellent work as Everett Ross, going from a smugly clueless American to a stalwart ally who slipped comfortably into a supporting role, rather than trying to dominate the narrative. (I’ve seen this movie compared to a James Bond film, so I guess that means Ross would be Felix Leiter.) Andy Serkis was unexpectedly impish as Ulysses Klaue, who we initially were led to think was the primary villain but who ended up being secondary to Killmonger. In the comics, Ulysses Klaw was the murderer of T’Challa’s father, but Captain America: Civil War gave T’Chaka a different fate, so that arc was transferred to T’Challa’s friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), motivating him to turn against T’Challa and aid Killmonger. W’Kabi is a minor antagonist, but one who has a well-drawn arc and understandable motivations for doing the wrong thing.

One thing I found a bit distracting was the music, but that’s not really the movie’s fault. Before the movie, the theater showed a trailer for Spielberg’s Ready Player One, scored with a partly orchestral arrangement of the 1984 pop song “Take On Me.” (I don’t know pop music well, but I heard that song constantly on the PA at the UC Bookstore when I worked there.) Then the film came on, and the orchestral theme used for the Black Panther was exactly the same melody as the first six notes of “Take On Me”‘s refrain. So because of the trailer, every time I heard that leitmotif, I was reminded of the song. Otherwise, though, the score by Ludwig Göransson does some fairly interesting things blending African rhythms and styles with conventional orchestral movie scoring.

When I first heard that there’d be a Black Panther movie, I was concerned about how an American-made film would portray Africa, since there have been so many stereotypes and misconceptions about it in past films and TV shows. Some of the Marvel animated TV productions that have depicted Black Panther and Storm (of the X-Men) have been deeply rooted in ignorant stereotypes about Africa, tending to portray it as a single monolithic culture consisting of nothing but thatched-hut villages surrounded by wilderness. The ideal that I hoped for but wasn’t sure we’d get was a film that avoided all those assumptions and cliches, that did the research about modern Africa and portrayed it authentically. And this film essentially did fulfill my hopes. It’s certainly well-researched and rooted in real African culture rather than Western preconceptions, and it satirizes those preconceptions by contrasting them with the reality of Wakanda. Although its tight focus on the fictional nation of Wakanda means that it didn’t necessarily counter preconceptions about what the rest of Africa looks like. It would be nice, in a sequel, to see more exploration of Wakanda’s neighbors on the continent now that it’s not hiding from them anymore. Let’s see some major African metropolises like maybe Lagos, Nigeria, which is one of the largest and fastest-growing cities on Earth.

Still, that’s a minor note. Even if Black Panther doesn’t do all the work itself, its success will hopefully bring more attention to African-American voices and African culture, and perhaps other films can follow in its footsteps. (Pawprints? Sneaker prints?) That’s a change that’s long overdue, and I’m glad to see it starting to happen. Even aside from the importance of equal representation and diversity, it’s just good to have a wider range of ideas and perspectives informing popular culture, making it richer, inviting more people into the tent both as fans and creators. And it’s really satisfying to see an audience really engaged and excited by a movie like the folks around me in the theater yesterday. Black Panther, like Wonder Woman before it, was a movie that needed to knock it out of the park in order to dispel Hollywood preconceptions about what kind of films could succeed. And like Wonder Woman before it, the film met that challenge and surpassed it, and hopefully has opened a door that will never close again.

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BLADE RUNNER 2049 Review (spoilers)

My latest movie that I belatedly got from the library because I was too broke to see it in theaters was Blade Runner 2049, Dennis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi-noir classic. And it’s the second movie in a row that I’m kind of glad I didn’t spend money on. While superficially impressive, it doesn’t have a lot of satisfying substance or really add up to much.

It’s rather odd to see a 2017 movie set in 2049 that’s a sequel to a 1982 movie set in 2019. What was futurism is now alternate history. But the film basically ignores this paradox and evolves the Blade Runner world 30 years in the future through a cursory text crawl at the beginning — a backstory that was explored in a series of online shorts before the film’s release (including a fairly impressive anime segment) but is barely relevant to the film itself. For all the text exposition about the Tyrell replicants being prohibited after a revolution and a resultant technological collapse, there’s little in the film’s 2049 setting that seems like anything other than a direct continuation of the original film’s status quo. Whatever was lost in that revolution and collapse is back in place by the time of the film — replicant slaves are even more ubiquitous and programmed not to rebel, the cyberpunk techno-dystopia looks much the same but with flashier (and more R-rated) holo-ads, despite the presence of wastelands beyond, and so on. So all that background worldbuilding seemed to serve the shorts more than it served the film itself.

Which leaves the film’s own story and characters to generate interest, and I’m afraid it doesn’t do that very well. The film is certainly good to watch — the visuals would have been worth seeing on the big screen, and the tiny text of the captions would’ve been easier to read there (I had to freeze and zoom to read them on my antique TV) — and at first, I liked its slow pace, which made it feel like a film from the era of its predecessor or even earlier (think 2001: A Space Odyssey). But after a while, I started to feel it was often too slow, too overindulgently edited like so many films today are, despite the retro feel it conveyed. It didn’t really need to be 2 hours and 44 minutes long.

But on to the characters. One thing that makes this film distinct is that most of its central characters are explicitly replicants or other AIs. Human characters (other than Rick Deckard, whose true nature is left as ambiguous by this film as it’s been for the past 35 years) are secondary and basically just there to perpetuate the power structure, and the story is centrally about replicants who either support or resist their enslavement. Ryan Gosling (an actor I remember being very bad as the lead in Young Hercules 20 years ago but who’s evidently improved since then) plays Officer K, a nameless replicant who works as a blade runner, assassinating older-model Tyrell replicants that were outlawed after the rebellion. (He’s a newer Wallace-brand replicant, of the supposedly safer kind made by Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace.) Now, this is a plot hole that I didn’t realize until after the film was over. Why are there any Tyrell replicants left? What Batty and the others were fighting for in the original film was life extension beyond their planned termination at 4-5 years of age. And they didn’t get it. So how are there still Tyrell models running around 30 years later? This wasn’t explained, as far as I could tell.

So anyway, K starts out loyal, but he comes upon the lovingly buried bones of a replicant who, according to the autopsy, died in childbirth. A replicant who could reproduce is a game-changer, and K’s lieutenant, inexplicably called “Madam” (Robin Wright), wants him to destroy all evidence of it, while Wallace sees replicant procreation as a holy grail he’s been trying and failing to invent, sending his head hench-replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to find the replicant child. K begins to suspect that he is the child, and goes on a search for the mother, who turns out to be Sean Young’s Rachel from the original film, and that puts him on the trail of Deckard, who doesn’t show up until a couple of hours into the movie. For a while, it seemed that the arc about K’s identity was playing out obviously and predictably, but that turned out to be a red herring, fortunately.

The thing is, none of this is quite as interesting as the conflict in the original film. Blade Runner worked because of the complexity and ambiguity of its characters. It was basically a story about a man gradually realizing he was the villain of the story and his victims were the ones on the right side. (Well, at least in the later edits. The original version’s narration alters the meaning of the climax, which is why I didn’t like the film until I saw a later cut and realized what it was really about.) Here, we have K going through a similar arc, going from a loyal blade runner to a resistor, but it’s basically for more personal reasons. And it’s less interesting as a story because there is no ambiguity to the antagonists. Like, at all. Niander Wallace is a cartoonishly evil eccentric who shows up for 2-3 scenes, a mercifully brief exposure to Leto’s tiresomely affected acting, but hardly very interesting from a character standpoint. (He’s also blind and uses creepy hovering “fish” drones to see, which perpetuates the unfortunate cinematic cliche of equating disability with evil.) And Luv is nothing but a one-note terminator, without anything remotely interesting about her personality or motivations. She’s just programmed to obey and that’s it. Which makes it disappointing when the film’s climax comes down to K fighting Luv over Deckard’s fate in a very small, claustrophobic setting, a single skimmer surrounded by a visual void. It’s an interesting directorial choice to bring the climax in to something so small and intimate after such vast, sprawling vistas, but climaxes that close in to tight character focus are successful when we actually give a damn about the characters, ideally on both sides. The film didn’t really succeed in creating that investment, so we just get a really long fight scene that feels extremely anticlimactic because it’s utterly devoid of any emotional weight or character relevance. Even Deckard doesn’t really get enough character development in the film to become much more than a Macguffin the other characters are fighting over. There’s not much connection between Deckard here and the person he was in the original. He’s just an old guy who has a dog. (When I first saw the rather wooly-looking dog in the shadows, I wondered, “Is that a sheep?”)

It doesn’t help that the other major female character in the film, Joi (Ana de Armas), is nothing but a sex hologram programmed to act like she’s in love with K. There are times when it seems that she and K have a real relationship, but it’s made clear to the audience before too long that Joi is simply a consumer product whose primary advertised feature is that she tells her owners what they want to hear. It’s also easy to guess, since she’s a Wallace product, that the Wallace people are using her projector unit that K carries around in his pocket as a tracker.  It might’ve been a little more interesting if it had turned out, as I expected it to, that Joi was an active spy for Wallace, tracking K’s every move and manipulating him into leading Luv to the child. Instead, it just turned out that they were passively tracking her, and there was a moment when it seemed that she had enough intelligence to want K to avoid tracking, but ultimately her story just fizzled out. I can’t even say she was fridged, since her destruction didn’t really motivate any particular action or decision on K’s part. There’s a bit where K sees a giant nude ad holo of Joi and seems to realize that she was just a toy telling him what he wanted to hear, but why didn’t he know that all along? Or did he know and just convince himself otherwise because he was so lonely? It isn’t really made clear. And the film could really have stood to devote more screen time to female characters who had actual agency and goals of their own, rather than devoting the bulk of its attention to a “character” who was literally nothing more than a nonsentient sex object created to pander to male fantasies. I gather that Villeneuve has said his intent was to comment on society’s objectification of women, but it’s not that much of a commentary if you just do the same thing yourself. And all that aside, it’s just hard to invest emotionally in a major character that is not actually a self-aware being. It’s not as if the other characters have a lot of depth to make up for it.

We do learn, rather late in the game, that there’s a replicant resistance whose primary characters are both female (the old Tyrell-model leader and the sex-worker replicant who gets in close to K), but neither of them gets as much screen time as Joi or Luv. And the resistance plot is just introduced and then doesn’t really go anywhere. Like Wallace’s unresolved quest for replicant procreation, it feels like a sequel hook that’s just left dangling.

I suppose the resistance leader scene does serve the purpose of revealing to K that he isn’t the child after all, that he just has one of the child’s memories, as most Wallace replicants do. And I guess that’s important. We were told at the start that Wallace replicants were programmed to be obedient slaves, incapable of rebellion. That’s why Wallace was permitted to make them after the prohibition of Tyrell replicants. For most of the film, we were led to think that K was able to resist because he was special, because he was the child of Deckard and Rachel and thus not Wallace-made after all. But it turned out that he was just an ordinary Wallace model — yet he was still able to resist his programming and defy his orders. Which means that all replicants are able to do the same. That is kind of a big deal, but it’s left pretty much implicit. I didn’t realize it until afterward. Although it’s the one thing I realized on further reflection that had a positive impact on my reaction to the film rather than a negative one.

Honestly, the whole Macguffin of replicants that can reproduce like humans — or rather, the premise that they’re this amazing rarity — seems implausible. Why is reproduction so hard for Wallace to emulate? If you can create something as incredibly complex as sentient thought, mere cell replication doesn’t seem that difficult in comparison. Other than that, though, if we just stipulate to the premise, I can see why it’s a big deal; for replicants, it means they don’t need human help to reproduce and can be free, while Wallace sees it as a way to expand the size of his slave force and accelerate his business empire’s spread across the stars (something only talked about and never shown — but is implied to have expanded far more than is plausible in just 30 years). But given what the film implies about replicants’ ability to resist, doesn’t that mean that Wallace is doomed to failure anyway? Not because of any hero’s actions, but because he mistakenly wants to give his own slaves the very power that would give them their independence from him? Even if he acted unopposed, he would still ultimately lose through his own actions (although he would kill Deckard and the child in the process). Which is another thing that undermines him as a villain. Ultimately, the main characters’ actions have little impact on anything except the personal. If anything, keeping the reproductive knowledge from Wallace just prolongs replicant enslavement.

All in all, then, Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel that does a reasonably effective job capturing and building on the visual style and feel of the original film and its world, but whose story doesn’t really carry much weight and whose characters are largely ciphers. It’s an impressive surface over weak substance, like far too many modern movies. By itself, it would’ve been an adequate and beautifully made cyber-noir thriller. But it falls well short of being a classic like its predecessor.

PROFESSOR MARSTON and the Blundered Biopic (spoilers)

Last night I finally got around to watching Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, last year’s biopic based on the life story of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston, his wife and collaborator Elizabeth, and their (reputed) polyamorous partner Olive Byrne. I’ve rarely been so disappointed by a biographical film, although it’s not a genre I’m that much into. I was intrigued by the trailers and the early descriptions, and I liked the idea of the smash-hit Wonder Woman movie being accompanied by a movie that explored the life of Wonder Woman’s creators. Unfortunately, though, the movie badly misrepresents the work of the Marstons, both in science and in comics, in a way that shows a gross failure of research and lack of respect for the legacy of the people the film is supposed to be paying tribute to.

Professor Marston focuses mainly on the development of the trio’s polyamorous love story and exploration of bondage and kink, framed by a sequence of Marston defending Wonder Woman to some sort of public morality league, but the love story is often rather maudlin, as the movie spends so much time focusing on the characters wrestling with guilt and shame about their unconventional feelings and interests that it undermines the portrayal of their eventual embrace of those things and of each other, since they keep backtracking with every setback and have a new argument over the morality of what they’re doing. They’re so constantly shown as unhappy and in conflict that it’s often hard to figure out exactly why they’re in love in the first place. Rebecca Hall gives the best performance of the trio as Elizabeth (Luke Evans as William and Bella Heathcote as Olive are okay but unremarkable), but she also has to play the most neurotic and unlikeable character, and I don’t think Elizabeth is well-served by the film for all its effort to highlight her role as William’s partner in his work.

The first half is set in the late 1920s and focuses on the Marstons meeting Olive and gradually, mutually falling in love while working on the invention of what the film exclusively calls a “lie detector.” This is wrong on multiple levels. First, Marston did not invent the polygraph, the device vernacularly known as a “lie detector.” He developed a blood pressure reader that was later integrated into the polygraph by its actual inventor John Augustus Larson, all of which happened well before the time frame shown in the movie. Marston would go on to popularize the idea that the polygraph was useful as a “lie detector,” but that’s about the extent of his connection to it. It’s also a claim that has never been scientifically verified and is basically pseudoscience. In practice, polygraph readings are one factor taken into account by an interviewer who assesses the subject’s reactions over the course of several hours of observation, and are generally just used to support the conclusions the interviewers draw from their own assessment of the subject (which means that interviewer bias can give false results). Yet the movie embraces a cartoonish, cliched portrayal of the “lie detector” as a magic instrument that gives an infallible, instant true/false result for every single question. It’s simplistic and dumb and it lends an absurd quality to the scenes where the Marstons and Byrne use the device on each other to force each other to admit their feelings, even aside from the ethical quagmire of doing such a thing in the course of scientific research.

The early scenes of the trio getting to know each other are okay, but a lot of the dialogue is just big infodumps about the characters’ backstories, notably Olive Byrne being the niece of feminist icon Margaret Sanger. It’s well enough acted out, but it feels clumsy at times.

The film then races through the trio losing their jobs due to the scandal of their relationship and having multiple children together in their new lives while passing Olive off as a friend of the family, then eventually gets into the creation of Wonder Woman about a dozen years after the first half. The film screws this up as badly as the “lie detector” stuff. It shows Marston creating “Suprema the Wonder Woman” entirely on his own, inspired by a bondage getup that Olive puts on during the trio’s hesitant experimentation with the illegal, underground bondage community, then explaining it to the women with a bunch of crude pencil drawings, then taking it to a skeptical M.C. Gaines (publisher of the future DC Comics) and trying to win him over. In reality, Gaines saw an article by Marston about the educational potential of comics, then sought him out and hired him as an educational consultant. Marston wanted to create a kinder, gentler superhero who used the principles of loving submission that he believed in, but it was Elizabeth who suggested making the character female. So having the movie’s William make that decision on his own and try to sell it to a skeptical Elizabeth is robbing Elizabeth of one of her most important legacies. Also, Wonder Woman’s costume was created by Harry G. Peter, the original artist on the Wonder Woman comics. The movie completely excludes Peter from the narrative, and the substitute origin of Olive’s randomly assembled bondage costume is laughably corny, for all that it’s presented as this solemn, magical moment of epiphany. The film takes the established fact that the bracelets Olive often wore were cited by Marston as an inspiration for Wonder Woman’s bullet-deflecting bracelets and exaggerates it to give her credit for the entire ensemble.

Oh, another factual inaccuracy resulting from sloppy research: The frame story has Marston and his interrogator discuss Wonder Woman’s lasso that compels people to tell the truth. In fact, under Marston, the lasso compelled obedience. It was just part of the overall bondage/domination fetish element of the comics. It didn’t really start to become a tool for compelling the truth specifically until the Lynda Carter TV series in the ’70s, and it wasn’t formally redefined as “the Lasso of Truth” until the 1987 George Perez reboot. The idea that “Hey, the guy who ‘invented’ the lie detector also gave Wonder Woman a magic lie detector” is an appealing story to modern audiences, but it’s pure myth. This is typical of the laziness of this movie. It uncritically embraces every bit of present-day pop myth and assumption about Marston and Wonder Woman and lie detectors and the rest and makes no effort to correct any of it.

The film does a decent job acknowledging the broad strokes of William Marston’s beliefs in female superiority and the importance of loving submission, but it fumbles in some ways. When the moral-guardian interrogator complains about the “bondage and violence” in the comics, the film’s William doesn’t refute the characterization, even though it goes straight to one of the most crucial parts of the real Marston’s thinking. The justification he offered for the heavy use of bondage in his Wonder Woman comics was that it was a non-violent way to put characters in peril, a more palatable alternative to the gunplay and fisticuffs in other comics. The film’s frame sequence mentions none of this. And the frame has a laughably melodramatic resolution that feels like a spoof of overly melodramatic biopic climaxes, with his fury at the interrogation triggering a collapse and hospitalization that leads to his eventual death. He died of cancer a couple of years later, but the movie tries to suggest that it was the injustice of how he was treated that somehow killed him. Or something. It’s pretty corny, whatever it is.

Even the “where are they now” text at the end of the film is incredibly sloppy with the truth. It says that Marston died in 1947 and Wonder Woman therefore lost her bondage elements and her powers, until Gloria Steinem complained in the early 1970s and her powers were restored. That’s grossly misleading. Yes, in the wake of Marston’s death, Wonder Woman comics lost both their bondage elements and their feminism, with the writing being taken over by the deeply sexist Robert Kanigher and her stories coming to be focused mainly on Wonder Woman’s romantic life and “imaginary story” adventures with her own younger incarnations Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot. But she still had her superpowers and her costume throughout the 20-plus years of Kanigher’s run on the comic. The revamp in which Diana Prince lost her powers (which I discussed on this blog back in 2013) came in 1968, two decades after Marston’s death, and was actually a revival of the long-lost feminist element of the character, the idea being that it was more empowering to women to show that Diana could still be a great hero even without a supernatural advantage over men.

In short, Professor Marston bears only the most superficial resemblance to the true story it’s based on, taking a few fragments of fact and blatantly ignoring or distorting others in order to construct an essentially fictitious narrative. There’s nothing wrong with a biopic taking some liberties with the facts in order to symbolically get across the essence of who its subjects were and what they achieved. But too many of this film’s liberties are egregiously dishonest or ill-researched and undermine or misrepresent the true achievements and legacy of the people it depicts. Even as a work of fiction, it’s rather unfocused and pretentious, and often feels as if it’s just tossing around known elements of the Marstons’ life (or of the mythology that’s grown up around them, since the film doesn’t care about the distinction) without having any real point to make about them. I suppose it’s trying to tell a story about people who feel unconventional love and struggle toward acceptance of themselves despite society’s condemnation, but the portrayal and resolution of those struggles often seem superficial, and the attempt to juxtapose them with the badly misrepresented details of the Marstons’ professional accomplishments is clumsy and gets in the way of exploring those themes. Everything about the relationship is filtered through “Hey, look, this is the origin of this or that part of the Wonder Woman comics,” so the fact that the portrayal of the comics’ creative process is so sloppy and unconcerned with reality undermines the relationship parts as well. Ultimately, the pieces just don’t fit together. And it’s frustrating that a movie whose main characters are purportedly driven by the lifelong quest for truth and honesty has so much contempt for the truth.

Biographical films often have trouble working as coherent narratives because real life doesn’t work like a story. But Professor Marston and the Wonder Women has such complete disregard for the real facts of its subjects’ lives and work that it has no such excuse for its shortcomings as a work of fiction. It’s a shame, since I really wanted to like this film.

BUCK ROGERS Bonus Review: The 1939 serial (spoilers)

I felt I should wrap up my Buck Rogers survey by watching the original 1939 Buster Crabbe serial, which I got on DVD through interlibrary loan. The serial can be found online, but with the picture stretched out to fit a modern aspect ratio – I’ll never understand how anyone can tolerate watching something that distorted.

The Universal serial was written by Norman S. Hall, Ray Trampe, and Dick Calkins, and directed by Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind. It opens with Lieutenant Buck Rogers (Crabbe, billed as “Larry (Buster) Crabbe”) and his teen sidekick Buddy Wade (loosely based on the comic strip’s Buddy Deering and played by Jackie Moran, who had played Huckleberry Finn in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer the previous year) on a polar expedition in a dirigible that crashes in a blizzard. As a last-ditch measure, the scientist in charge of the expedition orders them over radio to open a canister of his new invention, Nirvano gas, which should induce suspended animation until they can be rescued. But through misfortune, Buck passes out from the gas before he can radio his location, and the dirigible is buried in an avalanche. A montage shows time passing as the years advance onscreen from 1938 to 2450 – not unlike the opening titles of the Gil Gerard series, which was no doubt paying homage.

Buck and Buddy are finally unearthed by a pair of future men who take them to Scientist General Huer, aka Professor Huer, aka Doctor Huer (C. Montague Shaw), who immediately confirms Buck’s story with a history book he just happens to have sitting on his desk, and explains to Buck that, through the “stupidity” of 20th-century men in failing to wipe out crime, the world has now been taken over by “super-racketeers” led by Killer Kane (Anthony Warde). This is highly preferable to the race-war premise of the original Anthony Rogers novellas and the early comic strips, and reflects the era’s preoccupation with organized crime as a leading societal threat (as seen in other serials and radio programs like Gangbusters, The Green Hornet, and Superman). It’s also something of an inversion from the novellas, in which the “gangs” were the good guys.

Kane has been capturing Huer’s men in an attempt to learn the location of the Hidden City, the last bastion of resistance against racketeer rule – probably an inspiration for the Inner City of the 1979 pilot. Huer feels the only hope is to turn to other planets such as Saturn for help, but Kane’s air blockade prevents it. For some reason, nobody in the 25th century has ever considered using decoys to distract Kane’s ships, and for some reason, as soon as Buck suggests it he’s immediately accepted as qualified and entrusted with the mission, even though he’s been awake in the 25th century for mere hours. “Born yesterday” would be an overstatement. But Buck is instantly able to function in the future, even to pilot spaceships with no training whatsoever, and he, Buddy, and Lieutenant Wilma Deering (Constance Moore, the only woman in the serial) set out for Saturn, but they’re intercepted by Kane’s men and both groups are captured by the Saturnians, who are fooled by Kane’s man Captain Laska (Henry Brandon) into believing that Buck’s group are anarchist revolutionaries against the benevolent Kane. Buck’s trio manages to escape back to Earth, and the Saturnian council sends an emissary, Prince Tallen (Philson Ahn, younger brother of Kung Fu’s Philip Ahn), to confirm Kane’s legitimacy before signing the treaty. Though Tallen is called a prince, he introduces himself as just a soldier and is subordinate to the council.

Back on Earth, even though Buck’s one and only mission so far was a complete failure, he somehow manages to get promoted to colonel in time to volunteer to infiltrate Kane’s palace disguised as a guard, along with Buddy. Though he proposed it as a spy mission, he immediately reveals himself to stop Tallen from signing the treaty, then shows Tallen how Kane has brainwashed his captives into robotlike slaves (by putting big metal hats on them that look like the back half of a downward-pointing rocket), whereupon Tallen switches sides and escapes with Buck. Tallen signs the treaty with the Hidden City instead, but the Saturnians don’t have interplanetary radio capability, so Buck and Wilma take Tallen back to Saturn in a rocket, which is able to get past Kane’s blockade courtesy of an invisibility ray that Huer has conveniently just invented. But Captain Laska beats them to Saturn, captures Tallen, and uses a “filament” from one of Kane’s robot helmets to brainwash the “prince” into denouncing Buck and Wilma as enemies. Somehow, the Saturnian “Council of the Wise” lacks the wisdom to notice Laska obviously prompting the passive Tallen to speak. Buck is forced to abduct the prince and flee, but it soon gets sorted out and the treaty is signed. But Laska is able to organize a revolt of the Saturnians’ primitive servants the Zuggs (who were pretty revolting to begin with, ba-dum­-bum) and rather easily conquers the council.

But Buck only needs one chapter to deal with Laska and his coup, and the treaty with Saturn is finalized. So Buck and Wilma return to Earth with a whole fleet of Saturnian ships behind them – no, sorry, they actually just go back alone and tell Prince Tallen that they’ll call him on the space radio once they have a plan for defeating Kane, something they should’ve probably worked out before they came. Plus, Buck already smashed the space radio when he threw it at some Zuggs in the previous episode. You’d think he’d remember that. But never mind story logic, they have to get back to Earth in time for the next cliffhanger, which leads to them being shot down and captured by Kane’s men. Kane touts Buck’s capture as heralding the imminent end of the war, even though the war’s been going on for generations and Buck’s only been part of it for a few days. (Wilma’s been involved much longer, but Kane doesn’t seem to consider her important.)

Kane uses one of his tailfinned “amnesia helmets” to enslave Buck, his hated archnemesis that he’s meeting for literally the second time. All seems lost, as Huer is convinced Buck and Wilma died in the crash. Buddy convinces Huer to use his “Past-O-Scope” (patent pending) to watch a clip from chapter 2 to prove that Kane would want to take them alive. (Yes, even though these movie serials were typically only 12 chapters long, they still tended to do clip-show installments in later episodes to save money. Since the action was pretty repetitive from week to week anyway, it didn’t make that much difference.) When that doesn’t work, Buddy convinces a captain to air-drop him into Kane’s city so he can save Buck. Wilma frees herself and helps Buddy free Buck, which is the only time in the serial she’s really gotten much to do. They steal one of Kane’s ships to go back to the Hidden City, but fail to check it for stowaways, allowing one of Kane’s men to radio the city’s location to Kane so that it’s vulnerable to attack. Nice one, Buck.

This requires calling Saturn for help at once, but they finally figure out that the space radio’s dead, so Buck has to fly there yet again (they built those sets and they’re darn well gonna use them). He and a stowaway Buddy find that Laska’s escaped and taken Prince Tallen hostage offscreen to force the council to submit to Kane’s blackmail. Buck uses a speech about the evil of kidnappers, plus yet another flashback clip, to convince them to stick with their treaty, then helps them free Tallen and stop Laska. Then it’s back to Earth for the big climax, with the Saturnian fleet remaining wholly offscreen while Buck and Buddy take it upon themselves to go to Kane’s stronghold, free the robot slaves, and capture Kane. Back home, Buck and Buddy are promoted (having actually earned it this time) and Buck thanks Tallen for all the unspecified and unseen help without which they supposedly couldn’t have won, and then Buddy attempts a little matchmaking with Buck and Wilma before the final, chaste fadeout.

As ‘30s sci-fi serials go, I guess Buck Rogers is okay, but it doesn’t really make much use of its premise. It borrows some things from the comics, like the aviator caps nearly everyone wears, and the “degravity belts” that let their wearers waft almost weightlessly to the ground (or jump very high, at least in the novellas), though the ones here only function like parachutes to slow a descent. Otherwise it’s mostly Flash Gordon redux. Once Buck arrives in the future, he almost instantly adapts to its technology and culture and shows knowledge of things he never had an opportunity to learn. His 20th-century origin is almost never a plot point, except at the end when he addresses the Saturnians about Earth’s long history of battling kidnappers and felons. And he nearly instantly ends up as the most important person in the war, despite doing very little to earn that position. The ’79 series had a similar problem with Buck swiftly becoming Dr. Huer’s most important operative, but at least it made an effort to justify why Buck’s anachronistic existence made him a uniquely valuable asset, and routinely stressed his differences from the 25th-century humans around him (less so in season 2, but by then he’d had more time to get acclimated). By contrast, the serial writes Buck as a fully assimilated member of 25th-century society from the final minutes of Chapter 1 onward, which makes me wonder why they even bothered with the origin story rather than starting with Buck already established in the future. After all, the comic strip was a decade old when this serial came out, so the young target audience of the serial and the strips would have seen Buck as a well-established hero of the future anyway.

Buster Crabbe is fairly good as Buck, and Montague Shaw’s Huer reminds me somewhat of Tim O’Connor’s version of the character, which is a positive. Otherwise, the actors don’t make much of an impression. Anthony Warde (a perennial henchman in his one and only lead-villain role) doesn’t make a particularly effective nemesis as Kane, and it’s never really clear what makes his forces “super-racketeers” rather than just a standard evil dictatorship. Also, he’s not much of a “Killer,” since he prefers to enslave his enemies with amnesia helmets rather than living up to his epithet.

The retro-future tech has some cool bits, like the teleport booths used to get to and from Huer’s lab, and the radios whose microphones levitate when in use. Although some bits are overthought, like the sliding doors where you have to turn a big wheel on the wall to open the door, then turn another one to close it again once you’ve gone through. The music, supervised by Charles Previn, is the same stock library used in the Flash Gordon serials, adapted mainly from Franz Waxman’s score to The Bride of Frankenstein. The cliffhangers mostly play it fairly straight with the audience, but there’s one case where they cut out the part where the heroes bailed out of the ship before it blew up, and a couple of others where a seemingly massive and fatal explosion of a vehicle turned out to be fairly minor after all, which is kind of a cheat. Although the biggest cheat is when the end of Chapter 9 shows Buddy fleeing from Kane’s forces and being shot down, and then Chapter 10 erases that outright and has him jump to safety before they can even target him.

The serial gets points for casting Korean-American actor Philson Ahn in a heroic, non-stereotyped supporting role for which his ethnicity is a complete non-issue, in stark contrast to the original novellas’ horrific racism. On the other hand, much like season 2 of the TV series, it loses points for marginalizing Wilma Deering and having no other female presence.

A closing request: If you’ve enjoyed this review series and would like to see more in the future, please consider making a donation to my PayPal account using this link or the “Donate” button on the upper right of this page. Every little bit helps. Thank you.

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Second Season Overview (spoilers)

I came into my rewatch of Buck Rogers season 2 hoping it would be an improvement on the harmlessly banal and insubstantial season 1, though I knew it wouldn’t do nearly as well in its treatment of female characters. At first, with “Time of the Hawk,” it looked as though the season would surpass my wildest hopes. Instead, it mostly turned out to be even worse than I remembered it, a dumb show that took itself far too seriously and thus warranted scorn rather than amusement. It lacked some of the first season’s few virtues, most of all its casual, matter-of-fact feminism. Season 2’s treatment of women (“The Dorian Secret” aside) ranged from neglect and near-total exclusion to outright misogyny, and it handled Wilma Deering quite poorly.

Most of all, season 2 suffered from wasted potential. It started out attempting to tell smart science fiction drama driven by character and ideas (even if the SF ideas were rather fanciful), but it quickly abandoned that in favor of gimmick-based action stories as devoid of substance as season 1 but without the humor and inoffensive charm. It introduced a terrific character in Hawk, marvelously played by Thom Christopher, and badly underused and marginalized him much of the time. That’s perhaps my greatest regret – Hawk could’ve been one of the great SFTV characters if he’d been given more to do. There’s also the fact that it set up a premise and never did anything with it. The Searcher was meant to be probing the galaxy for ancient lost colonies of humanity, but the only time it ever found anything like one was on a routine refueling stop and nobody seemed to care. The only times we saw the crew exploring were in “The Guardian,” “The Satyr,” and “The Hand of the Goral,” and none of those really involved the lost-colonies mission statement. Otherwise, most episodes involved either military/diplomatic missions or rescue operations.

And even though the show spent most of its time out in space, it gave a less cohesive sense of the universe it occupied than season 1 did. It couldn’t seem to decide whether there was a Galactic Council, an Alliance, or a Federation, and it had no recurring aliens or antagonists. It was inconsistent on whether the Searcher used “plasma drive,” stargates, or warp drive. It couldn’t even clearly settle on what its lead characters’ shipboard responsibilities were, and the few recurring background crew members (played by Paul Carr, Dennis Haysbert, and Alex Hyde-White in four episodes each) were interchangeable and seemed to change rank and responsibilities from one episode to the next. It seems the characters in the scripts were written with no continuity between them and the actors were just plugged into whatever role needed to be cast.

The lack of new worldbuilding was compounded by a lack of consistency with the old worldbuilding. In a lot of ways, the second season’s universe didn’t quite mesh with the first season. The human culture of the 25th century was no longer as sterile and computerized, no longer as unfamiliar with Buck’s 20th-century ideas and vernacular. The concept that Earth was governed by AIs and that computers and robots created each other was long forgotten. The date of the nuclear holocaust was moved back by a couple of decades, to mere months after Buck left Earth. Granted, these changes were probably made intentionally and for a purpose. I can imagine that John Mantley and the other season 2 producers wanted to humanize the 25th-century characters more, to make them more accessible to the audience rather than distancing them by having them constantly confused by 20th-century culture. Putting humans back in control of AIs rather than the other way around may have also been intended to make the 25th century seem less forbidding. And the retcon of the Holocaust date in “Testimony of a Traitor” was necessary to make the story happen at all. Since the Holocaust is a key part of Buck’s backstory, it’s understandable why the writers would want to tie him to it more directly. Still, the deliberate discontinuities with season 1 would’ve been easier to swallow if season 2’s worldbuilding had been a worthwhile replacement. Season 1’s world may have had its dystopian elements, but it was a recovering dystopia that was starting to become a better place and had its appealing aspects. Season 2’s abandonment of its distinctive elements, without anything substantial to take their place, just made its universe feel more ill-defined.

So what went wrong this time? How did the season start and end so well but turn out so awful in the middle? The articles available on ByYourCommand.net don’t seem to include any season 2 post-mortems, so I can’t be sure. But I suspect it was the same factors that hobbled season 1 – network suits pushing for simple, lowbrow plots because they lacked faith in the intelligence of the science fiction audience, and Gil Gerard rewriting the scripts to make himself more dominant at others’ expense. In this case, though, there’s the added problem that the new producers were a lot more old-fashioned in their gender values – no, let’s not mince words – a lot more misogynistic than the season 1 producers. Even if the season had managed to maintain the quality of “Time of the Hawk,” that problem would’ve remained.

So here are statistics again:

Best episodes: “Time of the Hawk” and “The Dorian Secret” by a very large margin. Both of them are genuinely good SFTV episodes, far superior to anything else in the entire series. Runners-up: “The Hand of the Goral” and “Testimony of a Traitor” are watchable but flawed, and “Journey to Oasis” and “The Guardians” have impressive moments but don’t work overall. Basically, only the first three and last three episodes are at all worthwhile. The quality of the season follows a pretty symmetrical – and very steep – inverted bell curve.

Worst episodes: “The Satyr” by a significant margin. Also “Shgoratchx!” for its misogyny, though otherwise it wouldn’t be that bad. Probably “Mark of the Saurian” in third-last place.

Best guest stars: Both Mark Lenard as Ambassador Duvoe and Len Birman as Admiral Zite were excellent in “Journey to Oasis.” Ramon Bieri gave a strong showing as Commissioner Bergstrom in “Testimony of a Traitor,” and Stuart Nisbet was an effective bully as Rand in “The Dorian Secret.”

Worst guest stars: Tommy Madden was terrible as General Xenos in “Shgoratchx!” David S. Cass, Sr. was pretty bad as the title role in “The Satyr,” though I blame that more on the writing and character concept. I’m tempted to list Felix Silla and Bob Elyea (?) as Odee-X in “Journey to Oasis,” but Silla doesn’t quite count as a guest star.

Best science fiction concept: I’d have to say the Dorians in “The Dorian Secret,” although only as a “soft” sci-fi idea, a bit of cultural worldbuilding that generates some interesting story points and a final twist reminiscent of The Twilight Zone. Otherwise, the closest thing to a decent science-fictional idea is one they cribbed from Isaac Asimov, the use of the Three Laws of Robotics in “Shgoratchx!”

Worst SF concept: Hard to choose. Ancient bird people, mystic healers who can’t heal, removable heads, genetic-experiment space leprechauns, Guardians of cosmic forces, metal-transmuting backward-aging aliens, larval mummy life cycles, satyr viruses, and virtually everything in “Shgoratchx!” Certainly backward-aging aliens are one of my biggest pet peeves, a perennially stupid and nonsensical idea. But I think I’ll give the nod to the satyr virus, both for implausibility and general unpleasantness. Not only is it absurd that an alien virus would happen to turn adult human males into exact duplicates for mythical satyrs, but it also somehow provides them with high-tech energy whips.

Most inspiring moment: Buck’s amazing speech in Hawk’s defense at the climax of “Time of the Hawk.” Easily the best moment in the entire run of the series, if not in Gil Gerard’s entire career.

Most embarrassing moment: The Zeerdonians’ rapey “off-think” assault on Wilma’s clothes in “Shgoratchx!” Once again, the very worst moment of the season is one that diminishes and degrades Wilma.

So that’s my last word on the Gil Gerard Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, but I have one more post to go. Next time, a bonus review of the 1939 Buster Crabbe Buck Rogers serial!

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (S2) Reviews: “Testimony of a Traitor”/”The Dorian Secret” (spoilers)

February 4, 2018 1 comment

“Testimony of a Traitor” is a formula-breaking Very Special Episode by Stephen McPherson. The Searcher is called back to Earth by War Crimes Commissioner Bergstrom (Ramon Bieri), who orders Buck arrested for treason, offering evidence of a recently unearthed videotape (in Beta format!) showing a January 1987 meeting in which traitors within the US military recruit space hero Buck to obtain launch codes from the President so that they can launch a pre-emptive first strike. In the video, Buck is a willing party to their conspiracy, and the Ranger 3 flight is his reward for doing their bidding. The video is hosted by Buck’s never-before-mentioned best friend Peterson (John O’Connell), recording hours after the onset of the nuclear Holocaust on November 22, 1987, six months after Buck was lost in space. This conflicts with the timeline established in “Cosmic Whiz Kid” last season, which dated the Holocaust around 2008-9.

Buck has no memory of any of these events, but his memories of 1987 are somewhat scrambled due to his 500-year freezer burn (even though they never seemed to be before now), so he can’t be sure he isn’t guilty, and the worst part is that his best friend died believing him a traitor. Dr. Goodfellow proposes using the same optical engrammatic imager (or whatever) technology that was used in “The Crystals” to retrieve Laura’s memories, supposedly a foolproof technology for recovering suppressed memory. Oddly, though, instead of performing the procedure in full before they present the case for the defense, they wait to do it until the trial reconvenes, not even knowing whether the evidence will help or hurt their case. Even more oddly, the prosecutor, Bergstrom, conducts the questioning for what’s supposed to be the defense case. As it happens, Buck’s memories seem to confirm his guilt, as he’s shown breaking into a military base to take spy photos of the launch codes. It’s all over but the sentencing.

However, Buck gets vivid memory flashes of Mount Rushmore, a place he doesn’t remember ever visiting – and, conveniently, one of the only surviving pre-Holocaust landmarks. Hawk, convinced that these memories are key to unlocking the truth, helps Buck and Wilma escape to Mt. Rushmore, where a helpful tour guide shows them the presidential bunker installed there in 1986 as a defense against the bombs. It triggers Buck’s memories enough that, when he’s taken back to the Searcher, he’s able to plead for one more OEI session to recover memories from before the January meeting – memories showing that US President (Walter Brooke) personally recruited Buck to infiltrate the conspiracy and identify all its members, having him hypnotically programmed to believe he was a genuine conspirator, then wiping his memory of the whole thing once the conspiracy had been exposed. Peterson hadn’t realized that the videotape of the conspirators’ meeting was recorded by Air Force Intelligence as part of the sting operation to expose the traitors. Buck is innocent, and Bergstrom apologizes for his overzealous prosecution.

This one starts out fairly interesting, but it kind of fizzles out, and it sounds kind of silly now that I re-read my summary. The contrivance of having Buck try to figure out the truth during the trial proceedings is clumsy, and the coincidence of Buck being a key figure in events prior to the Holocaust is implausible, even if it turns out that the plot he exposed was not the actual trigger of the war. Although I suppose that Buck’s participation in intelligence work back in the 20th century fits somewhat with his recruitment by Dr. Huer to do intelligence work on Earth’s behalf after his revival. Otherwise, though, the episode fits poorly with first-season continuity. On top of issues previously mentioned, the return to Earth makes one wonder why Dr. Huer and Dr. Theopolis don’t show up for the treason trial of one of their best agents and best friends. I also feel there’s a missed opportunity – I would’ve liked to see Hawk serve as Buck’s defense counsel, to make an eloquent speech in his defense to repay Buck for his eloquent speech in Hawk’s defense in “Time of the Hawk.”

“The Dorian Secret”: Stephen McPherson returns to write the final episode of the series, with Jack Arnold returning to direct. Since the show was cancelled midseason, it’s merely a routine episode with nothing finale-ish about it. Although, in a lot of ways, it’s one of the least routine episodes of the entire series.

While Buck and Hawk are at a space station evacuating some disaster refugees to the Searcher for resettlement, a masked woman, Asteria (Devon Ericson), is chased through the station by a group of similarly masked soldiers. She loses her mask in the struggle and convinces Buck to let her join the refugees. But once safe aboard the Searcher, she refuses to explain to Buck why she was being chased, and he respects her privacy. He recognizes the pursuers as Dorians, mutants from Cygnius [sic] who have a strict tradition of wearing masks in public and never revealing their faces to one another.

Asteria and the refugees are placed in an airliner-like passenger cabin for the trip, and we’re introduced to the various personalities in the group much like in an airplane disaster movie, while Wilma plays flight attendant (again, keep in mind that she used to be the head of the entire Earth military). There’s even a pregnant woman and her husband in the group. Instead of a disaster, though, the Searcher is caught in a tractor field by a Dorian vessel, whose commander Koldar (Walker Edmiston, a voice artist with numerous Star Trek and Mission: Impossible voiceover roles to his name) insists that Asteria be turned over for the murder of his son. To extort cooperation, he uses a beam that alternately heats and chills the Searcher’s interior to a dangerous degree. Buck and Asimov have no desire to bow to this piracy and terrorism, but the passengers are another matter. A hothead named Rand (Stuart Nisbet), who’s basically Juror #3 from 12 Angry Men, tries to rally the passengers into figuring out which woman among them is the Dorian and turning her over for execution. Other passengers stand up to him, notably the stalwart Saurus (Denny Miller), but as the temperature keeps switching from frigid to sweltering, others begin to be swayed by Rand’s bullying bluster.

Hawk manages to get Asteria away from the group long enough for her to tell her story to Buck: She went to the mountains for a rendezvous with Koldar’s son, only to find him wounded from a fall and teetering on the brink of a ledge, which she failed to save him from falling over. Buck convinces Koldar to let him come aboard to view the Dorians’ evidence against her, which he’s shown by Koldar’s younger son Demeter (William Kirby Cullen). It’s footage from an aerial patrol craft, showing what’s either Asteria pushing Koldar’s son off the cliff or trying and failing to catch him. Demeter’s encouraged response when Buck points out the alternative interpretation makes Buck suspect he knows Asteria’s innocent. But Demeter is too intimidated by his father to stand up to him.

On the Searcher, the passengers begin to panic, and magician Chronos (Eldon Quick) has the idea to use the Dorians’ reflexive aversion to mirrors to out Asteria. Saurus tries and fails to stop them from shoving Asteria through the airlock into the Dorian ship (by a contrived coincidence, that airlock is right in their cabin), and Hawk and Wilma arrive just too late. When Buck is brought to Koldar’s bridge to make his case, he finds Asteria already in custody and about to be sentenced. Buck gambles and makes a big speech convincing Koldar to execute her right there and then, hoping to goad Demeter into speaking out. The passengers on Searcher are also watching and are shocked by what they’ve done. At the last moment, Demeter confesses that he’s responsible for his brother’s death; it was an argument between them that caused the injury that later killed him, and Demeter might have realized his injured brother was still alive and gotten him help if not for his people’s custom of wearing masks. He rips off his mask and storms off, and Koldar begins to wonder if it’s time to reassess their custom. Buck asks just what secret the Dorians are hiding under the masks, and the answer is a final, Twilight Zone-y twist that I won’t spoil. Back on the ship, Rand is still convinced he was right, and Buck gives the passengers a speech about learning from the past and not repeating its mistakes on their new planet.

Why keep that final twist secret when I’ve spoiled the endings of earlier episodes? Because I don’t want to encourage anyone to watch those episodes, but this one is another matter. This is easily the best episode since “Time of the Hawk,” a tense, dramatic story driven by ethical debate and commentary on human foibles, and giving Gil Gerard and a number of character actors a chance to make big, theatrical speeches. It also features worldbuilding about an alien society based on something less silly than mummies or satyrs or cosmic guardians or removable heads, although the surprise twist of the true nature of the Dorians’ “mutation” raises a ton of questions. It’s even a bit of a callback to the first season’s concepts, specifically the masked mutant Varek in “The Plot to Kill a City.” Also, while Wilma isn’t given that much to do, “The Dorian Secret” is the only episode this season with more than two significant female guest characters, since there need to be multiple women among the refugees to create doubt about which one is the Dorian. In addition to Asteria, there’s the pregnant woman, a stubborn blond woman who talks back to Rand, and a pair of women traveling together and showing affection for each other – perhaps they’re meant to be sisters or friends, but to modern eyes they look a lot like a lesbian couple, which would be a hell of a thing to slip under the radar in 1981.

Perhaps it’s a good thing the series ended with this episode, allowing a mostly very weak season to end on almost as high a note as where it began. On the other hand, the strength of the last two or three episodes might mean the show was starting to find itself again and would’ve continued to improve. For better or worse, we’ll never know.

Next time, my season overview!