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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
05/20/05 -- Vol. 23, No. 47 (Whole Number 1283)
Table of Contents
Travel at (Close to) the Speed of Light:
Travel through Tuebingen at the speed of light at http://www.spacetimetravel.org/tuebingen/tue0.html.
Cars (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was involved in a dinner conversation that got around to sports cars. Expensive ones. Someone noticed that I was not saying anything. I drive a Toyota Corolla. I know nothing about expensive cars. It occurred to me to ask myself why I drive a Corolla. I guess it expresses who I am. [-mrl]
A Time of Endings: Star Trek (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Well, last week an era came to an end when the last episode of "Star Trek" was broadcast. I suppose it is time to think about my take on the series. I remember when nobody had heard about "Star Trek" and TV GUIDE had on their television news page that there would be a new program that would be a sort of "Wagon Train to the Stars." Remembering "Wagon Train", I guess they thought it would be human-interest stories that took place in space. I was into rip-roaring space opera at the time, but human-interest stories would be okay also, I thought. I remember the first episode was about the very human problem of how could humans combat a salt vampire. I thought I coudl live with that. I judge the series as not as interesting as "The Twilight Zone" or "The Outer Limits", but it was worth watching and probably the high-point of my week. I remained ambivalent toward the series and its spin-offs its whole life.
"Star Trek" was sort of the McDonalds of science fiction. It wasn't the best, it wasn't the worst, and lots of people had experienced it. I never loved an episode of "Star Trek", but there were enough good episodes that I kept coming back. The series brought a lot of people to science fiction. Back in the mid-1970s, active fan Cy Chauvin told Evelyn that she was the only female science fiction fan he knew that did not get interested in science fiction by watching "Star Trek". "Star Trek" was a very strong influence in the field. I am firmly convinced that "Babylon 5" was a better series, but that it was by borrowing what was good about "Star Trek" and by noticing what was bad about "Star Trek" and by making sure they did not make the same mistakes.
What were the mistakes of "Star Trek"? First, there was the infamous "reset button." It is generally easier to sell a television series to syndication if the episodes can be seen re-arranged in any order. The local station just gets a bunch of episodes and shows them however they happen to fall. The problem is continuity. The producer has to be certain that nothing permanent happens in an episode. This was fine with the Lone Ranger, since he fought a different villain each week. It does not matter if you know the Lone Ranger is going to win. That did not work so well with hour-long "Star Trek" episodes. It robbed the stories of dramatic tension knowing nothing important could happen in a given episode. You always knew the Enterprise would win its conflicts. Is Jean-Luc Picard really a Romulan agent in disguise? You knew without seeing the episode that the answer would be "no". So why bother watching? Fans started talking about how at the end of an episode the writer hit the "reset button," and things went back to what they were at the beginning. It took the producers way too long to understand the importance of a story arc in which something happened each week to keep people tuning in each week.
A related idea was the problem that the Enterprise was invincible. It won every fight. Finally the producers realized what was going wrong and invented the Borg. They were a stupid visual design for an alien--they were as ugly as a fresh car crash--and their cubic ships were just as bad. But the idea was to show the Enterprise crew that there was a race out there that could easily pound the ship and its crew to a fine paste and serve it on Ritz Crackers. This was a great idea. It added danger to the universe that we had not seen since the earliest episodes. This was exciting stuff. Then they mortgaged what they had by staging a rematch and showed that once they got their bearings, the Enterprise could beat even the Borg. Oh, boy! The "Star Trek" universe was again safe and secure and totally lacking in dramatic tension. The ultimate death of the good idea was when they turned a Borg into a sexy babe in a skin-tight costume. That worked so well they gave Vulcans the same treatment, making a Vulcan a sexy babe in a skin-tight costume. Finally you have Vulcans and humans getting it on together in revealing shower scenes. I am happy to say that it should at least be clear to anyone that the flagging ratings of "Star Trek" does not necessarily correlate to a lessening of interest in science fiction. The writing just got horribly mediocre.
The characters in the original series were people with character flaws who did not always get along. They sometimes needled each other. As the series of series progressed the personalities of the characters became more and more sketchy. The commander was nearlyalways a pile of virtues in human form. No alcoholics. No drug users. Nobody who was tight with money. Nobody with prejudice. After the first couple of series I seem to remember the actors were all white or approved affirmative action minorities or fictional aliens. Were there any Slavs? Spaniards? Italians? Native Americans? Asian Indians? Koreans? Jews? Muslims? Buddhists? None that come to mind for me. Well, I guess there was nobody of any existing religion at all. I don't remember a whole lot of actors who were not Chinese, maybe Japanese, black, or white. I don't remember a whole lot of characters who were not Chinese, maybe Japanese, black, or white people, possibly with plastic appliances on their faces. They had a reputation for being inclusive that really only the first series met in any meaningful way giving the years each series was broadcast.
But through it all, there was a sort of optimism of the series. And that is what I think was admirable. There was a feeling that we would get past our current problems and move on to brave new problems. Yes, there would always be problems, just as there had always been. But the message was that the human species was a survivor. It had a message that humanity would not be stopped and that we would reach the stars. We have to work for it, but eventually we will be travelling at high warp speeds and passing stars like mile markers. And that thought is the true legacy of "Star Trek". It is that I will miss. [-mrl]
STAR WARS: EPISODE III - REVENGE OF THE SITH (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The last "Star Wars" film bursts on the screen in an explosion of high melodrama. The final piece of the story falls smoothly into place as the origins of the 1977 film we saw become clear. As the episodes go, Chapter III seen this year is second only to the impact of Chapter IV as seen from 1977. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
The three worst things about STAR WARS: EPISODE III - REVENGE OF THE SITH are: 1) George Lucas cannot get a good performance from anybody. He has some good actors and the best that can be said is the acting does not get in the way of the story. For example, Samuel L. Jackson should be embarrassed by how bad Lucas let his performance be. 2) The crack Imperial Troopers seem to be useless for any known tactical purpose, as usual. 3) The John Williams has written a pretty good score. (Sorry, I know that was not a negative. I am fresh out of negatives.) This is the best sequel (or prequel, or follow-up, or whatever) of the whole "Star Wars" series.
What is interesting is that everybody has known the basic plot of STAR WARS: EPISODE III - REVENGE OF THE SITH for years. Yet somehow it is hypnotic and at the same time satisfying just seeing it happen. You say to yourself, "Oh, so this is why Anakin is turned to the dark side of the Force. Ah, that explains why Leia's last name is Organa." All (or nearly all) the fiddley little loose ends are tied up. Yet nothing seems forced like the title of the new THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is. REVENGE OF THE SITH is the logical successor to ATTACK OF THE CLONES and the logical predecessor to A NEW HOPE. The only difference is that it is more visually spectacular than either. This is the dramatic highpoint of the entire series. One leaves the theater wanting to see it again, or perhaps to go home and watch STAR WARS: EPISODE IV again. And scenes we have been seeing for 28 years--Jeez, is it really that long?--now look different and have deeper meaning.
This is the story of how Anakin Skywalker, a loyal Jedi Knight, becomes disenchanted with the Jedi Order and falls under the influence of the Dark Sith Lords. It is the story of how he gets the new name of Darth Vader and how he is nearly killed in a volcano and ends up in the walking iron lung that is his famous suit. We see that he is not so much disloyal to the Jedis (or in Chapter VI to the Sith), but always placing his family and friends above his responsibilities. It fits very nicely with Chapter V where his son does the same. Sure, it is all melodrama, but it is great melodrama. Lucas borrows from the best. There is something of Milton's Lucifer in Anakin's choosing the power of the Sith rather than a subservient role in the Jedi. There is also some Dickensian license in Lucas giving villains names like Sidious and General Grievous.
In an opera, if you do not like the story there is always the music. Here, there are always the visuals to see. This film is a sketchpad of intriguing ideas brought to life. We have throwaway ideas like a spaceport made from the ribcage of what must have been a creature of Godzilla proportions. We finally get to visit the Wookie home planet which we were originally to see in the 1983 film. We see a world of advanced technology based on animal life. Sometimes the film goes overboard. Lucas can put more images on the screen than the mind can take in. The opening sequence battle scenes may have just such a problem. Lucas apparently thinks that while less can be more, much more is always much more. The climactic duel inside a volcano is the most spectacular martial arts sequence in memory.
There have been some complaints that this is the only "Star Wars" movie to receive a rating higher than PG. This chapter gets a PG-13. This is a darker film and the fans have known for a long while sooner or later Lucas had to show Darth Vader getting the injuries that would force him to wear the support suit. That is not the stuff that young children might want to see.
In years to come George Lucas's farewell to his STAR WARS series may be considered his finest entry. It is true, however, that the impact of this film at the time of its release cannot be as great as the impact that the original film had in 1977. Still, it exceeds all expectations. I rate STAR WARS: EPISODE III - REVENGE OF THE SITH a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10. Thanks, Mr. Lucas. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Kazuo Ishiguro's NEVER LET ME GO (ISBN 1-4000-4339-5) is a science fiction novel (and an alternate history novel), but is not going to be found in the science fiction section of your bookstore or library. (I say it's alternate history because it takes place in the late 1990s and we find out that the technology diverges from our world's some time in the 1950s, but its alternate history content is minimal, and it could just as easily have been set in the near future.) Ishiguro doesn't reveal this technology or his premise until well into the book, but by now most reviewers have talked about it. If you want no spoilers, stop now. Okay, if you're still reading, here goes. Ishiguro posits a sub-class of donors (and carers) who are actually clones raised for the purpose of donating organs. Ishiguro seems to understand cloning, and also knows all the *mis*-understandings that the public seems to have. He uses the first to construct his characters, and the second to construct the public policy that drives the world these characters live in. As a science fiction book, this is remarkably spare in its technological details, spending its time looking at the social effects of technological advances. And so it is perhaps a purer science fiction novel than many which have a lot of technology, but very little about the effects of that technology. "A story which could not have taken place without the scientific content." Yep, that about describes it.
There are, of course, parallels to slavery and other oppressions which attempt to justify themselves by making their victims less than human. But those arguments no longer carry as much weight with the population as a whole, at least as literally taken, while Ishiguro's premise (alas) does. And Ishiguro presents a solution to this, when the main character accuses another, saying, "[Marie-Claude] never liked us. She's always been afraid of us. In the way people are afraid of spiders and things." To which another character replies, "Marie-Claude has given *everything* for you. She has worked and worked and worked. Make no mistake about it, my child. Marie-Claude is on your side and will always be on your side. Is she afraid of you? We're *all* afraid of you. I myself had to fight back my dread of you almost every day I was at Hailsham. There were times I would look down at you all from my study window and I'd feel such revulsion . . . . But I was determined not to let such feelings stop me doing what was right. I fought those feelings and I won." This, it seems to me, is the ultimate answer to prejudice, the bridge between the generation that can feel such revulsion and future generations that do not.
Dave Elliott's A FIELD GUIDE TO MONSTERS purports to be a serious book about monsters, in the style of field guides to poisonous snakes or mushrooms. It looked like it could be a humorous tongue-in-cheek book, but was so riddled with errors that I found it more annoying than humorous. For example, the location indicated on the map for the Amazon habitat of the Creature from the Black Lagoon is nowhere near the Amazon; the shark in JAWS was not a "mutated fish, lizard, or dinosaur"; sharks appeared as monsters in films before 1976; the Loch Ness Monster appeared first in THE SECRET OF THE LOCH in 1934, years before the 1996 film LOCH NESS Elliott gives as it first appearance; and Tyrannosaurus rex appeared pre-dates Elliott's citation of the 1996 JURASSIC PARK by over sixty years, having appeared in the 1933 KING KONG. And I only got as far as page 47. Not recommended.
Non-book note: I just saw "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" (from THE TWILIGHT ZONE). It's really sad that this doesn't seem at all dated. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: You need only reflect that one of the best ways to get yourself a reputation as a dangerous citizen these days is to go about repeating the very phrases which our founding fathers used in the struggle for independence. -- Charles Austin Beard, historian
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