Star Trek Ship and Crew Idea: USS Providence

Regular readers may remember a post I did last September, where I shared some ideas I had not only for the casts of TNG, DS9, and Voyager, but I also threw in a movie plot. In addition to familiar characters, it involved new crew members on two ships — USS Titan and USS Destiny. So, you shouldn’t be surprised that over the years I’ve also come up with ideas for other ships and crews. Of course, lots of fans do this, especially those who write fan-fiction or, more often, play Star Trek Online and other games. But, I don’t do either, so this is my only outlet for such ideas. So…

This week, I decided to share the ship/crew that I’ve developed the most. As before, the timeframe is the Earth year 2380s….

USS Providence
— Note: I originally envisioned this as a Nebula-class ship. But, I eventually realized that a ship of that size probably wouldn’t have room for anything like Ten Forward. So, if I wanted to keep my bartender, Farlin, I needed a bigger ship. I decided to go with something familiar, the Galaxy-class, which we know has the requisite recreational lounge area. It is also typically used for primarily exploratory & diplomatic missions, while still having in impressive array of offensive and defensive weaponry. Perfect.

Captain Nicodemus ‘Nico’ Chavez (Human male)
— of Spanish descent; 6′, 175 lbs, 41 std years
— married (w/o children), but his wife Michonne is a botanist assigned to the scientific research vessel USS Linnaeus
— very no-nonsense style while on-duty, but likes to play games & sports and joke around when off-duty
— comes from long line of Starfleet officers, of which he is quite proud
— this is his 4th ship assignment, 2nd as Captain (1st captaincy was on the Miranda-class USS Farrell, a scientific research vessel, on which his wife was also assigned; prior to that, they met and were married at the Ghellmer Science Institute on Betazed, where he was Chief of Security)

First/Executive Officer, Commander Venda ke’Prell (Orion female)
— 5’9.5″, 140 lbs, 32 std years
— escaped slavery at 17 (killing her brutal owner, though she rarely talks of this), worked odd jobs for 3 years and educated herself, applied/accepted to Starfleet Academy
— excelled in Communications and earned Sato-Uhura Award for Excellence as Lt. j.g. while assigned to DS6
— occasionally has nightmares & flashbacks about her youth as a slave which can be quite unnerving, but she is otherwise normal, somewhat reserved but well-liked among officers & crew
— this is her 3rd ship assignment but 1st as Commander & F.O.

Science Officer, Lt. Thaksin Chiang (Human male)
— of Thai descent; 5’9″, 160 lbs, 28 std years
— son of Federation Ambassadors Nahkon & Mei-Lo Chiang
— mathematical prodigy who also expertly plays 8 musical instruments, including Vulcan harp
— has a somewhat sarcastic tongue, though never nasty
— good friends w/ Farlin and Chag, and collectively they are referred to by others as the “Three Musketeers”

Chief Medical Officer, (Lt. Commander) Dr. Bazil Tamm (Trill male)
— 5’11”, 170 lbs
— Bazil is 35 std years old and 4th host to symbiont Tamm, who is 200+ std years (exact same birthday as Counselor Shellen)
— has been good friends with Shellen for half Tamm’s life
— very calming and compassionate demeanor
— specializes in epidemiology and gene research

Chief of Security/Tactical Officer, Lt. Commander Tresh (Andorian male)
— 6’1″, 170 lbs, 45 std years
— slim but strong, quick, and a master of several hand-weapons & martial arts; in fact, only Gralk has ever beat him in a match, but not often
— strict w/ his subordinates, but not harsh; normally cool-tempered
— enjoys 20th century Earth vids

Ship’s Counselor, Lt. Commander Val Shellen (El-Aurian male)
— 5’10”, 170 lbs, 200+ std years old (but looks 40-ish)
— exact same birthday as the Tamm symbiont, whom he has been good friends with for half their lives
— widowed and has one adult child, with whom he is estranged
— feels guilty over the circumstances of his wife’s death (he was among those rescued from the SS Lakul by the Enterprise-B in 2293, but she died there)
— used to run a private medical practice on Auria Prime before the planet’s destruction by the Borg, then spent a few decades as a professor and researcher before joining Starfleet in 2368 (i.e., roughly 12 years prior to being assigned to the Providence)

Communications Officer, Lt. Sithik Nerriss (Hrithi male)
— 6’2″, 195 lbs, 22 std years
— his race is reptilian humanoid, with leathery, dark-greenish skin; 4ft, tapering tail; slitted eyes w/ nictitating membrane; superhuman strength, reflexes, & sense of smell
— member of noble family on Hrith and first to serve offworld
— tries to downplay his family’s status on their homeworld and sometimes overcompensates in friendliness, agreeableness, & eagerness to please superiors
— picks up knowledge & skills quickly and was recommended for the position by Lt. Com. Tresh, with whom he had worked on Deep Space 11 during his first assignment (as an ensign)
— Note: Hrithi mature faster than most humanoid species, and he graduated Starfleet Academy at 18 std years

Chief Engineer, Lt. Chag (Ferengi male)
— 5’2.5″, 150 lbs, 43 std years
— joined Starfleet at age 35, for reasons yet to be revealed; previously served on Ferengi transports and marauders
— very resourceful, reminiscent of Rom
— often pretends to be more annoyed/irritable than he really is
— has an unusual fondness for “hoo-mons”, and his personal hero is Montgomery Scott
— is an amateur historian of advances in physics & engineering on various worlds
— Farlin and Chiang keep trying to get him to take up a musical instrument, but he doesn’t have the patience for it

Astrogator, Lt. Sandra Whitestone (Human female)
— of British descent; 5’8″, 135 lbs, 27 std years
— quite attractive but rather “bookish”, hard to get to know, and uncomfortable in social situations
— has a twin brother who teaches Earth Literature at a major university on Alpha Centauri IV
— in addition to scientific journals and technical papers, she reads fiction voraciously and is particularly fond of Earth’s 18th & 19th century romantic novels (which her brother teases her about incessantly but good-naturedly)

Helmsman, Lt. Ramon Calabrese (Human male)
— of Italian descent (1/8 Sicilian); 6’3″, 175 lbs, 29 std years
— a stereotypical Latin “ladies’ man”, very charming and romantic but somewhat shallow
— alternately teases and flirts with Lt. Whitestone, who never responds to his advances
— very talented pilot, despite his somewhat cavalier manner
— quite the “card shark”

Transporter Chief, Lt. j.g. Sana Shrinivisthani (Human female)
— of Pakistani/British descent; 5’4″, 125 lbs, 26 std years
— comes from a well-to-do family on Alpha Centauri IV (her mother is the Federation ambassador and her father a wealthy shipping tycoon) and was rather spoiled before being sent against her will to Starfleet Academy
— her favorite rotation was in astro-cartography, and she spends a lot of free time studying the charts and talking with those currently assigned to the A-C lab

Chief Recreational Officer (civilian or non-com?), Gralk (Klingon male)
— 6’8″, 320 lbs, 37 std years
— NOT surly, belligerent, or condescending to non-Klingons
— enjoys studying other cultures, especially their games, sports, & martial arts
— muscular and skilled in martial arts, but often relies too much on his size in combat
— a quick wit, deep voice, and hearty laugh
— certainly not your typical Klingon, but a person of great honor & integrity nonetheless

Bartender (civilian), Farlin (Bolian male)
— 5’7″, 350+ lbs, 43 std years
— uses antigrav mobile-chair to get around and hand-extensions to reach things
— quite jovial & optimistic, despite his physical hardship
— has a degree in music, plays several instruments, tutors children part-time, and enjoys discovering new musical styles/traditions from different worlds

Advertisements

Supervillain Sentencing and the Eighth Amendment

A couple weeks ago, I cited some material from the book The Law of Superheroes by lawyers James Daily and Ryan Davidson. This week, I have reproduced another section on a subject I’ve been thinking a bit about lately, especially the part about supervillain prisons.

On the “Supergirl” TV show, the DEO keeps various alien criminals — escapees from the crashed Kryptonian prison — that they have recaptured. As a government agency, presumably they have some legal basis for this. But, the heroes on “The Flash” have no governmental authority (as far as I can tell), yet they imprison captured supervillains — and keep them in very small cells. On “Arrow”, Oliver Queen doesn’t take many prisoners, but he has been known to keep one or two (e.g., Deathstroke) in a secret, underground cell on the island of Lian Yu. (Though, that may have been in association with A.R.G.U.S.) It makes me wonder if any of the villains/criminals’ right have been violated. (Not that I have much sympathy for them.)

What if the state attempted to imprison an immortal supervillain for life? Or tried to execute a nigh-invulnerable supervillain? And what about special supervillain prisons? Finally, could a supervillain’s powers be forcibly removed? Besides the practical problems involved with imprisoning an immortal, all-powerful villain like, say, Galactus, there are also constitutional issues to consider. The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” In the examples above, how would the courts rule?

Immortal Supervillains and Life Imprisonment

Life imprisonment appears to have emerged in the nineteenth century as an alternative to the death penalty. The Supreme Court formally recognized it as constitutional in 1974.*1* For most people, a sentence of life without parole is really just a sentence of a few decades. The issue is not limited simply to life without parole, either; courts can and do hand down consecutive life sentences. A defendant convicted of multiple serious crimes that do not reach the level in which life without parole is permitted may still be sentenced to enough prison time to guarantee that he’ll never be released, e.g., six twenty-year terms to be served consecutively. He’d have to come up for and be paroled for each one in turn, which amounts to a life sentence.

But what about an immortal (or at least very long-lived) supervillain like Apocalypse? Even a very young man who gets life without parole will rarely see more than five decades in prison. Which is bad, but it’s an entirely different kettle of fish from seeing fifty decades or five hundred decades. Is this cruel and unusual punishment?

It may very well be, especially given the ongoing debate about the practice of incarceration in general. There have been cases in which judges have ordered the release of large numbers of convicts due to prison conditions, especially overcrowding.*2* But that aside, it seems plausible that the Supreme Court might well rule that imprisoning someone for centuries, in addition to being completely impractical and phenomenally expensive, is crueler than simply killing him or her. Thus, if capital punishment is unavailable as an alternative to an eternity in prison, whether because no capital crime was committed or because the jurisdiction does not allow capital punishment, then a very long but finite sentence — or at least the possibility of parole — may be constitutionally required.

Nigh-Invulnerable Characters and the Death Penalty

While many superpowered characters are tough, most can be killed through conventional means when it comes right down to it. However, others may either be unkillable (e.g., Doomsday, Dr. Manhattan) or extremely difficult to kill (e.g., Wolverine). In the case of a character with a healing factor like Wolverine’s, none of the most common modern methods of execution would work: shooting, hanging, lethal injection, electrocution, or the gas chamber. Decapitation might work (Xavier Protocol Code 0-2-1 mentions this as a possibility for Wolverine), but no one’s tried it.

This uncertainty is problematic, because while the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty and has never specifically invalidated a method of punishment on the grounds that it was cruel and unusual,*3* it has stated “[p]unishments are cruel when they involve torture or a lingering death.”*4* Decapitation has been specifically cited as a form of execution that is likely unconstitutional for being too painful.*5* Another hypothetical example is “a series of abortive attempts at electrocution,” which would present an “objectively intolerable risk of harm.”*6* Since we don’t know if a given method of execution would actually work for a regenerating or nigh-invulnerable supervillain, trial and error would be the only way to determine an effective method. Since regenerating characters are often unaffected by drugs, it may not be possible to mitigate pain. It seems likely, then, that the courts would rule that trying to carry out the death penalty would be unconstitutional for those who are unkillable or almost unkillable.

Interior shot of Negative Zone prison

Supervillain Prisons

Many supervillains could easily break out of a normal prison, so many comic books have developed special methods of incarceration to handle people who can fly or walk through walls. One example is the Marvel Universe’s Negative Zone, which housed a prison during the Marvel Civil War. Although conditions at the Negative Zone prison were similar to a normal prison, the Zone itself seemed to negatively affect some people’s emotions and mental health. Is it cruel and unusual to imprison people in such a place?

In short, probably not. Even regular prisons are seriously depressing, so it’s already going to be difficult to prove that a prison in the Negative Zone is worse enough to be considered cruel or unusual punishment. As the Supreme Court has said:

“The unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain… constitutes cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Eighth Amendment. We have said that among unnecessary and wanton inflictions of pain are those that are totally without penological justification. In making this determination in the context of prison conditions, we must ascertain whether the officials involved acted with deliberate indifference to the inmates’ health or safety.”*7*

Furthermore, to be “sufficiently serious” to constitute cruel and unusual punishment, “a prison official’s act or omission must result in the denial of the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities.”*8* Minimal is the right word; prison officials “must provide humane conditions of confinement; prison officials must ensure that inmates receive adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, and must take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates.”*9* This is a very low bar.

The emotional effects of the Negative Zone are not really part of the punishment but rather a side effect of the place. Because the Negative Zone is the only suitable prison for many supervillains, the side effect is arguably necessary. Further, the side effects are not controlled or intentionally inflicted by anyone. Thus, the effects are not inflicted wantonly (i.e., deliberately and unprovoked). Offering the inmates adequate living conditions and mental health care to offset the effects of the Negative Zone could probably eliminate a charge of deliberate indifference. Finally, it would be difficult to argue that imprisonment in the Negative Zone denies the minimum civilized measure of life’s necessities. “The Constitution does not mandate comfortable prisons,” as the Farmer court noted,*10* only humane ones, and the Negative Zone is probably not bad enough to run afoul of the Eighth Amendment under the circumstances.

Forcible Removal of Superpowers

The DC supervillain Timothy Karnes had the power to transform into a demonic superbeing (Sabbac) by uttering a word of power. After being caught by Captain Marvel and transformed back into his human form, Karnes’s larynx was surgically removed in order to prevent him from turning back into Sabbac. Is this cruel and unusual?

A real-world parallel is chemical castration, where convicted sex offenders, usually pedophiles, are treated with a hormonal drug routinely used as a contraceptive in women. While it has four side effects in women, in men the drug results in a massively reduced sex drive.

Sabbac (Timothy Karnes version)

About a dozen states use chemical castration in at least some cases, and there does not appear to have been a successful challenge on constitutional grounds. This may in part be due to the fact that a significant percentage of the offenders who are given the treatment volunteer for it, as it offers a way of controlling their urges. If the person being sentenced does not object, it’s hard for anyone else to come up with standing for a lawsuit.*11* Either way, despite health and civil rights concerns, this appears to be a viable sentence in the United States legal system.

But is should not be hard to see that physically and permanently removing someone’s ability to speak is not exactly the same as putting a reversible (or even permanent) chemical damper on their sex drive. It’s entirely possible to live an otherwise normal life with a low sex drive, but being mute interferes with essential daily activities in a far more intrusive way. So while the idea of physical modification to the human body is not unconstitutional on its face, it remains to be seen whether this degree of modification would be permitted. For example, while chemical castration appears to be constitutional, it’s pretty likely that physical castration would not be. We can only say “pretty likely” because Buck v. Bell, a 1927 Supreme Court case that upheld (eight to one!) a Virginia statute instituting compulsory sterilization of “mental defectives,” has never been expressly overturned, and tens of thousands of compulsory sterilizations occurred in the United States after Buck, most recently in 1981.*12*

On the other hand, Karnes isn’t your run-of-the-mill offender. He’s possessed by six demonic entities and capable of wreaking an immense amount of destruction. Part of the analysis in determining whether or not a punishment is cruel and unusual is whether or not the punishment is grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime.*13* This is, in part, why the Supreme Court has outlawed the death penalty for rape cases. If the crime as such doesn’t leave anyone dead, execution seems to be a disproportionate response.*14*

The Eighth Amendment also prohibits “the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain,” including those “totally without penological justification.”*15* Here, though, there is a clear penological justification, namely the prevention of future crimes, and the laryngectomy, a routine medical procedure frequently used in those suffering from throat cancer, could be carried out in a humane manner without the infliction of unnecessary pain.

There are other criteria by which a punishment is judged, including whether it accords with human dignity and whether it is shocking or contrary to fundamental fairness. But in a case like this, necessity goes a long way, especially because the purpose of the operation is not retributive punishment but rather incapacitation. If the only way to prevent Karnes from assuming his demonic form is to render him mute, then it’s possible that the courts would go along with that, particularly if it proved impossible to contain him otherwise and the operation was carried out in a humane manner.

However, what if taking away someone’s powers could be done with no other side effects? In X-Men: The Last Stand and various stories in the comic books, someone develops a “cure” for mutation, which removes or mitigates a mutant’s powers without really affecting them in any other way. This is far more like the chemical castration situation, but unlike that, a “cure” wouldn’t even remove any functions a normal human has. It’s very unlikely that a court would recognize this as being unconstitutionally inhumane, provided their offense was serious enough to justify this rather harsh sentence.


*1* Schick v. Reed, 419 U.S. 256 (1974) (holding that reversing the Presidential pardon which reduced a death sentence to life without parole would be unconstitutional).

*2* See, e.g., Brown v. Plata, 131 S. Ct. 19190 (2011).

*3* See Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35, 48 (2008) (“This Court has never invalidated a State’s chosen procedure for carrying out a sentence of death as the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment.”)

*4* Id. at 46.

*5* Id.

*6* Id.

*7* Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 737-38 (2002) (holding that handcuffing an inmate to a hitching post outdoors for several hours with inadequate water and restroom breaks violated the Eighth Amendment) (quotations and citations omitted).

*8* Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994).

*9* Id. at 833.

*10* Id.

*11* “Standing” is essentially having the right status to bring a lawsuit. Under Article III of the Constitution, courts only have jurisdiction over “cases and controversies,” and the Supreme Court has interpreted this to mean that the plaintiff has to have suffered some kind of actual injury. So a person can bring a lawsuit on the basis of injury to himself, but generally lacks “standing” to bring a lawsuit on the basis of injuries to someone else. The injured person has to do it. In this case, the mutant being sentenced would have to bring the lawsuit on his own behalf, so if he consents to the procedure, no one else is going to be sufficiently injured to have “standing.”

*12* Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927); Paul A. Lombardo, Three Generation, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell (2008) (documenting the history of compulsory sterilization in the United States); Eugenics Victims to Get Apology, Eugene Register-Guard, Nov. 16, 2002, at 2B (noting that sterilizations occurred in Oregon through 1981).

*13* Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11, 21 (2003).

*14* Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008) (“As it relates to crimes against individuals… the death penalty should not be expanded to instances where the victim’s life was not taken.”).

*15* Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 737-38 (2002).

Wow, that’s a lot to digest. But, I feel like a learned something — or, at least, got a better feel for how some of that legal stuff works and how it might work in a world with superpowered beings. I hope some of you are getting something out of these posts, too, ‘cuz I’ve got one more scheduled for a couple weeks from now. TTFN…

Three More ‘Guilty Pleasure’ Novel Series

“Humans can be impossible to understand. But, I don’t let it bother me.” — Chet

I know what it’s like to sometimes get stuck in a rut with your reading or just get in the mood to try something different, but you’re not sure what to try. I have a few family members and friends who read, too, so I sometimes go with recommendations from them. I also wander the aisles at the library, but that can be pretty much hit-or-miss.

So, as I have done a couple times in the past (see “Three Don’t-Mess-With-Me Novel Heroes” and “Three ‘Guilty Pleasure’ Teen Novel Series”), I’ve come up with three more series that you, my faithful readers, might want to consider checking out. Only the first one has a mild sci-fi flavor, and the “action” elements are more subdued than in others I’ve discussed. But, I enjoy them a lot and thought you might, too.

The “In Death” series by J.D. Robb (aka prolific romance novelist Nora Roberts) is one of the largest novel series I’m aware of. As of May 2018, there are 46 full novels in the series (plus a few short stories), though I’ve only read the first 22, so far. (She cranks out two each year, and #47 will be out this September.) The stories take place roughly 50-60 years in the future, so it was the advanced tech and socio-cultural changes that first intrigued me. It’s the characters that keep me coming back. That, plus the series is all about murder mysteries.

The central character is Eve Dallas, a no-nonsense, kick@$$, homicide detective/lieutenant for the New York Police and Security Department. She was abused and orphaned as a kid, so she comes with a lot of baggage. She’s also an excellent murder-cop who demands the same degree of care and dedication from those she works with. Over the course of the series, she gains a partner/mentee and, much to her surprise, a colorful group of friends. Even more surprising, she falls for and marries an incredibly handsome, sexy, charming, multi-billionaire and ex(?)-con by the name of Roarke. They make for an odd couple — gruff, impatient cop and smooth, mega-rich businessman — but they complement each other. Roarke’s skills, contacts, and money are both a blessing (at times) and an incredible annoyance to Dallas. But, in the end, they make it work and put away a lot of bad guys in the process.

If this piques your interest, I strongly urge (as usual) that you begin at the beginning: Naked in Death.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for something almost completely different from Eve Dallas and the “In Death” series, maybe the adventures — and I use that term very loosely — of Andy Carpenter will appeal. Andy is a good but rather lazy (not to mention somewhat unorthodox and lucky) attorney in a solo practice who comes into some money and can afford to be extremely selective in picking his cases/clients. Usually, there is a dog involved somehow, possibly even as a client and/or witness.

Andy loves dogs, especially his own, a particularly smart — just ask Andy — and lovely golden retriever named Tara. Andy is often assisted on cases by his P.I. girlfriend, Laurie Collins, who is in turn sometimes assisted by the rather large, mostly monosyllabic, scary-as-hell, eating machine known as ‘Marcus’. (Think Wesley Snipes / Michael Jai White, but with fewer words.) There is an assortment of other (semi-)regulars, too — a cop, newspaper editor, accountant, secretary, client-turned-partner, et al. — but you’ll just have to wait to meet them.

In addition to the fun characters, quirky humor, and entertaining plots, what I like about the series is that it’s located in northern New Jersey, where I used to live for many years. Well, not exactly where I lived, but close enough that I recognize cities & counties (e.g., Paterson, Sussex, Bergen, NYC) and highways (e.g., Rte. 80 and the NJ Turnpike) and can appreciate references to other local phenomena (e.g., the heavy traffic, mobsters). But, you don’t have to be a Jersey native to enjoy reading about the somewhat goofy, highly danger-averse, reluctant-to-take-on-any-case Mr. Carpenter, ‘cuz ya can’t help but like and root for him. (Start with Open and Shut.)

And, if you like dogs, I’ve got another recommendation….

Meet Chet. Chet the Jet. Chet is a smart, yet easily-distracted, German Shepherd and K9 Academy washout who adores his pal/partner at the Little Detective Agency, Bernie Little. Chet can follow a good bit of human conversation (in English), but he often gets confused when it comes to things like metaphors and slang. Also, he occasionally barks before he realizes he’s gonna, and his tail seems to have a mind of its own. Chet loves treats from Rover and Company (and just about anything else he sniffs out), hunting down leads with Bernie, and sinking his teeth into a “perp”. Chet is unusually concerned about finances, more so than Bernie is, but there’s not much he can do about it.

Chet also likes to tell stories about cases he and Bernie get involved in, which somehow end up in books for humans like us to read, beginning with Dog On It. Of course, he occasionally misses a few details, either because he wasn’t present to listen/observe or he got distracted by an odd scent or his mind wandered, thinking about snacks or that cute she-dog down in the valley or maybe some strange habit of humans. But, that’s another subject entirely…. If you like animals (especially dogs) and have a decent sense of humor, I think you’ll really like Chet. Bernie’s pretty cool, too. (Just ask Chet!)

If any of you actually try any of my book recommendations, please leave a comment below to let me know what you liked (or didn’t) about it. Thanks, and happy reading!

Evidence, Telepathy, and the Fifth Amendment

I recently started reading a book I found at the library titled The Law of Superheroes. It came out in 2012, but this was the first I’d heard of it. The authors, James Daily and Ryan Davidson, are a couple of lawyers who are also big-time comic book fans. They decided to combine their two areas of expertise to “explain and explore the hypothetical legal ramifications of comic book tropes, characters, and powers, down to the most deliciously trivial detail.” Pique your interest?

“You’ll learn about the basic principles of law in an engaging and accessible way through comics — from alternate universes and copyright laws to shape-shifters and witness testimony to contracts with the Devil.” (from the front cover flap)

I’m not very far along, but I found the following discussion/explanation — actually combined from two separate sections — interesting and thought I’d share it….

 

At first glance, a psychic would seem like the perfect solution to many evidentiary problems such as lying on the stand or failing to tell the truth. But would using a mind reader to verify a witness’s testimony actually stand up in court?

Relevance

First we must ask “is the evidence relevant?” Only relevant evidence is admissible, and Federal Rule of Evidence 401 defines relevant evidence as “evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.” This is a very low bar, and Federal Rule of Evidence 402 provides that relevant evidence presumptively admissible. But the question must still be asked, “Is a psychic’s claim about the contents of another person’s head relevant?”

We think the answer is yes. The psychic could be lying, but that’s true of any witness, and the jury must judge the psychic’s credibility just like any other witness’s. The psychic could be a fraud, but the judge could require that the psychic’s powers be proved prior to offering the substantive evidence. Federal Rule of Evidence 901(a) provides “the requirement of authentication or identification as a condition precedent to admissibility is satisfied by evidence sufficient to support a finding that the matter in question is what its proponent claims.” By way of example, Federal Rule of Evidence 901(b)(9) gives “Evidence describing a process or system used to produce a result and showing that the process or system produces an accurate result.” The accuracy and reliability of a psychic’s power fits that example.

Exclusion under Federal Rule of Evidence 403

Relevance is only the beginning of the analysis, however. Relevant evidence may be excluded under Federal Rule of Evidence 403 “if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury.” Of these, unfair prejudice is the greatest risk here.

The notes on Federal Rule of Evidence 403 state that “‘unfair prejudice’ within its context means an undue tendency to suggest decision on an improper basis, commonly, though not necessarily, an emotional one.” A fact finder might unfairly prejudice a party by giving undue weight to the testimony of a psychic, possibly completely ignoring the testimony of the original witness. Psychics, after all, have supranormal abilities, and juries might be somewhat awed by them to the detriment of other testimony. However, “in reaching a decision whether to exclude on grounds of unfair prejudice, consideration should be given to the probable effectiveness or lack of effectiveness of a limiting instruction.” It may suffice for the judge to remind the jury that it should also consider the testimony of the original witness.

Professor X

Personal Knowledge

Federal Rule of Evidence 602 requires that a witness have personal knowledge of the matter being testified about. This means that a fine but important distinction should be made. The psychic would not be testifying as to the actual events the original witness had personal knowledge of. Instead, a psychic would testify about his or her personal knowledge of what he or she read in the original witness’s mind. It’s the difference between Professor X’s saying “Magneto killed Jean Grey” and his saying “I believe the original witness remembers seeing Magneto kill Jean Gray.” This is a great example of why a psychic verification of a witness’s testimony does not mean that the witness’s testimony is necessarily accurate. Everything the psychic testifies about is ultimately coming through the lens of the original witness’s senses, understanding, and memory.*1*

Hearsay

Now we come to one of the biggies. The general rule under Federal Rule of Evidence 801 is that “‘hearsay’ is [an oral or written assertion or nonverbal conduct of a person, if it is intended by the person as an assertion], other than one made by [the person who made the statement] while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted.”

It’s a complicated definition, to be sure, but maybe we don’t have to address it. A person’s thoughts are not an oral or written assertion, nor are they a nonverbal action intended as an assertion. Of course, it is likely that in a universe with psychics and telepaths the Federal Rules of Evidence would be amended to include such things. Given that, let’s complete the hearsay analysis.

Assuming thoughts fit the first part of the definition (i.e., they are an assertion), then we know the second part fits as well, since the psychic is not the person who made the statement. The final part is whether the psychic’s testimony is offered to prove the matter asserted. For example, when Professor X says, “The witness remembers that Magneto killed Jean Grey,” is that being offered to prove that Magneto did, in fact, kill Jean Grey? We think the answer is no; rather than being offered to prove that Magneto killed Jean Grey, the psychic’s statement is only offered to prove that the witness is not lying. In lawyer-speak, we would say that the statement goes to the witness’s credibility, not the truth of the matter asserted.

The Fifth Amendment

So far we have assumed that the psychic was being used to verify a witness’s truthfulness. But what about using psychic powers to extract information from a witness who refuses to testify, such as a witness invoking the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination? [Now, we’re getting into some matters of constitutional law.] Before pursuing this, we must first ask what the Fifth Amendment actually protects.

X-ray brain connect

The Supreme Court has held that “the privilege protects a person only against being incriminated by his own compelled testimonial communications.”*2* So what is a testimonial communication? The Court explained in a later case that “in order to be testimonial, an accused’ communication must itself, explicitly or implicitly, relate a factual assertion or disclose information.”*3* There are many kinds of evidence that are non-testimonial and may be demanded without running afoul of the Fifth Amendment, including blood, handwriting, and even voice samples.*4* Perhaps the best example of the distinction between testimonial and non-testimonial communication is that requiring a witness to turn over a key to a lockbox is non-testimonial, while requiring a witness to divulge the combination to a safe is testimonial.*5*

We need not wonder whether reading someone’s thoughts counts as testimonial communication, however. As the Court explained, “The expression of the contents of an individual’s mind is testimonial communication for purposes of the Fifth Amendment.”*6*

One might be tempted to argue that the Fifth Amendment shouldn’t apply because the testimony is the psychic’s rather than the witness’s (i.e., the difference between the witness’s saying “I saw Magneto kill Jean Grey,” and the psychic’s saying “The witness remembers seeing Magneto kill Jean Grey”). However, the Supreme Court actually addressed this issue in Estelle v. Smith.*7* In that case, a defendant was subjected to a psychiatric evaluation, and the psychiatrist’s expert testimony was offered against the defendant. The Court held that the expert testimony violated the right against self-incrimination because the expert testimony was based in part on the defendant’s own statements (and omissions). Thus, using an intermediary expert witness to interpret a witness’s statement will not evade the Fifth Amendment.

So psychic powers could likely not be used to produce evidence from a witness who invoked the Fifth Amendment. And, believe it or not, this issue actually has contemporary resonance. Although a far cry from the kind of psychic powers that Professor X is capable of, rechnologies like functional MRI (fMRI) may someday see regular use in criminal investigation. However, scholars and commentators are divided on whether fMRI-like tests fall under the scope of the Fifth Amendment (i.e., is it more like a blood sample or like speech?).*8* Time will tell whether the Fifth Amendment protects people from unwanted mind reading or not.

*1* In fact, Magneto was once suspected of killing Jean Grey, but the killer was actually an imposter, Xorn, who was killed by Wolverine for his trouble. See Chuck Austen et al., Of Darkest Nights, in Uncanny X-Men (Vol. 1) 442-43 (Marvel Comics June-July 2004).

*2* Fisher v. United States, 425 U.S. 391, 409 (1976) (emphasis added).

*3* Doe v. United States, 487 U.S. 201, 210 (1988)

*4* Id. at 210.

*5* Id. This distinction is of vital importance in the era of password-based encryption, and it is not entirely clear whether the Fifth Amendment protects passwords. One court decided the issue by holding that the defendant need not give up the password but rather only produce the contents of the encrypted drive. In re Boucher, No. 2:06-mj-91, 2009 WL 424718 (D. Vt. Feb. 19, 2009). Thus, the protected evidence (the contents of the defendant’s mind) remained secret while the unprotected evidence (the contents of the drive) were discovered.

*6* Doe, 487 U.S. at 210 n.9.

*7* 451 U.S. 454 (1981).

*8* See, e.g., Benjamin Holley, It’s All in Your Head: Neurotechnological Lie Detection and the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, 28 Dev. Mental Health L. 1 (2009); Matthew Baptiste Holloway, One Image, One Thousand Incriminating Words: Images of Brain Activity and the Privilege Against Self-incrimination, 27 Temp. J. Sci. Techj. & Envtl. L. 141 (2008); Dov Fox, The Right to Silence as Protecting Mental Control, 42 Akron L. Rev. 763 (2009).

Was that suitably geeky for you?

P.S. If you’re interested, Daily also blogs on occasion here.

Fan-Cast: The Equalizer

“Got a problem? Odds against you? Call the Equalizer 212-555-4200” — newspaper ad

Did you ever watch “The Equalizer” series back in the mid- to late-1980s? (Assuming you were around back then, that is.) Or, maybe you picked it up later on some cable or streaming channel, or you got the DVDs from the library? Anyway, it aired during my high school days, and I thought it/he was so cool. Not as much action as you might think, certainly not as compared to some of its contemporaries (e.g., “The A-Team”). But, it was a “gritty”, well-written drama (like “Wiseguy”) and one of my favorite shows at the time.

The titular character was ‘Robert McCall’, played so well by the late Edward Woodward (5’9or10″,b.1930). McCall was a middle-aged, former CIA operative (yet, obviously British), now retired and living comfortably in a modest NYC apartment. He had expensive tastes — i.e., for nice clothes, food, wine, opera — and didn’t seem to hurt for money, but he didn’t have a regular job. In an effort to ease his conscience from having done some nasty stuff in the past, he offered his services — at no cost, apparently — to average folks who got in over their heads and felt their lives/safety threatened. In effect, he was part private investigator, part vigilante.

Woodward played the character with a combination of stern, cool menace and mystique. McCall may have preferred to keep things low-key and not resort to violence, but he was quite comfortable using physical assault, threats, guns, and whatever else it took to protect his clients from bad guys and, in many cases, teach his opponents a lesson in “manners”. Because he was 50-something and had a cultured, British air to him, New York criminals — especially young punks and hoods — often underestimated him.

Edward Woodward as The Equalizer

While primarily a solo operator, McCall made use of his many contacts and a few specialists. His old handler, ‘Control’ (Robert Lansing), would alternately give warnings, advice, or provide helpful information, but he also argued a lot with McCall and didn’t always cooperate. McCall had a sort of love/hate relationship with the NYPD, sometimes assisting and sometimes being a thorn in the side of various Lieutenants (Smalls, Burnett, Brannigan, Elmer) and others. ‘Mickey Kostmayer’, played by the terrific Keith Szarabajka, was a young CIA operative that McCall most often called on for backup when things were gonna get hairy. (I seem to remember him having some computer expertise, as well, but don’t quote me on that.) There was also the streetwise ‘Jimmy’ (Mark Margolis), who was able to “acquire” whatever McCall needed for surveillance, sting operations, etc. ‘Sterno’ (Irving Metzman) was the overweight and somewhat neurotic accountant/numbers-guy who McCall roped into assisting in a few episodes. ‘Pete O’Phelan’ (Maureen Anderman) added her skills into the mix in later episodes. Etc.

The other day, I watched the new(ish) The Equalizer (2014) film starring Denzel Washington (6’1″,b.1954). (Russell Crowe (5’11.5″,b.1964) had been originally attached to star.) I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I have mixed feelings about it, given my affinity for the old TV series. The acting by Washington and his co-stars was terrific, of course, and it was a decent story. (SPOILER ALERT!: McCall doesn’t call himself ‘the Equalizer’ or solicit clients with a newspaper ad until the very end.) But, other than being a retired CIA agent with a certain set of skills (and psychological baggage) and a love for reading classics, this version of McCall was very different from the TV version. There was also more violence, but that’s to be expected in an ‘R’ movie involving vigilante justice.

Personally, I’d prefer a white guy in the role, though the character works fine for a Black actor, too. I’m more concerned that they made him American. I mean, sure, it makes more sense for a CIA operative to be American. But, McCall’s being British was part of what made the original an interesting character. (Given his last name, Scottish would be acceptable, too.) The other (potential) issue for me is age. Woodward was 55 when the pilot debuted and 59 at the series finale; I think that age range works best for the concept. Washington, on the other hand, was 59 when The Equalizer movie came out, and he’ll be 63 when the sequel hits theaters this July. That said, I thought he totally sold the fight scenes. (Kudos to the director and fight choreographer, as well.) So, I guess a fit 60-something works, too.

With that in mind, if I were to fan-cast ‘Robert McCall’ for a new TV series, perhaps one that continues from where the original left off, here are a few candidates…

Peter Woodward

I would love to see Peter Woodward (5’10.5″,b.1956) take over his father’s role. He has a similar build and bearing, and he has a long resume of work in the action/adventure and sci-fi/fantasy genres. For example, “Crusade”, The Patriot, “Charmed”, “Fringe”, The Fall of the Essex Boys, “Dracula”, The Last Scout, plus some voice work, and currently “Age of the Living Dead” and “Dystopia”. He’s already 62, but as long as he’s relatively fit, I think he’d be great. Whether or not to give him a hairpiece, I’m undecided. 🙂

 

Ray Winstone

Another actor in his early 60s that might do the character justice is Ray Winstone (5’10”,b.1957). He generally plays less-refined types, but he probably has the skills to play a more “cultured” character. He certainly won’t have a problem with the violence, since he’s done a few of those roles. A few credits on his CV are “Fox”, “Robin Hood”, Sexy Beast, Henry VIII, King Arthur, The Departed, “Vincent”, 44 Inch Chest, The Sweeney. He may need to shed a few pounds, but I think Winstone could be a decent Equalizer.

 

Ralph Fiennes

Now, going a bit younger and a somewhat different look, let me suggest Ralph Fiennes (5’11”,b.1962) as our new McCall/Equalizer. Regarding genre credits, consider Schindler’s List, Strange Days, Red Dragon, various Harry Potter films, The Hurt Locker, Clash/Wrath of the Titans, Coriolanus, and the last two James Bond flicks. Fiennes definitely has both the drama and action chops, and I think he’d do a fine job in the role of our erstwhile CIA man-turned-detective/vigilante.

 

 

Graham McTavish

Finally, while slightly on the tall side, I think Graham McTavish (6’2″,b.1961) might be a terrific choice for the part. He’s certainly physically fit and used to action-oriented roles. Some relevant things he has appeared in are “Red Dwarf”, “Taggart”, Rambo, “Prison Break”, “24”, the Hobbit movies, Creed, “Outlander”, “Preacher”. McTavish has done quite a bit of voice work, too. He often has a full beard, but I chose a pic without it (as with the other candidates). Next to Peter Woodward, McTavish just may be my preferred candidate.

 

 

I’m sure there are other great British actors that would do a bang-up job as ‘The Equalizer’. Indeed, I considered and rejected a few more (e.g., Liam Neeson, Idris Elba, Peter Firth, Colin Salmon) for various reasons. But, among those I’ve been exposed to, the above are my top choices. Feel free to add your own suggestions…

* All ideas copyright Christopher Harris, 2013-2018.

The Hero Within

I’ve got an original fiction idea for you this week. Haven’t done one of these in several months. This one was sufficiently developed that it might work as a “pitch” for either a novel or a TV series. Well, maybe I’ll let you be the judge of that….

“The Hero Within”
(or, possibly something else, ‘cuz I’m not totally sold on this title)

Subject #1: Rich, cultured, and very physically fit man in penthouse suite discussing the day with his valet and joking good-naturedly. Remarks are made about certain “extracurricular activities” and long term plans and “making a difference” and such, but nothing specific. The impression, of course, is that he is a mega-wealthy, playboy type who fights crime in his spare time.

Subject #2: Unkempt man wakes up nearly naked on the couch in his messy dump of an apartment, empty beer bottles and leftover food strewn about. Turning off the TV, he talks to himself while stumbling about the place, obviously hungover and cranky as he gets ready for work (or perhaps to go looking for work). What little we “hear” is laced with expletives and alternates between self-pity and anger/frustration over events in his life (e.g., divorce, bankruptcy of a business and not being able to hold a job since, etc.). As he leaves, yelling at the neighbor’s noisy dog, he mutters to himself about “fixing things” and “making things right”. The assumption, of course, is that he is either an average joe with a streak of bad luck or possibly a small-time criminal who is planning a crime (probably a heist), which he thinks will solve his problems.

Revelations: The reality of it is that Subject #2 was indeed a wealthy businessman at one time, but he let other matters distract him, which allowed Subject #1 to engineer a hostile takeover. Those “other matters” were his obsession with fighting crime — secretly, of course — as a masked adventurer (a la Green Hornet). Having a lot of personal capital tied up in his “extracurricular activities”, he soon went through personal bankruptcy, which then led to his divorce. Between that and the takeover of his business, he also no longer has access to the properties which housed (or had secret tunnels which led to) his crimefighting HQ and related stores of weapons and technology. What he doesn’t realize, yet, is that the unscrupulous Subject #1 discovered these secret locations and equipment and has begun (subtly and small-scale, so far) to use them for nefarious purposes — i.e., to illegally increase his wealth and power, from straightforward theft and back-alley assault to industrial espionage, corporate blackmail, and shady business deals. As soon as Subject #2 discovers what #1 is up to, he will take it personally and make it his mission to stop #1. Meanwhile, #2 just needs to stop drinking and figure out how to get his life back on track….

The revelations about who these two characters actually are/were and how they got to this particular stage in their personal and professional lives might occur within, say, a pilot episode of a TV series or the opening chapter or two of a novel. Subsequent developments — e.g., #1’s creative uses for the “hero tech” he now has, one or more personal confrontations between the two, #2’s other activities as he gets his life together while fighting inner demons, #2 adopting a new adventuring persona and becoming a gadfly in #1’s plans, etc. — would be spread over the course of one or more seasons or books. The story might be played either totally serious or with a strong mix of humor — and, here, I’m thinking #2 would be someone like Bruce Willis as ‘John McClane’ in the Die Hard movies. Similar vibe, anyway.

End of pitch.

* All ideas copyright Christopher Harris, 2013-2018.

How to Improve Marvel’s Netflix Shows

“There’s always room for improvement.” — various people at various times

I was thinking about Marvel’s Netflix shows the other day and remembered an article about them that I’d seen a couple months ago. The author, Max Farrow, notes:

“[W]e can’t help but admit that 2017 was something of a stumbling block for the superheroes of Netflix. For all the grit and timeliness of The Punisher, several factors ensured that neither The Defenders or Iron Fist managed to inspire that much enthusiasm in fans. How can Marvel and Netflix get their mojo back, then? What can they do to get their superhero shows on track once more?”

He suggests five ways to do just that, so I figured we could look them over, and I’ll add a few reactions and comments of my own….

1) Stop Killing Villains

Farrow lauds the “fleshed out and highly memorable” main villains (especially as compared to some in the movies) and the “titanic talents” (e.g., Ali, Tennant, Weaver) that have portrayed them. But, he finds it somewhat odd and disappointing that at least twice a major villain has been offed part-way through the series.

“[T]his isn’t to say that show execs can’t, or shouldn’t, kill villains off full-stop. Unique and unpredictable storytelling is a fantastic quality in a series. But, having villain number three die midway through a season is precisely why Netflix shouldn’t opt for it again.”

I agree with him. These were strange moves that interrupted the flow of the respective stories. If they can attract such talent for these roles, why kill them off early? (Of course, it’s possible that they may only want to sign on for 5 or 6 episodes, and that would be a shame.)

2) Kick Ass, But More Efficiently

Farrow lays it out:

“The Marvel/Netflix shows may be gritty character studies, but we wouldn’t love them as much without their alleyway (or corridor) brawls. However, it’s been two years since Daredevil and Frank Castle dished out some quite frankly jaw-dropping beatdowns in Daredevil season 2. Aside from several notable moments in The Defenders, there’s been very little in the way of truly electrifying showdowns since. So, why are these kinds of moments becoming scarcer?”

As Farrow acknowledges, “action scenes are expensive and tricky to film.” But, no matter how “real-life” these shows are, they are still about characters with amazing superpowers and fighting skills. People who tune in expect to see these powers/skills used and, hopefully, not only executed well but in ways that seem authentic and make sense.

“From Daredevil’s radar-sense to Jessica Jones’ limited flight, honing on in [sic] these iconic abilities in fight scenes could really make the Marvel/Netflix shows stand out. Moreover, given enough resources and planning time, a great choreographer would be able to turn these prerequisite punch-ups into something truly special.”

Yes, indeed.

3) Planning Makes Perfect

Unlike the (mostly) “efficiently cohesive, detailed world” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Netflix shows, according to Farrow, seem to struggle with reminding us of their interconnectedness. In particular, he points to “The Defenders” and its slow ramp to get viewers up to speed on “picking up where each of the solo shows left off” and “a lot of work into maneuvering [the characters] into suitable positions for the story at hand.”

At first, I thought he was being a little hard on the writers/producers regarding efforts to a) show us what our heroes were currently up to and b) orchestrate their eventual “team-up” against their common foes. I mean, that’s a lot to juggle. Plus, more generally, the appearances of ‘Claire Temple’, ‘Karen Page’, and other supporting characters help to remind us of the shared city in the other series. But, after re-reading Farrow’s comments, I have to admit he makes some good observations.

“A bit more pre-planning would be hugely beneficial in this regard. Moreover, it would help any inter-show crossovers to feel more natural, such as in the rumored second season of The Defenders. Plus, it will allow for terrific new stories to be told, which change and shape the wider Marvel/Netflix world.

Sure, the shows all feel alike with their similarly grungy Manhattan, but it’s strange how inconsequentially huge events – such as Kingpin’s bombings – are rendered within the context of The Defenders.

It’s even stranger when we consider that all of the characters operate only a few blocks away from each other as well.”

I can’t help but agree with him there, too. This leads into the next gripe/suggestion…

4) Get To Grips With The Wider MCU

When “(Marvel’s) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” debuted on ABC back in 2013, it was essentially a spin-off that followed the “Battle of New York” seen in the first Avengers film. Agent Phil Coulson was the crossover player (with an appearance or two by Nick Fury), and there have continued to be references to stuff from the films sprinkled about in the TV series. Unfortunately, despite the hopes of the fans, connections between Netflix’s Marvel-based series and the MCU movies have been quite slim, with references even fewer and farther between.

“This hasn’t been hugely detrimental to these shows, though. Moreover, The Punisher barely features any inter-world connections and still manages to tell a rich and compelling story without relying on references. However, it is getting to the point where passing lip-service to iron suits isn’t going to cut it anymore.

At what point in the MCU timeline does Daredevil’s showdown with Fisk take place? A year after The Avengers? No one knows. Plus, the lack of Defenders references from the movies are conspicuous by their absence. Surely S.H.I.E.L.D. would have a use for someone like Matt Murdock?”

Farrow is fair to note the various challenges of things like logistics, varying development times, the “notoriously fractious relationship” between the movie and TV divisions, etc. Still, if the Netflix series are firmly set in the same world as the MCU, and I hope they are, then they really need to make a better effort to make that clear. It would only make sense, and it would further please the fans who value such continuity.

5) Shorten The Series

Farrow contends that the thirteen-episode structure of each season of the Netflix shows — except for the “The Defenders” mini-series, of course — is just a tad too long. I’ll let him explain…

“Regardless of what theme each show is exploring, at their hearts they’re superhero stories, right down to their adrenaline-fuelled needs. That isn’t to say they can’t be deep or cerebral (these shows have frequently proved that it’s possible), but they do need that burgeoning, dramatic tension to keep them chugging along.

Unfortunately, because of their structure, the Marvel/Netflix shows can’t sustain this drive for the time that they’re required to. Even the best of these series are forced to tread water for some period of time, be it the opening episodes of The Punisher or those where Kilgrave’s imprisoned in Jessica Jones. When this happens, the bloat sets in and the show grinds to a halt.

Again, it’s not that we don’t love spending time with characters like Jessica Jones. But if the show around them suffers for it, then something’s got to give. And that something is the series’ length.”

My instinct is to deny it. I mean, I love my superheroes (regardless of how much I complain), so the more episodes the better. Right? But, after briefly reflecting, I have to admit that Farrow is probably right, and I’ve even had similar thoughts. Most (each?) of the Netflix shows could probably have been improved by tightening up the writing/pacing, thereby cutting each season down to 10(?) to 12 episodes each.

I’m tempted to add a point or two of my own, but you all already know my gripes and preferences from the reviews I’ve done on these series. (See ‘Review Posts’ link at top of page.)

So, what do you think? Is Farrow unfair or otherwise “off” in his assessments? Am I an “unfaithful” fan for generally agreeing with him? Is ‘Kilgrave’ overrated, ‘cuz Tennant makes Whovian fangirls swoon? Should I stop asking questions? Just wonderin’…

Catching Up on Star Wars Developments

It has been several months since I reviewed what’s going on in the Disney version of the Lucasverse. So, this week I thought I’d touch briefly on four developments that have since been announced. First, on the current “anthology” front…

1) As of Dec. 2017, the previously announced Obi-Wan Kenobi spinoff film now has a production start date of January 2019. It will be based out of the legendary Pinewood Studios UK, home to James Bond, Superman, alien xenomorphs, hobbits, Avengers, and the last four Star Wars films, among many others. Rumor has it they may also do some location shooting in Ireland, perhaps in association with Paint Hall Studio. Most likely release date would be some time in 2020. I’m very curious to find out what sort of story they come up with, when it takes place, and whether or not Ewan McGregor reprises the title role.

As I noted in a post back in Jan. 2016,

“We know that, at some point, Kenobi decided he needed to watch over young Luke — though, from a distance — on Tatooine. Was this “exile” self-imposed? Did other Jedi Masters know and approve? Much of this has been explored in the Expanded Universe (e.g., Kenobi by John Jackson Miller, which has a “Western” vibe to it). So, they could pull ideas from there or come up with something totally new for the new canon. Ewan McGregor appears to be up for it!”

Fingers crossed…

2) Closer on the horizon, of course, is the impending release of Solo: A Star Wars Story on the 25th of this month (May 2018). The production has been plagued by problems and much anxiety. For example, about three-quarters into principle photography, co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired and replaced by the incredibly talented Ron Howard. One of the supporting actors has gone on record (though anonymously) to contrast the two directorial styles as “disorganized and chaotic” under Lord & Miller vs. “controlled and efficient” under Howard.

It seems the original pair, in their element doing light comedies like 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie, may have bitten off more than they could chew.

“Phil and Chris are good directors, but they weren’t prepared for Star Wars. After the 25th take, the actors are looking at each other like, ‘This is getting weird.’ [Lord and Miller] seemed a bit out of control. They definitely felt the pressure; with one of these movies, there are so many people on top of you all the time. The first assistant director was really experienced and had to step in to help them direct a lot of scenes.”

On the other hand, experienced master-craftsman that he is, Howard worked “really fast”….

“When he came on, he took control and you could feel it. He got respect immediately. He’s really confident. A really easy guy to work with.”

They re-shot a lot, including many scene-for-scene do-overs, and, as of a few weeks ago, are in post-production. Howard will end up with the “Directed by” credit, while Lord and Miller will be listed among the executive producers.

The other main problem was the performance of the lead actor, Alden Ehrenreich, who struggled to “convincingly channel Ford’s swashbuckling”.

“Trying to mimic Harrison Ford is really tough. Lucasfilm wanted something very specific: copying someone else. Alden’s not a bad actor — just not good enough.”

So, the studio hired an on-set acting coach for Ehrenreich, and the result was reportedly amazing.

“You could see his acting became more relaxed. He became more Harrison-like. The coach helped!”

YAHOOOOO! You’re all clear, kid. Now let’s blow this thing and go home….

Benioff (l) and Weiss (r)

3) Readers may remember that I blogged on the new Star Wars trilogy being developed by The Last Jedi‘s Rian Johnson. Now, it looks as though Game of Thrones‘s David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have a similar deal. It was announced in February that they will write and produce a separate series (trilogy?) of non-Skywalker-focused films. Production likely won’t begin until at least 2019, and no release dates have been set.

“In the summer of 1977 we traveled to a galaxy far, far away, and we’ve been dreaming of it ever since. We are honored by the opportunity, a little terrified by the responsibility, and so excited to get started as soon as the final season of Game of Thrones is complete.” — Benioff & Weiss in a joint statement

We know these guys are good at handling complex stories with complex characters and large-scale action, so as long as they keep it family-friendly, this could turn out to be a great choice.

4) For those of you who missed it, Jon Favreau is now going to get to play in the Lucasverse, too. Well, perhaps I should say “play again”, since he has lent his acting talents to the animated “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” series and the upcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story. Since he has written/directed/produced some popular films (e.g., Swingers, various Iron Man and Avengers), you might think they’d tap him for a SW movie. Rather than doing a film, though, Favreau will be writing and exec producing the live-action Star Wars series set for Disney’s new streaming service. He’ll get started once he wraps on the live-action The Lion King film.

“Jon brings the perfect mix of producing and writing talent, combined with a fluency in the Star Wars universe.” — Kathleen Kennedy, President of Lucasfilm

The streaming platform has a tentative launch date of late 2019.

I’m looking forward — with my usual cautious optimism — to all of these projects. If they can retain the magic and tone of the original films (and animated series), perhaps they can make up for missteps in recent years and rekindle the enthusiasm of young and old fans alike.

From the Mind of Mr. Zeus, part 14

File #: 2018Q2
Subject: new issue of quarterly ‘Official Mr. Zeus Fanclub Newsletter’
Purpose: readers’ enjoyment/entertainment and (occasionally) education
Author: Mr. Zeus (aka <name unknown>; formerly known as Jacob Szymanski, aka “Hacksaw Jack”)

“What Super Privilege?”

I heard one of the most ridiculous things the other day. You’ve heard of “white privilege”, right? Somebody wrote an opinion piece in a major metropolitan newspaper recently claiming that superheroes have something similar, which he dubbed “super privilege”. (Of course, rather than the privilege of a light-skinned majority, this would be the privilege of a (sometimes) super-powered minority.) Apparently, those of us with superpowers or other such talents that we put to use as costumed adventurers are guilty of taking unfair advantage of this “privilege” to get fame and fortune and who-knows-what. What a load of baloney!

Look, some people who get powers are lucky, no doubt. People like myself have been able to use them to make a decent living. Others don’t get any sort of monetary compensation. Yes, we often achieve a measure of celebrity from it, too. Sometimes, it also results in special treatment at certain establishments who appreciate the attention our presence brings their business (e.g., a restaurant, nightclub, boutique store, sports arena), so we occasionally get a free meal or access to an event, for example. A few of us have been paid to promote products or businesses, and there have been a few who had opportunities to parlay their fame and/or fortune into a business of their own — anything from movie stardom to entrepreneurial ventures (see below). (Heck, I’m doing that now.) But, all of this is no different than what celebrities of all colors and creeds do in the sports and entertainment industries. (Believe me, I know firsthand.) And, as soon as you’re no longer A-list, the offers and opportunities get fewer and farther between.

However, there are those who fear, hate, or distrust us “supers” and call us a menace. (Very similar to what Spider-Man, the X-Men, and other characters experience in the comics.) So, we sometimes get treated quite poorly. I should also mention that not everyone who gets superpowers has it easy. The general public doesn’t usually hear about them, but some people’s powers end up killing them. It may take hours, days, months, or years, and sometimes it is very painful. Those of us who survive the changes usually still have problems to deal with, too. This could be anything from loss of limbs or senses, physical deformity, hypersensitivity to light (or something else), emission of radioactivity, development of cancer, or any number of other conditions that prevent one from having a “normal” life. As for me, my skin became thick and leathery, with a diminished sense of touch. Plus, there are those massive migraines that I wrote about several issues ago. In comparison to others I’ve seen and known, though, I count myself very fortunate.

Super privilege? Hah!

The cold winds of fortune don’t care if you have powers or not (or what sacrifices you might have to make), and neither do the fickle media. The thing to remember is to make wise decisions and take advantage of whatever opportunities you have, regardless of where you come from or what your abilities are.

“Super Barbecue”

Last month, Bravado and I organized an all-day barbecue for superheroes around the world and their significant others. Well, it took more than a month to put the whole thing together, but it was held last month. We rented out a 10-square-mile section of a U.S. national park with a river on one side, flew in a band, had all sorts of games and (literally) tons of food. Heck, Leviathan ate at least a couple tons just on his own! People came and went throughout the day, as some had to deal with emergency calls and previous engagements. (We had a couple people with teleporting abilities lending a hand with “transportation”.) And, naturally, a few couldn’t make it. (For example, half of Vanguard Prime was somewhere in Siberia dealing with a new threat. Olympia had to leave a bit early to give them a hand.) But, I’d guess we had close to 50 heroes show up, plus assorted spouses, children, boy/girlfriends, and we even let a handful of agents/managers join in. There was no baseball diamond, of course, but we improvised a game that spanned half our rented area. We limited use of superpowers to select ones — e.g., strength, flight, elasticity, enhanced vision, telekinesis, etc. But, superspeed had to be kept subsonic, and use of any powers that could damage the park (e.g., fire or other energy beams) were forbidden. (We had a half-dozen park rangers on hand all day to keep us in line.) BrightFire set up an energy-net to keep everything within the agreed-upon 5 square miles (and a thousand feet up), which worked surprisingly well. I’m happy to say, a good time was had by all.

“At the Superhero Retirement Home…”

An added benefit of the barbecue was seeing old friends and associates, including four who are fully retired from crimefighting. Not many of you will remember The Blue Mask, but he was a boxer back in the ’50s who became a part-time, street-level hero in New Jersey. (StormFire introduced us about 10 years ago.) He had to retire after a decade in the biz following a serious injury, but he mentored a couple heroes of the next generation, and we all hold him in high regard for what he was able to do back then — without any powers, yet! He owns a bar and a gym back in Jersey, but I haven’t been able to pop in much since I semi-retired out here. So, it was great to see him. He’s pushing 90 and is wheelchair-bound, but he’s mentally sharp as a tack. Reminds me of a cross between my grand-pops and ‘Mickey’ from the Rocky movies.

I got to hang out with my old buddy, Fazerfist, too. I enjoyed working with him back in our days in the Alliance. I always told him he was too “pretty” to be in that line of work. Then, one day, he lost his powers, and suddenly he didn’t have a choice but to find a new profession. He was pretty bummed out for a few weeks, but after a little counseling and talking with a couple pals (like me), he found his calling. He changed his name and appearance and started taking acting lessons. Now, the world knows him as the movie superstar ‘Gideon Chamberlain’! I kid you not. (I’m not betraying any secrets, either. It’s in his new book being released next week.) That’s right. I am personal friends with last year’s “World’s Sexiest Man Alive!” 🙂

Of course, you have all probably heard of TechKnight and Cyber-Witch, right? If not, TechKnight (aka Randall McCrae) was the armored hero that was popular back in the late-’80s and ’90s. When he retired from superheroing, he was replaced in that superteam (which name escapes me at the moment) by Major Tech. That guy was killed a couple years afterward and the cyborg Cyber-Witch (aka Amanda Johnson-Ruiz) took his place. Meanwhile, McCrae had used his creative engineering genius to build a successful high-tech firm, McCrae Engineering LLC, and some in the crimefighting community were/are his clients. Cyber-Witch consulted on a project a several years ago, and Randall effectively swept her off her feet. (Not easy, since she’s a lot heavier than she looks!) Long story short, they’ve been married for 7 or 8 years and became friends of mine through mutual associates. Great couple!

Time to sign off for this quarter. Stay strong, everbuddy!

‘Til next time…

* All ideas copyright Christopher Harris, 2013-2018.

Asimov’s “Foundation” Finally Moving Forward?

“The fall of Empire, gentlemen, is a massive thing, however, and not easily fought. It is dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity — a hundred other factors. It has been going on, as I have said, for centuries, and it is too majestic and massive a movement to stop.” — Hari Seldon, Foundation

It looks as though Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” may finally be on its way to the small screen.

Asimov’s original concept was serialized in Astounding Magazine back in 1942 through 1950. He then fleshed out his time- and galaxy-spanning narrative into a series of books: the “Foundation Trilogy” (Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), Second Foundation (1953)), followed much later by two sequels (Foundation’s Edge (1982) and Foundation and Earth (1986)) and two prequels (Prelude to Foundation (1988) and Forward the Foundation (1993)). The original trilogy won the one-time Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series” in 1966. Since Asimov’s passing in 1992, other authors have added to the corpus of “Foundation” stories, with blessings of the Asimov estate but varying commercial and critical success.

Instead of attempting to summarize the, er, foundational framework for Asimov’s novels, I’ll let Wikipedia do it:

“The premise of the series is that the mathematician Hari Seldon spent his life developing a branch of mathematics known as psychohistory, a concept of mathematical sociology. Using the laws of mass action, it can predict the future, but only on a large scale. Seldon foresees the imminent fall of the Galactic Empire, which encompasses the entire Milky Way, and a dark age lasting 30,000 years before a second great empire arises. Seldon’s calculations also show there is a way to limit this interregnum to just one thousand years. To ensure the more favorable outcome and reduce human misery during the intervening period, Seldon creates the Foundation – a group of talented artisans and engineers positioned at the twinned extreme ends of the galaxy – to preserve and expand on humanity’s collective knowledge, and thus become the foundation for the accelerated resurgence of this new galactic empire.”

Itself influenced by Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Foundation series is generally acknowledged as influencing other science-fiction ranging from Star Wars to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as well as noted individuals including Elon Musk and Newt Gingrich. I remember reading the trilogy and Prelude a couple decades or so ago and generally enjoying them. Of course, I didn’t understand it all. As is typical for Asimov’s writing, they are much more cerebral than action-oriented. For what it’s worth, I always thought the term “psychohistory” was a bit clunky and imprecise. On the other hand, I suppose it does sound like something a sci-fi author might come up with in the 1940s/50s. 🙂

Fox, Warner Bros., and Sony have all attempted at one time or another to get a Foundation feature film off the ground with various big names attached, but they all failed. HBO teamed with Jonathan Nolan to get a series underway not long ago, but they never even got an order for a script. Last June, though, Deadline announced that Skydance Television (Altered Carbon, Jack Ryan) was trying to close a deal with the Asimov estate for them — along with David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight, Blade) and Josh Friedman (“The Sarah Connor Chronicles”, War of the Worlds) — to adapt Foundation into a TV series. Then, just a few days ago, Deadline gave an update. Skydance has concluded their deal with the Asimov estate, with Goyer and Friedman serving as showrunners and sharing executive producer credits with Skydance’s David Ellison, Dana Goldberg and Marcy Ross.

Just as surprising (to me, anyway) was the fact that it was Apple who has ordered the straight-to-series development project. But, then, I’m not really up on what Apple has been doing in this area. As per Deadline,

“The project shows a different level of ambition for Apple’s worldwide video programming team led by Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg. In November, they set their first scripted series, a morning show drama executive produced by and starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, with a two-season, straight-to-series order. Apple also has given straight-to-series orders to Amazing Stories, a re-imagining of the anthology from Steven Spielberg, a Ronald D. Moore space drama, a Damien Chazelle series, a comedy starring Kristin Wiig, world-building drama See from Steven Knight and Francis Lawrence, as well as an M. Night Shyamalan psychological thriller.”

That all sounds pretty ambitious to me, especially for a fledgling outfit! According to Joseph Keller at iMore:

“The company has said nothing about how these new shows will be distributed, when they’ll premiere, or how much it will cost to watch them.”

Reports are that Apple will be keeping its shows “family-friendly”, too, and that suits me just fine.

For various reasons, many have deemed the Foundation series to be un-adaptable for the screen, and they may be right. However, I am intrigued by the idea — as long as Goyer et al. respect the source material fairly closely, of course — and I hope we are pleasantly surprised by the result. (Obviously, a small-screen series sounds like a much more realistic undertaking for something of such scope, even to adapt just one of the books.) I’m rootin’ for ya, guys! But, just so you know, I am not gonna buy an Apple TV….