Legendary Warriors, Superheroes, and Super Sonic Samurai

I’m not your typical “metalhead”, but I do like a few metal bands (e.g., Metallica, Megadeth, Nightwish, Sabaton, DragonForce). Lately, I’ve been on a power metal kick, searching through Youtube for new stuff that might strike a chord with me. (Yeah, that was a music pun.) I have found quite a few I like, but also a lot of stuff that I just don’t care for at all.

As anyone who has ventured into the metal genre knows, some bands like to sing about fantasy, sci-fi, and/or action/adventure tales. Sometimes these are established stories (e.g., by Tolkien or something inspired by (or written for) video games), while others come up with their own stories to sing about. The bands I present to you below belong in the second category, but they also stand out for being rather, shall we say, humorous or even goofy. That is, whereas some such bands write serious music to tell very serious stories, these guys just have fun with the genre. The tales, and even the costumes they wear on stage and/or videos, are straight out of comic books, pulp magazines, and B-movies.

There are a few others that fall into this category (e.g., Thundershield, Ninja Magic, Nanowar of Steel), but I can’t really get into them for various reasons. The three that follow, though, are my favorites. Also, if you think the music may suffer due to the goofiness, you would be mistaken. These guys bring it!

Gloryhammer was founded as a side-project by Christopher Bowes from the pirate-metal group Alestorm. Here is their fictional lineup: Angus McFife XIII, Crown Prince of Fife: Voice Modulated Star Nucleus; The Hootsman, Astral Demigod of Unst: Trans-Dimensional Subsonic Cluster; Ralathor, Mysterious Submarine Commander of Cowdenbeath: Percussive Phi-Quason Battery; Ser Proletius, Grand Master of the Deathknights of Crail: Dark Matter String Manipulation Interface; Zargothrax, Dark Emperor of Dundee: Positronic Oscillator Command.

They have three albums: Tales from the Kingdom of Fife (2013), Space 1992: Rise of the Chaos Wizards (2015), and Legends from Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex (2019). I’ve only listened to them each once, and I’m not sure if there is a continuous story. But, the albums are quite good. This song is (obviously, I suppose) from Space 1992.

 

Probably the goofiest of these bands is Grailknights, who have mixed various metal styles into their self-dubbed “superherometal”. The band (jokingly) hail from a place called Grailham City and live in Castle Grailskull — a play on Castle Grayskull from the ’80s toy/cartoon series “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe”. Live shows feature stagehands wearing the costumes of their “nemesis” Dr. Skull, and his henchmen Morph the Swarf and Urks the Dragon. Their theatrical performances depend on participation (including partying) from the audience, aka the Battlechoir.

Early albums (Across the Galaxy (2004), Return to Castle Grailskull (2006), Alliance (2008)) were “melodic death metal” with harsh vocals. Since the 2011 lineup changes, the music (Calling the Choir (2014), Dead or Alive (EP, 2016), Knightfall (2018)) has featured mostly clean vocals (my preference) and a more typical power metal sound. Current lineup is Sir Optimus Prime (vocals, guitars), Count Cranium (formerly bass, now guitars), Sovereign Storm (guitars), Lord Drumcules (drums), and Duncan MacLoud (bass).

 

The guys from Victorius are another super-talented bunch. From their website: “Thousands of years ago in ancient Japan, a German Metal Band emerged from the ruins of the realm of the dinosaurs. They quickly aligned with an evil ninja clan — called the Sunbladers — and formed the most over the top Power Metal Band you can think of.” Their discography includes: Unleash the Titans (2010), The Awakening (2013), Dreamchaser (2014), Heart of the Phoenix (2017), Dinosaur Warfare – Legend of the Power Saurus (EP, 2018), Space Ninjas from Hell (2020).

 

If I were a gamer, these bands would definitely be on my mission/quest playlist. Any of them appeal to you? Feel free to share your own favorites below….

More Alien Xenomorphs to Come?

Thought I’d pass this along, in case you hadn’t heard the recent rumblings….

As fans are likely aware, the proposed Alien 5 by Neill Blomkamp seems to be dead in the water. Ridley Scott managed to keep the franchise alive with the Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017) prequels. But, their only moderate success has had fans wondering if post-merger Disney/Fox will follow through on rounding out the Prometheus trilogy with Alien: Awakening.

Ridley Scott at World Premiere of Alien: Covenant (Getty)

In an interview with the L.A. Times back in May of this year, Scott had a few things to say on the subject:

“I still think there’s a lot of mileage in Alien, but I think you’ll have to now re-evolve. What I always thought when I was making the first one [was] why would a creature like this be made and why was it traveling in what I always thought was a kind of war-craft, which was carrying a cargo of these eggs. What was the purpose of the vehicle and what was the purpose of the eggs? That’s the thing to question, who, why, and for what purpose is the next idea, I think.”

Sounds like they are asking some good questions on the creative side, especially if they want to finally connect the Prometheus prequels with the original Alien film(s). But, check out Scott’s comments from his interview in Forbes from a few days ago, when asked about a new film in the franchise:

“That’s in process. We went down a route to try and reinvent the wheel with Prometheus and Covenant. Whether or not we go directly back to that is doubtful because Prometheus woke it up very well. But you know, you’re asking fundamental questions like, ‘Has the Alien himself, the facehugger, the chestburster, have they all run out of steam? Do you have to rethink the whole bloody thing and simply use the word to franchise?’ That’s always the fundamental question.”

So,… a new franchise film is in the early stages of development, but a return to the Prometheus story doesn’t look too promising. Not sure how I feel about that. It would have been nice to have that final connection. But, I’m not really stuck on the idea and am open to other possibilities. No reboots, though. I say use new creatures (to base xenomorphs on) and people and situations, but otherwise stick with what works. What the fans like. With Scott in charge, I am reasonably confident that it will be a decent addition to the franchise.

Quickie Movie Idea: Commando 2

I don’t have any news to the effect, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some studio eventually decides to do a reboot of Commando (1985). In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that it is one of my favorite movies of the 1980s and in my Top 8 Schwarzenegger flicks. In 2016, I mentioned that I’d like to see a sequel. In fact, I’d much rather see a sequel with Arnold than a reboot with someone else. (Note: There is an unrelated Commando trilogy out of Bollywood.)

Arnold Schwarzenegger as John Matrix in Commando

There are a few possibilities for what Col. John Matrix, Ret., would be up to at this point in his life. For example, running a security consultancy, managing a gun range and/or military surplus store, operating a hunting lodge, or just enjoying a relaxing retirement, as he had attempted to do back in the original movie. I tend to think that he could only take so much fishing, golfing, etc., so I think he would be only semi-tired. Maybe co-owner (silent partner?) in one of those businesses? Also, it would be clear early into the sequel that he maintained a physical fitness regimen and kept up his skills with firearms, blades, and even explosives.

I’m not sure how Alyssa Milano feels these days about Schwarzenegger or the movie or guns, etc. I’m going to guess that neither damsel-in-distress nor buttkicker would be acceptable or fitting roles for her. However, I would like to see her in a small role for Commando 2. Specifically, Jenny Matrix (Milano) would have a teenage daughter that goes missing (possibly kidnapped), and Jenny goes to her estranged father for help. He, of course, makes it his mission to find and rescue his granddaughter on his own. I think an excellent casting choice for the granddaughter role would be Millie Bobby Brown (b.2004), who even looks like she could be related to Milano.

In the final act, Matrix has sliced, stabbed, shot, drowned, broken, blown up, etc., a small army of bad guys — big surprise! — except for one. That one will probably be either the leader or the biggest, baddest soldier/henchman. Matrix fights valiantly, protecting his granddaughter from harm, but his age and injuries are taking a large toll on him. The bad guy finally gets the upper-hand and, grinning in triumph, is about to deliver the killing blow. Suddenly, BANG! Bang! Bang!, and the very surprised villain keels over dead. Standing a few yards away, of course, is Jenny Matrix with arm extended and holding a smoking gun. Three generations of Matrix then embrace before emerging from the smoke and rubble….

Yes, I know. The scene is very cliche and very ’80s, and that is precisely why it fits this movie. Also, in case you’re wondering, this is not meant to be a woman-saves-the-day sort of thing. I’m no feminist — not in the modern concept, anyway — so I have no inclination to push any “empowering” message to make men look ineffective or anything like that. I just thought it made for a nice surprise (since the audience hasn’t seen Jenny since she came to her father for help) and to enforce the family-fights-for-family theme.

I realize that there are shades of Taken in this idea, though that wasn’t what I was consciously going for. I really wanted something similar to Commando but with plenty of room for various differences and for tailoring it to Schwarzenegger’s style — complete with corny-yet-cool one-liners.

That’s it. Just a few quick ideas I thought I’d share….

Fan-Cast: Amanda Waller

“I’m not proud of what I had to do — but I would do it again. You all quit, you all die, I can still guarantee you one thing — the Squad will go on.” — Amanda Waller

With the upcoming reboot/continuation of the Suicide Squad on the big screen, I wanted to do a character from that bunch. Well, mostly I just wanted to do another interesting, DC character that I had some ideas for. Waller doesn’t have any superpowers, but she is a formidable figure in the more shadowy areas of the DCU’s American political/intelligence power structure. She is portrayed these days by Viola Davis (5’5″,b.1965), but live versions of her have also been played by Angela Bassett (Green Lantern), Pam Grier (“Smallville”), and Cynthia Addai-Robinson (Arrowverse). I have yet to be really pleased with one of these portrayals, so I’m gonna try casting the role myself….

Amanda Waller

Amanda Waller (née Blake) grew up, got married, and raised a family of her own in Chicago. Her firstborn was killed in a mugging. Her husband was killed in a shootout with the man who raped and murdered their eldest daughter. Amanda worked hard to put her three remaining children through college before earning a degree in political science for herself. She became an aide for a congressman and, at her request, was given direction of the revived Task Force X (aka Suicide Squad) program.

Waller formed a small, quasi-independent office dubbed “The Agency” (later reorganized as “Checkmate”) to recruit task force operatives and other personnel and to oversee their missions. Primary field operatives are costumed criminals who are promised pardons or reduced sentences for their participation — should they survive, that is, which is often not the case. They are also fitted with an explosive device either in or on their persons, which can be remotely detonated should any of them disobey orders. This does not apply to field commander Rick Flag, who also led the former (non-criminal) Suicide Squad, and who argues with Waller over her sometimes questionable orders and ethics.

In her position with Task Force X, Waller not only dealt with supervillains but occasionally encountered superheroes, as well — either as a target for arrest (e.g., Firestorm) or rescue (e.g., Hawk) or who interfered with a mission (e.g., Batman). She briefly served time for using Squad operatives to investigate an organized crime cartel and kill its leaders. Once pardoned, she led the team for a short time as a freelance mercenary group, during which she became closer to her operatives, despite being as “dominant and threatening” as ever.

Waller later organized a team of superheroes to fight Eclipso, but several of them died. She became Southeastern regional director for the Department of Extranormal Operations (DEO) and eventually got promoted to Secretary of Metahuman Affairs as a member of the Luthor Administration. She went to jail when Luthor went down, but new President Horne pardoned her and gave her temporary command of Checkmate. In this position, Waller used morally ambiguous methods to achieve her own agenda, from blackmailing a reformed criminal into working for her to orchestrating an unauthorized plan to exile various supervillains to another planet. She was stopped and forced to resign from Checkmate, yet she somehow retained control of the Suicide Squad. Later, she was also given directorship of the Belle Reve metahuman prison.

Waller can be coldly calculating, unconcerned for the safety or psychological stability of her underlings, criminals or otherwise. They are hers to command and expected to follow orders, knowing that she has no problem sacrificing their lives on suicide missions. (The team name should be a hint, after all.) On the other had, she has also defended against their being ordered on missions that she felt unnecessarily risked their lives for purely political reasons. She has a reputation for being aggressive, stubborn, and ruthless, earning her fear, respect, and the nickname “The Wall”.

Waller’s skills come from a combination of government training and natural skills, all shaped by personal tragedy and a hard-edged personality. They include espionage, firearms, advanced hand-to-hand-combat, and proficiency in tactical analysis. Those “stubborn” and “ruthless” qualities I mentioned before might be attributed to an “indomitable will”, and she is skilled at manipulating and intimidating others to get them to cooperate with her agenda.

Amanda Waller is a woman of African-American ethnicity. She is classically drawn as ranging from slightly chunky to obese, usually with short(ish) black hair. Her listing at DC’s wiki has her at only 5’1″, though I’m going to be rather lax on this requirement. Any DC production will likely have her character already in a position of some experience and power, so I think the actress should be in her 40s or 50s. I briefly considered CCH Pounder (5’7″, b.1952) (“Warehouse 13”, “NCIS: New Orleans”), whom I always enjoy and who already voices Waller in animated series/movies. But, given that she’s nearing 70, I nixed that idea. I also considered Sonja Sohn (5’5″,b.1964), who you may remember from shows like “The Wire”, “Body of Proof”, “Luke Cage”, or “Star Trek: Discovery”. But, I eventually crossed her off to get to my Top 3…

Queen Latifah (5’10”, b.1970) is clearly outside the height range I would normally set for this character. But, she’s a plus-size gal with the acting chops we need, so I kept her in the running. She is perhaps equally known for acting & producing as she is for being “hip-hop’s first lady”. Her genre acting credits include Sphere, Scary Movie 3, the upcoming “Equalizer” series remake, and voice work for the Ice Age movies and video games. Her turn as Matron ‘Mama’ Morton in the Chicago movie also influenced my thinking on this. While most of her roles have been in comedies, musicals, and dramas, I definitely think she could pull off a very capable and intimidating Director Amanda Waller.

I know Yvette Nicole Brown (5’1″,b.1971) from her work on the “Community” sitcom. In fact, most of her credits are from comedies and family stuff, as that seems to be her strength. But, she has also appeared in “Sleeper Cell”, Repo Men, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Avengers: Endgame (as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent), and done voice work for various Marvel and other animated productions. Plus (and I didn’t know this until I went thru her IMDB entry for this profile), she voiced Amanda Waller for several “DC Super Hero Girls” TV shorts, movies, and games. Seems like a pretty decent fit to me, and she’s the perfect height, too!

 

Jill Scott (5’6″, b.1972) is another R&B/hip-hop/soul singer who branched out into acting. I became aware of her as the underworld figure ‘Lady Eve’ on the current “Black Lightning” series, but she has a few genre credits. For example, “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency”, voicing ‘Storm/Ororo’ on the “Black Panther” animated series, and appearances on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Fringe”. She may have the least acting experience of the three, but she’s physically just right and her ‘Lady Eve’ performance has proven she can credibly play a hard-as-nails, ruthless woman in a position of authority. I have no doubt she could make a great Amanda Waller on the small- or big-screen.

That’s it from me. Comments?

* All ideas copyright Christopher Harris, 2013-2020.

Matrix Past and Future

As you may have heard sometime ago, there was a plan to revitalize the Matrix franchise with a new movie starring Michael B. Jordan. Reboot? Sequel? Prequel? Unknown. But, it doesn’t really matter, because that idea was scrapped when Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss signed on to reprise their roles as ‘Neo’ and ‘Trinity’. (Interesting, seeing as how both characters are supposed to be dead. But, then, this is sci-fi in a cyberworld, so there are probably multiple ways to bring them back.) Jada Pinkett-Smith may be returning as ‘Niobe’, as well.

Since then, we have seen that Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Neil Patrick Harris, Jessica Fenwick, Jonathan Groff, and Priyanka Chopra Jonas have also joined the cast. No plot details, yet, but it will be written and directed by Lana Wachowski. The Matrix 4 is currently set to premier April 1, 2022. With Reeves’ John Wick 4 set for a May 2022 premiere, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these films is rescheduled.

Some have their doubts about the Wachowskis — or, at least, one of them — being able to bring back the old Matrix magic, given their less-than-stellar other attempts at the big screen. Even the second and third Matrix movies were somewhat (or even a lot) of a disappointment. Plus, now Lilly Wachowski is saying that the original Matrix story was a “trans allegory” all along. Sigh! That aside, do we really need another, possibly disappointing Matrix sequel nearly 20 years later? With Neo and Trinity back together, I’m willing to give keep my fingers crossed for a well-crafted story and more Matrix-style F/X.

Turns out, one person involved in the trilogy has voiced a theory about why those Matrix sequels didn’t quite pass muster. According to cinematographer Bill Pope:

“Everything that was good about the first experience was not good about the last two.

We weren’t free anymore. People were looking at you. There was a lot of pressure. In my heart, I didn’t like them. I felt we should be going in another direction. There was a lot of friction and a lot of personal problems, and it showed up on screen to be honest with you. It was not my most elevated moment, nor was it anyone else’s.

The Wachowskis had read this damn book by Stanley Kubrick that said, ‘Actors don’t do natural performances until you wear them out. So let’s go to take 90! I want to dig Stanley Kubrick up and kill him. There is something about making a shoot that long, 276 shoot days, that is mind numbing and soul numbing and it numbs the movie.”

Interesting comments. I’m sure there have been many decent movies made despite a lot of friction and personal problems. Just the nature of the business. But, there might be something to the part about Kubrick’s book influencing the Wachowskis to do tons of extra takes.

I know there are directors who like LOTS of takes to choose from, and some of them may ascribe to the same view that Kubrick did. But, it sounds like the Wachowskis took it even beyond the normal level. However, I think there is a fair chance or better that the new film won’t be another repeat. That glimmer of hope is that Reeves, Moss, and Pinkett-Smith remember those grueling shoots — how could they not? — and put something in their contracts to assure they wouldn’t have to go through such hell again.

As always, we shall see…

Review of Stargirl (TV series)

“I was but a lowly yet loyal page, cleaning the horses’ stables, yet King Arthur himself bestowed to me his sword upon his deathbed. He told me heroes can come from anywhere.” — Justin

The last TV series I reviewed was “Star Trek: Picard” back in April. But, “Stargirl” ended over a week ago, and I finished watching it this past weekend. So, here we go…

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!

In short, I *really* liked it!

Call it sweet or “full of heart” or “a bit corny” or whatever. It’s all those things, and that’s fine by me.

I liked that it had a (very intentionally) nostalgic feel, from the old-town Americana look of Blue Valley to the legacy of the Justice Society of America. IMHO, the original JSA has always fit better in the 1940s than the current age (the pilot shows their final defeat 10 years ago), but I think that’s an acceptable adjustment when trying to tweak the source material into real-time.

I thought Brec Bassinger did a great job as the central character, a young teen (‘Courtney’) uprooted and trying to fit in in a new town/school, getting used to a new stepdad, and secretly discovering/fighting supervillains while assuming a new-ish superhero identity (‘Stargirl’) of her own. She’s really cute, and her enthusiasm was infectious.

Then we have Yvette Monreal as ‘Yolanda’/’Wildcat’, Cameron Gellman as ‘Rick’/’Hourman’, and Anjelika Washington as ‘Beth’/’Dr. Mid-Nite’ — the rest of the new Justice Society — all of whom did fine jobs, as well. It was nice that they were fleshed out a bit as characters, so they had some issues of their own to work out. Same goes for the “bad guy” teens — Meg DeLacy as ‘Cindy’/’Shiv’ and Jake Austin Walker as the very conflicted ‘Henry Jr.’/’Brainwave Jr.’ (There were a couple others, of course, but they weren’t as integral to the story.)

I liked that some of the original JSA members were played (if only briefly) by familiar names — Joel McHale (‘Starman’), Henry Thomas (‘Dr. Mid-Nite’), and even Lou Ferrigno Jr. (‘Hourman’). Luke Wilson (‘Pat’/’Stripesy’) and Amy Smart (‘Barbara’) are also recognizable movie stars, so that was cool. I like them both, but ‘Pat’ and ‘Barbara’ could stand to discipline their children more. (See below.) Not like some of the other adults in the show do, though. (Yikes!) The addition of Mark Ashworth as the addled ‘Janitor Justin’/’Shining Knight’ was cool, too.

Clockwise from upper left: Wildcat, Stargirl, Icicle, Barbara, Dr. Mid-Nite, Pat, Brainwave, Hourman

The Injustice Society were perfectly despicable supervillains — arrogant, cocky, etc., with a nefarious plan to mind-control the populace. But, they were also the type that truly thought their plans, despite many “necessary” casualties, were necessary for the betterment of the nation and mankind as a whole. We found out that those plans were to make everyone believe in “progressive” causes (e.g., fighting “climate change”), and the good guys paused and thought, “That doesn’t sound so bad. Why are we stopping them?” I had to roll my eyes at the obvious socio-political statement being made by the creators. Apparently, the good guys would have been OK with manipulating millions of people minds, if it weren’t for the pesky fact that a certain percentage would die from resisting. Seriously?! Ugh!

Incidentally, I thought that Christopher James Baker (‘Henry Sr.’/’Brainwave’) and Neil Jackson (‘Jordan’/’Icicle’) really stood out as the most powerful and dangerous of the ISA. Neil Hopkins (“Crusher”/’Sportsmaster’) and Joy Osmanski’s (‘Paula’/’Tigress’) portrayals made me hate their characters on multiple levels, as well. I get the feeling that Nelson Lee’s ‘Dragon King’ would have been more impactful if we’d seen him unmasked and in action more and sooner. The rest of the ISA was OK. I’m glad we finally got to see and experience ‘Solomon Grundy’ full on, as he fought our heroes (especially young ‘Hourman’) in the finale. The aftermath of the end of that fight and of Wildcat’s should be quite interesting, and I hope we see it next season.

I may be a bit thick, ‘cuz I wondered for quite awhile why the Injustice Society settled down in Blue Valley, Nebraska — a sleepy, backwards little town in the middle of the heartland. Of course, Jordan had his project to revitalize the town, but why did it take him 10 years to get serious about it? As for the ISA as a whole, I realized that they were able to a) gain positions of power; b) remain unmolested by operating under the radar (and largely, literally underground); and c) once their great amplifier machine was in place and ‘Brainwave’ ready to do his thing, they could accomplish their goals from out there with much less risk of detection by anyone that might pose a threat. (Until Stargirl & Co. showed up, that is.)

Aside from the aforementioned socio-political statement, here are the things that bugged me:

Shiv

1) Mike was a terrible kid — disrespectful, irresponsible, and disobedient — and the adults in the house (including his own father) let him get away with soooo much. Sure, there are kids like that. And, sure, he could have been worse (e.g., violence, substance abuse, crime). But, those aren’t excuses. Also, his jealousy of Courtney’s increasing time spent with Pat can only explain some of Mike’s later behavior. He was a problem long before that. At least, he seemed to adjust his attitude a bit toward the end, once he finally was let in on the big secret.

2) Courtney and friends never really got any training sessions in, yet they were able to hold their own against experienced and very skilled (athletically or otherwise) supervillains. Not very realistic. It would have been better if there were a few weeks’ time built into the plot, over which our young heroes had time to test their limits and train both together and alone.

3) Let’s assume that the negative effects of Brainwave’s brainwashing of millions of people vanished, since the minimum 30 minutes exposure was not fulfilled. (How was it he was able to take a 5-minute break, anyway?) How in the world would the town be able to just shrug off the events that happened. All the non-adults saw the adults simultaneously go essentially catatonic for nearly half an hour. The teens out on the school football field saw the field slide open, revealing a hidden lab and a giant machine rose up in front of their eyes (before it was destroyed by Stargirl and Wildcat). Plus, a small percentage of the adults (like the one on the football field) died.

Well, those are the main three, anyway.

Still, like I said, I really enjoyed the show overall. There was teen angst, but not enough to ruin it. In fact there was a good mix of action, suspense, joy and wonder; both aggravating and heartwarming personal/family moments; wrestling with fear, anger, pain, grief, frustration, a need for revenge; etc. The end of the season finale showed us another shadowy bad guy arriving in the Injustice Society’s lair, Cindy/Shiv located the Eclipso “Heart of Darkness” gem in some storage room, and the real Starman is on his way to Blue Valley. Lots of questions, lots of potential. I can hardly wait for Season 2 to get here! 🙂

Star Trek Movie Plans on Hold

“I’m a movie executive, not a fortuneteller!” — anyone?

Just when we were beginning to wonder — well, I was — about the fate of Star Trek on the big screen, we got some news the other day. The upshot of it all is that there have been three Star Trek movie projects in development, and they have all now been put in limbo….

As you might remember (especially if you read my blogpost from Dec. 2019), there was some question about whether Quentin Tarantino would move forward on his proposed ST idea, with or without the script that The Revenant‘s Mark L. Smith had written for him. Well, it turns out that Tarantino has indeed moved on. But, Smith’s script — “largely earthbound in a ’30s gangster setting”, so possibly inspired by the classic series episode “A Piece of the Action” — was still being considered. (It is referred to as a spinoff, but it’s unclear to me who the main characters would be.)

The second project, of course, would bring back the JJ-verse cast for Star Trek 4. At one point, they were trying to get Chris Hemsworth to somehow return as James Kirk’s father, George. But, as I reported elsewhere, it all came down to there not being enough money to afford him *and* the rest of the crew. Director S.J. Clarkson was on board, but since left to direct a “Game of Thrones” spinoff for HBO. (It didn’t get picked up, so maybe she’s available again?)

Then there was the project from “Fargo”‘s Noah Hawley. Reports originally indicated this would involve at least some of the JJ-verse cast (Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban), but Hawley told THR earlier this year that his ST spinoff would likely have a new cast. The plot centered around “a virus that wipes out vast parts of the known universe.” (Probably not the best way to go during a real-life, global pandemic.) This one had advanced to a “soft prep” phase. But,…

Enter Emma Watts, former president of production at Twentieth Century Studios and recently-hired president of Paramount’s motion picture group. As part of her (re-)assessment of Paramount Pictures’ current slate of films, it was announced that Watts was “paus[ing]” Hawley’s project. This effectively halts *any* movement forward on Star Trek movies, while Watts decides the best course of action to take for the franchise. Final decisions probably won’t be made for a few weeks, but this seems like a sensible and responsible move. Whichever way Paramount goes with this could make or break the film end of the franchise, which (despite issues with the JJ-verse) is a potential cash-cow.

I’m not crazy about either the Hawley or Tarantino/Smith ideas, though I suppose they might work for spinoffs. As for the main franchise, it makes more sense to keep the current ‘Enterprise’ crew cast and just focus on stories more in line with the classic Trek stuff. As Nerdist‘s Eric Diaz put it,

“The wisest thing Paramount could do is make mid-level budget films, so a new Trek movie doesn’t have to rely on huge foreign box office to be profitable. This tactic worked great in the ’80s and ’90s. Paramount might want to look back at that success as a guidebook on how to successfully bring Star Trek to life again on the big screen.”

He may have a good point there. What do you think?

Babylon 5: Sci-Fi Pioneer

“Babylon 5 was the last of the Babylon stations. This is its story….” — opening narration

Babylon 5 was (and still is) an amazing series with an incredibly loyal fanbase, from original viewers to the newly-initiated. In fact, B5 (as the show is affectionately known) is notable for several things that make it a sort of “pioneer” in the genre.

With that in mind, SyFy’s Ryan Britt wrote an article last year titled, “5 Things Babylon 5 Did That Changed Science Fiction Forever”. I wanted to share it with my readers, but the article includes several spoilery revelations about the fates of various characters. So, this is slightly pared-down, spoiler-free version of Britt’s article.

The “5 Things” are:

1) The fandom was one of the first sci-fi fandoms born on the Internet

“Created by J. Michael Straczynski and produced by Warner Bros., Babylon 5 actually created some advanced grassroots buzz on a platform that was relatively new in the early ’90s: the Internet.

As early as 1991, Straczynski employed forums on Usenet, Genie, and Compuserve to essentially blog about the then-in-development series. Straczynski assumed huge sci-fi fans were early adopters of “going online,” and he was right. Even after the show began airing in 1994, there was already a built-in fan base, one Straczynski could communicate with directly to answer questions about canon and continuity. The present-day corollary of this would be like there were suddenly only like 3 new sci-fi shows coming out next year, and only one of them had a Reddit AMA.”

Oddly enough, though I worked in the IT field at the time, I was a late-adopter and didn’t often use online forums. So, I was never a part of that. But, it was definitely forward-thinking on Straczynski’s part, and it seemed to pay off for him.

2) Tie-in comics and novels were intended to be canon

“Though short-lived, DC Comics published an ongoing Babylon 5 comic book series starting in January 1995, a few months after the Season 2 premiere. The first few stories were written by Straczynski and told stories that filled in gaps missing in the TV series. [At this point, Britt gives some spoilery info about one of the characters.]

Similarly, 18 original Babylon 5 novels (not counting novelizations of episodes or TV movies) were published in the ’90s. Of those, only 7 books are not considered canon, while all the other ones totally are. When it comes to tie-in media, specifically books and comic, this is almost never the case.”

The “What is official canon?” question is one that plagues other fandoms (e.g., Star Trek, Star Wars). Tighter control and/or clearer rules would seem to be a good way to go.

Since I was an avid comic collector, I certainly remember those B5 comics. But, I never bought any. Didn’t buy Star Trek comics, either, despite being a big-time Trekker. I just never found them all that enjoyable, for some reason. (Some of the later Star Wars, Aliens, and Predator-based comics by Dark Horse, on the other hand, caused me to part with quite a few dollars.) I never tried any of the B5 novels, but I may have to see if my library carries any….

3) Computer-generated special effects

“Part of the trouble Babylon 5 faced during its run was the fact that it was an epic show with a budget that was significantly lower than its competitors. An average episode of Babylon 5 had a budget of about $800,000 while an average Deep Space Nine episode had a budget of $1.6 million. (Sidenote: When you look at the finances, was Deep Space Nine really the black sheep many people claim it was?)

The point is, B5 had to find a way to work within that budget, but still tell its story. And though this may seem shocking now, in the early and mid-’90s, CGI was not the default for sci-fi special effects. Most big sci-fi shows and movies (like Star Trek) all still used physical models, which are notoriously more expensive. But all of B5’s spaceships and space stations were made in a computer. It may not look amazing today, but an all-CGI approach was rare, particularly because unlike a CGI underwater show like seaQuest, the outer space scenes in Babylon 5 couldn’t hide any of the limitations of early CGI with cloudy water or schools of fish.”

I remember being very impressed with B5’s visual effects. Nowadays, I suspect even some computer games have more refined, better-looking, hi-def graphics, so someone who is used to today’s tech will not be as awed as some of us were back in the day. (I think that’s a big factor in newcomers to the Trek franchise being unimpressed with the Original Series, or even the TNG era stuff.)

4) Main characters died or left (and stayed dead or gone)

“Famously a lot of characters die or are written out of Babylon 5 in very, very dramatic ways. [Britt then gives several examples of this, so if you haven’t watched the series all the way through, you should NOT read that section of Britt’s article.]”

This is, of course, a two-edged sword and was a big risk for Straczynski. On the one hand, it lent an air of realism or authenticity to the show, knowing that no one was “safe”. (Of course, only Straczynski knew who was crucial to keep alive for his overall story versus who was expendable or would die heroically/tragically.) On the other hand, loyal viewers don’t usually appreciate having their favorite characters killed off, and they can be very vocal (or otherwise demonstrable) about their disapproval.

5) Golden Age of TV story arcs before the golden age

“Sci-fi fans and television pundits alike will tell you that the biggest difference between TV “then” and TV “now” is that old school TV was usually constrained by episodic standalone episodes, rather than big serialized story arcs. These days, shows with big arcs are the norm — from Breaking Bad to Game of Thrones to Star Trek: Discovery — and it’s super unlikely for shows not to invest in season-long story arcs.

When Babylon 5 started airing, doing complicated story arcs was basically unheard of; in 1994, The Sopranos was still five years away, and although Deep Space Nine did several have [sic] different story arcs, there were also plenty of standalone episodes sprinkled in the mix early on.

But, from the very start, Babylon 5 was actually pretty hard to watch if you hadn’t watched the previous episodes. And unlike pretty much every single sci-fi show ever, there wasn’t really a writers’ room of any kind, as Straczynski wrote 92 of the 110 teleplays for Babylon 5’s five-season run. Keep in mind, this was the ’90s, so these seasons were long. To date, no other sci-fi series has as many episodes actually written by its creator. To be clear, Straczynski doesn’t just have “story credit” on these teleplays. He actually is the only person who wrote 92 of the 110 teleplays.

So, even if the special effects might not hold-up or the crazy hair of the Centauri is a little too much for you to handle, there’s one thing Babylon 5 has more than almost any other sci-fi show: It was the vision of one writer, and that writer completed the story in its entirety. Straczynski called it “a novel for television,” and there’s never been another show like it since.”

That massive, pre-planned story arc revealing the creator’s vision was definitely one of the main selling points for me. The B5 “universe”, wonderful writing, great characters, humor, etc., were what kept me coming back.

P.S. If you choose to comment below, please remember that, unlike some of my series reviews, for example, this post is a “SPOILER FREE” zone. Newcomers and those not yet through the entire series may be reading, and we don’t want to, er, spoil any significant plot/character developments for them. Thx.

15 SF Books to Read While Self-Isolating

As long-time followers of this blog know, I have recommended several genre novel series over the years. (I might do another post like that later this year, assuming I have access to the necessary books and time to read them, of course.) This time, I came across some cool recommendations from someone else that I thought you would like.

Five years ago, Paul Goodman of EpicStream wrote an article with his “15 Sci-Fi Books You Should Definitely Read”, a mix of classics and newer stuff. I looked them over and decided to share his list/comments — all on one page but w/ fewer pics — along with a few brief comments of my own.

15) Ancillary Justice (by Ann Leckie)

“This Hugo Award winning novel tells the story of a soldier named Breq, who was was once the consciousness of a massive starship linked to hundreds and thousands of soldiers in the service of a vast interstellar empire. Now trapped into a single human body, Breq is drawn into a vast conspiracy spanning the stars while she seeks revenge against those who destroyed her other selves.”

This sounds vaguely familiar to me. The idea of the ship’s AI reminds me of the Brain and Brawn Ship Series by Anne McCaffrey et al., except in reverse. (Of course, there are other authors who make use of the idea, too.) This book is actually the first in The Imperial Radch Trilogy, which continues in Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy. I’m definitely going to check it out!

14) Starship Troopers (by Robert A. Heinlein)

“Probably legendary writer Robert A. Heinlein’s most well-known work, Starship Troopers is a military sci-fi novel that’s actually pretty light on the action (unlike the movie). Focusing on the life of Juan “Johnnie” Rico and his career in the Mobile Infantry, the novel discusses the philosophy of war and civic virtue with an galaxy-wide war between humanity and an arachnoid species as the backdrop.”

I talked a bit about this book, the “ancestral text of U.S. science fiction militarism”, last year when celebrating its 60th anniversary. It’s one of those that I keep thinking I really ought to read but just haven’t been in the mood. But, it *is* on my To-Read list…

13) Neuromancer (by William Gibson)

“One of the earliest books in the cyberpunk genre of science fiction, Neuromancer is the story of Henry Case, a drug-addicted, down-on-his luck computer hacker hired to pull off the ultimate digital heist in a dystopian future.”

I discussed Gibson’s novel (first in a series, I believe) in a related post honoring its 35th anniversary last year. Given my IT background, you might think that I would have read it already. But, though it has been on my radar for some time, it just never really interested to me. After re-reading its summary, I just may need to give it a chance.

12) John Dies at the End (by David Wong)

“More of a sci-fi horror comedy, this novel stars John and Dave, two friends who end up getting drawn into the weird, wacky, and downright horrifying paranormal craziness of their unnamed midwestern town. You’ll never look at soy sauce the same way again after this one.”

Despite the morbid title and paranormal focus, which I don’t normally find appealing, the fact that it is also a comedy has me intrigued. Will it have sort of a Ghostbusters vibe? More like “Supernatural”? Or, something totally its own? I dunno. But, I’m willing to track down a copy and try it. You?

11) War of the Worlds (by H.G. Wells)

“One of the oldest (and probably most well known) alien invasion stories of all time, War of the Worlds depicts the fall of London under the onslaught of Martian war machines, and the collapse of civilization as humanity struggles to repel the invaders.”

This is the elder statesmen of the classics listed here, having celebrated its 120th anniversary back in 2018. I honestly can’t remember for sure if I ever read it. I did, however, listen to an audiobook production voiced by various Star Trek actors. (That almost counts, right?) I really should add this one to my To-Read list, too, along with a few of Wells’ other works.

10) Eisenhorn (by Dan Abnett)

“Now you’re probably wondering, “Why is a book based off the Warhammer 40,000 board game on this list?” and I’ll tell you – because this trilogy by Dan Abnett is really, really good. Far from your typical 40k book (most of them seem to center on space marines shooting and stabbing stuff), Eisenhorn focuses on the secret espionage and political intrigue of the Imperium, and follows the rise and downfall of an imperial agent as he tries to root out treachery and evil within the Imperium’s ranks.”

Back when I was a regular comic book reader, I remember Abnett co-writing various titles with Andy Lanning. Not one of my top 5 writers but good enough for me to be curious about any novels he has written. Not being a gamer, I don’t know much about Warhammer 40K, nor do I have much interest, tbh. But, this particular focus sounds interesting, and hopefully I won’t feel too lost trying to figure stuff out.

What Goodman didn’t explain is that Eisenhorn is actually an omnibus print of a trilogy: Xenos, Malleus, and Hereticus. A fourth book, The Magos (short stories spanning Gregor Eisenhorn’s life & career), came out since Goodman’s article, which leads directly into Pariah, part of another 40K series.

9) Blindsight (by Peter Watts)

“One of my personal favorites, Blindsight is a unique take on how humanity would make first contact with an alien life form. In the post-singularity future, a team of transhuman specialists are sent to investigate an unknown radio signal in the outskirts of our solar system, and encounter an extraterrestrial life form of terrifying intelligence. This novel delves deep into what it means to have free will, game theory and evolution, and is a great read for anyone who appreciates science fiction that forgos [sic] laser pistols and warp drives for hard science.”

I have to admit, I love “laser pistols and warp drives”. But, sometimes one needs something a bit more intellectually challenging. Sounds like Watts is one of those authors that can deliver really good ‘hard SF’, along with the likes of Clarke, Niven, Bear, Robinson, etc. This one sounds quite intriguing, especially once you find out more about the first-contact team. I’m in!

Oh, there’s also a sequel titled Echopraxia.

8) Ender’s Game (by Orson Scott Card)

“This classic sci-fi novel presents a grim future where humanity has been dragged into a war with an insectoid species apparently bent on our annihilation. A group of childen [sic], including the story’s protaganist [sic] Ender Wiggen, are drafted into the elite Battle School in the hopes of preparing them to defend against an invasion by a numerous, powerful foe.”

Now, this one I have actually read (and enjoyed), along with one or two of the sequels. Maybe not ‘hard SF’, but definitely thought-provoking. Thumbs-up!

7) Dune (by Frank Herbert)

“No best science fiction list is ever complete without mention of Frank Herbet’s [sic] grand epic. A huge cast of characters, intergalactic political intrigue, giant sandworms – there’s a lot going on and it’s all a great read.”

I discussed the original Dune‘s 55th anniversary in a post earlier this year. Fans of this novel and its sequels are probably among the most dedicated for any SF series, yet I have never been among them. Of course, the world (not just one planet) created by Herbert is quite complex, and I suppose I just wasn’t prepared to fully immerse myself in it. That was probably around 30 years ago when I tried it, so it may be time to give it another go. One more for the list…

6) Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas (by John Scalzi)

“A tounge-in-cheek [sic] look at the infamous “redshirt” trope of the original Star Trek series, Redshirts follows Ensign Andrew Dahl as he tries to stay alive while accompanying the starship Intrepid‘s bridge crew on increasingly more dangerous away missions to alien worlds.”

Now this looks like a lot of fun, especially for a longtime Trekker like me! I’ve heard good things about Scalzi (Creative Consultant for “Stargate: Universe”) but have never tried one of his novels. This may be just the right introduction for me. As one Amazon reviewer put it, “Not only does it parody Roddenberry’s baby, but, startlingly, it demonstrates heart. It ends up resonating on an emotional level. Which is weird for a parody.” I’m always up for cleverly written humor and inside jokes, so count me in for this one, too!

5) The Hyperion Cantos (by Dan Simmons)

Hyperion (and its sequel The Fall of Hyperion) tells the stories of a strange group of travelers who have been sent on a pilgrimage to the planet Hyperion, home to the mysterious Shrike – a violent creature that appears to be unbound by time.”

Many, many moons ago, I had a quasi-co-worker who I met with for lunch once a week. He was a voracious reader, especially in the SF/fantasy genres, so we talked a lot about books & movies and even took the occasional long lunch to visit a used bookstore. One of the books he used to rave about was the then-recently-published Hyperion. He just thought it was the coolest thing, and I promised I’d check it out. Fast-forward roughly 30 years, and I still haven’t read it. What is WRONG with me?!

OK, I’m moving Hyperion up several spots in my To-Read list, followed by The Fall of Hyperion. Btw, the Hyperion Cantos is actually a tetralogy, since Simmons published Endymion and The Rise of Endymion a few years later. Hope I’m not disappointed…

4) The Forever War (by Joe Haldeman)

“This award-winning military sci-fi novel details the life of William Mandella, who is drafted to fight against an enemy known as the Taurans. Unfortunately, due to the relativistic effects of space travel, Mandella finds himself aging only a few scant years compared to the decades and centuries passing on Earth, and having to deal with the extreme cultural shifts and technological advances made by both humanity and its alien foes.”

This modern classic came out in 1974, but I only got around to reading it a couple years ago. (I think I picked up a cheap copy of a 2005 printing.) It was fairly interesting and I enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t list it among my favorites. Worth the read, though.

3) Seveneves (by Neal Stephenson)

“An extensive examination of what humanity’s future may be like among the stars, Seveneves begins with the destruction of Earth’s moon, followed by humanity’s attempt to evacuate into space and then flash forwards thousands of years later to the struggles of a genetically engineering humanity as it attempts to recolonize a newly terraformed Earth.”

I remember many years ago that I often noticed a very thick book by Stephenson in the library (not the one I go to now). It was rather daunting, and I could never bring myself to try it. (Don’t even remember which book it was, now.) But, when I saw his name on this list, it piqued my interest, as did the very brief description of this novel (~860 pages) provided by Goodman.

However, I found this review on Amazon: “The SocialJusticeWarrior themes (men bad/women good, pointless homosexuality, Globalism/multiCulturalism, etc.) were so over-the-top that I had trouble getting through the book. Totally unbelievable, ridiculous action sequences, and a ridiculous beginning premise (the Moon is mysteriously blown apart by a vague ‘agent’). Men are literally rendered extinct while a ridiculously small/incapable group of women somehow re-constitute human civilization.”

If accurate, that is *very* disappointing. I’ll probably pass this one up.

2) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (by Philip K. Dick)

“Most famously known as the novel inspiring the classic film Blade Runner, this novel by Phillip K. Dick explores what it means to be human as it follows the story of a bounty hunter on a mission to eliminate a group of rogue androids in a post-apocalyptic future.”

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I never read this book and am only a moderate fan of the Blade Runner movie. To be honest, not much of Dick’s material interests me, for some reason. But, I am curious what this one is like — if only I can get the Blade Runner images out of my head….

1) Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (by Douglas Adams)

“Seriously, if you haven’t read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, stop what you’re doing right now and go pick it up. A fantastic, comedic read about a poor hapless human named Arthur Dent as he traverses the odd corners of the universe with alien explorer Ford Prefect, this novel is just a flat-out entertaining read and a must-have for any sci-fi fan.”

I read Hitchhiker’s Guide and (I think) three of the sequels many years ago. Loved ’em! There’s just something about the quirky, British humor and bizarre ideas Adams comes up with that make the series a real joy. (Even the depressed and paranoid android!) I think I have a compendium of four or five (of the six) books in the series around here somewhere. It may be time to put this on the Re-read List, eh? It beats Vogon poetry!

Did you find a few to add to your To-Read list?

As for me, I’ve only read three for sure, and most of the others sound good. I can’t decide whether to prioritize the newer ones (e.g., Scalzi, Wong, Watts) or get a few more classics (e.g., Dick, Gibson, Heinlein) under my belt first. Regardless, it’s a good thing my library has curbside pick-up…

On Board Games, Community, and Quarantine

Board games can be a lot of fun. I used to own a few of the classics — e.g., Monopoly, Life, Careers, Payday, Trivial Pursuit (original Master Game – Genus Edition) — and a childhood friend had Stratego and a couple others. I spent many entertaining hours of my youth playing these with friends and family. Tbh, though, I haven’t had the opportunity to play much for quite awhile now. Still,… good times.

I recently ran across an article by a guy named Christopher Hunt, who was *really* into board games. He raised some interesting questions about collecting games (and much of it applies to other collections, as well). Here’s an excerpt:

“A board-game geek long before it was cool, I became a participating witness to this “more is more” phenomenon, having built up a moderately large collection of games. At some point, though, I began to ask a question that bordered on sacrilege with other gamers. Is more really more, as all those shelfies seem to insist, or is it less in disguise? In turn, I asked another question: what is the purpose of a game, anyway?

With my own game collection, I encountered a frustrating conundrum. Some of the coolest games I owned failed to appeal much to my friends and consequently did little more than decorate my shelf. Another problem was the shrinking amount of leisure time I had to actually play games. In college and grad school, a group of us played games every week. But with a growing family and career, I found my free time significantly curtailed. All my friends experienced something similar; weeks, even months, would go by between gaming sessions. And so, while I had this collection of really neat games, I couldn’t get many of them on the table.

 

At some point, the conviction dawned on me that a game is only as good as my ability to actually play it. A game that is never played — no matter how cool it is — does not fulfill its creative purpose. It offers no satisfaction, just discontent and frustration…. When played, a board game naturally fosters in-person interaction, fellowship, and delight. But one that sits on the shelf yields no fruit.”

A very valid point.

He wrote that three years ago. Now, with the social-distancing and quarantines — voluntary or otherwise — due to the COVID-19 pandemic, getting groups together for gaming in-person isn’t an option. (For now, anyway.) So, he wrote another article fairly recently about that and its impact on friendships and community. As before, here’s a (rather large) excerpt:

“Board games are the very definition of in-person, communal activities. As a community group leader in my church, I facilitate a monthly game night, when folks come together to play strategy games like Ticket to Ride, Lords of Waterdeep, or . . . erm . . . Pandemic. It’s as much about being together as it is playing a game.

As COVID-19 shut normal social interactions down, our communities have been tested. We’re seeing that they find a way to persevere and hang together or they fly apart. Those communities who avoid dispersion act intentionally to hold the community together. That’s what most churches have done in quarantine, making in-person communal worship virtual-communal worship. For my board-gaming group, we needed a similar solution to keep the community intact. Thankfully, online platforms like Steam make it possible for our group to come together around a game virtually, yet in-person.

Steam is a digital distribution platform for games featuring over 30,000 titles, ranging from video games to virtual-reality experiences to board games in every genre imaginable. Indeed, Steam is home to thousands of board gamers who prefer to play online. But for table-top gamers, the system is a true godsend. The system makes it very easy to get started and facilitates voice chat while you play, which is key to creating that virtual, in-person experience. Lots of platforms for board games exist out there, some easier to use than others, but the important thing is to have a helpful hub. For our first game night under quarantine we pulled up Lords of Waterdeep and settled into a match of wits, guts, and resource management. While not the same thing as being in person, it gave us that port in a storm to hold together our community.

Online gaming has allowed me to maintain relationships that have been disrupted on other fronts. I run a league out of a local game store for the table-top fantasy football game Blood Bowl, in which traditional fantasy creatures — elves, dwarves, and orcs — play a mashup of American football and rugby. “Coaches” play in leagues and develop their teams over the course of a season….

So with COVID-19, we want to hold these friendships especially close. Unable to look forward to in-person matches each week, we found solace online, where there is already a well-established digital community available through the old-school FUMBBL client and the more up-to-date Blood Bowl 2. Although we’d much rather play our games in person, we’re able to continue our community for the time being on these digital platforms.”

One o’ these days, if I ever get a hankerin’ to try a new board game, maybe I’ll try out something on Steam. It’s good to know — especially for introverts like me — that this stuff is out there. 🙂