Appreciating the Puppets

So, I’m apparently on a “write about super heroes and science fiction” trend.

As family keeps arriving to visit the new baby, there are many movies to be watched during baby’s nap times. And, because I have the coolest extended family ever, Dr. Who is, of course, an obvious choice for said movies. Specifically, this week we voted for classic Dr. Who movies with Tom Baker as the Doctor. Of course, such classic films from the 70’s bring about comedic commentary on what a colleague referred to as “cheesy” special effects…in this case, a giant alien grasshopper-looking creature and a metamorphosing man who’s green alien appendage looked suspiciously like colored bubble wrap.

I was reminded of another science fiction program to which I held long term loyalty (and occasionally enjoy re-watching), FarscapeFarscape preceded widespread use of computer generated effects by some time. I have especially fond memories of watching new episodes in my old bachelor apartment in my first days of life-after-college. The series, produced by Jim Henson Productions, featured puppet-style aliens that were quite impressive. Of course, modern make-up had long produced outstanding aliens in series such as Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space NineThis was because this type of creative make-up and building of puppets was the norm at that time, and those who practiced the art were quite good.

During my theatrical adventures, I’ve worked with some amazing make-up artists. I’ve been aged and made younger. I’ve had a gruesomely realistic rope burn placed on my neck when I played a character who had returned from the dead after being hanged. There’s something really special about the kinesthetic process of building special make-up effects, puppets, and masks. I loved that this art translated so beautifully to the screen, as well as the stage.

And, today, I just don’t see it any more, or at least not as prominently. There are now science-fiction programs featuring completely computer generated characters and backgrounds, in which the actors film almost exclusively in front of a green screen. I admire the ability of the actors to do this. I miss, though, the artistry of the puppets and amazing make-up effects used to create alien races and all manner of wild visuals. I respect the skill of the animators and graphic artists, don’t get me wrong. Tron remains, in my opinion, one of the greatest artistic achievements of our age. Digital artists are of just as amazing a talent as make-up and costume artists, and I find it particularly beautiful when all of these disciplines work together.

I just miss the exclusivity of the puppet-building, make-up brush-wielding, alien creators of science-fiction programming of yesterday. Call it nostalgia. Call it old-school. There was just something about those giant puppet aliens. Don’t you think?

Photo Attribution: X-Ray Delta One

Bad Wolf: The Retrospective

Doctor Who: Series Six, Part One [Blu-ray]I was having dinner with friends Monday night, and (all of us being at least somewhat of a nerd-like bent) the topic of Dr. Who came up in conversation. Because, lets face it, if you’ve watched Dr. Who for very long, you have to concur that there really isn’t any other television program worth discussing over dinner. Three of us were raving about the current season, and explaining the series to another person at the table, while making plans for a marathon weekend in which we could catch up the uninitiated friend so that she will be addicted, also (because friends should do that for each other). Someone in the conversation referenced some research she had done on all of the previous incarnations of the Doctor, and that she didn’t understand how I was able to store all of the information that I remember about the Doctor, and his companions, and his adventures.

Perhaps I’m just getting old, but I’ve had this thing for nostalgia over the past few years. At first, it only surfaced during the holidays. More recently, its been showing up rather unexpectedly in various places that I least expect. But for a few moments as my friends and I talked on Monday, I vividly recalled the Saturday night ritual of my childhood: staying up late to watch Dr. Who on PBS. I’ve loved many a science fiction adventure since, but never in quite the same way.

My friend said she didn’t understand this, similar to how she didn’t understand how a gentleman she knows is able to recall classic baseball games, with the players and scores and all other relevant data, upon request. My theory is that it has something to do with the age at which we were exposed. If my father had made it a point to take me to baseball games, I likely would have developed a similar interest. However, we lived nowhere near a major sports arena, and my mother was a science fiction lover. Interestingly, she was first exposed to Star Trek at about the same age at which I was exposed to Dr. Who. She’s been an enduring Trekkie ever since, and can recall Star Trek trivia with the same precise ability that I have for Dr. Who. Something about falling in love with something that we’re encouraged to enjoy in those formative years makes it stick.

There are other stories and universes to which I’ve grown close, of course:  X-Men, James Bond, and others. Perhaps those just don’t hold with them that same sense of family unity that Dr. Who holds. We occasionally sat down together to watch a Bond film, but every Saturday night for years brought Dr. Who to our living room…from the time I was so young that I fell asleep during the episodes, forward. During my middle school days, I went with some friends to see an touring exhibit of Dr. Who. I still have one of the question mark lapel pins to this day. A poster of K-9 hangs above my writing desk, and I seriously want one of these.

I’ve grown into whatever level of storyteller I am in part of because of the amazing story arcs of Dr. Who (plots unduplicated in the rest of science fiction, as far as I’m concerned…and I think many would agree). I learned to appreciate the intelligent, complex, and engaging adventures of a character who abhorred violence and held his intellect as his greatest weapon. I’ve watched the character grow through the years, and religiously watch every episode today. And, through it all, I’ve maintained that sense of togetherness and safety that formed the base from which we engaged in those adventures in other times and far away lands.

So, yes, perhaps I am getting more nostalgic as I get older. I’ll accept that. And it will only get worse, dear reader, because, unlike the Doctor, I won’t regenerate. You will always continue to find the Doctor referenced here at times, though, because the character and his adventures have become that referent, that signal that helps me orient myself to a more innocent time, to the foundation for my current adventures. I find the insights and “what if” questions posed by the series everywhere, informing my worldview as though seeing “Bad Wolf” graffiti for myself at every turn.

And, if you know what I’m talking about when I say that, then I’m certain you understand.

Greetings, Program!

Tron: The Original Classic (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo) From the first trailer forward, I couldn’t wait to get to the theatre to see Tron: Legacy. If, by some odd chance, you have haven’t seen it yet, I recommend you do so in 3D. Visually, the movie is spectacular. From a story perspective, though, it just doesn’t stand up to the original.

Now, in making the confession I’m about to make, I recognize that I will lose some serious geek cred with many readers. In the interest of truth, however, the admission must be made: I had not watched the original in so long that there were some nuances to the story that had faded from my memory. In fact, I knew that there were references going on that I should have been able to catch, but that were escaping me.

This prompted a search for a copy of the original, as I realized I could no longer be a true geek without the original movie in my library. I pre-ordered the most current re-release from Amazon, and  watched with family and fellow fans last week.

And, oh, the things you see in things you haven’t seen for a while.

(I’m going to assume in what follows that you’ve seen the original Tron. If not, stop reading right now and go fix that. Seriously. Go.)

Immediately upon Flynn’s arrival in the world of the computer, one program asks another if he believes in the Users. The second program replies that he has to believe in the Users…otherwise, how could he be there if no one had written him? The “bad guys” of the MCP ridicule those who believe in the Users as engaging in silly religious superstition. Yet, Tron is driven (cheesy dialogue notwithstanding) to make contact with his User, the one that wrote him. This contact must take place at an I/O tower (Input/Output…remember, they’re in the virtual world when it was just beginning to be a virtual world). Upon making contact with his User, Tron is given the power to destroy the evil MCP and restore balance to his world.

Another critical element of the story is Flynn. Flynn is of our world, and is taken by the MCP into the world of the computer. Of course, the metaphor breaks down very quickly, but its difficult to not find incarnational imagery there.

The fact that Tron is about the triumph of faith over the attempts of those in power to destroy it escaped me when I watched the movie as a child. At that point, it was simply an amazing special effects extravaganza, the likes of which I had never before witnessed. Indeed, the movie was visually far ahead of its time. Moreover, though, Tron predicted, as good science fiction does, the world that was coming, and the danger of the computer world enslaving its creators to its bidding. This is not a new theme in science fiction, of course, but Tron portrayed it so much more realistically…futuristic, but so near-future as to be entirely plausible in the viewer’s mind.

The programs who are enslaved persist in their belief in the Users. When realizing that Flynn is a User, Tron assumes that everything he is doing is “according to a plan, right?” Flynn  discounts this, saying that improvisation is his strategy. Tron is in disbelief, insisting, “That’s the way it is for programs, yes.” Flynn counters with, “Well, I hate to break it to ya, pal, but that’s usually how it is for Users, too.” At first blush, this would appear to be the writers advocating a less-than-sovereign theology of sorts. I think its more of a statement on man as a creator, though…a creator recognizing his limitations and confessing them to his creation.

The programs’ desire to communicate with their Users is essentially prayer, and the practice is prohibited by the MCP’s regime as the I/O towers, which function as temples or churches in that they are the places that this prayer occurs, are kept open but not in use. When Tron restores balance to the digital world, the first thing that the characters comment on are “all the I/O towers lighting up.”

Tron predicted a future that one could argue we’ve already realized. It also argued for the validity and perseverance of faith, as well as posing the scenario of man’s creation dividing into a good and evil: the evil attempting to rule its creator, the good taken captive but still clinging to a belief in man as its creator…and hoping for salvation from that creator. Moreover, it poses the age-old science-fiction question of, what would life look like when man creates it himself? The difference is that the image here is less fatalistic than Shelley, and much more realistic in its time.

I didn’t get half of that from watching Tron when I was young, but its so apparent now. That’s proof, I think, that the layers of a good story reveal themselves when you keep watching or reading.

In Absentia

As a writer, I understand the need for a good cliffhanger ending as much as the next guy…especially when writing a serial that requires an ongoing story arc. The beauty of these ongoing story arcs is the room that they give to develop characters, and myriads of plots and subplots that can run their course and segue easily into new twists and turns. This is an advantage inherent to all serial story lines, television programming and comic books alike. With television programming, the cliffhanger ending becomes a bit more important at the end of the season. The viewer has to be on the edge of their seat, crying out with the cruelty of being left without resolution to what they have just seen, and knowing that they will be thinking about the potential outcomes of the situation constantly over the next few months until they finally discover what happens next.

The writers for Bones attempted this at the end of last season, and failed miserably. The writers of Haven have very recently succeeded for me (in moments of quiet, my thoughts frequently drift back to the two main characters, weapons drawn, staring down Audrey’s doppelganger, and I wonder, “now what?”).

In the last week, I was left hanging by the ending of Stargate: SGU. This is the only installment of the Stargate series that’s ever been worth a consideration as serious television, in my humble opinion. While I understand that fans of the other Stargate series have been mostly disappointed with SGU, I’ve been riveted by its dark explorations of interpersonal dynamics, ethics, and social governance. I’m aching to find out what will happen to Chloe, and I’m simultaneously disturbed and fascinated by Rush. And, I’ve been left hanging at a critical plot juncture for (wait for it) four months!

That’s right, four months. Much longer than the average break between seasons, and this wasn’t even the season finale. This is a mid-season break that occurs with programming on the SyFy network. This is because a shift from it’s regular programming occurred when, for some reason I can’t explain, SyFy apparently acquired WWE Smackdown. Apparently this occurred after a channel with programming known for great writing that inspired thinking stopped thinking itself about the English language, and began pandering for how much money it could shamelessly make.

And, of course, that same pandering for money has led to the cancellation of SGU, because Nielson ratings aren’t yet intelligent enough to track anything other than the dinosaur that is cable television.

Really? WWE Smackdown???

I’m just disturbed, because there’s precious little intelligent programming left on American screens to begin with. So, when a well-written and thought-provoking program (read: unpopular, because the average viewer has no desire to actually think) is put up against a wrestling program that requires nothing more of the viewer than drooling and shoving corn ships into his mouth, then well-written and thought-provoking loses.

And, we’re one step closer to the world envisioned in Idiocracy. Because that’s what happens when quality art is subjected to the whim of corporations interested only in their profits: Another amazing  story dies an ignoble death.

Ironically, that’s exactly what we couldn’t afford to have happen.

A Review of “Snow Crash”

Snow CrashSnow Crash by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Shuffled naturally into science-fiction as I was during my childhood, I grew up with the post-apocalyptic noir of the cyber-punk genre, and grew to love the visual aesthetic. I had looked forward to reading Snow Crash for some time, and was immediately drawn into frenzied pace of the first pizza delivery.

Something that good science fiction does is present a statement, often a warning, of the outcomes of current courses of events. One of the markers for good science fiction in my mind is if I’m troubled by the world presented, and can think, “I see how we get there from here.” Science fiction plays with the “what if?” that society needs to read and see to be aware of where we could be headed if we keep doing what we’re doing.

In that vein, the world that Stephenson presents is instantly captivating. Even within cyber-punk, this is the most original setting I’ve read for some time. Within these pages is a wonderful commentary on the ludicrous impulse of the American experiment to privatize everything. This is what happens if the Libertarians take power. The characters are living in the context of the anarchy that complete privatization and lack of government brings. Then, they create the Metaverse (the last peaceful place in existence), but it, too, becomes violent. Man remains unable to find himself benevolent in any way as his narcissistic collection of franchised conformity spirals out of control around him in a hail of bullets.

What took me aback about Snow Crash was the religious component. There’s a theology at work in Stephenson’s thought; a really strange, mish-mashed attempt at a theology, at least, that reaches a disappointing fruition. In cyber-punk, humanity melds itself with technology in an attempt to make it’s own eschatology. Here, Stephenson seems to make a full-blown religion out of man’s technological foray. His thrust is that modern “hackers,” or dualistic philosophers (he ties binary code to philosophical dualism), are simply the modern extension of his own little creation narrative. That creation narrative is complete with it’s own Fall narrative. And Hiro (aptly named) becomes a savior metaphor of sorts. The theology unravels, though, into a nihilism: anything spiritual is notably absent, and only the practice of religion can keep the virus (read: sin) from permanently destroying man. The sin is never defeated, only held back. This doubles back on itself, though, because he’s also painting religion as the “bad guy,” in the sense that the conspiracy for the Snow Crash virus is packaged within religious practice. He’s essentially saying that all religion, despite the fact that it’s holding this virus back, is bunk, or has become that way, as the quantifiable world rules out faith.

So, his theology is a dis-jointed one…almost a theology of an absence of theology.

While Stephenson’s imagination is energizing, his craft is disappointing to me. His writing style smacks of a Hollywood action flick, and many of the fast moving  sequences of the book felt like Tron meets the Transformers. For a book considered to be (as I understood it) a modern science fiction classic, I had higher expectations. Heinlein or Asimov this guy isn’t. His characters are left extremely two-dimensional and undeveloped, although his rapid and abrupt changes in points of view do occasionally place the reader well into their psyches.

That said, there is something oddly arresting about Y.T., the skateboarding teenage professional messenger who throws out some of the most amazing lines in the story. I found her to be the only character I could completely visualize as I read the novel…the only one who truly had a face.

The best thing I took away from the book is the view of the future. As a speculative warning of what the future could hold, I think this book was excellent. And, as I said, that’s what good science fiction does. As an attempt at a metaphysical or theological statement, I think it failed miserably. Stephenson provides his backstory and ties together his loose ends well, yet still manages an ending that falls flat.

In the end, I found this book to be wanting.

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