Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Babylon 5: The War Prayer

I am re-watching the entire Babylon 5 television series. I had not seen a single episode since B5 completed its tumultuous run. Does J. Michael Straczynski still have the touch? Come along and find out.

In Valen's Name: Old friends and relatives dominate this episode, "The War Prayer." Delenn is meeting with an old friend, Shaal Mayan, a famed Minbari poet on her way to Earth for a major artistic tour/performance. She is to give a poetry recital on Babylon 5 later, before she departs for Earth. A Centauri ship arrives with detainees--young-adult Centauri lovers, Kiron and Aria, who are fleeing arranged marriages. They demand to see their cousin, Ambassador (!) Vir Cotto. Finally, Malcolm Biggs, Commander Susan Ivanova's old lover, whom she broke up with years before in order to accept a career-advancing post far away from him, choosing duty over romance.

After Mayan leaves Delenn's quarters, she's attacked by the Home Guard--xenophobic humans (think futuristic KKK)--beaten and branded on the forehead. This sets the station into an uproar, with the alien ambassadors outraged. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of suspects, as hatred of the alien races is high amongst the lower-rung humans aboard station, and some of the more powerfully-influential as well. As for the Centauri lovers, it turns out that Vir exaggerated his position just a little bit. Londo is unsympathetic to their pleas, arguing that love is overrated and that he despises all three of his wives, whom he calls "Pestilence, Disease and Famine." Marriages are for political and financial gain, nothing more. Vir grows a little bit of a backbone and argues with Londo, but to no avail. Londo is to weary and bitter about life to care. Kiron and Aria sneak off to the hydroponic gardens to be alone and feel sorry for themselves, and are attacked by the Home Guard. Kiron's shot with a blaster and Aria is stunned with a taser/club. Ivanova has a romantic dinner with Malcolm, who tells her he plans to set up permanent residence on the station so they can be together. Ivanova's surprised, and her stand-offish facade begins to crumble. They head back to her quarters, but before anything lustful happens, Ivanova's summoned back to duty because G'Kar has whipped the aliens up into a riot. Reviewing security video, Garibaldi finds that Malcolm had met with a prime Home Guard suspect--and recruited the suspect into the Home Guard. Ivanova is stunned. Commander Sinclair asks her to introduce him to Malcolm. Sinclair begins treating the alien ambassadors brusquely, to win over Malcolm's confidence. Sinclair rants that victory in the Earth-Minbari War tasted like ashes because the Minbari let Earth win. Malcolm is downright giddy at the prospect of reeling in Sinclair as an ally, but still wary. Sinclair and Ivanova rendezvous with Malcolm at a secret meeting, and many Home Guard appear, having been disguised by Earth Force "black light camouflage" devices. Malcolm tells Sinclair of a plot to orchestrate a mass assassination of the alien ambassadors on Babylon 5, for which they'll need Sinclair to grant them access to secure areas. As a test of Sinclair's loyalty, they bring forth a terrified alien delegate for the commander to execute. Garibaldi's security forces swoop in, and Ivanova captures Malcolm. Malcolm insults her for siding with "them," but man, Ivanova is stone cold, no regrets. She despises Malcolm something fierce at this point. As for the Centauri lovers, Kiron recovers, and Londo informs them they'll be sent back to Centauri Prime where they will enter into "fosterage" with his powerful, ancient family. Fosterage is a rare practice in modern Centauri society, but still prestigious. The fosterage will last until the lovers come of age, at which point they will be free to decide for themselves who to marry.

What Jayme Says: The main plot is no great shakes. The symbolism of racist vigilantes terrorizing those who are different from them is obvious and heavy-handed. Part of this stems from the fact the Home Guard springs forth fully-formed and active. It is too much all at once. Gradual escalation over several episodes would've served much better, but of course, Babylon 5 is still firmly in the episodic series mode right now. And I repeat myself by saying the introduction of the Home Guard will pay off more in the future, but it's the truth. The best parts of this episode are the glimpses into the alien cultures viewers are afforded. Characters as well. During their argument, Londo tells Vir, "'My shoes are too tight.' Something my father said. He was old, very old at the time. I went into his room, and he was sitting alone in the dark, crying. So I asked him what was wrong, and he said, 'My shoes are too tight, but it doesn't matter, because I have forgotten how to dance.' I never understood what that meant until now. My shoes are too tight, and I have forgotten how to dance." This is incredibly sad and poignant, showing Londo as a thoroughly defeated person, bereft of hope. Londo, of course, is symbolic of the Centauri Republic as a whole--hopeless, in decline and hidebound by ritual and tradition. In contrast, G'Kar's brief appearance casts him as the rabble-rousing agitator, provoking conflict for conflict's sake, likewise reenforcing our perceptions of the Narn species as a whole. The other attention-grabbing moment comes when Sinclair visits the Vorlon Ambassador, Kosh, to warn him about the Home Guard attacks. Kosh is uninterested, and instead studies a screen showing scenes from Earth's pass. When Sinclair presses him, Kosh cuts him off abruptly. Afterward, Sinclair reflects back on the events of "The Gathering". Dr. Kyle and telepath Lyta Alexander--the only two humans to ever see a Vorlon outside of its encounter suit--had both been transferred off Babylon 5 shortly after that incident. But if Vorlons always wore encounter suits, then how could the Minbari assassin from that incident have applied poison directly onto Kosh's hand? Curious indeed. The bread crumbs and back story are starting to build up, but thus far for the viewer they look like so much window dressing, clever little throw-away bits with no greater long-term significance. Amazing how much you pick up on the second run-through.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Babylon 5: Mind War

I am re-watching the entire Babylon 5 television series. I had not seen a single episode since B5 completed its tumultuous run. Does J. Michael Straczynski still have the touch? Come along and find out.

In Valen's Name: Talia Winters' telepath mentor, Jason Ironheart, shows up on Babylon 5, running from the Psi Corps. He had volunteered for Psi Corps research into creating stronger telepaths. It turned out that the experimental treatment was intended to create stable telekinetics, and succeeded in spectacular fashion. Not only could Ironheart manipulate matter and energy with his mind, he could see into the mind of any telepath, no matter how powerful. That's when he discovered his telekinesis was intended to be weaponized, used for covert assassinations and the like, so he killed the program head and fled. Hot on his heels is Alfred Bester, a tough, ruthless Psi Cop intent on taking him down. As Bester rampages through the station (relatively speaking) breaking telepath rules right and left, Talia brings Ironheart to Sinclair. Ironheart explains his discoveries to Sinclair and warns that the Psi Corps is growing too powerful to trust. Ironheart himself is growing more and more powerful, losing control of his abilities as they outstrip his mastery of them. He is becoming a danger to the station. Bester and his team catch up with Ironheart, there's a fight (Bester loses) and Ironheart transforms into a being of pure consciousness or somesuch, infinitely more powerful than before. Then he waves "Bye" and goes off to wherever supremely powerful entities go. Bester intends to bring Sinclair up on charges for harboring a fugitive, but Sinclair threatens to do the same with Bester for all the Psi Corps and telepath laws he violated, so their pissing match ends in a draw.

Meanwhile, Sinclair's lady friend Catherine is about to launch a lucrative scouting mission to the abandoned world of Sigma 957 to search for Quantium 40 deposits, a very valuable material used in the manufacture of jump gates. G'Kar warns her not to go, indicating strange things happen around that system. Catherine ignores him, and once there encounters a massive, mysterious ship that vanishes leaving her without power in a decaying orbit. This is the first appearance of one of the elder races of the B5 universe, outside of the Vorlons, of course. At the last moment, Narn fighters sent by G'Kar arrive and rescue Catherine. It's one of the first time G'Kar is shown making a gesture that isn't wholly self-centered.

What Jayme Says: I remember first seeing this episode, and being surprised to see Walter Koening guest-starring. I also geeked a little when they revealed his name as "Bester," which of course is a reference to Alfred Bester, author of The Demolished Man which has some influence on this episode. I was a little disappointed when they revealed the character's full name as "Alfred Bester," which pushed the homage into elbow-in-the-ribs territory. This episode is our first real introduction to the active menace of the Psi Corps, Ivanova's hatred of them because of her mother being a bit too removed to drive the point home that the Corps is a menace to everyone, not just unwilling telepaths. Bester is bad news, all the way down to his black, fascist uniform. That said, the teeth are pulled from this episode pretty quickly. Despite warnings of dire consequences to come if she helps Ironheart, Talia helps him repeatedly with no real consequences. Yes, she's mind probed, a painful process clearly analogous to rape, but that comes early in the episode to show how ruthless Bester is, and Talia passes anyway. There are no consequences for Sinclair, who openly defied and obstructed Psi Corps business, and there are no consequences for Bester, who disregarded and broke countless regulations and laws in his pursuit of Ironheart. Realistically speaking, this sorry incident should've ruined all three parties rather than preserve the status quo because of the blackmail fodder each party has on the other. It also has one of the most Star Trek endings in all of Babylon 5, in which a character inflicted with god-like powers evolves into a higher form of being and is never seen again, thus resolving the moral choice the regular characters would otherwise have to make. And while I like Andrea Thompson/Talia far more than Lyta Alexander/Patricia Tallman, her acting is undeniably stiff and stilted here. False notes like this, coupled with the abysmal performances in "The Gathering, gave rise to that long-running and (in my opinion) misguided claim that Babylon 5 is rife with bad acting.

Ultimately, "Mind War" isn't among the series' best episodes, but is notable for what it sets up for the future.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The sounds of space

Welcome to my latest obsession: Sounds from space. I know, I know, space is for all practical purposes a vacuum (unless you're designing an interstellar ramjet) so sound as we know it doesn't exist there. And even if it did in the thin stellar media, we'd need fantastically sensitive microphones to pick up any hint of audio.

Well, I thought so, until I stumbled across the "NASA Space Sounds" video below when it was being shared around the interwebz recently. Instruments aboard Voyagers I and II, as well as several other space probes, recorded an array of electromagnetic signals that, when converted to sound (think of it as running it through a space age amplifier) the result is a strange and eerie ambient sound that is utterly engrossing. To my ear, at least, the pieces are evocative of the non-classical music soundtrack from 201: A Space Odyssey. So that's bonus points right there.

The sequences sampled below are taken from a series of 5 CD put out by Laserlight in 1990 titled "Symphonies of the Planets" as well as an additional volume a few years later titled "Celestial Love Songs." Long out of print, they're quite pricey to purchase second hand. Fortunately, they're readily available as MP3 (as well as other format) downloads online, the only drawback being the file labeling isn't consistent and therefore it's challenging to keep track of individual tracks. And since all data, audio and video released by NASA is public domain, fans of these fascinating ambient sounds may download with a clear conscience that no copyright is being violated.

Alas, in my obsessive research, I've learned that things aren't so cut-and-dried. Yes, NASA does take collected electromagnetic data and convert it into audible sound, but the raw, unvarnished audio doesn't sound all that much like what we hear on the CDs. That's because Laserlight (or Brain/Mind Research, which handled the production) didn't just take the NASA audio and burn it to disc. They ran it through an intergalactic version of the nefarious Auto-Tune, processing it heavily and looping, over-dubbing and sweetening with synthesizers to the point where many of the actual "space sounds" are tenuous at best. In fact, some pieces, such as the samples of "Song of Earth" and "Voices of Earth" in the video above simply do away with the source material entirely and re-orchestrate it. I guess that make it an artistic interpretation of the data rather than an objective representation (which opens up the whole objective/subjective reality can of worms, but I digress...).

What's more, it brings copyright into question. It is clearly established law that what is public domain cannot be subsequently copyrighted (publishers may copyright specific presentations of public domain materials, but not the content itself, which is why you can find free 1920s jazz downloads online, as well as the complete works of Charles Dickens, even though publishers put out new editions every few years). However, derivative works of both copyright and public domain can be copyrighted, but only that which is new and derivative is thus protected, ie the original which is incorporated into the derivation remains in the public domain. In this particular case, I would expect the Brain/Mind Research productions to be fully covered by copyright protection. Being out of print is irrelevant. However (and I'm full of caveats today, aren't I?) their persistent and insistent claims (indeed, the entirety of their marketing and mass appeal) that the audio is direct from NASA, with no claims of alteration on their part would, at least superficially, serve to undermine any copyright protection as, has been pointed out previously, all NASA materials are automatically released to public domain. For Brain/Mind Research to assert their copyright on these works, they would effectively have to admit false advertising, which would significantly diminish the value of said works. It's an interesting academic question, albeit one I doubt anybody is going to bother exploring any time soon.

Authentic or not, I find the interpretations of space sounds interesting and appealing. I'll be keeping an eye on Ebay and the like in case a CD shows up for a bargain price...

Monday, July 28, 2014

That was the Armadillocon that was

Ted Chiang, Bradley Denton, Mark Finn, Armadillocon 36
I cannot remember being so exhausted during and after a con as I have with Armadillocon 36 this past weekend. I don't know what was up with that, but despite turning in way early on Friday and Saturday, I operated in zombie mode most of the weekend. Hopefully I was able to cover it up and not infect too many folks I came into contact with. One might think that with such depressed energy levels, Armadillocon would've been a complete bust for me, but surprisingly the exact opposite is true. I had a blast. Despite an asinine, patronizing set of conduct rules distributed to all the programming participants that was relentlessly mocked throughout the duration of the convention (and rightfully so), most folks there seemed in great spirits.

The guests-of-honor list turned out to be a great lineup: GoH Ted Chiang, Special GoH Ian McDonald, Editor GoH Jacob Weisman, Artist GoH Stephanie Pui-Mun Law, Science GoH Sigrid Close, Fan GoH Michael Walsh and Toastmaster Mario Acevedo. Unlike most years, I managed to spend time with, or attend panels featuring every one of the major guests. They proved to be a witty, insightful bunch that brought their A game. Seriously, they all seemed to be running full steam ahead all weekend. I was fortunate enough to sit next to McDonald during the writers workshop panels on Friday, and learned he's that kid from high school who has a funny retort for practically anything anyone says, ever. It was a struggle to not double over laughing and have everyone in the room turn and stare at me. The workshop portion went well, and one participant, Shlomi Harif, brought a short story that I am utterly convinced can be expanded into a complex relationship novel steeped in strangeness. In a good way. That evening's Pirate Panel lurched along like a drunken schooner--mainly because I was moderator and hadn't prepared nearly enough--but my arch-enemy Stina Leicht, Cassandra Clarke, Dave Hardy and Rob Rogers gamely filled in the gaps. Hardy, in particular, proved to have an encyclopedic knowledge of every pirate who ever lived and could've run a two-hour discussion solo without breaking a sweat.

Jacob Weisman, Rick Klaw, Armadillocon 36

Scott Cupp, Jacob Weisman, Armadillocon 36

Saturday I brought Monkey Girl along to wreak her particular brand of havoc. After an unfortunate example of impulse control failure at Worldcon last year, the first thing I did was remove her bank card from her possession prior to her entering the dealers room or art show. To buy or bid on anything she had to come through me. She wasn't happy about it, and I know the vendors weren't happy, but we can't always have a geyser of money spraying out as her bank account is emptied in minutes. There were also discussions amongst myself and several other con-goers regarding her decision to stop participating in my Babylon 5 reviews on this blog, mainly because she complained writing her thoughts "was too much like homework." When Monkey Girl learned people were discussing her opinions shared on my blog, and expressing disappointment she was no longer participating, she expressed shock. "Why? I told you people were commenting on the posts. They liked reading what a fresh set of eyes thought of these episodes." To which she responded, "Yeah, but I didn't actually think you were telling the truth." So, she has expressed interests in rejoining the review thing. Heh.

The GoH interview with Weisman--conducted in tag-team fashion by Rick Klaw and Scott Cupp, with color commentary by Bill Crider--was an interesting capsule history of Tachyon Publications, enhanced by a liberal distribution of Crackerjacks. Afterward, I got to speak with Weisman--quite a thoughtful fellow, if a little more low-key than most of the other lunatics frequenting Armadillocon--and was able to discuss a side project I've taken on. He was intrigued, yet justifiably cautious. I'm to follow up with him this week on it, and he's promised to offer advice and direction if nothing else. Yes, I know that's maddeningly cryptic, but I'm superstitious about some things that way. As soon as I have something concrete to share, I promise I will. It will be a Good Thing if I can pull it off (and no, it's not an anthology pitch, so don't send me your stories).

Peggy Hailey, Scott Zrubek, Joe Lansdale, Armadillocon 36

Howard Waldrop, Lawrence Person, Armadillocon 36

Bradley Denton, Scott Cupp, Armadillocon 36

Scott Zrubek, Joe Lansdale, Bradley Denton, Armadillocon 36

The Neal Barrett, Jr., memorial panel (see the four images above) was a sad affair, but gut-bustingly funny. Howard Waldrop, Lawrence Person, Peggy Hailey, Brad Denton, Scott Cupp, Scott Zrubek and Joe Lansdale kept themselves as well as the audience in stitches with stories of Neal's eccentric brilliance. It turns out that Neal really was the Forrest Gump of science fiction authors, because he was directly connected with almost every significant event and celebrity of the 20th century. And then Lansdale demonstrated Neal's driving technique. It was simply amazing. I miss Neal. If you've never read his work, change that. You'll be hard-pressed to find anything as strange and wonderful as what Neal wrote.

My guest of honor interview with Ted Chiang seemed to go well. At least insofar as Chiang hasn't taken out a restraining order on me. In my devious ways, I put him on the spot by asking the title of his first story submitted for publication--at age 15. He declined to share the title (much to my disappointment) but then proceeded to give a synopsis of the tale, an action-packed space ship adventure of the type one would expect from an enthusiastic 15-year-old. And very much different from the type of fiction Chiang has become known for. That was one of the highlights of the convention for me.

What else? What else? The Fireside Chat could've been a complete crash and burn, but Brad Denton came prepared with a set of moderator questions tailored for the other panelists. He ended up getting me to talk about the Chicken Ranch for 20 minutes or so, which had most everyone there asking to buy the book on the spot. Alas, I'm still waiting for a publisher to show as much enthusiasm for the project. Sunday morning I stumbled into the "Best Cons" (as in confidence games, swindles) in SF, and exhausted my contributions early on by invoking Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat series. Fortunately, Don Webb revealed a previously-unknown grifter streak, and pretty much held court. I learned a pretty nifty (if simple) mind trick from him that I'm going to pull on my kids. But yeah, there's no way I'd ever go against him in a game of chance. I caught most of the "Women in Science" panel, and have to say, it rocked. Mel White, Rachael Acks, Sigrid Close and Paige Roberts kept things moving at a brisk and funny pace, touching on an array of gender issues including (but not limited to) overt and institutionalized sexism. As the father of two daughters, some of the points they brought up were all too familiar. Much progress has been made, but there's still a long way to do. The con wrapped up (for me, any way) with the "Contagion" panel, which I moderated. I was prepared for this one, and Gabrielle Faust, Rhiannon Frater, Stina Leicht and Nancy Jane Moore dove right in when I prodded them for their favorite fictional diseases, after which we followed with a long discussion on actual nasty afflictions that exist today. We then segued into the evolution of diseases, both in the wild and laboratories, before concluding with diseases we'd created ourselves for fiction. Poor Faust admitted to being a hypochondriac, so the panel was probably torture for her, but she handled it well.

By then I was too drained to make any of the remaining panels, so I headed home (which took twice as long as it should have because of a wreck on I-35). I came away from Armadillocon with a renewed enthusiasm for my current Work-In-Progress, which isn't all that unusual. But I also came away with a whole lot of new writers to follow on Twitter and several other potential projects and deals. I saw so many people I didn't get to speak with nearly enough--Rhonda Eudaly, Lillian Stewart Carl, Katharine Kimbriel, Rie Sheridan, Sara Felix, Alexis Glynn Latner, Mark Finn, Claude Lalumière, Tim Miller, C.J. Mills, Jess Nevins, Jessica Reisman, Josh Rountree, Patrice Sarath, Patrick Sullivan, Martha Wells, Sanford Allen, Lou Antonelli, Aaron de Orive--the list just goes on and on. I also got much-needed encouragement from all quarters regarding the Chicken Ranch book, that despite publishers' continued reluctance to green light it, there is a substantial audience for this book just waiting for the chance to buy it. So yeah, good weekend all around. Here's hoping that next year they ditch the silly rules sheet and make the event even better.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Babylon 5: The Parliament of Dreams

I am re-watching the entire Babylon 5 television series. I had not seen a single episode since B5 completed its tumultuous run. Does J. Michael Straczynski still have the touch? Come along and find out.

In Valen's Name: Earth Alliance has imposed a week-long religious festival on Babylon 5, so that all races might share the dominant belief of their civilization and learn something about each other. The human contribution to this festival has been dumped on Commander Sinclair with no guidance, and he's at a loss on how to present "Earth's dominant belief system" to the other races. To complicate matters, his on-again, off-again girl friend Catherine arrives, and tension between them mounts. Meanwhile, Ambassador G'Kar receives a courier from the Narn homeworld bearing a message about an impending assassination attempt on G'Kar's life. G'Kar, who has made many enemies, grows paranoid. He suspects his aid, Na'Toth of being part of the plot. An alien bodyguard he hires is promptly executed by the mysterious assassin. Finally, the Narn courier reveals himself, torturing G'Kar, but Na'Toth rescues G'Kar and they turn the tables on the hit man. The episode ends with Sinclair introducing the alien contingent to a host of humans representing the vast spectrum of Earthly theological belief, ranging from atheism to Catholicism to Buddhism and everything in between. The scene pans along the line of humans religious, and fades to black before the end is reached.

What Jayme Says: This marks the first of what I call the "Poetic titles" of the series. They're evocative and abstract, and generally can be counted on to be a keeper, if not pivotal. "Parliament of Dreams" isn't necessarily pivotal the the overarching narrative, but it is for the first season in general. This feels like the first episode of Babylon 5 where the confidence of the actors, writers and director really manifested itself in the final product. The main plot of G'Kar's assassination is the least important element in the entire episode. Yes, it's fun to see the bombastic G'Kar squirm and squeal, but when you get right down to it it's a very straightforward narrative with no real jeopardy. G'Kar is one of the main characters on the show, and series never kill off main characters. Right? Sinclair's relationship with Catherine doesn't have much substance, either, but it serves as a nice piece of character development for the commander--and works far better than the similar attempt from "The Gathering." No, the best part of the episode is what we only get to see the edges of, the belief sharing amongst the different species. Through deft use of symbolism, the rituals we see reflect the generalized traits of the various species on the show. The Centauri, generally viewed as a foppish empire in decline, has a raucous, drunken celebration of life that dates back to a time when their people were younger, stronger and fighting for their very survival. By contrast, the disciplined, aloof Minbari have a somber ceremony that quotes their great prophet Valen, and introduces the recurring phrase, "And so it begins." But it's the human presentation on religion that leaves the most striking impression. Having all those faiths lined up drives home the diversity of belief we humans engage in. It was deft, nuanced and respectful, all the more impressive since JMS is, of course, an outspoken atheist. Now, there's no reason why an atheist can't write about religion in a thoughtful way. None. But here my own biases and baggage come into play. I know any number of folks with diverse beliefs--Christian, pagan, Jewish, atheist--and by an large they're just swell. Wonderful people (because I try not to associate too closely with jerks). However, on occasion my path crosses that of an outspoken atheists, and more times than not I've encountered visceral contempt from them directed at anyone who might dare believe in anything beyond this mortal coil. Regardless of whether or not they know the particulars of my belief or non-. Add to this the fact that my biggest beef with Star Trek is its pervasive, paternalistic, condescending attitude toward religion and, well, all I can say is that I was primed for more of the same from Babylon 5. JMS turned that on its head. He may not believe in religion, but he understands that it is an integral component of the human condition, something we as a species are not likely to "outgrow" in a few hundred years. He gets that, and what's more, he uses it to create a richer, more powerful story while making meta-statements about our contemporary world. It is not coincidental that the Jew and Moslem are standing next to each other at the head of the line. Would that it only takes a few hundred years for us to reach that level of maturity.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Babylon 5: Infection

Babylon 5 Infection
I am re-watching the entire Babylon 5 television series along with my teenage daughter. I have not seen a single episode since B5 completed its tumultuous run, and Calista was just a few days old when the final episode aired back in 1998. Does J. Michael Straczynski still have the touch? Come along with us and find out.

In Valen's Name: Dr. Vance Hendricks, a former professor of Dr. Stephen Franklin's, shows up on Babylon 5 for what is presumably a pleasant reunion with his formal pupil. Down in the station's docking bays, however, Hendricks' henchman Nelson Drake kills a station worker in order to smuggle an alien artifact through customs, which sets an ominous tone. Hendricks explains to Franklin he's returned from an archaeological expedition to the dead world of Ikarra VII, where he's discovered pristine artifacts buried deep underground. The artifacts, left by the advanced Ikarran civilization, are based on organic technology, and he needs Franklin's xenobiology expertise--not to mention advance Babylon 5 medlab--to analyze the find. Despite his misgivings--likening the corporate-sponsored rush to explore dead worlds to grave-robbing--Franklin agrees to help. Shortly thereafter, as Drake is unpacking the artifacts, one discharges, affecting Drake. Franklin returns to medlab and is shot by the transforming Drake with an energy blast, knocking him out. The next day, having regained consciousness, Franklin explains to Commander Sinclair and Garibaldi how it appears the alien artifacts are grafting themselves onto Drake and transforming him into some sort of alien warrior. Garibaldi casts doubt on the idea that the artifacts actually cleared customs like Hendricks claimed, to which Hendricks says, "Yo, that was my evil henchman's job. If he killed your dockworker to smuggle them in, I had nothing to do with it." Meanwhile, Drake/Warrior is getting more powerful, and his battle mode recharge time is decreasing. Franklin, studying the remaining artifacts, discovers what is going on: Ikarra had been invaded so many times that the civilization developed technology to create unstoppable warriors to defend their world. Unfortunately, zealots programmed them to destroy anything that wasn't "pure Ikarran," an ideological definition. Naturally, once the alien invasion was beaten back the warriors turned on the Ikarran population, finding none of them "pure." The only warrior not deployed was, in fact, the one Hendricks had discovered and smuggled onto Babylon 5. Realizing the warrior's mission is now to destroy everyone on Babylon 5, Sinclair arms himself and attacks the Ikarran, luring it into a docking bay where it can be vented into space. Once there, Sinclair begins arguing with the warrior, insisting it failed in its mission to defend Ikarra VII, and instead destroyed the world it was created to protect. The artifact accesses the memories of Drake, who'd seen the dead world, and in grief the artifact deactivates itself and separates from Drake. Hendricks explains to Franklin that the corporation funding his research is actually a front for a bioweapons developer, and that if he could confirm the artifacts' use as weapons technology, he could claim a much higher finder's fee. He offers to split the money with Franklin, but Franklin declines the bribe and two security guards take him away. Later, two agents from Earthforce Intelligence show up and confiscate the artifacts for "research."

What Calista Says: Nothing. Calista has declined to provide further written opinions regarding Babylon 5 episodes. "It's too much like homework." Such are the fickle natures of teenagers.

What Jayme Says: A run-of-the-mill episode. It's not bad and not great, but relies of many science fiction tropes that we've seen time and again. With a cosmetic rewrite, there's nothing to prevent this script from being used for Star Trek, Farscape, Stargate or Battlestar Galactica. It's that generic, and that's the problem. Thus far in the series, there hasn't been an episode that could only exist within the Babylon 5 universe. Everything is so self-contained within this episode--even the evil henchman Drake survives his transformation and gets to recover off-camera. While the stakes are high, there's no indication the show has any teeth. No partial victories or even serious losses or sacrifice from the protagonists to save the rest of the station. It is standard, episodic television. Also, while this is a Franklin-centric episode, the doctor plays no role in the resolution. Sinclair steps in to save the day. It's not quite deus ex machina, but for Franklin's in-episode character arc, it is awkward. Two small touches that are lost amongst the flash and bang of the episode are nice, however. First is the establishing of the theme that Earth is aggressively scouring the galaxy to acquire the technology of lost civilizations so they won't be at such a military disadvantage against the Minbari or any other alien race ever again. In this episode it seems merely incidental to the plot, but the series will return to it time and again in the future. The second is much more self-aware: Garibaldi takes Sinclair to task for risking his life to lure the Ikarran warrior into the docking bay, pointing out that as commander, Sinclair was needlessly putting his life in jeopardy when Garibaldi or any of the security officers could've accomplished the same thing. Garibaldi points out that many survivors of the Earth-Minbari War have a hero complex and put themselves in danger in an attempt to go out in a blaze of glory. Sinclair acknowledges this and promises to work on it. This neatly addresses the Captain Kirk issue, in which the captain of a starship constantly leads exploration teams into potentially hazardous situations away from the ship, whilst in any rational situation the captain would stay aboard the ship and other officers would lead said mission. The answer to this is, of course, that if the captain is the central focus of the television show, then that actor has to be actively engaged in the plot. Babylon 5 acknowledges the irrationality of the captain's actions here, and posits a reasonable explanation for Sinclair's behavior (and Sheridan's to come).

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Armadillocon 36 schedule

Armadillocon 36 is approaching July 25-27, and seeing as how pretty much every other guest has shared his or her schedule via the interwebz, I figured it was high time I do so myself. Fashionably late to the party and all that.

Most of my Friday will be consumed with being an instructor in the world-famous Armadillcon Writers Workshop. This writers workshop is a stunningly good deal for aspiring and neo-pro authors, as it puts them in close, intensive writerly-oriented contact with an array of insanely talented and accomplished authors and editors. I say this having actually taught in the workshop five or six times in addition to pretending to run it twice (you can verify with Patrice Sarath and Melissa Tyler on that last count). Deadline to register and submit manuscripts is June 15, so there's still time to get in. And if my presence isn't enough to win you over, check out the rest of the instructor lineup: Mario Acevedo, Ted Chiang, Nicky Drayden, Mark Finn, Derek Johnson, Claude Lalumiere, Stina Leicht, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Ian McDonald, Joe McKinney, Alex C. Renwick, Kat Richardson, Dr. Anne-Marie Thomas, Martin Wagner, Jacob Weisman, Martha Wells and Skyler White. Boom. Enough said.

Beyond that, here is the official ArmadilloCon 36 schedule for Jayme Lynn Blaschke (* denotes panel moderator):

Friday
9-10 p.m. Beyond the Plunder: Which genre books, movies, shows correctly portray historical pirates?
Blaschke*, Clarke, Hardy, Leicht, Rogers

Saturday
1-2 p.m Autographing
Blaschke, Wells

8-9 p.m. Interview with Ted Chiang

9-10 p.m. Fireside Chat: The quartet talk about anything and much mirth will be expected.
Denton*, Blaschke, de Orive, Lansdale

Sunday
10-11 a.m. Best Cons from Genre Books: Not many people are good at writing capers. Which books do it right?
Webb*, Blaschke, Maresca

2-3 p.m. Contagion: What diseases/syndromes/parasites could kill the entire population of the world if we didn't have current restrictions set. (Not including malaria.)
Blaschke*, Faust, Frater, Leicht, Moore

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Kaiju Theater: Godzilla Final Wars

With the new Godzilla film tearing up the screens worldwide, I thought it apropos to revisit the most recent Japanese Godzilla film that preceded this American production. And that film would be 2005's Godzilla Final Wars. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I'm reprinting here a slightly edited version of my original review from 2006 for RevolutionSF.

Anyone going into Godzilla: Final Wars expecting the second coming of Destroy All Monsters is going to be disappointed. Despite all the hype about relentless monster battles and kaiju assembled from decades of Toho films, this isn't that movie. What this is, rather, is a continuation and culmination of Toho's "Millennnial" series, which started with Godzilla 2000 and continued with Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, Tokyo S.O.S., Giant Monsters All-Out Attack and Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla. Those fans who hold firm the belief that the series lost its way after the Heisei series of Godzilla films (1984-1995) or even the Showa era (1954-1975) would best be served by moving on. For everyone else, well, Godzilla: Final Wars is an entertaining romp. Flawed and problematic, sure, but entertaining nonetheless.

Part of the problem appears to be that nobody -- not Toho and certainly not Sony Pictures -- has really been able to figure out what to do with Godzilla since the big radioactive lizard was first reduced to a pile of bones at the bottom of Tokyo Bay way back in 1954. Ignoring the Nuclear Apocalypse/Force of Nature aspect of the concept, most Godzilla films boast all the plot sophistication of cheap porn -- flimsy, nonsensical plots with even worse acting designed to fill those tedious minutes between beautiful people getting naked and sweaty with each other. Or, in the case of Godzilla, men in rubber suits stomping miniature cities as they act out cockeyed interpretations of professional wrestling's steel cage matches.

With the advent of the Heisei series, the plots did become somewhat more sophisticated, while at the same time, paradoxically, remaining an afterthought. Films like Godzilla vs. Biollante, Godzilla vs. Mothra: The Battle for Earth and Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah shamelessly lifted huge swaths of plot from such Hollywood blockbusters as Little Shop of Horrors, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Terminator. Whenever the pressure is on Toho to come up with something new and fresh for the Godzilla franchise, the first thing they do is look to plunder Hollywood's big vault of cliches.

And so it is with Godzilla: Final Wars. With all the wire-fu, shiny black vinyl outfits and throbbing techno soundtrack on display throughout the film, a more appropriate name for the film might be Godzilla vs. the Matrix. Even Masahiro Matsuoka, the lead actor playing mutant Earth Defense Force Soldier Shin'ichi Ozaki, bears more than a passing resemblance to the lean-featured Keanu Reeves (although Masahiro's acting is better. Even when dubbed). The actors spin, punch, kick and fly through practically every scene they have, and there's even a wildly kinetic motorcycle duel on a deserted freeway that owes as much to Tron and Akira as it does The Matrix.

Because that's the way this movie is: It's not just borrowing from The Matrix. No, it's effectively borrowing, swiping, pinching, stealing and paying homage to practically every SF actioner ever made. Well, maybe not Ice Pirates. Even so, Final Wars riffs on everything from Star Blazers to Independence Day, and not subtly, either. There's a scene near the end that might as well have been based on the storyboards from Return of the Jedi.

And that's not even counting the many Toho films that were "officially" incorporated into the movie, ranging from the obscure flying submarine battleship movie Atragon to the popular Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. This movie doesn't have an original bone in its body, and that's a shame, because the budget and enthusiasm here should've made this the greatest installment in the series to date. Instead, it suffers for being merely "okay."

The scenario starts out promisingly enough. After Godzilla's first appearance in 1954, the Earth Defense Force designed a super flying/submersible/burrowing battleship to counter the monster. Fortuitous circumstances enabled the ship to bury Godzilla deep within the Antarctic ice pack, where he went into hibernation. Flush with success, an entire fleet of these warships were commissioned, to counter any new monsters that threatened human civilization. Manned by mutant humans boasting extraordinary physical prowess, this armada proves extremely effective in controlling monstrous invasions until one day when 10 monsters simultaneously appear around the globe and begin weaking havoc.

Rodan, in particular, stands out as the giant pteranadon lays waste to New York with his trademark sonic booms, while those who remember the much-maligned 1998 U.S. entry into the Godzilla canon will get a kick out of seeing that big, grey lizard (here referred to simply as 'Zilla) stomp its hermaphroditic way through the streets of Sydney, Austraila. Things look bleak for the Earth until golden UFOs appear to disintegrate the rampaging beasts.

These aliens, calling themselves Xillians, hit all the requisite talking points about universal peace and harmony, but before long they're replacing the leaders of Earth with evil duplicates and thumbing through well-worn copies of "To Serve Man" (hint: it's a cookbook). To make matters worse, they subvert and take control of the mutant human defenders through a genetic flaw, and unleash the supposedly-vaporized monsters to finish what they started. Buying into the "It can't get any worse than this" strategy, Earth's few remaining defenders pilot the lone remaining battleship, the Goten, to Antarctica in an attempt to wake Godzilla.

Gigan -- the bizarre, hook-armed cybernetic chimera that's been absent from Godzilla movies for nearly 30 years -- shows up right as Godzilla is rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Their battle is entertaining, if brief. From that point on, the movie becomes a sequence of fights, as the Xillians throw one monster after another at the Big G in an attempt to stop his advance. The long-awaited confrontation between Godzilla and 'Zilla in Sydney is shocking only for its berevity -- the kaiju equivalent of a one-punch knockout is played out as a punchline (ahem) and clearly shows the esteem Japanese hold for the American import.

The subsequent fights take on a similar tone, with the focus on how quickly, humorously or spectacularly Godzilla can defeat his opponents. In some instances, the audience is treated to bare snippets of the ongoing carnage, intercut with various other human-oriented sub-plots. The final battle, a confrontation featuring Godzilla, a wickedly re-designed and rebuilt Gigan, the odd Monster X (which resembles an unnatural hybrid of an Alien, Predator and Skeletor from Masters of the Universe) and ultimately the three-headed Kaiser Gidorah, proves nearly worthy of the buildup. Even Mothra makes a brief -- but significant -- appearance in the climactic showdown.

There's some good stuff to be had here. The new Godzilla suit is downright agile, a vast improvement over the ponderous rubber suits of the past. The special effects are flashy and effective, although the over-reliance on computer animation to generate several of Godzilla's foes seemed awkward and out of place. There are some entertaining location shots as well, highlighted by a couple of Aussies' unfortunate encounter with 'Zilla in Sydney, and a you-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it 1970s-style cop-vs.-pimp smack fest in New York.

Also, American martial artist Don Frye, a successful professional wrestler in Japan, steals practically every scene he has as the tough, rebellious Captain Douglas Gordon, skipper of the Goten. Frye seems to have two acting modes -- he channels either Dick Butkus or Mike Ditka. He delivers practically every line with a growl, and in an odd twist, almost all his lines were originally in English, meaning that every piece of scenery he chews comes across the same in the English dub as it does in the original Japanese.

All in all, Godzilla: Final Wars is the most energetic, most kinetic, most lavish and most ambitious film of hte series. Unfortunately, it's also the most derivative and unfocused as well. The kitchen sink approach may have seemed like a great idea on paper, but on the big sceen it pushes the movie into self-parody on occasion. Final Wars never sinks to the depths of mediocrity shared by such films as Godzilla vs. Megalon or Godzilla's Revenge. But Final Wars should have been the great Godzilla film everyone wanted, but it comes up short everywhere it matters.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Kaiju Theater: Godzilla (2014)

Back in the summer of 2000, one scorching August afternoon I made my way to the crummiest theater in Temple, Texas, because that was the only place showing Godzilla 2000. The film was the first Japanese Godzilla film distributed to American cinemas since Godzilla 1985 15 years before. Growing up watching all the cheesy Shōwa series films on Saturday afternoon TV "Creature Features" and was jazzed to see a modern incarnation of the Big G. But when I got to the theater, they told me the air conditioning was out, and would not be repaired for the foreseeable future. It was at least 100 degrees out, and likely to get hotter before the day was out. What's worse, I couldn't catch an evening show because as a sports reporter, I worked evenings. Knowing this was very likely to be my only chance to ever see a real, for-true Godzilla film on the big screen (even then I dismissed the 1998 travesty completely) I bit the bullet: I bought my ticket, and watched the film, all by my lonesome in the empty screening room in sweltering, 90-degree temperatures.

I share this only so readers understand from where I come from. I'm a Godzilla fan from way, way back, and take the atomic age metaphor seriously. Which is why I--and my family--looked forward to this big-budget American production (co-produced by Toho) directed by Gareth Edwards, who gave us 2010's nifty low-budget Monsters. The film opens with an extended setup in which Bryan Cranston's Joe Brody loses his wife, Sandra Brody (Juliette Binoche) in a suspicious nuclear power plant accident in Japan. Flash forward 15 years, and Joe Brody has become a wild-eyed conspiracy nut, convinced the government is covering up the real cause of the accident and his wife's death. His son, Ford (Kick Ass' Aaron Taylor-Johnson), all grown up and a bomb-disposal expert in the Marines, is just returning home from a tour of duty and desperate to spend quality time with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son, Sam (Carson Bolde). Except he get a phone call that his crazy dad has been arrested in Japan, so Ford flies to land of the Rising Son to bail him out. Once out, Joe convinces a skeptical Ford that the same seismic events that triggered the disaster 15 years ago are repeating themselves, and needs to return to the restricted area around the ruined power plant to recover his records to prove it. Ford reluctantly agrees with the scheme, but once they sneak in, not only do they recover Joe's long-list zip drive discs, they also discover the area isn't a radioactive wasteland. They're promptly captured by security and get a ring-side seat at a MUTO--a giant, vicious insect-like monster that eats radiation and has cocooned itself in the reactor for the past 15 years, breaks out to join its mate and reproduce. The rest of the movie consists of Ford attempting to return home to San Francisco whilst Godzilla pursues the two MUTOs because Big G is the "apex predator" and the MUTOs are his prey.

Edwards plays things very close to the vest, withholding any glimpse of any monster until well into the film, and only then offering glimpses. Godzilla himself doesn't show the halfway point, and by then, audiences are primed for some serious kaiju-on-kaiju smackdown. Except we don't get it. When Godzilla confronts the male MUTO in Hawaii, Edwards abruptly cuts away to show news reports of the devastating battle. That's it. What works as a cute joke quickly loses its humor once the audience realizes the break isn't just a brief interlude, that Edwards really isn't going to show any of the fight. I've seen reviewers praise Edwards for making "such a bold choice" but I have to call bullshit. Sitting in the theater, watching Edwards tease the audience over and over without delivering the action, all I could think of was my utter disappointment with 1981's big budget flop, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, another movie that chose to tease the audience with promised excitement of a larger-than-life title character, yet fail to deliver until the final act. To be sure, Godzilla does a better job of maintaining interest than that earlier snorefest, but only just. Yet when the final battle comes... well, I didn't feel the payoff was worth the wait. Yes, it's cool when Godzilla finally (reluctantly, it seems) unleashes his famed radioactive breath. The male MUTO makes good use of his hooks and wings to aerially attack Godzilla in ways that would make Rodan jealous. Godzilla himself fights tooth and claw and tail, far more effectively and convincingly than even the best of the rubber-suited Toho films. But still, it remains a fight very much cut from the same cloth of those earlier films. I didn't see anything new brought to the table other than a much, much bigger budget. It certainly wasn't as inventive as the jaw-dropping battle for Hong Kong in last summer's Pacific Rim, and perhaps that film makes a good comparison. The battle for Hong Kong was such a spectacular show-stopper that the final act, with the two Jaegers Gipsy Danger and Striker Eureka battling massive kaiju on the ocean floor something of a letdown. It just couldn't measure up. Godzilla's final act feels very much like the final act of Pacific Rim, only Godzilla's show-stopping spectacle was the battle for Honolulu, which audiences never actually saw.

Imagine, say, World War Z with all the zombie action happening before, or after Brad Pitt arrived on the scene. Leaving the theater, The Wife groused, "Who'd have thought Superman would give us too much carnage, and Godzilla not enough?"

The biggest flaw with Edwards' Godzilla is the same flaw inherent with all Godzilla films--the audience really, really, really doesn't care about the humans in the film. The plot centering around the people is, to be blunt, filler to pad out the movie between expensive, special effects-laden monster battles. The Japanese worked around this somewhat by shamelessly ripping off... er, paying homage to such U.S. blockbusters as The Terminator, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Matrix. Pacific Rim skirted the issue by making the human actors actually physically fight their monstrous adversaries by donning armored suits that happened to also be giant robots. Edwards tries to move his film beyond this by going for a poignant human element, but Ford's efforts to get home to his family (a family that is given nothing to do other than be threatened by giant MUTOs) is the exact same story arc as Tom Cruise's in War of the Worlds. Although to be fair, Ford doesn't beat a crazy Tim Robbins to death in a basement whilst hiding out from MUTOs.

Lest I forget, Ken Watanabe is a fantastic actor wasted here. His only job is to look alternately pensive and confused, then spout plot points when convenient to the narrative.

Is Gereth Edwards' Godzilla really all that bad? No. I don't hate it, although it may sound that way. I'll get the Blu-Ray when it comes out, and skip to the final 20 minutes. In many ways it is superior to previous Godzilla films. It goes a long way toward washing away the stain the 1998 film left on the Godzilla legacy. The acting is better. The directing is better. The special effects are better. There are nifty set pieces in this film--the Halo jump from all the trailers being the undisputed emotive and visual high point. But the film can't maintain that level of awe, or even tension. Great effort is put into fleshing out the origins of the MUTOs, but from a storytelling perspective the film is no different from King Kong vs. Godzilla, in which helpless humans simply stand back and "let them fight." Except, in this instance, the audience doesn't get to watch the fun.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Keywords of the Zeitgeist

Bidding now open

KEYWORD SEARCH:

CTTSO 
Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office 
TSWG 
Technical Support Working Group 
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analyze
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ballistic protection
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Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Singularity Sperm

Decades ago, James Tiptree, Jr., wrote a disturbing story (did she write any other kind?) titled "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" Not to spoil it for those readers who haven't gotten around to reading it over the past 40-plus years, but the premise involves a crew of male astronauts passing through a spatial anomaly on the other side of the sun, which catapults them far into the future where men have gone extinct, yet human civilization continues as a single-gendered Amazon society.

Don't look now, but science is making Tiptree downright prescient: Primitive sperm cells have been cultured in a lab using human skin cells as the genetic source material. Go listen to, and/or read the story now. It's fascinating.

In a paper published in the journal Cell Reports, Pera and her colleagues describe what they did. They took skin cells from infertile men and manipulated them in the laboratory to become induced pluripotent stem cells, which are very similar to human embryonic stem cells. That means they have the ability to become virtually any cell in the body.

They then inserted the cells into the testes of mice, where they became very immature human sperm cells, the researchers report.
Yes, the process is still in its infancy (no pun intended). There are many, many technical hurdles ahead before this technique might be used to produce a viable, mature sperm. And even then, there's no guarantee the technique might conceal some genetic roadblock (shortened telomeres, anyone?) that would make an embryo unviable. But even if this proves to be a genetic dead-end, it is still a tremendous breakthrough that will undoubtedly contribute greatly to other areas of genetic research. But if it does prove to be a practical, safe and stable technique once it is refined and perfected...

The story came on the air as I was driving home with my eldest daughter, a 15-year-old as in to science fiction literature as I was at her age. She was fascinated by the story. "What obvious question did they not ask?" I said once the story ended. "They're talking about making viable sperm from human skin cells. Or human hair."

"They could make someone's children without their knowledge or permission. That's creepy."

"Yes, but take it further. They can make sperm out of any piece of skin, or hair," I said. "What happens if they take some of your hair..."

And her eyes got big.

I suspect the greatest demand for this process will not come from infertile men, but rather lesbian couples. Any children born of such unions would invariably be female, as the genetic code from the sperm mother could only contain an X chromosome. Beyond that, there is nothing standing in the way of women fathering children with other women. It's easy to forsee lesbian couples alternating pregnancies, with one being the sperm mother for the first baby, and then reversing roles for the second. It's as democratic as the reproductive cycle is ever likely to be. Men, obviously, would then be technically irrelevant, although for practical purposes I expect the Y chromosome to remain in demand amongst a large segment of the female population for some time to come.

Step back even farther, and the implications are even bigger: We are already living in the much-ballyhooed "Singularity." Consider the evidence--genetic breakthroughs are coming at a breakneck pace. We're already custom-growing gall bladders and other simple organs in the lab for transplant, and within the decade higher organs such as kidneys, hearts and lungs will follow. Two decades ago, we hadn't confirmed the existence of a single extra-solar planet, and now not only have we charted thousands of them, we're analyzing their atmospheres and marking potentially habitable ones for future reference. Cars drive themselves. Private corporations are getting the U.S. into space more than NASA these days. People implant magnets into their bodies to give themselves additional senses. Bionics are a real thing. A single smart phone has more computer power than all the U.S. and Soviet spacecraft that participated in the moon race, combined. We live in the Cloud now, texting and tweeing and showing the world what we had for lunch. Higgs boson. Quantum computers. The list goes on and on and on, and in many ways has far outstripped even the most visionary speculative fiction writers of the previous century (although there are some, like Tiptree, who nailed it in passing).

Change has come upon us so often and so fast that we, as a people, have become numb to it. Constant, relentless change has become the new normal. The Singularity isn't some distant spike looming over the horizon, it is upon us now. Only nobody has noticed. The Singularity Sperm is evidence of that.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Babylon 5: Soul Hunter

I am re-watching the entire Babylon 5 television series along with my teenage daughter. I have not seen a single episode since B5 completed its tumultuous run, and Calista was just a few days old when the final episode aired back in 1998. Does J. Michael Straczynski still have the touch? Come along with us and find out.

In Valen's Name: The aliens on board Babylon 5 go into a frenzy when an alien known as a Soul Hunter arrives on the station. Soul Hunters have a religious belief that the souls of important figures should be captured and preserved at the time of death. Dr. Stephen Franklin makes his first appearance on the series, and scoffs at the notion "souls" can be captured--listing a number of cyberpunkish alternatives whilst being dismissive of the supernatural. Minbari Ambassador Delenn is particularly troubled, because some years earlier this particular Soul Hunter attempted to collect the soul of a great Minbari leader, but was rebuffed in what is alluded to be a very bloody confrontation. He recognizes Delenn of the ruling Grey Council, and wonders why she's acting as a mere Ambassador. The Soul Hunter claims everything went wrong after he was stopped on Minbar--he's failed repeatedly to collect souls of the important departed from then on. He decides he was drawn to Babylon 5 to collect Delenn's soul and promptly abducts here with the intent of killing her in order to collect her soul. About that time, another Soul Hunter arrives, warning Sinclair that the first Soul Hunter has gone insane because of his failure on Minbar and now is, essentially, a serial killer. Sinclair finds the crazy Soul Hunter in time, turns the soul-collecting machine against him and rescues Delenn. From then on, Sinclair bans Soul Hunters from the station and Delenn releases all the captured souls from his collection.

What Calista Says: In this episode, I thought the Soul-Collectors were very misunderstood, but at the same time they were pretty creepy. They reminded me of those crazy religious groups that everyone has a hard time accepting because what they believe in and what they do are so outrageous. I also think that the Babylon 5 captain was right to ban that race from coming on the station.

What Jayme Says: This isn't a great episode. It's not awful, but it's too cut-and-dried to really resonate. Part of the problem is that this episode is very much metaphysical, which is at odds with B5's otherwise hard-core science fictional universe. I'll admit giving the Soul Hunters a third eye is a nice touch for the metaphysical aspect (just as Game of Thrones has a three-eyed crow), but still. I understand why the concept of metaphysical souls needed to be introduced as part of the larger narrative, and the fact that this initially seems like such a throwaway episode is a sly way to do so... but still, these ideas are developed in future episodes less ham-fistedly, making "Soul Hunter" superfluous. And the alien race plays no significant role in the rest of the series narrative, save for the stand-along movie of the same name (which we'll get to eventually). Delenn being reduced to a damsel in distress is another problem here, but B5 is less guilty of this than other series/movies on the whole. And we do get our first look at Stephen Franklin, played by the late, likeable, Richard Biggs, so the episode has that going for it. Overall, though, it's mildly interesting at best.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Babylon 5: Midnight on the Firing Line

I am re-watching the entire Babylon 5 television series along with my teenage daughter. I have not seen a single episode since B5 completed its tumultuous run, and Calista was just a few days old when the final episode aired back in 1998. Does J. Michael Straczynski still have the touch? Come along with us and find out.

In Valen's Name: A Narn sneak attack on the small Centauri agricultural colony of Ragesh 3 touches off a round of serious diplomatic tension aboard Babylon 5. The Narn ambassador, G'Kar, initially feigns ignorance, which infuriates Centauri ambassado Londo once he learns the true identity of the attacking force. The issue is personal for Londo, as he'd pulled strings to get his nephew, Carn, assigned to a prestigious research position on the colony. Also, Londo dreams of the days before the Centauri empire was in decline, and once he receives word from his superiors on Centauri Prime that Ragesh 3 is too small and remote to bother defending, Londo attempts to bluff the Advisory Council and League of Non-Aligned Worlds into taking action where the Centauri Republic would not. G'Kar calls his bluff, informs the council that Ragesh 3 was originally a Narn colony seized by the Centauri during their brutal occupation of Narn, and finally share a transmission of Londo's obviously tortured nephew stating that the colonists invited the Narn to annex them because the Centauri Republic had essentially abandoned the colony and cut off support.

Whilst all this is going on, Security Chief Garibaldi is tracking down the source of some troubling pirate raids on cargo ships destined for Babylon 5. The raiders have displayed weapons far more powerful of late than they have in the past, escalating the threat they pose. He figures out how they are planning their attacks, and Commander Sinclair leads a squadron of Star Furies out to ambush the raiders. This leads to the capture of the raiders' mother ship, which just so happens to have a Narn advisor on board as the raiders have been using new, more powerful weapons purchased from the Narn. The advisor also just happens to have recordings of the transmissions between the Narn fleet and homeworld that exposes the entire invasion of Ragesh 3 as an unprovoked attack. When confronted with the evidence, G'Kar is furious, but Narn backs down and recalls its forces from Ragesh 3.

In the B plot of the episode, newly-arrived Lt. Commander Ivanova spends the episode avoiding newly-arrived telepath Talia Winters. When Winters finally corners Ivanova, Ivanova explains she hates the Psi Corps because her mother was a latent telepath who was forced by the corps to take drugs to suppress her abilities. The drugs caused severe depression, leading to her mother's suicide. Talia is sympathetic, but Ivanova rejects any possibility of friendship.

What Calista Says: In this episode I really liked the replacement 2nd-in-command, Ivanova, and the back story about her mother. The special effects were way better than they were in the pilot. I liked the makeup on Delenn in the pilot more than how it was in this episode. In the pilot it was more dramatic.

What Jayme Says: This is a good, solid episode--a far, far better introduction to Babylon 5 than the clunky pilot. There's a lot going on here, but JMS' writing and Richard Compton's directing keep everything coherent and clear. The Narn/Centauri conflict is front and center here, not soft-pedaled as it was in the pilot. The raiders are kinda throwaway enemies, but they serve their purpose. Ivanova's handful of scenes with Talia pack quite an emotional punch and are the most gripping of anything yet seen on B5. The fact that there is so much tension and conflict going on amongst the regular characters signals that this is a sharp break from the Star Trek mold, where everyone invariably goes in for the group hug before taking on whatever challenge awaits.

That said, "Midnight on the Firing Line" feels very much like a Star Trek episode once the credits roll. Why? Because the main plot--war between Narn and Centauri--is neatly tied up by the end of the episode. Reset to status quo: Nothing really changes from week to week. If I put my mind to it, "Midnight on the Firing Line" is somewhat analogous to Trek's "Errand of Mercy." The Narn are the aggressive Klingon stand-ins, the Centauri are the peaceful Federation types, and Sinclair/Babylon 5 serve as the peacemaking Organians. Granted, it's a loose comparison at best, but consider the fact that when this episode aired, the Star Trek episodic model was pretty much all that existed for televised space opera. Part of Babylon 5's success came from playing off these assumptions of the audience and gradually (and sometimes abruptly) subverting them (something Farscape did effectively as well a few years later), but early on it made the series look like Deep Space 9 with various cosmetic changes.

Still, there are hints of what is to come. Londo's prescient dream of his own death comes off in the episode as a throwaway bit of Shakespearean melodrama. Vorlon Ambassador Kosch's reaction to the Narn/Centauri conflict is downright chilling. Kosh: "They are a dying people. We should let them pass." Sinclair: "Who, the Narn or the Centauri?" Kosh: "Yes." There a whole lot of Checkovian guns hung up on the walls of the station in this episode, but it is to JMS' credit that they are so subtle as to go unnoticed until significantly later in the series.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Babylon 5: The Gathering

I've been possessed of a desire to re-watch the entire Babylon 5 television series of late. I have not seen a single episode since that groundbreaking series completed its tumultuous run, and am curious as to how well the epic, 5-year story arc holds up more than a decade later. But to up the ante, I've invited my teenage daughter, Calista, to watch it with me. She was just a few days old when the final episode aired back in 1998, so we'll get an unbiased take from a hard-to-please Doctor Who fan who is fairly well-read when it comes to modern YA science fiction. Does J. Michael Straczynski still have the touch? Come along with us and find out.

Note: We watched the 1998 edit for this review, which, while still problematic, is an improvement over the version that originally aired.

In Valen's Name: The Babylon 5 space station, commanded by Jeffrey Sinclair, has been operational for one full year. It is awaiting the arrival of the ambassador of the mysterious, ancient and powerful Vorlon Empire. After a ruinous war with the Minbari that nearly drove the human race to extinction, the Babylon project was conceived as sort of diplomatic meeting point to prevent future conflicts. Babylon stations 1-3 were sabotaged and destroyed during construction. Babylon 4 mysteriously disappeared 24 hours after going operational. Babylon 5 was only completed after the Minbari and Centauri Republic provided assistance. The main alien races represented by ambassadors include the bald, zen-like Minbari, the foppish, crazy-haired Centauri and the antagonistic, reptilian Narn. Other minor species are present in the loosely-affiliated "League of Non-Aligned Worlds." As the Vorlon ambassador, Kosh, arrives, Sinclair is inexplicably delayed in meeting him. When he arrives, Sinclair finds the Vorlon collapsed, the victim of an assassination attempt. Doctor Benjamin Kyle opens Kosh's encounter suit despite Vorlon communications against doing so in an attempt to save the ambassador. Also in defiance of Vorlon demands, human telepath Lita Alexander enters Kosh's mind to find out what happened, and sees Sinclair attack the ambassador with poison. The Vorlons send a fleet of warships to take Sinclair back to their world for interrogation and trial, but Sinclair figures out the assassin was using a "chameleon net" to alter his appearance. They corner the assassin, who is growing more desperate, and discover he is actually a Minbari who utters a cryptic comment to Sinclar--"There is a hole in your mind'--before blowing up a large section of the station and killing himself in the process. The Vorlons monitor the incident and depart, content that Sinclair is innocent.

What Calista Says: The first thing that struck me while I was watching the Babylon 5 pilot was the really sucky special effects. The second thing I noticed was that the Asian lady couldn't act. My favorite character was probably the telepath, and my favorite aliens were the ones who used to be at war with Earth. I really want to know more about them. The aliens with the flowery space ship reminded me a lot of Time Lords for some reason.

What Jayme Says: The Babylon 5 pilot, "The Gathering," isn't awful, but lord it isn't good. The CGI effects are primitive even for 1993, and the narrative is ponderous and slow, seemingly lingering over sets and costume design and prosthetic makeup to show the viewer how much was invested in the production. The acting--particularly by Tamlyn Tomita as second-in-command Laurel Takashima--is stiff and wooden. The assassination plot should've been a taut thriller, but is flaccid and offers little in the way of making viewers care. There are several reasons for these shortcomings, foremost of which is the fact that series creator J. Michael Staczynski (JMS) had never served as a show runner before, and made a lot of mistakes his first time out. The other reason is that several years before, JMS had pitched Babylon 5 to Paramount, which took copious notes and proceeded to incorporate many of the key elements into the new series Star Trek: Deep Space 9. The fact that Minbari were originally conceived of as shape-shifters forced the stop-gap measure of inventing the "chameleon net" technology when DS9 introduced shape-shifters as major characters in the pilot. Not to mention several other integral concepts. Re-tooling the pilot script did not help the production find its footing.

And if I'm going to get down amongst the weeds on this analysis, the Minbari makeup is a bit too latex-heavy in the pilot, and the androgynous look, while an interesting experiment, is somewhat awkward and off-putting. The revisions made for the regular series are a strong improvement. And there's one awkward scene where Minbari Ambassador Delenn gets into it with Narn Ambassador G'Kar, where she subjugates him with a "gravity ring." For real. This gravity ring is one of five color-coded rings Delenn keeps hidden in her quarters, and when I saw this, I immediately thought that J.R.R. Tolkien left out one verse about "Five rings for the Minbari Council in the robe of grey..." The concept is silly, doesn't work and is thankfully never mentioned again.

Vorlons also get short shrift here. Everyone goes around making noise about how ancient, mysterious and powerful the Vorlons are, but they're just a threat on paper that goes away at the end without so much as a peep. Rewatching this sequence having knowledge of what happens in season 4 casts an entirely new light on the peril of the situation. But then again, the same can be said of pretty much everything in the first season.

Despite the problems, it's hard to overstate the importance of this film. I remember some buzz among the fan communities I was connected with, and while nobody fell in love with it right away, it intrigued folks with its potential and they wanted to see more. Remember, Star Trek was the only game in town for unabashed space-based science fiction, and the ideas in Star Trek had so permeated pop culture that science fiction television had a sort of homogenous default to the Trek model. Babylon 5 attempted to create something distinctly different, and at the time, some Trek fans too offense and viewed it as a threat to their beloved franchise. JMS was attacked on message boards and one person went so far as to email him a virus disguised as a drawing of a Starfury by his child, which corrupted several scripts JMS had on his home computer. There was also a character arc involving Takashima being compromised and possibly corrupted--she covertly aided the assassin, although that isn't readily apparent in the pilot--that went out the window once Tomita was replaced by Claudia Christian on the show, but that's for the best considering how great a character Ivanova became, and how stilted Tomita was in her one appearance. Doctor Kyle didn't make it past the pilot, replaced by Dr. Stephen Franklin, and telepath Lyta disappeared from the series as well, although she would return later on.

The look of Babylon 5 is different from Trek and other SF predecessors, and there's a more complex dynamic at work with the various races present. There are also hints at a complex back story, but at this juncture, there's little to indicate just how rich and distinctive this series will become. As part of the series proper, "The Gathering" is as close to disposable and irrelevant as it gets.