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Monthly Archives: December 2011

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Why People Hate Star Trek Voyager

GiantFreakingRobot has a list of six reasons why he believes Voyager never really worked. His first mistake is pointing to Voyager as the beginning of the end for the franchise. Actually DS9 was the beginning of the end. It was the first TNG spinoff and its ratings plummeted badly requiring repeated reboots. Toward the end it had a fraction of its former ratings.

The reasons themselves? Janeway was more Kirk than Picard, at least a crazy unbalanced version of Kirk. She charged in a lot of the time and threw her weight around. Except for the last two reasons, the others are too stupid to comment on. The only one that matters is did Voyager really make full use of its premise. No it didn’t and the easiest way to see that is to compare it to Stargate Universe which took a similar premise and tried to live it. Or Enterprise’s third season. Neither of them were perfect but they were much more committed to the concept.

Some of Voyager’s best episodes used the premise, like The Void. But it also managed great standalone episodes that didn’t, like Blink of an Eye, which could have popped up on any of the Star Treks. Voyager doesn’t get enough credit for its good episodes, but at least unlike DS9 it wasn’t constantly being rebooted from Exploring the Wormhole to War Show to Sisko as the Chosen One Fighting the Red Devil Orbs.

Robot is close enough when he says that the problem was the characters. They were a big part of the problem. None of the post-TNG shows ever had a cast that really meshed together naturally. It was a bigger problem on Voyager, because unlike DS9 and Enterprise, not only didn’t the cast mesh, but most of the characters were either unlikable or not very interesting.

DS9 had actors who could carry the bad material. Enterprise’s actors were congenial enough that the bad stuff wasn’t as irritating. Voyager had few buffers except for the HoloDoc and Picardo’s prickly charm. Janeway, Chakotay, Paris, Kim, Tuvok, Seven and most of the cast were irritating one note characters and the actors couldn’t or wouldn’t bring anything to tone them down.

Robert Picardo and Ethan Philips seemed to be the only actors on the show trying to be sympathetic. Mulgrew went the other way. Beltran had occasional flashes of charm but mostly phoned it in. Robert Duncan McNeill decided to go as obnoxious as possible. Garret Wang couldn’t really act too well. Jeri Ryan was playing an emotionless sexbot with minimal nuance. Tim Russ has a great sense of humor, but chose to disregard a lot of what Nimoy did with Spock, and between the abrasive writing, made Tuvok as unlikable as possible.

It may not be completely fair to blame the actors for a show’s problems, the premise and the uneven writing were at fault, but the cast really did not step up to the task. Sure they mostly had one note characters, but they didn’t really try to bring any nuance to the material. They never made it come alive and they never made the show come alive.

DS9 didn’t really have great writing, but it had a supporting cast of people like Coombs, Robinson and Alaimo who would make the most of a single throwaway line. And that made up for Brooks and Visitor’s bad acting. It had Colm Meaney who could walk through the most banal material and still make you feel something. It had Rene Auberjonois who did with a similar character what Tim Russ failed to do, make him seem vulnerable despite his abrasiveness.

Imagine the actors switching places for a moment and suddenly Voyager would start looking better and DS9 would start looking worse.

Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis book review

There’s the bare bones of a good novel in Ian Tregillis’ Bitter Seeds, but it hasn’t been thought out well enough. From a great opening, Bitter Seeds founders on its basic premise that everything that happens in this alternate history of World War II where the Nazis have deployed technologically enhanced supermen and superwomen with special gifts and the British have turned to demonic spirits, depends on the ability of Gretchen, one of the superwomen, to predict the future and act in accordance with it.

That doesn’t seem like so much of a problem at first, but increasingly nothing can happen in the novel except following Gretchen’s agenda. That means nothing really matters and the story has nowhere to go. The British put their efforts into soliciting demons and paying a blood price to blockade the English Channel, but none of that really goes anywhere. The Nazis zip around Europe and besiege England, but don’t seem to get around to pushing into the USSR.

Rather than the battle between technology and mysticism that the novel’s blurb advertises, it’s more of a pointless stalemate with none of the characters really accomplishing anything. Tregillis proves the paradox that knowing the future leaves you helpless but that doesn’t make for much of a story. It’s not Tregillis’ writing that fails here, or his ability to tell a compelling story, it’s the plotting that locks him into a novel that goes nowhere. By the end the war has ended, with little intervention from any of the characters, and nothing really seems to matter.

The Best of Gene Wolfe book review

The Best of Gene Wolfe The best way to read The Best of Gene Wolfe is to open the book, read the first story, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories, and then close the book and put it away. Not only doesn’t it get any better from here, it gets much worse.

The cover blurbs on the book boast that Wolfe is Melville, Dostoevsky and Dickens all rolled into one. Truth be told he’s a second-rate Theodore Sturgeon and Avram Davidson rolled into one, and The Best of Gene Wolfe is his idea of what his best stories are. Which with authors is rarely a good thing.

I’m not a Wolfe hater. The man has written some great stories and most of them are in here, so are stories that should never have seen the light of day. If you’ve read the usual Best of the Year and Hugo and Nebula collections, then you’ve probably seen the good ones. You may have also seen some of the terrible ones like The Dream Detective, an upscale Catholic version of a Jack Chick tract.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus is in here, so is The Tree is My Hat and Seven American Nights. Unfortunately so is Forlesen, an endless story about how awful working for a corporation is, along with numerous stories that just aren’t stories. Take The Death of the Island Doctor, which Wolfe in his afterword mentions that he is pleased it is nothing like a story. But maybe it should have been.

The Best of Gene Wolfe is filled with stories that aren’t really stories, but probably should have been stories. Or the space taken up by them should have been filled by stories. Some like From the Desk of Gilmer C. Merton, On the Train or The God and His Man are wankery, there’s no better word for it.

For every adequate story like Westwind, or And When They Appear, there’s a Game in the Pope’s Head or The Parkroads. And the rare good ones like Straw, are more than offset by all the rest. The average quality of the collection is not good, but anyone who’s a fan of Wolfe will eat it up. Those who aren’t, might want to consider just buying a couple of old Hugo and Nebula collections for a better overall quality mix.

The Things That Should Go Away

So The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo performed poorly. Big surprise. Bestsellers don’t often translate into big box office. Once people paid 20 something or 7 something dollars for the book, they’re much less likely to go see the movie. The DaVinci Code was an exception, but it was practically a cult in its time.

I never read the books. I don’t care about them. The synopsis reads like the writer was writing up a glamorized version of himself in a more exciting version of his real job along with a bisexual girl. Throw in David Fincher, the most overrated director of all time and you have a perfect score.

Fincher is the other thing that should go away. Despite being a music video director, he was also a good director, even if his visuals relied too much on gimmicks. Seven and Fight Club were sold entries. And then came a string of random movies shot in that same filtered tone and looking like music videos. But they were forgivable too. What’s wrong is that everyone keeps treating anything he releases as a major event, no matter how mediocre it is.

Panic Room. Zodiac. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button deserved some attention, but The Social Network was the most grossly overhyped piece of crap that had no reason for existing in years. Then we come to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a bunch of overhyped books leading to an overhyped movie by an overhyped director that not many people actually wanted to see.

Who could have seen that coming?

The Redemption of Tom Cruise?

The official word is that Tom Cruise has saved Christmas for Hollywood. That’s even sorta true, but only because MI4 was the only movie launched that didn’t hopelessly underperform the way a bunch of other movies did. But MI4 isn’t much of a hit, its opening box office was at or below MI3 levels. And MI3 was already below earlier installments and MI4 made a chunk of its money from IMAX and its inflated ticket prices.

If MI4 ends up making more money than MI3 it will only be because there’s no serious competition and that makes it the default choice for people who want to sell out some money and sit in front of a flickering screen without having to talk too much for 90 minutes. But it won’t be because MI4 is a good movie or because Cruise has regained his appeal.

Paramount’s scheduling bet for MI4 paid off when the other studios tanked. If there’s no recovery then MI4 will probably make more money than MI3, which opened in May. Does that testify to a resurrection of Cruise’s appeal? He probably kept his appeal overseas, but Americans didn’t go to see MI4 for Cruise, they went for the same reason that they went to see the earlier MI movies or the Transformer movies. Because a lot of stuff explodes on screen.

When Every Movie Became a Cartoon

It’s hard to say when exactly Hollywood’s main product became 250 million dollar CG cartoons. The Phantom Menace was probably the opening shot and then came everything else and here we are where the movie factory is just turning out people running around against a green screen and shouting at stuff.

Whether it’s Rise of the Apes or The Phantom Menace or Transformers or Wrath of the Titans, these are just really expensive cartoons with cartoon logic and plots. Tintin makes sense since it’s what Hollywood has been doing for over a decade now, grabbing a recognized brand name, building a loud explosion filled cartoon around it.

Past the 200 million range it doesn’t seem like movies are even being made anymore. It’s modern day versions of comics and serials with huge budgets and worldwide distributions. Stories get in the way of foreign box office sales. Any dialogue more complex than a punch line doesn’t translate as well. And no one really wants to see it anyway.

Movies have become what television used to be. A way to get a bunch of people in the same room and then shut off their brains. It’s not as if there’s a point to these anymore. They’re getting more and more disposable, there’s no acting and no reason for them to exist. Spielberg’s blockbusters at least made you feel something more than bored. These are just cartoons, lavish expensive cartoons.

Warriors I edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois book review

Aside from Martin’s name on the cover and despite his introduction going on about the wire spinner rack and the diversity of genres inside, Warriors I is like most anthologies. Gardner Dozois, the man who helped push Science Fiction deeper into the same inbred pseudo-literary ghetto, being on the cover is the tip off. Warriors I utilizes some historical fiction stories, but that’s not exactly unheard of. And it would be more objectionable if they didn’t look good compared to the genre entries.

Warriors I has several vaguely science fiction stories from top drawer authors, another Dunk and Egg tale from Martin and a few historical warriors george martin bookfiction entries. The latter are the only stories in the book that don’t suffer from abortive endings. While Martin gets to fill the collection with a novella, most of the other stories feel like novellas abruptly cut down to story size.

Forever Bound by Joe Haldeman, the opening story, is yet another recapitulation of his most famous book, with co-eds drafted into a senseless war, this time to merge their minds together into a gestalt that controls virtual robot soldiers. It’s interesting enough until the abrupt ending cuts off just as the story was on the verge of showing us how this might work in actual combat. The ending to Tad Williams’ Ministers of Grace isn’t that abrupt, but the story is slick, shiny and dumb enough that it really doesn’t matter. And Williams hasn’t bothered to learn the definitions of things like Pagan and Zionism while writing a story about religion. Defenders of the Frontier by Robert Silverberg features another aborted ending, but the story is too inert and has few places to go so it’s a mercy killing.

The only thing half worth reading in Warriors I, except for Martin’s Mystery Knight, is Saylor’s The Eagle and the Rabbit, a piece of historical fiction that has enough fantasy to almost qualify and is a complete and detailed story within a minimalist setting. It contains a lesson for all the other contributors, but it’s not likely that they’ll learn from it.

Movie Box Office vs Video Game Sales

These comparisons started with the Call of Duty series and its blockbuster sales. Take this from the Economist

“Black Ops” is not a film or a book: it is a video game. For comparison, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2”, the current record-holder for the fastest-selling film at the box office, clocked up just $169m of ticket sales on its first weekend. “Black Ops” stole the crown from its predecessor in 2009, “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2”. The latest instalment, “Modern Warfare 3”, released on November 8th, set a record of its own with $750m in its first five days.

Money is money, but in the number of customers, Harry Potter Whatever beat Call of Duty Whatever. Movie tickets these days are still mostly under 15 dollars (or maybe I’m wrong) and the price for something like COD MW 3 is probably going to be around 50-60 dollars. There are still theaters where you can see movies for 10 bucks or so. So Harry Potter scored several times MW3’s audience, MW3 just made money off a smaller group of people.

But box office sales count ticket sales no the total money spent, which with snacks is probably going to be double that, at least. Movie theaters make their money from snack sales. Studios make a sizable chunk of change from later DVD and Blu Ray sales. None of this shows up front. Games do have DLC sales but they’re still a fraction of the total. So the picture isn’t as unbalanced as it seems.

Games still cost less than movies to make and turn a larger profit. Especially with growing direct sales to customers and no need to split the profits with a theater chain. MW2 cost around 40-50 million but had a launch budget of around 200 million dollars. MW3 probably had an even bigger launch budget.

That 250 million for MW2 is Harry Potter and the DH2’s film budget (though not its promotional budget) which helps put things into proportion. Its total worldwide take was over 1.3 billion, most of that foreign. MW2 had over a billion in sales, but took in most of its sales in the US.

MW2 has the lead because it extracted more money from individual customers, but it has fewer of those and they are more localized. It probably has the lead in revenues since movie studios don’t make nearly as much from box office, especially foreign box office, but it also has to spend something like the budget for making a Potter film just to get those customers.

City by Clifford D. Simak book review

When Simak wrote the introduction for City in 1976 he assumed that it would be the book that would define him. I’m not sure it has but Clifford Simak The Citythat’s only because unlike Bradbury, he never got his own Fahrenheit 451, that defining book everyone knows you for because it seems to say something IMPORTANT about where we’re all headed as a civilization.

City might be Simak’s own Fahrenheit 451, but it isn’t. It’s more like his On the Beach. Fahrenheit came off as a rebellious blast, but Simak’s City has no rebels. Just the Websters who are inept, weak and full of bad ideas. The Websters are meant to be heroes, but by the time the earth has been abandoned to the ants by a pacifist animal brotherhood which can’t even defend itself, they seem more like villains. To read City is to slowly watch humanity die off by people who have taken Simak’s philosophy and applied it. Simak may have meant City to comment on the destructiveness of nuclear war, but its comment on pacifism as a dead is much more decisive.

Like most of Simak’s works, City is patient and loving, filled with nostalgia and characters who love the land and its streams and rustic homes. It begins with the end of the city, twice, as humanity leaves the cities for a decentralized life in the country with atomic planes and cheap rural houses, and then gathers in a city when there are only a handful left to hibernate in a virtual reality. It begins with men who can’t leave the place they live and ends with their robot who can’t do it either.

There is insight in City, but much more sentimentality. Simak’s search for a path away from violence puts an end to the human race, when a Webster is unable to pull the trigger even to save the human race (or come up with a more elegant non-violent solution). The robots and dogs who are extensions of humanity go on, but humanity vanishes into alien bodies on Jupiter, another dimension and virtual reality in a closed city.

21 Jump Street the Trailer

So we’ve gone well beyond the point where we look at a pointless remake and go, “Why”, not that it isn’t a valid response, but because we’d be doing it all day. Still with that said, why?

I can understand making 21 Jump Street the Movie. When you’re making Battleship the Movie and Footloose the remake and Transformers 4 will probably bring in more money than Guam has ever seen, it’s not so crazy anymore. But 21 Jump Street isn’t a very complicated story, bunch of cops who can pass for TV teens go undercover and comment on social issues. So swap that out with Jonah Hill and somebody going back to high school to be able to drink beer and be popular again.

It’s not like 21 Jump Street was some kind of perfect formula, but there were distinct characters doing something. This is like a parody of an 80’s movie with a whole lot of bro jokes and the whole thing isn’t funny. Jonah Hill used to have great line delivery and maybe it’s around here someplace, but it’s weak.

Mostly this reminds me of Green Hornet, where there’s no real action, just comedy and something classic that really isn’t hard to make is completely ruined for no discernible reason.

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