Being the Ongoing Chronicle of the Anticks, Misadventures, and Odd Deeds of an Overalls-clad Wanderer.

Thursday, October 31, 2002

IMAGE OF THE WEEK





What better image for Halloween than this lovely close-up of a real Vampire bat? Anyhow, Happy Halloween, everyone.

(The image links to an informative site about vampire bats.)

Much has been written about Drew Bledsoe and the rebirth of his career after the offseason trade that sent him from the Patriots, where he lost his starting job to Tom Brady after being injured, to the Buffalo Bills, a team that was in complete disarray after last year's 3-13 finish. Bledsoe has brought heart and confidence back to the Bills, and a convincing argument can be made for Bledsoe to be the league MVP this season. This Sunday brings the Patriots to Buffalo for the first showdown between the two teams since the trade, and the matchup has been chosen as Game of the Week by ESPN.

Evelyn Leeper is a fairly well-known SF afficionado on the Net. Her report on ConJose is now online.

During the writing of my recent Star Trek Redux series of articles, I looked at a few Trek websites, of which this is the niftiest -- it's a history of the ships that have carried the name Enterprise, including real, historical ships such as the famed aircraft carrier. Neat.

Monday, October 28, 2002

Now, that was an October, sports fans.



:: Congratulations to the Anaheim Angels on their victory in the World Series. I've made no secret that I was rooting for the Giants in this Series, but if they had to lose to anyone, I'm glad it was to a franchise that is probably equally-storied in its long quest for postseason glory. The Angels have come close so many times only to never make it all the way, including their agonizing ALCS in 1986 when they were a single strike away from winning the pennant, only to have the Red Sox take it (and then lose to the Mets in the Series). This franchise's love-affair with futility is so storied, in fact, that a fantasy film was made a few years back about it, the subject of which is that it takes actual divine intervention for this team to win. Well, no supernatural antics were needed here. The Angels truly earned their championship, by constantly battling and never giving up. To face a five-run deficit in the seventh inning of Game Six, when the other team can win the Series by closing you out, takes immense character -- which the Angels showed, in spades. (Of course, a bullpen meltdown always helps....more on that presently.)

:: Sometimes, when watching a sporting event, you can just watch the air escaping from a team or competitor, and you know at that moment -- no matter how much time is still left on the clock, no matter what the score at the time of that moment -- that it's over, and the other team or competitor is going to win. Bill Buckner's error in Game Six of the 1986 World Series is one such moment. The game did not end on that play, and the Mets' eventual victory that night did not eliminate the Red Sox, but merely forced Game Seven; however, you could tell that for the Sox it was all over. Another such moment came early in the second half of Super Bowl XXVIII, the last of the Buffalo Bills' four consecutive appearances. Thurman Thomas got the carry, but it was an awkward exchange from Jim Kelly, and Thomas ended up fumbling. The fumble was returned for a Cowboys touchdown. Now, as I said, this was very early in the third quarter -- there were still over twenty-five minutes of football to play -- and after that Cowboys score the game was only tied, 13-13; but you could see the look on the Bills' faces: "Here we go again, this is where it starts, we're about to take our fourth damn loss in a row in this stupid game." Final score: Dallas 30, Buffalo 13. The Bills never even threatened to score again from that point in the game.

Well, another such moment came in Game Six this year, when the Angels rallied from five runs down. They put three runs up in the bottom of the seventh, so the score was still 5-3 Giants, but you just knew the Giants were about to lose, that Robb Nen was about to blow a save, that Troy Percival would come in and nail it down. It was as certain as the Titanic going down when they learn that the first five compartments are breached. It was over. Game Seven? A mere rubber-stamping of a pre-determined result.

:: The Angels also taught us in Game Seven how to deal with Barry Bonds. It turns out that the lesson might have been learned from studying Mark McGuire's 70-home run season in 1998, when despite McGuire's heroics the Cardinals finished with a losing record: the game's finest slugger can't beat you if you always ensure that he's coming to bat with the bases empty. Bonds was 1 for 3 last night, with a single; if he'd gone 3 for 3 and homered each time, and everything else had been the same except for that, the Giants would only have tied the game.

:: A funny cartoon summary of the Series can be read here.

And on to yesterday's NFL action:

:: I said last week that the Detroit Lions, who played my beloved Bills yesterday, were a bad team that could kill you if you overlook them. Well, the Bills did not overlook them, and thus they won -- although not without making it pretty close, courtesy a Travis Henry fumble that put the Lions in perfect position to score the tying touchdown. Luckily, Bills linebacker London Fletcher made the initial hit on the Lions' RB James Stewart on 4th-and-inches, stuffing the play for a loss and killing the Lions' last hope for the day. The Bills defense was actually pretty good yesterday and downright impressive in the second half. I still think they need to get someone who can really rush the passer consistently; they have not had anyone who can do that since Bruce Smith was allowed to leave. (Not that Smith can still bring it like he used to, in his 18th year.) They did pretty well, though, at keeping Lions' QB Joey Harrington confused and contained. Harrington didn't play a bad game, but he did make some bad decisions at inopportune times. (Although one of his bad decisions miraculously turned out great for him: when he threw an ill-advised pass into double coverage in the end zone, the first Bills DB knocked the ball into the air, away from the receiver, at which time the other Bills DB on the play also knocked the ball into the air -- right into the hands of Az-zahir Hakim, the other Lions' receiver on the play, for the touchdown.) The Bills are a robust and surprising 5-3. They may actually have an outside shot at the playoffs. As for the Lions, they are 2-5 now, and I still have to consider them a bad team that can burn you if you're not on your game for them. They are improving, though, and should have some good building blocks for next season.

:: Next up for the Bills are the defending champs. The Patriots are looking stunningly ordinary, losing at home yesterday to Denver for their fourth straight loss, putting their record at 3-4. There will be plenty of motivation to go around in this one: the Pats have to win it if they want to turn their season around; the Bills will want to beat the defending champs; Drew Bledsoe will want to show his old team that they made a mistake in trading him within the division. This one could be a barn-burner by the time it's over.

:: Also re: the Patriots -- can we possibly concede the role that plain, old luck played in their Super Bowl season last year? If Bill Belichick is that amazing of a coach, why have the Patriots been nothing to write home about except for that single year? and if he's that great of a coach, why was his tenure in Cleveland so ordinary?

:: The New Orleans Saints appear to be this year's shoot-em-up team, the team that goes out and scores a ton of points each week while also giving up a lot of points. They're 6-2 after yesterday's shoot-out loss to Atlanta (Falcons 37, Saints 35), and they've scored more points this year than anybody else except for Kansas City; but on the defensive side of the ball they've got some issues. Only seven teams are giving up more points per game than the Saints, and since the start of the 2001 season the Saints have only held four opponents to less than 20 points in a game (and not at all so far this year). Teams that have to win by scoring a lot almost always end up faltering at some point, when they inevitably encounter a defense capable of slowing them down.

:: OK, so Emmitt Smith is the greatest running back of all time, he's a gamer, he played that all-important game years ago against the Giants with a separated shoulder and he gained something like 160 yards that day, he was the key to the Cowboys' three Super Bowl wins in four years, yada yada yada. OK, it's a great achievement. OK, he's one of the top three RBs ever to lace 'em up. But man, did he have to do it all with the Cowboys, who are otherwise known as the Greatest Force For Evil In The Sporting World?

:: I guess Randy Moss decided yesterday that he wanted to play again. Yippee. I still think the Vikes should cut him and just start rebuilding now, as I don't think they're likely to be a good team again for at least two or three years.

:: Tampa Bay started Rob Johnson yesterday. From what I've read and saw on the news, it was vintage Rob: the offense never got anywhere near the end zone, and Rob got hurt when he scrambled. The Bucs won the game, though, via four FGs.

:: My Super Bowl picks: the Steelers were impressive yesterday, beating Baltimore on the road. Of course, the Ravens were without LB Ray Lewis, but still -- they're a good defense, and the Steelers haven't been setting the league on fire, offensively. But the important thing is that they are above .500 now and in sole possession of first place in the AFC North. As for my NFC pick, the Eagles play the Giants tonight. Go Eagles. (Funny thing: you know how your local newspaper, if you're in an NFL city or near one, will print the local team's name in bold type in the standings and in the leader boards? In Syracuse, they only do that in the leader board with NFL players who are Syracuse University alums...which right now means that the only name appearing in bold is that of Eagles QB Donovan McNabb.)

While I am sorry that the person who found Byzantium's Shores via this Yahoo! search undoubtedly went away without finding what they were looking for, I hope they found it somewhere. Probably over on Interact.



(It's a joke, Sean! Put the lead pipe down!!)

STAR TREK Redux, conclusion.

(Part Four)

:: Star Trek: First Contact.

With the "even-odd" rule well-established by this point, Star Trek fans had every right to expect First Contact to be a good film. For my part, though, I felt a certain sense of trepidation as the film's release approached, because of what I knew about the film's story. It can be summed up in a single word:

Borg.

I was not at all sure that I really wanted to see a Star Trek feature film about the Borg. Now, the Borg were very compelling villains in their episodes on TNG; I especially loved how they represented a direct counterexample to Star Trek's usual message of understanding, reason, and communication being the key to resolving problems between peoples. The Borg, by their very nature, are incapable of understanding, reason and communication. Their entire focus is on conquest and assimilation, which made them perfect foils for the Federation, and their relentless nature made for some of the most rivetting episodes of TNG ever produced.

The problem with the Borg is that with them a little bit goes a very long way, but by the time of First Contact's making, the Borg had started to feel a bit like the all-purpose Star Trek ratings tool: whenever the franchise appears to be in trouble, just throw in an appearance by the Borg and the fans will come running. This was especially true when the producers used the Borg to give Voyager a stiff dose of, for lack of a better term, sex appeal by introducing the Seven-of-Nine character. The whole story-arc of the Borg had seemed all-played-out, in my mind, so when I heard that the new Star Trek film was to feature them, I was a less than excited.

Fortunately, my fears were allayed: First Contact is excellent, far and away the best film to feature the TNG crew. Learning the lessons of Generations, the film establishes its two main storylines -- the Borg's invasion of the Enterprise, and their attempts to disrupt humanity's first contact with an alien species -- after a fairly quick preamble, and keeps alternating between the two storylines until they come together at the end in a fairly surprising way. The plot is basically that the Borg have decided that since they are not succeeding in assimilating humanity in the 24th century, they will go back in time and stop the humans from achieving warp drive -- thus keeping them earthbound, and making their assimilation easy. This story allows a journey into some long-time Star Trek lore: the broken society that forms after the Third World War (I think), the discovery of warp drive by Zefram Cochrane (Cochrane originally turned up in the TOS episode "Metamorphosis"), and the first meeting between humans and Vulcans. Indeed, the whole film is filled with references to Trek-lore and history, including some nifty Easter-eggs like the fact that the warp nacelles on Cochrane's prototype warp-ship are almost identical to the warp-nacelles on the TOS version of the Enterprise. There are a lot of small, Trekker-type moments in First Contact.

The film's action plot is also exciting, although it falls into something of a pattern: the crew has to stop the Borg from doing X, and they do, only to realize that now they have to stop the Borg from doing Y, which they do, only to discover....but the final solution to the Borg problem is an exciting one, relying on Data's emotion-chip but doing so in a fairly understated manner (as opposed to the histrionics Data was forced to undergo in Generations). Picard's obsession with destroying the Borg is also well-handled, as at one point he is so bent on staying on the Enterprise and fighting them that he calls Worf a coward, to his face. This also plays into a nice moment of literary allusion, which are always common in Star Trek: Picard is compared to Ahab from Moby Dick.

The film does mis-step a few times along the way. In the first place, I find it unbelievable that even considering Picard's experience of having been partially assimilated by the Borg years before, Starfleet would have its most powerful ship stay out of the battle. (And for that matter, it's getting increasingly hard to believe that this crew is still intact -- shouldn't Riker be a Captain of his own ship by now?) There is also a fairly pointless diversion into Picard's holodeck persona of Dixon Hill; that scene plays very oddly, although it does afford the chance for a cameo by the actor who played Neelix from Voyager. (There is another Voyager cameo in the film, earlier on, as well.) Jerry Goldsmith's music is passable, with a beautiful theme of maturity but with action music that isn't particularly memorable. And the whole time-travel mechanism, with the technobabble laid on pretty thick, seems to me to make time travel ridiculously easy. Can any ship do that, if the crew wishes it?

Still, First Contact is a rattling-good adventure film, mostly tense and exciting and with some heart. I enjoyed it immensely.

:: Star Trek Insurrection.

I don't really have a whole lot to say about Insurrection, mainly because it's really pretty generic. It's not a bad film, by any means -- its pacing is OK, its story is no more or less absurd than any other Star Trek movie story, the acting as always is fine -- but it still seems formulaic. There is no reason why this story couldn't be told as a two-part episode on television, as opposed to being made for the big screen. Insurrection doesn't start off particularly promisingly -- we have Picard chasing Data in a shuttlecraft, singing Gilbert and Sullivan into the radio in an attempt to override something that's gone wrong in Data's head, a scene which had me thinking, "My God, what are they doing here?" Thankfully, things get a lot better after that -- but not amazingly better. So that's really all I have to say about Insurrection. I'm not sure if it holds to the "Even-Odd" rule or if it breaks the rule: it's not a bad film, but it's not a memorable one, either.

:: Star Trek Nemesis.

See you this winter. Hailing frequencies closed.

Sometime over the weekend, Byzantium's Shores recorded its 3,000th hit since I put up the "Sitemeter". I'd take advantage of this auspicious occasion by doing some kind of jig or something, but honesty requires that I disqualify the roughly 794 of those hits which were....well, me, looking narcissistically on my own blog. Ah well, the sky's the limit!

Saturday, October 26, 2002

It's too bad that the good news of yesterday -- the capture of the DC Sniper (assuming that these suspects are the right men) -- had to be cosmically balanced out with other instances of sad news.



Senator Wellstone.




Richard Harris.




Adolph Green.




And at least 90 Russians.


STAR TREK Redux, part four.

(Introduction, Part One, Part Two, Part Three.)

:: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

After the debacle (or near debacle) of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, there was no Star Trek film for three years. During that time, The Next Generation established itself on television as the true Trek heir-apparent, and it was realized that in any case the original crew was really too old to continue soldiering on. Concepts were floated for a sixth film, including a flashback story to Kirk and crew's days at Starfleet Academy, in which the roles would have been recast with younger actors. Instead, though, one last film was made with the original crew intact, with that film also tying in loosely with a two-part TNG episode involving Spock ("Unification"). The film was intended to be a passing-of-the-torch to the new Star Trek crew and franchise. (I'm not sure on this point, but I think that Deep Space Nine was also under development at this time.)

The plot of The Undiscovered Country is a political allegory, at once explaining how it is that the Federation and the Klingon Empire are no longer mortal enemies by the time of The Next Generation and drawing clear inspiration from the end of the Cold War, which had come just two years prior to STVI's release. The film opens with some kind of large-scale disaster taking place in Klingon space -- the explosion of a moon called Praxis, which we are told is "their key energy-production facility". (The special effect that accompanies the destruction of Praxis is very impressive, and has since been called a "Praxis wave" when it has turned up in other films -- notably the Star Wars Special Editions.) The loss of Praxis reveals that the Klingons have depleted their ozone, and thus the Klingon Empire is about to go into serious decline, with the fall projected in fifty years. Thus the stage is set for the Klingon Chancellor, a man named Gorkon, to become the Klingon version of Mikhail Gorbachev: he opens a dialog with the Federation, wanting peace talks so that his Empire can stop spending money on its military and instead spend it on saving lives. And guess which ship, under which Captain, is sent to rendezvous with the Klingon Chancellor and escort him to the peace table? Yep -- Enterprise and Captain Kirk, who are apparently being pressed into one last mission before retirement.

All goes well -- a tense dinner scene in which barbs are traded and tempers flare notwithstanding -- until Gorkon is assassinated by a mysterious pair of killers. Kirk and Dr. McCoy are taken into custody for the murder, put on trial, and sentenced to life imprisonment on an icy prison-planet. This leaves Spock in command of the Enterprise, and he uses his time to logically figure out the details of the assassination and the uncovering of the conspiracy against the peace talks -- a conspiracy that is revealed to be very high up, and not just confined to the Federation, either. All this leads to a race-against-time to stop the next assassination, along with a thrilling space-battle against a Bird of Prey starship that can fire torpedoes while its cloaking device is engaged. (I've always wondered just why it is that ships can't fire while cloaked, but it's pretty much an article of faith at this point.)

Star Trek VI is my favorite of the entire series. I love its blend of large-scale storytelling with the personal interactions of the crew; the film ignores neither the advancing age of the cast nor the events of the previous films. The film's humor is more based in wit than in slapstick, a welcome change from STV:TFF. (The single biggest laugh I have ever heard in a theater during a Star Trek film is in this installment: just after the shapeshifting female alien plants a long, wet kiss on Captain Kirk, McCoy rolls his eyes and grumbles, "What is it with you?" The two lines after that were completely inaudible.) The film is imbued with the sense that this really, truly is the last time we're going to see these characters in action. In keeping with that, each character is given a moment to shine. George Takei as Sulu makes out especially well in this regard; he has finally earned his stripes as a commanding officer and spends the film not as helmsman of the Enterprise but as the Captain of the Excelsior. He even gets his own little "Shatner moment" when he barks to a crewman who tells him that the ship will fly apart if they go any faster: "Fly her apart, then!" There is also a very nice scene between Kirk and Spock, when the two discuss whether or not they have become obsolete. The film's final scene, a last shot of the TOS crew on the bridge of the Enterprise while Kirk delivers his last Captain's Log, strike the perfect note -- and the cast members' signatures appearing over the starfield at the very end is one of the classiest touches to a film I have ever seen.

Star Trek VI is not without its problems, most of which pertaining (of course) to the story's logic. I've never been entirely clear on why the explosion of one Klingon moon means the eventual fall of the entire Klingon empire, and certain other moments in the story are entirely too convenient -- Scotty's discovery of the exact air vent where the stolen uniforms were stashed and the subsequent discovery of the assassins' bodies, for example. The "revelation" of Lt. Valeris's involvement comes as no surprise whatsoever. These are fairly minor quibbles, though. Pacing is also a bugaboo, but thankfully a small one -- the film does drag in a couple of spots, but generally the film moves along at a fine clip.

As always, the biggest strength here is the acting -- particularly notable is Christopher Plummer as Chang, the main Klingon villain who has a penchant for quoting Shakespeare. ("I'd give real money if he'd shut up," McCoy growls at one point.) Kurtwood Smith is excellent as the Federation President, although I must admit that after years of watching Smith on That 70s Show I expect his character in The Undiscovered Country to bark out the phrase "dumb ass". In another nod to TNG, Michael Dorn turns up playing a Klingon -- the defense attorney for Kirk and McCoy. The music score, by Cliff Eidelman, is also superb -- rich and brooding, and with a very nice "starfaring" theme that captures the essence of the Enterprise in flight.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is, for me, the best of all the Trek films, beating out The Wrath of Khan.

:: Star Trek Generations.

Fans hoping that a change from the TOS crew to the TNG crew would also indicate an end to the weird tradition of the "even" Star Trek movies versus the "odd" ones. Sadly, that was not to be. Generations makes so many mistakes that I can't think of where to start.

The problem here lies, I think, in a fundamental misconception on the part of the film-makers. The film was made by pretty much the same people who produced The Next Generation on TV, and given that show's general competence from a storytelling standpoint, I have to wonder how the film could err in its storytelling to such a degree. My theory is that the producers got "blinded by the lights": they were making a movie, by Gosh, so obviously they had to make the thing Huge! Epic! Gigantic! They had to pack it with as much pathos as they possibly could. So, in less than two hours, we get: a midlife crisis for Captain Picard, a plot by some Klingons to destroy the Enterprise, a villain bent on getting into "the Nexus", an emotion-chip for Data, the Enterprise crash-landing on a planet, some holodeck stuff set on an 18th-century sailing ship, the first adventure of the Enterprise-B, and (last but not least) the death of Captain James T. Kirk. I think the failure of the "everything but the kitchen sink" approach can be best illustrated thusly: The Wrath of Khan is four minutes shorter than Generations, and yet its story feels bigger. Anyone who has ever cooked anything knows that the more ingredients one uses, the more careful one must be to make sure all those ingredients work together -- otherwise, the resulting dish is a melange with no distinct flavor or synthesis of flavors. That is precisely what happens here.

Just to take one example, the business with Data's emotion chip adds nothing whatsoever to the story other than running-time (and, like the "Spock's brother" business in The Final Frontier, an excuse for Data not to fight back in an instance when he should). True, there are a couple of humorous moments that arise from Data's new emotions -- I like the scene when he tries drinks in Ten Forward and realizes what it's like to hate a flavor, and the moment when Data realizes that he genuinely enjoys scanning for life-forms is hilarious. But this business also makes for an interminable scene between Data and Picard in "stellar cartography" -- a neat looking set that is wasted on a scene that could as well have taken place in Picard's ready-room. Data's emotions play no role in the ultimate outcome of the film's story, so the whole thing is mere filler.

Other elements of the Generations story are annoying, from the standpoint of a Star Trek fan. The "big moment" here is, of course, Kirk's death; and I suppose it's fitting that he would go out in one last fistfight with a bad guy; but really, why?! Kirk's demise as depicted here seems so arbitrary, so...insignificant. Yes, he stops the destruction of a planet filled with millions, but we never see those millions, and we don't really get any sense that Kirk is that invested in what's going on. The feeling is "OK, I'll do you a favor this time, Picard, but please don't bother me again." And to be honest, I'm not sure Kirk's death should ever have been shown. James T. Kirk seems to me the kind of guy to take a shuttlecraft through that wormhole in DS9, never to be seen again...maybe he has adventures galore, maybe he dies of old age on some unknown world, maybe he leaves the galaxy and becomes Emperor in Andromeda -- I don't know. But for him to die when some ricketty contraption on some backwater planet buckles and collapses with him on it...and when he doesn't even get to deliver the blow that defeats the bad guy? Ugh. I will say this: the actual moment of Kirk's death is well-done. He gets this "awestruck" look and whispers, "Oh my...." and then he's gone, without so much as a slumping of the head or a closing of the eyes. He's going where "no one has gone before", in the truest sense. But the whole surrounding circumstance of Kirk's death are lousy. And for that matter, why we needed to see Kirk again in the first place -- or any of the TOS crew -- is beyond me. We've already said goodbye to them, in The Undiscovered Country; the torch is passed -- and yet, we apparently need one last time. Well, fine -- but I want to know what became of Chekov and Uhura.

Generations fails on science-fictional grounds, as well. We're in the Era of Technobabble now, with a miracle substance called "trilithium" that can "halt all the nuclear reactions within a star", causing it to nova. That's hard enough to swallow, but the device that accomplishes this goal is about the size of a Patriot missile -- and, in the single worst SF moment in Star Trek history (which includes "Spock's Brain" and that TNG episode where the crew "de-evolves) -- the missile is launched from the planet surface, and we watch the missile soar up and into the sun, leaving a handy contrail in its wake. What a staggeringly awful moment! Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but it doesn't mean that one should have to check one's brain at the door.

So Generations is a colossal disappointment, even moreso than The Final Frontier, because at least that film showed some idea of what an epic-scale story involves, even if it was not successful in pulling it off. Generations confuses a "busy" story with an "epic" story. That would be bad enough, if not for the fact that the Star Trek producers not only had demonstrated knowledge of what an epic story is, they had actually written one and shot it when they made Generations. It was the final episode of TNG, "All Good Things", which told a better story with more "sense of wonder" than Generations is able to muster even in its promising opening scenes. Had they made "All Good Things" into the first TNG movie and left Generations alone as an unexplored plot idea, things would have been better for all concerned.

To be concluded: First Contact and Insurrection.

I think that everyone knows what writer's block is, but I occasionally go through a related phase that I've never seen addressed, so I'm wondering if I'm alone in this. I call this phase reader's block.

I'm a voracious reader; my deeply held belief is that as a writer I have to be. A writer who claims to not be much of a reader is, as far as I am concerned, no writer at all but a mere dabbler-in-words. And of course, I own a rather impressive number of books. (I've never counted them, but after recently having to box them all up and move them in six days, I'm pretty confident that I can claim ownership of a lot of books.) So, I am never lacking for reading material, and in many different genres, to boot.

But occasionally I experience a "rough patch" in my reading, where nothing I pick up satisfies. It's not uncommon to "bounce off" a book, to have a book be curiously uninvolving and unappealing. This generally manifests in a growing sense, particularly around and after the 100-page mark, of "Why am I reading this?" And it can be positively deadly if one reaches the halfway mark and can honestly say, "I don't care what happens to these characters." Most times, I take this as a sign that I simply don't like the book and leave it at that -- although I can name a number of instances where I've had this reaction to a book, only to return to that same book months or years later and discover how wonderful it really is. Isolated cases like these are to be expected in one's reading life, and I take them in stride.

More problematic, though, are when a string of such instances occurs -- when I start, and subsequently stop, reading four or five books in a row. I suppose it is actually possible that I've happened on a string of duds, but when I change my genres with each book I read and when my tastes are as diverse as they are, I find that likelihood rather low. I suspect in times like this that the fault lies not with the books but with the reader.

I'm bringing this up, naturally, because I've just gone through a rough patch in my reading of precisely the kind I describe here. I've "bounced off" four books in the last two weeks, and in at least two of the cases when I did so I could tell that I was reading a book that was, well, not a bad book. To draw a food analogy, I think it's like going to The Olive Garden and searching the menu, knowing that everything is going to taste fine and be well-prepared but not really realizing that I'm really in the mood for Mexican and not Italian.

So, I've decided to change things up a little bit. I'm now reading The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, as part of my long-standing desire to read the classic works of literature that I somehow got through high school and college without reading. (Side rant: when I was in tenth grade, I was in an "advanced" English class. Our class was required to read Ordinary People by Judith Guest -- who reads that book, anymore? -- while the "normal" class was required to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. I've always wondered just which class got the better of that deal.) I am also changing my media a bit, by reading some of the graphic novels I've been piling up but still haven't got around to. Warren Ellis's Planetary is the first of these.

Slumps are strange things. Sometimes the best thing to do for a slump is to change nothing and wait for it to end; other times one needs to take a different tack altogether. It's hard to know which way is right for each slump, but right now change seems the way to go.

In a bit of happy news, I am restoring my link to Arts and Letters Daily, which is now back on the Web after the resolution of some legal issues. It's a very fine place.

Thursday, October 24, 2002

IMAGE OF THE WEEK





Iron particles, suspended in oil, responding to a magnetic field. Photograph by Felice Frankel.

A few weeks ago, the NPR program Talk of the Nation -- Science Friday did an installment about science photography, which frequently captures a great deal of the beauty that we often miss entirely when discussing scientific processes, discoveries and properties. We often think that there is a divide between art and science and that never the twain shall meet, but this is not always the case. One of the participants on that program was Felice Frankel, one of the more prominent science photographers today and an MIT research scientist. Her work is striking, and reminds us that to look at the world from a scientific vantage point need not imply that one ignores the beauty.

The big event in Syracuse today is the groundbreaking for DestinyUSA. The groundbreaking was actually for the hotel part of the project, the 47-story hotel that is supposed to be one of the anchors of the whole shebang once it's done. Planners are envisioning up to 20,000 hotel rooms for the entire Destiny project, which seems especially mind-boggling considering that the entire Syracuse hotel market currently has 6,300 rooms. I really hope that this thing draws the way they say it will.

(News story here.)

STAR TREK Redux, part three.

(Introduction, Part One, Part Two)

:: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

With the release of the fourth Star Trek film, an odd pattern began to emerge: it seemed that the even-numbered films in the series were better than the odd-numbered ones. STIV:TVH was the most successful one yet, opting for a sense of fun and light-hearted adventure over the heavy-hearted dramatics of the previous two installments. Leonard Nimoy returned to direct this one, and he displayed a much more certain directorial hand than he had in The Search For Spock; the pacing was more even, the action sequences less rushed and much less fake-looking (with the exception of Chekov's attempted escape from the Feds). The Voyage Home was also the series's most successful attempt at telling a story that would appeal to Trekkers while also appealing to mainstream audiences who were not as well-versed on all the various bits of Trek lore that crop up.

The plot is fairly well-known: an alien space probe is dispatched from...somewhere, on a heading for Earth that is pretty disruptive of everything it comes across. It is broadcasting a very powerful signal and directing it at Earth's oceans, and it is actually threatening Earth with destruction. Meanwhile, the Enterprise crew, stuck on Vulcan with their captured Klingon Bird of Prey starship, decide it's time to go home and face the music for their actions in The Search For Spock. While on the way home, they learn of the alien probe, and in some of the wildest leaps of deductive logic ever shown in Star Trek, they learn that the probe is attempting to contact humpback whales...which are now extinct. This, of course, raises a few questions: How was this alien race communicating with the whales, anyway? Did whales have some means of interstellar communication? And why did they wait until two-hundred years after the whales' extinction to send a probe to find out what was going on? And, if the probe just wants to know where the whales are, wouldn't the probe realize that vaporizing the whales' habitat probably wasn't going to help matters? And I've always wondered just what the whales and probe talked about in the exchange at the end of the film. I picture the probe saying something like, "What do you expect me to do? You never call anymore...you never write..." The plot is fairly absurd, but it's a lot easier to swallow than all that Katra-swapping from The Search For Spock -- even when Kirk decides that the best thing to do is go back in time, swipe a couple of whales, and bring them forward in time. (This yields one of the film's many wonderful humorous moments: when McCoy realizes what Kirk is thinking, and growls, "Now wait just a damn minute....")

A subplot of the film is Spock's struggle to put his mind back in order. In The Search For Spock, McCoy had said at one point: "It would seem that I've got all his marbles." As The Voyage Home opens, Spock's got all his marbles back -- but the bag has been shaken. All of the progress that Spock has made over the years of combining his Vulcan and human instincts has been undone, and he has to feel his way again. All of this provides an added dimension for the "fish out of water" stuff that happens when the crew goes back in time to 20th century San Francisco; not only are we watching the crew try to deal with a culture that is as alien to them as anything in their own time, but they have to deal with their friend who is not quite the way he used to be. There follows some inspired riffing on all of these themes, which would probably not work at all if not for the fact that for these actors, playing these characters by this point in their lives had become something like muscle memory. I suspect that Spock's attempts at profanity, for example, would have been excruciatingly painful in any other context than here.

Not all of the film's humor works; the jokes involving Chekov's pronunciation of "vessel" fall flat, for example, as does Chekov's scene where he is interrogated by some Federal agents. Sulu is short-changed, unfortunately; he doesn't really have a good scene of his own. (He was originally to have a scene where he meets a child in Chinatown who is his great-great-great-great-grandfather, but as I recall the scene was not able to be filmed for some reason.) The film also displays some continuity problems: why does the bridge of the Bird of Prey look completely different here than it had in The Search For Spock? Why is Saavik pretty much brushed away in an early scene, never to be seen again? (Fan speculation at the time was that Saavik should have been pregnant with Spock's child, after their bonding during his pon farr in The Search For Spock. Sadly, this was never mentioned or treated, or anything.) And what became of the tensions between the Klingon Empire and the Federation, which are hinted at in the film's opening scenes? In fact, whatever became of the whole Genesis project? The film probably didn't have room to address all of this, but I still find it odd that such strong plot threads pretty much disappear completely. (And for a total geek question, since when can a ship go to warp speed while in a planet's atmosphere?!) The film also boasts a music score that is hit-and-miss. Leonard Rosenman's main theme and "frolicking whale music" is quite good (although the main theme recycles a secondary subject from Rosenman's score to the 1978 animated film version of The Lord of the Rings), but a lot of the underscore during the central parts of the film is merely serviceable. It's also a shame that James Horner didn't return to musically complete this third installment in the trilogy formed by STII, STIII, and STIV.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home isn't my favorite film in the series, but on the whole, it may be the most satisfying of all the Star Trek films.

:: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

....and then we have the fifth Star Trek film.

This may be the most roundly-detested sequel ever made, at least until The Phantom Menace came along. People who hate STV:TFF have a lot of ammunition, too. This film has the worst special effects of the entire series, some truly awful character moments (Sulu and Chekov trying to convince Uhura that they've become lost in a snowstorm, Scotty banging his head and knocking himself unconscious), more uneven pacing, more continuity gaffes (Spock has a brother? Really?), and a number of other flaws. This is a very easy film to hate, and even if I don't consider it the mess that it's been generally agreed to be, I can't totally disagree with its detractors. I don't hate Star Trek V, mainly because it has one thing going for it: if it is a failure, it is at least an ambitious failure. A real attempt was made with this film to make a grandiose science-fiction adventure, to address some big themes, and to engage the ever-elusive "sense of wonder" that is so hard to come by in modern SF. I give STV:TFF a pass pretty much on that basis. Star Trek rarely reaches for the moon, and here, it did just that. Fine by me. "A" for effort is always admirable, even if one only gets a "C" for the results.

The film is not even a total disaster. There are some compelling moments to be found. The early "campfire" scenes are entertaining (except for the godawful effects during Kirk's mountain climb). Laurence Luckinbill's performance as Sybok is very well-done, skirting the edge of sanity and reason so that while we think this may be a madman, we are never totally certain of it. (Now, why they felt the need to make him Spock's brother is beyond me. It adds nothing to either the story or the subtext.) The scene where he tempts Kirk, Spock and McCoy -- by exposing "their pain" -- is one of the more effective scenes in all the Trek films, culminating in the wonderful Shatner moment: "I want my pain! I need my pain!" And the scenes preceding the meeting with "God" are the best in the film, up to and including the film's other wonderful Shatner moment: "Excuse me, but what would God need with a starship?" Of course, the air is let out a bit by the summation scene where Kirk reduces the entire quest for spiritual experience and reality to a facile kind of secular humanism; I would have preferred that the whole issue be left unresolved. And the film's best aspect is probably its music. Jerry Goldsmith returned to Trek, and he wrote a very fine score indeed, combining his Main Theme from ST:TMP with a more lyrical, Americana-style theme and some excellent "mystical" music for the film's concluding scenes.

William Shatner has taken just about all of the blame for The Final Frontier's problems over the years, but I think the problems are more script-related than direction-related. The film's acting is as good as in any Star Trek film, the individual scenes work well for the most part, and the action sequences are well-framed and shot. The problems with the film stem from writing, not from directing. I'm wondering if Shatner had a darker film in mind, but the producers required him to "graft on" more humor, since that's the element that made The Voyage Home so successful. Watching Star Trek V, I get the feeling of a good film lurking around the corner, just beyond the edge of the frame. It's too bad that film didn't get made, even if the resulting product isn't the horrible film everyone thinks it is.

Next: The Undiscovered Country, Generations.

The Giants tied it up last night, winning a tight one, 4-3. So we've had two tight games, both won by the Giants by scores of 4-3; and we've had two slugfests, both won by the Angels (11-10, 10-4). I wonder if this World Series may end up being like the 1960 Series, in which the Yankees scored 57 total runs in the entire series, versus the 27 total runs scored by the Pirates -- with the Pirates winning the series in seven. Wow.

And maybe Barry Bonds should stop hitting home runs. So far this season the Giants are undefeated, going 7-0, when he does not hit the ball out. When he does hit a homer, the Giants are 2-5. (Weird stat courtesy Jayson Stark at ESPN.)

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

STAR TREK Redux, part two.

(Introduction, Part One)

:: Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.

After the death of Mr. Spock, the Star Trek powers-that-be faced the task of bringing him back to life. (I've always been a bit fuzzy on this point; when he was originally killed off in STII:TWOK, was his death intended to be permanent? or was his eventual resurrection planned all along?) They had the seeds of how to do it: the previous film had ended with a shot of Spock's coffin sitting in an Eden-like glade on the new Genesis planet, and there was an unexplained mind-meld with Dr. McCoy. So, the basic gist of the matter is this: before embarking on what Spock knew would be a suicidal mission to save the Enterprise, he "downloaded" his memories, personality traits, and various other bits of mental stuff into Dr. McCoy's brain. Sure enough, in The Search For Spock, we are informed that this is "the Vulcan way when the end of the body is near". As the new film opens, Dr. McCoy is being driven insane by the clashing stuff in his head, the Enterprise is being decommissioned, the Enterprise crew is being held up from new assignments because they've been witnesses to the creation of Genesis, and a science vessel containing David Marcus and Lt. Saavik is being sent to explore their new world. Oh, and some Klingons have also found out about the Genesis project and the new planet, and they smell a nifty weapon in the offing, so they're off to Genesis as well.

STIII:TSFS may be the strangest of the Star Trek films. It has some gargantuan flaws. Foremost is the plot, which quite frankly is not only half-baked but is also tied for the most ludicrous SF plot in the entire series (the other will be revealed later on....). As science fiction, of course, Star Trek was never much for plausibility -- its approach was pretty much always to posit SF-nal things and show them in action, rather than try to explain them. (At least, that was its approach until The Next Generation came along and dressed everything up in a veneer of "tachyon bursts" and "space-time anomalies" and "cosmic string fragments" and various other items of technobabble.) Suspension of disbelief is always essential in Star Trek, but STIII:TSFS really puts it to the test. I think I can accept Spock transferring the core of his "personhood" to McCoy, but I'm not sure I can accept that he does it in less than sixty seconds -- although, admittedly, the baud-rate of a Vulcan mind-meld has never been established. And if the Genesis wave can "regenerate" Spock's cells, why would it return him to infancy? How was his body nourished? We are told that his body is somehow "linked" with the planet, so he is aging in sudden spurts as is the planet itself -- but how does that work? And why would it be sufficient to merely get him off the planet to stop the process?

I guess I can accept all of this, but none of it really stands up to close inspection. Consider Sarek's meeting with Kirk, early in the film. They establish that Spock gave McCoy his "Katra" (the Vulcan "soul", I suppose). The remedy for this is that Kirk must "bring them both to Mt. Seleya" (a mountain on Vulcan). Note Sarek's insistence that both Spock and McCoy must be brought there. However, at this point they have no idea at all that Spock's body has been "regenerated"; as far as they know, he's still lying stone-dead in his coffin on Genesis. Why do they need Spock's body, then? What are they going to do with Spock's Katra, given that as far as they know there is no living body to receive it? I would have liked to have seen this explored, since I must assume that all those Katra's from dying Vulcans end up....somewhere. Kirk claims personal responsibility for Spock's "eternal soul", but what exactly is to become of that soul is never revealed. Of course, this is because we all know that his soul is going to be put right back where it originally came from....but as that's not known to be an option, there's a big hole in the story's rationale here. And it's not the only hole in the story:

:: Whatever happened to Carol Marcus? Wouldn't she also be exploring the new planet, or if not, shouldn't her whereabouts at least be mentioned? Maybe she's testifying before the Federation Council about Genesis or something like that....but her absence should have been explained.

:: It's revealed that David Marcus used "protomatter" in the Genesis Matrix, which is what's making the planet so unstable and ultimately doomed to destruction. It's also implied that the events of The Wrath of Khan are all David's fault. This makes no sense at all. If David hadn't used "protomatter", would Khan still be stuck safely on Ceti Alpha V? And there was a whole team of scientists working on Genesis -- did none of them notice what he was doing?

:: If Genesis is such a security issue for the Federation, why isn't there a ship stationed at the Genesis Planet to protect it? and can Klingons really fly into the Federation at will, the way they do here?

:: What is up with Lt. Saavik in this film? Kirstie Alley is replaced by Robin Curtis, who plays Saavik as a straight Vulcan -- we see none of the ambition and barely-concealed emotion that Alley displayed in STII:TWOK. This may not be Curtis's fault, though. I remember reading an interview with her in Starlog in which she described how Leonard Nimoy kept coaching her line delivery, telling her to make every line "dryer". Also, consider a small continuity breach: in TWOK, Saavik has arched, human eyebrows -- but in TSFS, her eyebrows are now the slanting, Vulcan brows. Saavik's character was basically overhauled, for no apparent reason, and in a way that pretty much negated one of the most interesting potential characters to come along in Star Trek.

The other chief problems with The Search For Spock are its production values and its pacing. The sets, quite frankly, all look cheap, and some of the direction (by first-time director Leonard Nimoy) is less-than-convincing. (Witness the McCoy jailbreak scene, when Sulu overpowers a hulking security guard. Note the way the actor playing the security guard goes right along with George Takei's fighting moves, right down to the facial expression that says, "Oh, man, my first big movie appearance and I gotta let this little guy rough me up.") As for pacing, STIII:TSFS suffers from the opposite problem that afflicted ST:TMP and, to a lesser extent, STII:TWOK: it actually moves too quickly. This is the shortest of all the Star Trek films, and many of its plot elements are breezed over or handled in perfunctory fashion.

I've probably given the impression that The Search For Spock has nothing going for it, but it actually has quite a bit going for it -- and, when it really counts, the film delivers in a big way. Despite all of its plotting flaws -- and believe me, it's loaded with them -- STIII:TSFS is still a good film, because of the way it treats the heroism of its characters. This film is almost a treatise on the conduct of true heroes: of how a hero will opt for the hard road, accept all of the suffering and pain and misery dumped on his head, and still in the end stand up to do the right thing. Toward the end, there is an exchange between Kirk and Sarek that perfectly captures the essence of heroism:

SAREK: Kirk, I thank you. What you have done --

KIRK: What I have done, I had to do.

SAREK: But at what cost? Your ship...your son...

KIRK: If I hadn't tried, the cost would have been my soul.

I've never seen it put better than that.

The film's other strengths include James Horner's fine music score and the acting of the principal players. By this point, these actors can display their characters' quirks in their sleep, but still there is some fine work here. DeForrest Kelley's scene with a comatose Spock toward the end of the film is extremely well-done, as is the film's final scene as Spock tries to recapture his memories. Christopher Lloyd makes a fine Klingon villain, although it would have been nice if he could have played a post-TNG Klingon; at the time of this film's making the Klingons were still big, dumb brutes as opposed to a culture based on blood and honor. There are a lot of very emotional moments in STIII:TSFS, the most harrowing probably being the destruction of the Enterprise. After all of the hardship endured, to see Mr. Spock raise one eyebrow in the film's next-to-last shot is a fine thing indeed.

If I were to make a baseball analogy to describe the overall quality of Star Trek III, it would be the big slugger who goes 1-5 with four strikeouts and a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to win the game.

Tomorrow: The Voyage Home.

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

STAR TREK Redux, part one.

(Introduction)

:: Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Following the amazing success that Star Trek: TOS became in syndication after the show's initial three-year network run, in the late 1970s the possibility of returning Star Trek to series television was explored, so much so that scripts were written (some of which would later be reworked for other Star Trek series) and casting was done. The entire original crew was to return, with the exception of Leonard Nimoy, who was then in his I Am Not Spock phase. The series, called Star Trek 2, was however abandoned in favor of a big-screen incarnation of the original series. The result was 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a film that overcame a lot of flaws to become a very successful launching of the film franchise.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is actually a better film than its reputation would indicate. It is the most directly science-fictional of all the films, and aside from the also-much-maligned Star Trek V: The Final Frontier it is the only film in the series that actually deals with Trek's main premise of voyaging into the unknown (although in this case the unknown is voyaging to them). The film occasionally engages the "sense of wonder" that the best SF evokes, and its plot is suitably complex and cinematic in scope. There is actually a great deal of nuance to the story (even if it is a reworking of the idea first explored in the TOS episode "The Changeling"), and thus Star Trek: The Motion Picture improves on repeat viewings.

The film's chief strengths are in its character arcs, and the best parts of the film are the early scenes, which establish the mystery of the V'Ger cloud, the threat it poses, and the hasty gathering of the Enterprise crew. James T. Kirk, who has now become an Admiral, pretty much steamrolls his way into command again, with occasionally embarrassing results as it turns out that he doesn't know as much about the new Enterprise as he should; his clashes with the displaced Captain Decker form the backbone of the main plot's eventual resolution. The other main character arc is Mr. Spock, who as the film begins is attempting to complete the Vulcan ritual that purges all remaining emotion from him. He is contacted by an alien intelligence, however -- the V'Ger cloud -- which, like him, is seeking answers to unanswerable questions. Thus, Spock is very cold throughout much of the film -- until the end, when he reaches a kind of epiphany. At one point, he weeps openly, a startling character moment for the steadfast Vulcan.

The film's other strengths are in its special effects (except for one terrible effect, the "shaft of light" probe that appears on the bridge of the Enterprise and kills Lt. Ilia) and in its music score, an epic creation by Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith's music more than makes up for a number of effects sequences that go on too long....which leads to the film's biggest fault, its pacing.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of the most unevenly-paced films I have ever seen. (Pacing problems would become something of a theme in the remainder of the Star Trek series; from my point of view, only two of the films don't suffer from pacing difficulties.) The opening is tense and dramatic, with palpable sense of menace and mystery; but then we almost forget about the mystery entirely as we watch the Starfleet Command scenes, with the five-minute Enterprise flyover which, despite all of his love affairs, is the closest we ever come to witnessing James T. Kirk having an orgasm. The tension is re-established somewhat when the V'Ger cloud destroys the Epsilon Nine space station, but then we're back into Enterprise test-flight stuff, in addition to the introduction of Lt. Ilia (Persis Khambatta, whose performance in the film improves later on when her character is actually replaced by a robot). There is a failed warp-drive incident, confrontations between Kirk and Decker, Kirk and Dr. McCoy, Kirk and Decker again, Spock's arrival, another warp-drive test -- and only then does the Enterprise reach the mysterious cloud. This is followed by some really interminable effects shots as Our Beloved Starship flies into the cloud, interspersed with reaction shots of the crew. There is some sense-of-wonder here, but the effect dissipates under the weight of continual effects stuff. The film's story does not so much ebb-and-flow as it starts-and-stops. It proceeds in fits, with "character" scenes taking place when the plot should be moving forward quickly (another fault which would rear its head in later Star Trek films). The film does not necessarily need to be shorter, but its structure should have been more evident. The result is an entertaining, but maddeningly meandering, film.

:: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Despite the somewhat frosty reception that Star Trek: The Motion Picture received, it did enough business to generate a sequel, although the reins were turned over to a new producer, Harve Bennett. Bennett knew nothing about Star Trek, so he did what a good Vulcan would do under the circumstances: he watched every single episode of Star Trek: TOS. One episode in particular intrigued him: "Space Seed", in which the Enterprise encounters a prison-ship in deep space that had been launched from Earth in 1996 with a group of genetically-engineered criminals on board, whose leader was a charismatic and megalomaniacal man named Khan (played by Ricardo Montalban). After averting a near take-over of the Enterprise by these people, Captain Kirk decides to deposit Khan and his followers on an unexplored planet, Ceti Alpha V, where they will be allowed to do as they will with the resources that they can coax from the world. After they are taken away, Spock says something like, "It would be fascinating to return here in twenty years and see what has sprouted from the seed planted today." That's literally what Star Trek II does. Unfortunately, it is revealed that Khan's exile took a disastrous turn when the planet next door exploded, causing his own planet to shift orbit, thus destroying the planet's ecosystem except for a rather nasty beastie with a taste for the human brain.

So, Star Trek II is a revenge story that begins when Khan manages to do what he failed to do twenty years before: take over a Federation starship, the Reliant. He then begins a hunting mission, with his prey being the Enterprise -- which is now an old ship being used only for training purposes. Also stirred into this mix is "Project Genesis", a scientific project whose aim is to create a torpedo which can convert a dead planet into a planet with a viable biosphere -- supposedly a device to be used to alleviate problems of population and food supply, but can also be used as a doomsday weapon. Thus begins a long cat-and-mouse game between Kirk and the Enterprise and Khan on the Reliant, ending in an extended sequence inside a nebula as the two ships seek each other out. I don't think I'm revealing anything shocking when I disclose that Mr. Spock ends up sacrificing his life so that the Enterprise can escape destruction.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is often ranked first in the series, in terms of quality. I don't rank it that high, but it is definitely a much stronger film than Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Its story is tighter, its characters more sharply drawn, the performances are all first-rate, and it features some crackling action sequences. (Who doesn't feel a thrill when the Enterprise finally gets the drop on Khan in the end, by taking advantage of his failure to think in terms of three dimensions in space?) It also features an excellent music score by James Horner that uses melancholy, sweeping melodies to suggest a kind of "seafaring" tone, which is in keeping with the film's nautical literary subtext (Khan keeps alluding to Moby Dick, for instance). The character arcs focus squarely on Kirk, who is suffering a mid-life crisis. We also meet the one woman -- aside from Edith Keeler -- whom Kirk has ever truly loved, Dr. Carol Marcus, who also happens to have Kirk's son working with her on the "Genesis Project". Star Trek II gets a great deal right: the introduction of the new character Saavik, for example; Kirstey Alley plays her with a wonderful sense that she does not know what her proper place really is. Half Vulcan and half Romulan, she had the most potential of any new character ever introduced in the Star Trek films. I also cannot say enough good things about Spock's death scene; from the moment when Spock considers his options and concludes there is really only one option and accordingly leaves the bridge to the conclusion of his funeral, everything is perfectly played -- and the final conversation between Kirk and Spock is a sublime moment, a wonderful synthesis of good writing and pitch-perfect acting by Shatner and Nimoy.

I do have a couple of difficulties with the film, though. Although its pacing is far better than that of its predecessor, it still suffers from a bit of uneven-ness -- especially in the scenes in the tunnels of the Regula planetoid, scenes which meander a bit (although they do feature the most wonderful Shatner moment in Star Trek history, when he nearly pops a vein from his forehead as he screams "KHAN! KHAN! KHAN!" into his communicator). The scene where Captain Terrell and Commander Chekov happen upon Khan and his followers really takes too long to play out, even if it does end in surprisingly horrific fashion.

My other problem with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is that it really isn't that good a sequel. Not to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, that is, but to TOS episode "Space Seed". The Khan in the episode is a man who believes he is destined to build an empire and to rule it; he even quotes Milton: "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." I find it highly unsatisfying that he should end up being an obsessed and homicidal man, bent on nothing more than killing James T. Kirk. I would have liked it better if Khan had actually been able to build a society from nothing, perhaps a society that would come eventually to threaten not Kirk by himself, not just the Enterprise, but the entire Federation. Better, maybe, if the story had been followed up not by the TOS crew, but by the Next Generation crew. I would rather have seen what the seed Kirk planted in "Space Seed" bore at maturity, rather than seeing what happened when it was stunted shortly after gestation. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is, by itself, a good film; but taken as a follow-up to one of TOS's best episodes, it is curiously lacking.

Stay tuned for Part Two....

So now the sniper is threatening children. This is one of those terrifying moments when the disconnect between reality and the world as depicted on television shows is revealed in all its awful glory. It's hard, being spoiled on shows like Millennium and Profiler and CSI, to look on the hunt for this terrible killer and not be utterly incredulous at the apparent lack of any idea of who this person is on the part of the police. He has killed all of these people and still has not committed that "one big mistake" that we're told all criminals eventually make. I still believe that he will make such a blunder, if he keeps killing; but that in itself is the terrible part. We can only catch him if he keeps killing.

Monday, October 21, 2002

I've done a bit of maintenance on the permalinks at left: two blogs that have not been updated in more than two months have been removed (It's All About Books and Dear Owen), and I've added a link in "Notable Dispatches" to my post a few months back about controversial film composer James Horner.



STAR TREK REDUX, introduction.

In the wake of my enormously successful James Bond Redux series of posts (see "Notable Dispatches" at left for links), I've decided to do the same thing with another long-standing film franchise: the Star Trek films. (Of course, "enormously successful" is a relative term for a blog that averages 33 hits per day....)

I've loved Star Trek pretty much all of my life. Some of my earliest memories are of watching episodes of the original series (hereafter referred to as TOS). I used to be so well-versed on Trek: TOS that I could name all of the episodes and give small plot summaries. Sadly, I have forgotten many of them over the years, especially since TOS has vanished from syndicated TV except for certain cable-stations. I was thrilled when The Next Generation came along and I loved it, although I don't think that TNG hit the heights that TOS did on as consistent a basis. TNG was more consistently good than TOS, but while TOS had some amazingly painful episodes (particularly late in its run, with such abominations as "Spock's Brain" and "And the Children Shall Lead"), it had more truly great episodes than TNG. I'm thinking of amazing stories like "Journey to Babel", "The Trouble With Tribbles", "The Menagerie", and of course, the towering classic "The City On the Edge of Forever". TNG was, though, a very worthy addition to Trek lore. TOS was less an ensemble show than the subsequent series, but the whole Kirk-Spock-McCoy dynamic continues to amaze. TNG did more as an ensemble, which has hurt the TNG films somewhat in my view. (I'll say more about that when I get to those films.)



Then, of course, came Deep Space Nine. I just may love DS9 most of all, with the edgy tone that it often achieved and its structure, with long story arcs as opposed to stand-alone adventures. I've always felt that DS9 was tremendously underrated. It achieved a character dynamic that was unique in Trek, even when it added Worf to the mix halfway through its run, and it experimented quite boldly with its storytelling in a way that TNG and Voyager really never did. I'd love to see a DS9 feature film.



Voyager, though, was the least of the Trek shows. Its concept was an interesting one, but it was never employed to tell daring new stories, and was thus a tremendous disappointment. Voyager was probably the purest evocation of Gene Roddenberry's original conception of Trek: "Wagon Train to the stars", with the biggest reliance on the whole "Boldly going where no one has gone before" bit that Trek was about in the first place. How disappointing, then, that Voyager pretty much served up more variations on the "aliens who are really nothing more than humans with odd-looking latex prostheses" bit, along with the worst villains Trek ever conceived: the horrible Kazon, whose hair (or whatever that stuff atop their heads was) never failed to put me in mind of Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons. The lead characters, also, were never really drawn sharply enough to become interesting to me.



(To date I have not been able to see a single episode of Enterprise. I have heard mixed things about it: from what I have heard it is very blatant in its deviation from established Trek history, but then I have also heard that setting continuity aside, it's a fine show. Unfortunately, it was only available on cable channels in Buffalo, and the same applies in Syracuse. As my family has opted out of cable for now, I cannot watch Enterprise.)

Before I get on to the films themselves, I should name my favorite Trek episodes of all time. In no particular order:

TOS: "The City On the Edge of Forever", "The Menagerie", "A Piece of the Action", "Metamorphosis", "The Trouble With Tribbles", "The Gamesters of Triskelion".

TNG: "Yesterday's Enterprise", "Tapestry", "Redemption" (both parts), "Best of Both Worlds" (part one), "Disaster", "The Pegasus", "All Good Things".

DS9: "Emissary", "The Visitor", "Trials and Tribblations", "Blood Oath", "The Quickening".

Voyager: "Caretaker", "Phage".

To be continued….
I watched the first sketch on Saturday Night Live the other night. This was the episode hosted by Senator John McCain. In this one sketch McCain played Attorney General John Ashcroft, appearing on that Chris Matthews show Hardball. The whole thing was funny, with the best moment coming when McCain-as-Ashcroft announced that "Every American will have a barcode on his forehead and a chip in his brain, and those chips will be controlled by this remote control!" whereupon he produces one of those gigantic remote controls that TVs come with these days. I wish I could agree with McCain on more issues, because I genuinely like the guy.

According to this MSN article, the recent troubles in the stock market may signal a boom in the art market, with paintings by the masters going for even more outrageous sums than ever before.

I hadn't planned on taking a weekend off from posting (except for a couple of items that I put up over on Collaboratory); it merely happened that way. Anyhow, my Monday reflections on the NFL and MLB:

:: I actually did not watch the Bills game this week; instead, I went out with the family to enjoy a rare Sunday off together. I did listen to the fourth quarter on the radio, and my jaw dropped when I heard the score: at the time it was 20-10 in favor of the Bills. (The Bills went on to win, 23-10.) I had noted earlier this very week that I did not think that the Bills were in the same class as the Dolphins, and that I expected their lack of strong defense -- which has neither stopped most opponents' running games nor forced turnovers -- to be the major reason why they would lose this week. But, in the immortal words of Chris Berman, "That's why they play the games." The Bills forced six turnovers yesterday (versus four in the previous six games combined), including four interceptions (versus zero in the previous six games combined). They held Ricky Williams, one of the NFL's top running backs, under 100 yards and didn't let him break any runs longer than 14 yards. The one thing they could have done better was move the ball in the fourth quarter with a power running game. All in all, though, a totally surprising and welcome victory. Next week, Detroit -- a bad team that can kill you if you overlook them.

:: There was a lot of scoring in yesterday's games. There were five games in which both teams scored more than twenty points; seven teams scored more than thirty points; and there were four overtime games. Wow. (Of course, one of the games decided in overtime was the Cardinals-Cowboys snoozefest, which the Cardinals won, 9-6.)

:: My pick for NFC Champion, the Philadelphia Eagles, won 20-10 over Tampa Bay. Tampa has a very good defense, but the Eagles' back Duce Staley put up 152 yards rushing, and the Eagles are now a healthy 4-2, leading their division but trailing Green Bay and New Orleans for overall best record in the NFC. (Both those teams are 6-1.)

:: As for my other Super Bowl pick, the Piitsburgh Steelers, tonight's game may make or break their season. Their division doesn't seem to be very good (although Baltimore is showing some real signs of life right now), so this may be a year when 9-7 is enough to win it and get into the playoffs, but the Steelers are 2-3 as they host the 4-1 Indianapolis Colts in tonight's game. The Colts will be a tough test for them. If the Steelers want to be a playoff team and prove that they can beat someone other than the Bengals, they have to win this one.

:: Baseball now. Two games have been played in the World Series. The series is tied at one game apiece. Each team has scored fourteen total runs thus far in the Series. Both games were decided by one run. This Series could end up truly being a Fall Classic.

:: What exactly are those red things the Angels' fans keep banging together, anyway? Apparently they make an amazing amount of noise, but the noise they make doesn't seem to translate well to the TV speaker, because it didn't sound that loud to me.

:: Win or lose, Barry Bonds is having an excellent Series thus far. I hope this silences all his critics who claim that he can't get it done in the postseason.

Thursday, October 17, 2002

IMAGE OF THE WEEK





Autograph copy of the Piano Trio in D-Major, op. 70 no. 1, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Currently in the Mary Flagler Cary Music Collection at the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City.

There is a scene in the film Amadeus where Mozart's wife, Constanze, in a fit of some desperation takes a portfolio of her husband's musical works to Antonio Salieri, the court composer for Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. She does this because they are in dire need of money, but Mozart is too proud to present his works to the musical "authorities" as is required for certain types of employment. Salieri glances through them and asks if he can keep them, thinking that they are copies. Constanze replies, "Well, he'll miss them. You see, they are originals." Salieri's eyes widen as he looks again at the works in the portfolio: page upon page of handwritten, original music, perfectly laid out in a hand neater than that of some copyists, such that the music could be performed on the spot if need be. As Salieri whispers in his voice-over narration, "It was as if he had been merely taking dictation from God."

How interesting, then, to compare that image -- Mozart's music, perfectly conceived and written on the page with not a note out of place -- with a page of manuscript in Beethoven's hand: Beethoven, who may be the most famous musical figure of all time and the greatest of all classical composers. For Beethoven there was no direct link to the divine; music did not pour from him, already complete and perfect. Beethoven had to experiment. He had to test musical ideas. He had to sketch them out. If Beethoven realized that his music had gone awry, he would heavily scratch out the offending passage and continue composing on the same page. It fits in with the image we have of Beethoven: the tortured soul on the leading edge of Romanticism, trying to defy his growing deafness, conducting his epochal Symphony No. 9 and having to be physically turned toward the audience to see that they were applauding, tearing off the cover of his Symphony No. 3 in rage upon learning that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor, amakening from his death-coma just long enough to shake his fist at the heavens before succumbing in the end.

How miraculous Beethoven's music seems, in the face of such struggle merely to create it.

For some reason, I've been getting a ton of hits lately for people searching Google for explanations of Poe's poem "Annabel Lee". If any of these searchers are college students looking for an easy out on a homework assignment, well, I should say a couple of things:

:: I am a voracious reader who doesn't read enough poetry, which is why I do the "Poetical Excursions". The thoughts that I post there are fairly immediate impressions of a poem that I read (although, in the case of "Annabel Lee", I'd been nursing those thoughts literally for years). I am a lover of the written word and the English language, but those two things do not a scholar make. Do not assume that what I do here poses for scholarship, please oh please.

:: One person actually found me using the words "Cliff notes" in his search terms. The poems that I choose to write about aren't especially difficult works, so I suspect that people searching for that reason might be better served by actually reading the poems and doing their own thinking. Despite what some more brutish teachers of English may convey, the reading and consideration of poetry should be a pleasure, not a pill to be taken before bedtime.

:: Anyone who has any aspirations of being a fiction writer at all should read novels and stories to learn what storytelling is all about. That seems fairly obvious. Less obvious is that anyone who has any aspirations toward writing at all should read poetry -- to learn what the English language is capable of doing.

Weird Convergences:

Sometimes in the course of my weekly TV viewing, I will notice an odd bit of coincidence involving a guest star on a show, or even a bit player in the background. A case in point happened on this week's episode of NYPDBlue, in which Detectives Jones and Medavoy arrive at a murder scene outside a small market run by an Asian-American man. I probably wouldn't have taken any notice of this Asian-American store owner, except for the fact that this actor also appeared in last year's season finale of The West Wing -- in which he played an Asian-American store owner. It was the store where the Secret Service agent played by Mark Harmon was gunned down when he walked into an armed robbery. So, I end up wondering if it's not just the same actor, but maybe even the same store owner, and I'm thinking, "Man, that guy's seen a lot of violence in and around his store lately."

(I believe that this is evidence of my recent increase in my caffeine intake.)

I've joined another community blog, SportsFilter. It's just what the name implies, a grab-bag of sports-related posts and Web-stuff. My first post was a link to this Slate article that is rather harshly critical of college football. Last time I checked, the SportsFilter denizens were giving the article a pretty decent roasting. I'm glad I didn't write it....

Hooray and huzzah! A problem of structure for the next chapter in The Welcomer (a.k.a. "The Novel-In-Progress", "My Current Effort", and "The Damned Thing") finally resolved itself last night. I've been stewing over this for a couple of weeks now. The problem in question whose solution I finally realized was of sufficient annoyance that I was giving serious consideration to omitting the chapter entirely, although I believe the information it contains is really essential to the climax of the story. It's always exciting to overcome a bump in the road.

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Steven Den Beste has written an interesting article about how he decides to write about some matters and not about others. It's got me thinking about my own such process.

SDB notes that he often receives e-mails from regular readers of his site who have come across something online or have discovered some issue, and they want to hear his personal take on that subject. (I confess, I did send him an e-mail once, pointing out something that I thought might engage him, but he didn't write about it. I chalked it up to the large number of requests he probably receives, given that his is a fairly high-traffic site, and that he probably didn't find the item I'd sent him particularly compelling.) He offers one particularly telling sentence as to why he writes about the things he does, and why he does not write about the things he does not:

"I don't pick what I write about, it picks me."

I found that fascinating, because it's the same for me. And not just here on Byzantium's Shores, but -- and this may be more important -- for me as a fiction writer.

I am told that a question that nearly all writers get is, "Where do you get your ideas from, anyway?" (Maybe when I'm actually successful someone will ask me that....) My experience is quite a bit like the process that SDB describes in his article: I will happen upon some small thing, maybe an image or an event in everyday life, and a story will spontaneously appear in my mind. I don't sit down and say, "Today I think I will write a ghost story in the M.R. James vein." It's not something that can be turned on or off. Instead, the story will find me -- it will actually present itself, or at least a fairly representative portion of itself, to me and I will write it. The metaphor that Stephen King uses in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is that stories are fossils, and as writers we are the paleontologists whose job it is to extricate the fossil from the ground. Keeping the metaphor, a writer's craft isn't taking a blob of clay and shaping it into a dinosaur skeleton, but rather getting that dinosaur skeleton -- already intact and complete -- out of the ground without, say, snapping the shin-bone in two or crushing the skull. So when I reach a point in a story where I realize I've made a wrong turn somewhere, that the story in its current state is not going to work (or even be finishable), I'm like the paleontologist who realizes that further prying on the skeleton from this particular angle with this particular tool is going to cause the thing to break down the middle.

So I don't think that I "create" my stories; instead, they find me and demand that I tell them. The ways that stories have presented themselves to me in the past are interesting. (At least, I like to think that they are.) Here are a few:

:: Once while browsing in the library, I opened some book and a slip of paper fell out. When I picked it up, I saw that it was just one of those little slips that libraries provide for writing down call numbers; some patron had been looking for this book and left their little call-number slip inside it. Nevertheless, I wondered: "What if this slip was actually a letter from someone who died mysteriously many years ago?"

:: I've been a big fan of Gary Larsen's The Far Side for years. In one installment, a man stranded on a desert island has just rubbed Aladdin's lamp. (How he got it is a mystery....) The Genie is standing there, looking annoyed, while the man rubs his chin and says, "Let's see....I've got rhythm, and I've got music....how could I ask for anything more?" I liked the idea of a lamp with a Genie inside coming into the possession of a man who already has his heart's desire, and I wrote the story.

:: My most ghoulish story came about from my connection of the fact that the Nazis conducted terrible experiments on humans in the concentration camps with the fact that the Nazis were also bizarrely interested in the occult.

:: There's a wonderful episode of The Simpsons where Springfield adopts Prohibition and later abandons it. The episode ends with Homer Simpson saying, "To alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, life's problems." So now I'm writing a story where alcohol is really the solution to a town's problems. (Or maybe it isn't; I'm deliberately hedging on the moral POV in this story.)

:: My novel-in-progress is an Arthurian story, which I decided to write when I realized that many authors have treated the "once" part of "the once and future King", but not very many have tackled the "future" part. (It's a two-part work called The Promised King, of which I am nearly finished with the first part, called The Welcomer.)

These are just a few of the stories that have chosen me, out of the infinite possible ones that did not choose me. "Write what you know" is an oft-quoted rule, but it doesn't work very well for me, as it leads me to seeking out the stories instead of allowing them to find me. I don't write all of the stories that knock on my door or whisper in my ear at night. There isn't enough time to get to them all, they're not all equally compelling, and they don't present themselves to me exclusively. (One idea I've been considering for a few months actually shows up in the current issue of Realms of Fantasy, and it's executed beautifully by its author, so I don't know if I will ever tackle that one.) It occurs to me, also, that perhaps the lengthy period of rejection that all writers endure (and which I whined wrote about a few weeks back) is something of an audition period, but not in the usual sense where I'm continually auditioning for editors and first-readers. Maybe I'm continually auditioning for the stories. Maybe all the good stories are gathered somewhere, in some Platonic realm, watching me write and saying amongst themselves, "So, should one of us go let him write us yet?"

I like that image. So, maybe I'll indulge it for a while, and see my daily efforts as my way of putting out the welcome mat and seeing what comes knocking.



BARRY BONDS IS IN THE WORLD SERIES!!!

I don't think that Carl Lewis could have outrun Barry Bonds last night, when Bonds led the charge from the dugout onto the field last night after his San Francisco Giants scored the winning run in the bottom of the ninth to win the National League pennant. It's wonderful moments like that -- watching Bonds finally go to the World Series -- that challenge my cynicism toward Major League Baseball. For one moment last night I was able to forget my fear that baseball will say, "See, this season proves that the small-market teams are able to compete just fine," and that a team that was almost eliminated altogether nearly won the American League pennant, and that baseball's economics have reached a point that one of the richest teams, the Atlanta Braves, could be on the verge of a small fire-sale. For one moment there was only the game's best player, a player who is surely one of the greatest to ever play the game, basking in the joy of attaining a goal that has eluded him through his entire career. Baseball is a game of moments, and this one was wonderful. I only hope that baseball heeds one of the many bits of wisdom from the classic film Bull Durham:

Nuke: Why can't you just let me enjoy the moment?
Crash: The moment's over.

I've been on a weight-loss regimen since the beginning of 2002, combining regular exercise with healthy eating. (None of that goofy "Eat nothing but protein" stuff for me, thank you very much!) I'm happy to report that I've had success with the regimen, which I consider a shift in lifestyle as opposed to "a diet". I've reduced by BMI five points so far, with more to come.

(But just to demonstrate that BMI is a guideline but not a perfect indicator of reality, on a lark I plugged in Bruce Smith's height and weight into the calculator linked above -- and he's got the same BMI as me, right now. Now, if Bruce Smith's total body fat can even be measured in pounds, I'd be surprised -- but a strict reading of his BMI, without regard to his body-type, says that he is "obese". Just a little food for thought....but hey, I've got something in common with Bruce Smith!)

Monday, October 14, 2002

Baseball playoffs, an NFL season starting to take shape and develop its storylines, leaf-peeping, a pumpkin on every doorstep....is there any question that October is the best month of the year?

Anyway, time for my Monday sporting thoughts, in no particular order....

:: I love watching Travis Henry run the football. He's not a "squirming" type of running back, like Thurman Thomas or Barry Sanders were. When those guys broke tackles, it was by some kind of weird contorting process that reminds me of the T-1000 in Terminator 2. When Henry breaks a tackle, though, I'm more reminded of Emmitt Smith in the way he simply keeps his powerful legs churning forward all the time, and he has an amazing sense of balance. Henry is only going to get better as the Bills' young offensive line improves, which it's doing already.

:: However, I have to wonder: what on Earth ever happened to cradling the ball close to your body as you run? Henry's biggest problem is that he fumbles a lot. He's fumbled in every game this year, and it's because he insists on holding the ball at arm's length, windmilling both arms as he runs. This makes for a schizophrenic experience, watching him run: "There he goes! He's through the hole, wow, what a back....OHMYGOD, hold on to the ball!!!!"

:: Another game, another doughnut to pencil into the "Turnovers forced" column for the Bills. When you can't even force an expansion team to turn the ball over, even when that expansion team is starting a rookie at quarterback, you know your defense is in some serious trouble later on....

:: ....with "later on" being next week, when the Bills travel to Miami to play the Dolphins, who I think are the best team in the AFC right now. Buffalo-Miami is one of the better rivalries in the NFL, and right now the pendulum is definitely on the "Miami" side of the clock. I don't see the Bills winning this one.

:: The Vikings are finally in the "win" column, along with the Rams. Hooray. Too bad it took losing Kurt Warner for two months before Mike Martz decided to rely on the best back in football.

:: The Steelers are now on track for the AFC Championship! They blew out the Bengals, and not just anybody can blow out the Bengals. Start paving the road to the Super Bowl, because the Bus is on it! (Oh wait, anybody can blow out the Bengals....)

:: Before the season began, I read some sportswriter's comment to the effect of "Sure, Patriots fans are in love with Tom Brady now, but wait until he has his first three-interception game while Drew Bledsoe is setting passing records for the Bills." I can't remember who said that, but it came to pass yesterday. It's funny how it took NFL teams three years to figure out how to beat Kurt Warner: give him pressure, bump his receivers so the timing routes are screwed up, upset his rhythm, and watch him come back down to earth. It's taken teams under a year to figure out that maybe the same theory could work on Tom Brady. Now that the Patriots are in second-place by a couple of games, they will again have to rely on the late-season swoon by the Dolphins if they want to capture the division. The bad news for the Pats (and the good news for people like myself, who don't like the Pats) is that if there has ever been a year when the Dolphins are unlikely to fall apart in December, this is that year.

:: It looks like the Chargers are for real. The AFC West is a hell of a division.

:: I love gonzo sports statistics. In yesterday's game against the Saints, Washington's first scoring drive covered 75 yards -- 36 yards more than New Orleans' first four scoring drives combined.

:: The Anaheim Angels are in the World Series. I was pulling for the Twins, but....well, the Angels are one of those teams that has been down-on-its-luck for years. This is a team that was one strike away from going to the World Series the last time they made the postseason, in 1986 -- only to have their closer, Donnie Moore, surrender a two-run homer that eventually propelled the Red Sox to the Series against the Mets. In 1992, a character on Seinfeld observed that with all of those planes carrying major league baseball teams all over the country every year, there has never been a crash -- and then the Angels' bus crashed, injuring a bunch of players. And it goes on. This franchise deserves a pennant, and I'm glad they got one. (Although, if they end up facing the Giants, I'll be rooting for them and not the Angels. It's a Bonds thing, you know....)

:: The NHL's seven-month, eighty-game preseason has started, in anticipation of the two-month regular season (which they paradoxically call "the playoffs"). The Buffalo Sabres are off to a thrilling start! I'm not much of a hockey fan; I root for the Sabres out of loyalty to All Things Buffalo, and when they are eliminated I stop paying attention to hockey altogether. Anyhoo, go Sabres!

:: I don't know if this qualifies as sport, but....let's hear it for the new champion of speed crochet!!!