Where Are We, And Where Will We Be?

 

So, I just watched a fabulous episode of Star Trek Continues, a Youtube show that continues as if the original series was never canceled. Kirk, Spock and all the gang are simply played by different actors. However, the characters and the universe of Star Trek are very faithfully kept intact.

Thinking back, Gene Roddenberry’s original creation often challenged us to re-evaluate our own society. Issues of morality, justice, and prejudice were confronted–sometimes in quite nuanced ways. And after viewing the new episode, Embracing The Winds, I can happily state the tradition is alive and well.

Right now, we are living in a strange time. I’m an American, and I watched in horror the sexism and misogyny that paraded through our last presidential election. Since then, issues we often imagined to be safely in our society’s past have burst forth with a vengeance. Not only sexism but racism, homophobia, and religious intolerance are once again hot-button issues of our day.

To quote Robin William’s character from the movie Jumanji, “What year is this!?”

Well, sadly it’s 2017. And a reasonable person living at the time the first Star Trek was prime time viewing could easily have imagined we’d be a lot farther along than this. However, that same old Star Trek is speaking to us still, through well-written fan productions like Star Trek Continues-Embracing The Winds. 

Take the 45 minutes to watch this episode, and invite yourself to re-think your views on prejudice. I guarantee you will be entertained…and challenged.

And may you live long and prosper.

 

 

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A Great Age For Space Opera Movies

space-opera-movies

So, Rogue One is coming out on December 16th and I am stoked!

The release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens has heralded a new age for space opera in the movies unlike anything I’ve seen in thirty years (yes, I’m old). And even before the Star Wars primer, Marvel decided to get in on the action with Guardians of The Galaxy. Think about it, Marvel owns the rights to so many superhero franchises yet chose to make a film about space jockeys before Dr. Strange or any of a dozen other  caped characters (and yes, we are all still WAITING for that Miss Marvel movie). So why revive a less popular space franchise first? My answer is, they wanted to get on the ground floor of a booming trend.

When Star Wars first came out in 1977, it inspired dozens of imitators. Hollywood saw the money and quickly shifted from a western and detective thriller factory to a rocket ship launching pad. The first notable attempts were frankly well, crap– like Starcrash and The Cat From Outer Space. However, as Hollywood improved its space craft, we got good stuff like Battlestar Galactica, Alien, and Battle Beyond the Stars.

Naturally, Star Trek jumped onto the gravy train, and that’s FINE by me. After the abortive Star Trek: The Emotional Picture, we got Wrath of Kahn, Search For Spock, and, who can forget, Star Trek Saves The Whales. I grew up in this time, and it’s pretty damn obvious I have yet to recover. Stories of spaceships that go “woosh” and laser guns that go “pew” are still my go to entertainment.

So, sure, I’m waiting with bated breath for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I am also happy to hear they are planning to make a young Han Solo movie. I think it’s great that they are playing with alternative possibilities and taking risks with the franchise. Star Trek is also doing some good stuff with its re-boot, and I really liked Star Trek: Beyond. But here’s the thing…where is the new space opera stuff?

The last time we got an original space opera franchise of any worth on the screen was Firefly. Granted, Firefly and its movie Serenity were AWESOME, but it’s been over ten years and I want more. When Star Wars made bank back in ’77, we got a slew of other space opera films with original content. Now we have…what? Folks, Guardians of The Galaxy is based on a thirty-year-old comic book; it’s as if risk aversion trumps creativity in Hollywood every time these days (and I can’t stand it when things are “trumped”).

I know that today there are some damn good writers crafting top-notch space opera (Yeah, besides me…but also me…uh, me too? Yes, not just me). I want these guys and gals to get their chance now while the iron is hot. And this is important, not just for our entertainment but for the growth of the genre of space opera.

Think about it, forty years from now, what are they going to bring back if they did nothing new in the early 2000s?

 

Star Trek Turns 50…And I Ain’t Feeling So Young Myself

ademral-closeup

So, What do you think? I know, I know…a Starfleet admiral? Kind of egotistical, right? Well, I sure as hell am too old to be an ensign these days, so what else was I going to wear to Comicon?

Star Trek just turned fifty and I grew right up with it. In fact, I was born the day the episode “Friday’s Child” first aired. Yes, that’s the episode where McCoy delivers a baby…weird I know. Naturally, I was too young to catch Star Trek on the first pass. Instead, I grew up watching the re-runs on late night TV. Saturday Night Live would end, then we’d watch Star Trek and finally an old Flash Gordon serial before Channel 19 ended its broadcast day and the national anthem would play.

I’ve got to say, I’ve always loved the show, and it formed much of the framework for what I think science fiction is, or at least should be. Intellectually, I’m aware that SF encompasses cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic, and mad scientist stories. But, for me, if it ain’t got spaceships it ain’t sci-fi. To this day I gravitate to star-spanning adventures with strong human elements and a powerful moral theme that runs through ‘em. That’s what good SF is to me, that’s what Gene Roddenberry conceived when Star Trek first aired on September 8th, 1966, and that’s the kind of stuff I put in my books.

So, my point here is simply to say, “thank you.”

Thank you to every Star Trek, writer, actor, director, producer, costume sewer and right down to the guy who swept the floor. Also a hearty thanks to every fan who kept Star Trek alive for the past five decades. My imagination owes a debt to you folks that I cannot hope to repay.

So thank you. Thank you very much!

Just Saw Star Trek: Beyond

Star Trek Byond

So, I finally went out and saw Star Trek: Beyond. Why did a life long Trekkie like me wait so long…well.

To be honest the first two films in the reboot series left me wanting. I thought JJ Abrams’ first Star Trek was a pretty good ride. And by that, I mean that it was  a roller coaster with a Star Trek theme. There were twists and turns to excite and plenty of action but no real substance in the plot or storytelling. Now, on the plus side, I thought JJ put together an amazing cast of very talented people who captured the characters perfectly. I also liked the production design, special effects, and loved the music.

But like I said, it was only a ride with a Star Trek theme. I hoped Star Trek: Into Darkness would provide a more nourishing meal but was sadly disappointed. The plot was garbage, and I felt the new film did not pay proper respect to the original Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn.  So, yes, I was weary of this newest movie.

After reading a lot of positive reviews, however, I decided to give it a chance. And I’m glad I did. As in the last two films, the acting was spot on and the production design, special effects, and music were wonderful. This time, however, somebody decided to give it a decent plot! Although not overly complicated, the plot fit well into the two-hour movie format and remained internally consistent throughout. Also, kudos again to the writer for giving every character several moments to shine (this was not the Kirk and Kirk alone show). I also felt that they did a fine job showing respect to the original Trek, even integrating Lenord Nimoy’s passing in a  tasteful way.

Movies need to tell a story visually and have about two hours to unfold the plot. Star Trek was intended to be a TV show, requiring each episode visually to tell a short story  with a fairly simple plot. Novels, naturally, can take their time and explore a plot in depth but have to work harder to allow the reader to visualize the story. The first Star Trek was a TV episode stretched too long. The second was a novel crammed too short. Star Trek: Beyond…is just right.

Anyone for a game of Star Flux?

Me & Star Flux

So, on a whim, I bought a pack of Star Flux cards for our family vacation. We were camping, and I knew we’d want something to do with our evenings. As my family are all nerds like me, I figured a space opera card game would be worth a try. And boy, did I pick the right one!

Star Flux cardsFirst off I like simple games. My game Ground Pounders is only 13 pages and I’m quite proud of that brevity. Put simply, I don’t want to waste a lot of time pouring over rule books and then arguing with fellow players about what they mean. Nope, I just want to dive right in and have fun, and the sooner I can do that the better.

Star Flux has all the basic rules printed on one card. As you play, New Rule cards can be put down to make the game more interesting, but play never slows down as all those new rules are pretty simple as well.

Next, I have to say, I love the game’s sense of humor. Every SF trope I can think of is mocked without mercy. From the redshirts of Star Trek to the monolith of 2001:A Space Odyssey. For instance, the Goal card that combines the Unseen Force and the Robot is called “These Aren’t the Droids.” Combine the Captain and the Doctor and you get “He’s Dead”…Jim. You get the idea.

Flux, apparently, also comes in other genres; such as Zombie Flux and Monty Python Flux. Aside from the variety, there is one last thing about Flux I have to celebrate–price. When I wrote Battlefields: From Broadswords to Bullets, I did so with HO scale models in mind because their the cheapest on the market. I believe games should not be priced out of reach of the players and the makers of Flux seem to agree. Star Flux cost under ten dollars for the whole smash. To me, that’s the perfect price for a game that’s going to bring my family together for a long, long time to come.

 

Space: 1999, A Missed Opportunity

Space 1999

Have you ever found yourself hating something not because it was so bad but because you know full well it could have been so good? Well, that’s me and the 1970’s TV show Space: 1999.

First off let me set the stage. The show first aired in 1975, Star Trek re-runs were still a thing on daytime TV but there was really nothing else on the boob-tube science fiction wise. On the big screen, the Planet of The Apes movies were still going strong with their tragic endings and hamfisted social commentary. It would be a full two years before Star Wars reset the calibrations on science fiction in a big way and NOBODY saw that coming. So, science fiction fans frankly didn’t have much meat to chew on outside the printed page in those days and there was an obvious vacuum to be filled.

Gerry and Sylvia Anderson were a husband and wife producing team who already had some science fiction credits under their belts such as The Thunderbirds and another show called UFO. Together, they dreamed up Space:1999 and, frankly, they were off to a decent start. That is, before everything went to hell storywise

In charity, I’ll start with what was good about the show.

The sets and special effects were top-drawer for the time. In fact, the shows whole production design concept was very smoothly executed. Moon Base Alpha, where the show was set, had a style that was influenced by the film 2001: A Space Odyssey but sill had its own signature look. The costumes, special effects, props and sets all formed a believable and holistic universe that worked well for the show.

Gerry and Sylvia also hired some great actors. The commander of Moon Base Alpha was played by Martin Landau, and its doctor by Barbra Bain. Both were veteran TV actors who did some fantastic work on the original Mission: Impossible show. In fact, most of the cast was rather good because, outside of Hollywood, the Andersons drew from Great Britain’s theater community for talent.

So, great production design and a great cast, what went wrong, you may ask.

Flat out, the writing sucked! The one element that killed the show was the one that cost the producers the least amount of cash, the writers. True, the writing staff was hampered by the ridiculous premise. As dictated by the Andersons–in 1999 the moon is blasted away from Earth in a nuclear accident and sent plummeting through space.

I will grant it is hard to write a consistent narrative for such an oddball and unlikely plot. However, the writing staff seldom really gave it much of an effort anyway. Instead of trying to construct a smooth and interesting narrative, the lazy bums simply lifted plots from old Star Trek shows or even older movies like Lost Horizon. Episodes didn’t connect with one another unless a new character was introduced. And the crew of Moon Base Alpha never changed as a result of any given ordeal (although some actors did up and quit, their departure never explained).

The shame is, if the producers had just consented to leaving the moon in orbit and hired a few decent writers, I can almost taste the great show this could have been.

I can imagine Moon Base Alpha as an international colony, built with American and Soviet resources. The crew could have been a mixed bag of Warsaw Pact and NATO people who are trying to get along and do some real science in the shadow of the Cold War (Yes, in 1975 we thought that thing would last forever). Perhaps the writers could persuade the producers to allow aliens to have contacted mankind in this future. However, the aliens are only granted an embassy on the moon due to Earth’s “quarantine restrictions.” Add to that, civilian corporations could have been mining the moon for resources, and who knows what they might find in those dark tunnels? Not a monolith, of course, but perhaps something equally compelling.

As a science fiction author, my mind keeps jumping at the story possibilities that such a production design and cast  could have brought to life on the small screen…but it was all wasted.

The moment is past. It is no longer 1975 and a Cold War on the moon would not work with modern audiences. Also, the alien embassy thing was done superbly by the show Babylon 5, and there is no need to rehash that. To be sure, I expect many fans of Space: 1999 will sharply disagree with my assessment, and yes, there is a small and dedicated group of fans of this show. But when we think of the legions of fans that are dedicated to Star Trek and Star Wars a sense is gleaned of how large a fanbase Space: 1999 might have had if the show had just been better written.

As it was, the show floundered for two seasons and then winked out into the night. The star that could have burned brightly through the ages has collapsed into a black hole, and what a damn shame that is for science fiction.

 

Role Playing Your Writing

Ever heard of Mary Sue?

mary sue

If not, you’re lucky. According to legend, Mary Sue was a character in a  fan-fiction story that took place on the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701). As Kirk was the youngest captain in Starfleet, Mary Sue was suposidly the youngest ensign. Never the less, despite her lowly rank, on the most prestigious ship in the Federation, Mary Sue saved the day.

If you just leave it as described above, a natural response is, “so what?” What’s wrong with a minor crew-member getting the chance to shine every once in a while? Well…it’s more a matter of how she did it. You see, Mary Sue was so smart and so capable that every little thing she did was magic. She was a master of all skills with and uncanny ability to immediately see the answer to every problem, rendering all other characters (Spock, McCoy, Kirk) totally unnecessary. In short, a smart-assed little know it all.

In role playing games such annoying characters can not exist. Why? Because in  RPGs characters are defined by their character sheets and restricted by the rules. A typical RPG character has a set score to tell the player how strong, how smart and how charismatic he or she is. Furthermore, the characters skills and abilities are recorded, giving exact information about what that character can and can not do.Character Sheet 006

Writers of fiction can learn a lot from role players in general. But specifically right now I’m talking about characters. As a writer, it’s easy to paint yourself into a dramatic corner. Your hero is up against insurmountable odds and you need him or her to resolve the plot somehow. But when “Mary Sue” strikes, and your gunfighter performes brain surgery to save the day; you can expect your reader to toss your story across the room and never pick it up again.

For characters to be believable they must be limited; only so smart, only so strong, only so capable. Treating fictional characters like role playing characters forces you to tamp down your worst “Mary Sueish” impulses and tell a compelling, realistic story.

Readers crave characters that win despite their limitations because that make it easier to put themselves in the hero’s shoes. So do yourself a favor, future writer, play a role playing game.

…I recommend Star Run (see catalog).