A Great Age For Space Opera Movies

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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?

 

Flash, Ahahaha!

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Let me tell you what’s new with Flash Gordon.

First off, when I was growing up we had these things called local TV stations. They didn’t have a lot of money to buy children’s programming and, to be frank, there wasn’t much worth buying back then if they did (it was a dark time the 1970s). So when I came home from school and wanted to veg out in front of the tube, there was Flash Gordon on Chanel 19…in all it’s 1930s glory.

Flash Gordon was an outer space pulp hero played by Buster Crabbe (a former Olympic gold medal winner). To be frank, Buster didn’t have a wide range as an actor. But he looked every bit the hero and spoke his lines clearly and with gusto. From 1936 to 1940 he appeared in weekly installments that played at movie houses across America. With his trusty companions, the beautiful Dale Arden and the brilliant Hans Zarkov, Flash battled the brutal Emperor Ming the Merciless to save the Earth. Each episode ended with a cliffhanger to leave the audience wanting more.

Was it tacky? YES! Were the special effects crap? YOU BET! But a young George Lucas apparently loved the show as a kid too. In fact, when that boy grew up he wanted to make a Flash Gordon movie himself. Get this…since he COULD NOT AFFORD THE RIGHTS he decided to write his own space opera and call it Star Wars. That’s right, there was a time when the name Flash Gordon meant bigger bucks in science fiction than Star Wars!

Seeing the error of their ways, the people behind Flash Gordon made their own major motion picture starring Sam J. Jones (Buster was getting old by then).The 1980 movie was a minor hit and became a cult favorite. The dialog of this movie was deliberately corny, and Brian Blessed’s performance of Vaultan King of The Hawkmen was a master class in overacting done right. The film had its charm but–like it’s black and white movie heritage–it’s characters lacked depth.

Enter Dynamite Comics’s latest incarnation of Flash. I recently discovered this volume in my local comic book shop…and it’s wonderful. Creators Jeff Parker, Evan Shaner and Jordie Bellaire understand and respect the source material but aren’t afraid to add something to it.

In Dynamite’s incarnation, Flash is an Olympic athlete (nod to Buster) with the attention span of a teenager. A true adrenaline junkie, Flash gets bored easily lives for the chance to jump in and do something physical. However, he’s also a generally good human being, and his boyish understanding of right and wrong serves as the moral compass of his group.

For the Dynamite authors, Dale Arden is the brains of the operation. She is a science journalist who gets roped into the interplanetary adventure. Not one to back down from a challenge, she is the cool head that comes up with the plans that Flash follows. Frankly, this Dale is much more than a girlfriend character and she is certainly no damsel in distress.

Hans Zarkov, as always, is the brilliant scientist of the group. However, he is also a braggart, a horn-dog and an alcoholic. Far from the modest background boffin of the 1930s movies, this Doctor Zarkov is a brash egotist who’s boisterous personality must be tempered by Dale and Flash from time to time. But, to be sure, he’s an awful lot of fun at parties.

If you can’t find this excellent comic in stores I recommend Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/Flash-Gordon-Omnibus-Tp/dp/1606905996/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1476767848&sr=1-1&keywords=flash+gordon+comics

It’s a big, bold and brash reincarnation of an old science fiction standby, and is sure to bring out the kid in any old fart who remembers what fun Flash Gordon used to be.

 

 

Do You Dorsai?

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Once long ago, science fiction fans turned almost exclusively to novels to get their fix.

How long ago? I’m talking about the 1970s to 1990s–what your dad would call “the good old days.” Sure, there were good SF films and television back then. I will grant that even certain comic books were crafting some well-done stories. However, for every film like Star Wars, there were a dozen like Star Crash, and the same can be said for TV and comics. So, when fans gathered at SF conventions back in the good old days, they tended to talk books. And number one in military SF books were the Dorsi novels.

Gordon R. Dickion was a World War II veteran, so it’s safe to say he knew something about the military. He referred to his most prestigious series as “The Child Cycle,” but his fans often just referenced the most notable subjects of the books- the planet and people called Dorsai.

Of all the worlds spinning in the 24th century, Dorsai was unique. That planet produced for export the greatest mercenary soldiers in the galaxy. In fact, their entire economy was dependent on selling the martial skills of its sons and daughters to fight in other people’s wars. This opened up myriad story possibilities, and Dixion took full advantage of that fact. But this was not a mean series of books about brutes killing across the cosmos.

The Dorsai’s success was not based on might alone. Because Dickion focused on war as a thinking person’s dilemma.

Question: What do you do when an overwhelming force takes over your town? Answer: Find an excuse to get all the young and healthy out of town while leaving the aged and infirmed behind to poison the air, and once everybody is dead and the air is clear the war is won.

Yes, the Dorsai were that ruthless, and in a society where everybody is a soldier casualties among the aged and infirmed may be as acceptable as any other (not that I view that as a good thing personally). I do, however, find the Dorsai’s approach thought-provoking. And isn’t that what good science fiction does?

A good SF story, like any other kind of literature, provokes thought. It challenges us to look at problems in new ways to develop unique solutions. I appreciate what Gordon R. Dickon did for military SF and recommend his works to anybody who would bost an understanding of the genre. Besides, not everything in SF movies, TV or comics today is a gem. So why not take the time to crack open a good old book or two?

 

 

So, I Just Saw Star Wars VII…

Nope, there will be no spoilers here so you may feel free to read on.

Star Wars Awakens

Was it good? Yes, but I’m not here to write another review as there are plenty of them out there already. Was it as good as the first time I saw Star Wars back in 1977? Of course not! There is simply no way to recapture youth. When I first saw that movie, I was a very different person living in a very different world, and you simply cannot relive the past.

Oh, but we do try.

As I look at the big budget movies of the past several years I’m noticing a distinct pattern; Guardians of the Galaxy, and other Marvel movies that had their genesis in comic books now thirty to fifty years old, Star Trek, with a new version of the original cast of characters who graced our TV screens back in the late 1960s, add to that The Lone Ranger, Jurassic World, the Robocop reboot and the latest Terminator movie and I’m sure you get the idea. Do I blame Hollywood? Hell no! Hollywood only makes what people will buy, and right now nostalgia is selling like hot cakes.

Now a part of me is happy to see a new coat of paint on a favorite old automobile. Part of me is actualy happy to shell out a few bucks to relive my past. But another part of me is downright frustrated. I know for a fact that there are some kick-ass new stories being told (Yes, mine– but not just mine) that are not getting any room to breathe because of all the dinosaurs that still roaming the Earth. If you have not read the comic book Saga, go out there and buy a copy. If you have never heard of D. Wallace Peach, Sheron Wood McCartha or April Aashime, you are missing out on some good novels.

Today’s world is not out of fresh ideas or new talent. We just need to push past the nostalgia to find it.

Free Writing Lesson, and It’s All About Star Wars

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Star Wars is the perfect three-act play.

So, what is this three-act play stuff? Easy, it’s a formula that writers of all types use to guide their plots so a story doesn’t just ramble on. Face it, we’ve all read fiction that lacked direction, the characters, and the reader just wander in the woods until the author runs out of ink in his pen…boring.

The three-act play gives your story a concrete beginning, middle and end. What’s more, this format is so widely used in western fiction that most readers expect to see it, even if they couldn’t describe it (I know, people are weird).

Is the three act play a law authors must obey? No! But beginning writers would do well to know what the mold looks like before they try to break it. So, here goes; free writing advice from me (struggling, yet published author) to you.

Now, do you remember the first Star Wars movie?

Good, most folks have seen the original Star Wars, whether they consider themselves fans or not. But, most people who’ve seen it don’t know how perfectly, how EXACTLY, it uses the three act play boilerplate. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s take a look…

ACT ONE: In this act, the author opens with a threat to hook the audience’s attention, and then introduces all the principal characters.

Forget the boring text crawl. What people remember most about the beginning of this movie is the gigantic space battle it opens with. A big, threatening ship swallows a teeny-tiny ship, and soon storm-troopers are bursting through an exploding door, shooting it out with rebel crewmen. Bang! The audience is hooked.

We meet Darth Vader, Princess Leia, and the droids before we’ve finished our popcorn. Soon, the action draws us down to Tatooine where we meet Luke (our protagonist on a hero’s journey), Obi-wan, Han and Chewie. Now that the characters have all been introduced we send them on a quest to deliver the plans to Alderaan. Once that little chore is done, the characters think everything will be okay…but the audience hopes it won’t be so easy.

Face it, nobody sitting in the theater wants the show to end now. Escaping from Moss Isley Spaceport in the Millennium Falcon is only the end of act one, not of the movie.

ACT TWO: The middle of the play begins with the “first catastrophe”  and ends with the “second catastrophe.” In between those two events we see the characters come together as a team and the hero moving forward on his journey.

The first catastrophe is the destruction of planet Alderaan. So much for our nice, simple quest to deliver the plans. Now our heroes must deactivate the tractor beam, rescue the princess and escape the frigging garbage monster.  During this time of struggle, we see Luke taking initiative, leading the assault on the detention center, and becoming less farm boy and more Jedi (as his journey progresses).

The second act ends when they face the second catastrophe. True, they escaped the Death Star. Unfortunately, the darn thing is following them back to the rebel base and will soon destroy the only resistance to the evil empire’s control of the entire galaxy. Thanks Obama!

ACT THREE: Climax and resolution for the hero and his friends.

Act three begins on the fourth moon of Yavin, where Luke receives his briefing with the other fighter pilots. The climax is, of course, the biggest space battle yet. The dogfight over the Death Star is so intense that we almost completely forget about the space battle that opened the movie. The audience is treated to several near misses as rebel, after rebel, fails to hit the target. Final victory is achieved when Luke uses the force for the first time, thus giving him kinship with Obi-wan as a force wielding warrior (if not a Jedi yet).

The resolution comes with medals for everybody (except Chewie and the droids…what’s up with that?). Our plot is concluded, and the audience feels satisfied that they’ve had a full meal with all the meat and potatoes proceeding the desert. And there you have it; the three act play.

Watch any movie, read any book and I’m willing to bet you’ll see 80% of them follow this formula. Why? Because it works, and it’s what readers have come to expect. Yes, you can monkey with it. Yes, you can scrap it all together. But if you do, you will need to give your audience something else in return to satisfy their hunger. In other words, don’t try jumping your motorcycle over the house until you learn to ride the darn thing around the block.

Thus endeth the lesson.