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Science Fiction for the Masses

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NASA Telescope Reveals Seven Earth-sized Planets Around Single Star Photo digital Illustration by NASA/NASA via Getty Images

Football is gone. Sure there will be a little pick-me-up in a few weeks from the methadone that is spring practice, but we have merely gone sixty-two days without college football and there are one hundred and seventy-four days until we meet Free Shoes in the shiny new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

How to busy ourselves?

Taking my cue from PiperTJ, I’m going to do my best to fill your football-less free time with moderately informed opinions about pop culture before you get bored and start reading philosophy, working out more, learning a second language, or whatever other nonsense those with idle hands eventually get up to.

So welcome to RBR: Science Fiction, Illiterate Edition. No books. Sorry, but when you get into print you have too many titles to contend with and we’d be here all day. Not that I’ve got anything against sci-fi books. My wife edits a sci-fi/fantasy imprint. I love the stuff, but this is going to be much easier if we just stick to movies and tv (television.)

Generally, when you bring up the subject of science fiction movies in a place where people come to have opinions, almost half of the room champions the Star Wars universe, almost half of the room turns up their nose in favor of Star Trek, and one poor guy tries in vain to convince the assembled that flashy effects and gigantic budgets have nothing on the exceptional Dr. Who.

As a fan of all three, I’m going to touch on them each briefly and then move on.

STAR WARS

In my mind, critics of Star Wars miss the point. They focus on the bad acting, lackluster plots, improbable Ewok victories, and absurd dialogue. To be fair, all of those things are present in all of the movies except for maybe Rogue One, which may be the best movie of the lot.

Only Alec Guinness and to a lesser extent Harrison Ford got out without being made to look occasionally ridiculous by some seriously ham-fisted directing. With the exception of the discovery that Darth Vader was [SPOILERS] Luke Skywalker’s father, was there a single shocking moment in either trilogy? Ewoks and Jar-Jar people - they beat the Empire/Republic ground armies? No one not related to either actor can listen to a single line of the Anakin/Amidala courtship without, at bare minimum, a slight giggle.

In most non-visual respects, Star Wars falls woefully short. But that doesn’t seem to matter. As a fan, I have a theory as to why.

George Lucas was brilliantly able to draw us in to his galaxy in large part because of the depth he gave it. I’m torn between writing that there were no background characters and that even the background characters were deeply thought out. It was a full world that invited you to imagine more within the parameters he laid out.

As a kid I had a lot of the toys. My friends and I established a rebel base in a neighbor’s tree house. From there we would raid the Imperial infested flower beds on an almost daily basis. We had the Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker figures but those weren’t the characters we were playing. A couple of hours and a little model paint was all it took to individualize the dolls action figures. We were playing our own story in the amazing world that Lucas conceived and it was fantastically fun.

Of course we loved watching the movies. It was a new chance to inhabit and witness the expansion of the Star Wars universe. The Skywalker trilogy was fun to watch, if not terribly well done, but if it went off the rails, so what? That was George’s storyline, not ours.

STAR TREK

I’m going to ignore all the many iterations of the Star Trek tv (television) shows and try to consider them as a whole. There have been five hundred and twenty-three hours of Star Trek broadcasted (five hundred and forty-six hours if you add the movies). That’s twenty two days of shirt ripping, making it so, mind melding, and prime directive breaking straight. There’s going to be some good and some bad.

For every bad ass Next Generation episode like “Yesterday’s Enterprise” where a battle hardened crew from an alternate timeline fights blood-thirsty Klingons there will be an embarrassing offering like ”Justice” where the viewer is promised that that little twit Wesley will finally be killed off only to be disappointed because some milquetoast writer lost his courage at the last minute and spared the pathetic whelp.

For every fantastic character like the mysterious “tailor” Garek there is a… well, a little twit like Wesley.

But by and large, the shows were pretty damn good. I’ve long been of the opinion that Deep Space Nine had the best story arcs, but thanks to Netflix, I’ve come to appreciate the shows that I initially dismissed. I’m almost finished binge-watching Voyager. It’s surprisingly good. A few months ago I watched the first season of Enterprise, and pace the theme song, it really impressed me.

If you are a “Trekkie,” I have no time for you. But if you use the preferred term, “Trekker,” let me steer you toward the podcast Mission Log. One of the hosts was a friend of mine in high school who almost landed the role of the hated Wesley Crusher. He dodged a bullet. Anyway, he and his co-host are doing a one hour long podcast for each Star Trek episode or movie. So far they have finished the original and animated series as well as all of the movies associated with the original cast and are well in to The Next Generation. It’s a fun listen.

Speaking of the movies, with two exceptions, they’re pretty good popcorn fodder. There are no great insights or revelations, just people in recognizable uniforms doing cool things in recognizable space ships. The two exceptions would be Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

The Final Frontier may be the most exquisite waste of twenty-eight million dollars ever committed to celluloid. The stupid begins in the first few minutes when Uhuru fan dances an uprising into submission and doesn’t stop until the final, godless, and most welcome end. It’s so bad that it’s good for a while before becoming bad again.

The Wrath of Khan is pretty much an updated WWII u-boat film with the Enterprise and the nicked Reliant playing cat and mouse in a mixed metaphor that got away from me. It’s most notable for the epic contest between William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban as each tries to chew up more scenery than the other. Man does it escalate.

That said, I think the best Star Trek movie of them all is Galaxy Quest. That’s not an original thought, by the way. A swell of fans concur. By making fun of all the silly little quirks of the original series, Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, et al. just highlight what was so enjoyable about the show. “Let’s get out of here before one of those things kills Guy!”

I should note that I’m not including any of the J.J. Abrams reboots in what I wrote above. The first one was fun, but they introduced a new technology by which you could beam (all beaming kills, by the way) across any distance. The second was not just dull and stupid but they synthesized a compound from an enemy’s blood that brings people back from the dead. Left with an adventure barren Star Trek landscape where I’m puzzled why they are using starships at all considering that everything is just a transport away and unable to care about the outcome of any fight since death is now no more dangerous than tetanus, I skipped the third eye candy entry.

DR. WHO

Finally, among the big three, Dr. Who is the most enigmatic. It’s really not an easy show to get into. The problem that I think keeps most people who would otherwise really enjoy the show from becoming viewers is that they listen to Dr. Who fans. Do not listen to Dr. Who fans (except me - I’m different.)

Dr. Who fans, or Whovians if you can believe it, will steer you towards the best episodes of the series in the honest belief that you will be so wowed by the brilliance of the writing that you will come back to them, crack addict-like, begging for more. You won’t. The best loved Dr. Who episodes rely on the viewer being more or less versed in Dr. Who lore.

I can make a pretty good argument that “Blink” belongs in the conversation for best single tv (television) episode ever, but if you have no idea how the Doctor travels through time, it’s just a particularly good Outer Limits. “Family of Blood” has no poignancy unless you’ve grown accustomed to the idea that the Doctor has always shown restraint and mercy until that episode. “The Doctor’s Wife,” written by Neil Gaiman, is practically gibberish if you don’t know the doctor’s nine-hundred-year history with the TARDIS, or for that matter, what the TARDIS is in the first place.

I recommend that the interested start with the Christopher Eccleston 2005 reboot. It’s sort of a fresh start for the series and won’t lose a new viewer with references to the past (or future, this being Dr. Who).

And anyone who doesn’t think that David Tennant is the best Doctor is an untrustworthy fool.

On to the rest in no particular order other than the ones indicated by the numbers.

The Truly Great

1. Alien (1979): The scene on the planet where John Hurts first finds the room full of alien pods didn’t look right to director Ridley Scott. It wasn’t eerie enough. After trying a number of different effects and not finding satisfaction, he went over to the neighboring soundstage where The Who were rehearsing for the release of, and I assume tour for, Who Are You and said “Excuse me.” (I assume he said “Excuse me.” because he seems like that kind of a guy) and borrowed a few lights. That’s how we got that shimmering blue laser that looks like a membrane over incubators. Even the minutiae of this movie are laudably cool.

Sigourney Weaver beat out Meryl Streep for the lead in this horror/sci-fi classic and thank god she did. Weaver puts in one of the most memorable performances in the genre as Ripley, terrified and determined. If you somehow haven’t seen this movie, you must. You have no idea what “on the edge of my seat” means.

The alien, designed by the no doubt very troubled Swiss painter Gherig Dieter H.R. Giger is an absolutely nightmare-inducing addition to the common sci-fi scenario where the crew is isolated and cut off from aid, thus the tag line “In space, no one can hear you scream.” (In space, no one can stop the screen.” - Lane Kiffin)

2. Dark City (1998): A race of aliens holds an unwitting population of humans hostage in a city that is eternally [SPOILERS AGAIN] dark. The mysterious aliens are performing experiments on their captives, removing memories and implanting new ones on a cyclical basis. One day a man is a driven professional, the next a frustrated artist, the next a drunken bum. Each time they peel away traits and replace them with a new personality set, and monitor their subjects, trying to find the nature of mankind beyond the nurture of experience. The story begins when the aliens are interrupted while implanting new memories into Rufus Sewell, leaving the poor man an amnesiac with half developed memories of a life as a serial killer.

This is brilliant sci-fi noir. We have a detective, a protagonist trying to prove his innocence even to himself, and the dreadful city with shadows and secrets hidden throughout. If for no other reason this movie is worth watching to see Sewell manage to brood despite bulging eyes. Jennifer Connolly’s character is not entirely fleshed out, but if I may mansplain, it doesn’t matter because she never looked better. Kiefer Sutherland, playing a quisling whose character is made up mostly of tics and twitches, invokes the Shatner/Montalban method of acting, leaving well-gnawed scenery in his wake.

3. Blade Runner (1982): Did someone say sci-fi noir? The screenplay was adapted from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and as with almost everything from the Dick ouvre (the Dickery?) it plays with the idea that reality and self might not be what we assumed.

Harrison Ford plays Deckard, a cop whose job it is to hunt down and terminate replicants, artificial life forms that can pass as human, that have escaped servitude. After meeting a replicant who has no idea that she is anything other than human, Deckard begins to question his own identity.

I’m beginning to think that maybe I should just go ahead and reserve space in each movie entry to identify the designated scene chewer. In this case the award goes hands down to Rutger Hauer.

“I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

I should also note that this is the only movie that Daryl Hannah doesn’t suck in. That includes M.A.S.H., Citizen Kane, and The Guns of Navarone.

Even if you have seen this movie, which I suspect anyone with even a whit of interest in sci-fi has, you should try watching it again with this great fan theory in mind. Focus on Gaff, played by Edward James Olmos. He’s supposed to be a legendary blade runner but he spends the whole movie chaperoning Deckard. Someone, noting his limp, posited that he was injured in the line of duty and, unable to continue physically, had his memories and experiences downloaded into a battle ready replicant body: Deckard. It would explain the disdain Gaff expresses towards his charge and the fact that Deckard seems to be his charge at all. It also makes sense of the origami dreams. If you care to delve into this idea it really ties things together elegantly. This isn’t some “Oh man! Shyamalan Twist!”

4. Primer (2004): Made on a purported budget of seven thousand dollars, this movie shocked the critics at Sundance. Much of the movie takes place in a garage or an office park. There’s no effect more impressive than floating a few hole-punched paper circles in a static field but it’s the best time travel tale I’ve come across (before anyone says “Read Mark Hodder.” let me remind you that this is the illiterate edition.)

The crosses and double and triple crosses are almost impossible to follow, but they work. There is no moment where the authors glossed over a possibility or probability for the sake of story. It’s wonderful.

I’d try to pick out a scene chewer, but there’s no one in this movie that anyone has ever heard of so why bother. If memory serves, the cast of five or whatever it is is the same as those listed in the credits as Craft Services. It was a small production.

The Really Good

1. Enemy Mine (1985): This might as well be called The Defiant Ones in Space. Though not handcuffed together alien (Louis Gossett, Jr.) and human (the not-insane Quaid brother) are stranded on an inhospitable planet and rely on each other to survive. If you don’t almost cry at the end you are a ginger.

2. 12 Monkeys (1995): Another time travel story that gets it right. I could do without the tie in to Bruce Willis’ childhood, but otherwise a great film. This was the first time I noticed that Brad Pitt could actually act when called upon.

3. The Matrix (1999): This is what happens when you freebase Phillip K. Dick. The Wachowski brothers take the uncertain reality trope, dress it up in leather and absolve the woke, letting them blow everything the hell up. Don’t miss Joe Pantoliano eating steak.

4. Serenity (2005): This is a masterpiece or decent Saturday afternoon tv fare depending on whether or not you were a fan of Firefly, the short-lived show that gave birth to this movie. What’s striking is that Joss Whedon, an avowed socialist, would write this script; one of the more damning indictments of social engineering of the last twenty years. For fans like me, this film is shiny.

5. Brazil (1985): Come for the dystopian future, stay for the… I don’t know why I stayed. It’s a movie about a functionary going insane. It actually delves into the workings of a bureaucracy. Somehow (likely the fact that among the collaborators were Terry Gilliam and Tom Stoppard) this is riveting.

6. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984): This is the story about a modern day renaissance man and his band of like abled geniuses as they fight encroaching aliens. Dr. Buckaroo Banzai is a physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, and rock musician. He’s played by Peter Weller (of RoboCop fame), an acclaimed actor, one-time professor of Roman and Renaissance Art at Syracuse University, and director who plays horns in Jeff Goldblum’s jazz band. So it’s not that big a stretch.

The I’ll Leave It on If It Comes On

1. Terminator (1984): As a franchise, Terminator has done some wonderful things and told some wonderful stories. I think the first movie gets too much revisionist credit as a result. It’s a fun flick and Arnold kills things.

2. Starship Troopers (1997): This is a personal failing of mine, but I love this movie. It’s schlock, I know. But Doogie Howser dresses up as an SS officer to fight rock flinging space bugs! Casper Van Whatever avenges Beunos Aires! Like Tremors, its virtue is in the allocation of an A-level budget towards a B-level movie.

Were this the literate edition we could talk about how controversial the book was, but…

So Bad It’s Good

1. Zardoz (1974): We could talk about the floating head, the connections to, of all things, the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man, but let’s not. Let’s talk about Sean Connery in a banana hammock.

2. 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968): It’s actually really good up until the end and then… The book provides so many possible ways to convey Dave’s journey, but Kubrick decides “Look at some lights, stupid!” I know it’s heresy, but this movie sucks.

3. Dune (1984): David Lynch is gonna David Lynch but wow did he make Sting look bad. This is a hard story to tell cinematically so kudos for trying, I guess. I liked Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck. That’s something.

So Bad It’s Good and Then It Gets Bad Again

1.Battlefield Earth (2000): There is nothing redeeming here. At first you laugh, then you get uncomfortable at the realization that there are people of means willing to finance this train wreck. Next you snicker at the people of means. It’s a natural snicker at those that hold themselves on high. It makes you feel good. Then you watch more. Dear god. Someone paid for this. Someone invested in this. Never before have you been more interested in meeting the person who manages your 401K.

TV (By now you know)

1. Firefly (2002): There are still fans holding out hope that this one will come back. Two veterans on the losing side of a solar system-wide civil war take to space in a Firefly class ship, taking jobs, legal or not. A brilliant ensemble cast brought differing points of view to bear on the plight of the ship, the system, and its various satellites. It’s my very favorite show.

“Our Mrs. Reynolds” and “Objects in Space” stand out, but all the episodes were witty and well acted.

Unfortunately, it lasted all of half a season. Fox picked it up for the fall and then threw it about and postponed or cancelled it as they made way for baseball playoffs. The show never stood a chance.

2. Battle Star Galactica (2004, to be clear, 2004 not 1978): In a way I hate this show because of the way it ended. The beginning was so strong. Watch “33.” In that episode an exhausted crew battled an inexhaustible enemy that attacked every thirty three minutes on the dot. I’d be hard pressed to imagine a better way to highlight human frailty in the face of a mechanical menace than a direct assault on the need for sleep. It was thrilling. So many of those earlier episodes were.

A few years later and it became obvious that the creative team had no idea how to tie things up so we were served a scrambled plate of new age mumbo jumbo set to the tune of an old Bob Dylan Song.

3. Stargate Universe (2009): I didn’t care for any of the earlier Stargate offerings. They were bubblegum and formulaic and starred McGyver.

Universe was dark. Robert Carlyle put in a particularly disturbing and memorable performance. Unfortunately, good sci-fi rarely holds a big enough audience. The show runners were given a short time to tie the story up. They refused, and left the crew out there, the story unresolved. Maybe somebody picks it up later. What they did film was amazing.

4. Space: Above and Beyond (1995): Nominated for two Emmys and one Saturn award and still no one cared. Though haven’t seen the one season that was released since it was released I can only say that it changed the way space fighter to fighter combat was choreographed. BSG was lauded for inertial spin shooting, but it all started here. Another show dead before its time.

5. The Expanse (2015): I’m hesitant to recommend anything currently in production given that few of these shows manage to reach a desired conclusion, but The Expanse is on the right path. Based on a series of books by James S. A. Corey (a pen name for the collaboration of Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank), The Expanse takes place as an alien pathogen threatens to destroy an uneasy peace between the UN (Earth), Mars, and the colonies in the asteroid belt.

The focus is alternately on a small group of space farers, a detective from the belt, and a particularly foul mouthed but highly placed UN official.

****

So that’s me bloviating. Have a favorite that I didn’t mention? Think I got something wrong? Well go %*^(%^& yourself Tell me what you think in the comments.