Star Trek Voyager: A Celebration

While all Star Trek series are worthy, some are just more interesting than others. Deep Space Nine has some great characters and acting, but initially suffered from being “stationary” rather than zipping around like the Star Trek ( the original series) or Star Trek: The Next Generation. As Roddenberry’s vision had sharpened and the syndication model freed him from many constraints, probably TNG is the overall best series. Certainly, the acting is amazing and the scrips are often really great, too. But, as special effects have become better and better, TNG suffers a bit in that area. Enter Star Trek: Voyager, which had a seriously huge void to fill, as it debut was a mere six months after TNG ended its seven year run. I also reviewed a book, Star Trek Voyager, A Vision of the Future, written during Voyager’s run, which is good, but last year, this volume, written as an anniversary edition, does a much better job of explaining the series as a whole, from development to the two part ending episode, “End Game.”

Upon receiving the book, I thought it would be one of those “coffee table” books, long on pictures and short on words. Nope, although there are many pictures. Indeed, the use of now decades old still pictures from the series is sometimes a weak point. However, there are drawings, pictures of behind the scenes contributors, and plenty of text. Overall, I really enjoyed the book, which is written in short segments which can be quickly read, but there are many sections, and these don’t necessarily need to be read in any fixed order.

The book begins, logically, with series development, and then there’s a short (two page) section devoted to the title sequence. I had no idea that this part (often “skipped” while streaming) was nominated for an Emmy award. Interspersed with the more technical aspects of the series are longer passages about the characters, beginning, of course, with Captain Janeway. The authors (two principal and two others, along with a general editor and a sub-editor) rely upon previously published material as well as newly conducted interviews with some cast members, as well as writers, producers, artist, and a host of others. Kate Mulgrew, who played Janeway, is among those who share memories in this book, and she discusses how much pressure was upon her as the first female captain of a Star Trek series, and how she approached the character as well as learning the scientific language necessary in this sort of show.

As there were many episodes (16 the first season, and 26 in each of the following six seasons) not all of them are featured, but sections devoted what are termed “key” episodes are mixed in with the other segments. The first, “Caretaker” is the two part pilot, and some of the other key episodes include “Tuvix” a character created by a transporter accident in which Neelix and Tuvok are blended into one individual. Each character gets a section, and most of multi episode villains do also. There are a couple of segments about the ship, one about the Delta Flyer, which is a smaller ship built by the Voyager crew about halfway through their journey, as well as segments about the special effects department, the makeup artists, the costumers, the writers, and the directors. As a fan of Voyager since it originally was broadcast, I knew quite a bit about the series, but there’s a lot of new material. For instance, I knew that some of the actors directed certain episodes, but I did not know that Star Trek actually fostered this by holding a “director in training” program. Roxann Dawson, who played Lt. Torres, directed a couple of episodes of Voyager, but went on to become a sought after director. She states that the program changed her life.

Bob Picardo took advantage of the DIT program and directed episodes of Voyager, but he also gets a writing credit, as he pitched a story line which was used, and he co-wrote the script. Robbie McNeil, who played Tom Paris, also directed multiple episodes of Voyager and went on to direct other projects.

When TNG was in production, many of the special effects were done with models, but by the time Voyager was being produced, digital graphics were beginning to be more cost effective, as well as allowing more creative shots, so as the seven seasons went by, more and more VFX were done digitally. However, in the show’s 100th episode, “Timeless”, the ship is depicted as crashing into a snow and ice covered planet. The visual effects crew found that digital snow wasn’t working, so they ended up doing a practical shot with a model crashing into a tray of baking soda. I’ve seen that episode several times, and I am amazed by how good it looks on the screen.

For fans of Star Trek Voyager, this book is a real treat. For readers interested in television, particularly directing, writing, and special effects, it is worthy. Casual readers or those who just “look at the pictures” might be a tad disappointed in this book, but I read it cover to cover, with a couple sections earning a second reading. For now, it has a spot on my “keeper” shelf, too.

Searching for Shelter: Aftermath Book 1—a brief review

In short, this is a disaster upon disaster yarn.

Searching for Shelter is actually a pretty good book. I was a bit surprised that it holds together as well as it does, with three authors listed. While I haven’t done a collaboration novel, most of them involve a “big name” author lending a helping hand to a newbie, or one author does an outline while another does the grunt work. I have no idea how these three folks did it, but Searching for Shelter gets better as it goes along, and it goes along at a good pace.

As a southerner, and one who has travelled in Mississippi, I appreciated the setting and the types of characters that populate the novel. Or maybe I liked it because I grew up in the era when “disaster movies” such as The Poseidon Adventure and The Andromeda Strain were blockbusters at the theatre. Anyway, this novel is in the genre of “you need to be a prepper to survive into the next book” that seems to be growing in popularity. While not as pedantic as the last “prepper” novel I read, this one does have some instruction interwoven into the plot.

A rather large cast of characters, in the Mississippi delta region, are introduced in the early chapters. They include a young couple (Edward and Maria) and their midwife (April), as their first child is about to be born in the midst of the biggest hurricane anyone in that hurricane prone area has ever seen. Indeed, the storm is labeled a category six (and there are only cat 1-5 storms now, so that lets the reader know just how bad this rascal is going to be for the landscape and its citizens.) Another main character is Rita Sloan, a young lady with a very troubled past, desperate to get home, who ultimately seeks shelter in a mechanic’s garage, along with the owner of the shop and his nephew. Other important characters include prisoners at the state penitentiary, as those are invariably built in rural areas. The storm first knocks down almost every building, then the storm surge floods all but the highest ground. In short, this is a disaster upon disaster yarn. As this is a novel about being prepared, or not, most characters have a skill or a stash, or want to take something from someone else. For instance, Edward and Maria have lots of food stores, as they are farmers, while April desperately wants to get home to her stash, which includes a good supply of medical items, from medicine to bandages. Even Rita has her “go bag” in the car and manages to hang onto it through the entire book.

Like the Johnny Cash song, eventually all of these characters, and a slew of others, are goin’ to Jackson. However, each one’s journey is fraught with peril, from ne’er do wells looting and stealing to gators looking for their next meal. And, once the characters reach the city, the devastation is so great and the population so ill prepared, that the shelter they are seeking remains elusive. Thus, while some plot lines are resolved, many are left for the successive novels to explore.

I haven’t decided to purchase books 2 and 3, but they are definitely on my “maybe” list.

Nowadays, there’s just so much free and cheap reading available. And, I’m a total reading glutton. For real!

Time for Dystopian Science Fiction?

Reader’s Alley, a nifty site for bargain eBook lovers, divides their science fiction offerings into sub-genres: sci-fi romance, sci-fi thriller, and science fiction, dystopian. While those first two descriptors would seem self-evident, the dystopian flavor is considered by some (mostly jaded members of academia) as the only serious science fiction. Typically, I avoid reading dystopias because they tend to be so darned depressing. But, with all that is happening in the news, which I also try to avoid, perhaps it is time to take a look at the genre.

One of the finest books about the history of science fiction is Brian Aldiss’ Trillion Year Spree, which covers science fiction literature from its beginnings to the early 1980s. Aldiss does discuss many sub-genres, but the thread of dystopia runs strongly throughout his encyclopedia of science fiction in printed form. The term, dystopia, is applicable to “a world in which everything is imperfect, and everything goes terribly wrong. Dystopian literature shows us a nightmarish image about what might happen to the world in the near future. Usually the main themes of dystopian works are rebellion, oppression, revolutions, wars, overpopulation, and disasters. On the other hand, Utopia is a perfect world – exactly opposite of dystopia.”

Science has, until recently, been viewed as a two edged sword; while it can make life much better, mis-use of science has been the root of all sorts of evils. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is often considered to be the first science fiction novel, and the dark side of science is clearly the central theme of the novel. Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment and Rappacini’s Daughter, short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, also feature mis-use of science as their main themes. When teaching those stories, which used to be in many American Lit anthologies, one way to make it simple for students is to say, “Hawthorne is basically telling his readers, ‘don’t mess around with Mother Nature’.”

Later novelists fine tuned dystopian themes, with societies becoming more and more restrictive upon the populace. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 share these themes, “including the consequences of totalitarianismmass surveillance, and repressive regimentation of persons and behaviours within society.” Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Burgeron is one of the most widely read dystopian stories, due to its inclusion in anthologies for students, and I recently read a news story liking our current government policies to Vonnegut’s didactic work. Y’all, it is scary when dystopia becomes reality.

Of course, many fans of science fiction today seldom, if ever, read it. Instead, what they know of utopia and dystopia is presented via video. Early episodes of Star Trek explored both sides of the scientific divide. The Ultimate Computer, rather dated today, explored the man vs. machine conflict, using future war games as a setting for its rather disturbing premise. Various dystopian novels have been adapted to long form (movies) video, including everything from 1984 to Planet of the Apes. There are literally dozens of dystopian sci fi films. Some are rather laughable now (Mad Max?) but others are quite troubling.

My own fiction, which has many conflicts for characters to attempt to resolve, certainly isn’t “happily ever after, ” but it isn’t as dark as some of these works, and that’s because my outlook on life is more pragmatic. Hopefully, there will be some gravitation away from the totalitarian policies of modern politicians and administrators. But, when I consider what I am seeing when I do go out and about, I wonder. I really do. Remember this: In each fictional dystopia, the goal was to make things better for certain segments of the population, and bad outcomes are unhappy accidents. Be careful what you wish for—

The Night Manager (television series)—a brief review and commentary

managerOften, the best stories begin as, well, stories. Before The Wizard of Oz was a groundbreaking film, it was a book by L. Frank Baum. Before 2001 A Space Odyssey was an influential science fiction film, it was a book by Arthur C. Clarke. Television series have also been book based, including such diverse stories as Little House on the Prairie, based on a series of books by Laura Ingles Wilder, and Game of Thrones, which was based on a series of books by George R. R. Martin. There are literally dozens of others, but I’m going to discuss one that you might have missed: The Night Manager, based on a book by John Le Carré. A friend recommended this six part series, and we usually enjoy the same sorts of stories.

The Night Manager is currently on a streaming service offered by a large online reseller, the one that starts with an A. Originally, however, the series was made for British television and shown in the states on AMC. As I don’t subscribe to cable, I missed it there, but my hubby and I saw this winner of three Golden Globe awards recently. The plot, although updated a bit from the 1993 novel, is intricate enough to puzzle, but not nearly as confusing as modern teleplays tend to be. The direction is subtle but sure. The acting is simply outstanding, with a star cast including Hugh Laurie (who starred eight seasons in House M. D.) and Olivia Coleman (who dons The Crown in seasons 3 and 4 over on Netflix.) The main character is brought to life by Tom Hiddleston, who has several Marvel movies as well as a video game in his resumé. This series was rather expensive to make, by BBC standards anyway, and was filmed in Egypt, Morocco, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

Here’s a bit of plot summary: A former soldier for the British army, Jonathan Pine, is portrayed as the night manager of a Cairo hotel as the story begins. He gets involved with a mysterious guest who is the girlfriend of a local gangster. Through her relationship with the gangster she has acquired information linking illegal international arms sales with Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), an English billionaire. Just after leaking information regarding the illegal arms, she is found murdered.

(Minor spoilers ahead)

Fearing for his own life, Pine flees, and is next seen, a few years later, doing the same job at a remote hotel in Switzerland. When super villain Roper visits the Swiss hotel, Pine longs to have some revenge, and soon he is enlisted by British Intelligence to spy on Roper. Before long, he has a new identity and an opportunity to infiltrate the small network of arms dealing. Getting information out, while staying alive and undercover is quite a challenge.

One reviewer called it a “classy thriller.” That nails it, but do check out this amazing bingeable series.

Star Trek Picard—review and commentary

 

Ryan in Trek

Then and now— Seven of Nine


Star Trek
is an integral part of American culture
and a controversial view of the future of humanity. It began with Gene Roddenberry’s concept for a serious science fiction television series, a novel idea in the early 60s, and it has continued to evolve for fifty years. As America has changed, as science fiction has changed, as television has changed, Star Trek has changed, too.

Picard is set two decades after the feature film, Nemesis, and is based upon the series Star Trek The Next Generation, which ran for seven years on television. Later, four of the feature films were based upon the characters from TNG series. Picard has ten episodes in season one, but the second and third seasons are planned for CBS All Access, which is how hubby and I watched the first season.

This made for the web series has very high production values—the sets and effects rival feature films. Sir Patrick Stewart is still an amazing actor, although the pace of the series (slow!) seems to be partially dictated by the age of its principal character. Viewers who prefer space battles and fisticuffs will probably be a bit disappointed. Casual viewers may also find the editing, with its rapid cuts from scene to scene, confusing. Honestly, I don’t like that aspect at all, but this is apparently in line with Picard‘s sister show, Star Trek Discovery.

Spoiler alert—

We both thought the first few episodes were confusing and lacking in characters, apart from Jean Luc Picard himself, with whom we could empathize. The writers made a good decision in embracing the age of the main character. Anything else would insult the viewer, as Patrick Stewart looks and sounds old. For us, as fans of Star Trek Voyager, the show got better when Jeri Ryan pops in, as an older and less “Borg” version of Seven of Nine. Ryan is still riveting to watch, even without the cat suit that made her fodder for lots of magazine pictures in the late 1990s. In the seventeen years since her character graced the small screen, Seven has become much more human—in her speech pattern, in her attire, and in part due to suffering losses associated with years of living in a deteriorating society.

A key word here is suffering. One of the better aspects of Trek in its first few decades was  its optimistic view of the future of humanity. Although Roddenberry sought to put serious science fiction onto television, and therefore into lots of living rooms, his vision was seldom dark. However, much of serious science fiction—in print, in film, in gaming, and even in graphic forms—has embraced the dystopian view of the future of humanity. A utopia is an idealized society in which social and technical advances serve to make all things better for humanity. Yes, I did say it was idealistic! A dystopia is the polar opposite, in which “advances” in society and technology make things worse. For some examples of dystopian literature/film, think of Orwell’s 1984 or the film Blade Runner, based upon the work of Phillip K. Dick.

Alas, Picard‘s greatest weakness isn’t its slow pace or its rather confusing editing. Nor is it the “flashbacks” in which the characters look just as old as they do in the current timeline, no doubt due to the unforgiving nature of high def photography. Nope, the core problem for many fans of Star Trek will undoubtedly be the dark vision of the future embraced by the writers. Picard is a dystopia. Beloved characters from the previous Trek series will suffer, and some will die. New characters suffer and some of them die, too. And, by and large, those deaths may very well be without purpose, meaning, and certainly without honor.

Star Trek Picard has some strengths, including dazzling cinematography, a rich background of material from which the writers can draw inspiration, and an aging but talented main character. Guest stars include characters from TNG and Voyager, and the development of Seven of Nine, the former Borg, works well. Enjoy the series, but temper your expectations. This is post-modern Star Trek.

 

Jersey Boys on Netflix

Jersey BoysLike many of you, we use services such as Netflix rather than having a traditional cable subscription. At times, we miss the old TV Guide magazine, which would guide the viewing experience. Instead, with Netflix, there is some algorithm that knows my husband likes shoot ’em up flix, so I am not always happy with the suggestions. However, a couple of days ago, I noticed “Jersey Boys”as an option in our feed. I’m embarrassed to say that hubby actually, “What’s that?” I simply said, “Click on it and you’ll see.”

Anyway, fortunately for me, hubby likes music, especially vintage pop, so he was eager to take a look at the movie version of this musical, which had a great run on Broadway, and is still touring around the country. Jersey Boys tells the story the Four Seasons, featuring the fabulous Frankie Valli. Surprisingly, the film version is directed by Clint Eastwood. The cast is really great, with Christopher Walken in a small but pivotal role, and it also has the original Valli from Broadway, John Lloyd Young as well as Erich Bergen, who has a supporting role in another show we’ve watched on Netflix, Madame Secretary.

There is much to like about this film, which is actually a 2014 release, but I was most impressed with the sound track. And, as is possible when watching a film in the comfort of home, I paused it and did some research, finding that the cast sang, rather than having it dubbed by either the original band or by hired musicians. Many of the hits from the Four Seasons are present, including “Sherry”, “December 63 (Oh What a Night)”, “Walk Like a Man”, and “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” Valli’s solo, “My Eyes Adored You” is also in the film, as are other familiar tunes.

Although not entirely happy, for this film follows the rise and the ultimate fall of The Four Seasons, we enjoyed this film quite a lot. If you are a Netflix subscriber, the movie version of Jersey Boys is a great way to spend an evening. Toe tapping is optional, but recommended!

Born with Teeth—A Memoir; review and commentary

Born Mulgrew

Kate Mulgrew’s Memoir

My guess is the first I heard of Kate Mulgrew was when she starred in Mrs. Columbo, but that’s not a certainty. Like many fans of all things Star Trek, I was both thrilled and a bit concerned when Mulgrew was very publicly named the newest captain in the fourth iteration of that television franchise, Star Trek Voyager. And, I was rather amazed to by her character in Orange is the New Black, in a role that is far from her roots as a distinctive and attractive leading lady.

Regardless of when one first noticed Kate Mulgrew, she is a force on the screen. Recently, I read her memoir, which has the curious title Born with Teeth. Apparently, she was indeed born with teeth, which were extracted so she could feed properly. For Mulgrew’s fans , there may not be all that much new information, but the style of her prose does illuminate readers on her perspective in regards to matters that matter most. The narrative is mostly linear, although she skips a lot of years and events. First, the reader learns just how dedicated she is to her craft and how much work it has been. Second, readers will become better acquainted with Kate’s large family, and see how they have influenced her. One of my favorite passages is when, as a schoolgirl, Kate invited her artist mother to hear her recitation of poems she had written. Upon learning about the program, Kate’s mom, Joan, gives her a copy of a poem (The White Cliffs of Dover) to read, and during the school program young Kate not only read her poems, but she read the classic poem so well that her audience was almost in tears. Afterward, Kate’s mom told her that she could either be a bad poet or a great actress. Apparently, Kate took those words to heart, because from that early age, she put all of her effort into becoming an actress.

Fans of Ryan’s Hope (a soap opera that was Kate’s first big break in television) or Star Trek Voyager (perhaps her most influential role) will find a few gems, but she doesn’t concentrate on those stints. Instead, what Mulgrew writes about is relationships. While filming Ryan’s Hope, Kate became pregnant, and as she was not married and quite young, she assumed she’s have to leave her job. Instead, the pregnancy was written into the show, and her character gave birth a few days after Kate did it in real life. The Mary Ryan character kept her baby, but Kate gave up her daughter for adoption. Later, she expends both time and money in an attempt to find her biological daughter, and that search is a focal point of the memoir.

Certainly, Mulgrew has experienced quite a lot of grief, as one of her sister’s died of a brain tumor and another succumbed to pneumonia. Romance has not always been easy, either. Mulgrew also writes of her loves—her first husband, Robert Egan, and the sons that he fathered, and how divorce affected her and the boys. Later, she reveals how her love for her second husband, Tim Hagan, endured a rather on again then off again period. The memoir ends as she meets her daughter and her relationship with Hagan finally settles into marriage.

I’m a science fiction fan (and writer) so I was just a tad disappointed in this memoir. I’d love it if Kate would do as Shatner has done and publish a book about her time portraying Captain Janeway. Perhaps she will, when she has more time, for she does seem to be one busy lady.

Classic YA fiction by Elizabeth George Speare

Calico CoverI was watching the grandkids play and perusing a shelf of older books. A title, Calico Captive by Elizabeth George Speare, caught my eye. Before long, I was reading and glancing over at the kids from time to time. When I taught middle grades (long, long ago) I used Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond as one of my class novels. I’m not sure that all of the students liked it, but I did. Calico Captive, like “Witch” is an historical novel, with a young adult protagonist.

Nowadays, many novelists write for younger audiences, and the readership is quite broad for such novels. Everything from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to The Hunger Games (Book 1)to The Princess Diaries  are squarely aimed at YA, but caught on with adults and movie audiences, too. Speare’s novels are very well written and could have a varied audience of entertained readers. Instead of re-cycling old television shows, maybe some film makers will decide to put Elizabeth George Speare’s tales into production. This novel would make a great movie!

Calico Captive tells the story of a young woman, Miriam Willard, living on the frontier in the 1700s; first captured by Indians, then held more or less as a prisoner of war by the French, during what historians now call the French-Indian War. According to my research, this is Speare’s debut novel, and it is based on a real life story. Miriam and her fellow captives are portrayed in a manner that held my interest. Okay, it is not quite a page turner, as it strives for some historical accuracy meaning that this all takes a while to resolve, but this story also helped me learn about a period of history that I don’t know well at all.

Readers who love history and are looking for a well written novel with adventure and a hint of romance will really enjoy this story. Speare’s later, better known works, are good reads also, but I have genuinely enjoyed this window into another time.

Netflix? Hulu? Amazon? Come on, let’s get these stories into production!

Rebel Princess by Blair Bancroft

The title of this yarn isn’t particularly original, as it makes me think of Princess Leia, but the story doesn’t lean on Star Wars very much. As the book opens, with a war game going on, rather like Star Trek— The Wrath of Khan, I was wondering if the author was going to borrow heavily from that story, but not really. Actually, Bancroft uses lots of science fiction and fantasy elements, but this is theme and variation, then more variation. As a writer, a reader, and an occasional viewer of science fiction, I see this story as fairly original, and since there truly is “no new thing under the sun” that’s a complement.

Oh, there are some aspects of the story that I don’t like. Most of the “alien” characters have an odd apostrophe in their names. I’ve come to view that artifice as trite, as so many science fiction and fantasy writers employ it. There are times when the narrative drags a bit, and the author tends to use too many sentence fragments. Especially. At times of high emotion. Oh wow. Get it? And, at least half of the main players have two names, because some are masquerading as someone else, which can get a bit confusing. Indeed, the author has a list of terms on her website, just to explain some of what’s going on in the story. Mostly, I didn’t need that, but it was nice to take a look at them all to see if I had guessed correctly.

Still, this story has lots to like, including a heroine (Kass Kiolani) who is brave but not at all prone to throwing caution to the winds. Since she was brought up as a royal heir, she thinks everything through. The hero (Tal Rigel) is mostly heroic and a lot less cautious than Kass, but vulnerable enough to be likable. Minor characters tend to be stereotypical, but there is some character building, especially the main character’s brother, who has some interesting “gifts.” The world building is better than some novels in the romantic science fiction genre, perhaps because this is the first in a series of novels set in this universe.

Solo— a Star Wars Story

Solo posterOur son is a big time Star Wars fan, and he initially said he planned to skip this movie. Based on the box office stats, apparently a lot of folks felt the same way. However, a friend apparently convinced him to go see it, and he came back raving about how much better it is than Star Wars Episode VIII. Last evening, hubby and I went with him to our very small local theatre to see Solo- A Star Wars Story before it closes up and leaves for cable and the Red Box.

I did like it rather a lot. The cast is really great, from a decent likeness of the main character by Alden Ehrenreich to a fabulous supporting cast with veteran actors including Woody Harrelson and Paul Bettany, as well as modern favorites such as West World star Thandie Newton and Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke. The look and feel of the film, although a bit dark, is up to Disney and Star Wars standards, too. While I thought there was too much action (if such a thing is possible in a summertime blockbuster film) all of it was top notch.

For real fans of the series, there are some pluses and minuses of course. The film does a good job of filling in the small and big pieces of the original trilogy, especially those that occurred in the original film, Star Wars: A New Hope. Example: Han Solo proudly tells Obi Wan Kenobi that the Millennium Falcon made the Kessell run in 12 parsecs. How? When? And why was that important? Solo fills in all those blanks. How did Han and Chewy meet? Again, this film supplies some answers. Overall, the script writers (father and son Kasdan and Kasdan) performed a minor miracle in getting so much into two action packed hours.

Although I’ve read that it was a marketing problem, or a saturation problem—no one knows for sure why Star Wars fans have not embraced Solo. That’s too bad, because it is in many ways very similar to the much better received Rogue One: A Star Wars Story— it fills in blanks in the original film, gives us new characters to love and hate, and is a visual spectacle with a very good musical score.

Beat the summer heat and go see Solo—A Star Wars Story soon. Very soon, because it will be moving to video in a few short weeks.