Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Some other Star Trek thoughts

Spoiler Warning for Star Trek Into Darkness.

Star Trek should not be a movie franchise.

Star Trek began as a lot of sci-fi does: a way of telling allegorical stories examining modern social issues divorced from the context that makes them controversial. It's a lot easier to tell stories about 1960s racism when it's about people who are literally half-black and half-white, or to explore humanist themes when the gods are giant computers and omnipotent children. On one hand, it's because those kinds of stories play better with the Nielsen families than an hour of the same regarding the real-world counterparts to those issues; on the other hand, it allows the writers to boil away the complexities of those issues--either to get to the heart of them or to stack the deck in favor of a particular position that might not hold up to scrutiny when held against reality.

Star Trek was also about exploring relationships between the ensemble cast, and showing a future where everyone could contribute equally regardless of race, gender, nationality, whatever. The future was bright and egalitarian, despite the miniskirts.

Star Trek was ostensibly a show about exploration, allowing the same core cast to visit a new locale every episode, and thus allowing for a different allegory and overarching message each episode. If the allegory was terrible or the message hamfisted or the excuse to use a preexisting Paramount backlot as a set were too obvious, then at least there was another chance the next week. As a result, Star Trek as a series was able to encompass many messages, many positions, and tell many fables in its time.

The Star Trek movies don't have much of this. Right from "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," they've mostly been exercises in spending bigger budgets. Make the ship bigger and brighter, buy snazzy new costumes, have more explosions and more expensive special effects. Raise the stakes: make things more dangerous, more exciting, more violent and over-the-top. There's never a need for a Star Trek movie to figure out how to make use of all these 1920s gangster costumes.

As a result, the Star Trek movies tend to be less about exploration, and less about exploring social issues through the allegorical lens of sci-fi. They've done both a few times--Star Trek IV has a pretty obvious message, I and V have Roddenberrian explorations of gods and religion, Insurrection has a new species and a new world and something to say about the Prime Directive and exploiting the resources of indigenous cultures.

But I don't know that any of those episodes works quite as well as the series did as exploring those themes. Maybe it's because a typical Star Trek morality play can't sustain a 2-hour movie; maybe it's because the focus is more on spectacle than allegory, using up those big Hollywood budgets. Maybe too much time is spent on making sure that every member of the ensemble has something to do. Again, a TV show has the advantage of giving different characters spotlights in different episodes. Maybe Sulu doesn't have more than one line this week, but next week he gets a subplot or something. The movies have to cram everyone in the ensemble into 2 hours or less, and that's difficult to juggle. As a result, the movies have a nasty tendency to be the Kirk/Spock/Bones show, and the only time that really hasn't been the case is in the Next Generation movies. Where they were the Picard/Data show.

Star Trek Into Darkness was what gelled all this in my mind, because it was a movie with no exploration, and only a fairly thin and muddy exploration of drone warfare and post-9/11 chickenhawkery, with no real clear message on at least one front. The movie might, like other Trek movies, have been saved by the strength of the cast and explorations of the relationships between them. Except that it became the Kirk/Spock/bones show. And worse, it relied on movies and TV from 30-plus years ago to give those relationships gravitas. By the time of the big climactic Kirk/Spock moment here, we'd seen them interact for a total of 4-ish hours. Contrast that with the original cast, who'd had eighty hours of stories under their belts by that point. There's no real emotional depth to that scene without the history between the characters, history that was wiped out by the last film.

The rest of the ensemble cast gets more sidelined than usual, and while Uhura and Scotty get some significant moments, Sulu's spotlight is basically a moment in the Captain's chair, and Chekov stumbles through being surrogate Scotty.

And then there's the lead villain, who has been stripped of all the tyrannical charm and larger-than-lifeness of his original incarnation to become a somewhat more ruthless and power-mad Neo-from-the-Matrix. Not to mention the gross whitewashing. I love Benedict Cumberbatch, but that was poor casting all around.

Star Trek Into Darkness was a big, flashy, fun action movie. It definitely felt like high stakes, even compared to the last movie's giant time-traveling battleship and imploded Vulcan. The battles, the set pieces, everything looked great. But there just wasn't enough else to it. Too much of the story was borrowed from earlier sources, too much of the characterization relied on our pre-existing familiarity with these characters, too much of the suspense and tension came from wondering whether or not things were going to play out again like they did in 1982. And while lip-service was paid to some TOS plots and the opening narration, there was no exploration and little of the cultural examination that made Star Trek a phenomenon.

There's a kernel of an interesting story in Into Darkness. This is a Starfleet and an Earth that, in a relatively short period of time, has dealt with time-traveling Borg invaders trying to alter the timeline, a temporal Cold War, and a time-traveling Borg-enhanced Romulan trying (successfully) to alter the timeline, destroying Vulcan in the process. It makes sense that this would lead to the ascendancy of Section 31 and an accelerated timeline for building warships (almost a century before Wolf 359 led to the Defiant) made not for exploration, but for defending the Federation and Earth from threats beyond current technology and current understanding.

Why those warships would be so much larger than exploration ships, despite requiring far fewer crewmen, is an open question.

But the movie wasn't interested in exploring those possibilities, and probably couldn't have done so even if it wanted to. There just isn't time.

Which is why Star Trek belongs on TV. They may not be able to afford such great special effects, but at least they can tell the stories that Star Trek should be telling. Any dumb Tom Cruise sci-fi vehicle can do explosions and space battles. Star Trek should be more than that.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Some thoughts on Injustice

I just finished the story mode for Injustice: Gods Among Us, which I'm not going to talk about a whole lot. The basic premise was better when it was the Justice League "A Better World" plot, and the game has some really enormous problems with misogyny. But the gameplay is pretty good, and the fighting mechanics aren't bad. It's definitely a better experience than "Justice League Task Force" was on the Genesis. 

My bloggable issue is with the end, so if you're hoping to avoid spoilers, stop reading here.

Let's say you were going to imprison Superman. How would you do it? This game chose "a cell surrounded by red sun lamps," which I suppose is a good start but (especially as implied by the ending) isn't really enough on its own. At least that cell should be surrounded by gold Kryptonite, if it's available, and green Kryptonite if it isn't. But even more ideal would be some use of the Phantom Zone. Maybe make the entire room a Phantom Zone projector that would immediately zap any intruders or escapees into that prison dimension, in addition to the Kryptonite and red solar energy. Something, anything, other than just surrounding Superman with red lights and hoping that's enough.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A short spoilery thought on Star Trek

Below the fold be spoilers.

Ricardo Montalban >> Benedict Cumberbatch

Saturday, May 18, 2013

What I did on my Super vacation

So, you may have noticed that it’s been awhile since I posted anything. Several significant dates and bits of information have come and gone without my comment--the release of the Man of Steel trailer, the release of “Superman: Unbound,” Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, the first three issues of the new digital Adventures of Superman book (sans Orson Scott Card, thankfully), the end of Superman Family Adventures, the coming and going of Andy Diggle’s run on Action Comics, etc. But the thing that I missed which stings the most was the 75th Anniversary of the release of Action Comics #1, celebrated on April 18th. Surely, no matter what real-world business has kept me from blogging, I could have found time to wish Superman and Lois Lane a happy birthday.


Except I woke up the morning of April 18th to find that my basement was flooded with water up to my ankles. My basement where my books are. My basement where my toys are. My basement where my comics are.

It was a traumatic morning.

One stack of longboxes had collapsed in the moisture, dropping two on their side in the water, and ruining pretty much everything therein. The boxes on the bottom were a mixed bag, and I spent two days going issue by issue to find out what was salvageable. In addition, we lost something like two hundred books, including most of my hardcovers--the Absolutes, the Omnibuses, etc., which were on a bottom bookshelf.

All told, I lost over 1,300 comics, including huge swaths of the Superman family titles. Some books from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, but mostly stuff from the late ‘80s and mid-’90s. The electric blue era was devastated. More significantly, I lost a lot of issues that held a great deal of sentimental value, for one reason or another.

I have kind of a crappy memory for lots of important things. I can’t keep dates straight when I’m talking about historical stuff, I have a hard time remembering names, I don’t remember birthdays very well, and just keeping something in mind from one moment to another is difficult at times.

But a lot of those comics weren’t just paper and staples and ink. They were physical artifacts of my past, keys to memories locked deep in my brain. Those hologram-infused issues of Robin II came from the time my late grandpa took me around to all the comic shops in the Quad Cities, even though it really wasn’t his thing, and I was too young and dumb and self-absorbed to appreciate it. Those random issues of Amazing Spider-Man and Captain America were comics I got in bundles and packs from Sears and JC Penney catalogs, the very beginnings of my comic collection. I can’t tell you how many times I stared at images from What If...? #31, trying to draw that Captain Universe/Spider-Man costume, or how elated I was when I finally ordered the Cosmic Spider-Man issues from Lone Star Comics in high school (or how disappointed I was when he never actually wore that awesome costume in those pages). I bought Action Comics #363-366 and Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane #94 and #96 not because I had a great burning desire to read those issues, but because my mom always talked about having read the first parts and never being able to find the later ones. I remember seeing Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey #1-2 on the wall at Land of Cran Comics in Canton, OH, and nearly buying two copies of each because the shop displayed both covers in separate shelves. I remember reading and rereading and rereading the first and third parts of “Dark Knight Over Metropolis” and Superman #51-52 and Action Comics #660, because for a long time those were the only modern Superman comics I had; each one, for whatever reason, had some kind of printing or storage error where the front cover curled around the pages a little, developing little rips from my careless over-reading. I remember getting Action Comics #679 on a trip and reading it in a hotel and puzzling out where Metropolis was in relation to real-world cities. When my mom went to Colorado to visit a friend, I asked if she could go to Mile High Comics--a nerd mecca that I’d only read about in ads--and pick up a list of issues for me. She came back with Superman #50, and it didn’t matter where she’d gotten it. I kept Superman: The Wedding Album in the front of my first box of comics for probably a decade, the only issue that broke my otherwise meticulous chronological-then-triangle-number-sorted Superman run, because I wanted to keep it in a position of honor and respect. My wife had the alternate cover to that issue printed on my groom’s cake.

The ones that hit the hardest were Superman: The Man of Steel #18 and Superman #75--not because I have any huge attachment to the Death of Superman, but because they’re what got the whole ball rolling. I think my first exposure to the news of Superman’s impending demise came from a house ad in a Wonder Woman issue my brother got, with a whited-out silhouette of Doomsday against a torn S-shield background. The storyline made the news, and I begged my parents, working out the math from a subscription ad, to let me subscribe to the four Superman titles (my subscription to Amazing Spider-Man was almost up, and once it ran out, I never renewed it). More than that, Dad took me down to whatever the local comic shop was in Cuyahoga Falls, and we preordered Superman #75. Man of Steel #18 was the first issue to hit our mailbox from the subscription; I gave the extra copy of Superman #75 to my brother and kept the one from the waiting list. I had the Superman funeral poster hanging on my bedroom door until we moved from Ohio--and I was amazed when I laid it out to dry that it was still in such good condition. I’d remembered it being far more beat-up, but you could barely even tell where I’d put the pins (not through the paper, just in the right spots to hold it in place). I thought it was enormously cool how DC sent extras--first the “Legacy of Superman” and "Supergirl and Team Luthor" specials and “The Superman Gallery” art comic and the special Newstime magazine tie-in, but eventually Annuals and random try-out comics and so forth. I held those subscriptions through the Man of Tomorrow era, through the cancellation of Man of Steel and the second volume of Superman. I finally let them lapse in college, when I’d started buying comics more regularly from retailers. I think, all told, it was 12 years, with only very occasional, very short lapses (like the one that forced me to buy Superman #123 at a markup from Reality Adventures in Rock Island).

I built my life on a foundation of paper and left it below the water line.

There was, of course, other stuff. The construction-paper book I won an award for in Kindergarten. All sorts of RPG stuff from Junior High. Notebooks from grade school. A couple of yearbooks. All the Rock Band/Guitar Hero instruments. And then the bigger ticket items, like our new washer & dryer (washer was fine, dryer cost a bit in repairs) and our four-month-old treadmill (anyone need treadmill parts?).

The last of the tubs of soggy comics was picked up for recycling this week. In the meantime, I’ve been spending hundreds of dollars trying to replace the things I most want to replace, and realizing that even with the insurance money, that’s not going to be entirely possible. At least, not all at once. But I amassed this collection over 20 years, so it’s not as though I’m really expecting to rebuild it in a month.

I’m reserving some of that money to finally do something I’ve wanted to do for years: upgrade my comics storage. No more ugly white cardboard boxes; I’m moving up to filing cabinets and hope to pick a couple out next week. I would appreciate any advice that anyone has on using them (I’m looking to get used cabinets, 36” lateral filing style, which is more or less what my local shop uses for the subscriptions/pull lists). For the first time that I can remember, I actually weighed a full longbox the other day, trying to estimate what the weight capacity of those drawers would have to be (since I’ve heard things about them not being able to carry the weight, and since I’ve seen the difference in bowing between a shelf of hardcover books and a shelf of TPBs). After seeing that one longbox weighed 55 lbs, I gave my younger self a lot more credit for upper body strength, thinking about the number of times I moved those damn things from the top shelf of my closet to the floor and back again.

Also, that top shelf in my closet held over 200 lbs, and that’s seriously impressive.

When I first started talking about all this, people asked what they could do to help, and that was absolutely awesome. As such a minor and intermittent blogger, it was incredibly cool to see the outpouring of concern and support from people I’ve only talked to online. We had insurance, it paid up, we’re doing fairly well at this point. Donate to someone who really needs it, from the fine folks who just lost their jobs in the tragic ComicsAlliance closing to the world’s various starving and homeless people.

That said, I have a list of the comics that I’m trying hardest to replace here, the oversized books here, and the paperbacks/random books here, and I would very much appreciate anyone telling me if they happen to see stuff in quarter/fifty cent bins or otherwise in super-cheap locations. There are also a few comics/books that I’ve been having trouble locating for reasonable prices/in good conditions, and wouldn’t mind some information on those--or on storing comics in filing cabinets, or on better economical bookcase options than the ones we had, or whatever. I’ll put the specific stuff at the bottom of the post, and you can leave a comment here or drop me a line at tfoss1983 [at] gmail [dot] com.

On the blogging front, I should be having more time as the summer approaches, and I’m planning to re-read chunks of these comics as they come in, and jotting down my thoughts and memories and such. So hopefully it won’t be another month before I have something to say here.

Once again, thanks to you all for the support and empathy, and for actually being here reading this stuff once more.

Things I’m having a hard time finding:
  • Avengers & Power Pack Assemble #1,3
  • Legion of Super-Heroes (1984) #37
  • Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane v.1 hardcover
  • Superboy (1994) #59-64, 75-80
  • Supergirl (1983) #16, 19
  • Supergirl (1996) #75-80
  • Superman: Under a Yellow Sun
  • Tiny Titans #1-4, 6, 14, 27
  • Wonder Woman (1987) 141, 170, 189, 191-192
  • World’s Greatest Super-Heroes oversized hardcover