Last just kind of was. Some weeks just kind of are.

On Memorial Day, I watched the original Mad Max — you know, like one does — which I’d never actually seen before, despite having seen its two sequels. It’s not a great film, exactly, nor even as good as its first follow-up, The Road Warrior, which I revisited on Friday. But there’s definitely something to it, and if nothing else it looks terrific in Blu-ray.

Last night, I watched The Haunting, the 1963 adaption of Shirley Jackson’s great novel The Haunting of Hill House. I wasn’t entirely sure if I wanted to watch the movie going in, since I’d read the book not that long ago and felt like I knew all of its beats. But it came highly recommended, and now I can see with good cause. The movie’s genuinely terrific — or as Keith Phipps puts it (in his review of the reportedly 1999 remake), “a superb exercise in how atmosphere, suggestion, and acting can produce more terror than any amount of special effects or cheap thrills.” There’s maybe one effects shot in the entire movie, and yet I’d easily put it among the best horror movies I’ve ever seen.

No movies today, though I’m debating watching one this evening.

This morning, I read “Heather‘s short story “Cuts Both Ways” in the highly anticipated Woman Destroy Science Fiction issue of Lightspeed Magazine, which I really enjoyed and would encourage everyone else to go read. And to support the issue. Personally, I’ve never thought it was in doubt that women can write science fiction, or even that some of the best the genre has to offer has been written by them. But this is apparently an opinion that some people think is valid, despite all of the evidence to the contrary. I don’t know if WDSF is going to convince such people, there’s prodigious talent involved, and an e-copy is only $3.99.

I also finished the Sunday crossword, but that’s just a tiny personal victory.

And then I went to my writing group, where we were offered this weighty prompt:

Start writing a story that makes use of the following elements:

a. A generation ship that has gone missing

b. The execution of an alien who is accused of a crime he did not commit

c. A sorceress who is twelve years old

I think the operative word there has to be start. That’s not a forty-minute writing exercise; that’s the basis for a series of novels. Still, I had some fun with it:

Tell me a story, the little girl said. Tell me what happened to the place you used to call home.

Nobody remembers, he told her. It was a beautiful planet, though: lush jungles, harsh deserts, a world of unsurpassed and varied wonder. I grew up in one of the monasteries on the eastern continent and lived there for ten years of my life.

You don’t have the bearing of a monk, she said.

I was younger than you when I left, m’lady. I set out on a ship bound for the Reach although I don’t think that’s what you call it.

Starless Galley, she said. The Celestial Hollow. It has many names among the Twelve, as you might expect. That span of darkness between the stars, between this galaxy and its sisters.

That’s right, he said. We were further from that Hollow than you are, and our technology was not even half as advanced. But we built a ship, the greatest nations on our planet did, and when I was still just a boy, I stowed away on board.

This is your ’generation ship,’ she said.

Yes, m’lady, although as it turns out that’s a bit of a misnomer. There were provisions on the ship for at least five generations. But it was less than ten years into our journey that we encountered a scout ship for your Twelve.

They are not my Twelve, she said.

I’m sorry, m’lady, I mean no offense. I mean only that you live among them. You speak their common tongue, you do their work. You’re here to interrogate me for them, aren’t you?

I am here to listen to your story, she said. That is all. Would you rather that they just killed you now?

I would rather they didn’t kill me at all, m’lady. But considering how my trial went, I don’t think there’s too much chance of that.

So tell me your story. Tell me what happened to your home.

My planet was destroyed, he said. When we were first captured by the Twelve, when they came aboard and then commandeered our ship, there was nothing for it but to take citizenship. I believe your people call it the Shroud?

My people, she said. We are excluded from the benefits of citizenship. We are…a protectorate of the Twelve, covered by neither the Shadow nor the Shroud.

Well, nor were we, for what that’s worth. We were even more alien than you, and I know for a fact they didn’t trust us. But they said come, join us, and they clearly were the only game going in town.

And your planet?

They called it the Dark Winters’ War. Can you believe that? Almost a kind of poetry to it. In the ten years we were out there in the Reach, our planet was at war with the Twelve. When we set out on our ship, we didn’t even know there were aliens out here. But like I said, your technology’s much more advanced, and the Twelve found where we lived long before we bumped into them.

It’s more world-building than anything else, but it’s world-building that piqued my interest. I wouldn’t claim to have a series of novels brewing in my brain from this — I struggle even to finish short stories — but there’s something there.

Monday various

  • Fringe wasn’t originally meant to have alternate universes. I am not even a little surprised by this. It’s only when the show settled on the alternate universe storyline, when it started having an ongoing plot that wasn’t based in creatures-of-the-week, that it went from being one of the worst science fiction shows on the air to being one of the best. (I highly recommend io9’s primer to anyone looking to get into the show for the first time. There’s a lot early on you can, and will probably want to, miss.)
  • In case you missed it, the best New York Times correction ever. [via]
  • Genevieve Valentine on suspension of disbelief (particularly in the movie In Time:

    If your movie is super high concept, and I decide to see it, I have probably, to some degree, already accepted the concept, you know? “Everyone in the future has a puppy surgically grafted to their chests.” Okay, fine, I promise not to spend a lot of the movie going, “Surgically grafting a puppy to your chest is a weird thing for a person to do.” I will, however, question every piece of outerwear that does not have a dog-head flap in it, or any moment in your movie where a character is like, “Well, now my dog has grown too big for my chest cavity and medical science didn’t allow for that in the many generations we have been living with these grafted puppies, so now it’s too late for me, you go on!” Because that is worldbuilding, and that you need to do. And the higher the concept is, the more work you need to do. (Moon, for example, requires little. Dark City requires more.

  • See also: Why fiction’s freest genres need its most rigid rules:

    In these genres, the fundamental realities of a world can be anything imaginable: There can be wizards, or dragons, or intergalactic spaceships, or time travel, or dragon-wizards in time-traveling intergalactic spaceships. Nothing can be assumed. Which makes it mighty easy for authors to cheat by changing the rules whenever it’s convenient to the plot: “Oh, did I not mention that dragon-wizard time-travel spaceships are sentient and can crossbreed to produce baby spaceships? Well, they can.”

  • And finally, Writers are Like Porn Stars. There, that ought to bring in some more comment spam. (SFW — it’s another io9 link — though the image is maybe a little risque for the workplace.)

Boldly going

Not too long ago, I finished watching all four seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise. I missed almost all of it during its initial short run, but it’s available for streaming now on both Amazon and Netflix, so I thought I would finally check it out and see if it’s as bad as everyone, or at least most everyone, had suggested.

The show has a reputation, deserved or not, for having destroyed Star Trek as a TV franchise1. It ran for just four troubled years on UPN, and it was the first spin-off since the original Star Trek to be canceled due to low ratings. Even Scott Bakula, who starred in the show as Captain Jonathan Archer, candidly admits to the series’ failure in his recent talk with William Shatner in The Captains. The show has a few defenders, but few outright fans.

Which is, I have to say, kind of a shame.

Make no mistake, Star Trek: Enterprise is not a great show. All too often, it’s not even a particularly good show. I’ve recently been re-watching episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as well, and the quality of that series has helped to underline some of the flaws and missteps in the later spin-off. In four years of television, I don’t think Enterprise ever had a truly great episode. There are occasional moments, throughout the four years, but nothing that really stands out as truly singular or classic. My favorite episode from the first season, for instance (the cleverly winking Ferengi episode “Acquisition“) is fun but can’t hold a candle to what I think is DS9‘s first great episode, the first season’s “Duet.” DS9 had some early growing pains, but I think it was significantly — and much more swiftly — the better show, and moreover a show that through its quality justified its existence.

It’s tempting to blame some, or even most, of that on the acting. I do think DS9 was easily the best-cast of the Star Trek series, and, as an ensemble, they do leave Bakula and his team lagging far behind. But I don’t think it’s fair to lay the blame for all of Enterprise‘s problems at its actors’ feet. They’re talented and likable, and I think they do what they can with the material and the directions the show decided to take.

No, I think the blame rests squarely with that material and those directions. The show may very well have been doomed from the start.

Star Trek has never been terrific about maintaining its own continuity. For all the obsessiveness of its many fans, who study the ins and outs of the Klingon language or trace schematics of even the most briefly glimpsed star ships, Trek is often lousy with contradictions and plot holes. Some of this is unavoidable, in a franchise that’s existed in one form or another for almost fifty years — just ask Doctor Who about discontinuity. But the problem is, prequels are all about continuity. They rely on it and build themselves up from, and around, what’s gone before. And when your timeline is as jumbled as Star Trek‘s is, that can be a mighty shaky foundation.

It can also be, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, a double-edged sword.

It’s hard not to think, in watching Enterprise, especially in its better moments, that it would have been a much better series if it didn’t have to work so hard to be a Star Trek series. And yet being a Star Trek series, trying to fit into that messy continuity, is what it gives it some of those better moments. “Acquisition,” for instance, is much more fun if you’re familiar not only with the Ferengi, but also in how they’ve been treated as characters from the beginning. It really does bridge a gap between the lame characters we see first in The Next Generation episode “The Last Outpost” and tries to explain why those characters were different than what came after. (Beyond the obvious, “Oh, let’s try again with these characters and hope nobody notices.”) The show would do the same, in its last season, for the Klingons. (Want a somewhat more satisfactory answer to why early Klingons don’t have ridged foreheads than Worf’s “We don’t talk about it with outsiders”? Enterprise is offering.) There’s sometimes real pleasure to be had in seeing how the show knits together Star Trek history.

But how much fun would that be to a new viewer who’s completely unfamiliar with the history? That I don’t know.

Ultimately, I think the show is a failed experiment. It does some things rather well and yet others… I think that’s nowhere more apparent than in the series’ theme song. Oh dear lord the theme song. It really does all come down to that.

Go and have a listen. I’ll wait.

I don’t want to mince words here. This really is a terrible song, which only gets worse in season 3 when they try to rock it up with some guitar riffs. It started out as a song from Patch Adams, sung by Rod Stewart, and dear lord in heaven does it show. And yet I think I can see what they were going for here. The credit sequence itself is actually a thing of some beauty, uplifting and exciting, setting up a natural progression from man’s early sailing ships, to the Wright Brothers, to space exploration. It’s a short but masterful piece of editing and animation. And the song, for all its trite cheesiness, does some of that too; “I’ve got faith of the heart / I’m going where my heart will take me” is a dumb lyric done no real favors by the over-wrought vocals, but it’s hard to argue with the sentiment. It’s hard not to be a little swept away by the romance of exploration, the first steps out among the stars, which was obviously the intent.

And yet it’s a terrible song, and with each episode it underlines the good intentions but enormous missteps that Enterprise would take.

There’s not a whole lot to say about Enterprise‘s individual episodes, frankly. In its third season, the show clearly tried to re-invent itself, following a single story arc and trying — sometimes straining — for a darker tone. It’s sometimes good — this is probably the best science fiction the series, and arguably Trek as a whole, ever did — but like the rest of the show it just can’t stick the landing. Once it’s over, the storyline is almost totally abandoned, throwing the crew into a hopelessly muddled final season with too many two-parters to count. It’s not an encouraging sign, really, when your season starts with something as unoriginal as alien Nazis.

The last season really is a mess. Some of the episodes are the show at its finest, taking seriously the question of what happens in the hundred years or so that separate Archer from Kirk. But some of the episodes… Well, let’s just say that even by Trek mirror-universe standards, “In a Mirror, Darkly” is a ridiculous two hours of television. DS9‘s mirror universe episodes were no less ridiculous at heart — wait, everybody we know in the regular timeline was still born? — but they made up for it by being fun. Here, we get the ostensibly “fun” sight of Archer and crew aboard a Kirk-era space craft…and yet they’re all just murderous jerks we’ll never meet again. This isn’t our timeline or our characters. Unlike Trek‘s earlier mirror universe episodes, this one makes the mistake of not using one of the regular characters as a entryway, an audience surrogate. And so the episodes are just a lot of unpleasant people being unpleasant to one another with no real stakes for the show overall.

(It’s ironic, then, that these episodes would be the only ones to use a radically different theme song. Then again, what starts out as a semi-clever take on the forced uplift of the regular song turns a little tiresome. These credits were clearly a rush-job by comparison; the silly CGI at 0:48 is a testament to that.)

The only other episode that truly stands out from the pack is, unfortunately, the finale. And “These Are the Voyages” is a truly terrible episode. It’s framed as a holodeck re-creation by Will Riker, weirdly during TNG‘s seventh-season episode “The Pegasus,” and set several years after the events of Enterprise‘s penultimate episode2. So not only is the timeline all screwy — wait, when is this all taking place again? — it casts Enterprise‘s actors in what are essentially cameo roles in their own story. It’s not hard to see why the episode was so negatively received when it first aired. It’s a big screw-you to Enterprise‘s fans and a disservice to its actors. It makes no real sense in either that show’s continuity or in TNG‘s — I’d seriously love it if someone would edit together “Pegasus” and “Voyages” to show how poor a framing choice that was — and neither show comes out ahead in the equation. Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis give it their best shot, and I can appreciate what Brannon Braga thought they were doing with it, but it’s just a misguided effort all around.

Which, sadly, leaves you wondering if the same can’t be said for Enterprise as a whole.

Because it was a noble effort, with some likable characters and interesting stories. But some poor decisions and misguided attempts at being different — from that terrible song to that terrible last act — left it a failed effort all the same. I liked Enterprise, but I never loved it; I don’t think it’s a show that really could engender much love.

And that’s really just a shame.

1 I enjoyed J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, more or less, but I really do wish Paramount hadn’t put all of its eggs in the re-imagining basket. I’d still really like to see a good Star Trek TV show in the same universe as all the others, maybe the next next generation.

2 That penultimate arc isn’t perfect, and it’s obviously rushed, the kind of climactic storyline that probably would have worked better two or three seasons later. But it’s saved by being genuinely interesting and by having two really great actors, Peter Weller and Harry Groener, in supporting roles. It’s not the most satisfying of conclusions, but it’s where I wish Enterprise had ended instead.

Friday various

  • An Outtake from Word Freak: The Enigmatic Nigel Richards. Possibly the world’s greatest Scrabble player…though he doesn’t take much enjoyment from the game. [via]
  • Israeli Man Changes Name to Mark Zuckerberg to goad the company into suing him. I have no love for Facebook, but his company seems like a pretty clear violation of Facebook’s terms of service, and the man himself seems like an ass.
  • Jon Scalzi on the “flying snowman”:

    This is not to say that, when encountering fantasy work, one has to abandon all criticism. But if you’re going to complain about one specific element as being unrealistic, you should consider the work in its totality and ask whether in the context of the work, this specific thing is inconsistent with the worldbuilding.

  • Zach Handlen on the TV adaptation of Bag of Bones:

    A good genre story is designed in such a way as to distract you from its inner machinations. Intellectually, you can go back and say, yes, this was a scene of rising action, this was a character development moment, this was a piece of information that will become crucial later on, this was was a resolution of an earlier mystery. Everyone quotes Chekhov’s comment on a gun in act one going off in act two, and at heart, that’s all stories really are: First you load the pistol, then you aim it, then someone pulls the trigger. It’s a method of delivery for a series of stimuli designed to provoke audience response, and the better the book, movie, or TV show, the less time you spend thinking about the mechanics of the process, and the more time you spend luxuriating in the response.

    I have to admit, I kind of want to see it now.

  • I noted this on Twitter, but it bears repeating: if you’re offended just by the idea that some Americans are not Christian…then you are a bigot.
  • Terry Gilliam continues to dream the impossible dream.
  • As much as I think I’d love any movie where Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy do nothing but talk to one another, I kind of hope they don’t make another Before Sunrise movie. The two, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset work so well together, and I feel like revisiting the characters would be going to the well one too many times. (They also appear in Waking Life together.) Still, I’m willing to be proven wrong.
  • A gorgeous photo of the Milky Way from the top of the world [via]
  • Speech Synthesizer Could ‘Resurrect’ Dead Singers. I think that sound you’re hearing is the echo along the Uncanny Valley. [via]
  • And finally, some wonderful bedtime stories from Doctor Who cast members:

Thursday various

  • The AV Club on Charlie’s Angels:

    If you’re going to have a show that’s appallingly retrograde and anti-feminist, the least you could do about it is have the guts to just go whole hog.

  • On The Mentalist:

    It’s a sign of how thoroughly played out serial killers have become that, after holding such a dominant place in popular culture fifteen to twenty years ago, they all have seem to have retired to CBS.

  • On Dream House:

    And of course it’s never a good sign when Elias Koteas is skulking about.

  • On Fringe:

    When it comes to stories, there are few things more gratifying than realizing the story you thought were being told wasn’t the real story at all.

  • And finally, Jean-Christophe Valtat defends steampunk:

    Now it is true that steampunk is riddled with every kind of self-duplicating cliches – zombies, airships, clockwork humans, anarchists etc… – but that is a bit like saying that mathematics are riddled with cliches because they are using the same axioms over and over. Cliches (or myths, if you prefer) are technically inherent to alternate-world building, because it would be too complicated and boring to present the reader with a world where everything would have to be explained down to the least detail: you can only present something new if it is delineated by familiar objects, if only for the reader to complete by himself what the book cannot explain or describe. The novelty – in all senses of the term – comes from the collage, the montage, the criss-crossing and hybridation of historical and fantastic references, the spark that comes from banging the cliches together. A steampunk novel is laborious and volatile dosing of the pleasures of recognition and the pleasures of discovery. Then again, the dosing can fail miserably, but it is not necessarily the genre that is to blame. [via]