Thursday, April 17, 2014

Babylon 5: Soul Hunter

I am re-watching the entire Babylon 5 television series along with my teenage daughter. I have not seen a single episode since B5 completed its tumultuous run, and Calista was just a few days old when the final episode aired back in 1998. Does J. Michael Straczynski still have the touch? Come along with us and find out.

In Valen's Name: The aliens on board Babylon 5 go into a frenzy when an alien known as a Soul Hunter arrives on the station. Soul Hunters have a religious belief that the souls of important figures should be captured and preserved at the time of death. Dr. Stephen Franklin makes his first appearance on the series, and scoffs at the notion "souls" can be captured--listing a number of cyberpunkish alternatives whilst being dismissive of the supernatural. Minbari Ambassador Delenn is particularly troubled, because some years earlier this particular Soul Hunter attempted to collect the soul of a great Minbari leader, but was rebuffed in what is alluded to be a very bloody confrontation. He recognizes Delenn of the ruling Grey Council, and wonders why she's acting as a mere Ambassador. The Soul Hunter claims everything went wrong after he was stopped on Minbar--he's failed repeatedly to collect souls of the important departed from then on. He decides he was drawn to Babylon 5 to collect Delenn's soul and promptly abducts here with the intent of killing her in order to collect her soul. About that time, another Soul Hunter arrives, warning Sinclair that the first Soul Hunter has gone insane because of his failure on Minbar and now is, essentially, a serial killer. Sinclair finds the crazy Soul Hunter in time, turns the soul-collecting machine against him and rescues Delenn. From then on, Sinclair bans Soul Hunters from the station and Delenn releases all the captured souls from his collection.

What Calista Says: In this episode, I thought the Soul-Collectors were very misunderstood, but at the same time they were pretty creepy. They reminded me of those crazy religious groups that everyone has a hard time accepting because what they believe in and what they do are so outrageous. I also think that the Babylon 5 captain was right to ban that race from coming on the station.

What Jayme Says: This isn't a great episode. It's not awful, but it's too cut-and-dried to really resonate. Part of the problem is that this episode is very much metaphysical, which is at odds with B5's otherwise hard-core science fictional universe. I'll admit giving the Soul Hunters a third eye is a nice touch for the metaphysical aspect (just as Game of Thrones has a three-eyed crow), but still. I understand why the concept of metaphysical souls needed to be introduced as part of the larger narrative, and the fact that this initially seems like such a throwaway episode is a sly way to do so... but still, these ideas are developed in future episodes less ham-fistedly, making "Soul Hunter" superfluous. And the alien race plays no significant role in the rest of the series narrative, save for the stand-along movie of the same name (which we'll get to eventually). Delenn being reduced to a damsel in distress is another problem here, but B5 is less guilty of this than other series/movies on the whole. And we do get our first look at Stephen Franklin, played by the late, likeable, Richard Biggs, so the episode has that going for it. Overall, though, it's mildly interesting at best.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Babylon 5: Midnight on the Firing Line

I am re-watching the entire Babylon 5 television series along with my teenage daughter. I have not seen a single episode since B5 completed its tumultuous run, and Calista was just a few days old when the final episode aired back in 1998. Does J. Michael Straczynski still have the touch? Come along with us and find out.

In Valen's Name: A Narn sneak attack on the small Centauri agricultural colony of Ragesh 3 touches off a round of serious diplomatic tension aboard Babylon 5. The Narn ambassador, G'Kar, initially feigns ignorance, which infuriates Centauri ambassado Londo once he learns the true identity of the attacking force. The issue is personal for Londo, as he'd pulled strings to get his nephew, Carn, assigned to a prestigious research position on the colony. Also, Londo dreams of the days before the Centauri empire was in decline, and once he receives word from his superiors on Centauri Prime that Ragesh 3 is too small and remote to bother defending, Londo attempts to bluff the Advisory Council and League of Non-Aligned Worlds into taking action where the Centauri Republic would not. G'Kar calls his bluff, informs the council that Ragesh 3 was originally a Narn colony seized by the Centauri during their brutal occupation of Narn, and finally share a transmission of Londo's obviously tortured nephew stating that the colonists invited the Narn to annex them because the Centauri Republic had essentially abandoned the colony and cut off support.

Whilst all this is going on, Security Chief Garibaldi is tracking down the source of some troubling pirate raids on cargo ships destined for Babylon 5. The raiders have displayed weapons far more powerful of late than they have in the past, escalating the threat they pose. He figures out how they are planning their attacks, and Commander Sinclair leads a squadron of Star Furies out to ambush the raiders. This leads to the capture of the raiders' mother ship, which just so happens to have a Narn advisor on board as the raiders have been using new, more powerful weapons purchased from the Narn. The advisor also just happens to have recordings of the transmissions between the Narn fleet and homeworld that exposes the entire invasion of Ragesh 3 as an unprovoked attack. When confronted with the evidence, G'Kar is furious, but Narn backs down and recalls its forces from Ragesh 3.

In the B plot of the episode, newly-arrived Lt. Commander Ivanova spends the episode avoiding newly-arrived telepath Talia Winters. When Winters finally corners Ivanova, Ivanova explains she hates the Psi Corps because her mother was a latent telepath who was forced by the corps to take drugs to suppress her abilities. The drugs caused severe depression, leading to her mother's suicide. Talia is sympathetic, but Ivanova rejects any possibility of friendship.

What Calista Says: In this episode I really liked the replacement 2nd-in-command, Ivanova, and the back story about her mother. The special effects were way better than they were in the pilot. I liked the makeup on Delenn in the pilot more than how it was in this episode. In the pilot it was more dramatic.

What Jayme Says: This is a good, solid episode--a far, far better introduction to Babylon 5 than the clunky pilot. There's a lot going on here, but JMS' writing and Richard Compton's directing keep everything coherent and clear. The Narn/Centauri conflict is front and center here, not soft-pedaled as it was in the pilot. The raiders are kinda throwaway enemies, but they serve their purpose. Ivanova's handful of scenes with Talia pack quite an emotional punch and are the most gripping of anything yet seen on B5. The fact that there is so much tension and conflict going on amongst the regular characters signals that this is a sharp break from the Star Trek mold, where everyone invariably goes in for the group hug before taking on whatever challenge awaits.

That said, "Midnight on the Firing Line" feels very much like a Star Trek episode once the credits roll. Why? Because the main plot--war between Narn and Centauri--is neatly tied up by the end of the episode. Reset to status quo: Nothing really changes from week to week. If I put my mind to it, "Midnight on the Firing Line" is somewhat analogous to Trek's "Errand of Mercy." The Narn are the aggressive Klingon stand-ins, the Centauri are the peaceful Federation types, and Sinclair/Babylon 5 serve as the peacemaking Organians. Granted, it's a loose comparison at best, but consider the fact that when this episode aired, the Star Trek episodic model was pretty much all that existed for televised space opera. Part of Babylon 5's success came from playing off these assumptions of the audience and gradually (and sometimes abruptly) subverting them (something Farscape did effectively as well a few years later), but early on it made the series look like Deep Space 9 with various cosmetic changes.

Still, there are hints of what is to come. Londo's prescient dream of his own death comes off in the episode as a throwaway bit of Shakespearean melodrama. Vorlon Ambassador Kosch's reaction to the Narn/Centauri conflict is downright chilling. Kosh: "They are a dying people. We should let them pass." Sinclair: "Who, the Narn or the Centauri?" Kosh: "Yes." There a whole lot of Checkovian guns hung up on the walls of the station in this episode, but it is to JMS' credit that they are so subtle as to go unnoticed until significantly later in the series.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Babylon 5: The Gathering

I've been possessed of a desire to re-watch the entire Babylon 5 television series of late. I have not seen a single episode since that groundbreaking series completed its tumultuous run, and am curious as to how well the epic, 5-year story arc holds up more than a decade later. But to up the ante, I've invited my teenage daughter, Calista, to watch it with me. She was just a few days old when the final episode aired back in 1998, so we'll get an unbiased take from a hard-to-please Doctor Who fan who is fairly well-read when it comes to modern YA science fiction. Does J. Michael Straczynski still have the touch? Come along with us and find out.

Note: We watched the 1998 edit for this review, which, while still problematic, is an improvement over the version that originally aired.

In Valen's Name: The Babylon 5 space station, commanded by Jeffrey Sinclair, has been operational for one full year. It is awaiting the arrival of the ambassador of the mysterious, ancient and powerful Vorlon Empire. After a ruinous war with the Minbari that nearly drove the human race to extinction, the Babylon project was conceived as sort of diplomatic meeting point to prevent future conflicts. Babylon stations 1-3 were sabotaged and destroyed during construction. Babylon 4 mysteriously disappeared 24 hours after going operational. Babylon 5 was only completed after the Minbari and Centauri Republic provided assistance. The main alien races represented by ambassadors include the bald, zen-like Minbari, the foppish, crazy-haired Centauri and the antagonistic, reptilian Narn. Other minor species are present in the loosely-affiliated "League of Non-Aligned Worlds." As the Vorlon ambassador, Kosh, arrives, Sinclair is inexplicably delayed in meeting him. When he arrives, Sinclair finds the Vorlon collapsed, the victim of an assassination attempt. Doctor Benjamin Kyle opens Kosh's encounter suit despite Vorlon communications against doing so in an attempt to save the ambassador. Also in defiance of Vorlon demands, human telepath Lita Alexander enters Kosh's mind to find out what happened, and sees Sinclair attack the ambassador with poison. The Vorlons send a fleet of warships to take Sinclair back to their world for interrogation and trial, but Sinclair figures out the assassin was using a "chameleon net" to alter his appearance. They corner the assassin, who is growing more desperate, and discover he is actually a Minbari who utters a cryptic comment to Sinclar--"There is a hole in your mind'--before blowing up a large section of the station and killing himself in the process. The Vorlons monitor the incident and depart, content that Sinclair is innocent.

What Calista Says: The first thing that struck me while I was watching the Babylon 5 pilot was the really sucky special effects. The second thing I noticed was that the Asian lady couldn't act. My favorite character was probably the telepath, and my favorite aliens were the ones who used to be at war with Earth. I really want to know more about them. The aliens with the flowery space ship reminded me a lot of Time Lords for some reason.

What Jayme Says: The Babylon 5 pilot, "The Gathering," isn't awful, but lord it isn't good. The CGI effects are primitive even for 1993, and the narrative is ponderous and slow, seemingly lingering over sets and costume design and prosthetic makeup to show the viewer how much was invested in the production. The acting--particularly by Tamlyn Tomita as second-in-command Laurel Takashima--is stiff and wooden. The assassination plot should've been a taut thriller, but is flaccid and offers little in the way of making viewers care. There are several reasons for these shortcomings, foremost of which is the fact that series creator J. Michael Staczynski (JMS) had never served as a show runner before, and made a lot of mistakes his first time out. The other reason is that several years before, JMS had pitched Babylon 5 to Paramount, which took copious notes and proceeded to incorporate many of the key elements into the new series Star Trek: Deep Space 9. The fact that Minbari were originally conceived of as shape-shifters forced the stop-gap measure of inventing the "chameleon net" technology when DS9 introduced shape-shifters as major characters in the pilot. Not to mention several other integral concepts. Re-tooling the pilot script did not help the production find its footing.

And if I'm going to get down amongst the weeds on this analysis, the Minbari makeup is a bit too latex-heavy in the pilot, and the androgynous look, while an interesting experiment, is somewhat awkward and off-putting. The revisions made for the regular series are a strong improvement. And there's one awkward scene where Minbari Ambassador Delenn gets into it with Narn Ambassador G'Kar, where she subjugates him with a "gravity ring." For real. This gravity ring is one of five color-coded rings Delenn keeps hidden in her quarters, and when I saw this, I immediately thought that J.R.R. Tolkien left out one verse about "Five rings for the Minbari Council in the robe of grey..." The concept is silly, doesn't work and is thankfully never mentioned again.

Vorlons also get short shrift here. Everyone goes around making noise about how ancient, mysterious and powerful the Vorlons are, but they're just a threat on paper that goes away at the end without so much as a peep. Rewatching this sequence having knowledge of what happens in season 4 casts an entirely new light on the peril of the situation. But then again, the same can be said of pretty much everything in the first season.

Despite the problems, it's hard to overstate the importance of this film. I remember some buzz among the fan communities I was connected with, and while nobody fell in love with it right away, it intrigued folks with its potential and they wanted to see more. Remember, Star Trek was the only game in town for unabashed space-based science fiction, and the ideas in Star Trek had so permeated pop culture that science fiction television had a sort of homogenous default to the Trek model. Babylon 5 attempted to create something distinctly different, and at the time, some Trek fans too offense and viewed it as a threat to their beloved franchise. JMS was attacked on message boards and one person went so far as to email him a virus disguised as a drawing of a Starfury by his child, which corrupted several scripts JMS had on his home computer. There was also a character arc involving Takashima being compromised and possibly corrupted--she covertly aided the assassin, although that isn't readily apparent in the pilot--that went out the window once Tomita was replaced by Claudia Christian on the show, but that's for the best considering how great a character Ivanova became, and how stilted Tomita was in her one appearance. Doctor Kyle didn't make it past the pilot, replaced by Dr. Stephen Franklin, and telepath Lyta disappeared from the series as well, although she would return later on.

The look of Babylon 5 is different from Trek and other SF predecessors, and there's a more complex dynamic at work with the various races present. There are also hints at a complex back story, but at this juncture, there's little to indicate just how rich and distinctive this series will become. As part of the series proper, "The Gathering" is as close to disposable and irrelevant as it gets.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Requiem for a Muscle Car

You could only find the Impala by accident. It was way off trail, in the back part of a wetland tucked between an urban river and the woods behind a bunch of light factories. They were the kind of woods and wetlands no one is really meant to explore, made from volunteer trees grown up between the chunks of concrete and demolition debris dumped in this downzoned stretch of interstitial wilderness at what once was the edge of town. The negative space of the metropolis, where nature fills in the gaps and wild animals feel free to roam in the absence of human gazes.

When you stumbled across it as you stepped out of the tall water grasses, it looked like it might have been there for thousands of years. But you also could remember when cars like that cruised the streets. Cars with Batmobile lines forged in a pre-apocalyptic Detroit. Cars whose profiles of postwar strength and Rust Belt wonder persist even as they weather into ruin. It was of that certain vintage, after the assassination of JFK and before the resignation of Nixon. Baked by the sun to primer working on gunmetal, with water plants growing up out of the seats and the engine block, guarded by the herons and egrets who filled the secret sanctuary of the wilderness hidden under the roar of the old highway.

You couldn’t tell how it had gotten there. It might have washed downriver in a big flood, or been driven down here at some time when the river channel was different. You would go back and look for it once in a while, and it was always there, but every time you went you needed to intuit a different path through the impassable wild vegetation and knee-sucking muck. It manifested different forms with the changes in the river, sometimes almost completely submerged, at other times almost ready to fly off with its steel hood extended like a gull wing. A mystical motorhead Ozymandias that transported you in ways its designers never intended.

It’s gone now, pulled out of the muck by newer machines dispatched by the stewards slowly working on cleaning up the edgeland and turning it into a park. Maybe they are right that it didn’t belong there with the birds and the fish and the native plants, so close to the “scenic overlook” that there was a real possibility some Audubon Society folks might see it. But it sure seemed like an indigenous expression to you, an artifact that perfectly expressed the essence of this place. You can still find its digital ghosts, if you know the right place to look on the omniscient maps, but that won’t last long.

Curiously, I found love tracking metal Impalas in these uncanny wetlands, another wanderer tuned into the strange vortex of surreal power of the Zona. She was making the wind dance in the windows of an old concrete fire tower while I was paddling against the current in a river out of time. That was five years ago. Yesterday we got married, and today we’ll celebrate with family and friends in this place we ended up making our home. The relics will come and go, but the wonder is always there if you can open up your third eye to it. The power is inside us, and especially poderoso now that we have a pair of magic rings to knock together. Our love is about a lot more than place, but the way we met is what set us on course into the uncharted territories ahead. It’s pretty awesome.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The genius that is Picacio

The great John Picacio has one of those Kickstarter campaigns under way. If you haven't jumped on board with your support yet, do so now. You've got six days to go. The project's already funded, and stretch goals are adding up, so that's considered a "win-win" situation in common parlance.

Have you gotten that taken care of? Good. Now listen up, because I'm not likely to repeat this outside the friendly confines of a SF convention: John Picacio is pure, unadulterated genius. I don't say that lightly. It wasn't enough that the Hand of God reached down and blessed him with a singular artistic vision and talent to match (not taking away from the years of study and effort John put into developing that talent, by the way). It wasn't enough that John is one of the nicest people you'll ever meet--and by that, I don't mean he's "passive nice" in a quietly inoffensive way. No, he's pro-actively nice, in that he uses his success as a platform to try and improve the lot of his peers, his non-peers and strangers who don't know him from Adam alike. He's humble without false modesty. On top of that, he goes out of his way to simply make people feel good.

But above and beyond, the man is smart. I don't have access to his inner circle, or have been graced with a peek behind the curtains, but from my vantage point, he is developing his Lone Boy company shrewdly, with a laser-like strategic focus. That is reflected in his Kickstarter campaigns. Now, John has a massive following in the speculative fiction community. He needs a U-Haul truck to cart around all his Hugo, World Fantasy and Chesley Awards. So last year, when he produced an art calendar of his "greatest hits," he had a ready audience. Many artists would be content with this, but not John. He's expanded his playing field a thousand-fold by producing original calendar art based on images from the Loteria card game:

This. Is. Genius. Have I used this word too much? Impossible. Look, I've lived my entire life in Texas and grown up as exposed to Tejano culture as a fat white kid from the country can be, but I'd never heard of La Loteria. Now, imagine tens of thousands of other genre fans across the country who don't know tomatillos from vaqueros. They don't know La Loteria either, but they do know gorgeous, fantastical artwork on oversized tarot-style cards. They're all in for a calendar featuring this work. Now pause a moment and consider the tens of millions of Tejanos, Mexican-Americans and Mexican nationals who grew up playing this game and have a deep-seated affection for it? And how would they respond to something many consider kitschy folk art being elevated, if not venerated, as high art? Now it starts to become clear. John is tapping into cultural cross-currents leavened with a generous amount of magical realism that has the potential to turn him into an artistic brand (if I may use so crude and crass a term for something so elegant) with far and enduring reach. And genre fans will buy whatever collectible editions of the game John produces as well, because, damn, have you seen how stunning the art is? A Picacio-designed tarot deck seems the obvious next step, but truth to tell, John's not built himself a successful career by being obvious. At conventions, I'll catch him alone for a moment and ask about an obscure, unexpected or off-the-wall idea that's struck me about his flourishing career, and invariably he'll respond with a sly, "What have you heard?" followed by a quick, "We'll talk later." John literally has more irons in the fire at one time than the average person has in a lifetime, but he keeps them all quiet until he wants to unveil them.

There are times I wonder what would've happened had John pursued his initial career as an architect instead of taking that leap of faith into the uncertain world of genre art. Sure, an architectural career seems staid and dull from the outside, consisting of drafting the next CVS Pharmacy or strip mall to go up in the suburbs, but really, is it possible to believe John Picacio being staid and dull in any career he pursues? He may well have become the next Frank Lloyd Wright, albeit with a distinct and original vision that's compared to Wright simply because no other architect has attained such stature in the U.S. even though their styles couldn't be more dissimilar. Part of me the wonders Picacio-the-architect would've given us, but is usually shouted down by the part of me that revels in Picacio-the-artist. But judging from his past track record and sly, unpredictable strategic thinking, who am I to say that John's inevitable world domination doesn't also include breathtaking architectural marvels as well?

That's the beauty of genius. It knows no bounds.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Jackson Pollock, Covert Propaganda Asset

A decade ago I wrote a story about a clandestine group of U.S. psychological warfare operatives who commissioned a piece of post-Frazetta sword & sorcery fantasy art as a secret weapon to influence a Middle Eastern dictator. The story, "Script-Doctoring the Apocalypse," was influenced by the news reports of Rowena Morrill chainmail bikini paintings found by American troops when the captured Saddam Hussein's secret bachelor pads. It was published in Eileen Gunn's The Infinite Matrix, the very week that Saddam was captured in a Tikriti spiderhole.

It turns out that Psyop part of the story was more plausible than I had intuited. Jayme Blaschke just tipped me to this amazing story from the Independent (with a byline much older than my story) about how the CIA covertly funded the New York School Abstract Expressionist painters all through the 50s and 60s as a propaganda weapon during the Cold War. On a "long leash," granted, using a variety of intermediaries—but still mind-blowing to consider what role intelligence support had in the mid-twentieth century American avant-garde (to say nothing of cultural products that made postwar anti-communism culturally credible among the intelligentsia—see below reference to the animated version of Orwell's Animal Farm).

Unknown to the artists, the new American art was secretly promoted under a policy known as the "long leash" - arrangements similar in some ways to the indirect CIA backing of the journal Encounter, edited by Stephen Spender.

The decision to include culture and art in the US Cold War arsenal was taken as soon as the CIA was founded in 1947. Dismayed at the appeal communism still had for many intellectuals and artists in the West, the new agency set up a division, the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which at its peak could influence more than 800 newspapers, magazines and public information organisations. They joked that it was like a Wurlitzer jukebox: when the CIA pushed a button it could hear whatever tune it wanted playing across the world.

The next key step came in 1950, when the International Organisations Division (IOD) was set up under Tom Braden. It was this office which subsidised the animated version of George Orwell's Animal Farm, which sponsored American jazz artists, opera recitals, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's international touring programme. Its agents were placed in the film industry, in publishing houses, even as travel writers for the celebrated Fodor guides. And, we now know, it promoted America's anarchic avant-garde movement, Abstract Expressionism.

Independent, "Modern art was CIA 'weapon'

Where's the gonzo James Ellroy novel about these guys?! Maybe Don DeLillo already wrote about Pollack and the spook and I missed it.