Saturday, June 18, 2016

AMC Needs to Back Off from its Irresponsible and Misguided Walking Dead Anti-Spoiler Crusade

AMC, the cable network that airs the most-watched scripted show on television The Walking Dead, has flexed its muscles against fans this week when they threatened legal action against any websites posting spoilers on which character was killed in the Season 6 finale. Their primary target is The Spoiling Dead which has a particular history of making accurate predictions, but AMC indicated that anybody posting spoilers could face litigation, claiming copyright infringement. TSD has backed down from the television juggernaut, but not because they believe they are wrong. They claimed that they would refrain from releasing any spoilers simply because they could not afford the legal costs involved with defending their position.

Now while I understand that AMC is irritated by the many TWD spoilers regularly appearing across the internet (they annoy me too if I haven’t seen the latest episode yet), their hostile stance toward the fans is nothing more than corporate bullying and poor judgement on their part. The cabler would have a case if someone had leaked a whole or partial script from the show or revealed other inside information. But they are threatening sites that are making predictions on who died in the final scene from the show’s sixth season.

Let’s not forget that the network created this situation to begin with. The last episode to air introduced the antagonist Negan who killed off a major character when he first appeared in the comics (trying not to reveal too many spoilers from either the show or the comics here, though). But instead of letting the episode end with us finding out who met their demise, we were left hanging until October for the resolution of that final scene. And it was a pretty major cliffhanger seeing as the majority of the show’s main characters were present and any of them could have been the one to die. It was purely a manipulative move (and likely ordered by network execs) for a show that doesn’t need it because it is known for telling compelling and engaging tales without stooping to such cheap contrivances (I go into that in more detail at this link).

Guess what, AMC? People are going to speculate when you leave an episode hanging on the imminent demise of one of their favorite characters. That’s what they do! Especially after such an unsatisfying ending to an already controversial season (due to other, similar missteps). People are going to try and fill in the blanks to tide them over because the ending strung them along. And then to threaten them with legal action for making guesses? That’s an inexcusable and irresponsible stance from a corporate entity that knows they can get away with it only because they have the deep pockets to press and sustain legal action.

Just how arrogant has AMC become now that they have the top show on television? Have they forgotten how fickle the audience can be and how quickly a hit can spiral to a bottom-feeder in the world of television? Have they forgotten that they already tempted fate by kicking original executive producer Frank Darabont to the curb and then dropping the show’s budget and increasing its episode order for its second season? That could have easily destroyed the show, but apparently the steady guidance from Robert Kirkman as well as the stellar cast and the strength of the source material helped them dodge that potentially disastrous move (though Season 2 is widely considered the show’s weakest). Have they not heard all of the hate directed at the show this past season for its other misfires that came before the season finale?

And now AMC is going to take a hostile stance with fans for speculating on which character dies? Attorney Mitch Stoltz with the Electronic Frontier Foundation has said that “copyright probably doesn't cover revealing a single fictional detail about a show. And copyright doesn't apply to facts that are discovered without having access to the creative work.” And I’m sure AMC wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on. But as the people running The Spoiling Dead have said, trying to fight Goliath in this case will have too high of a cost.

If AMC wants to throw away money filming eleven different death scenes, that’s their business. If they want to go after people for illegally obtaining and distributing scripts and/or other inside information, they have a right to do so. If they want to respectfully ask that fans refrain from posting spoilers in the immediate public view (i.e., article titles), they might have received some cooperation.  But if they start taking legal action against fans for speculating on how a poorly placed cliffhanger plays out, I believe the backlash will come quick and hard. I’m already seeing a fair amount of hate directed at The Walking Dead from the fan community, and that could spread like wildfire if the network persists with its boorish, anti-spoiler crusade.

It’s time for AMC to BACK OFF on this issue and let people speculate away as they are want to do. That’s not violating any copyrights. If the fans want to take their best guess on who was Negan’s victim (which is not that hard to narrow down as I will go into with an upcoming post), the network needs to just let them do so and get back to minding their own store.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Sci Fi Genre Gems: E-Man (1970’s Comic Book Series)

What Is It?  In this short-lived series from Charlton Comics, we are introduced to the superhero E-Man, a sentient being of pure energy created out of a super-nova.  This being traveled through the galaxy and came in contact with Earth, where he meets the human Nova Kane and decides to take human form himself as a superhero.  The two then set off on action-packed adventures fighting villains that threaten the planet.

Why Does It Stand Out?  This whimsical little series hit the stands at a time before superheroes had gone dark and grim and it delivered a fun set of comic book tales with a sci fi bent.

The Skinny: Co-creator Nicola Cuti had the idea of creating a superhero similar to the whimsical Golden Age character Plastic Man, and artist Joe Staton helped bring to life this modern hero with a sense of fun.  The transformable E-Man would morph into any of a numbers of shapes as needed, not dissimilar from his Golden Age predecessor.  But it was the banter between E-Man and his opponents as well as side kick / partner Nova Kane (she would later become a superhero herself) that made this strip so much fun.  Unlike the revivals of this character that would appear in the 80’s and 90’s, this series was less interested in parody, and more in just telling a good fun tale.

It would also introduce the private eye character Mike Mauser who would later get his own series, plus it also had regular backup stories that highlighted tryout characters for Charlton.  Steve Ditko’s Mr. A-like character Killjoy showed up in two issues and John Byrne’s Rog 2000 also had several appearances.  Unfortunately, E-Man would only last for ten issues in its original run.  The sales for the book were not great and the publisher decided to cancel the series, though the character would have a final appearance from its original creative team in the fourth issue of the Charlton Bullseye fanzine.

E-Man would live on in the decades that followed with several revivals at other publishers, but in my opinion those never quite matched up its original run that was quirky and funny and just trying to tell some good fun comic book tales.  The first ten issues have yet to be collected in a trade paperback, but they recently appeared in eBook format available through Amazon.com and Comixology.  You can also find the back issues pretty easily and you won't have to spend an arm and a leg on them.

Did You Know?  Joe Staton based E-Man’s face on James Bond actor Roger Moore which he described as “charming and heroic looking, but kind of generic”.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Cancelled Sci Fi TV: 1949-2015

Cancelled Sci Fi TVDid you know that The Outer Limits was cancelled when its ratings plummeted after getting moved against the popular Jackie Gleason Show on Saturday nights? Did you know that the cast of Lost in Space fully expected to come back for a fourth season before the surprise cancellation announcement? Did you know that one of J. Michael Straczynski’s early television gigs was the short-lived afternoon sci fi show Captain Power and His Soldiers of the Future? Did you know that Alien Nation was cancelled because the fledgling FOX network ran short of money? Did you know about the short-lived fantasy series Roar that starred a young Heath Ledger? Did you know that fans appealed to Congress after Star Trek: Enterprise was cancelled? Do you know the real stories behind the infamous sci fi cancellations like Star Trek: The Original Series, Battlestar: Galactica (1978), Firefly, Jericho, and more?

So many cancelled sci fi shows and so little time. But don’t fret because the ultimate reference for cancelled science fiction and fantasy shows is here. Cancelled Sci Fi TV presents a broad survey of the genre which starts with the very early days of television and moves all the way forward to some of the most recent cancellations. Over two hundred shows are covered from the past sixty plus years, including well-known entries like Space: 1999, Angel, and Farscape as well as many of the blink-and-you-missed-them shows like The Starlost, Beyond Westworld, The Middleman, and more.

This book covers all of those and more, giving show synopses, credits, the years they ran and episode counts, information (and/or speculation) on why they were cancelled, as well as anecdotes and/or bits of trivia. Cancelled Sci Fi TV: 1949-2015 is a must read for sci fi fans and television junkies, a book that you won’t be able to put down once you start it that takes you on a fascinating adventure through the TV Wasteland of cancelled science fiction and fantasy shows.

Read a sample of the book at this link

Available Now on Kindle

(Coming soon in other eBook formats)

Also by John J. Joex:

Why Were They Cancelled? The Plight of Sci Fi TV in the Face of the Unforgiving Nielsens and Networks Kindle  | Other eBook Formats

25 Must-Watch Science Fiction and Fantasy Movies: An Essential Guide to the Best Movies of the Genre Kindle  |  Other eBook Formats

Sci Fi Trifles: Useless but Essential Pop Culture Tidbits and Trivia from the Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Kindle  |  Other eBook Formats

Sci Fi Genre Gems: Lost, Forgotten, and/or Underappreciated Nuggets from the Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Kindle  |  Other eBook Formats

Friday, May 20, 2016

Audiobook Review: Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

Book Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars (Highest Rating)

Audiobook Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: Martin creates a unique and engaging fantasy world that comes alive through the book's well-developed characters.

I purchased this audiobook--the first in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series--a while back but kept putting off listening to it because it seemed like such a daunting tome to tackle at thirty-three plus hours.  But as Season 6 of the series approached, I finally decided to fire it up to help remind me of some of the back story prior to diving into the new year of the TV show (which actually goes beyond the completed books).  And once I started it, I found myself making excuses to go for a drive or to extend my commute so that I could keep listening to the book!

Since I am expecting that most people reading this have more than a passing familiarity with the story, I won’t spend too much time recapping it.  I’m also going to mention one of the major spoilers (which is actually pretty much common knowledge by now), so be warned.  Basically, Game of Thrones is a fantasy tale set in the land of Westeros and the main story focuses on the power struggles to sit on the Iron Throne which rules over all the lands.  The main character in this book is Ned Stark who is the lord of Winterfell in the north and he reluctantly travels to Kings Landing with part of his family to be the adviser to the king only to find himself pulled into the court intrigues and politics aimed at controlling the throne.

One of the things that I noticed while listening to the audiobook is that things do not happen quickly in this story.  There is some travel across the lands and a lot of talking and a few fights, but Martin was definitely not trying to make this an action-packed affair.  In fact, it’s not uncommon for the book to introduce a character and then digress for several pages giving backstory on that person.  But while it sounds like this approach would make this a rather dull read, especially consider the length of the book, that’s not the case at all.  Not only did I almost never find it boring (except for some of the Sansa chapters), I regularly found myself wanting more.

Personally, the bloated page lengths of books these days is something that has turned me away from many of the newer entries on the shelves.  So often these are the result of publishers pushing for a higher page count or writers lacking editorial constraints and the story ends up turning into a slogfest or completely losing focus.  Martin maneuvers past these pitfalls as he demonstrates himself a master of words who can make even the most mundane details interesting.  There’s a reason this book series is so popular: it really is that good!  At least based on the first volume and what I have seen translated to the television series.  One of the important things Martin does in this books is dump almost all the expected fantasy clichés.  This book is not packed with elves and orcs and wizards and many of the expected tropes of the genre.  Some of that is there in the background, but he doesn’t just give us another spin on the standard setting as he builds a fully fleshed out world of his own with interesting, well-developed characters.  In fact, it is the many characters with their varying degrees of moral ambiguity that makes this such a fascinating read.

(Warning, major Spoilers to follow in the next paragraph.)

The first book sets up the grander tale that Martin has planned with his Song of Ice and Fire series, but in Game of Thrones one of the major themes is the place that honor holds in this world of scheming and maneuvering.  Ned Stark is of course the primary example of that as he follows the “honorable” path throughout the story as opposed to the moral grays evidenced in many of the other characters.  He acts as the moral measuring stick, and we make the assumption that he will be our guidepost throughout all of the books.  That’s why his beheading at the end comes as that much more of a shock.  Ned is set up as our hero and then we are left without the moral fiber he represents once he is executed.  The story is told (quite effectively) from multiple points of view with Ned’s representing the closest to the typical fantasy hero.  And when he is gone we have to scramble for which point of view will be our guide from that point forward.  That’s some powerful yet risky storytelling, but Martin pulls it off perfectly.

The audiobook version is read by Roy Dotrice who does an absolute first-rate job with the material.  He makes each character stand out as a distinct presence and they come alive through his reading.  I have to admit, though, that at first I did not like the voices he used for several characters, especially Tyrion.  Having been exposed to the top-notch performances from the series, it was hard to accept the different voices he used for some of the characters.  But I can’t really fault him for not matching the performances of the actors, especially considering that this audiobook came out years before the TV series.  I did eventually accept and even learn to like his Tyrian voice, but I could never quite warm up to his Varys.  That’s probably because he played the character closer to the way he is portrayed in the books which is different than Conleth Hill’s interpretation in the series, but again, I can’t count that as a knock against Dotrice.  He delivers an excellent reading of one of the all-time great fantasy books and I highly recommend this one to anybody to enjoys masterful storytelling whether they are fantasy fans or not.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Anti-Blockbusters: Moon

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars

Moon2009's Moon is a rarity in modern-day cinema. It is a Science Fiction movie, yet it has little action, no explosions, no space battles, no guns, no nail-biting down-to-the-wire endings, and a cast that you can count on one hand. What it does have, though, is a strong story bolstered by magnificent performances from its sparse set of performers. In that respect, it harkens back to classic examples of hard science fiction in the cinema like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Andromeda Strain, and Silent Running. And that is exactly what director and co-writer Duncan Jones wanted.

The entire movie takes place on the Moon as we follow Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) who is the sole human in charge of running a mining operation that extracts helium-3 from the lunar surface and sends it back to Earth where it provides the primary fuel source for the planet. His only companion is the robotic GERTY 3000 (voiced by Kevin Spacey) which has a voice similar to HAL 9000 and displays emoticons on its monitor to reflect its expressions. Sam is coming to the end of his three year contract on the Moon and eagerly awaits his return home. However, he starts to hallucinate and see people and transmissions that he knows cannot be real and this eventually causes him to have a life-threatening accident on the surface of the Moon.

Early on, you may start to question several aspects of the movie’s basic set-up. Why would the company send only one person at a time to spend a rather daunting three years in isolation? Why would they not fix the malfunctioning satellite that provides Sam’s only chance to have real time transmissions from home? After the accident, how did Sam get back to the base? But everything falls into place as the tight, focused script unfolds before us.

I’ll give no more information about the movie than that, because “that would be telling”, and it’s best to go into this one without any pre-conceived notions. What I will do is complement the cast and crew on pulling off what could have turned into a very dreary, plodding film in the wrong hands. Mind you, Moon does have a very slow pace, but it never drags or meanders because of its excellent script, spot-on performances by Rockwell and Spacey, and steady direction from Jones (who, by the way, is the son of the late David Bowie).

Visually, Moon succeeds as well, as it gives us a respite from the CGI-overload that Hollywood so often throws at us. Jones relies on old-school model-work to depict the Moonbase and the vehicles that interact with it. And despite the limited budget of the film (around $5 million) his special effects team delivers a realistic, almost flawless, depiction of Moon colonization that makes viewers like myself long for the lost art of model-derived special effects. This practice of course would not work as well in a more action-oriented film, but in this setting it provides the perfect visual realization to complement the story.

Moon compares quiet well to some of the classics of Science Fiction cinema that it invokes and deserves to stand right next to them when listing accomplished movies from the genre. While it lacks the grander statements of movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running, it does give us a more modest, personal statement about what it means to be human and to be in control of your own destiny. Also, it avoids some of the inconsistencies and leaps of logic of the two previously mentioned movies (i.e, you have to read the book to understand exactly why HAL goes berserk, and just why exactly did they put the forest domes out in deep space instead of orbiting the Sun?). Most importantly, the movie places story above spectacle and also manages to maneuver past the conceits that often afflict films of this ilk.

Moon did not do big Box Office business in its theatrical run, in part because of its limited distribution and in part because of its lack of promotion. But it did gain immediate attention from critics and fans of the genre and quickly got pegged as an “instant classic”. Those who missed it in its truncated theatrical run should definitely check it out on DVD, and those that did catch it should watch it again because like most classics it stands up to multiple viewings.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Audiobook Review: Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle

Book Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Audiobook Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: This minor classic provides the springboard for the well-known franchise that would follow.

Planet of the Apes is of course the seminal science fiction book that went on to launch the long-lived franchise that spread across the theaters, television, and comics.  Boulle’s novel first came out in 1963 and he intended it to act as a social commentary on his world, not dissimilar to the films that would follow.  Of course any review of the book pretty much demands comparison to the first film based upon it, which has since become an iconic sci fi entry (and you can see my review of that at this link).

The book itself in many ways lays out the basic structure for the first film as we have astronauts from Earth landing on planet (though not crashing like in the movie), and then setting out to explore it.  They then meet humans whom they find to have minimal intelligence and who live like beasts off the land.  This is followed by apes rounding up the humans and the protagonist (Ulysse Mérou) is captured and studied by the sympathetic apes Zira and Cornelius.  The more skeptical Dr. Zaius doubts the intelligence of this wunder-human, but an eventual trip to a “forbidden zone” type area reveals that humans pre-dated apes on this planet.

One of the biggest differences from the original films, though, is that these apes have a level of technology similar to twentieth century Earth and they inherited the planet when the human culture grew stagnant and they stopped progressing.  The book also suggests what we would see later in the Escape from the Planet of the Apes film (though with role reversal between humans and apes) when Ulysse becomes a bit of a celebrity when introduced into ape society, but then sees a backlash when they find out Nova is pregnant .  It also suggests some of the events from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes when the regressive memory of the native humans is explored.

In general, Boulle’s Planet of the Apes is a good sci fi book and I would call it a minor genre classic, though not necessarily a must-read.  It is well written and he tries to bring in as many science-based principles as possible, though at times it seems to veer into pseudo-science.  But I believe he develops the characters well enough and presents an interesting setting that offers some social commentary, though I believe the first three movies actually did better with that.  One important thing that Boulle handles better here, though, is the language barrier.  Ulysse slowly learns the ape language and it eventually becomes part of the proof of his intelligence.  In the movies, the apes spoke English and the astronauts never wondered why despite the fact that they were allegedly on a planet thousands of light-years from Earth.  Something that the book does not handle as well is the twist that comes at the end.  Boulle’s ending seems kind of forced and is much less satisfying than the final scene from the first movie.

The audiobook version is narrated by Greg Wise and he does a very good job with the material.  Interestingly, he gives the apes what sounds like a mid-west accent that seems a bit out of place at first, but I eventually got used to it and never found it distracting.  Overall, his voice-work carries the book along quite well, and makes this an enjoyable listen.  This book is definitely worth seeking out in audio format or in print for all Planet of the Apes fans that have never encountered the original source material and also for sci fi fans looking for a decent representation of the genre.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Anti-Blockbusters: Battle for Terra

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Battle for TerraAs blockbusters like Star Trek, Transformers, and Harry Potter were preparing to assault the theaters at the beginning of the 2009 Summer season, a rather unassuming little animated movie appeared and disappeared within about two weeks time. This movie, Battle for Terra, had been made back in 2007 at a very economical price for a CGI film (around $4 million originally though increased to $8 million with 3-D effects added), and had received some acclaim as it toured the film festival circuit and won the Grand Prize for Best Animated Feature at the 2008 Ottawa International Animation Festival.

The movie opens on a distant planet where a race of peaceful beings, who have the ability to fly, live an idyllic existence mostly at harmony with their world. However, an enormous space ship arrives carrying the last inhabitants of a destroyed Earth who plan to settle on this planet. The humans must terraform the planet to make the atmosphere breathable which in turn will make it poisonous to the natives. An initial confrontation with the humans and natives leads to one of the humans crashing on the planet and coming face to face with the people he would help destroy. This plants the seeds which eventually lead to the beginning of a mutual understanding between the two races.

Battle for Terra is a beautifully illustrated CGI-animated movie that mixes science fiction with fantasy (though still sufficiently rooted in science) and even throws in a bit of steam-punk tech. And while the substance does not always match up to the style, Battle for Terra still delivers a more satisfying tale than the similarly themed Avatar from James Cameron which would follow this one at the Box Office with much more fanfare (and BoT had a much lower price tag than Avatar’s $240 million budget) . But while Terra’s story verges into the derivative at times with a hodgepodge of genre elements and some copy-and-paste dialogue, it presents a more genuine take on its subject matter than the much more calculated Avatar. And while it may not fully develop its characters and ideas, in part because of its rather brief 85 minute run-time, in the end the movie manages to overcome most of its deficiencies and stand out as a notable genre entry.

And sparse though the plot may be, the writers resist the temptation to give us a simple tale of idealistic, pacifist aliens vs. imperialist, invading humans. Sure, it ventures in that direction with the central villain General Hemmer, but we see that the humans are primarily driven more by their desperation than anything else and we also see that the natives of Terra have the ability to defend themselves if necessary. This is where the movie diverges from the Disney-style kids-fare as it chooses not to present a conflict followed by a tidy wrap-up and happy ending. And this is probably what doomed the movie in the theaters.

Battle for Terra has the look of a fantasy movie aimed at the younger crowd, much like the Star Wars: The Clone Wars film and subsequent TV series. In fact, it seems quite merchandise friendly, with its cute aliens, adorable robots, sleek space ships and steam-punk alien airships. But the movie does not give us the simple tale of good vs. evil that you would expect from a film of this type. In fact, the apparent youthful target audience may have difficulty figuring out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. The movie delivers more mature themes wrapped up in moral dilemmas, and in the final battle children may struggle with who exactly to route for and the film ends with the heart-rending sacrifice of one of the lead characters. For me, that makes for great story-telling. But since they decided to market the movie mostly toward children (surely as an afterthought, though), that may have severely hampered its Box Office viability. Ultimately, it’s hard to really pin down this movie as it presents an exercise in contrast with its cute aliens and invading humans facing some very difficult moral decisions. But science fiction and fantasy fans should appreciate it as a well done movie that rises above the expected family-friendly animated flick and delivers a superior genre tale.  If you missed this one in the theaters, do yourself a favor and seek it out on DVD.  You should be pleasantly surprised by what you find there.