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Showing posts from March, 2013

Nothing is Real

Last post I laid out a few story arc that weave through the mostly episodic mass of Star Trek: The Next Generation, lending some continuity to the overall series. Whether we're talking about the Borg, Q, Klingons, or Data's quest to be more human, these stories provide a sense that the series is moving forward, that one episode's story can communicate with another. This same purpose is also met by a few of the series' big themes: man's relationship to technology, utopian noninterventionism, and exploration. When you put together the stories that introduce "strange new life" and "new civilizations," you discover a largely consistent world view from the show: discovery for discovery's sake is good; irrationally closing one's minds to possibilities is bad. One other theme that really emerged during my rematch of the series: the consistent questioning about the nature of reality. At times this question was overt. One o

Star Trek's Meta Moment

For me, "Cause and Effect," an episode late in the fifth season, offers a rare glimpse into the series' emerging self-awareness. Although the show flirted with continuity (even as far back as the "Conspiracy" arc previewed in "Coming of Age"), it's interesting to think of this time-warping episode as a moment of clarity about the nature of procedural episodic drama. Procedural dramas, contrasted with serial television, are shows composed of stand-alone episodes, where each story can be understood basically on its own terms. The characters might reappear, their traits consistent from one story to the next, but the events of one story only rarely impinge upon the events of the next. Episodic series are often formulaic, relying on resolutions that neatly tie up all of the loose ends into a neat and tidy denouement  This is obviously a very common device in television shows, particularly sitcoms. It is harder to attract new viewers

And The Ugly

I'm including a list of five episodes never included in 'best-of' lists that nevertheless point to what was good about this show on a week-to-week basis while you waited for another great mind-blowing episode. So, none of these episodes are perfect. So what. All of them are plenty of fun, have memorable moments, or help move the characters forward. If we're making room for the best and the worst, why not spend a little time with the merely average? Identity Crisis: Another Brannon Braga script with DNA issues but tons of fun if you can get past that. LaForge discovers that all of the other members of an away team he was on several years before have disappeared save himself and a crewmate Susanna Leijten. Returning to the apparently uninhabited planet they beamed onto, both LaForge and Leijten begin to exhibit strange behaviors. Ultimately, Crusher figures out that all of the visitors to the planet pick up a strange parasite that rewrites their genetic code (SCI

The Bad

This is a list of guilty pleasures. Any show will have its share of stinkers; maybe the guest star can't act, maybe the script is bad, or maybe someone thinks a story about stealing Spock's brain is a good idea. Whatever it is, this list serves to put together my selection of episodes so bad they're kind of fun. These are failures on many levels but still entertaining enough to go MST3K on them.  You will notice that none of these episodes are entitled "Shades of Gray," because seriously, don't. 5) " The Loss " My first choice is a Deanna Troi vehicle. Essentially the Enterprise gets stuck in a swarm of two dimensional creatures. The massive feedback caused by the impact of the swarm on the ship causes injury to Troi's empathic region. Because the only reason early season Troi seems to exist is providing redundant insights into alien minds, this serves as a major career crisis. So much so, in fact, that Troi delivers an impassioned plea

The Good

Even the weaker seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation had their stand-out moments, enough that it's quite a challenge to whittle down the dozen or so obvious classic episodes to a best of list. I don't think my list represents anything radical, although I have omitted the two or three classic episodes that always appear on these sorts of lists. I'm not doing this because I dislike the episodes but rather because I'm hoping to use my 'best-ofs,' to highlight key themes in the next few essays. So, keeping that disclaimer in mind, here are my favorite five episodes:  #5) The Measure of a Man: This is my pick for a 'new-to-Trek' story. Lt. Data, an artificial life form serving as a Lt. Commander on the Starship Enterprise, receives an order to submit to disassembly by a Starfleet scientist named Maddox. While intrigued with the possibility of creating more androids like him, Data is not convinced the research will work, and might even render him i

Thirty-six views of a starship

Katsushika Hokusai, a  ukiyo-e   painter in 19th century Japan created a series of intensely detailed and colorful prints collectively titled the "Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji." From either near or far, each print showed some view of that volcano from a variety of angles and distances. Mount Fuji,  serving as a symbol of immortality and divinity, had a profound spiritual significance in Japanese culture. By placing the mountain in the background of every image, the painter seemed to suggest that the mountain was too big, too complicated, to ever be captured from one single perspective. After completing seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, wading through the good, bad, and ugly, following the Enterprise and her crew from one end of the universe to the other, I have a similar reaction. This was the first time I've ever watched the show from start to finish and I have to say, the experience really affected me. More than I thought it would. This was my

Drone Ecosystem

The video below was released by the Air Vehicles Directorate, a branch of the US Airforce, to promote the concept of swarms of small drones released into an urban environment to conduct surveillance and assassination missions. Other than the ornithopter manner of the drones hovering and darting through restricted airspace, there isn't much here that hasn't been seen in other drone models. What really makes this striking is to see all of these elements, the remote monitoring, the use of man-made power sources such as power lines, the visual navigation systems and lethal payloads, placed into something small and ubiquitous. Present drone technology has essentially produced remotely piloted airplanes, small and relatively expendable, but not that many steps removed from a piloted airplane. But the notion of militarized swarms hiding in plain sight, living off of existing power systems to me seems a very radical notion, and one I haven't really seen fully explored in specu

Another Curiosity Discovery

The headline is interesting on its own, but I was actually more curious about the breakdown of chemicals available in Martian soil. One of the things that makes the Moon less attractive as a site for a permanent colony is the lack of elements needed for organic life. Having enough nitrogen available in the soil to have once supported life suggests that agriculture on Mars might be sustainable without outside intervention (ie launching nitrogen rich asteroids at the surface of the planet.) Nitrogen is essential for plants and other biological processes. In addition, nitrogen currently represents less than 3% of Mars' scant atmosphere, a figure that would have to be raised during any attempt at terraforming.

Glitch in the System

Wreck-It Ralph was a second choice movie every single time I went to the theater last fall and ultimately I just ran out of time to see it first run. Which is a pity. This was a surprisingly good, heart-felt movie deserving a little more acclaim. Quick Note: what follows is less of a review and more of an essay. SPOILERS AHEAD! The movie's plot is simple enough. A long time video game villain, Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), tires of the constant put-downs and abuse from the residents of his virtual world and tries to break out of the endless drudgery of being the 'bad guy,' in a video game. Seeking to prove himself, Ralph visits a few other video games, including Hero's Duty (a bug-blasting sci fi first person shooter along the lines of Area 51) and Sugar Rush (a racing game that looks like a cross between Mario Kart and Candy Land). During his quest, he picks up an unlikely companion, a glitchy wanna-be racer, Vanellope Von Schweetz (voiced by Sarah

Unlocking History through Fantasy

When examining the meaning of fantasy literature, such as "The Darkness That Came Before," by R. Scott Bakker, one has to first overcome a significant problem with the genre as a whole -- it's relationship to history. Fantasy, as it's often written and enjoyed, is meant as escapism. Fantasy literature often plucks the most romantic and dramatic elements of the popular conception of European medievalism, adds a dash of magic and monsters, to erect the vague  skene in front of which the traditional stories of disguised princes, princesses in peril, and wandering wise men appear. A reader goes to this world with idea of entering a fictional space separate from the 'real world.' The details of actual history serve to ground the story, help support the suspension of disbelief, not educate the reader about life in castles. So how can such cavalier appropriation provide any actual insight into the past? Fantasy does have a value to serious inquiry into hist

Review of R. Scott Bakker's The Darkness That Comes Before

First, a word about how I came to pick up the first novel in R. Scott Bakker's The Prince of Nothing historical fantasy series. In short, after finishing "A Dance with Dragons," by George R.R. I googled what should I read next. This series came up. I mention this because it might serve as a usual gauge for what to expect from "The Darkness That Came Before;" people liking Martin's mix of history, in-depth characterization, dark subject matter, and world-building will probably like Bakker's work. People not fond of entire chapters devoted to the Byzantine political maneuvers, a dozen pages of appendices on characters, maps, and language trees, or character names with umlauts should avoid this book. Basically, the story of 'The Darkness That Comes Before," follows a warrior monk by the name of Anasürimbur Kellhus, who during a quest to find his father, becomes entwined with a Holy War against a nation of fanatical monotheists. The story is

An Act of Clemency

Obama has been the least lenient president in this country's history. Fact. Up until this weekend, Obama had only pardoned 22 people in his entire administration, compared to more than a hundred for his predecessor George W. Bush. The twelve individuals the president pardoned almost double the number of people who have received a new start. The presidential pardon is one of the executive branch's most important and paradoxically underused powers. The president has nearly unlimited power to grant clemency to whomever he or she wishes and yet because that proposition tends to run afoul of some special interest, the pardon is increasingly rare in the modern presidency. Which is what makes one particular recipient of the pardons this weekend so interesting. An Na Peng was pardoned after her 1996 conviction for an immigration violation. The case is somewhat complicated, An Na admitted to a visa violation before realizing that such an admission rendered her vulnerable to deportat

The Past's Impression of Now

What would a time traveler from the mid-90s think of our 2013 present? What would catch this hypothetical chrononaut's eyes? What would require explanation or provoke confusion, even alarm? I asked this question of one of my friends recently, hoping to generate some interesting conversation to mine for a story I'm working on currently. He pointed to the device I was even then twirling around in my hands. "What's that?" he said simply. I think this is probably the best answer for my question. When I cast my mind backwards and think about how the world looks versus now, I'm not sure, on the surface, how much would seem strange or out-of-place. It's been a few years since I've seen Hummer's rolling around everywhere; hybrids and smartcars seem more fashionable. But it's not like you see the flying cars and hoverboards of everyone's  speculative daydreams. The world of buildings and streets, cars and buses, trees and parks, families