Thursday, December 31, 2009

That's It for the Aughts

I'm just taking a quick break from celebrating New Year's Eve with Sylvia to take a look back on the '00s, the oh-ohs or the aughts. A lot has happened in the past ten years - the world has been through a lot, tempering some of the optimism of the 90s. But on a personal level, it's been a pretty good decade, so tonight I'm just going to take a moment to reflect on the events that have affected me most since the new millennium began, in no particular order.

I've written speeches for two Lieutenants-Governor and two Leaders of the Official Opposition.

I left Hole's and started work at the Official Oppositon.

I returned to Leaf Rapids - twice.

I've seen family and friends enter new relationships and end them; I've seen the children of those friends come into the world or grow steadily older. I've made new friends, lost touch with old friends, reconnected with others.

I ran for public office against a sitting Premier - and lost handily, but learned much.

I've travelled to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Honolulu and Victoria.

And of course I met and married Sylvia Boucher, certainly my favourite event of the decade.

The aughts may not have been great years for the world, with disasters both natural and manmade causing untold misery. But I'm grateful that the first decade of the 21st century has been very generous to me, and I hope it's been an equally good ten years for you and yours.

See you in 2010.

30 Years Later - Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Site of the former Gaiety Theatre, Leduc, Alberta - December 25, 2009

Thirty years ago this month, I saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture for the first time. I attended a screening at Leduc's original Gaiety Theatre, plunking myself down in what was then my favourite seat - right hand column, front row, leftmost seat.

At the age of ten, I was already a huge fan of Star Trek, having watched scores of repeats on CBC in Leaf Rapids. With my friends John and Glen and Kelly and a set of the original landing party model kits (faithfully recreating the phaser, tricorder and communicator), we sought out strange new worlds in the deep and mysterious woods of that northern community - already quite a strange world in and of itself.

My family moved to Leduc, Alberta, just a few months before Star Trek leaped from the TV screen to the movie screen, and I was still missing Manitoba. But the prospect of a new Star Trek movie made the move a lot easier to bear, so I was pretty excited as I sat in the Gaiety and waited for the curtain to unfurl.

Of course, these days Star Trek: The Motion Picture is widely regarded as a creative failure, among the worst, if not the worst, of the Star Trek films. It's been derided as Star Trek: The Slow Motion Picture and Star Trek: The Motionless Picture. Critics attack the costumes, the lack of attention paid to much-loved secondary characters, and most of all, the languid pacing.

Much of the criticism is fair. But I contend that the first Star Trek film is among the best of the series, not the worst. Furthermore, this movie is the only true work of science fiction in the entire series.

The film has many strengths. Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-nominated score truly soars, and indeed became iconic. (Interestingly, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of the last films to open with an overture.) Douglas Trumbull's special effects created a completely believable 23rd century civilization and an awesome - in the true sense of the word - threat from outer space. The models and sets were first rate; for the first and last time, the Enterprise felt like a real starship with a crew of hundreds and working parts that made sense within the world of the film. And Robert Wise's direction is steady and sure, especially considering that the script was still being revised even as he was shooting the film.

Even the film's pace is, I believe, a strength - if you have the patience. There are long stretches in the film that pass without dialogue, only music, including Kirk and Scotty's minutes-long tour of the refitted Enterprise, a scene that virtually no director or editor would allow today.

I think that's a shame. That tour of the Enterprise, intercutting between the ship itself and Kirk's reaction to its new appearance, say much about the world of the film and the protagonist's personal journey. The orbiting office complex, the tiny shuttlecraft and spacesuited astronauts whizzing by - these elements tease our imagination, making us wonder what kind of society humanity has built that could create such casual wonders. And Kirk's regrets and longing are written all over his face, revealing a fragile emotional state that sets up and explains some of his bad behaviour in the film.

The film also slows down when the Enterprise intercepts the film's antagonist, the mysterious, all-powerful Vejur, a gigantic cosmic cloud of energy that contains a vast machine intelligence. Again, critics have said that this sequence goes on far too long, but I believe that patience is rewarded if one actually thinks about what one is seeing: machinery that is eons old, of such complexity and scale that it is literally beyond our ability to comprehend. Frankly, I think that's pretty amazing stuff.

And that is why this film is the only real science fiction film of the series, for Vejur's story raises the apocalyptic possibilities of human technology outgrowing its creators. When Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Decker reveal Vejur's secret, they are confronted with the sheer scale of the universe and all the infinite majesty contained within it. And at the film's climax, they help the Vejur entity grow still vaster, raising profound existential questions.

Other Star Trek films may be more entertaining, but they are all space opera, as much about the characters as big ideas. Yes, Star Trek II has the Genesis Device, but that movie is not about terraforming. Other Star Trek films feature time travel, cloning, environmental destruction and other science fiction concepts, but in each case these are merely storytelling devices, not the story itself. (Ironically, William Shatner's universally derided Star Trek V: The Final Frontier comes closest to telling an actual science fiction story - what if God turned out to be just another alien?)

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is full of little moments to love. Ilia's disintegration is artfully directed and shot by Wise; it's a genuinely chilling moment when the sound and fury of the probe that kills her is suddenly replaced by utter silence, save for her tricorder falling to the floor with a thud. The ugly transporter accident near the beginning of the film is also very effective not only as a moment of horror, but also implies that Kirk's obsessive behaviour in the film is having very dire consequences for the people around him. McCoy, as usual, gets the best one-liners, and his initial bearded, leisure-suited appearance is an image for the ages.

As an aside, I always feel bad for Captain Willard Decker. In the course of this film, Kirk takes away his ship and demotes him from Captain to Commander/Executive Officer for no good reason other than to satisfy his own desire to command the Enterprise again. Then, when the original science officer, Commander Sonak, dies in the aforementioned transporter accident, Kirk orders Decker to take on Sonak's duties as well as those of First Officer. Then Spock shows up and supplants Decker as science officer. A short time later, Decker is reunited with his old lover, Ilia, only to watch her killed before his eyes. When a robot duplicate of Ilia appears on the ship, Kirk orders Decker to interact with it to learn more about Vejur. One can only imagine how painful this must have been for Decker. Finally, when Vejur itself seems bent on sabotaging Kirk's attempts to resolve its existential crisis, Decker volunteers to merge with the machine entity, essentially killing himself - or at least sacrificing his physical form. To be fair, Decker himself says that he "wants this" as much as Kirk wanted the Enterprise, but still, no one in this film endures more than this ill-fated character.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is by no means a great film. Objectively speaking, perhaps its not even a good film. But I appreciate it because it's ambitious, sincere, and asks big questions. I left the Gaiety Theatre that day as excited as I ever had been about a show and a world I loved, and having just watched it again on Blu-Ray, its charms are even more evident today. With the pacing of modern films having accellerated beyond breakneck speed, it's a pleasure to sit down with a movie that takes its time.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A View of The View from the Bridge

Books and movies have gotten me through some pretty tough times, and I'm fairly certain that this is the service they perform for most people, who could use a breather from reality and some inspiration every now and again, a time out before returning to the battle.
- Nicholas Meyer, The View from the Bridge

Nicholas Meyer is famous for, in roughly descending order: his writing and directing contributions to three of the best Star Trek films, the horrifying nuclear war telemovie, The Day After, and his Sherlock Holmes novels, The Seven Percent Solution in particular. In his new book, The View from the Bridge, Meyer, with wit, humanity, humility and candor, describes how his numerous books and movies were created, along with an honest accounting of his personal and creative failures.

Meyer's prose is clear, personal and inviting. With self-effacing humour and forthrightness, he explains his journey from New York to Hollywood, and how a combination of happy accidents and determination led to his so-called "overnight" success. He writes of the bad, early death of his mother and the years of psychotherapy that followed; and later, he shares the story of the painful loss of his first wife, who also died too young.

Star Trek fans, and fans of film in general, will find the chapters on moviemaking most illuminating. Anyone who follows the industry already understands that any film that actually gets produced is something of a miracle, and films that are actually good are even more miraculous. Meyer describes the everyday battles between writers, directors, producers and stars, including clashes over money, story, music and even the titles of the films themselves.

Someone said that Hollywood is like an extension of high school. I am not sure exactly what this means but I do acknowledge the place's stratified aspects, among which is the difference between having a hit and having a flop. With the success of The Wrath of Khan I was suddenly popular. If Time After Time had registered in the town's eyes, as a succes d' estime, The Wrath of Khan was just a big, fat hit and it catapulted me into the ranks of "bankable" directors.
- Meyer, from the chapter on The Day After

As profoundly influenced as I have been by Star Trek, Meyer's The Day After hit me nearly as hard, with its horrific vision of nuclear apocalypse. I was 14 when the telemovie was broadcast, and while I thought I was emotionally prepared for what I was about to see, no amount of warning could have prepared me for the sight of those mushroom clouds obliterating scores of human beings and leaving many more burned black with radiation. Meyer's bleak story conjured nightmares that lasted for weeks. Clearly he had his own trepidations about the prospect of tackling such a grim issue:

Like most people, I preferred to avoid the entire terrifying topic. What sort of person willingly immerses himself in the prospect of nuclear annihilation? Everyone knows the bombs are out there, Damoclean swords dangling over our necks, and that knowledge - semiconsciously carried around inside our heads - is more than sufficient for most of us.

But Meyer wanted a new challenge, and the film was made, with more than the usual amount of nervous nitpicking from the money men, including their insistence that the film show that it was the Soviets who started the war. Meyer wanted that point to remain ambiguous, and in the end he won out, to the benefit of the movie.

The Day After may have had a more profound impact than Meyer could have guessed, for some years later, when President Reagan signed the intermediate range missle treaty, Meyer received a postcard that said "Don't think your film didn't have something to do with this." Later on, Meyer discovered that Reagan's autobiography included a passage admitting that viewing the film had changed the President's outlook on the subject of nuclear war - where once he had thought of a nuclear conflict as winnable, after seeing and thinking about the film, he realized that no one wins a nuclear war.

Meyer himself is careful not to claim any credit for the easing of nuclear tensions during the late 80s and throughout the 90s. But I wouldn't be surprised if the movie did indeed help change some important minds. Perhaps books and movies have "gotten us through tough times," as Meyer writes, in more substantial ways then merely providing escape and inspiration.

I highly recommend The View from the Bridge to anyone interested in Star Trek, filmmaking or screenwriting.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Adventures with the Adventure People

On Christmas morning in 1976, I opened up one of my favourite gifts: the Fisher-Price "Wilderness Patrol" Adventure People set. The set included everything an imaginative child could possibly need to create wild adventures from bits of inanimate plastic.

"Wilderness Patrol" presented an embarrassment of riches. There were four action figures: a collie, a pilot, a forest ranger, and a woodsman-type guy I called "Red." There were three cool vehicles: an airplane for the pilot, a pontoon boat, and an ATV. The pontoon boat and the ATV both floated, and even cooler, you could attach the airplane to the pontoon boat. Even a climbing rope and a pair of sleeping bags were included, although looking back I wonder why there were only two sleeping bags for three men. Perhaps one of the men was expected to sleep with the dog for warmth.

I played with these toys for years. They were durable, colourful and versatile. I had great fun floating the ATV and the pontoon boat in the puddles and streams of Leaf Rapids, or taking them all out for "desert adventures" on the sand dunes behind the Acklands store that my dad managed. The men of the Wilderness Patrol often teamed up with other action figures, fighting Stormtroopers and Cylons alongside Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.

But as with all boys, there came a day - shortly after I turned 13, I think - when I realized that action figures weren't cool anymore, that they were for little kids, and that it was time to move on to more sophisticated pursuits: baseball and board games, Atari and long afternoons at the Leduc Public Library. Eventually, when my friends and I were bored, the Adventure People and their action figure brethren became targets of abuse, worth nothing more than a few moments of destructive amusement. Poor Red was thrown into the whirling blades of a lawnmower, but he was tough and suffered only a few shallow gashes and a chunk of his scalp. Other figures weren't as lucky, rolled down playground slides and staircases to lose heads and limbs. Most were simply forgotten in old cardboard boxes and, I assume, carried off to charities or the junkyard by my parents.

I wish now that I'd been more considerate, that I'd recognized the immense value of these mass-produced trinkets. For they represented, first and foremost, the love of my parents, whose first goal was always the happiness of their children. And they helped me create miniature worlds, places where I couldn't go in the flesh; they were my avatars, and I'm grateful for the adventures we shared.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Stuff I Like About Christmas

  1. Log Channel
  2. Good King Wenceslas
  3. The Little Drummer Boy, particularly the Crosby/Bowie video version
  4. The calm of Christmas Eve/Christmas/Boxing Day after the shopping storm
  5. Family dinners
  6. The aura of goodwill
  7. A Charlie Brown Christmas
  8. It's a Wonderful Life
  9. The late 80s Superman story from a "Christmas with the Super-Heroes" special
  10. Lights and glitter
  11. The renewal of hope and the possibility of a better tomorrow.
None of this in any particular order. I may get curmudgeonly about certain aspects of Christmas sometimes (rampant consumerism, chiefly), but any even that gets people to think about kindness to others and peace on earth...well, that's an event worth celebrating.

More Greatest Hits

I've updated the Greatest Hits links to include the closing chapters of "Journey to the Edge of Nowhere," the first two parts of "Earl and Sean vs. the Flying Saucers," a couple of new(ish) book and movie reviews and assorted odds and ends.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Earl Will Not Be Pushed, Filed, Stamped, Indexed, Briefed, Debriefed, or Numbered!

Or perhaps he will. I've added labels/tags to each and every post here at My Name is Earl (J. Woods). Check the list under "Labels" and see if there are any topics that interest you.

A couple of labels need explanation. Posts labeled "Metablahg," including this one, are posts about the blog (which I call a "blahg" because of its former title) itself - its management, structure and so on.

Posts labelled "The Earliad" involve some aspect of my daily life, whether in the now or in the past.

Posts labelled "Silly Nonsense" are, well, silly; usually they contain a silly story or a silly photo that appeals to my odd sense of humour.

Many posts have multiple labels, so a post labelled "The Earliad" may also be labelled "science fiction," for example, if I'm posting about the day I read a novel AND got a new job (not a real example).

I hope this will make it easier for interested readers to search for posts that cater to their particular interests.

I've also been adding photos to older posts. There aren't too many yet, but I'll keep adding them wherever I think it will improve the blahg.

Tomorrow I'll update the "Greatest Hits" list.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Challenge of the Gauntlet in the Envelope

Colin Dunn issues a dark challenge from his home dimension.

Today Colin Dunn challenged Peter Harris and I me to publish a short story and get paid for it sometime in 2010.

All three of us have accomplished this feat once each in the past, then rested on our laurels and moved onto other things, despite our literary aspirations.

So the race is on. According to Colin's rules, the first to sell a story wins bragging rights, but that does not absolve the other contestants from completing the challenge. By hook or by crook, all three of us must sell a story by December 31, 2010, or face the shame of a failed quest.

Colin drops his gauntlet here.

Oh, and if anyone knows of any paying markets that still accept unsolicited manuscripts, please drop me a line via email or in the comments.

Peter Harris attempts to rub out the opposition.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Beware of Falling Canoes

Upon reading my last post, friend and colleague/boss Rick Miller pointed me in the direction of another Bill Mason NFB great, "The Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes." This 1968 short is new to me - either that, or I've forgotten it - but it's nonetheless delightful, with slapstick humour, some really terrific special effects, and an ecological message that resonates to this day. Mason's dynamic and colourful cinematrography is still very much in evidence, too. Also, it looks like the main actor in this film played the lighthouse keeper in "Paddle."

These films remind me of what a treasure we have in the National Film Board. Talk about a great return on our tax investment - decades of classic films of all kinds!

Does anyone else out there have fond memories of films and/or filmstrips they saw in school? Drop me a line in the comments, and a link to the film would be even better.

Paddle to the Sea of Memory

One spring afternoon sometime in the mid-1970s, one of my grade-school teachers rolled a film projector into our classroom in Leaf Rapids. He darkened the lights and turned on the projector, flecks of dust visible in the cone of light. The projector’s fan whirred to life and film clattered from front reel to back, unspooling the beautiful and gentle tale of a young boy’s dream and his wooden creation’s incredible journey from Nipigon country to the Atlantic Ocean. The film was “Paddle to the Sea,” Bill Mason’s 1966 adaptation of the 1941 children’s book by Holling Clancy Holling. Another timeless gem from the National Film Board of Canada, the film was nominated for an Academy Award.

Over the years two or three other teachers played this film for my classmates and me; I probably saw it for the last time in grade seven or eight. Perhaps because I grew up in a remote wilderness very similar to that portrayed in the film, the story of Paddle-to-the-Sea’s improbable trek fascinated me. Like the boy who carved the little man and his canoe, I grew up surrounded by vast forests interrupted only by remote streams and rivers. And like the young carver, I dreamed of what wonders the world beyond might hold.

I love this film for a number of reasons: the beautiful colour cinematography, the whimsical sense of humour, the gentle, evocative narration, the understated but genuine performances of actors human, animal, and inanimate. (Paddle-to-the-Sea himself expresses a wide range of emotions thanks to Mason’s clever direction.)

But most of all, I love the film’s faith in the essential goodness of human nature. “Please put me back in the water,” reads a plea carved into the bottom of Paddle-to-the-Sea, and this plea is duly obeyed by all who read it, even though the beautifully crafted toy is a unique and wonderful treasure. Those who discover the little man and his boat are compelled by empathy for the boy; they help fulfill his dream that Paddle should reach the sea.

Whenever I feel disappointed in humanity’s foibles – our rush to war, our careless destruction of our environment, our everyday cruelty to each other – stories like this remind me that we are just as capable of greatness and good. I’m grateful to Holling C. Holling, the NFB, Bill Mason and my teachers, who all helped me see some of the beauty in man and the world.

After you’ve watched the film,  be sure to read the original book. It’s just as wonderful as the film, with an expanded storyline and beautiful illustrations.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Peering Under the Dome

Like many fans of horror phenomenon Stephen King, I continue to read his work because I hope that each new book might be half as good as some of his terrific early novels. Salem's Lot, The Stand, The Dead Zone, The Shining, Different Seasons, The Gunslinger - these are the stories that made me a fan. Some say that while King has had occasional moments of brilliance since those early wonders, his best years are behind him.

I used to think so too, given blunders like Dreamcatcher and the entertaining yet somehow ultimately unfulfilling wrapup of The Dark Tower series. But King's last novel, Duma Key, surprised me with its poignant tale of the creative impulse and human loss. And Under the Dome is even better, a 1,000 page opus of human (and inhuman) cruelty.

What would happen if a small town were suddenly sealed beneath an impenetrable, invisible bubble? The book starts off with predicable mayhem as unwary travellers crash into the invisible wall with disastrous consequences; there's a plane crash and a number of gruesome car wrecks. All this is just window dressing, though; King is really interested in how people respond to a bizarre sort of slow-motion disaster.

It's hard to reveal King's central theme without spoiling the book, but I will say that King makes his argument in a simple but evocative way. King's greatest strength has always been his ability to pull his readers back to their childhoods, with all the pain and pleasure of those years. One flashback yanked me back to grade school and its terrors with surprising power and speed, and that scene turned out to be the book's central metaphor. It's brutal, perhaps a little obvious, but it works, bringing into sharp relief the good, the bad, and the simply incomprehensible motivations of a number of the book's characters.

Some have complained that Stephen King sometimes fumbles his endings, but in this case the story is tied up if not neatly, then at least with thematic resonance.

Under the Dome is a return to form for King, if not a return to greatness, but I'm nonetheless grateful that King hasn't finished sharing his stories.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Dreams of Injustice

Last night, I dreamed that Batman and Superman were arresting a couple of mobsters.

Batman grabs a bowlful of cocaine and throws it at one mobster's head so hard that the bowl shatters and fills the air with a cloud of cocaine. Superman admonishes Batman for being so violent, then promptly uses his super-breath to blow all the cigarette butts and ashes out of an ashtray, right into the eyes and mouths of a couple more thugs, who of course hack and cough sputter in dismay.

Immediately afterward, I dreamed that Charlie Brown and Linus had at last moved from elementary school to junior high, and that Charlie Brown was shedding his loser persona and becoming more popular.

But the cafeteria management created a new seating plan, and Charlie Brown was forced to sit at a table by himself. Outraged, Linus stood up on a table and railed against the injustice of it all, then marched to the principal's office to complain. I followed him along, and waited in the office with Linus until I woke up.

I never dreamed that Superman would blow ashes and cigarette butts into someone's mouth. Until I dreamed it last night, that is.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Return to the Dungeons

On November 21st, my friend Stephen Fitzpatrick hosted the first round of Dungeons & Dragons any of us had enjoyed in years. Excepting the one-off "Nerdieth Anniversary" event about five years ago, it's been close to two decades since the last time I rolled up a D&D character.

For those unfamiliar with the game, D&D is a special sort of amusement, part boardgame, part storytelling. Each player creates a character with a set of mental and physical attributes and personality quirks, and the referee of the game, or "Dungeon Master," facilitates a kind of collective storytelling session, with each player taking on the role of his or her character. Dice rolls to determine whether or not any given action is successful add an element of chance to the game.

Stephen happens to be a wonderful painter of the pewter miniatures used to represent player characters in the game, and in the photo above you can see some of his work. I apologize for not having written down the character names, but from the left we have Audrey's paladin; my bard, Timbre Wavecrest; Jeff's elf ranger; and Mike's gnome spellcaster. Minatures for Pete and Scott are missing, since theirs haven't arrived yet. (They used temporary placeholder miniatures, seen in some of the shots below.)

When I told Sylvia that I was going to start playing D&D again, she asked me what sort of character I was going to be.

"A bard," I said.

"What's that?" she said.

"Well, it's sort of like a travelling musician. I have a lute and I sing and play music to inspire the other characters to greater heights of heroism. And I wear this cool poofy shirt."

"Oh, you're the gay guy," she said.

"I'm not the gay guy," I said, flustered, "Not that you couldn't play a gay character if you wanted to, but I happen not to be gay - I mean, the character isn't gay. Neither am I, of course. Anyway, just because you have artistic ability in the game doesn't mean your character is gay, just like in real life."

"Mmm hmmm," Sylvia said.

I thought I had a sort of 70s rocker thing going...

Our story began at the sort of quaint little town familiar to any seasoned roleplayer, with an assortment of colourful supporting characters and a plot hook to get us started. In this case, our merry band, looking for work, took on the task of tracking down the kobolds (think miniature wannabe dragons) who'd been raiding a supply caravan.

We followed the trail of the kobolds to a dungon and blundered our way into combat. Note that my character has cleverly placed himself at the rear of the party, in relative safety. The monster to the right is a kobold weilding a sling. The green rectangle with squiggly lines represents a pit full of some kind of nasty fluid. Stephen hinted that we probably didn't want to fall into that pit.

We waded into battle with a will, dispatching the first group of monsters with relative ease. I actually mocked one of them to death with the power of my mighty charisma. Note the bloodstain on the floor leading into the pit - Mike's gnome used telekinesis to squish and drag one of the poor creatures to his death.

Audrey and Pete just before a roll of the dice.

Having slain all the monsters on the first floor, we boldly made our way down the stairs to the next level. Once again I bravely led from the rear, strumming my lute and chanting inspirationally, safely out of range of projectile weapons. We came across another group of kobolds, this time playing some kind of macabre game called "skulls," using a heavy wrecking ball hung from the ceiling to knock over piles of skulls, carnival-style.

Unfortunately the wrecking ball also made a handy weapon, bowling a couple of us over. Poor Jeff's ranger was nearly overcome by vicious dogs, bleeding all over the rank dungeon floor before we were able to rescue him. Fortunately the healing powers of Audrey's paladin were enough to sustain his life force. A close call! (As in real life, Jeff winds up the most badly injured of anyone in our little group! He's had a bit of bad luck with pratfalls.) In the end we prevailed and pressed onward until the late hour forced our middle-aged real-life bodies back into bed. To be continued whenever we can all get back together again - probably not until January, real life being what it is, brashly intruding upon our geeky pastimes.

Dungeons & Dragons, or any of the hundreds of other role-playing games, are great for anyone who loves storytelling, improv, and the theatre of the absurd. I'm grateful that Stephen offered to escort us down those hallowed dungeon halls again, and I look forward to the next exciting episode.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bill 50, Brought to You By...

It's not my intentention to turn this blog into merely another outlet for the work of the Official Opposition, but for those who are interested, here's the latest video from the Alberta Liberal Caucus.

Back to writing about Star Trek and comic books soon enough, I promise.


For some reason, certain YouTube videos look off-centre when embedded in my blog. If this annoys you,watch it here.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Official Opposition Podcasts

After posting an Official Opposition attack ad, I did promise the commenters who objected to the ad that more positive content was coming. While there is criticism of the Alberta government to be found in these two podcasts - one from Official Opposition Leader David Swann, one from Health critic Kevin Taft - I think they're pretty rational, reasonable interviews, particularly David's.

Listen here.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Paranoid Productions Presents: Generous Nature

I've had a passion for narrative since I was a very small boy, so as soon as I had the resources I started writing my own stories and making my own movies. Of course, as an amateur, my efforts have been somewhat uneven, to put it kindly. But the point (I rationalize) is to have fun, and have fun I did. I hope my collaborators did too.

Generous Nature was shot on video by members of the University of Alberta Star Trek Club sometime between 1988 and 1990 in Tony Longworth's apartment. (Tony stars as "The Boss" here.) We shot this, if I recall, after participating in "An Evening of Murder" party game. Not wanting the costumes to go to waste, we decided to ad lib this brief film noir (film mauve?) feature. Film noir is one of my favourite genres and it was a pleasure to submerge myself in the reassuring conventions of formula.

Perhaps the only genius of my brief film career is that I rarely allowed myself to appear on screen, saving that indignity for my long-suffering friends. Instead, I usually barked orders from the metaphorical director's chair and handled the camerawork.

No matter how slapdash the final product, I'm always happiest when I start and finish some kind of creative work. I have hundreds of half-finished, abandoned projects, so I feel deeply satisfied whenever I actually complete a work - even something as cheesy as Generous Nature.

I'm very grateful to my friends for going along with my silly projects. Risking their dignity, they always stepped forward (if sometimes reluctantly) whenever I proposed some harebrained scheme.

And on that note, if any of the actors in this film don't wish this short movie to remain public, please let me know and I'll take it down forthwith without complaint. My intent is not to embarrass anyone (save perhaps myself). Not that I think there's anything embarrassing here - just a bunch of twentysomethings stretching their creative muscles and having fun.

That's what it's all about, isn't it?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

USS Encounter Bridge Displays

In the comments a couple of posts ago, Jeff alluded to some work he'd done on older-model computers back in the day. Believe it or not, I actually saved some of that work by pointing a video camera at a monitor and filming the results. While the image quality is poor, I think you can still get a sense of the amazing work Jeff did with the computer technology of the day. Jeff also composed the music in this video - it's named "Coda," after the villain of the Star Trek fan film we were working on back when we were members of the University of Alberta Star Trek club. I was most impressed with the meticulously modelled USS Encounter, our imaginary ship back in the day - not just a plain old Miranda class, but a unique class of its own, as evidenced by the sensor pod replacing the Miranda's weapons pod. Talk about attention to detail!

Jeff came up with several displays for the abandoned film. In order, they are:

Red Alert signal
Damage control readout (note that the display itself also has a "damaged" setting)
Environmental control
Deflector control
Power readout
Klingon tactical view (Encounter under attack!)
Klingon power readout
Captain Woods' email/alarm clock

It's too bad that the resolution is so bad. Jeff put a lot of work into these, and the little details are really impressive.

Even then - perhaps especially then - computers were wonderful creative tools. I'm glad I took the time nearly twenty years ago to capture at least a fuzzy glimpse of Jeff's work.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bloomin' Great Garden

Click to embiggen for a better view of Mom and Dad's award-nominated yard!

My parents just found out that their yard has been nominated for a Communities in Bloom award. They deserve the recognition; as the years have passed, Mom and Dad have gotten more ambitious and experimental with their gardens, gradually whittling down the lawn grass and replacing it with flowerbeds, vegetable gardens and trees and shrubs.

I first found out about the Communities in Bloom program when I started working for Hole's Publishing. The awards encourage individual gardners and municipalities to beautify their yards, streets and parks through gardening, and Edmonton has won the major city award several times, including this year. It's a great program that rewards people for sprucing up their communities, getting active and staying in touch with the soil.

While I'm no gardener (somewhat ironically, since I've written books on the subject), I have great admiration for people who pursue this virtuous hobby. Hopefully Mom and Dad will come home with an award next week when they return from Leduc City Hall.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Our First Computer - The Amazing Atari 400

Way back in 1980, Mom and Dad presented the family with a very special Christmas gift: an Atari 400 computer! Sean and I hooked it up to the television immediately and played Galaxian and Pac-Man for hours. For the era, these were excellent recreations of the actual arcade games, with graphics and sound far superior to the home video game systems that were popular at the time. We picked up games at a pretty steady clip: Donkey Kong, Shamus, the infamous Claim Jumper, Jungle Hunt, and one of my favourites, Caverns of Kafka, a sort of Indiana Jones-style maze game with fiendish puzzles, lakes of lava, traps and so on. This game had to be loaded into the computer's memory via the Atari 410 tape drive; the software came on a cassette tape, and it took about a half hour or more before you could actually play the game. During the loading process, the computer would make horrific gasping and screeching noises as the data was read into the machine. The real fun was guessing whether or not the software would load successfully at all; it failed about half the time, usually right before completion.

A little later on we delved into the kit that came with the computer: "The Programmer," which included an Atari BASIC cartridge and a couple of reference books. I wrote a couple of simple Infocom-style adventure games and some graphics software to generate moire patterns.

The Atari 400 (and the other Atari 8-bit computers) used the familiar joysticks and paddles from the Atari 2600 video game system. The joysticks were nigh indestructible, but we did eventually wear them out thanks to hundreds of hours blasting asteroids, exploring labyrinths, shooting cowboys and so on. The replacement controllers we purchased were never quite as satisfying.

Later on I upgraded to an Atari 130XE, the last of the 8-bit Ataris, and by the time I was halfway through university I picked up a used 1040 ST, the latest and greatest Atari at the time, and the last truly successful Atari computer.

I wrote a lot of papers on those two machines, printing them on the Atari's letter-quality printer, which created a terrific cacophany whenever you needed to use it. BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG, BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG, BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG said the printer, vibrating my desk with the violence of its efforts. The end results looked very professional, though!

I also picked up my first modem when I started university - an Atari-branded 300 baud model that download plain text so slowly that it couldn't keep up with my reading speed. I used it to connect to local electronic bulletin board systems, such as the one run by the Edmonton Star Trek Club (USS Bonaventure) and Freedom BBS, operated by Ron Briscoe out of the Ron Room in the Bleak House of Blahs. Divided into virtual rooms, the bulletin boards gave geeks of the 80s and 90s places to write collaborative stories, argue over politics, share jokes, and even communicate via "private message," a primitive form of email. Most BBSes supported only one user connection at a time; I remember dialing BBSes and sometimes waiting hours for my chance to connect.

All of our Ataris still exist in Mom and Dad's basement, and they worked the last time Sean and I dug them out - probably ten years ago or so. The 400, at least, was insanely durable, working even after we ripped off the cartridge door.

I'm very grateful to Mom and Dad for introducing me to the world of computers, and I'm sure Sean feels the same way. The Ataris weren't as powerful as the Windows machines we use today, but they had charm in spades.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

H1N1: The Next Generation

The on-again, off-again H1N1 vaccination story here in Alberta reminds me an awful lot of this early Star Trek: The Next Generation episode: poorly timed, bad plot, broadly-drawn stereotypes, arrogant antagonist, gratuitous catfight, heated rhetoric...the only thing missing are the long lineups and immunized hockey players. It's easy to imagine Health Minister Ron Liepert barking "There will be NO VACCINE!"

Monday, November 02, 2009

Dinner at the Bees-tro

Panel from a "Hard to Believe, But..!" feature, Green Lantern #5, 1961.

According to this prognostication, we'd better enjoy our beef while it lasts - there won't be enough around to feed all of us by 2011! While that forecast may be a little tough to swallow - like bees - I find it interesting that the waiter seems to be using a notebook computer to take the happy couple's order. Just think, a couple of years from now we'll be wearing Flash Gordon clothes and dining on Vitamin Bee.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Killer Inside

I sealed my own doom with a silly offhand remark last Halloween.

"What if, inside of each one of us, there's an evil skeleton just itching to get out?" I asked my date, a pale redhead named Alison, she with the haunted eyes. We were surrounded by the city elite, a shambling parade of clockwork capitalists, each of us perfectly groomed, perfectly dressed, perfectly dull. Everyone wore masks, and yet it was easy to tell whose predatory gaze peered through the eyeholes. It was the one feature that distinguished each of us.

"Don't joke!" Alison gasped, swatting me on the arm. I shrugged, a little annoyed that she hadn't found the idea as clever as I. What better time for gallows humour than Halloween night?

I tried again.

"No, imagine it," I said. "What if your skeleton grew tired of bearing all your burdens? What if it suddenly seized control of itself and started to...I don't know, flex and rip at the flesh surrouning it? Like it wanted to burst free, kaboom!"

She made a face. "I thought you were in finance, not cheap horror movies," she said.

With that humourless dismissal, I knew the evening was going to be a chore, despite how much I appreciated the curves that filled her black evening gown. Once again my wandering eye had betrayed me; my impulsive invitation at the library had surely backfired.

Still, perhaps there was yet some amusement to be had, if she were really this skittish.

"Oh yes," I whispered, nodding a perfunctory greeting to a passing associate, "That queer assemblage of bone, growing inside us from birth, supporting us all our lives, but trapped within our flesh. Imagine if skeletons could walk and think and need, like the creatures in the movies, swordfighting Greek heroes or hunting down randy teenagers."

"Gross," she hissed, her frown wiped away by a somewhat desperate, "save me" smile as she waved merrily at another guest bearing a tray of pinkish-orange punch. From that moment on, I started counting the minutes. Any one of the skeletons decorating the hall might have been a better date. Soon Alison was chatting amiably with the punch-bearer, ignoring me.

I don't recall the rest of the evening, other than the dull generalities: we drank, talked, discovered we didn't like each other very much, left the party early, went home alone.

But the evening hadn't been a total waste, I thought as I prepared for bed. My strange idea would probably bother the board to no end next week, for I had already promised myself to share it at the first opportunity with those boring old stuffed shirts. I had an eccentric reputation to uphold, after all. Ha! They'd look round the table at each other, wondering how to react, unsure whether they were supposed to laugh.

I slipped into bed with a smile on my face.

A short time later, the first nightmare came.


I was late for the board meeting. Mumbling an apology, I slipped into my seat, trying to appear inconspicuous. Fortunately no one seemed to notice my tardiness, because Maxwell was stabbing his pointer at the whiteboard with such violence that he was putting small dents in it.

"Buxom redheads are not our target market!" Maxwell bellowed, and to my surprise there was Alison on the whiteboard, tacked to it with huge pushpins, moaning in pain as Maxwell jabbed her in the abdomen with his pointer. Suddenly I felt far more warmth and sympathy for her than I had at the party, and I stood up to protest - but her body started to spasm against the whiteboard, limbs thrashing, her head whipping up and down so violently I was afraid she'd break her own spine.

"Stop that, Maxwell!" I shouted. Rage in his eyes, he viciously snapped his pointer across the back of my hand and I recoiled in pain, nursing my hand. Alison started to scream, her eyes bulging, blood oozing from the corners of her mouth, dripping over her chin, down her pale throat. Her jaw was snapping open and closed, her teeth savaging the insides of her cheeks, biting through them until her gory smile reached all the way back to her molars.

The skin on her right shoulder was bulging, stretched thin, and suddenly it split, blood-drenched bone surfacing violently. Her entire body wrenched itself first one way then the other, and with horror I watched as the bones of her arm pulled free of the flesh, as if they were removing a long glove. The arm, emptied of bone, sagged like a balloon drained of air, the empty hand still pinned to the whiteboard.

The room emptied with screams and panic, but I stood frozen, watching as the skeletal hand started to claw at Alison's face, leaving bone-deep gashes in her lovely features. One thin fingerbone thrust into her left eye, popping it like a grape -

- and then I awoke, drenched in sweat, frozen facedown on the bed, heart pounding.


When morning finally came, I felt an irrational need to call Alison. I wanted to warn her (about what?) or at least apologize for being a jackass at the party.

But I couldn't bring myself to dial her number. It was just a dream, and she probably wanted to forget about what had been, for her, just another bad date, probably not the first nor the last she would ever experience.

So rather than pick up the phone, I tried to complete my morning routine as if it were any other day. And sure enough, within an hour the nightmare had faded, as dreams often do, details once vivid dwindling to nothing more than hazy impressions of a fleeting twilight world best forgotten.

Still, those hazy impressions were more than enough to decimate my appetite. I ate only a bit of yogurt and a slice of melon for breakfast, and even that felt like too much. When invited to lunch by my colleagues, I made excuses about my workload and stayed at my desk. I didn't even think about dinner; instead, I cycled on the stationary bike for forty-five minutes, took my dog out for a walk, and responded to the day's emails.

The nightmare came again that evening. If anything, it was more disturbing than the first.


Yogurt and melon became my daily meal; the recurring dream of Alison's gruesome death was killing any desire I had to eat. I'd always been thin, but before long people started making remarks - my secretary even called me "gaunt," one day, a word I'd never even heard before. After looking it up I had to admit that the description was accurate. When I looked in the mirror my cheekbones looked like axe blades. When I lifted my shirt, my ribs looked like they were ready to burst right through my skin.

Six weeks of this nightmare diet took its toll. I fainted one afternoon at the office, and when I woke up I found myself in a hospital bed, hooked up to an intravenous line. A very young, very serious doctor told me that I had to start eating or I'd whither away to the bone.

That made me laugh, but the doctor didn't find it funny at all.

On my third night in the hospital, an intern strolled into my room, pushing a life-sized model skeleton into the corner.

"What's that for?" I asked, pointing to it.

"Need to move some stuff around - need some surge capacity for the flu pandemic," he said, and skittered away before I could protest.

Well, after all, it was only a model. And in a single room, what other company did I have?

But when I drifted off to sleep that night, no smile crossed my lips, not even an ironic grimace.


My eyes snapped open at once when I felt the I.V. being yanked from my arm. I gasped in pain and then shrieked in horror as the skeleton crawled up into bed with me, one bony fist wrapped around the intravenous line. Its hollow eye sockets glared at me, its teeth frozen in a loathsome grin as it flung the plastic tube to the floor. I screamed for help, pushing myself backward toward the head of the bed, but the skeleton crawled after, one bony knee pressing onto my thigh, its fingers wrapping into my hair, the back of its hand caressing my cheek as its mouth opened.

And suddenly I felt my own mouth being forced open, as if my jaw were moving of its own accord, opening for a kiss as the skeleton leaned over me, lowering its lipless mouth to mine. Inside my arms, I felt my humerus, my ulna, my radius wrapping themselves around the skeleton's ribs, my muscles protesting, my skin crawling in revulsion. I screamed as if I were going mad as I felt the skeleton's bare teeth pressing against my own with a horrid, grinding scrape -

- and I awoke again, staring at the ceiling, not daring to glance over to see if the model skeleton were still hanging in place. I stayed frozen still all night, waiting.


I was discharged some time later, a few pounds heavier, with a referral to a therapist and orders to eat regular meals. The therapist was very good, and within a few months the nightmares had stopped and I was back to my normal weight. A little heavier, even. My colleagues were surprisingly kind when I came back to work, and I felt a little ashamed of how I'd thought of them that Halloween night when this all started, as stereotypes rather than people. Maybe I'd do something extra at the company Christmas party - organize a food bank drive or arrange a sleigh ride, something people would feel good about.

I even phoned Alison, finally, to apologize. It took her a few minutes to remember who I was, but I wasn't offended - it was one date, months ago, and she didn't even recall the stupid skeleton idea. She even suggested we might go out again - but not on Halloween, she said with a laugh. We arranged to get together for a movie on Sunday...November first, as it turned out.


But the night before we were to meet, I dreamed again. And in this dream, Alison and I were running through the moonlit woods, terrified. I knew that she was being compelled to run by the skeleton inside her; it was propelling her toward a cliff, where it would fling her over the side to burst open her flesh on the rocks below, and at last her skeleton could escape her prison of skin and muscle.

But before the skeleton could fling her over the precipice, I overtook them, grabbing Alison by the hair and throwing her to the ground. I snatched up a rock and, with tears in my eyes, I started pounding the skeleton with the stone, smashing the bone, crushing it, rendering it helpless, unable to hurt Alison. I smashed the stone into her traitorous skull, her fiendish ribs, her diabolical femur over and over, until at last the skeleton was still.

At first I laughed in relief; it was over; I had saved her. But in the dream, Alison didn't move. Her green eyes stared into nothingness. I'd failed - the skeleton had killed her after all, from within, without even needing to escape. Her beautiful skin was covered in blood and bruises, broken open in places where the skeleton had tried to free itself. Enraged, I started to beat my fists against my own skull, as if warning it not to try the same thing with me, as if wanting to punish one skeleton for its evil even if the first had escaped me in death...


The next morning I told myself that I wouldn't mention the dream to Alison. No reason to remind her of our first, unpleasant date. I was a little annoyed that even after months of therapy I should still be having skeleton dreams, but perhaps it was my own fault; perhaps the prospect of seeing Alison again reminded me of how the whole silly idea started. I was sure that this was just a momentary relapse, not to be repeated.

I arrived at the theatre just a few minutes before we were to meet. The appointed hour came and went. I called her cell phone, but there was no answer - just a chirpy voice mail message. I waited an hour, called again, again received no answer.

I waited another half hour before I gave up and drove home. On the way, a police cruiser sped into my rear-view mirror, blue and red lights flashing, swerving by me to disappear into the night.

I decided not to call Alison again. She probably realized that a second date was a bad idea after all, and I didn't fault her for the choice.

My left arm jerked a little as I pulled into my driveway, a violent spasm that startled me a little. I put the car in park, shut off the engine and stared at it, but nothing happened.

I favoured myself with a self-deprecating grin, shrugging off the whole experience, resolving to be a nicer guy so that maybe the next time I met someone like Alison I wouldn't spoil my chances. It had taken some bad dreams and a medical crisis, but I was finally starting to feel comfortable in my own skin.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Zombieland: A Nice Place to Visit...

Like any right-thinking individual, I have a great deal of affection for the Zombie Apocalypse sub-genre of horror. My favourite zombie film remains George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, aka "the one in the shopping mall." That film has just the right mix of tension, satire, horror and laughs to make it an undead classic.

Zombieland isn't in Dawn of the Dead's league, but it is funny, heartfelt and even romantic. It's sensitive and sincere. The four characters - known initially only by their hometowns - each have their own quirks, and while broadly drawn, they grow and change throughout the course of the film to outgrow their stereotypes: neurotic nebbish, redneck, spunky little girl, slick con woman. Each character has a growth arc, even though they're kept busy killing zombies and scavenging the wasteland throughout the film. The film plays the apocalyptic situations for laughs most of the time, then stuns the viewer by reminding us of the very human cost of the end of civilization. The redneck's obsessive quest for a popular snack food masks the pain he's really feeling, while the nebbish's obsession with his rules of survival clearly shows that his coping mechanisms need to change if he hopes to experience emotional growth. The women, too, are faced with the necessity to make themselves vulnerable, to trust in others in the worst possible circumstances. Yes, this is just a zombie film, but because the characters are more than cardboard cutouts, the audience gets invested in the story. We care about these people, because they're very much like us.

The film makes clever use of special effects to transform credit sequences and pop-up subtitles a living, breathing part of the film, a technique that reminds me of nothing so much as Will Eisner's technique in his famous comic strip, The Spirit. This sort of thing is becoming more common - I've noticed it on Fringe, for example. Some people might find the device intrusive, but it struck me as quite clever.

Horror film sequels have a mixed track record, so I won't call for more adventures in Zombieland - the ending is satisfying enough for this film to stand on its own. But if a sequel does come along, so will I - not for the zombie mayhem, but because I wonder if these characters have more room to grow.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What's in a Label?

Most of my readers know by now that I work for the Official Opposition here in Alberta. Here's a little something we released this morning.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Earl J. Woods Reports on the War of the Gurus

War of the Gurus is Howard Rheingold's second (and presumably final) novel in his Savage Report series. Compared to 1994, reviewed here, Gurus is a little humdrum. The copyediting has improved somewhat and the weird metaphors, awkward neologisms and hyperbolic action are still in evidence, but the proceedings this time around are somewhat laid back. The prose has gone from purple to mauve or something. Don't get me wrong, it's still insane, but Rheingold seems to have lost some steam with this installment. Of course, after the madness of 1994, what could compare?

The story takes place just a few months after the climax of 1994. Our hero, Jack Anderson, is relaxing on a tropical island when Smoky Kennedy parachutes back into his life, naked of course, bringing a new mission and some afternoon hanky-panky to start things off on the right foot.

This Report's red herring is something called TRIGGER, a kind of worldwide, interactive electronic voting system to enable all Earth's citizens to have their say on important issues - shades of the Internet. In the novel, this is seen as a transformative device that will finally allow all people of the Earth to cast off the shackles of oppression and participate in a truly functional global democracy.

In real life, when and if such a system is ever set up, it'll be used to vote for Earth Idol and share opinions on obscure 1970s science fiction novels.

Smoky reveals that a mysterious conspiracy is attempting to sabotage TRIGGER, using warring cults know, I'm not entirely sure how the cult war is supposed to tie in with the TRIGGER sabotage. Something about manipulating cult leaders into starting a riot in Anaheim and there's an underground computer lab in New Jersey and Dr. Tek is behind it all (of course) except he's a hologram or a bunch of clones and Jack bites all his teeth at the same time to escape and he's caught in the explosion and everyone thinks he's dead, but aha there's an epilogue and he and Smoky attend their own funerals disguised as Jack's parents and they escape to another tropical island laughing about all the wonderful adventures they'll have and poor Eve Savage kind of sits in the sidelines and wonders what the hell is going on even though she's supposed to be this amazing media guru...hey, War of the Gurus, I didn't even catch that.

Sorry about that. The plot's a little hard to follow this time around because Rheingold isn't too big on transitions; scenes jump around willy nilly and sometimes I thought I was reading one scene only to find myself suddenly within another without any handy chapter breaks or those little squiggly lines authors sometimes use or heck, even a new paragraph. It's just like BAM, you were following Smoky a second ago but now you're in Eve Savage's studio OH BUT NO now Jack Anderson is glued to a wall and can only escape by ripping his own skin off.

William S. Burroughs probably enjoyed it, anyway.