Saturday, September 30, 2006

A Look Back

Got bored last night while The Wife was on the computer, so on a whim, I pulled out an old book I had on the shelf, titled The Best of Science Fiction TV. This is one of those throwaway compilation books thta publishers seems to shovel out by the thousands every year, lots of small snippets alternating with a ton of pictures. "Lavishly illustrated," as they say, with screen captures of cheapo television shows.

The book was published in 1987, almost 20 years ago, and it sort of amazed me to page through it. A couple of months ago, see, I attended a panel at Conestoga about "The Year in Television," and the consensus seemed to be that it had been a slow year. Other than Battlestar Galactica and Lost, nothing else had really seemed to take hold and thrive. Even Star Trek, long the most durable and dependable of franchises, no longer had a show in production.

But looking at this book, you realize just how far we've come. The list of the top twenty-five science fiction in shows of all time, voted on by a group of respondents including prominent TV critics, SFWA writers, and SF fan groups, was this:

  1. Star Trek (and at that time, there was only the one)
  2. The Twilight Zone (the original)
  3. The Outer Limits (still only the one)
  4. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (BBC series)
  5. Dr. Who
  6. Amazing Stories
  7. Mork and Mindy
  8. The Wild, Wild West
  9. V ("the miniseries," the book qualifies, not the follow-on series)
  10. The Prisoner
  11. The Invaders
  12. Quark
  13. The Jetsons
  14. Captain Video
  15. The Adventures of Superman
  16. Space Patrol
  17. Tom Corbett, Space Cadet
  18. The Twilight Zone (80's revival)
  19. Lost in Space
  20. Way Out
  21. The Avengers
  22. Battlestar Galactica
  23. Science Fiction Theater
  24. My Favorite Martian
  25. Blake's 7
This was the state of science-fiction TV in 1987. Of the twenty-five shows on the list, only three were products of the decade in which the book was written (Amazing Stories, Blake's 7, and the 80's revival of The Twilight Zone), other than Dr. Who, which had been running constantly for over two decades. The most recent of the rest had gone off the air five years previously (Mork and Mindy, which started in 1978 and lasted till 1982). Several of the shows had lasted only one season, or had been cancelled before their first season had ended (Quark, which aired only eight episodes). Two of the shows in the top 25 also placed in the top 10 Worst Shows (Lost in Space, Battlestar Galactica).

The point here is that, before Star Trek: The Next Generation ushered in a new wave of serious science fiction shows, the bench was really thin. Some of the shows that are fondly remembered now were not watched because they were good, but because they were the only even vaguely SF-nal thing on at the time. In those days, fans took what they could get. Nowadays, we get more than we can take.

So before you jump on the Aaron Sorkin bandwagon, dercying the degeneration of television into a horrible wasteland compared with some golden past, take another look at the titles on this list, and compare them to what's on today. We have it pretty damn good right about now.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Smallville Season Opener

Watched the season openers of Smallville and Supernatural. There are two kinds of season opener: the flashy beginning of a big new story arc (Smallville, and pretty definitely Lost as well) and the quiet coda (Supernatural).

Both Smallville and Supernatural ended on cliffhangers last season. But Smallville played big and bombasticin their opener, wrapping up the big story arc of last season (Brainiac/Zod) with frighteningly quick efficiency while setting up new villains for this season (the escapees from the Phantom Zone). I had thought, after all the build-up of Zod last season, that they would make him the big bad for at least several episodes, if not the entire season. But no, wham-bam-boom, he was gone and the new guys were in place. At the same time, they put just about the final period on the Clark/Lana relationship, and the Chloe/Clark crush, introducing a love interest for Chloe and finally showing a real spark between Lois and Clark. All in an hour, so there was very little time to linger on tender moments.

Supernatural, on the other hand, while it ended on a cliffhanger, had basically wrapped up the immediate storyline, sort of putting everybody back to the status quo of episode one, until the final shocking moments (and BTW, is it just me, or is the whole "view from inside the car as it is unexpectedly hit on the passenger side" thing getting a little played out?*). But instead of launching immediately into a big new arc, the season opener focused instead on the characters' reactions to the events of the finale and disposd of most of the dangling threads. They set up the new arc in only the vaguest way. It was a much quieter approach than Smallville, but it worked pretty well. I'm still not sure I'm going to be a regular viewer, but I'm willing to keep tuning in, at least for another couple of weeks.

*I remember it happening in Reunion, and Smallville, and in at least one other movie or series, and in a seat belt PSA, and now Supernatural.

ETA: When I listed the seat belt PSA above, I thought at the time it might be an insurance company commercial, then somebody reminded me that Volkswagen had done the same thing. I remember one of the commercials, but couldn't find a video to link. however, they did a sequel.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Falling Up the Slippery Slope

mtreiten mentioned torture in a comment to a previous post of mine. I didn't reply then, because the whole subject depresses me, but then I read Jonah Goldberg's article in National Review Online, which expresses at least a part of my view. I'll try to express a little more of it here, although it's fairly large and amorphous, so I'll probably state it poorly.

What I see Goldberg saying here is that we need to have a serious discussion on just what is and is not torture, and I agree. However, I'm not sure that such a discussion is possible anymore, because the two sides in this debate are literally speaking two different languages. We've known for years about the political power of framing the debate in terms favorable to your side, which is why opponents of abortion call themselves "pro-life" (rather than "anti-abortion") and proponents call themselves "pro-choice" (rather than "pro-abortion").

The problem is that this tendency, along with an exaggerated fear of the "slippery slope," have resulted in people (and I'm going to characterize this as being mainly people on the left with nothing but my own anecdotal evidence to go on - skewer me if you must) defining terms downward until they become almost meaningless.

In a society where simple insults are redefined into hate speech, where normal behaviors can be redefined by the mental health industry as new diseases, where an actor on a Public Service Announcement can say without irony that "tolerance means celebrating our differences," where an insurance company may raise your premium if you have one cigarette a year and where some folks argue that having even one beer constitutes "drunk driving," where moronic celebrities will bleat "First Amendment" when their record sales drop because they said something offensive to their audience, where eating cockroaches is protested as animal abuse (I had more, including at least one on the right, but my brain is going numb), it is not surprising that people will regard hoods as torture.

We are so in horror of falling to the bottom of the slippery slope that we keep pushing things the other way, just to make sure we don't slip. People who live in horror of the Christian Right and Bush's theocracy have no problem pushing their own style of Puritanism on society for our own good.

But torture has a long and rich history, with some weirdly beautiful terms (strappado and bastinado come immediately to mind). Read the Malleus Maleficarum sometime to get a sense of what real torture is, and then try to square that with what we've been debating recently - loud music, cold rooms, hoods. Where is the line between discomfort and torture? My gut says somewhere around waterboarding, but then I think, if we do it to our own troops as training, how bad can it be? Is inducing momentary panic equal to torture? Should we expand the arsenal of allowable techniques based on the extent of the immediate threat (the "ticking time bomb" scenario)?

Oh wait. I forgot. There is no real threat. So we can all just go back to whatever we were doing before. How could I have ever doubted that serious discussion was possible?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Studio 60 Revisited

Thinking back on Monday's episode, I'm reminded of something else that bothered me about it. The show's A-plot is all about needing to come up with a cold open, the skit they do before the opening credits. Matthew Perry's character (conveniently named Matt) agonizes over this, because he knows that it will set the tone for the entire show, and for their entire run of the show. He needs something splashy, an attention-grabber that will both acknowledge and downplay the circumstances that led to the regime change, and he needs something hilariously funny that will signal the shows return to the kind of quality and cutting-edge social satire the show was once known for.

To accomplaish this, he pins all his hopes on... a Gilbert & Sullivan parody.

And not even a good Gilbert & Sullivan parody. The song he parodies, the Major-General's Song from The Pirates of Penzance, is perhaps the most famous song from their most famous operetta. The problem is, the original song is a rapid-fire catalog with tricky diction and rhyming. The Studio 60 parody is rather flat and wooden, nothing tricky or rapid-fire about it, killing even its couple of tepid punch lines by having a chorus repeat them ad nauseum and stomp them into the ground.

If you want to see rapid-fire musical parody done right, watch Animaniacs.

Why am I spending so much time writing about a show I don't seem to like that much? Because when he's good, Aaron Sorkin writes awesome TV. And like I said, I'm a sucker for backstage drama. And I like the cast. If Sorkin could just get off his soapbox, stop preaching at us about the evils of the Christian Right and bloggers and filming in Vancouver, and concentrate on the characters and the (fictional) show, this could be a home run.

But it's not there yet.

Monday, September 25, 2006

More New Shows

First episode of Heroes was on tonight, NBC's new series about modern day superheroes appearing in the "real world." I actually watched it online over the weekend, though, which was pretty awesome in itself. I have a friend who basically never watches TV anymore. He either downloads Torrents or rents DVD sets off of Netflix or buys them outright if it's a show he really likes. Don't know what this does to the economics of TV long-term, but I got a little thrill of coolness being able to watch a show being streamed on-demand instead of broadcast. Of course, thanks to the protections on the streaming, I couldn't rewind and watch scenes again, so it wasn't totally cool.

Show-wise, it was OK. There's an awesome money shot right up front (and by money shot, I don't mean ejaculation but the equivalent on a show like this - a cool effects sequence of someone using their powers). It's really early in the show, and it was in the trailer, so no spoiler warning. Basically, this cheerleader (played by Hayden Panettiere) takes a 30-40 foot fall onto the ground. The shot is set up to look like it's being filmed by a friend with a videocam, so we see in one continuous take the girl climbing the stairs, jumping off and falling to strike the dirt face-first, the POV jumping as the cameraman runs over to see if she's okay as she climbs to her feet and yanks her dislocated shoulder back into place. All one seamless shot.

That pretty much kept my ass in the seat for the rest of the episode. It's not a great show, not as breathtaking as Lost was when it debuted, or as zingy as Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but I like a couple of the characters pretty well. When the cheerleader's mom asks her what she did today, the girl answers, "I walked through fire and didn't get burned" (which is literally true). Mom, who's busy playing with her annoying little lapdog, gets all teary-eyed at her daughter's poetic summation of the human spirit, saying something like, "Haven't we all?" So the cheerleader and the teleporting Japanese sarariman I liked. The stripper on the run from the mob with her super-genius son (played by that annoying kid from My Wife and Kids, who's getting typecast as the precocious genius), I didn't like so much.

In the meantime, I also watched Vanished, which is apparently getting killed in the ratings. It's too bad, because I kind of like the show, although having a Masonic conspiracy at the heart of it all*? Sort of done. It feels a little like a cheap attempt to cash in on The Da Vinci Code. Plus, there was a real howler tonight. Pardon me while I digress into my former military area of expertise.

Last week, the FBI agents found this laptop that was set up to receive a wireless broadcast of a video feed that showed the kidnapped senator's wife (the 'vanished' of the title). So they try to track the signal.

Now, radio-direction finding is really simple in concept. In the old days, you would set up with a directional antenna and physically turn it around until you found the direction in which the signal was strongest; nowadays, they make special direction-finding antenna arrays that can calculate the same thing within seconds. So with one reading, you can basically draw a line from where you are to where the signal is originating from, and the signal could originate from anywhere along that line, up to the range of the transmitter. We call this a Line-of-Bearing, or LOB.

To pinpoint the transmitter's location, you want at least three receivers in different locations giving you those LOBs; where the lines intersect is the transmitter's true location. We call this triangulation.

On Vanished, they started out okay, with three direction-finding trucks moving out to take readings. However, the signal was cut off before they could get more than one reading. So the agent asks the tech what he can do with one reading, and the guy says the one reading has yielded not a LOB, but a "ten square mile area." Puh-leeze.

Okay, over it now. Studio 60 ep. 2 aired tonight. Man, this show frustrates me. I love backstage stories. I've done enough performing that I can really relate to them. But the show keeps wobbling back and forth between some fairly sharp character and dialogue and some really lazy potshots at Bush and the Christian right. Sorkin knows from experience that Christian outrage is great publicity, so he manufactures some by having his fictional show-within-a-show thumb its nose at its Christian viewers. I'm not a Christian anymore, but it's just so strident and tiresome, and I just hope he's gotten it out of his system, and that the show has more interesting places to go than this. Because I really like Amanda Peet and Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford.

*once again, not really a spoiler, since they've been hinting broadly at this for at least three episodes

Sunday, September 24, 2006

More Synchronicity

So I'm in the middle of a long weekend, and my main goal has been to write the first draft of a new short story I agreed to write as part of a contest. Part of the research I've done for the story over the last two days has been refresher reading on the Lesser Key of Solomon, a rather famous (or perhaps infamous) text on magic and demon summoning.

Now on Thursday, I wasn't sure if the new season of Smallville was starting or not, so I recorded it, and while I was at it, I also recorded another show I've been hearing good things about, but never watched. That show is Supernatural. Turns out, the shows I recorded weren't the new season openers, but the season finales from May.

So I spent much of this afternoon and evening writing the story, with frequent references to the Lesser Key of Solomon. Then I came home and watched the shows I recorded on Thursday. Guess which magical text plays a major role in the finale of Supernatural?

The show itself was okay, although the grim and gritty got a little over-the-top after a while. Plus, the dialogue could use some work. The characters say each other's names way too much.

"Don't do this, Dean!"
"I have to, Sam!"
"No you don't, Dean!"
"Yes I do, Sam! Our lives depend on it!"
"No they don't, Dean!"*

As for the story I'm writing, I'm about two-thirds of the way through it. I'm sort of happy with it as far as it goes, although I think the plot plays out a little too conventionally. I recently read an essay about fantasy relying too much on quest plots, because so many fantasy writers are stuck in Tolkien imitation mode. I think the same is true of horror stories, where so many of them are about a guy encountering forces beyond his control and trying to beat them, only to discover at the end that his efforts were at best futile, at worst playing right into the malevolent creature's designs. Between this and the poetic justice story, you've got well over half the horror field covered, I think.

I don't want to play to cliche, and yet that's exactly where I'm headed right now, unless some brilliant inspiration strikes me in the next 2000 words.

*not real dialogue from the show, but you get the idea

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Apple Sux

I had Quicktime on my computer, but I ran into playback problems, so I updated the player. Quicktime was now totally incompatible with Firefox, apparently, so I deleted it from my system completely, and everything else ran pretty much fine. So my wife is looking for something on-line the other day, it requires Quicktime. She reinstalls it, and now not only does it not work with Firefox, not only does it pop up fucking error messages every other page, but it's also killed Flash!

Fucking useless crap.

ETA: Fixed it. Ended up having to delete a bunch of .dll files. What a pain.

2nd UPDATE: mtreiten asked how I fixed it. I searched through Mozilla's FAQs and found this page, which recommends editing Quicktime's preferences under the Browser tab and unchecking Flash content, then hunting down and deleting npqt*.dll from your Mozilla plug-in folder. I tried to get away without deleting the dll files, but it turns out I had to. I still get error messages popping up constantly asking me to install Quicktime, but the Flash works again. I've tried unchecking the boxes that make Quicktime the default player of all but Quicktime and TIFF files, but I still get the error messages and I don't know how to stop them. Ironically enough, I've only been getting the error messages asking me to install Quicktime since installing Quicktime.

Temeraire and Hedwig

I've been on a frantic reading binge, finishing On Basilisk Station by David Weber and then leaping headlong into His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik. The Weber book was the first in the Honor Harrington series, and it was generally okay, although as a first novel, it had some pretty clunky prose and wooden characters. Also, being a science fictional retelling of the Horatio Hornblower story, Weber has to jump through some expositional hoops to set up his spaceships so that they have to battle like 17th century warships, maneuvering in two dimensions to fire broadsides at each other. But for all that, by the time I finished, I wanted to read the second book in the series.

But since I'd had the Novik book for a month, and had put off buying it for months before that, I decided to go ahead and read it next. I finished it last night, and it was really good. It' a fantasy about the English using a dragon-based air force against the French during the Napoleonic wars. Excellent work, with a really appealing character in Temeraire, the dragon. I must say, I got a little choked up a couple of times, and I plan to buy the next book in the series very soon.

However, while I was reading it, I couldn't help but be struck by the similarities to Harry Potter.

Captain William Laurence, the main character, is an Englishman who is drawn into what amounts to a separate culture existing alongside his own (the Air Corps, devoted to the care and training of dragons, like the wizarding world of the Potter books). He is an outsider who has to learn his way among strangers, who all seem to know about him, because he is famous (for having retrieved a rare dragon's egg from a French warship). Although he is a newcomer to this society, he progresses very quickly, thanks to grit and loyalty and the fact that, though inexperienced, he's badass powerful. His strength makes him the target of a powerful enemy, who is both the source of his power and jealous of it. But his goodness and loyalty bring him allies, foremost among them two fellow trainees, male and female, one each. His adjustment to his new position is made easier by the fact that he is suddenly and unexpectedly wealthy. Over the course of his training, several seemingly unrelated clues come together to reveal a secret plot that only he can foil in the end, by discovering the true nature of his own power.

Some of these things are common tropes, of course, but others, like his newfound wealth (which also featured in the Honor Harrington book, strangely enough - that may have been what made it stand out so strongly) aren't so much.

I'm going to spend the weekend not going to FenCon and trying to bang out a couple of short stories that have impending deadlines. Depending on my success with those endeavors, I may then reward myself with the second Temeraire book, Throne of Jade.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


The fall season is in almost full swing, so all that free time I had over the summer is getting sucked up again. I spent the weekend watching Lost Season 2 in anticipation of season 3 starting in a couple of weeks. I watched an episode of the remastered Star Trek. It was "Balance of Terror," Das Boot in space. The effects are subtly better, but they did not take my suggestion and depicted phasers as photon torpedoes, just like the original episode. There is a funny bit where Nimoy has to run down a corridor and turn a corner; between the slick floor and the (as near as I can remember) painfully ill-fitting boots of the first season and the probably-flimsy set walls that he must avoid bumping, the run looks pretty silly.

Watched the debut of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip last night. Very funny in places, but like The West Wing, it alternates between being very funny and almost unbearably preachy. A character has an on-camera meltdown at the beginning of the show, in which he goes off on television for being dumb and offensive, but not offensive in the right ways. And given Sorkin's previous highly-publicised drug problems, it seems almost too much like a roman a clef for his main characters to be a TV writer and director, both of whom also have a history of drug problems (one of them played by Matthew Perry, who also has his own real-life history of drug problems). Maybe the drug thing will fade into the background once the show gets rolling.

I have to mention, though, that the biggest laugh I got during the episode was from the Rozerem commercial. Rozerem is a sleep aid drug, and get this: one of the side effects may be drowsiness. Alert CBS News, I think there's a scandal a brewin'.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Star Trek Remastered

I had more political stuff I'd planned to say, but it frankly makes me tired and depressed, so here's some geekery instead. With no new Trek product in production, this season they're syndicating the original Star Trek, remastered for HD with rerecorded music and digital special effects. There's a trailer here and we'll all be able to watch the finished product within a couple of weeks.

I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, I think the show works well as a product of its times, and I think it ought to be viewed that way. The original space effects were extremely well done, especially given the time and money constraints on a weekly TV show. They've held up amazingly well over time, partly because they were so stylized. The ships had these odd abstract shapes and the colors were striking. The color schemes also work together well between the effects and the live action. The show works as a whole, and it could distract to add modern digital realism, subtle color schemes and fidgety details.

That being said, the show could also use some clean-up. Check out that first shot of the Enterprise in the youtube clip. You'll see a weird wobble in the movement as the Enterprise flies away from camera toward the planet. That eccentricity in the movement was caused by the tracks the camera ran on. That would be an almost invisible fix that could only help the show, because the wobble drops you out of the illusion and alerts you that it's not real.

I also think it would help sell the concept if they make geek-friendly changes. What the hell does that mean? Well, take phasers, for instance. The producers of the original show never really worried about consistency from episode to episode when it came to phaser fire. Sometimes the phasers are depicted as slashing continuous beams with what I consider the definitive phaser sound effect. But sometimes they used the photon torpedo visual, instead, firing discrete white blobs. I don't remember whether they ever used the photon torpedo sound effect, but sometimes they did go for the "no sound in outer space" effect.

Any one of these is a valid artistic choice, I think, but as a fan watching the show back when, I got frustrated by the lack of consistency. I don't fault the producers for it. They had no reason to think that the show would end up with a rabid fan following that would watch the shows multiple times, and even have their own personal video libraries at home. Consistency was not high on their list of priorities.

But the remix offers the new producers the chance to make things consistent across the board. A phaser is a phaser, and a photon torpedo is a photon torpedo, and never the twain shall meet.

If they do that, it's a good thing.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Paradigm Schmaradigm

I usually stay away from the politics in this blog, and I had originally planned not to post anything about 9/11. But it's so much in the air that I thought I may take a stab at getting my own thoughts in order and in print.

I saw "The Path to 9/11" last night, and thought it was generally okay. There were some clunky "author's sermon" bits of dialogue, but I thought that they got the weaselly bits, and more importantly, the clueless mind-set of the Clinton administration down perfectly. And five years down the road, they're still clueless, still arguing for the same failed approaches that got us to 9/11 in the first place.

See, something big happened in this country on 9/11 that had huge consequences for the world, and I'm not speaking specifically about the attack on the World Trade Center. I'm talking about a change in mind-set, a different paradigm, if you will, that emerged from the fire and rubble of that day, and that was codified in Bush's speeches shortly afterward.

It was the recognition that we were at war.

And it's something that the ex-Clintonistas, the Bush-haters, those on the left refuse to admit or acknowledge. I'm not talking about people making the grudging admission that "Yeah, we're at war, but it's Bush that put us there." I'm talking about deep down, where you really believe that this is a kill-or-be-killed situation and you'd better start taking the threat seriously and acting accordingly. And the left aren't there. Never have been.


The Clinton administration's biggest failing in dealing with terrorism was their insistence that terrorism was a law-enforcement problem. Someone does something wrong, you arrest them. You only go after those directly responsible for the incident in question, and only if you have sufficient evidence to connect them. If a Blood kills a Crip, you don't round up the whole gang. You arrest the one Blood responsible, and if you don't have sufficient proof that he did it, you have to let him go. That's the law enforcement mindset.

And evidence for it is everywhere. From U.S. Ambassador Barbara Bodine's letter to the LA Times ("The Cole was also a crime scene"), to Clinton's vow to "bring those responsible to justice, no matter what or how long it takes," to the continued loony insistence that Bush lied about a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 in order to go to war. He never did no any such thing. He claimed links between Al Qaeda and Iraq as part of a larger case for Iraq as a state sponsor of terrorism. People have interpreted that as him saying Saddam was in on 9/11 because they're listening through a law enforcement filter: "you only go after those directly involved."

And they're still doing it. Yesterday, Vice President Cheney was on Meet the Press and went through an amazingly frustrating "Who's on First?" routine with Tim Russert that illustrates this very problem. A small sample:

MR. RUSSERT: All right. Now the president has been asked, "What did Iraq have to do with the attack on the World Trade Center?" and he said "nothing." Do you agree with that?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: I do. So it's not...
MR. RUSSERT: So it's case, case closed.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: We've never been able to confirm any connection between Iraq and 9/11.
MR. RUSSERT: And the meeting with Atta did not occur?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: We don't know. I mean, we've never been able to, to, to link it, and the FBI and CIA have worked it aggressively. I would say, at this point, nobody has been able to confirm...
MR. RUSSERT: Then why, in the lead-up to the war, was there the constant linkage between Iraq and al-Qaeda?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: That's a different issue...

America's response to terrorist attacks under Clinton was paralyzed by the "Superman problem." Superman's so strong that he can finish most enemies with one punch; no one can really challenge him toe-to-toe. Superman's big problem is that before he can hit someone, he has to figure out who to hit.

As I was watching TV that morning 5 years ago, part of my deep depression was caused not just by what was happening at that moment, but by the feeling that, like Clinton, Bush's response to the attack would be a few angry words followed by a shrug: "We will do whatever we can to bring him to justice, but in reality, 'whatever we can' will amount to a lot of talk and a couple of empty gestures."

The policy that George Bush announced immediately in the wake of 9/11 was a radical shift away from this mindset. So radical that many people in this country still either don't comprehend or believe it. Bush did not announce a simple investigation to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. Nor did he announce that we were at war with Al Qaeda, although I've heard lots of people use that phrase.

This was the Bush policy in a nutshell: the problem isn't just Al Qaeda. It's the fact that Islamic jihadists have been allowed to breed and flourish, that countries around the world found terrorist groups to be such valuable tools that they were giving them weapons and money and training and safe haven. So bringing bin Laden to justice is only a small part of what we need to do. The big part is bringing down that edifice of terror-sponsoring regimes, and the intricate networks that fund and train and supply terrorists. Because we are not at war with Al Qaeda. We are at war with the larger system which brought Al Qaeda into being and helped it grow.

Here are direct quotes from Bush's speech on September 20, 2001:
"Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated."

"Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success."

"And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime."

Everybody heard these words that night, but apparently few took them to heart, didn't believe they were true or that Bush meant them. But looking back over the past five years, it's apparent that he meant every word.

What has the Bush administration done in the intervening years? Gone on a single-minded manhunt for bin Laden? Made a couple of arrests and a cruise missile strike, then declared victory and quit?

No. They've brought down terror-supporting regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, created a new cabinet-level department, embarked on secret programs designed to monitor terrorist communications traffic and strangle terrorist finances, changed or began planning to change the way the military is structured and equipped to fight this enemy.

Quibble with Bush's execution, if you will. Necessary intelligence overhauls still have not been done, and the Iraq occupation has not been handled well. Bin Laden is still at large, although his influence has been diminished as other players have come to the fore. And there are serious debates about civil liberties versus the need for security.

But stop with the "Bush lied" nonsense. He said what he meant, and he did it. The problem is, after eight years of having to read between the lines of every utterance by the Big Weenie, to try to divine the truth behind the carefully-worded ambiguity, a lot of people were not prepared for a President who did that.

That's about it for now, because it's lunchtime. I will add that many see our handling of Saudi Arabia as an indication of Bush's hypocrisy, but I disagree. I'll argue that later if someone insists. And I may talk more about Clinton later. Or not.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Die Hard Part 4: Conclusion and Lessons Learned

So what have I learned from rewatching the film and tearing it apart? Is there anything I can apply to my own work?

Lessons to apply:

  1. Intercut scenes and use subtly parallel structures: true parallels, foreshadows, echoes, reverse foreshadows, reverse echoes.
  2. Dialogue needs to sparkle.
  3. Strive to write scenes and dialogue that work on multiple levels at once. The best line of dialogue is one that gives insight into a character, while also advancing the plot, while also being entertaining in its own right. Not everything can work this way, but look for opportunities where it can.
  4. There is no such thing as a throwaway character.
  5. Humor and heart can go a long way toward papering over plot holes and inconsistencies. If the audience is identifying with the characters, they're less likely to look for logic holes to pick at.

Some of it I'm already applying. I've added a lot of POV intercuts, explaining the bad guy's plan and sequence of actions more clearly, and giving minor characters more room to grow. I've tried to flesh out the characters more, making them more easy to identify with.

Unfortunately, while I've always considered dialogue one of my strengths, I think it might be suffering in the rewrite as I try to give more dramatic weight to the proceedings and lose some of the levity. However, I think I'll then be going back over the novel again in what the movie types call a "dialogue polish," specifically to brighten and tighten the dialogue. And with luck, I can make the book sing.

The big problem, and one that just hit me in a lightning flash this afternoon, is that the protagonist isn't. He gets recruited to join the team in act 1, then kind of mopes around aimlessly in act 2, wrestling with a moral dilemma, and failing to act on it, until the villains force his hand at the act 2 climax. He doesn't really protag until act 3, when he gets off his butt and kicks ass.

Act 1 works pretty well as near as I can tell. And the act 2 climax and act 3, while they need a lot of patching, are structurally sound, I think. But for the bulk of act 2, I need to give my protagonist a goal to work towards, something to keep him pushing forward and to get the reader to keep turning pages. Which means I'll need to introduce some kind of subplot and re-restructure the work I've been slogging through for the past two weeks or so. This kind of reimagining is something I'm very bad at.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Die Hard Part 3: Dialogue & Character

Three things set "Die Hard" apart from the general run of action films that immediately preceded it.

First was the brutally simple premise: lone cop is trapped in a skyscraper with a large team of well-armed terrorists and must defeat them using brains and guts. The premise was so compelling and easy to understand at a glance that it spawned its own mini-genre of imitators, commonly referred to as "'Die Hard' On A ______""

  • "Under Siege" ("Die Hard" On A Battleship)
  • "Under Siege 2: Dark Territory" ("Die Hard" On A Train)
  • "The Rock" ("Die Hard" on Alcatraz)
  • "Speed" ("Die Hard" On A Bus)
  • "Speed 2: Cruise Control" ("Die Hard" On A Cruise Ship)
  • "Passenger 57" ("Die Hard" On An Airplane)
  • "Air Force One" ("Die Hard" On A Really Famous Airplane)
  • "Con Air" ("Die Hard" On Yet Another Airplane)
  • "Die Hard 2: Die Harder" ("Die Hard" In An Airport Full of Airplanes)
The movement reached its nadir with the novel Vertical Run by Joseph R. Garber, which was "Die Hard" In A Skyscraper!

Second, and where most of its imitators fell down on the job, was the complex storytelling structure (as discussed last time) it used to tell such a seemingly simple story.

Third, and the real subject of this post, was the attention given to creating memorable characters and quotable dialogue, something notably missing from the book.

Take the opening scene as an example: A jet touches down on a runway. Inside the plane, a passenger is gripping the armrest fearfully. His seatmate, an experienced business traveler, notices his fellow passenger's distress and tells him the secret to beating jet lag is to take off your shoes and walk on a thick carpet "making fists with your toes." Then the nervous seatmate gets up to leave and is revealed to be carrying a gun. "It's okay," he says, "I'm a cop." Then he pulls a giant teddy bear out of the overhead compartment. And thus we are introduced to John McClane.

It's a brilliant opening. In less than a minute and a half, we are introduced to the main character in a way that highlights his human flaws, and that hints at the two big (and conflicting) pillars of his life, police work and family. And even though the seatmate is seemingly a throwaway character (he never appears again), he gives us a memorable line of dialogue ("fists with your toes") that sets up one of McClane's big handicaps during the film (McClane, practicing the businessman's advice, is forced to flee without his shoes when the villains strike) and serves as a sort of reverse foreshadowing of the rest of the film (the business executive in his element, taking the nervous cop under his wing).

And the rest of the film only builds on this. We get a string of memorable characters: Argyle the hip chauffeur, Ellis the vapid salesman, Al Powell the cop, Dwayne T. Robinson the officious deputy chief, Johnson & Johnson (no relation) the FBI agents, not to mention the terrorists.

And line after line of sparkling dialogue:

"Sir, this channel is reserved for emergency use only."
"No fuckin' shit, lady! Do I sound like I'm ordering a pizza?"

"Who's driving this squad car, Stevie Wonder?"

"Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except the four assholes coming in the rear in standard two-by-two cover formation."

"Hey babe, I negotiate million dollar deals for breakfast. I think I can handle this Eurotrash."

"You ask for a miracle, Theo. I give you the F-B-I."

"You're nothing but a common thief."
"I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane. And since I'm moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite."

The characters may be cartoonish, but between the wittier dialogue and the excellent performances by the ensemble cast, they have a lot more heart than the cynical, vicious bastards moping their way through Thorp's novel. And even the throwaway parts get memorable bits, like Al Leong's terrorist stealing a candy bar while he waits to ambush the SWAT team, or the pompous anchorman who tries to show off his erudition by placing Helsinki in Finland.

Next up: Conclusion and lessons learned.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Die Hard Part 2: Structure

So why, out of all the stories I could pick to analyze, did I pick "Die Hard"?

Number one, I often want to do something like this with movies I watch, but some people get so wrapped around the axle on spoilers that I shy away. But "Die Hard" is almost 20 years old, so I'm not worried about spoiling anything for anybody. And number two, it and "Big Trouble in Little China" were both big influences on my work in how they combine action and humor. And since I spent several hours yesterday sitting at the keyboard trying to figure out how to approach a particular story point in the second draft, I could use some inspiration right about now.

Structurally, the movie is very similar to the book, only much leaner. The sequence of events, in general, is the same. However, the book, concerned as it is with the events of the terrorist siege causing Leland to examine the many ways he has fucked up his life, intersperses a lot of flashbacks into lulls in the action.

The movie, on the other hand, compresses everything and keeps pushing forward. Which is not to say that it's full of mindless action. The movie takes almost 30 minutes setting up McClane's character and his relationship with his wife before the villains are even introduced. But even much of the exposition is done in motion: McClane gives us the essential outline of his backstory during a limo ride, and the essential geography of the setting is set up as we travel through it with him.

Then throughout the film, things happen much faster than they do in the book. The most obvious example is the fire hose rappel. In the book, Leland fashions a harness from the straps of a kit bag he's wearing and uses it to attach himself to the hose, then carefully measures out the hose and calculates every aspect of the drop. In the movie, McClain is racing to get the hostages safe from an impending explosion while being shot at by FBI agents in a helicopter. The hose is a last-second impulsive choice, his only slim chance of survival. He ties it around his waist and jumps.

Of course, this approach has its drawbacks, at least in written fiction. The movie blazes past you so quickly you can't reflect on what you've just seen or heard, or else you'll miss what's coming next. So, for instance, you can let some howlers like Al Powell's backstory pass without complaint (the howler in question is the fact that in the movie, Powell is the first responding officer on the scene, then later tells McClane the story of how he accidentally killed a kid and was subsequently pulled off the streets; those two elements just don't fit together). A written story doesn't have that same luxury.

On the other hand, some of the structural techniques in the movie work better than the book. The book is told exclusively from Leland's point of view, while the movie intercuts between parallel lines of action: McClane and the terrorists, usually, but also the police in the street, the hostages, the TV reporter covering the story, the limo driver in the parking garage. In the action leading up to the fire hose rappel and the roof explosion, they're intercutting between four parallel activities: McClane fighting Karl to get to the roof, Gruber and Holly in the vault as they pack up the loot, hostages being taken to the roof, FBI agents on helicopters getting ready to blow away the bad guys and cold-bloodedly discussing how many hostages will die.

One of the neat structural tricks in the movie is to mirror action between the heroes and the villains. So, for instance, McClane or the cops will make a plan, while the villains are making their own plans, then we see teh results of both actions. We also see both sides succeeding and advancing simultaneously. So, for instance, after McClane has finally succeeded in getting the cops to take the threat seriously after a few failed and foiled attempts, we find that not only have the villains proceeded in their vault intrusion efforts, but that McClane's efforts have actually advanced their plans as well.

Next up: characters and dialogue

Friday, September 01, 2006

Finding What Works: Die Hard

So I thought I would take a break from obsessing about my own progress (or lack of) and talk about something I really like, while trying to find the elements that make it work so well. So I thought I'd take a good close look at "Die Hard."

The movie came out in 1988, just after I'd left The Daily Oklahoman. It starred Bruce Willis, who was mainly well known for his role asDavid Addison in Moonlighting, a combination screwball comedy/romance/mystery TV series that was a huge hit, if only briefly. Before the movie came out, I had my doubts about Willis being able to pull off an action role, but he did it brilliantly.

But before I start tearing apart the movie, which is an almost perfect piece of action-adventure entertainment, let's look at the book that inspired it.

In 1979, a guy named Roderick Thorp released a little suspense novel titled Nothing Lasts Forever. The book was actually a sequel to his 1966 novel, The Detective, which had been made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra.

Comparing the novel and the movie is an interesting exercise. There is one school of thought that says you should be as true to the book as possible when making the movie. Another school of thought says that you can take liberties with the text, changing and combining characters and events, as long as you are true to the spirit of the book. The general line of thinking goes that if you discard both, you're sure to have an awful movie.

"Die Hard" disproves that. It's true to neither the plot nor the spirit of the book, and it's a rip-roaring good time. Yet, for everything from the book that it discards or changes, you can still see the skeleton of the novel in the movie, unlike say, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," which discards virtually everything from Gary Wolfe's novel except for a few names and the central conceit, that toons are real and photographed, not drawn.

So what did the movie discard from the novel, besides the title? The main characters' names, for one. Joe Leland is replaced by John McClane. Stephanie Gennaro, Leland's divorced daughter, is replaced by Holly Gennaro, McClane's estranged wife. The terrorist leader, Little Tony the Red, becomes the suave Hans Gruber.

Yet the basic structure is much the same. Leland flies to Los Angeles to be with his family on Christmas Eve. Joins his daughter at a Christmas party in the high-rise building where she works. Terrorists attack while Leland is off cleaning up, relaxing with his shoes off. As the terrorists defend the building from police and try to break into the safe on the top floor, Leland picks them off one by one. He breaks the neck of one in a fistfight. He escapes down a ventilation shaft, using his rifle strap as a rope. He takes a bag of plastic explosive and detonators off a dead terrorist, and later drops that explosive down an elevator shaft as a makeshift bomb. He cuts his bare feet on broken glass. He listens over the radio as Ellis, his daughter's coworker, is killed by the terrorists right after giving them Leland's identity. He argues with the cops outside, ends up trapped on the roof, and has to rappel down the side of the building with a firehose. He finally shoots Little Tony, who grabs Stephanie's watchband as he falls out the window, dragging her with him. In the end, as McClane is about to be killed by Karl, the vengeful brother of the man whose neck Leland broke, the final terrorist is shot by Al Powell of the LAPD.

Anyone familiar with the movie will recognize these familiar touchstones, and yet the flavor of the book is completely different. Leland is a bitter old man, a retired cop and widower who has grown estranged from his daughter. Stephanie is a self-absorbed, cocaine-snorting yuppie, and while Leland loves her, he doesn't much like her. Little Tony is a committed communist who commits the assault in order to steal money the corporation has gotten by illicit means. After Leland kills Tony, and accidentally causes his own daughter's death in the process, he proceeds to the opened safe and throws of millions of dollars in cash out the open windows into the streets, in order to punish the corporation, a big oil company whose misdeeds prompted this whole mess.

While the book is suspenseful, the characters are all sort of sour and used up and pathetic, and it's hard to really root for any of them. From the pessimistic, contemplative title to the final line, there's something in the book that's like, to quote Stephen King, "biting on tinfoil." A stinging undertaste that never mellows.

Next time: how to turn this bitter downward spiral into a sweet roller-coaster ride.