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startrek50

September, 1996.

I was ten years old and channel surfing, or possibly I’d just finished a movie. But somehow I came across a certain program. There were people in uniforms of different colours and some very detailed prosthetics and a large alien monster. I tuned in about halfway through the show, but managed to figure out that the uniformed crew was stranded on a hostile planet after their enemies stole their spaceship. A very big and impressive spaceship.

I stayed around to see how it ends. Having recently discovered Star Wars, I was on the lookout for anything with spaceships and aliens in it. And this caught me at the right moment.

What I was watching was the third season premiere of a television show called Star Trek: Voyager. My first adventure to “the final frontier”.

As I watched, I was struck by how this starship (let’s get our terminology adjusted to the appropriate universe) was meant to be the crew’s home. It was a kind of world unto itself; a mobile world that visited others in a wide and wondrous galaxy; a world that seemed adventurous and thrilling and…cool. I wanted to have transporters and replicators and go to strange, new places. In the era of cheap home videos and syndicated reruns, it didn’t take long before I was semi-conversant in every aspect of Trek lore, though it would be awhile before I got to see every episode. The franchise was celebrating it’s thirtieth anniversary and there was a lot to catch up on.

Now it’s the fiftieth anniversary, and while things took a break for a few years, Star Trek has gradually reemerged with a modern aesthetic courtesy of J.J. Abrams. Soon a sixth series — Star Trek: Discovery — will enter the era of cheap digital streaming.

A lot of years have passed since I was ten, but I haven’t gotten any less of a geek. George Lucas’ space opera may have opened the gateway, but Star Trek introduced me to the vast possibilities of science fiction and only led to me both reading and watching more of it. The series is still dear to me. You never forget your first love.

So you can’t expect me to let a milestone like this pass unremarked, or uncelebrated. But as I came to write this post about why I love Star Trek, I made an unsettling discovery: I don’t know exactly why. Unlike many I’ve never connected with its secular humanist philosophy. Military dramas (and Starfleet can sometimes look very military, though it has a different purpose) often leave me cold. Is it really just the entertainment? The simple pleasure of cool ships, crazy aliens, and space battles? The obsessive delight in studying in-universe trivia? And is there anything wrong with that?

I’ve realized that exploring the answer to that question will take time…and more space than one blog post can provide. There’s a lot of Star Trek, after all, and it now spreads over five decades. At the beginning of this year I started the herculean but enjoyable task of watching everything there is, from the very first episode of the Original Series to the present.

So instead of one massive retrospective, I’ll slowly unfold my favourite episodes from each of the five currently-existing shows and numerous movies. Ten seems like a popular number to aim for in such lists, not to mention that it’s how old I was back on that September evening. That should give me ample room to discover just what motivates this passion for worlds that never existed and people that were never born. 50 years. 50 stories.

Since I’m still working my way through watching it all, I need a chance to actually see things again before writing about them. Don’t expect these lists to appear weekly or perhaps even regularly, but they will be done by the end of the year. Just in time for us all to launch on another interstellar adventure with some new friends on a new ship.

Here’s to another 50 years of boldly going where no one has gone before…

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Mrs. Bumble’s Cake

They say you should show instead of tell.

I’m not as fond of the phrase. Words can’t show anything in the literal sense, they can only tell things. But the point is valid. We only want you to tell us interesting things. Let me try to illustrate the point.

I could tell you that Mrs. Bumble was an absent-minded and unfocused woman.

Or I could tell you that Mrs. Bumble once set out to bake a cake. She began by washing her hands thoroughly and walked away from the sink leaving the water running. She got out her recipe book and followed the instructions. First, she turned the oven on to the designated temperature. Then she got a bowl and measured out the flour into it. Leaving the flour on the counter she then took out the sugar to measure. Next came the butter out of the fridge. But when Mrs. Bumble went back to the fridge for eggs, she discovered to her mild annoyance that she’d had the last two for breakfast that morning. The market was only a fifteen-minute drive away so Mrs. Bumble, still in her apron, put on her hat and coat and shoes and went out the door. Only by the time she reached her car she realized she’d left her keys on the front table. So back she went, retrieved the keys, and drove to the market. The oven was still on and the tap was still running.

You see, I could tell you about Mrs. Bumble in a simple and short sentence. But it’s so much more interesting to tell you about something Mrs. Bumble does. If this were a full story instead of a blog post, I could go on and tell you about what Mrs. Bumble did at the market, how she interacted with the people she met, and what state she found the house in when she got back — if she ever got back. Knowing myself, I’d probably want to add more detail like what kind of house she lives in, why she was baking a cake, what the specific oven temperature was (researching different cake recipes if I was after realism), and whether or not Mr. Bumble is still alive.

The point, without that tiresome cliche everyone uses, is this: Don’t bother telling us about the character. Tell us about something the character does. It will certainly be more interesting, and it might possibly create your plot.

There might be a secondary point, which is that writing advice can sometimes be cliched and we need to make it more interesting for ourselves if we’re to benefit from its wisdom.

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The Power of Words

Like most people, one of the first things I do after getting home is turn on my computer and log into Facebook. I catch up with what my friends are saying, doing, and thinking. A number of times in the last several weeks, I’ve found myself coming home from work in a good mood; maybe we had a lot of laughs, or people were especially friendly to each other, or perhaps the weather was nice. But often — disturbingly often, in fact — within five minutes of logging into Facebook that good mood ends up with a single bullet to the back of the head, execution style, and left in the alleyway dumpster.

There’s a lot to talk about these days. Most of it painful. Much of it controversial. Politics, social justice, and armed conflict have been lightning rods for heated discussion since humans gained language. And perhaps they should be since they can determine our future as a species. But in the era of the internet what we say, positive and negative, rises to a volume that we rarely seem to comprehend.

Facebook seems filled with argument, mudslinging, and swearing. All of it by people who the website calls my Friends.

Whether we’re arguing about Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, immigration policy, or the latest “Star Wars” movie, we think nothing of calling the person we disagree with an idiot. We have two modes of argument: either we don’t care about being offensive or we try to be as offensive as possible. The more controversial the topic, the bigger the mudballs we sling at each other become. And the bigger they are, the better chance we have of hitting more than just our target.

It amazes me that in an era when our words travel farther, move faster, and shout louder than ever before, we seem to value them less than we ever have. We have no respect for their power. We ignore what their consequences might be.

If I have a prayer for 2016, it’s that we might realize what we’re saying, doing, and thinking when we comment or discuss. That we’d learn the meaning and practice of tolerance. That we’d learn to respect the inherent God-given worth of other human beings — and the inherent God-given power of our words.

 

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Bottleneck

I have a strange form of writer’s block.

Most people imagine writer’s block as staring at a blank page not knowing what words to put down. That’s not my problem. My problem is that I have about ten different pages in front of me, all of them half-full of words, and I don’t know which one to keep filling.

Coming up with “ideas” isn’t my problem (what exactly are these “ideas” people keep asking writers about?). It’s not very hard to have “ideas” for a premise and work out where it could go. Even working things out isn’t my problem. My problem is that I have ten notebooks, one for each premise, ready to be filled with the working out and the words and the ideas, and I don’t know which one to focus my time and energy on.

It’s like there’s a ten-lane highway and each lane is jammed with cars. There’s a tunnel up ahead and the highway’s about to condense into five lanes. It’s not writer’s block. It’s a bottleneck.

Ultimately, it leads to the same thing: not writing. Even when I think that maybe the cars should start merging – blend that idea into this premise and fold that character into this narrative – there’s resistance. They don’t want to merge. They want to be first through the tunnel.

I’m tired of not writing. But I’m even more tired of not being published. I want to write something that actually gets out there. I want to write a novel.

The only question is…which one?

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The Best Beginnings

Beginnings are crucial in stories. They don’t just convey information; they prepare us for what’s going to be important in the tale that follows. Stories are best when they focus on characters, so it follows that the best beginnings focus on them too. Some people think a story needs to start off in high gear and get right to the plot, but I disagree. A plot is nothing without well-defined and rounded characters. The best beginnings introduce us to them and get us to be their friend before anything serious can happen.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at one of my favourite opening sequences of all time…

Raiders of The Lost Ark

It’s 1936 and we’re deep in the South American jungle. A small band of ragged men cut their way through the overgrowth as strange bird calls and animal noises echo all around them. Leading the way is a mysterious figure in a distinctive fedora. The others look nervous, even frightened. A poisoned dart indicates the nearby presence of hostile tribesmen; the guy in the hat is barely phased and walks on.

He stops by a river to examine the torn fragments of a map. Behind him one of his companions silently takes out a gun. Before we can even blink, the man lunges out with a bullwhip and sends the gun into the water. The would-be traitor flees into the jungle and this mysterious hero finally steps out of the shadows to reveal a face covered in stubble, lined with strength and cleverness and guile. It’s the face of a perfect action star. This is Indiana Jones.

Now there are only two of them. Jones and his remaining companion enter a cave, from which we’re told nobody has ever come out alive. Their torches barely make a dent in the darkness. The hero calmly brushes poisonous tarantulas off his friend’s back. He cleverly spots a trap of giant spikes and another of deadly projectiles. Does nothing scare him? Does nothing get past him? He’s an unstoppable badass.

The Idol

And finally they reach their goal: an ancient statue of solid gold, a treasure worth millions. Indiana Jones carefully examines the pedestal it sits on. Knowing the weight triggers a dead man’s switch for another lethal trap, he’s come prepared with a sandbag. So he’s tough, good-looking, and he’s got brains. He pours out a measure of sand to get it accurate. Then the moment of truth — gently now, easy does it — there. The pedestal doesn’t move and he has what he came for. He allows himself a well-earned smile.

Which is when Raiders of The Lost Ark becomes a classic.

As the hero turns away, we learn that the sandbag was too heavy after all. The cavern starts to crumble and rocks are falling. Subtle ingenuity is tossed aside in favour of plain running. When they come to a chasm, his companion swings across first. “Throw me the idol, I throw you the whip,” he says, and this supposedly perfect action star does the most perfectly stupid thing imaginable: he trusts the guy. Sure enough, he’s forced to jump and struggles with a vine to pull himself to safety. He barely makes it through a closing stone door, though he does manage to recover the idol that his not-so-lucky companion dropped. Panic, floundering, and “uh oh” expressions all play across Jones’ face this whole time, but he’s not out of the woods yet. His last lucky escape is just managing to dodge the Famous Rolling Boulder.

Finally emerging into daylight again, he only runs into more trouble. The tribesmen are waiting, all pointing their spears at him, led by his old rival Dr. Rene Belloq. “Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away,” he gloats and Indiana Jones is forced to hand over the precious idol. Then we find out he doesn’t speak the native language; another thing he can’t do well. Beaten down and his tough guy image thoroughly stripped away, about the only thing Jones can do is run. He barely gets on his getaway plane to safety. And then the coup de grâce: “There’s a big snake in the plane!…I hate snakes!”

The pilot adds insult to injury: “Aw, c’mon, show a little backbone willya?”

Snake

The genius of this opening sequence is not that it provides excitement, suspense, and thrills (though it does that quite well); it’s that virtually nothing in the sequence actually matters to the main plot of the movie. It exists solely to introduce us to Indiana Jones himself. This goes against every bit of perceived wisdom in film writing. Screenwriting classes and books teach you to start the plot with the opening frame. Raiders of The Lost Ark doesn’t begin its story until almost 15 minutes in.

Then there’s how it seamlessly pulls the rug out from under us. We fully expect Indiana Jones to be the sort of idealized action hero that the genre demands, who never gets anything wrong and isn’t afraid of anything. And for awhile we’re tricked into believing that’s what he is. Then the switch is pulled, everything goes south, and we discover that our ideal hero is all too human.

But, strangely, instead of being disappointed we’ve found ourselves completely sympathetic to him. Idealized heroes are all well and good, but they don’t necessarily make the most endearing characters. They’re above the audience, too perfect and too pure to ever be relatable. Indiana Jones isn’t like those other guys. As adventurous as his life gets he’s always down to earth. He’s got a great sense of humour, he’s loyal to his friends, but more importantly he sometimes falls flat on his face. After all, the entire 12-minute sequence is dedicated to showing how he fails to get what we wants. Which of course makes his later victories all the sweeter.

It just goes to show you that at the end of the day you can have a killer plot, clever dialogue, and all the adrenaline in the world…but none of it matters if you can’t get anyone to like your main characters. Get us on their side and we’ll stick with them through anything.

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It’s an interesting time to be a geek, at least for me. It seems like a month hasn’t gone by without some movie, television series, or book marking an anniversary. Superman turned 75, Star Trek: The Next Generation turned 25, and on November 23rd another celebrated franchise is hitting its own milestone.

Doctor Who is turning 50.

Doctor Who 50th

Over the five decades of its lifetime, Doctor Who has developed quite a sprawling mythology. The hero who is as mysterious as he is alluring, the human and not-so-human friends who have journeyed with him, and the marvellous ship that makes every story possible. So it seems a little surprising when you consider how modest the show’s beginnings were.

It was created to fill a time slot in the BBC’s schedule which had become notoriously dead in the ratings, an experiment to see what children wanted to watch instead of the umpteenth serial of Oliver Twist. It was created by committee, with different producers and writers kicking ideas around for a science fiction program. And it was created in a cramped and impossible studio, with a budget that wouldn’t pay for the donuts on a modern American sitcom.

For some reason, I love figuring out great stories. Why do they work so well? How have they captured the imagination? What is it they’ve done that makes them so special? What, in fact, makes them tick?

The Mysterious Hero

The Doctor can lay claim to being the most multifaceted character ever created, because he’s been played by so many different actors. He’s been crotchety and carefree and awe-inspiring and playful and angry and overjoyed and frightened. The concept of regeneration, dreamed up in its earliest form to excuse an aging William Hartnell from the role, has paid off enormously over the years. Not only has it allowed the show to reach a longevity that most other programs don’t dare imagine, it also means that every fan of the show has “their” Doctor. Their favourite Doctor. The Doctor they grew up watching, perhaps, or just the one they fell in love with.

But this also means that the character is remarkably hard to pin down. It’s difficult to define the Doctor completely because he’s always changing. If anything is central to Doctor Who, it’s a sense of mystery. And the greatest mystery has always been the Doctor. Mysteries enthrall us. They beg us to seek the solution, to find the answer to the question. “Doctor?” people ask. “Doctor…who?” That answer remains elusive even after fifty years. Even after discovering he’s a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who stole a TARDIS to explore the universe. Ultimately, the only one who really knows the Doctor is the Doctor himselves.

The Constant Companions

The universe of Doctor Who is a wild and dangerous one. It’s often upside down, and sometimes inside out.  We need an anchor to keep our sense of reality from spinning out into the ether. Fortunately, the Doctor likes the planet Earth — and more than that, he likes humans. So much so that he often invites them to travel with him, and they become Companions.

There are some Companions who are loved as much as the Doctor. There are others who are reviled by almost every fan. But the thing they all have in common is that they are really us. The best Companions are audience surrogates. They’re people who come from ordinary walks of life and have no pretensions about class or wealth. We like them because they seem as amazed as we are at the wonders of the galaxy, and ask all the questions we want to ask. None of this degrades them as characters; on the contrary, they need to be strongly developed and unique personalities in order to be our doorway into the world of Doctor Who.

The Miraculous Ship

Every story has an element without which everything else is impossible. It’s the lynchpin that keeps all the other elements securely in place. In Doctor Who, this lynchpin is the TARDIS (“Time And Relative Dimensions In Space”). Unlike the Doctor, the TARDIS never changes its outward appearance; unlike the Companions, it never says goodbye. It’s often in the background, what the Doctor and his friends step out of at the beginning and step into at the end, and sporadically mentioned in between.

The reason the TARDIS matters so much to Doctor Who is that it can travel anywhere — literally. Any setting you could imagine, it can go there. Anywhere in space. Anywhere in time. And if any setting is possible, so is any plot. Doctor Who is called a science fiction show, but the truth is far more wide-ranging than that. Horror, mystery, action, romance, war, and any other genre is up for grabs in this high-concept fantasy. In that respect, the TARDIS is actually more emblematic of the program itself than we’ve all realized: it’s bigger on the inside than the pigeonhole it often gets shoved into.

***

Most of the fiction franchises I’m devoted to were things I discovered in childhood. I remember when being young meant I could get away with dressing up as my favourite heroes and zooming around everywhere defeating Sauron and Darth Vader. So it’s with some surprise that I remember I never watched Doctor Who growing up. It took years to find out it even existed, and years again before I became interested enough to start watching. I began where you should always begin: at the beginning, with the very first set of episodes broadcast in 1963 starring William Hartnell. It started in a junkyard, where a couple of schoolteachers found a grumpy old man and his granddaughter living in what looked like a police box, and which quickly became the most amazing adventure of their lives.

50 years ago today, that’s where everyone started.

Happy Birthday, Doctor Who!

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Someone asked me recently how I choose what books to read. I meant to answer that here, but it seems to have metamorphosed into explaining why, in one particular case, I stopped and put a book down — and not that far into it either.

This might not seem like anything important, but when the book in question is part of my 100 Great Novels list, and with my commitment to reviewing each novel, skipping something on that list has to be a serious decision. The book was Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. It was one of those classics I meant to catch up on, and I was surprised and disappointed to find out that it generated no interest with me whatsoever. Did my current fixation on fantasy and science fiction rather than “straight” literature have anything to do with it? I admit it’s possible. But I could tell there was another reason: the writing just wasn’t very good.

The writing. You know, the words stuck together into sentences, dialogue, and narrative. They were competent, at times even clever. But never very interesting. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe clearly wants us to spend time with the characters before getting the plot into full swing. So while the narrative is building (and it does so from the very first page, it’s true) we’re treated to scenes and exchanges meant to build the people and our sympathies for them; digressions into backstory, arguments and discussions, an in-depth description of the titular cabin. But somehow it just didn’t work on me. Her writing was competent, but she never seemed to try for better. Even the occasional flash of satiric wit wasn’t enough to make it brilliant.

Writing is the most fundamental aspect of a book. That should come as an obvious statement, yet it clearly doesn’t. When we talk about stories we like to talk about the plot, the characters, the pace — virtually anything but the craft that gives it shape and substance. It’s the foundation on which the entire book is based. A book is nothing but words, after all, and in order for the book to be worth anything the words have to be up to the job. But more than that: without writing, nothing else matters because without writing, nothing else exists. And if the writing isn’t good then neither is anything else.

And I suppose that’s also how I choose what to read: by going through the first few pages and getting a flavour for the language, for the structure, for the writing. Though even if it promises much it might still disappoint further in.

So the collection of reviews for the 100 Great Novels project is going to have to live without one for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I apologize if you were looking forward to it, or if the book is one you love. It just didn’t turn out to be my cup of tea. But you have to admit: I gave a pretty good reason.

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