harlan ellison

harlan ellisonHarlan Ellison died last week at the age of 84. He was a genuine legend in science fiction, by all accounts larger than life and twice as abrasive. I never met the man, but he has still been a part of my life for decades.

When I was around eleven years old I found a paperback copy of Again, Dangerous Visions stuck on the basement shelf where unwanted paperbacks ended up. It was the sequel to his transgressive 1967 anthology–and it was enough to suck me in and show me how sharp science fiction could be. Later, I read the man himself–the glorious I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, and Deathbird Stories.  I watched the supremely 70’s film version of A Boy and His Dog on VHS. I learned the empowering mantra “Pay the writer”.

Over the course of his long career Ellison published more than 1700 works, ranging from short stories to screenplays to essays, from comic books to literary criticisms. He was recognized with multiple Hugo, Nebula, and Edgar awards for works that changed the face of science fiction on page and on screen. He earned the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award and the Horror Writers Association Lifetime Achievement Award, was named Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers Association and by the World Horror Convention, and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

But none of that matters if you don’t read him.

Unfortunately, it often takes the passing of a major author to inspire people to discover, or rediscover, their work. So it is with Harlan Ellison. Even though he continued to write prolifically, his heyday was the sixties and seventies when he was at the forefront of New Wave science fiction with his dangerous anthologies and subversive short stories.

These are a few of his works that I consider essential:

dangerous visionsStories
“A Boy and His Dog”
“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”
“”Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman”
“Shattered Like a Glass Goblin”
“The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”
“Soft Monkey”
“Jeffty Is Five”

Collections

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World
Deathbird Stories
Shatterday
Angry Candy
The Essential Ellison: a 50-Year Retrospective Revised & Expanded

Nonfiction
The Glass Teat

Television episodes
The Outer Limits   “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand”
Star Trek   “The City on the Edge of Forever”
The Starlost “Voyage of Discovery”
Masters of Science Fiction “The Discarded”

As editor
Dangerous Visions
Again, Dangerous Visions

Graphic novels
Phoenix Without Ashes

There’s plenty to say of Harlan Ellison as a person, good and bad–and it’s all out there for the googling. But as I mentioned earlier, I never had the opportunity to meet him. I had only his vast body of work to judge him by. And by those lights, he was a star.

The Terror, AMC’s  new horror series, is well worth your time. Based on Dan Simmons’s 2007 novel and executive produced by Ridley Scott, it is the fictionalized retelling of Captain Sir John Franklin’s lost 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. In this version, the fantastic elements intensify an already harrowing tale, where the natural world is as much a monster as the supernatural threats that plague the doomed men.

At the cairn

The cast is full of many familiar faces, all in fine form. Jared Harris (Resident Evil: Apocalypse, The Expanse) stars as Captain Francis Crozier, a veteran of previous Arctic expeditions and commander of the Erebus. Ciarán Hinds (Excalibur, Game of Thrones, Justice League) plays Captain Sir John Franklin, commander of the Terror and of the expedition. Tobias Menzies (Game of Thrones) is Commander James Fitzjames, second in command of the Terror. Paul Ready (Tipping the Velvet) plays the sympathetic and humane ship’s surgeon. Rounding out the main cast are Ian Hart (Harry Potter, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D) as ice master Thomas Blankly, Adam Nagaitis as the devious, low-ranking mate Cornelius Hickey, and Nive Nielsen as Lady Silence, the daughter of a slain Inuit man.

The characters’ backgrounds of prejudice, piety, ambition and failure are briefly and efficiently given. The prior arctic experience of much of the crew looms over the current endeavor–the men know what danger faces them, and know how much luck will be needed to survive the trip.

The first three episodes build on the repercussions of Captain Franklin’s decision not to seek a sheltered bay for the winter. The Terror and the Erebus become frozen into the ice pack. Spring comes without a thaw, rations spoil, and exploratory parties end with the accidental shooting of an Inuit man and an animal attack on the men. What might be a bear begins to stalk the ships’ crews, killing Captain Franklin and several others.

Premature hope for The Terror’s men

The Terror shows great restraint in spinning its bleak and unnerving tale. The plot bides its time, building tension with patience and attention to detail, from the class distinctions to the technology to the china on the captain’s table. The camera lingers on everything–the bleak arctic landscape, a sailor’s wasted corpse, a drafty seat-of-ease–with similar portent. The sense of discomfort has no particular source, making it hard to shrug off. Everything, and nothing, may be a threat.

This subtle sense of danger seeping through every frame of The Terror creates a brooding, gothic quality in the show. The shrouded, monochrome landscape and the dark hulks of the ships, the half-seen creature menacing the men are all part of the oppression.

The violence when it comes is shocking not because it is over the top but because it is long- anticipated, abrupt, and only partially seen. The characters (save one) do not get any clearer view of what attacks them than does the audience.  Bodies are not recovered. The form of the monster is only suspected. The sprays of blood over the snow are so copious and dark as to be almost dreamlike. But the resulting damage is realistically, almost clinically, portrayed, and the overall effect is one of detached yet pervasive horror.

With three episodes currently available for streaming, and seven still to air, The Terror has already created a compelling and thoroughly disturbing mystery. It would be a shame to waste it.

Stan and friends
Stan and friends

IFC’s Stan Against Evil is a slight and subversively funny show that is somehow, less than the sum of its parts. Stomping along in the wake of Ash vs Evil Dead’s success, Stan Against Evil is charmingly well-cast and cheerfully quirky, yet saddled with predictable plotting and a very thin mythology. But it still manages to throw some worthwhile curve-ball jokes into the mix, and it’s definitely worth a look.

The set-up is pretty simple. The small, rural town of Willard’s Mill, New Hampshire is cursed. It seems that back in 1693, the evil Constable Eccles burned 172 witches at the stake. Since then, every constable the town has ever had has died in office. Except one.

And that’s how we get our hero, Stanley Miller (played by the magnificently crusty John C. McGinley). He somehow survived long enough to resign his post after attacking a witch at his wife’s funeral.

Stan’s replacement is Evie (Janet Varney, veering wildly between competent and oblivious), a transplant from the city, divorced and with a daughter who functions more as a character trait than a character.

The small core cast rounds out with Leon (Nate Mooney) the Barney Fife-esque deputy who is friendly, loyal, and truly and deeply perverted, and Denise (Deborah Baker Jr.), Stan’s unlikely daughter played as a bizarre take on the manic pixie dream girl.

Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?
Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?

In many ways Stan Against Evil simply retools the basic premise of Ash with new characters and a new location, but it fails to aspire to anything more. It lacks (so far) a larger theme or a detectable sense of purpose. The characters generally just show up, kill some monsters, and go home in time for dinner. There is also a lack of skepticism from any of the characters that makes the show feel even more formulaic and one-note, since everyone is on the same page from the first ten minutes of episode one.

It’s hard to tell exactly when the show is set—the combination of flip phones, old cars, and references to Tinder make it hard to pin down, as do Stan’s perpetually 1970’s cultural reference points. There is also an unexpected Buffy library vibe, as our heroes must rely on hard copy books for the information they need to fight evil. The option of looking anything up online does not exist in this particular reality.

My impression is that Stan Against Evil plays more as a sketch comedy than as a series. The actors all inhabit their characters fully, and each is nicely fleshed out–but they don’t really mesh into a dynamic group. Over the course of eight episodes there is no character development, no learning curve, and no layers to be peeled back.

Contributing to the character stasis, this is very much a monster-of-the-week style of show, loaded with cheese-tastic special effects but with precious little continuity and even less common sense. The scripts are perfunctory and remarkably superficial, broadcasting their twists like a toddler with a secret. What you see is what you get, in half-hour increments.

But Stan Against Evil is still very funny. Created by comedian Dana Gould (The Simpsons), the show is full of background gags and oddball references that keep it lively. And McGinley as Stan delivers some of the best throw-away lines—when he goes off on something, the turns of phrase are remarkably, crudely, hilariously accurate.

All eight episodes are available on demand now from IFC, and despite its shortcomings I highly recommend binging it. Stan Against Evil is empty calories, but it is sharp enough, charming enough, and funny enough to make it worth the small investment of time.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

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Last night saw the premieres of two shows I’ve been waiting for: Westworld on HBO and Ash vs Evil Dead’s second season on Starz. The results were a mixed bag, but hope springs eternal.

***

HBO's Westworld
HBO’s Westworld

I have been looking forward to HBO’s take on Westworld for a long time. I have fond memories of being scared silly by Yul Brenner in the 1973 version of it. This Westworld was worth the wait. It unfolds in a sprawling, utterly realistic Wild West theme park where android ‘hosts’ provide a full immersion experience for their paying guests—‘newcomers’, as their programming dubs the human visitors. In the original film, the hosts were more traditionally robotic. The current approach gives us a truer AI, and with an ideological slant towards Battlestar Galactica rather than Ex Machina.

The new Westworld begins brilliantly, with the barest bones of the original film’s concept. The cast is top-notch, the writing superb, and the convolutions of the plot promise deep and strange directions to come. The pacing is precise, with loops and repetitions that become the story’s wheels within wheels.

There is much to think about, here, about the line between the real and the artificial. In what was possibly my favorite scene, a robot host visibly, visceraly adapts its programming to both follow its embedded script and incorporate discordant (and, what should have been unreadable) new information. And while Ed Harris is cold and creepy as the primary villain, he’s not nearly as terrifying as Yul Brenner was. But then again, I don’t think we’ve seen even a fraction of what his character is capable of. Next week can’t come soon enough.

***

Ash vs Evil Dead, back in action
Ash vs Evil Dead, back in action

On the other side of the spectrum, the return of Ash vs Evil Dead was disappointing. Season one successfully incorporated a semi-serious subplot. But as Ash vs Evil Dead starts season two, it seems to have given up too much of its crazy humor to retain its original charm. While the gore is still cheesy and exuberantly over the top, the show actually feels more like the original Evil Dead film, now—more threatening, less loopy fun. But there’s more missing than just silliness.

Part of the episode’s problem is that it felt very rushed, as if plot and character development had been purposefully sacrificed for incessant action. The end of last season saw Ash and company taking a truce and heading to Jacksonville, Florida. Season two starts with the immediate reversal of the road trip. By the first commercial they are back in Ash’s home town, where lots of random events happen—some campy, some supernatural, some just padding. But none of it is consistent. The episode is a mash up of too many ideas with not enough time allowed for them to gel into a reason to keep watching.

I’m hoping that episode two takes a deep breath and slows it down a little. There are more than enough plot elements to work with, and Ruby is still riding the line between nemesis and ally. The qualities that made the Evil Dead franchise so endearing are still there, if the show’s writers and producers are willing to pick out the strongest ones and run with them. Again.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

 

 

The middle-school heroes of Stranger Things

Stranger Things, Netflix’s latest series, launched its first eight episode season on July 15. I had to drag myself away after the first three episodes to write this review, because it is simply that good. Created by Ross and Matt Duffer, Stranger Things uses pop culture familiarity as its hook, and then moves the story along rapidly while still paying a huge amount of attention to detail and character development. I’ll be watching the rest in one long gulp very soon.

Set in the small rural town of Hawkins, Indiana, Stranger Things begins its tale on November 6, 1983 with the mysterious disappearance of a young boy. From there things really do only get stranger.

Titled “Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers”, the first episode plays like a mash-up of all the classic horror and fantasy films of the 1980s—there are elements that remind me of Aliens, The Shining, Silver Bullet, E.T., Firestarter, Halloween, Poltergeist, The Goonies…even the town center is reminiscent of Back to the Future, and the missing boy’s house looks an awful lot like the cabin from Evil Dead. In addition to tidy downtown Hawkins, the action ranges through woods, fields, a deep quarry, and a convenient government-run laboratory. It all looks familiar. We’ve been scared here before. But Stranger Things is not just a derivative of all these touchstones and references. It manages to be something original and disturbing in its own right.

Things are getting strange
Things are getting strange

Winona Ryder is back as Joyce Byers, the missing boy’s mother. She plays the character as worn thin and harried and histrionic, and she smokes with the same intensity she did in Heathers. Her attempts to find her son look a great deal like a descent into insanity.

Matthew Modine is cool and slick as the primary bad guy, Dr. Brenner. He works at Hawkins National Laboratory for the Department of Energy and is aligned with government agents and the CIA, among darker things.

David Harbour is the hard drinking local police chief, Hopper. In only three episodes he has already been given a colorful backstory and fascinating growth, and a deep well of personal tragedy to draw from.

Even with the adult star power, the juvenile characters are the main focus—especially since the missing boy was part of their group. With the exception of a couple of older siblings, the kids are in the 11 and 12 year old age range that Stephen King is so fond of. It ties neatly to the many King-like plot details.

The group of boys are introduced as Dungeons and Dragons players, then as now shorthand for a certain kind of nerd.  Finn Wolfhard is Mike, the leader of the gang and someone who looks quite a bit like the brother in Poltergeist. Gaten Matarazzo is Dustin, very much playing him as Chunk from The Goonies. Caleb McLaughlin rounds out the group as smart-mouthed, skeptical, and practical Lucas. To add to the mix there is the high school crowd, with Charlie Heaton as the missing boy’s older brother, Johnathan, and Natalia Dyer as Mike’s older sister Nancy. And there is also a mysterious, semi-verbal little girl named Eleven (played by Millie Brown), who is connected to both Brenner and the missing boy.

Teenage wasteland
Teenage wasteland

A theme of communication is dominant, so far. The initial episodes are heavy with ham radio, walkie talkies, wiretapping, ghostly phone calls, psychic powers, and weird electrical disturbances harnessed as a rough Ouija board. There is a lot going on, much of it messy, but it is just controlled enough to be engrossing. The only complaint I can make is that the periodic flashbacks are too blunt, and move things along with backstory info dumps.

Stranger Things is at once creepy, sentimental, realistic and action-driven. The Duffer brothers have a great eye for family dynamics and a clear affection for the cinematic 1980s. The combination of powerful storytelling, exceptional acting, and well-done nostalgia is totally worth the look back.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Preacher, the comic book-inspired series that debuted on May 22 on AMC, is so far a cautiously-paced, blackly funny critical darling of a show. I am not familiar with the original Vertigo comic book, so I can’t compare the adaptation to its source material. But three episodes in to a ten episode run I am enjoying Preacher immensely. There is a catchy if still-murky premise, a sly wink to its unavoidable irreverence, and a great attention to character details that I hope the show will sustain.

The Preacher himself
The Preacher himself

Preacher takes place in the dusty Texas town of Annville, where Jesse Custer has returned from a life roughly lived to serve (unsuccessfully) a shrinking flock at the failing All Saints Congregational Church. He still drinks heavily, still smokes like a chimney, and cannot quite abandon his ability (and willingness) to beat the crap out of deserving people. He refuses the bait when his ex, Tulip, shows up to try to persuade him to take on another “job”. She won’t take his no as a final answer. The vampire Cassidy literally falls from the sky into the middle of Jesse’s fight with his past. Then the mysterious alien force comes knocking and finds a home in Jesse, and the series can rightly begin.

That summary brings us to the end of the pilot. It isn’t until halfway through episode 3 that Jesse begins to explore the power he only discovered at the end of episode 2. Cautiously paced, indeed.

The charming Tulip O'Hare
The charming Tulip O’Hare

The main characters are likeable in a really bad decision kind of way. Dominic Cooper broods with charm as the rumpled, doubting Jesse Custer, Ruth Negga is sweet, wickedly sarcastic, and dangerous as Tulip O’Hare, and Joseph Gilgun is cheerfully deranged as Cassidy (So far, the dissolute, 119 year old vampire Cassidy is my favorite character. His accent is almost impenetrable and his habits are disgusting. Blood may be the life but booze is more fun, and boredom appears to be his primary enemy. And somehow, improbably, he is Jesse’s best friend).

Because of the strength of the casting the characters all have surprising depth to them, considering how little information we actually have about them and what drives them. Even the secondary and supporting players are rounded out, written with a great deal of intelligence, sympathy, and cutting wit.

And Cassidy, the resident vampire
And Cassidy, the resident vampire

But then, Preacher’s dominant trait seems to be its dark, sharp humor—which ranges from panicky Russian Satanists to news reports of Tom Cruise exploding, and from a frequently referenced “bunny sound” to a cocktail of “rubbing alcohol, coffee machine descaler, and a bit of the stuff dripping off the back of the air conditioning unit”. There are several…invigorating…fight scenes, perversions, fetishes, and debauchery, struggles with faith, and a strong moral center who is not actually our hero. Sunglasses are used to great effect. And there is an exceptional soundtrack, with Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash leading the way.

Since the tangled past is already well known to the characters, they don’t spend any time rehashing it for the audience’s benefit. What is referenced is not well-explained, but there is a distinct air of Big Mysteries to be revealed somewhere down the line. It takes a little work to keep up, but the show is interesting, and not knowing the context is not such a big deal. Yet. But it will be.

It’s that cautious pacing. At this point, it’s beginning to feel nearly soap-opera slow—like the first season of True Detective, but funny. We are still finishing the set-up. Many things are beginning, but the threads are not connected, yet, and the writers aren’t tipping their hand. Right now there are many questions and many hints as to what may be coming, but the story arc hasn’t truly begun to bend. The first three episodes have been laying a lot of groundwork without filling in too many details. They have given us a fascinating peepshow of abilities, potentials, and motivations, with enough quirks and jokes to make us care.

But now I think Preacher’s plot needs to speed up and dabble a little more deeply in exposition to keep the audience fully involved. Going into episode 4, I am hoping for some serious, plot-making action. Three weeks is a long time to go without it.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

JourneyQuest--our heroes
JourneyQuest–our heroes

JourneyQuest is a light, silly, dead-on-target web series about a group of differently-competent adventurers who may be on an epic quest. Or not. Anything’s possible, really. There have been quite a few surprising turns already in the available seasons, and there will be more coming soon.

JourneyQuest is the brainchild of  Dead Gentlemen Productions  of Seattle, Tacoma, and Los Angeles, and Zombie Orpheus Entertainment. The first season came out in 2010, and the second in 2012. Collectively, both seasons only take about two hours to watch (including the bloopers and outtakes after each episode), and in JourneyQuest time everything happens over the course of a couple of days. It hardly even counts as binge-watching.

As far as the initial plot goes, the party is in search of the legendary Sword of Fighting hidden in the fearsome Temple of Some Dooms, and there is some disagreement over who is actually supposed to be the Chosen One.

Oh, Perf.
Oh, Perf.

Played with believable goofiness, the characters are a typical adventuring party, reasonably balanced if not entirely in their right minds. Christian Doyle is, oddly enough, the romantic lead as the awkward and semi-inept wizard Perf–his memorized spells are Mending, Vague, and Conjure Milk, which he uses defensively. His love interest is the elf ranger, Nara, played with disdain and occasional drugged wonder by Anne Kennedy Brady. Brian Lewis plays Carrow, a sincere and unfortunately undead cleric, while the not-too-bright but painfully enthusiastic fighter Glorion is played by Kevin Pitman.

There is even a framing story. As the documentarian human bard, Wren, Emilie Rommel Shimkus is almost unbearably perky—yet she becomes the love interest of Rilk, the most level-headed and handsome of the orcs, played by Jesse Lee Keeter.

Other personalities romping about include the Assassin, the legendary bard Silver Tom, the multilingual orc scholar Strong Like Bull, the socialist barbarian king Karn and his queen, Starling, Death personified, and an assortment of orcs, zombies, nobles, peasants, and functionaries who round out the story.

JourneyQuest, when things happen.
JourneyQuest, when things happen.

There is plenty of action going on besides the main adventure. There are self-help meetings for evil-holics, Orcs mocking humans: “Don’t kill me! I live in an indefensible village and have no martial training!”, and other pop-culture tropes played as in-world tropes. At one point, Perf gets into a classic internet grammar argument with a group of attacking orcs, because he apparently speaks orcish better than they do. And the orcish, while not a truly created language, sounds good because it is spoken with convincing intonation and feeling (and subtitles. Always subtitles.).

On that note, the dialogue is hilarious. With lines like “Vast waves of murderness”, “Why does he smell like crying?”, and “Being undead? It kind of itches”, there are plenty of catchphrases to choose from. One liners abound.

go around. But there are no sly asides here. I am glad they don’t break the fourth wall. That would actually take away some of the fun, because these characters are all fully a part of their world.

Because besides being funny, the writing is also good. Real feelings develop in and between these characters, and we can honestly care about them and be invested in their outcomes. JourneyQuest plays out the way a really good D & D campaign should—with well-loved characters and enough chaos and danger to keep it interesting.  The last few episodes in the second season have a more serious tone to them–lives are threatened, and feelings get hurt–because by this point the story has become complicated and some darkish things have happened.

On the technical side, I think the special effects are restrained and therefore well-done–nothing looks half-baked or amateurish, and no effects are bigger than the actual story. Sets and locations are evocative and far above the cheesiness of many other shoestring productions (and having cut my teeth on Star Trek TOS, I have a high tolerance for Styrofoam props). The costumes are simple, color coded, and stereotypical–what they wear is what they do. The Dead Gentlemen seem to have borrowed a few gags from other sources—Men In Black, Shaun of the Dead, Blackadder, Dune—but they work well in the general disarray of the party’s evolving adventure.

In addition to JourneyQuest, Dead Gentlemen Productions is also responsible for the Demon Hunters and The Gamers movie series, as well as assorted other shorts and web series. They do keep busy. Right now, principal photography for a third season of JourneyQuest has finished and they are working on post-production polishing. I am more than ready for it.

Onward!

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

The charming crew of Red Dwarf
The charming young crew of Red Dwarf

Before the wonder of the interwebs, there was the wonder of public broadcasting—and its heavy reliance on British television series for content. PBS introduced me to the surreal world of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the sarcastic one of Black Adder, and the utterly silly one of the plucky, persistent Red Dwarf.

While less pop-culturally ubiquitous than some other shows I could name (cough*Star Trek*cough), the BBC science fiction series Red Dwarf is a lovably dopey, deep-space, time warping  adventure that originally aired in 1988 and has chugged along (with some intermittent down time) ever since. Fueled by ideas from their 1984 radio sketch series Dave Hollins: Space Cadet, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor created Red Dwarf as a half-hour situation comedy. It is something of an acquired taste, being goofy and jokey rather than going for a cutting wit, but I found it hard not to fall in with the simple fun of it.

The Red Dwarf of the title actually refers not to the star type, but to an enormous mining ship where the show’s action happens. Our story begins some three million years in the future with the awakening from stasis of one Dave Lister (played by Craig Charles), the Red Dwarf’s lowest ranking crewman and possibly the last surviving human. Because of a malfunction in the stasis equipment, Lister managed to ride out a radiation leak that killed (almost) everyone else aboard ship. Chris Barrie plays the aptly named and insufferable hologram Arnold Rimmer (Lister’s former supervisor), who, when alive three million years ago, caused the radioactive disaster that killed the entire crew.

To add to the social mix, Lister’s pregnant cat also managed to escape the disaster, and now her mutated descendant, Cat (Danny John-Jules), is a suave humanoid with excellent taste in clothing and generally feline habits. There is also Kryten (played for the bulk of the series by Robert Llewellyn), a rather neurotic service mechanoid salvaged from another wrecked ship, as well as the Red Dwarf’s senile computer, Holly (played alternately by Norman Lovett and Hattie Hayridge). Lister even gets a love interest, the intermittently dead Kristine Kochanski (played by Clare Grogan and then Chloe Annett), who joins the main Red Dwarf crew from another dimension.

Hard at work
Hard at work

With a set-up like this, it’s no surprise that over the course of the ten aired seasons there were several wacky evolutionary outcomes, a few parallel universes, random visitors, distorted time, assorted slobbishness and priggery, and a great deal of pining for Fiji and Indian food. (Truly, the last episode I recall in any detail involved–surprise!–time travel and leftover chicken vindaloo evolving into a monster.) Fertile comedic ground, that. In addition to its own signature bits, the show referenced and parodied a wide variety of movies, only some of them science fiction. Star Wars, The Terminator, and Blade Runner were all fair game, but so were High Noon, Pride and Prejudice, and Casablanca. With all of humanity dead, someone had to keep the culture alive.

At the height of the show’s popularity in 1992 there was, of course, an attempted American version that tried to copy too much from the original and quickly lost its way (John Laroquette in Fawlty Towers, anyone?). Called Red Dwarf USA (how original), this version never made it beyond two different takes on a pilot episode. Cast and then recast with mainly American actors and retelling the first episode of the original series, the script underwent what became a largely-unused rewrite by Grant and Naylor in an effort to make it, well, funny. Ultimately neither pilot was ever broadcast, and the plan to Americanize Red Dwarf was abandoned.

The show originally ran from 1988 through 1993 then from 1997 through 1999, returned as a miniseries in 2009, and began a new series run in 2012. The first six series were written by the original team of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. Then, in 1995 Grant left the show. While Naylor continued producing the scripts with the contributions of various other writers, Grant’s leaving had a serious impact on the show’s long-term survival. There was a three year gap between series VI and VII, and the BBC declined to continue with a series IX. An animated Christmas special made in 1999, but the series itself did not return until a rather meta, three episode miniseries (IX) was broadcast in 2009. This continued the tradition of convoluted timelines by having the Red Dwarf characters travel backwards to return as characters in a Red Dwarf TV show airing in 2009. Series X aired late in 2012, and series XI expected to air sometime in 2016 and XII in 2017.

The crew of Red Dwarf, still lost in spacetime
The crew of Red Dwarf, still lost in spacetime

Doug Naylor has been working on a film version since 1999, but funding and script issues have prevented it (so far) from happening. However, his creation has still made it past the small screen. Red Dwarf has inspired its share of novels, with two written by the collaborative persona of “Grant Naylor” and another two written individually by Doug Naylor and Rob Grant. It also spawned a magazine called Red Dwarf Smegazine which had its run from 1992 to 1994. Red Dwarf: The Roleplaying Game was released in 2003 to positive reviews. And more recently, an Australian theater group has staged their own versions of selected episodes.

But these are the expected ups and downs of a long-running franchise. So even though the heyday of Red Dwarf  has passed, love for the show goes merrily on. The first ten seasons’ episodes are widely available for sampling, and the interactive official Red Dwarf website is an excellent source for updates, merchandise, convention information, and fan-club links if you chose to dive all the way in. I advise it. They are quite an active community. And they probably have vindaloo.

 

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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If you have been saving up The X-Files for a binge watch, be warned of spoilers ahead.

The X-Files--don't stop believin'
The X-Files Season Ten–don’t stop believin’

Season ten of The X-Files is nothing if not ambitious. Over the course of only six broadcast hours it brings up or takes on transgenderism, Islamic terrorism, God, immigration, media conspiracies, motherhood, monsters, and medical experiments—some of which are more “out there” than others. While the assortment of threats and themes covers The X-Files’ usual ground, many topics seem to be thrown in more to give a sense of currency to the revamped show than to contribute materially to the goings-on. As flaws go, though, the sometimes blunt attempts to reference current issues are a mild one. It’s been a long time, after all.

Beginning with “My Struggle,” the initial, mainly serious episode that catches Mulder and Scully up to the present day and re-orients them in the vast government/alien conspiracy, the revival of The X-Files is a rollercoaster of topics, threats, and attitudes ranging from the grim to the hilarious, to the maudlin and the ridiculous. The new season presents a highly condensed version of the original series’ many moods, which, while engaging and on-point, taken as a whole come off as trying just a little too hard to hit every single mark.

The second episode, “Founder’s Mutation,” riffs on the theme of secret alien experiments brought up in “My Struggle” while still leaning on a monster-of-the-week story line. While the plot is interesting enough, it contained, for me, an enormous hole based on really questionable Department of Defense contractor hiring practices. This episode also brings in a fantasy version of Mulder and Scully’s son, William, and a whole host of regrets.

“Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” is a complete 180 from the show’s previous serious tones, embracing the inherent silliness of the show in a very affectionate way. In between the mockery of modern life, psychoanalysis, and traditional lycanthropy, episode three hammers in as many easter eggs and inside jokes as an hour long show can hold. Of the current series, this is certainly my pick as the best installment.

The fourth episode, “Home Again,” is again a monster of the week, but without the ties to aliens and conspiracies. Art, Buddhist thought-forms, homelessness, exploitation, and disenfranchisement are all tied into a neat, greasy bundle of green goo and maggots that kills people. Graphically. The more interesting counterplot once again invokes their son and makes a rekindling of Mulder’s and Scully’s relationship seem genuinely possible, if not likely.

“Babylon,” episode five, again introduces a generous dose of silliness with the young, alternate versions of Mulder and Scully and Mulder’s wild night on suggested hallucinogens. However, the episode feels off balance because the dominant plot concerns visions of God, Islamic immigrants and suicide bombers. It is not an easy pairing.

After a recap of Scully’s history of involvement in the X-Files, the final episode of this short season, “My Struggle II,” comes back hard to the all-encompassing conspiracy from the first episode and the pervasive alien DNA problem. It retells a much-told plot (shades of The Stand and The Omega Man) with oddly stagey exposition and an utter lack of humor or lightness in an attempt to reference all the previous episodes. The younger agents are back, the hospital from episode two is back, the religious iconography from episode five, the Cigarette Smoking Man, the internet conspiracy theorist. The conspiracy becomes amplified with anti-vaccination hysteria, threatened ecological collapse, chemtrails causing immune system failure, and a doomsday virus set to kill all humanity unless it can be nullified. Of course there is far too much loaded into a single episode, and it ends on a wicked cliffhanger.

It would be cruel not to continue the show.

The X-Files Season Ten: Mulder and Scully in action
The X-Files Season Ten: Mulder and Scully in action

As of now, Fox has not committed to any additional seasons, but the possibility remains open, especially with the strong ratings the mini-series has garnered. All in all, the renewed X-Files with its older, wiser, more tested and more contemplative agents is a comfortable place for viewers to fall back into. The storylines, while crowded in a short season, are well paced and well written despite large doses of silliness, and the overall mood is not one of reboot but of reflection. There is pleanty of excitement still to be had, an there are still some truths to be sought after in this new version. And I think there are plenty of fans still willing, and quite eager, to look.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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Our Star Blazers!
Our Star Blazers!

While the action-packed Battle of the Planets was my introduction to anime science fiction, the more polished Star Blazers was my introduction to anime space opera. When I was but a wee nerdgoblin, being home sick from school meant getting to see Star Blazers, since the local station aired it half an hour before school normally let out. It was totally worth running a fever for. It was more grown up, and had a sweeping story arc and a huge cast of characters. I was hooked, and very happy whenever I got to hear the dramatic theme song:

We’re off to outer space

We’re leaving Mother Earth

To save the human race

Our Star Blazers!

 Ah, memories!

Star Blazers began its three-season-long saga in 1974 as the Japanese series Space Battleship Yamato. Alas, it was cancelled for low ratings in its home country. But then came Star Wars, and epic space battles were once again in fashion. Repackaged and dubbed into English to ride those coattails, Star Blazers first appeared on American screens in 1979. In the adaptation for young American audiences, Star Blazers lost many of the details that made it an adult anime—violence, language, drinking, sexualized characters, and extended historical references to World War II.

The drama and action in the first season revolve around a devastating radioactive attack made on Earth by the planet Gamilon, and the assistance the surviving humans receive from the planet Iscandar’s queen, Starsha. The people of Iscandar possess a means to eliminate the radiation and save humanity. Queen Starsha sends Earth plans for the interstellar travel capable Wave Motion Engine so humans can reach Iscandar for the proffered help.

Star Blazers's Argo, formerly the Battleship Yamato
Star Blazers’s Argo, formerly the Battleship Yamato

Humans, being the resourceful creatures they are, raise the sunken battleship Yamato (an important ship in the Japanese Imperial Navy during WWII, sunk in the China Sea while on a mission to defend Okinawa), rename it Argo, and refit it into a spacefaring vessel powered by the alien engine.

An aside: Just as the ship’s name was changed when the series was translated into English, character names were adapted as well. As with many imported anime shows, they have a hyper-literal, state-the-obvious style to them. Our heroes are Captain Avatar, Derek Wildstar, Mark Venture, Nova, Eager, and Dash—you can feel the bravery in those names. Medical staff and robots are, unironically, Dr. Sane and IQ-9. And the villains are the unsubtle and threatening Generals Krypt, Talan, Bane, and Scorch. With anime names, you always know where a character stands.

By the second season Earth has been saved from the original threat by the alien technology, but a new variety of cosmic bad guys want to conquer our planet. In the third and final season, Earth gets caught up in a war between two different galactic powers who accidently trigger the impending explosion of our sun, unless the captain and crew of the Argo can stop it. And as far as the American version of the original series went, that was that.

There was still strong interest in the franchise after its original runs. In the 1980s and 1990s there were several comic book adaptations of Star Blazers in America, as well as a web comic. Disney actually optioned the rights to Star Blazers in the 1990s with an eye toward a live-action movie. There was still talk of it from Disney as recently as 2006, but nothing has come of it here. The Japanese, however, released a live-action version in 2010. The Japanese also remade the original show’s first season as the animated Space Battleship Yamato 2199 in 2012 (with more episodes anticipated), with an American release following in 2014 as Star Blazers 2199. The remade series was further condensed into a theatrical film which was released for both Japanese and American audiences in 2014.

A few of the many Star Blazers characters
A few of the many Star Blazers characters

I discovered Star Blazers at a critical time in my development. I had only recently begun reading (and re-reading) The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, and John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy, and faithfully watching Battle of the Planets. I was eager for more in the same vein, be it book or television. I was captivated by Star Blazer’s Starsha, Queen of Iscandar, her sister Princess Astra, and their saga—they were different than the other female characters I had bumped into thus far. The style, the plot, and the characters of this show all helped define anime for me, as well as helped shape my taste in fantasy and science fiction.  They were, and are, my Star Blazers.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!