Review: Star Trek: Captain’s Log

Star Trek: Captain's Log
Star Trek: Captain’s Log by David Tipton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This graphic novel, which I suspect will be of interest only to hardcore Trekkies, collects four stories about starship captains whose names aren’t Kirk or Picard: Pike (from the original series’ first pilot episode “The Cage”), Sulu, Harriman (briefly seen in the feature film Star Trek: Generations), and Jellico, a character who appeared in the two-part Next Generation episode “Chain of Command.” While it’s an interesting idea to more fully flesh out some of the background characters of the Star Trek universe, the results are decidedly mediocre, in part because three of the four stories follow essentially the same formula: the starring captain experiences (or is told about) a specific incident, then finds himself in similar circumstances and uses the trick that worked years ago to save the day again. Only the Jellico story breaks the mold… as does the Jellico character himself, perhaps the only truly abrasive Starfleet captain we’ve seen in all the many, many years of Star Trek stories.

My favorite of the four stories involves Harriman, captain of the Enterprise-B, and his struggle to come to terms with his role in the incident seen in Generations, in which the legendary Captain Kirk was (apparently) killed saving Harriman’s ship. Harriman is widely believed to be “responsible for the death of a monument” because he froze when the crisis began, and his confidence isn’t helped when an angry Doctor McCoy dresses him down. Overall, the story is somewhat banal — McCoy apologizes and shares some wisdom, the Klingons attack, Harriman outwits them and regains his mojo — but there are some really nicely written exchanges between Bones and Harriman, and the dialog is all in-character and authentic. (My favorite: “You’re a wise man, Doctor.” “Nah, I’m an old man. People just mistake the one for the other.” That’s Bones McCoy, at least in his later years; I even “heard” the words in De Kelley’s voice.) It helps that this segment has the best artwork of the four, too; Andrew Currie really captures Kelley’s and William Shatner’s expressions.

The Pike story has some nice emotional moments as well, expanding on a relationship only hinted at in “The Cage” between the captain and his attractive young Yeoman, but overall it’s just a generic shoot-’em-up tale. The Sulu story was completely forgettable (seriously, I can’t even recall what it was about). As for the final story about Jellico… it’s a nice change from the others, in that it’s told from the perspective of a newly transferred officer who’s trying to get used to her new captain, but I find Jellico such an obnoxious bully that I can’t believe he’d be an effective leader, and I can’t bring myself to care too much about him. He’s a jerk at the beginning of the story, he’s a jerk at the end of the story, and the protagonist has simply learned to live with it.

Ultimately, this is a fast, but disposable read aimed at a niche audience. But it does have its moments…

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Review: Space: 1999 – Aftershock and Awe

Space: 1999 - Aftershock and Awe
Space: 1999 – Aftershock and Awe by Andrew E.C. Gaska

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Last year, I spent some time revisiting a TV series I dimly remembered watching as a young boy, Space: 1999. If you’ve not familiar with it, the premise is this: by the year 1999 (as imagined in the early 1970s), humankind is busily exploring the solar system and has established a permanent lunar outpost, Moonbase Alpha. It’s also started dumping its dangerous nuclear waste on the far side of the moon, which is a swell idea until a freak mishap detonates all that waste material, blowing the moon out of orbit and sending it hurtling out into the universe, along with Moonbase Alpha and everyone living there. Far-fetched, yes, even ridiculous, but also weirdly compelling… compelling enough that the show still enjoys a healthy cult following some 40 years after it originally aired. For proof of that, you need look no further than the 2012 publication date of the (mostly) original graphic novel Aftershock and Awe.

Aftershock and Awe comprises two parts. The first retells the events seen in the TV show’s pilot episode, climaxing in the nuclear detonation and the so-called “breakaway.” I understand this segment was adapted from a vintage comic book as well as one of those children’s storybook records that were common at the time; accordingly, the artwork has a pleasing (to me at least) retro appearance. Having just seen the television series before reading this, I also appreciated certain story tweaks to reconcile discrepancies that were created when the show was retooled in its second season, such as giving us a glimpse of characters that didn’t appear in season one.

However, the real meat of the book is the second part, which tells the story of what happened back on Earth after the moon’s departure, something the series only hinted at. The action follows several different characters scattered around (and above) the world: two men in an orbital station; the father of a young girl who is touring Moonbase Alpha with her mother at the time of breakaway; the brother, daughter, and ex-fiance, respectively, of three of the series’ most loved regular characters; and a number of powerful politicians and military men. The narrative builds a convincing alternate history in which President Kennedy was not assassinated and the past several decades proceeded very differently than we remember them — thus explaining the discrepancy between the imagined 1999 of the TV series and the real one we experienced — then interweaves all the individual characters’ storylines against the backdrop of an almost unimaginable global disaster. The plot includes dramatic rescues, failed conspiracies, and the question of how best to rebuild on an Earth radically changed, finally ending on a surprisingly optimistic note ten years after “the last moonrise.” My only complaint with this half of the book, honestly, is with the artwork. While it’s fine on its own terms, I found the modern painted realism rather jarring after the old-fashioned look of the first part. I would’ve liked to see a bit more uniformity between the two segments. But that’s my own preference; as I noted, there’s nothing really wrong with it.

As presented, the story is perfectly accessible to people who aren’t familiar with Space: 1999, but I suspect it will be of more interest to established fans, for whom Aftershock and Awe will make a nice companion to the beloved old series.

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Review: Honor Among Thieves

Honor Among Thieves
Honor Among Thieves by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since the release of The Force Awakens, I’ve thought a lot about that movie and about Star Wars in general, and I’ve come to the conclusion that my favorite era, both in terms of storytelling as well as the real-world Star Wars phenomenon, was that scant handful of years between the first two movies, i.e., Episodes IV and V… or, as we old farts who’ve been there since the dawn of time like to call ’em, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. That period was the most fun, in my opinion, when this whole crazy juggernaut of a franchise was still a swashbuckling adventure untainted by the tragic undertones that crept into it later, when anything was possible and Luke Skywalker was just, to borrow a memorable phrase from James S. A. Corey’s Honor Among Thieves, “a farm boy who love[d] flying his fast ship.”

Honor Among Thieves was one of the last Star Wars novels published in the so-called “Expanded Universe” of tie-in materials (books, comics, and games) produced before Disney acquired the Star Wars brand in 2014. The book was originally intended as part of a projected trilogy titled Empire and Rebellion, set in that sweet spot between the Battle of Yavin and the Battle of Hoth, and with each book focusing on one of the “Big Three” heroes: Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker. Only two of the three novels in that trilogy were published, however, before Disney’s controversial decision to decanonize the EU and recategorize all those stories as mere “legends.” So technically speaking, Honor Among Thieves and its companion piece, Razor’s Edge, never happened. Which is a shame, because it’s one of the more entertaining SW tie-ins I’ve encountered.

The time is shortly after the destruction of the first Death Star. The Rebels have abandoned their now-compromised base on Yavin IV and are searching for a new world on which to settle. Han Solo still has not committed to formally joining the Rebel Alliance and considers himself an outsider to their cause, an independent contractor who’s willing to do jobs for them but expects to be paid in return. So when Leia asks him and Chewbacca to fly into Imperial space to pick up a Rebel spy who’s called for extraction, it’s just another paycheck. Naturally, though, he gets more than he bargained for when the spy reveals why she called for help: an Imperial agent has discovered the path to an ancient alien artifact of immense power, but a third party has accidentally acquired the information as well and intends to sell it to the highest bidder. And now the race is on to intercept the data and recover the artifact, which will bring its possessor ultimate control over the Galaxy. Matters are complicated by an old friend turned bounty hunter who’s picked up Han’s trail and intends to capture him for Jabba the Hutt, as well as by an unexpected side trip to rescue Leia from an approaching Imperial fleet…

Refreshingly free of the usual mystical light-side/dark-side concerns involving the Jedi and the Force, Honor Among Thieves is more reminiscent of the old Han Solo novels by Brian Daley that I loved as a kid, or perhaps the original Marvel Comics Star Wars series (as opposed to the current Marvel series), just a fast-paced space opera adventure about a scoundrel with a fast ship and a sharp tongue. There’s even a bit of an Indiana Jones vibe in the final act as our heroes trek across a jungle world toward an ancient ruin that houses the story’s MacGuffin.

The tone never gets too heavy, but the book does offer some interesting ethical questions — voiced by the most unlikely of philosophers, Han Solo himself –about whether a New Republic founded by a victorious Rebel Alliance would be much different from the Empire for people who live on the margins, like himself — meet the new boss, same as the old boss — as well as whether anybody can be trusted with the kind of power promised by the object everyone is trying to obtain. And while I personally have grown very weary of all the superweapons in the Star Wars universe — including Starkiller Base in the new movie — the artifact in this story has the novelty of being alien in origin and non-destructive in nature, an idea that I found far more intriguing than just another variant on a giant laser.

Bottom line: official canon or not, Honor Among Thieves is a fun read that’s perfect for a lazy Saturday afternoon. If you love and miss a certain kind of Star Wars story the way I do, it’s highly recommended.

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2015 Media Wrap-up

Yes, kids, it’s that time again (actually it’s nearly a month past that time, but I’ve been busy) when I share with you my obsessive tendency for record-keeping by recounting all the films, recorded TV content, books, and live performances I’ve experienced in the past year.

As usual, an asterisk [*] before the title indicates something I’ve seen or read before. And also as usual, we’ll start with…

Movies Seen in a Theater

  1. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
  2. *The Wizard of Oz [Cinemark Classic Series]
  3. All About Eve [Cinemark Classic Series]
  4. How the West Was Won [Cinemark Classic Series]
  5. Funny Girl [Cinemark Classic Series]
  6. Breakfast at Tiffany’s [Cinemark Classic Series]
  7. *Giant [Cinemark Classic Series]
  8. Jupiter Ascending
  9. Evil Angel [special engagement]
  10. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  11. Mad Max Fury Road
  12. *Goldfinger [Cinemark Classic Series]
  13. Jurassic World
  14. *John Carpenter’s The Thing [Summer Late Nights at the Tower]
  15. *Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home [Summer Late Nights at the Tower]
  16. The Martian
  17. Highway to Dhampus [special engagement]
  18. Spectre
  19. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  20. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2

 

My theater-going was way down this year, from 35 titles seen in a public venue in 2014 to a mere 20 this year, and most of what I did see was older classics. Partly that was just a matter of scheduling; Anne and I had a lot going on in 2015 that made it difficult to get to a theater very often, and we chose to prioritize the classics because who knows when you might get another chance to see, for example, The Thing on the big screen? But there was also the problem of very few new releases appealing to either of us. This has been a growing issue for me for several years, and one that causes me genuine distress because movies and going to the movies have been such a central part of my identity for such a very long time. I used to struggle to keep up with all the new releases; now I have a hard time finding new releases that even look interesting to me. And even when I do manage to find something I want to see, it not much fun for me because my tastes seem to have become thoroughly disconnected from the current zeitgeist. I mean, sure, I always had some disagreements with the crowd (my old theater buds will remember our infamous Darkman argument), but these days, I find myself consistently enjoying stuff that everyone says is crap (Jupiter Ascending, Jurassic World, even, surprisingly to me, Age of Ultron), and I’m frankly baffled by the hoopla over films that just don’t do much for me (Fury Road and, much as it pains me to say this, The Force Awakens). It’s like that Joe Walsh song: everything’s so different, but I haven’t changed. And yes, that bothers me. More than it ought to probably… but it does bother me. Feeling like I’m constantly on the defensive has sapped a lot of the joy out of my primary hobby, and that makes me feel, frankly, like I’ve come unmoored from something important.

But I’m running off on a tangent. Briefly, my favorite new release of 2015 was The Martian, hands down. Most forgettable films were The Hobbit and Spectre, both of which I remember enjoying at the time but are now just hazy impressions in my memory. Evil Angel and Highway to Dhampus — small films made by friends of mine — were both great and deserve a DVD release. Of the classics I hadn’t previously seen, All About Eve was a real revelation, one of those flicks I’ve heard so much about over the years but  somehow never gotten around to. Turns out, it was funny, sexy, weirdly modern in feel, and simply magnificent to see in a theater. Highly recommended if you’ve never seen it, especially if you have a chance to see it on the big screen. And of course The Thing and Star Trek IV are old friends that were good to re-visit.

Movies Seen on Home Video

Bolded items are titles I own on either DVD or BluRay, or in a few cases, VHS tape, and again, an asterisk means I’ve seen it before…

  1. Fat Man and Little Boy
  2. The Station Agent
  3. Scanners
  4. *1941
  5. Zodiac
  6. Dredd
  7. The Last Days on Mars
  8. Solomon Kane
  9. *E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
  10. *Despicable Me
  11. *The Black Hole
  12. The Bad News Bears (1976)
  13. Despicable Me 2
  14. *St. Elmo’s Fire [VHS]
  15. *Tootsie
  16. Le Mans
  17. *Space Battleship Yamato
  18. Mystic Pizza
  19. Dr. Strange (2007 animated film)
  20. Kon-Tiki (2012 dramatization, not the documentary)
  21. *The Avengers
  22. Beginnings
  23. Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’
  24. *All the Right Movies
  25. Jodorowsky’s Dune
  26. Singles
  27. Adventureland
  28. *Harold and Maude
  29. Urban Cowboy
  30. *Mad Max
  31. *The Road Warrior
  32. *Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
  33. The Color Purple
  34. The Paper Chase
  35. *Highlander
  36. World War Z
  37. Magic Mike
  38. Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut
  39. John Carpenter’s The Ward
  40. The Omen
  41. *The Fog (1980)
  42. Tales of Terror
  43. *Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  44. Russell Mulcahy’s Tale of the Mummy
  45. Roadracers
  46. Radio Bikini
  47. Mr. Holmes
  48. Lincoln
  49. The Watcher in the Woods
  50. *It Happened One Night
  51. Something Wicked This Way Comes
  52. *Star Wars Despecialized
  53. *Return of the Jedi Despecialized
  54. The Lincoln Lawyer
  55. *Bad(der) Santa
  56. *Planes, Trains and Automobiles
  57. *Westworld
  58. Big House USA
  59. *Alien: The Director’s Cut

 

I saw 64 feature films on home video in 2014, so my viewing in this category was down slightly as well. I struck a pretty good balance between the new and the familiar, I thought. Of the titles I hadn’t seen before, I particularly enjoyed The Station Agent, Mystic Pizza, Adventureland, Mr. Holmes, Lincoln, The Lincoln Lawyer, and, unexpectedly given its reputation as a ladies-only kind of flick, Magic Mike. Jodorowsky’s Dune was a fascinating glimpse at what might have been, and Radio Bikini and the Hendrix doc were both enlightening. A number of films I’ve wanted to see for years turned out to be disappointing: Scanners, Singles, The Paper Chase, and The Omen weren’t nearly as great as I expected them to be. The Watcher in the Woods and Something Wicked This Way Comes were interesting misfires that I know I saw as a child, but didn’t really remember. I still didn’t care for Nightbreed, 20-some years after the first time I saw it, although I think I “got it” a lot more this time (seeing Clive Barker’s director’s cut might have helped with that). And one very pleasant surprise was John Carpenter’s The Ward. It’s not up to the standards of Carpenter’s early work, but I thought it was a tight and spooky little thriller that I didn’t figure out until the end.

 

TV Content Seen on Home Video

  1. China Beach Season 2
  2. WKRP in Cincinnati Season 2
  3. WKRP in Cincinnati Season 3
  4. WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4
  5. Babylon 5: The Legend of the Rangers (TV movie)
  6. Babylon 5: The Lost Tales (TV movie)
  7. Outlander Season 1
  8. Marvel’s Daredevil Season 1
  9. First Light (BBC TV movie)
  10. Space: 1999 (complete series, i.e., two seasons)
  11. The Wonder Years Season 1
  12. Michael Wood’s Story of England (complete series)
  13. Jim Jeffries: Bare (stand-up comedy performance)
  14. Craig Ferguson: I’m Here to Help (stand-up comedy performance)
  15. A History of Scotland (complete series)
  16. Last Days in Vietnam (American Experience documentary)
  17. A Very Murray Christmas (holiday special made for Netflix)
  18. The Seven Dwarfs of Auschwitz (documentary)
Books Completed (Fiction)
  1. To Kill a Mockingbird — Harper Lee
  2. A Separate Peace — John Knowles
  3. The Outsiders — S.E. Hinton
  4. Outlander — Diana Gabaldon
  5. Dragonfly in Amber — Diana Gabaldon
  6. Voyager — Diana Gabaldon
  7. Highlander, Vol. One: The Coldest War (graphic novel) — Brandon Jerwa and Michael Avon Oeming (writers), Lee Moder and Kevin Sharpe (artists)
  8. Star Trek: Harlan Ellison’s “The City on the Edge of Forever”: The Original Teleplay (graphic novel) — adaptation by Scott and David Tipton (writers), J.K. Woodward (artist)
  9. The Martian — Andy Weir
  10. Drums of Autumn — Diana Gabaldon
  11. Space: 1999 — Aftershock and Awe (graphic novel) — Andrew E.C. Gaska (writer), Gray Morrow, Miki, David Hueso (artists)

 

Another slight decline this year, a mere 11 titles instead of last year’s 13. (Actually, a decline in reading overall, since I only read one non-fiction title this year, down from three last year.) However, I don’t feel so bad when I consider the size of those Gabaldon novels, each of which is in the neighborhood of 1,000 pages or so. Given that the only time I really get for recreational reading these days is a half-hour train ride to and from work five days a week, I don’t think that’s too bad.

One book-related thing that happened in 2015: I opened a Goodreads account and started writing some reviews to help me better recall what I’ve read, instead of letting it all subside into a mushy haze of half-remembered impressions. Click the hyperlinks to see my reviews.

Books Completed (Non-Fiction)

  1. No Tourists Allowed: Seeking Inner Peace and Sobriety in War-Torn Sudan — Shannon Egan

Concerts and Live Theater Events

  1. Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band [Energy Solutions Arena, 3/13/15]
  2. Allison Krauss & Union Station and Willie Nelson [USANA Amphitheater, 6/20/15]
  3. Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band and Van Halen [USANA Amphitheater, 7/18/15]
  4. Chris Isaak [Sandy Amphitheater, 8/26/15]

And finally, the concerts. It was really an excellent year for me in that regard, as I finally got to check off not just one but three wishlist artists I honestly thought I’d never get an opportunity to see: Bob Seger, Willie Nelson, and Van Halen (with David Lee Roth). And to my great pleasure, they were all good shows, especially Seger’s. Willie Nelson played for a good 90 minutes without a break, impressive for a man who’d just turned 82 a couple months earlier. And Van Halen… what can I say? Maybe not the best-sounding show, but good lord, what a fun night!

Chris Isaak, meanwhile, is becoming something of a tradition for Anne and I and our friends, Geoff and Anastasia. He’s one of the most entertaining live artists I’ve ever seen, and consistently turns in a good show. We’ve seen him twice now; looking forward the the next one.

***

And there we are for another misspent year…

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Friday Evening Videos: “Manic Monday” (Repost)

I posted “Manic Monday” as a Friday Evening Video about a year and a half ago, but the song has been on my mind again since I read that Wednesday, January 27, marked the 30th anniversary of its release. Yes, you read that correctly: “Manic Monday” is now thirty years old. How is that even fracking possible? How can I possibly be old enough to have loved a song for three decades? Damned if I know… but considering how grim this week’s other 30th anniversary was, I thought I’d send everybody into the weekend with something a bit more pleasant.

I still love this song. And I still think Susanna Hoffs was (is) utterly adorable. (Michael Steele, the redhead in the hat, ain’t bad either!) And I still wonder whatever became of my “older woman” that I forever associate with this little ditty. The video, with its nostalgic combination of sepia-tone coloring and golden-hour lighting, resonates with me now more than ever.

Here’s my original post:

My junior year of high school, I was lucky enough to land a cushy job as a media aide during the class period just before lunch. What that means is, I got to hang out for an hour — unsupervised, no less! — in an isolated room just off the school library where we kept the VCRs, projectors, and assorted stage equipment. Once in a blue moon, I would have to check out some of this gear to a faculty member, or do a bit of cleaning and light maintenance when something was checked back in, but mostly I did homework from my other classes, read trashy paperbacks, and generally killed time before lunch while listening to the totally kick-ass stereo system that was set up in the back corner. (It had a graphic equalizer, the absolute pinnacle of audio technology at that time! At least I thought so… I just liked monkeying with all the sliders.)

The word soon got out that I was down there, and friends began dropping by for visits on one pretense or another. There was one friend in particular who was about to become… very memorable. She was an older woman, a senior to my junior, but — I have to be honest — I’d never given her much thought. Oh, I liked her well enough. We were definitely friends, and I enjoyed talking with her on the bus and such. But as far as romantic interest? Nada. I had my eyes too firmly fixed on the girls who were emulating Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”-era look, and this girl was the diametric opposite to that. She was a good church-going Mormon who carried her scriptures in her backpack and dressed very modestly and gave no indication that there were any ulterior motives whatsoever behind her visits to that equipment room. Until one afternoon when this song was playing on that way-cool, fully equalized stereo with the quadrophonic sound:

The Bangles’ “Manic Monday” debuted the week of January 25, 1986, and it stayed on the charts for months, eventually peaking at the number-two position in April. It was ubiquitous and inescapable, and it made The Bangles’ career. I loved it because it was cute and catchy and Susanna Hoffs’ breathy, little-girlish voice made me weak in the knees, and because it had that naughty line in the bridge about “making some noise.” And I loved it even more after it became the soundtrack for my very first lessons in French kissing.

Following that first afternoon, I had a brief and intense affair with this friend of mine, this good Mormon older woman who taught me such a valuable life skill, consisting mostly of her coming to the equipment room during my aide period and making out like crazy with me (often to the tune of “Manic Monday,” as it seemed to play sometime during that hour every day), then the two of us pretending nothing had changed during our bus ride at the end of the day. It lasted maybe a month, if that long. As I recall, we just sort of… stopped… as quickly and unexpectedly as we’d begun. And at the end of the year, she wrote in my yearbook, “Sorry you didn’t get everything you wanted.” (That was a fun one to explain to my mom, who of course loved reading everything her baby’s friends wrote in his yearbook.)

That makes it sound like this girl was a tease, or like I’d pressured her to go farther than first base. I don’t recall either of those scenarios being the case. In my mind, I was pretty satisfied with our arrangement. But who knows… I am seeing it through a hazy filter of 30-year-old nostalgia, after all. Maybe I was more of a boor than I remember. I hope not. I like to think I was just a little adventure for this conservative girl as her graduation and grown-up life loomed before her.

I have no idea whatever happened to her. I’ve looked for her on Facebook, and to the best of my Google abilities, and I haven’t found so much as an outdated phone number. Wherever she is, I hope her life turned out well… and that she gets as much of a warm glow from the opening riff of “Manic Monday” as I do…

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Challenger, Go at Throttle-Up

space-shuttle-challenger_explosion

In January of 1986, I had long since given up my childhood dream of becoming an astronaut.

I was self-aware enough by then to know that I didn’t have a head for (or an interest in) advanced mathematics, and I also knew I didn’t have the proper temperament for (or interest in) a military career, both of which were still prerequisites for the job at that time. I was sixteen years old, a junior in high school, recently enfranchised with my driver’s license and loving the new-found freedom; my dreams at the time were focused on far more immediate and prosaic matters, mostly involving fuzzy pink sweaters and the things that lay beneath them. Oh, I remained interested in space exploration, of course. I was still collecting newspaper clippings about the latest missions, and I was still a total nerd who was convinced that humanity was going to spread beyond this Earth to other planets and moons and asteroids, and maybe even take up residence in the dark spaces between by constructing massive “O’Neill colonies.” Moreover, I was (mostly) certain all this was going to happen in my lifetime, and that it would, naturally, grow out of the space-shuttle program… in time. Even though I knew I’d never be a shuttle pilot, I figured I would at least get the consolation prize of spending the occasional weekend at an orbital hotel… no doubt with a pretty someone wearing one of those fuzzy sweaters. (Funny… I remember thinking  I’d be enjoying those weekends by the time I was in my mid-40s or so. You know, now.)

However, I hadn’t actually watched a shuttle launch in several years. What was the point? They were all pretty much the same old thing; fifty times we’d fired those birds into the black… fifty times they’d come home without any major problems. It wasn’t a big deal anymore. And really wasn’t that the point of the space shuttle? To make space travel as mundane as catching a commuter flight to Denver? That’s what I’d been told in all the breathlessly optimistic pop-science magazines and non-fiction works of “futurism” I’d devoured in my younger days. I loved the shuttles — I thought, and still think, they were elegant  machines, spaceships that landed like airplanes, the gleaming stuff of science fiction — and yet by January of 1986, I completely took them for granted. I think a lot of other people did too…

Mid-morning, January 28, 1986.

I was in my eleventh-grade creative-writing class. The bell to begin the class period had just sounded, but everyone was still shuffling about, talking, laughing, not yet settled. And in walked this kid whose name now escapes me, a senior who I remember wrote a pretty nifty science-fiction teleplay that ended up being published in the yearbook later that spring. I don’t recall his name, but I can see his face as clearly as the computer monitor on which these words are appearing. Curly hair, blue eyes, a few random sprouts of facial hair… and a thousand-yard stare that made him seem much, much older than any high school kid has any right to be. Somebody asked what his problem was, and he replied in a soft mumble, “The shuttle just blew up.”

We didn’t believe him, of course. Somebody may have even laughed, thinking it was a really bad joke. And the kid said it again, “The shuttle blew up.” Not long after that, the PA speaker in the corner popped and the voice of our school principal confirmed the news. Space shuttle Challenger was gone, destroyed a mere 73 seconds into her tenth flight, the 51st launch of a space shuttle. My principal sounded like that classmate of mine looked… old and tired.

The rest of that day is a haze. As I recall, school remained in session, but nobody bothered much with classes. No attendance was taken, and I doubt anyone made any serious effort to teach, or to learn. There were televisions set up in the media center, the physical heart of the school, and everyone in the building wandered past them at least once to see some of the live news coverage. I stood and watched for hours. I saw teachers and adult authority figures weeping. I saw cheerleaders and cool kids who hadn’t ever set foot in a science class shaking their heads in disbelief, as numb as any of the nerds who actually knew about this space stuff. The awful video replayed over and over, all day long. It’s seared into the memory of an entire generation. The blast-off, the gleaming white-and-orange spacecraft leaping into a blue sky… and then the words “Challenger, go at throttle-up” over the radio, followed by a burst of static and an eruption of smoke where the external fuel tank and the orbiter were supposed to be, and the solid rocket boosters still burning, still thrusting, arcing out and away from the destruction, still blindly trying to claw their way toward the blackness above.

Challenger, go at throttle-up.”

Even now, years and decades later, those words, spoken so calmly, so routinely, raise a lump in my throat. I never watched another shuttle launch where I didn’t find myself tensing up at that moment approached, a muscle tightening in my jaw as I heard other voices call out the same point on the checklist — “go at throttle-up” — and then breathe a sigh of relief as the ship kept going. Even now, with the shuttle program ended and the surviving orbiters taxidermied and on display in air museums around the country, I can watch old recordings and experience the same sensations. A mild case of PTSD, perhaps? I wouldn’t be surprised. I don’t know if people too young to remember that day can understand just how traumatic it really was. Just as, I suppose, the people of my generation can never really understand the emotions unleashed by the Kennedy assassination.

The people in charge held their boards of inquiry and figured out precisely what happened. Steps were taken to correct the errors that led to the deaths of seven people, and the shuttles flew again. They flew a lot, actually, 135 total missions, including the ill-fated one Challenger didn’t have a chance to complete. And they accomplished some great things — notably, the Hubble telescope and the International Space Station — before finally being put to pasture. But nothing was the same after Challenger. A nation’s pride died along with those seven brave souls aboard that orbiter, and our post-Apollo swagger, too. A timidity infected every discussion of manned spaceflight after that. An air of futility. And once we lost Columbia as well…

It still troubles me that the shuttles retired under a cloud, with many people thinking they were dangerous lemons, and a three-decade-long misstep. And it also bothers me that the future I used to believe in — the future of moon bases and Mars colonies and giant cylindrical space habitats — has receded even farther into the distance ahead of me than the eleventh grade has slipped behind me. I still believe that human beings are explorers by nature, and that we may one day spread out into the universe beyond this little rock. But I no longer believe it’s our destiny to do so. I have a lot of doubts that our species will be smart enough, or brave enough, or just plain lucky enough to actually do it. Too many people think it isn’t worth the risk, or can’t imagine a big enough return on investment, or don’t believe it can be done or just plain don’t care. It certainly won’t happen in my lifetime. Honestly, I think I’ll be lucky if I live long enough to see any more human footsteps on the Moon, the ambitions of Elon Musk notwithstanding.

This loss of faith, the death of my childhood, really, and of a certain innocence and naive optimism… it all began unraveling on January 28, 1986, with the words: “Challenger, go at throttle-up.” Thirty years haven’t dulled the sting of those words, or the trauma of losing the tomorrow we should have had, the brass ring we were reaching for and just couldn’t quite manage to touch…

 

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“Nothing Is Original”

I’ve never seen a Jim Jarmusch movie, and from what I read in his wikipedia entry, I doubt they’d do much for me. I’m not a fan of self-consciously “art house” stuff. However, I do like this sentiment of his I ran across on Goodreads:

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”

–Jim Jarmusch

(Original attribution: MovieMaker Magazine #53, Winter, January 22, 2004)

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Friday Evening Videos: “Part of Me, Part of You”

Nearly all the commentary I’ve read this week about the late Glenn Frey has focused on his work with the Eagles, which I guess isn’t too surprising given the band’s position in the rock pantheon. And the sad truth is that his solo career never really caught fire the way his bandmate Don Henley’s did. Even so, he did score a few hit singles during the 14 years between the Eagles’ breakup in 1980 and their 1994 reunion, and those are worth mentioning, in my opinion. The biggest of them were from soundtracks: “The Heat Is On” from the Eddie Murphy film Beverly Hills Cop, and “You Belong to the City,” a beautifully moody, bass-and-sax driven anthem that was featured prominently in the second-season premiere episode of the TV phenomenon Miami Vice. Both songs reached number-two on the Billboard charts, and “You Belong,” in particular, was inescapable during my junior year of high school. Hearing it now instantly catapults me back to that time and place, and conjures up all sorts of emotional detritus and half-memories, in a way that few other songs do. But that’s probably another entry…

Also noteworthy was “Smuggler’s Blues,” a number-12 hit that first appeared on Frey’s album The Allnighter, but is more associated with (again) Miami Vice, which used the song in a first-season episode of the same name. (The episode is said to have been inspired by the song’s MTV video, in which Frey plays the smuggler of the title; Frey played a different character — also a smuggler — in the Vice episode, which led to other acting gigs in the TV series Wiseguy and Nash Bridges, and most notably in the feature film Jerry Maguire.)

However, the song that came immediately to mind when I decided to blog about Glenn Frey’s solo work is a bit more obscure than those others. Another soundtrack tune, “Part of Me, Part of You” from the 1991 film Thelma & Louise only reached 55 on the Billboard Hot 100. Nevertheless, I heard it a lot during the spring and summer of 1991, when that film was playing at the movie theater where I worked and I was cleaning up the auditorium every two hours while the end credits ran in the background. I loved Thelma & Louise, and I love this song, which manages the nifty trick of wrapping an upbeat “road tune” sound around a core of melancholy lyrics.

Those lyrics suggest to me the unspoken thoughts of a mentor, a parent, or maybe an insecure lover, depending on how you interpret them; their bittersweet suggestion that time is short and relationships evanescent has become especially poignant over the years as I’ve lost people, endured changes (some more welcome than others), and gotten old. There have been times when this song has made me too sad to continue listening… and other times when it’s simply brought a smile and the itch to get behind the wheel of my old Galaxie again. The fact that the man singing the song is now gone as well just adds another layer of meaning for me.

I’m sorry to say the video isn’t much to write home about. Like most videos for film music, it’s just a collection of clips from the movie interspersed with Glenn singing with a soulful expression. And this particular instance of the video isn’t even of very good quality, but it was the best version I could find. Just listen to the music and enjoy the visual of that long, sleek, beautiful T-Bird cruising through the southwestern deserts, and try to imagine me at the age of 21…

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The Meaning of Glenn Frey

I haven’t had time this week to write anything substantive about the latest celebrity death that’s hit me in the gut like a baseball bat, namely the passing on January 18th of Glenn Frey, who cofounded the seminal classic-rock band the Eagles.

I know, I know… The Dude hates the Eagles. And so do a lot of critics and music snobs and vinyl-loving hipsters. Whatever. A hell of a lot more people like them, based on their record sales and continuing presence on the airwaves after 40-odd years, and their music was a big part of my life’s soundtrack when I was growing up. Hell, it still is. So yeah, Frey’s death hurts. But it hurts in a different way than David Bowie’s did, at least for me. Whereas I mourned Bowie as the passing of a cultural institution, as well as a charming, multi-talented human being that I confess I didn’t respect nearly enough, the situation with Frey is more… metaphorical. Everything I’ve heard about Glenn Frey the man suggests I probably wouldn’t have liked him very much had I spent any time with him (unlike Bowie, who strikes me now in interview footage as very likable indeed). But Frey as a symbol is quite a different thing.

I think what I’m feeling about his death is very much what Marc Eliot is getting at in an article he contributed to CNN. (For the record, Eliot is the author of a book called To the Limit: The Untold Story of the Eagles, which I read a few years ago and which is largely to blame for my jaundiced view of Frey and his bandmate Don Henley. Neither of them came off very well in that telling of the band’s tumultuous history.) Eliot is addressing an older audience than myself, more the late-stage Baby Boomers than we Gen-Xers, but given the ubiquity of Eagles music throughout my own formative years in the ’80s, not to mention my own somewhat anachronistic worldview, I can certainly relate:

…despite the belief that rock ‘n’ roll will keep us forever young, the truth is it doesn’t age well on us. That’s the beauty and power of rock ‘n’ roll: It celebrates transient youth in the present tense. It’s what makes it both shimmery and precious. And it’s what makes the death of Glenn Frey so mournful.

What happened to him? That’s our first instinct, that’s what we want, we need to know. … But maybe what we really want to know is: What happened to us?

The passing of Glenn Frey reminds us all too well of the kids we were in the ’70s — our blue jeans and black boots, our long hair and ‘stashes and crushes on impossibly beautiful, unattainable girls, our nights spent cross-legged in front of turntables listening with great intent to the latest album of one of our heroes. We believed that somehow we could change the world by the force of our belief in the power of rock ‘n’ roll, but instead the world changed us.

When we mourn for Frey, are we mourning our lost selves and a time when we all thought we could live hard and stay free and surf and bike and run and jump and love and never lose because we were forever young?

To which I would reply, hell yes that’s what I’m mourning. In one way or another, to one degree or another, damn near every single day.

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In Memoriam: Alan Rickman

alan-rickman_collageOnly days after claiming the Goblin King, that bastard cancer strikes again: Alan Rickman, the well-known and prolific English actor with the magnificently urbane diction, has died at the age of 69. (Bowie was also 69… curious. Somehow, they didn’t strike me as being the same age, although I couldn’t have said which of them seemed older.)

There’s an entire generation of young people in mourning today because Rickman played Severus Snape, the greasy-haired, mean-spirited antagonist who turns out to be more than he initially seems, in the Harry Potter films. (Life lesson: people can be jerks without necessarily being evil, and people often do the right thing for reasons that are entirely their own.) We older film lovers, on the other hand, are more prone to think of him as Hans Gruber, the elegant but brutal leader of the bad guys in the first, best (and only, in my book) Die Hard film. Or as the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham, who so memorably threatens to remove someone’s spleen with a spoon — “because it will hurt more!” — in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Or perhaps as Elliott Marston, the inhumane Australian rancher who hires Tom Selleck to exterminate aborigines in Quigley Down Under.

Rickman was a highly versatile actor who played all sorts of roles, of course. My friend Amber is very fond of his work in the 1995 film version of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Many other people have mentioned Galaxy Quest, the sci-fi comedy spoof of Star Trek fandom in which Rickman was a classically trained actor who’s been forever typecast as the alien “Dr. Lazarus,” the character he played in an old TV show, and has grown quite bitter about the whole thing. And I’ve also seen a lot of references to the ensemble romance Love Actually, a movie I’ve never found particularly memorable — nothing against it, it just failed to make much impression on me — but which has its partisans. However, he truly shone when he played the heavy; his erudite manners and magnificent phrasings elevated his villains far beyond mere thugs. A Rickman villain scares you with his intelligence, not his physical prowess or psychotic behavior. And he had a very special talent for sneering; nobody can do an expression of such pure, undiluted contempt as he could. Another friend of mine once described his sneer as “looking like he was balancing a small rat turd on his upper lip.” Disgusting, yes, but such a perfect description that it’s stayed with me for years. His villains were hissably bad, often surprisingly complex, and always insanely fun to watch. What a shame we’ll have no more of them.

Alan Rickman’s demise came as a shock because, like Bowie, he’d managed to keep news of his illness quiet, and also because — again like Bowie — he wasn’t all that old. He still had a lot of great, possibly even iconic parts ahead of him. And what a shame as well that the world has been deprived of a human being who was, reportedly, one of the truly great ones, a man of compassion who stood up for others and was a champion of fairness. He was one of those I hoped to meet someday on the comic-con circuit, and I regret never having that opportunity.

I don’t know if it’s even possible to cure all the seemingly infinite varieties of cancer, or if — as some cynics have suggested — President Obama’s pledge in the State of the Union address the other night to create a “moonshot project” to find a cure was simply intended to be an easy applause line. Maybe so; this is a cynical age we live in. But damn it, I think we ought to make the effort. To paraphrase Sean Connery’s line from the old movie Medicine Man, cancer is the plague of the 21st century, and it’s taken too damn many people. It’s long past time to put a stop to it…

Once again, credit for the excellent photo montage goes to my cousin K’lyn.

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