Posts Tagged ‘Harlan Ellison’


Whedon honoured with the Ray Bradbury Award

April 27, 2009

As a footnote to all the recent Whedon talk around these parts, Sci Fi Wire has video of Whedon accepting his Ray Bradbury Award this past Saturday. The award is for excellence in screenwriting and is bestowed by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Previous winners include J. Michael Straczynski for Babylon 5, James Cameron for Terminator 2, and Yuri Rasovsky and Harlan Ellison for 2000X – Tales of the Next Millennia.

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The top 5 of 2008

January 1, 2009

The close of the year on any geek site is a time for reflection on the past, a time for looking ahead to the future, a time for celebrating the accomplishments and mourning the losses of the community, but above all, it is a time to obsessively quantify our passions with Best of the Year lists. Here at Not A Planet Anymore, we’re no exception. While we can’t claim to have read all the new books or seen all of the new movies or watched every new episode of every TV series or played every new game released in 2008, we do claim the right to sing the praises of those new tidbits that we have sampled. Behold the admittedly limited awesomeness of the Not A Planet Anymore Top 5 of 2008:
Top 5 New Books of 2008:
5) The Savage Humanists – edited by Fiona Kellighan
A strong collection of stories using SF as part of biting social commentary. Gregory Frost’s “Madonna of the Maquiladora” was perhaps the most memorable for its brutal look at the means used to keep people down to make them easy to exploit, and how they accept it.

4) Firstborn – by Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen Baxter
A worthy end to the “A Time Odyssey” trilogy with room for Baxter to add more if he chooses. Lots of great Clarkeian havoc on a planetary scale offset by personal and team ingenuity that allow humanity to survive. An absorbing, fun read.

3) Valley of Day-Glo – by Nick DiChario
This story of a young man’s strange journey through post-apocalyptic America is riveting if for no other reason than you keep wondering what’s going to happen next. Just when you think DiChario’s telling us humanity is doomed to be obsessed with hoarding and fighting over ultimately useless trinkets, even when the task of survival should bring greater wisdom, his protagonist learns what’s really important and arrives at a measure of inner peace.

2) Tesseracts Twelve – edited by Claude Lalumiere
This anthology of Canadian SF was a lot of fun to read. Overall a very solid line-up, although a few of the stories did take a little long to get going.  I think my favourites were the two anchor stories: the first of the collection, Derryl Murphy’s gold rush-neanderthal collision “Ancients of the Earth” and the final tale by David Nickle “Wylde’s Kingdom” where a washed-up reality show adventurer lives amidst the grim reality that there’s a new species on the extinction list.

1) Very Hard Choices – by Spider Robinson
This short but powerful book is memorable for a couple of reasons. First, it’s inhabited by well-rounded characters who stay true to themselves, but who are still capable of change. It also examines the emotional consquences of making very hard choices, and how people deal with them. Robinson has written one of the most deeply unsettling portrayals of what it’s like to die that I’ve ever come across.  But amidst the pessimistic backdrop of global threats and the exercise of staggering powers, this is ultimately an optimistic book showing that the connections between human beings are things of the highest and most enduring importance.

The Top 5 TV Shows of 2008:
5) Doctor Who – Series 4
Lots of entertaining episodes this season. Donna Noble has to be one of the most refreshing Companions with her willingness to take the Doctor to task when she thinks he’s wrong without descending (at least not completely and permanently) into the realm of shrewishness. While the finale episodes had some great retro surprises, ultimately the end was a bit weak.

4) Terminator – The Sarah Connor Chronicles
This show has genuinely surprised me in terms of keeping up a consistently interesting plot with well-written characters. The best has been watching Summer Glau’s pretty little cyborg quietly and subtly begin to evolve emotions (at least that’s how it’s looking to me) while having to deal with the complexities of human relationships that she’s not yet equipped for. As I’ve said before though, the show could do with a little less of Sarah looking off into the distance with clouded eyes.

3) Reaper
Another surprise – here’s a show that by all rights should have become repetitive and boring but has instead been consistently funny and has developed the plot and characters over time so that it’s a lot more than a catch a gimmicky ghost of the week story. I’m not sure how much influence Kevin Smith has on the show, but certainly is presence is felt, most especially in the form of the sidekick character Sock, who (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again) is more or less the bastard love child of Jay and Silent Bob. I’m looking forward to seeing what this show has in store for us this year.

2) Chuck
Season 2 has been great so far (I was howling when Sarah’s father came on the show and they introduced him as “Jack Burton”). My only regret is having missed season 1. I’ll have to pick up the DVD box set.

1) Battlestar Galactica – season 4
Was there ever any doubt that this would be number one? The new BSG is the greatest show currently on TV, and one of the best shows ever. The arrival at a seemingly post-disaster Earth (oh come on, let’s not complain about this being a spoiler! Everyone and their daggit knows by now that they found Earth in the last episode!) was the cap on a powerful half-season. My only complaint is that we’ve had to wait this long to finish it.

The Top 5 New Movies of 2008:
5) Ironman
Lots of fun watching this flick. Downey made the perfect Tony Stark, but Pepper Potts had the best line of the whole movie when she was escorting one of Stark’s “guests” out of the house early on. Jeff Bridges should also get credit for playing a believable (up until the mech piloting bit at the end) high-powered corporate boss scheming to take control while keeping a smile on his face.

4) Cloverfield
I’ve always had a weakness for flicks with giant monsters stomping on cities, and Cloverfield, with its Blair Witch camera style, was perfect. What was most impressive was the way the movie was able to create an emotional bond between the audience and the main characters. Part of that, of course, was through the camera/Hud perspective, with the audience  being on the ground amidst the chaos with the characters, but part of it was the writing and performances. I don’t associate with New York yuppies in my life, so normally I wouldn’t care one whit for them in a disaster movie, but somehow, once things got rolling in this film, it started to matter more and more to me what happened to these people. That’s great movie-making.

3) Dreams with Sharp Teeth: A Film about Harlan Ellison
It’s a rare thing indeed for me to see a documentary in the cinema (generally, it’s a lot easier and cheaper to catch it later on one of CBC’s documentary shows) but this bio of an SF giant was definitely worth it. I’m not a huge Ellison fan, but I have read his stuff and I like some of it, so there was some interest for me in watching this film. But even for a non-Ellison fan, it’s worth-while to see the humanity underneath his legendary ego, and to hear frank assessments of him from friends who are willing to lay out the bad with the good.

2) The Dark Knight
I just re-watched this last night on DVD, and it’s as startling and intense the second time around (and on a home-sized screen) as the first time in the theatre. Ledger’s performance is frightening and beyond the Joker, the rest of the film is powerful on its own. Nolan could have flinched many times when it came to showing the degree of violence Batman and the citizens of Gotham have to face, but he didn’t, even when it came to the fate of the hero’s love interest. Definitely a must-see.

The story of the little robot that went to the stars to get his girl is ultimately the best of the year in my opinion. The basic storyline itself is funny and well done, but add to that the multitude of references to other SF films (and non-SF stories, like Robinson Crusoe) and the deeper questions the story raises (the environmental issue is obvious and no-where near as interesting as the question of the responsibility of a creator to his creation and how they must redefine their relationship) and you’ve got a very complex mixture that is worthy of rewatching again and again.

So what are your picks for the best of 2008?


The best SF gateway TV show

October 18, 2008

What’s the best SF television show to encourage someone in the cultural mainstream to become a genre fan? What show has the magic combination of character development, interesting plot line(s), and, most importantly, easy accessibility (you might argue that sensawunda is another key element, but I’d count that as a sub-branch of plot – and an optional one) in sufficiently compelling quantities that make it the perfect gateway show to entice a person into becoming an SF fan?

Certainly, as geeks, we all have our favourites that we would like mainstreamers to adopt because of character and plot. But accessibility is the crucial factor here for a gateway experience – if your show has too many SF tropes that are unfamiliar to mainstreamers or ones that are too frequently stereotyped, or if your show even looks too weird, then mainstreamers will be driven off, fearing, as an old editorial in On Spec so brialliantly put it: “the SF cooties”. Also in terms of accessibility, a mainstreamer must be able to tune into pretty much any episode and be able to get into it despite their lack of backstory/previous episode experience.

With those ground rules in mind, what SF series (ongoing series, new series, and old series in active reruns all count – old series that are not currently being aired do not count) would make good gateway experiences and which ones wouldn’t?

Here’s my take:

Anything Star Trek is immediately disqualified. To the mainstream mind, Trek = nerd. No matter how good some of the episodes may have been in some of the series, the amount of scorn the franchise suffers in the minds of mainstreamers is about as high as a pile of Tribbles in a quatrotriticalene silo. The fact that some out there on the net may be chomping at the bit to correct my spelling (admittedly probably inaccurrate) of quatrotriticalene only adds weight to the argument. The dialogue in any given Trek is also heavily freighted with self-referential jargon, guaranteed to lose the interest of a mainstreamer in about a half-second. Let’s not even get into the shadow of The Shat.

“Reaper” is also off the list of potentials. It’s funny as hell and one of my favourites right now, but despite the presence of various supernatural baddies, I don’t think the mainstream audience would really be stimulated by it to take up other SF shows or start reading fantasy novels. They’d be more likely to enjoy it as a one-off.

Similarly, “Chuck” and “My Own Worst Enemy” are probably out too. I think mainstreamers would probably view them as shows with a spy bent, and perhaps tacitly acknowledge any sci-fi flourishes, but wouldn’t be driven by them to pursue SF any further.

I think “Heroes” is also unlikely to create any new fans. Putting aside the continuous downward spiral of the plot’s quality, at best “Heroes” probably resurrects some fondness for the superhero sub-genre, but I doubt it’s enough to get people out buying the latest Frank Miller or Alan Moore comic or tracking down old editions of George R. R. Martin’s “Wildcards” anthologies.

“The Sarah Connor Chronicles”? Maybe. Not a high degree of likelihood, but maybe. The big action and disfunctional family drama components might draw them in, and these might make the obvious sci-fi elements represented by the various Terminators more palatable. Would it be enough to inspire mainstreamers to crack open a Harlan Ellison collection, or hunt-down stories involving robots or time travel? I’m not totally convinced, but I’ll allow that it’s possible.

“Battlestar Galactica” is another maybe. Certainly it has the highest calibre of characterization and plot. But the accessibility is pretty iffy. The show has a gigantic story arc that could easily lose someone lacking sufficient backstory – despite the recaps at the top of each episode. The setting is aboard starships, but, aside from occasional exterior cutaways and the occasional battles, most of the story takes place within the confines of the vessels, and thus could be anywhere, making the sets reasonably accessible. The Cylons in their cybrid forms are easy to accept, and the traditional centurion models offer enough overt sci-fi menace to remind the audience that this is an SF show. BSG is one of my all-time favourite shows, so it certainly pains me to not say definitely that “this is the gateway show!”, but the weight of the backstory makes me think this would be a tough one to use as a gateway experience. You’d certainly have to pick the right episode.

The other possibility on my list is the new “Doctor Who” (somewhere, harrysaxon is cheering – it’s his personal mission to make every human being on Earth a fan of The Doctor – which, in fact, could be the plot of an episode of DW – whoa). The plots are consistently entertaining and the characters have enough depth to be worth watching. Accessibility with this show is a bit of a see-saw: David Tenannt certainly makes The Doctor a character you want to watch, and the various Companions are excellent vantage points for the perspectives of the audience – they’re just as confused as we are by all the strangeness going on from episode to episode. But it’s the over-the-top weirdness of some of the far-future or alien settings or the surreal TARDIS itself that might lose a mainstreamer. Again, “Doctor Who” is like BSG, you’d have to find the right episode for it to be effective as a gateway experience.

I have to confess, if I could break the rules and nominate a show that’s no longer on-air, I’d have to say that “The Twilight Zone” was probably the best SF gateway show ever. Different episodes featured different subject matter (from the disturbingly near-normal to the far-out) with different actors, written by different authors. It was a showcase of SF variety that had something for pretty much anyone, and if an episode was good enough, not only could a mainstreamer get hooked on the series, they might also be motivated to check out other SF shows or, hopefully, books. Ah, the good old days!

Harrysaxon’s been chomping at the bit to weigh-in on this topic, so he’ll take it from here.

Harrysaxon’s take:

“I agree with much of what bloginhood has to say about the topic – and certainly wholeheartedly endorse Doctor Who as a gateway show. The new series, of course, not the old, which is so thick with bad effects and complex backstory that even a lot of North American sci-fi lovers view it as somewhat esoteric. But the new series has added a great deal of the human element; the arc of Russell T. Davies’s tenure is less about the Doctor, and more about his first companion of the new series, Rose Tyler, a sympathetic Cockney from a working-class background who clicked instantly with fans in the UK. The personal drama – detractors may say soap opera elements – that Rose and her family brought to the series made it much more accessible to a wide-scale audience. The references and characters from the original series are there for the hardcore fans, but it’s immediately accessible for new fans as well. But most important, this is a show which can conjure powerfully emotional scenarios that make even the most macho of dedicated viewers feel a little thickness at the back of the throat. I’d personally recommend starting at the beginning, with S1E1 “Rose”; however, the one-off S3 episode “Blink”, in which the Doctor plays a peripheral role, may be a better introduction for those not sure they’re ready to commit to the full arc of the series. I’ve certainly used it to hook at least two people immediately, one of them hard enough to travel to the UK last summer to see David Tennant play Hamlet on stage.

But that’s just my addition to bloginhood’s nomination. My nomination is somewhat less obscure, as it is a pop culture phenomenon; Lost. Now, when Lost moved from the realm of a scripted Survivor-like experience in the first season firmly into the realm of science fiction with the second series, it turned a lot of viewers off (as well as ending its Emmy success, as they cannot abide science fiction for some reason). But that came as a surprise to viewers, hooked on an experience of watching a bunch of people try to find food and shelter and cope with a threatening group of outsiders on the island. Anyone coming into the series at this point, prepared with the foreknoweldge that it is a science fiction series, shouldn’t be as taken aback by the appearance of underground bunkers protecting electromagnetic anomalies as the early adopters.

Just to get it out of the way, some may call it up for debate that Lost is science-fiction at all; certainly there have always been elements of the supernatural creeping around the edges as well. But at this late date, I’m willing to accept the creators’ word that the remaining mysteries will ultimately have scientifically plausible explanations, albiet involving fictional technologies. I’m choosing to avoid spoilers, but the most recent major cliffhanger we were left with, as impossible as it seemed, was familiar ground for people acquainted with Doctor Who’s futuristic technologies which have plausible scientific backing.

But the reason I think it makes a great gateway is because the sci-fi stuff isn’t all up in your face. The major focus of the show is action and drama, with a heavy dose of romance and tragedy. It’s not a science fiction show with strong dramatic elements; it’s more a drama with strong science fiction elements. If you can get hooked on the personal stories of Jack, Kate, Locke, Charlie, Hurley et al., then you may find that the scientific mysteries surrounding characters such as Desmond begin to draw you in as much as wondering whether Kate will decide to hook up with Jack or Sawyer. It’s a good show, too; it lacks the strong dialogue and bold characters of my favourite shows, most of which have appeared on HBO, but it’s still compelling. Well, except for that 8 episode mini-arc that opened season 3. That was a bump in the road towards what looks to be one of the most compelling series finales of all time.”

But we want to hear from you: what TV shows do you think would make the best SF gateways?