Saturday, November 11, 2006

Star Trek - Operation Annihilate!

1) Haven’t seen any Star Trek in a few years. Got library DVDs.

2) I watched the DVD at odd moments, such as while I made breakfast. Somehow I noticed a resemblance between the alien creatures from the show with the food I was cooking:

Coincidence? Apparently the writer thought “Hmmm…what if the crew of the Enterprise were attacked by…MY BREAKFAST?!? Wouldn’t that be terrifying?

Spock, of course, would get attacked first; some meals have that effect on my smart, logical side. Then Spock would want to go back to the place where the breakfast first got to him, and seek his revenge by bringing the dangerous thing onto the ship, as if to say “Uhhh….how ‘bout you try it?”

3) Some star Trek looks predictably more cheesy than when I was a kid, but some of it looks great. When it started, it took itself really seriously. I like that.

4) In some ways, William Shatner was a darn good actor. I remain defiant.

Majel Barrett: not so good.

5) Spock is put in the chamber of alien-killing light and is left blind. This scene connects the cutting-edge sci-fi of the 1960s with the broad melodrama of turn-of-the-century Yiddish vaudeville. “Ach! He’s blind! She’s pregnant! With his child! At 47! Whatever will we do?!?”

6) The landing party visits the planet where the driven-crazy-by-the-alien people attack them with abstract tools made from polystyrene. In the future, angry mobs will wave giant styrofoam lollipops and scream scary space-threats.

7) This is the only episode where Captain Kirk’s brother Sam appears or is even mentioned. That seems silly, but it’s also kinda realistic. My own siblings are important to me, but sometimes I feel like we’re on opposite sides of the galaxy, and when we are, they don’t get involved in the story much.

8) The Star Trek crew women wore SHORT skirts. Reasonable from a TV perspective, but pretty ridiculous from a sci-fi or military-story perspective. Red underwear was visible in one shot. The crewmen wore shirts that would reveal bare midriffs if they didn't wear some kind of black undershirt, which can almost be seen in one shot. They were all more swinging-London than hippie-freakout styles. That said, I thought the uniforms looked kinda cool. Perhaps the flood-pants-with-boots look is due for a comeback.

9) One female crew member seems to have been given the job of "standing near the captain". She beams down with the landing party and walks around. Then she stands on the bridge, near the captain's chair, as if the facilities department is working on finding her a cubicle.

10) I like the Enterprise. I spent a lot of time there as a kid. I enjoyed another visit.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Chronicles of Narnia – The Magician’s Nephew, The Last Battle (C.S. Lewis)

Spoiler alert! Story details discussed

1) I’m skipping through the last two books because they deserve it.

2) Every page of The Magician’s Nephew made me more annoyed that the regents of C.S. Lewis’ estate had put the books into a new order, with The Magician’s Nephew first. Some reasons why it was a bad idea:

a. Nobody who reads The Magician’s Nephew first would finish the series, because it isn’t terribly good. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is the most engaging story and a better introduction to the world of Narnia.

b. In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the magical world is discovered accidentally and the reader immediately learns to love the place, which makes more compelling any threat against it. In The Magician’s Nephew, the magical world is the discovered through an evil experiment, and the first vision is of an empty wasteland. Reading the books in the new order makes the whole adventure seem much less worthwhile from the start.

c. Imagine you’re C.S. Lewis in 1957. You get a letter from a young reader who suggests that the books should be put in chronological order. You reply that “I suppose it doesn’t really matter in what order the books are read.” Why do you say this? Because you’re talking to a kid (not to mention a fan and a customer), and you don’t want to hurt his feelings by pointing out that it’s a really stupid idea.

d. As mentioned earlier, The Horse and His Boy contains a marvelous explanation of why stories are better when some details are revealed later. In the revised order, most details are introduced and fully explained at the same time, leaving a minimal amount of imaginative work to involve the reader.

3) The Last Battle was the only Narnia book I didn’t like as a kid – because, as I understood my own reaction at the time, the ending was dissatisfying. Now, The Last Battle is probably the only book I’ve ever finished that I hated pretty much all the way through. As a story it’s ugly and unsatisfying, and as a metaphor it’s pompous and sloppy - but as a kind of painting, it has some lovely details.

4) The biggest problem with The Last Battle: nothing done by any of the characters, aside from Aslan, changes the direction the story. Society collapses into conflict, then Aslan shouts “further up, and further in!” and everybody follows, and then it ends. It’s more of a game show than a story.

I know it’s poignant to show the futility of human actions compared the wrath of the divine and all that, but a rule of storytelling is violated when the characters’ actions don’t change anything. A story that doesn’t pivot on something done by a central character isn’t a story: it’s an introduction to a bigger story. And that larger story (what happens in the next world) is the subject of this whole book, but we’re stuck reading the introduction. It’s like watching an infomercial about a great work of literature we’re not allowed to read.

5) The Last Battle feels wrong from the beginning because every bump and turn in the narrative pivots on some misunderstanding that the reader doesn’t share. Much historical drama has been driven by the overwhelming ignorance of the many and the deceitfulness of the few, but it makes for unsatisfying reading if the reader can’t respect the reasons why the good guys do what they do any more than the reasons why the bad guys do what they do. Somehow rescuing people from their own idiocy is inherently unsatisfying: with victory comes not a celebration but the compulsion to smack one’s compatriots for giving the enemy what they needed.

6) The Last Battle is also torn between two incompatible ideas – that the only real enemy we face is our own ignorance and gullibility, and that an absolutely good character (Aslan) must be opposed by at least one absolutely bad character. This is where the tension between C.S. Lewis’ symbolic storytelling and his religious agenda tear his world apart – appropriately, with the story of the end of the world.

7) Many scenes of animals talking in this book. Authors of children’s books think it’s charming to include pages and pages of animals talking to each other, each displaying a character that reflects its species – owls are wise and cantankerous, donkeys are stubborn, etc. Am I the only one for whom this stuff gets old fast? I think I get sick of it because these scenes serve only to show off amusing characters who aren’t amusing enough to be important to the story. That clever-but-expendable stuff is always cut out of great writing, but kids’ books tend to fill up with whatever seems diverting at the moment.

I also hate the species-as-character thing because it’s – well, racist. If the animals were people (and in the story, they’re supposed to be) it would be offensive to expect one consistent behavior from one race and another characteristic behavior from another race.

8) The quickest way to ruin a good story is to promise an enormous confrontation and then deliver a tiny one. Was anybody happy to see Boba Fett fumble his way into eternity in Return of the Jedi? No. The Sixth Sense did a similar bait-and-switch (the kid’s visions bite and claw him at the beginning of the movie, but the physical dangers are forgotten by the second half) but at least the switch was to something equally compelling.

9) There’s a common problem in kid’s books and movies: the story is about conflict, but the author is afraid of conflict. The result is bad guys who aren’t bad, never actually hurt the good guys, and politely die in ridiculous ways. Example: young Annikin Skywalker accidentally shoots all the stormtroopers. Ick.

In The Last Battle, the god Tash is presented as a fearsome incarnation of evil and malevolence – and then politely disappears when Peter waves his hand. Continuity! Editor! Rewrite!

10) I mostly find this stuff grating because it suggests the soul-deadening process whereby adults embrace something not because they like it, but because they think kids will like it. The result is a whole view of the world – the “hypothetical children’s literature” view – that applies to nobody. Kids do indeed like a lot of stupid stuff, but they don’t like all the stuff adults think they like. That they read pages and pages of talking animal dialogue or stories that fall forward accidentally is a testament to their hunger for what does work, not their love for what doesn’t.