Category Archives: Silly Me

My Gamer Origin Story

When you hear that someone is a gamer nowadays, it conjures up all sorts of images. Maybe a TWITCH gamer doing livestreams with a headset, or someone who enters a Call of Duty tournament and plays competitively at a local con. In almost all cases, the term ‘gamer’ deals specifically with video games.

Well, when I hear the word, I tend to think of someone who enjoys tabletop role-playing games first, then board games second, and then video games. Maybe I’m just weird that way. Or old-school. Or both.

When I played original NES games back in the day, I didn’t really consider myself a gamer, per se. It was really when I got into tabletop RPGs that I felt that I was truly a “gamer.”

Let me share with you how it all went down. This is my origin story, if you will.

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Don’t forget to add all your miscellaneous modifiers.

The spark that started the bonfire was a set of choose-your-own adventure books called the “Fighting Fantasy” by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. These differed from many of the other books of the day because they had a dice-based combat system to go along with the adventure. You had a character sheet, magic items that you could collect that boosted your abilities or healed you, and all sorts of other cool stuff that really set them apart from the rest.

Being in a small town, I didn’t have access to many of them.  Both of the ones that made an impression were obtained through ‘book club’ newsletters from my school, in this case TROLL and ARROW. Through them, I got my hands on two Fighting Fantasy titles: Demons of the Deep and Rebel Planet.

 

The former dealt with a brave sailor’s trials in Atlantis as he attempts to settle the score with the murderous pirate, Captain Blood-Ax. The latter was about a secret agent among the stars who attempts to unseat humanity’s conquers, the Arcadians, armed with your wits and your trusty lightsaber.

I loved the interactivity of them, and the vibrant writing style.  You could play through different endings if you messed and died, horribly in some cases. The concept really captured my imagination. When I was in 7th Grade, I happened upon a book in the Eustace Junior High library. This one:

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I have a copy of this book in my personal library. It was the gasoline poured on  the fire.

The ENDLESS QUEST series didn’t have the combat system, but it did have some compelling story lines. I remember reading the introduction where you, the main character, are sent to find a way to defeat a dragon whose very shadow can kill all life. When Shen, the eponymous dragon of doom, takes flight across the countryside, you can follow the trail of withered planets and dead animals.

If you look at the cover art, you’ll notice something else:  it reads “DUNGEONS & DRAGONS” in bold letters across the top. My grandmother certainly noticed this, and promptly made me take it back to the library, and explained that I shouldn’t attempt to check it out again.

Dungeons & Dragons barely registers today in popular culture as a thing itself, outside of a few Gary Gygax memes, references in the Big Bang Theory, or Wil Wheaton videos. It still has a geeky connotation to it, but understand that at this time, Dungeons & Dragons had a vaguely sinister reputation. There were some who thought it was outright Satanic.

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Do you want Demogorgons? Because that’s how you get Demogorgons.

Yep, it wasn’t cute and adorable and nostalgic like in Stranger Things. Some groups used to think it was a (and I kid you not here) a way for teenagers to sell their souls to the devil.  Movies like Mazes and Monsters or the Chick tracts at the time didn’t help, either.

Of course, when my grandmother told me to take Dragons of Doom back to the library, she virtually guaranteed that I would go learn more about it. And I did. I was no stranger to comic-book shops, and many of them sold D&D products, as well as a host of other RPGs.  I talked with some of the guys there who played them, and it didn’t sound like my curiosity was endangering my mortal soul.

And then, out of the blue, I found out that one of my friends, Dan, actively ran different RPG games after school. Some of them he made up himself, and others were published, of-the-shelf games. I soon began hanging out at his house after school with his older brother, Jay, and another guy we knew, Donny. Dan was instrumental in forming my early understanding of how RPGs work. He was the first one to explain to me what a d20 was, and what went into building a character.

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The first time I made up a character, it was a home-brewed system that Donny had made up called “The Blade Lords.”  It was loosely based off of the Palladium RPG systems, using many of the same races, but had a focus more on sword-play and arena fighting than magic. The character was a swordmaster named Ulfric and he was from a race of humanoid canines called the “Wolfen.”  I only played him a time or two, and his character sheet is sadly lost to the sands of time.

After that, Dan ran a round of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness, also by Palladium Games. Yes, they made a TMNT-themed RPG, and it was really good. Only this wasn’t the happy-go-lucky ’80s cartoon version of the Turtles. No, this was the original Eastman and Laird version, harsh and unforgiving.

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Everyone wears red around their eyes, yo.

My character was a mutant alligator named Spike, who was also (of course) a ninja. I went on to play many different games with Dan, Jay, and Donny. Sometimes my other friend Cody would run a game. We played all through junior high and high school. I made up many different characters during this time, including one time in the Batman RPG where my character accidentally-on-purpose killed Batman. A dubious honor, to be sure.

I also began running games of my own at this time. One of them I ran in the lunchroom before the bell rang with my friends Robert, Keith, and Cliff. What made this one different was that I had made up the game system. It was a simple d6-based game with heavy emphasis on roleplaying, which I called “RPG To-Go.”

It was also during this time that I realized that my cousin Travis was big into these games. He lived up in the big city of Dallas. Well, big considering the small town I was living in at the time. When I got a car my senior year, a silver ’84 Isuzu Impulse I called the Millennium Falcon, I was able to head up to Dallas on the weekends to game with his group. There, I made many friends that I’m lucky enough to still have today.

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I always thought it looked vaguely like a DeLorean.

Since then, it has been a rarity to not have a game to go to at some point during the week, either playing or GMing. Palladium, Heroes Unlimited, Ninjas and Superspies, Kulthea, Forgotten Realms, Vampire: The Masquerade (I played a Werewolf. Big surprise, huh?), Traveller, MegaTraveller, OMG DRAGONLANCE, Netheril, Valeriand, on and off again, Neverwinter, Storm Watch, The Mean Streets of Thebes, Game of Thrones, Transformers, and hopefully soon…Fallout!

That’s just to name a few.

And now I know enough about RPGs that when I want to play or run one, I kit-bash what I need out of existing systems, or just make up what I need out of whole cloth. Yeah, I didn’t choose the game life…the game life chose me.

Of course, I am a gamer in every sense of the word now. It’s not just tabletop stuff, but also board games, and video games. And while the original NES had a big part to play in fostering my love of video games, I didn’t really accept games as a being a part of who I am until tabletop RPGs came into my life.

True story.


(New)Battlestar Galactica and My Roller-Coaster Fandom

Richard Hatch passed away last week, and it got me to thinking. Most folks probably remember him as Captain Apollo, starring beside Dirk Benedict and Lorne Greene in the original Battlestar Galactica. My favorite role of his was in Galactica, but not in that one. I’m talking about his role in the 2004 reboot as the calculating political operator, Tom Zarek.

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Previously, on Battlestar Galactica…

While lamenting Mr. Hatch’s passing, I found myself revisiting the music of both the original and reimagined series. Of course, I still feel the thrill and majesty of the original main theme. As a connoisseur of space operas, that one is pretty boss. Inevitably, I began listening through the score of the ‘new’ series, which is tonally much darker and angst-ridden (pretty much like the show itself).

For the most part, I don’t look back on New Galactica very fondly, mainly due to the nonsensical third and fourth seasons, and the X-files/LOST kind of ending that was disappointing in the extreme. But then I rediscovered the track “Reuniting the Fleet.” Go ahead, give it a listen. I’ll wait.

The same mix of drums and the uilleann pipes are a direct callback to an earlier piece of music, “A Good Lighter.” Both instantly transported me back to my favorite moments in New Galactica. One is where Adama, played by Edward James Olmos, shared a moment with his son, Apollo, (Jaime Bamber) on the flight deck before an all-important mission. While I take issue with the direction of the show, the peformances remain incredible, and this scene between them – just thinking about it as I write this – gives me a big ol’ lump in my throat.

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I’m not crying. You’re crying!

The same is true for the “Reuniting the Fleet.” Faced with leaving the colonists behind on New Caprica in search of Earth, Adama makes the decision to reunite his people, who were sharply divided down ideological and political lines. I remember watching that scene on TV and being moved by it. Now, it’s downright profound.

With this level of emotion, atmosphere, and acting, how could my immediate impression of the show be negative, now after nearly eight years since it went off the air?

There are so few shows that leave me with such mixed emotions. The aforementioned X-files and LOST are two of them, certainly. These are shows that I absolutely loved at the beginning, but by the end watching an episode was uncomfortable, and largely consumed out of ‘fan duty’ if that makes any sense. And also the hope that it would get better.

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*holding in the existential dread* It’s going to get better…right?

When I first discovered New Galactica, I feel in love. Unlike many old-school Galactica fans I know, I really loved the darker more helpless tone of the new show. It really felt like a great tragedy had befallen the survivors of the Fall of the Twelve Colonies, and this had scarred them all to a lesser or greater extent. Here was military science fiction I could really sink my proverbial teeth into.

The first and second seasons of New Galactica, as well as the first few episodes of season three were not only some of the best sci-fi I’d ever seen on TV, but also one of the best dramas. Full stop. Again, I cannot say enough good things about the performances turned in by Olmos, Callis, Sackhoff and so many others. Bear McCreary’s score put it over the top. The discovery of Kobol and the hint that old gods where not who they seemed, the return of the Pegasus, and the interplay between Adama and Cain…wow. Intense. Like Samuel L. Jackson in the diner with Tim Roth in Pulp Fiction.

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Yeah, pretty much like that.

But once our intrepid heroes blasted their way off of New Caprica, season three took an immediate nosedive. They had gotten the show back on the road, back on the quest for Earth, but it seemed like the writers and showrunners had less of an idea of what to do next. The intro to the show boasted of the Cylons that ‘they have a plan,’ but it became apparent that the showrunners didn’t.

Season three felt like this strange mix of individual character studies that didn’t seem to support what had gone before. Previous to this, each episode had stacked on top of the last, adding layers to the story while adding new developments, new wrinkles. These new episodes, however, felt like you could pull them out of the pile and they wouldn’t be missed. In fact, ‘Hero’ was an episode that I think weakened the series as a whole.

The continuity began to unravel and characters began acting, well, inconsistent to say the least. Adama is willing to stand Cally up against a bulkhead and execute her if Chief Tyrol doesn’t comply to his demands because ‘he can’t have people deciding when to obey orders,’ but does nothing to Helo for disobeying orders when they could have shown Hugh the insidious diagram and destroyed the Borg Collective…er—I mean the Cylons, and saved the human race. And then Helo is promoted to CAG, even after this incident…and he’s not even a pilot.

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Baltar isn’t so sure about that. Baltar is not alone.

There were some bright spots along the way, to be sure. I’m a huge fan of Jan Espenson, and so the middle of the season got a bump with “The Passage” and “The Eye of Jupiter.” But then the ‘All Along The Watchtower’ moment happens at the end of season three that really looked like the show had gone off the rails, and I wasn’t sure it was coming back.

It took more than a year, but come back it did. There was a little improvement, but that’s when the ‘Final Five’ story arc came into play, and for me…the worst thing about the show, not counting the ending. I was this close to just calling it and watching something else. It takes a lot for this fanboy to want to pack up and go home, but I was done.

Then we got to the mutiny arc and, by Grapthar’s Hammer, we were back, baby! The excitement, the drama, the everything…I wanted to shout at the producers: “This is what I’m talking about! Every episode should be like this!

But after that, the show went back to floundering. They found ‘Earth’ only it wasn’t Earth, and we got a pretty weak explanation of how the Twelve Models came to be, even though it didn’t make much sense AND seemed to contradict what we knew about them already. Again, I must stress, Final Five = Worst Part of the Show. Somebody should have really gamed this out ahead of time. I understand writing yourself into a corner, but come on.

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Submitted for your approval…

By this time we all knew that Season Four would be New Galactica’s last. You couldn’t tell it by the way the story plodded on, however. The episode “Someone to Watch Over Me” did not feel like a series with only a few episodes left, but rather a series that still had three or four seasons still to come.

And the ending? Well, let’s just say that it would take the god-awful ending of LOST to eclipse New Galactica on my ‘Worst Ever’ list. It still remains in a solid #2 spot, however. From eschewing technology for no good reason, to Kara’s unexplained departure, and even Adama deciding to live alone for the rest of his life rather than with his son, there are so many horrid things here that a recounting of them all would be a blog post unto itself. It had some interesting action sequences, and *something* of a resolution to the ‘All Along the Watchtower’ craziness of before, but…well, yuck. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

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Yeah, Brah, I don’t what to make of that either.

So why do I bring this up? Is it just to bash a long-time fanboy disappointment? A bit, yeah. But really it’s to show the extreme ends of the pendulum here, and the lasting impression it made on me both coming and going.

Understand that I still use Bear McCreary’s music when I write. (If you ever need to write an epic combat scene, put “Prelude to War” on your playlist, trust me.) I follow the projects of cast members of this show as much as I do for Firefly, or Babylon 5, or Star Trek. I love to see cosplay of these characters, and enjoy fan theories on the connections between the original series and the new.

That’s still with me.

This show meant something to me. It still does to some degree. I only wish that more care and energy had been put into the latter half of the series to match the first. To me, New Galactica serves as both a shining example and a cautionary tale of what to do/not do in modern science fiction.

Like with people, you have to take the good with the bad here. And in that sense, boy howdy is New Galactica like the contradictory nature of the deeply flawed people it portrayed in the show.

Can I get a “So Say We All”?

 

 


State of the Sector Address: 2017

My Fellow Sectorians,

Welcome to my first ever ‘State of the Sector’ address, where I share with you all the stuff going on at Sector M for the coming year. So without further ado, here’s what’s going on in 2017!

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First, all the stuff for you guys:

Sector M Fan Group: A longtime fan created a Facebook discussion group for fellow fans of my various geeky endeavors. It’s my hope to build a community over there where Sectorians can gather together to chat, get know one another, and share passions for fandom and geekiness, in general. If you want to join, just friend this guy (don’t worry, it’s just a proxy account), and you’ll be added to the group posthaste.

Website Revamp: I’m in the midst of a revamp of the Sector M website. This will include migrating all of the ‘merch table’ to the website proper. I also want to expand the available merch options out there. This one has a lot of moving parts, so I will announce more as things progress.

Goodreads: I’m on Goodreads.com now! I’ll try my best to keep you guys up-to-date on what I’m reading. Also, The Backwards Mask is on there, with a fair amount of ratings. If you’ve read my book, I urge you go over there and give it a rating and/or a review. Also, feel free to ‘friend’ me on there.

Now all of my author-y stuff:

Finish My Current Novel, Start The Next One: I’m about 70% of the way through the initial draft of my current novel. My goal is to have the draft completed by June 1st of this year (my birthday, as it happens). I’ll do edits and rewrites over the summer to hopefully have a presentable draft by Labor Day. Chances are, I’ll begin my next novel around that time as well. I’ve enjoyed my foray into fantasy, but my next book will be a return to science fiction.

Short Story Anthology: I’m collecting a number of my short fiction pieces into an anthology that I’m tentatively calling, Strange Reports from Sector M. More on this as it develops, but I hope to release this in July or August.

Blog Posts: In 2016 I was pretty inconsistent about when I released blog posts. I want to be more reliable about it, so my plan is to release at least one a month on the third Friday of each the month. There could well be more than that, but at least one per month. Mark your calendars.

Writing T-Shirts: This started this off as a sort of geeky in-joke on Instagram, but it seems to have caught on. I will be continuing this bit in 2017, though intermittently. While I own many, many geeky T-shirts, I did burn through quite a few of them this past year, so it won’t be every Sunday. But I will try to do it as often as I’m able. If you have a suggestion for a writing shirt, feel free to post it on Facebook, send me a tweet, or email me at: TheSectorM@gmail.com. I’ll be sure to give you a shout-out if I wind up picking one that you suggest.

How you can help:

If you’d like to support Sector M in its ongoing geekiness, you can follow me on any of these platforms:

Facebook

Twitter and Instagram: @TheSectorM

The Sector M Blog 

My YouTube Channel

You can also download my novel, The Backwards Mask, from Amazon and Barnes&Noble.com. If you do, please make sure to leave a review. And if you’ve read it already, please (pretty please with a cherry on top) leave a review. That is the best thing you can do to help me as an author.

 

I can’t thank you guys enough for your continued support! Full speed ahead for 2017!


My (Most Recent) Trip to the National Museum of the Pacific War

Down in the south Texas hill country, situated between vast open green fields and numerous vineyards, sits the picturesque town of Fredricksburg. Many of the buildings are built of white stone flecked with streaks of orange. The people are friendly, and the whole place just has a good vibe to it, with rows of antique shops, restaurants, and boutiques along the main strip. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend stopping over there.

Fredricksburg also has the distinction of being the hometown of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet during World War II.  In fact, there’s a large bronze statue of him right next to the old hotel where he grew up, which is now the Nimitz museum. Just look for the distinctive ‘steamboat’ structure off the main street – you can’t miss it.

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The man himself.

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The Old Nimitz Hotel (Now the Admiral Nimitz Museum).

If you circle that block, you’ll also find that the town is home to the National Museum of the Pacific War. The place is enormous. It contains hundreds of displays and exhibits, models of ships, uniforms, presentations, and mini-featurettes. It starts with the roots of the conflict between China and Japan, and then takes you all the way through the Pacific War, from Pearl Harbor to the U.S.S. Missouri . Every major engagement and landing is covered here, and in pretty extensive depth. If you tried to read every panel and display, it would take you days to get through it all. Believe me, I’ve tried.

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Just around the corner.

Full disclosure: This latest outing to the museum is my fourth trip there. Each time I go, something new resonates with me. The last time I went was when my son was two. The thing that moved me the most then was the famous “Bloody Saturday” photo of a baby crying amid the ruins of a bombed out train station in Shanghai. It’s still a powerful photo, and indeed the entire museum is a moving experience. It’s hard to look at the dizzying scope of the conflict, along with the countless examples of courage and valor, and the loss of so many lives, and not feel something.

Case and point:  Just after the presentation about Pearl Harbor, there is a little alcove that contains a rusty metal hatch. There is a noticeable black stain across the middle of it. Above those black lines is an egg-shaped hole cut into the metal.

At first, it might seem an odd artifact – that is until you realize that it is a hatch from U.S.S. Arizona. The black line is where the oil floated at the waterline. The hole was cut by Navy divers to see if there any survivors in the compartment. Powerful stuff. Just seeing it is enough to make me tear up.

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Every. Time.

We see it all in black-and-white photos and newsreels, but the time that has passed disconnects us from it. This one piece of rusted metal has a way of bringing me back to one of the darkest days in U.S. naval history.

I hasten to add that, though the museum does present the war from the USA’s point of view, it does not balk at showing the devastation and loss that Japan endured. There’s always the temptation to downplay that aspect of the war, but the museum does not. When a warship went down in the Pacific, several hundred people died, regardless of which flag it was flying, hundreds or thousands at a time.

Horrific.

In fact, on this trip the image that struck me the most was a photo of two dead Japanese soldiers washed up on the shore Guadalcanal. Both were half-buried in the tide, and looked painfully young. I can’t imagine they were older than 18 or 19. I won’t display it here, but you can find it easily enough on Google.

Now I’m not trying to diminish the impact of those photos of dead American soldiers, such as those taken from the Bataan Death March, just simply reflecting that wars have a cost on both sides. Every one of those boys that didn’t go home left a hole in someone’s life. A mother, a father, wife, son, daughter – you name it. You don’t have to go much farther than the exhibit about the five Sullivan brothers aboard the U.S.S. Juneau to see what I mean.

But, as an anodyne to these feelings of loss and pain, there is one other feature of the grounds that is a ‘must see’ as far as I’m concerned. Just behind the Nimitz museum, there is a Japanese peace garden, a gift to from a group of retired Japanese admirals.

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May peace endure.

It is absolutely stunning. There’s a koi pond, with a flowing water course that winds around the periphery to a replica of Admiral Togo’s study. In the middle of the garden there is a zen garden made of raked white stone.  It’s…pretty sublime standing there, a place of tranquility and introspection.

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Profound.

If you’re ever at the museum and things get just a little too intense, stepping into the garden is a good way to reaffirm the beauty that people can create, even between those who were former enemies. I always like to end a tour of the museum with a stop here. Just my personal preference.  It’s the cleansing breath that brings you back to center.

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Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.

Again, if you’re ever in the area, I can’t say enough good things about Fredericksburg and the Pacific War Museum.  I hope that you find it as illuminating, emotional, and powerful as I have.

But don’t take my word for it…


Life, Death, and Avatar: The Last Airbender

I’m late to the party on Avatar: The Last Airbender, as in a full decade late. I finally finished the series. (To be clear, this is the animated series, and not the M. Night Shyamalan movie.) Riding high on the incredible culmination of that storyline, I immediately started up The Legend of Korra.

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But I believe Aang can save the world…*cues the music*

Something struck me as I got into the next series: When we last see Aang in the show, he is thirteen, just barely a teenager. In the intro to Korra, we learn that Aang has died.  That’s certainly no surprise; both Korra and Avatar are predicated on the idea that when the Avatar dies, that he or she is immediately reincarnated into the next life. We knew that’s part of it when we were following the adventures of Aang, since he was preceded by Avatar Roku.

But with Korra, it’s a little different. Aang is already dead when she comes along, and if you dig into the lore, he died at the relatively young biological age of sixty-six. Bear in mind that this is in a setting where some characters live to be well over a hundred. Avatar Kyoshi lived to be well over two hundred.

Why does this matter? Well, we don’t normally follow a protagonist to the grave if they live to the end of the story. There are exceptions, of course, but think about it like this: Do we know how Captain Malcolm Reynolds dies? Or Scotty? Or James Bond? Or Luke Skywalker? (I’m really hoping the new Star Wars movies don’t inform me of that last one.)

Even if we know on an intellectual level that these characters don’t live forever, there’s a certain kind of immortality that we grant them if they just ride off into the sunset, or if they’re lucky enough to get a ‘happily ever after’ ending.

Avatar doesn’t play that way. Characters are born, they live their life, and then they die. We don’t get the standard fictional insulation from the real-world cycle of life and death.  And should there be another series set after Korra, we’ll have to resolve her death as well.

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This blog post has a soundtrack. Just click here.

But there is a certain honesty in that idea that I find both sad and refreshing (which is also one of the rejected slogans for New Coke, BTW). We all like to think of the time in which we live as ‘the’ time, rather than just a single point on a very large timeline. Thousands of generations have come before us, and (we can hope) thousands of generations will come after us. We have our time in the sun, and then the sun sets.

I’m not saying anything we don’t already know, and neither am I trying to bum anyone out. Quite the opposite, in fact. So where am I going with this? Well, there’s a short sidebar first.

Story time: So, a few weeks, I was coming home from a dinner with a bunch of friends. I was alone and on a stretch of highway with very few cars around, none of them close to me. In less than a second, that changed. A car zoomed in from behind at close to a hundred miles an hour. The headlights went from being a distant sparkle to nearly on my rear bumper in less time than it takes for you to read this sentence. The driver turned right to avoid me, but in that moment it didn’t look like he would make it.

The worst part was not that sudden bolt of sick terror that went through me, but that both of the cars in question kept on going, weaving in out of the traffic ahead of me. They were racing. RACING! I might have lost my life due to someone else’s poor judgement, a causality of nothing more than an automotive pissing contest.

Yeesh.

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Included for no other reason than because the art is AWESOME!

I’ve had some close calls in the past.  One nearly got me at age nineteen, but I’ve never had one quite like this before. The whole thing had me rattled for a while. It still rears its ugly head from time to time, the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens. Those suck, especially now that I have a family of my own.

But, if anything, this experience has shocked me out of the weird funk I didn’t even realize I was in. Knowing that my life almost ended has made things more vibrant, more beautiful. I feel a deeper empathy to others now, and I am more motivated to be better than I was before. I know it’s trite, I know it’s cliché, but it’s no less true.  In that sense, maybe the upfront candor of Avatar and Korra came into my life at precisely the right time.

Look, we all face down our own mortality at some point in our lives. 2016 has been the year for realizing that death comes for everyone, even Alan Rickman and David Bowie. Sure, we know that already on some level, but it’s a lesson we have to keep relearning during our lifetime.

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For it is the doom of men that they forget.

Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is that we have a limited time on this Earth, no matter how long we live. It’s not always feasible to live life like there’s no tomorrow (we still have to pay our bills, mortgage, whatever), so let’s do this instead: Enjoy your time in the sun. Live a lot and love a lot.

Be someone’s hero.

Go save the world.

It’s what Aang and Korra would do.

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My Love/Hate Relationship with Transformers: The Movie

In honor of the 30th anniversary of Transformers: The Movie, which premiered in U.S. theatres in August of 1986, I thought I would comment on what was simultaneously one of the fanboy landmarks of my childhood AND perhaps the movie that scarred me the most as a kid. No really, the emotional scar tissue is still there. First world problems, yeah?

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I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?

If you’ve been with me on this blog for any length of time, you know that I love Gen 1 Transformers. It is both my favorite toy line of all time as well as my favorite ‘80s cartoon. Of course, the cynical adult side of me sees the cartoon for what it was: a half-hour commercial designed to sell more toys. But there’s also the kid in me that remembers when I could come home from school to be greeted by Prime, Bumblebee, Jazz, Hound, Prowl, and the irascible Ironhide. They were friends of mine, and in my mind’s eye I rode shotgun with them through a hundred adventures.

I remember well when I first saw the teasers for Transformers: The Movie. It looked incredible, with some of the slickest animation Sunbow has ever produced. “Two years in the making,” the TV spots proclaimed, “an incredible adventure and spectacular wide-screen animation with an original story that will shock and surprise you!”

Boy, did they have that right.

Before we get to the crying-so-hard-I-had-to-be-taken-out-of-the-theatre part, there are some things I genuinely love about this movie. Let me spell those out first.

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I may or may not have a replica of this sitting on my writing desk.

1.) The Lore – In the comics, the Matrix of Leadership was just a computer program in Prime’s head. The movie is where we first see the iconic, semi-mystical talisman, and find that the one who carries it is the anointed Prime, AND that it has a will and power of its own. Throw on top of that the Universal Greeting (say it with me: Bah-weep-grah-na-weep-ninni-bong), Unicron the Chaosbringer, Autobot City, and the saying ‘Till All Are One! We meet the Quintessons for the first time, along with the Junkions and the ill-fated Lithonians. The Transformers universe expanded well out of its TV cartoon roots with this movie.

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Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!!

2.) The Soundtrack/ScoreYou got the Touch! You got the Pow-wwwwer! Yeaaah! From the mindblowing hard-rock reimagining of the main theme by Lion, to both of Stan Bush’s classic TF anthems (The Touch and Dare), this soundtrack is great throughout every track. At times it almost gives the movie a kind of Heavy Metal feel to it. That’s Heavy Metal in a ‘one-way ticket to midnight’ kind of way with rock paired with animation. There’s also Nothin’s Gonna Stand in Our Way, Hunger, and Instrument of Destruction. And did I mention that Weird Al Yankovic has a spot on this album? That’s right, Dare to be Stupid. And my hat’s off to Vince DiCola on his scoring the movie itself. It really added some emotional weight to a certain scene I’ve yet to discuss.

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The man himself.

3.) The Voice Cast – I met Peter Cullen once at a convention. It was less than a minute, and I was just one fan out of a hundred waiting to get something signed. Even though it was only a few seconds of my life, I will remember it always. Always. These names, now so familiar, like: Scatman Crothers, Jack Angel, Chris Latta, Frank Welker, and many others, are the ones who really brought the characters to life with their voice work. This dream team of actors was then joined by the likes of Eric Idle, Robert Stack, Susan Blue, Leonard Nimoy, and friggin’ Orson Welles as the voice of Unicron. I think even the much-maligned Judd Nelson did a fine job as Hot Rod and Rodimus. All those talents under one roof…it’s amazing.

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Gorgeous. Simply Gorgeous.

4.) The Animation – Once again, this is some of the most beautiful animation that Sunbow ever created. The coloration, the cell-shading, the grace with which characters move through the frame, all of it is beautiful. The characters seem to take on a new life and vitality, and look better here than just about anywhere outside of Transformers: Retribution.

And here are the parts that left their mark on me as a child:

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Pretty much the look on my face, too.

1.) The Casual Deaths of Supporting Characters – The first scene, the destruction and subsequent consumption of Lithone, really set the tone for the movie. But then we get the credits sequence, and we’re back to the Autobots that we know and love. Previously, we’ve seen the Autobots get hurt or shot up, but they were all better by the end of the episode. The one ‘perma-death’ they had in the cartoon, Skyfire, was later undone by Wheeljack and an ice jackhammer.

I still remember the battle on the Autobot starship. Prowl, one of my favorite characters, takes a direct hit in the opening shots. Fire comes out of his eyes and mouth, and he falls over dead.

Let me say that again: Fire came out of his eyes and mouth.

I remember trying to explain why I was so upset by this to my mom and she didn’t get it. She thought that was just one of his special feature or powers, like he had fire breath or heat-ray eyes or something. Nope, that was the Autobot version of blood coming out of his mouth before he died.

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Wut?

But it didn’t stop there. In a scene that takes less than a minute of screen time, we see Ratchet riddled with holes and die, Ironhide is given a contemptuous coup de grace by Megatron, and Brawn charges the Decepticons only to take a hit in the shoulder and fall, presumably finished off afterwards (though he does make an appearance in Season Three, so perhaps not all was lost.) In a word: Brutal.

Then we get to Autobot City. We see RC dragging the corpse of Windcharger, which she dumps next to poor old Wheeljack. We don’t even know how they died. We don’t see them make some heroic sacrifice or stand their ground against impossible odds. We just see their dead bodies, discarded and sad. By this point in the movie, Kidd-Matt was mighty uncomfortable with how things were going in that movie theatre in Athens, Texas. But none of those deaths prepared me for the emotional gut-punch of what was to come.

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Worst. Marketing. Decision. EVER.

2.)  The Death of Optimus Prime – Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, shall we? Remember those TV spots I mentioned? Well, as an adjunct, there was a Transformers toy commercial tie-in. It featured Frank Welker in his Megatron voice introducing the heinous Galvatron toy, and Peter Cullen’s Prime introducing Ultra Magnus. At the end, there’s a movie tag that shows Optimus being shot up pretty badly and the announcer asks “Does Prime die?” I remember watching that in my grandfather’s living room and thinking, “Naah, they’d never kill off Optimus Prime.”

Right?

But, as Kidd-Matt watched several of his favorite bots terminated with extreme prejudice, a gnawing suspicion began to dawn that his favorite of favorite characters was about to go down. We get the glorious fight with Megatron, Prime at his fighting best, and then the idiot Hot Rod gets in the way. Way to go. Perhaps just saying “Hey, watch out! He’s reaching for a gun! Shoot him!” would have been better, yeah?

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Way to go, Hot Rod. Tool.

But with one final, mighty uppercut, Prime ends Megatron’s reign of tyranny before collapsing. As Kup says, he turned the tide in the deadliest battle us little’uns had ever seen these characters fight. Not content with that, the sadistic bastards making this movie make us watch as Prime slowly slips away on life support to a musical score that STILL hurts to listen to. He gives the Matrix to Ultra Magnus, tells us not to grieve, and then the bright blue light fades from his eyes. And in case that wasn’t enough to show us that Prime is finally, irrevocably dead, we see his iconic red and blue color drain away to a grey-black, and then his head lolls to the side.

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😥 *buckets*

 

At this point, my godmother had to take me into the hall because I was crying so hard. Like snot-coming- out-of-my-nose-with-my-bottom-lip-quivering-uncontrollably kind of crying. I missed the next 10 minutes of the movie, and didn’t see that part until a few years later when I chanced to watch it again on VHS.

So, seeing my favorite childhood character die hurt pretty bad, but what hurt worse was when I learned the real reason that had Prime died. Hasbro wasn’t going to sell the Optimus toy the next season. They were clearing the way for new characters to sit on the shelves, and killing them off in the story was the perfect way to get them out of the way and explain their absence at the storefront.

Ouch.

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“…”

Even as a kid, I knew that the cartoon was just a way to promote sales, but I was okay with it because I was already sold on the toys. But to cynically kill off a fan favorite just because he wasn’t being sold anymore? What. The. Hell? Worse, this set the precedent for Prime dying in other interpretations of the character. Revenge of the Fallen, anyone? Transformers: Prime?

But in a twist of what I guess is karma, I wasn’t the only kid who had a freakout moment in the theatre. Lots of parents complained, and there was so much fan outrage over Prime’s death that Hasbro brought him back six months later in the two-part episode aptly named The Return of Optimus Prime. Of course, that was right as Transformers as a cartoon was sinking into the morass of “Seasons” 4 & 5, but at least Hasbro did the right thing in the end.

But the scars remain. #thankshasbro

3.) A Whole New Cast – Take a look at the official movie poster. Go ahead, take a look.

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Despite it all, I have this framed.

Notice anything? If you aren’t familiar with the characters, here’s a hint: All of them are new. Every character displayed here, with the exception of what might be Laserbeak in the background, is first introduced to American audiences in this movie. I remember seeing this poster hanging in the lobby of the movie theatre and wondering why Bumblebee, Prime, Jazz, Prowl, and the others weren’t on it. Sure, these new guys looked cool, but who were they?

So, if you had been watching the cartoon for two years, and then went into the movie thinking the main story would revolve around those guys (as I naturally assumed it would), that’s a negatory, Ghostrider. Only the Dinobots play any significant role, and live. Old characters die and are replaced, or are reborn as other characters, complete with new voice actors. It’s a bit of a cinematic bait-and-switch when you think about it, like going into the next Avengers movie to find that all the main heroes have been replaced with Squadron Supreme. Nothing against Squadron Supreme, but that wasn’t exactly what I thought I was getting.

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Eh, not so much.

4.) Rodimus Prime – To be fair, Optimus Prime is a tough act to follow. But since Prime dies, the Powers-That-Be apparently had to have another Prime. Instead of picking Ultra Magnus, who shares a lot in common with Prime, including a fancy name made up of superlatives, and an identical base toy, the Matrix instead goes for the punk kid, Hot Rod. Because…reasons. There is an admittedly cool transformation scene where we see Rodimus grow in size and the ghostly voice of Optimus saying, “Arise, Rodimus Prime.” He quickly kicks Galvatron’s butt and goes on to declare an end to the Great War. Roll Credits.

But then we get Season 3 of the cartoon, now with the new guys in lead roles, with little of the old guard remaining. Rodimus is now the Autobot Supreme Commander, and it’s clear that he’s no Optimus Prime, either in the strength of his leadership abilities, his ability to inspire others, or his lackluster combat skills (especially compared to Galvatron who seems waaaaay more powerful by comparison). Worse yet, Rodimus knows he’s not nearly the leader that Optimus was. And he’s right, he isn’t. So it goes.

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I much prefer this version, even if it’s a tad misleading. I also have this one framed.

Conclusions: 

As you can see there’s a lot to love and hate about this movie. In only 85 minutes, it embodies both the best and worst of what Transformers had to offer in the 1980s: callous disregard for what fans wanted based off of changes in a toy line, mixed with incredible jumps forward in the universe of Transformers, given to us with animation that looks like visual candy.

So when it comes to the cinematic vomit/explosion orgy offered up in the new series of Transformers movies, I honestly can’t say that Michael Bay is stepping all over my childhood. Transformers: The Movie did that during my childhood. And yet, there’s still a part of me that can’t help but smile when I hear Stan Bush belt out The Touch.


Galaxy Quest – Why I Love It Like Wrath of Khan

In honor of the late, great Alan Rickman, I watched Galaxy Quest again the other night. In my mind, I know that it’s a fantastic movie, but seeing it again always surprises me at just how good it is. Not only is it infinitely quotable on the order of Big Trouble in Little China or The Princess Bride, but I think it’s one of the greatest Star Trek movies ever made.

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Ooooooooh Yeeeeeaaaaaa! *said in a Kool-Aid Man voice.

No really, I love it in some ways even more than Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and for those who may not know me, let me tell you that’s saying something. The bagpipes at Spock’s funeral and Kirk’s voice catching when he said “His was the most…human” still bring tears to my eyes. True story.

So why do I love Galaxy Quest so much? Good question, I’m glad you asked.  Here’s the rundown of my top 3 reasons:

#3 It Understood Star Trek Better Than Star Trek Did:

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Nope.

Galaxy Quest arrived right between the rather ‘meh’ offering of Star Trek: Insurrection and the soul-numbing death knell of the TNG movies, Nemesis.  The Next Gen movies were often a bitter pill for Trek fans back then. Yeah, First Contact was quite good, and certainly the best of the bunch, but I never cared for the idea of a Borg Queen, or at-will time travel (again), or their portrayal of Zefram Cochrane. But I digress…ahem.

In truth, Galaxy Quest seemed to have a better understanding of Star Trek and its fans FAR and away better than the people who were in charge of the actual franchise at the time. From the fans who seem painfully familiar on the convention floor, to the tropes of the Original Series (and straight through the chompers…), all of these things told me that it was a parody made with utmost love for the source material. The elevator scene where the actors see the NCES Protector in space dock, glowing like an angel, could have been the Enterprise clearing its moorings to the sweep of a James Horner score.

Dean Parisot, David Howard, and Robert Gordon knew what we wanted to see in a Star Trek movie, and in so doing, gave us a parody that was better than the thing it was imitating. You know, like a cinematic Weird Al Yankovic.

#2 Brandon & Quellek:

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Yeah, I was totally this guy.

There are two characters that deeply capture what it means to be a Trek fan (no, I’m not using ‘Trekkie’ or ‘Trekker’ here. Debate the usage elsewhere, please). The first is Brandon, the nerdy teenager played by Justin Long. He totally echoes my 15-year-old self who dreamed that my incredible Trek nerdiness and knowledge of the official tech manuals might one day come in useful when William Shatner or Patrick Stewart showed up and needed my help.  When Brandon exclaims, “I knew it!” it speaks to the hope that somewhere, out in the vastness of space, the Enterprise is a real ship, a real place you can go, and not just a TV set made of wood and Christmas lights.

The other is Quellek, the Thermian who idolizes Dr. Lazarus. Ask yourself this: how many real-life scientists were inspired by Leonard Nimoy’s Spock? A great deal, I’m sure. The characters that actors portray can mean something to us deep down, really mean something.  They can inspire us in ways the actor may have never imagined.  Quellek says, “Even though we had never before met, I always considered you as a father to me.” That really sums up the actor-fan relationship, especially for that one character that really speaks to you. Galaxy Quest understood that, embraced it, and made it part of the story.

#1 Alan Rickman:

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😥

The cast of this movie (including the Queen of Sci-fi herself, Sigourney Weaver) really shines, no doubt about it. Alan Rickman, however, is off the chain as Sir Alexander Dane/Dr. Lazarus. For an actor so celebrated for his villainous roles, it’s refreshing to see his comedic side as an actor who feels trapped by the role of Dr. Lazarus, and constantly upstaged by his rival, Jason Nesbitt.

But as funny as he is, it’s during those serious moments in the film that Rickman really brings it all home. Going back to Quellek’s death, we see that Alexander, who has never liked his character’s oft-repeated tagline, says “By Grapthar’s Hammer, by the Sons of Warvan, you shall be avenged.” And we know that he means it thanks to Rickman’s masterful dramatic delivery.  I think this is the most powerful scene in the movie. It gives the movie, which is mostly parody, a dose of real gravity. It would be like getting a full-on “Live Long and Prosper” from Leonard Nimoy if we thought he was, in fact, Spock. Oh, the feels. THE. FEELS.

Conclusion:

This movie has a special place in my heart, not only because of the reasons I listed above, but because as a whole, it just works. To me, it’s about hard reality intruding on fantasy, which makes watching it bittersweet since Alan Rickman is now gone, along with his character’s real-life analogue, Leonard Nimoy.

You know, writing that last sentence, putting it into words, really hurt.

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“…”

Being a Star Trek fan is in my blood. I was blessed to grow up with two parents who both liked the Original Series, and embraced Next Gen immediately when it came around. I went to Star Trek conventions when it was actively uncool to do so, but I met a lot of my fellow fans.  For a kid who was incredibly shy and introverted, it was such a relief to strike up a conversation with a total stranger on the convention floor just because we both loved something.

The fans are, and shall always be, one of the greatest things about Star Trek, and that is what Galaxy Quest included that other, actual Star Trek films just can’t. This is why a parody like this rates right up there with Wrath of Khan. It taught me that if you truly love something you should…

…say it with me…

Never give up! Never surrender!