Category Archives: Silly Me

Fanboy Review #8— Thor: Ragnarok

[Note: I do not consider myself a movie critic. What follows is just one fanboy’s opinion based off of a single viewing of the film. Oh, and there are SPOILERS ahead, so take heed.]

Marvel’s latest addition to their cinematic universe released recently, taking the world by storm (sorry, couldn’t resist). While ranking 11th amongst  Marvel releases, it is nevertheless doing better than either of the previous Thor movies. It’s ranked at 92% on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this writing. Let’s dive in.

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Stop…Hammer Time!

First Impressions: I found the first two Thor films entertaining, but nowhere near Marvel’s strongest offerings. For my part, it’s sort of a toss-up between Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World for worst movie in the MCU.  While I think that Chris Hemsworth plays Thor with just the right mix of power and humor, he wasn’t given much to work with in the first two installments. Director Taika Waititi has a fresh take on the character, so I’m in.

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What he said. 

What I LIKED:

  • THE SCORE! – When I got home from seeing this movie, I immediately downloaded the score by Mark Mothersbaugh. It’s so unexpected to have this strange, resonant sort of ’80s synth vibe going on. It’s like if Flash Gordon had taken place a decade later, mixed with the background of Stranger Things. It really adds something both delightful and different to the action sequences.
  • Thor and Loki – I loved seeing these two characters together again. Both Hemsworth and Hiddleston have fantastic comedic timing. We got to see that a little before, but here it’s all over the place. They feel more like brothers here, especially the way they try to get back at one another. I maintain that I would gladly see a Loki-centric movie. He remains one of the best villains, and best characters, the MCU has produced. Which leads me to my next point…
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Perhaps my favorite scene in the movie. 

  • HELA! – I’m used to Cate Blanchett in dramatic roles, which is why it’s a surprise she’s so funny as the Goddess of Death (yeah, not one I would have seen coming). To date, she is the most powerful villain we’ve seen on screen in the MCU. Without the Infinity Gauntlet, I doubt Thanos would stand a chance against her (more on that below). Wow, when she cuts loose on the Army of Asgard, it’s like Sauron and Neo in the levels of sheer badassery.
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  • Heimdall – Have I said lately much I love Edris Elba? His Heimdall makes me wish there was a whole other full-length movie of what he’s doing in the background. They say a few times that Asgard is a people, not a place. If that’s true, Heimdall is the true savior of Asgard. It looks like there are only a few hundred survivors in the aftermath, and Heimdall, fighting on his own, gathered them all to the Yggdrasil sanctuary AND kept Hela from getting his sword, so she was effectively bottled up in Asgard. LOVE. IT.
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No comment necessary. 

  • The Grandmaster – Jeff Goldblum perfectly fits in with the type of offbeat humor Thor: Ragnarok exudes. I’m always happy to see an appearance by one of the Elders of the Universe. It reminds me of reading Silver Surfer as a kid. And through him there’s a nod to the Contest of Champions, and a look at Gladiator and Beta Ray Bill as his former champions.
  • The Visuals – Much like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Doctor Strange, this movie is stunning to look at. The art direction, the set, and costume design are all fantastic. They give Thor a brand new look, new armor, short hair and (later) one eye, and it all sort of works. Waititi cites Jack Kirby as his inspiration for the look and feel of the film, and he NAILS it.
  • Hulk as a Big Toddler – We see far more of the Hulk in this movie than anything previous. Before, it was mostly when there was fighting, but here we see him outside of combat. He’s like a big toddler with a limited vocabulary, and one prone to misunderstanding and tantrums. It’s a little odd to see the Hulk in some of his calmer moments, but that’s an insight into Banner’s Mr. Hyde we just haven’t seen before. Well done.
  • Korg & Company – Even though we never saw them in the arena, the colorful group of gladiators were pretty funny and cool. I particularly like Korg. He looks like he would have a deep, raspy voice, but actually speaks with a higher pitched, cockney accent. I think he had some of the best lines, even one that maybe should have been rethought (see below.)
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Wait, Hela is *Odin’s* daughter? 

What I DIDN’T Like:

  • THE FRIGGIN’ WARRIORS THREE, MAN! – There is one thing I absolutely HATED about this movie, and it’s how Volstagg, Fandral, and Hogun the Grim went out. I really like those characters, and they were supposed to be elite warriors of Asgard. Volstagg and Fandral were put down by Hela. Hogun got a few hits in, but then was instantly killed in a way that DOES NOT sit well with me. I understand establishing Hela as a dire threat (and mission accomplished there), but give them heroic deaths, yeah? They were shown the same kind of disregard, bordering on contempt, as Jimmy Olsen in Batman V. Superman. NOPE. I’m just glad Lady Sif was nowhere to be found.

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  • The Quinjet – Perhaps there’s an explanation I’m not aware of, but this seems like a big continuity error that goes beyond simple retconning. Hulk is obviously on the Quinjet the Avengers used to defend Sokovia, as it still has Tony Stark’s clothes in it. Isn’t this the Quinjet that they found ditched in the Pacific Ocean, near Fiji? Now it’s on Sakaar? And what was an airplane even doing in space in the first place? Who’s in charge of keeping facts straight at Marvel?
  • Odin’s Departure – It seems rushed and weird. And could they not shoot on location for some reason? The shot of Thor, Loki, and Odin looking out at the ocean in Norway is some of the worst greenscreening I’ve seen in a while. Nothing about that looked real. Good thing Doctor Strange pointed them in the right direction, huh? A few more minutes of conversation and Odin would have slipped off without saying goodbye. But, I am at least glad that Anthony Hopkins got to reprise his role as Odin.
  • Doctor Strange – We got a bit of a bait-and-switch with the stinger scene in last year’s Doctor Strange, where he meets Thor. It’s quite a bit different when we see it here. While the post-credits version seemed like Strange wants to help Thor, it’s clear that here he’s really just trying to get Thor and Loki off of the Earth ASAP. Aside from pointing the two to Odin in Norway and sending them there, a character as cool as Cumberbatch’s Strange doesn’t contribute much to the story. I had hoped he would stick around to help them out with their first obstacle, trade a few barbed exchanges with Loki, and then remain behind when Thor and Loki returned to Asgard. Guess Strange isn’t going to be happy that they coming back (or trying to), huh?
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Hang on…how many Asgardians are coming here? 

  • Banner’s Choice – There are many missed opportunities in this movie. It’s clear that Banner might be committing a form of suicide if he turns into Hulk again. When he sees the Asgardian survivors besieged from both sides while trapped on the Bifrost bridge, there should have been a moment where we see Banner make the choice. Mark Ruffalo is such a good actor that all it would have required is about five seconds for him to sell the finality of this choice with his eyes. No dialogue required. The scene is kinda there, but had no weight to it. It was glossed over in favor of a humorous moment, which reminds me…
  • Humor Overstaying Its Welcome- Let me be clear: I thought the humor here was really good. And it was a different blend of humor than the Whedonesque style we normally get. But, I think it overstayed its welcome in places. It felt jarring when the movie was put on pause to deliver a joke. The most egregious of these is when Asgard explodes. It’s the punchline to a joke, and has zero dramatic weight to it. This was their home. This should have all the punch-to-the-feels of Kirk watching the Enterprise burn up in the Genesis planet’s atmosphere. There’s none of that here. Once again, a missed opportunity.
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Remember when our eons-old home was destroyed right before our very eyes? Yeah that was HILARIOUS. 

  • The Executioner – I like Karl Urban as an actor, and I thought he did a good job with what he had, but the character is super predictable. He joins Hela, but never does anything too irredeemable, then (big surprise) turns on Hela at the last minute, has his moment of glory, and then dies. What a waste of potential. Ugh.
  • The Hand Waving of Jane Foster – I get it; Natalie Portman doesn’t want to be in the MCU anymore. They’ve been making excuses for her continued absence since the first Avengers. Now they just write her out of the picture by a simple breakup? And this is common knowledge?
  • The First Stinger – I had to read an interview with Kevin Feige to know that the ship that showed up in the stinger was the Sanctuary II, Thanos’ new ship. Some context, please? That could have been anyone. If you want us to feel something about it, we need some sort of hint that it’s Thanos. Throw us a bone here, people.
Marvel-Phase-3-Thanos-Infinity-Gauntlet-Tease

Can’t. Wait. 

Unresolved Questions (At This Point):

Is Hela really dead? She is the goddess of death, so I’m going to take a wild guess and say that she’s going to return. (Perhaps death is more of an inconvenience to her.) And will she be the incarnation of death that Thanos tries to woo when he gets the Infinity Gauntlet? Goth Cate Blanchett? Can’t say I blame him. Wow.

Will Mjolnir ever be reforged? If so, will that be the way they hand off the character to another actor or actress? They could go the route of the Odinson in the comics, which would allow the Hemsworth Thor to retire and rule Asgard in place of Odin. Might that open the door for Lady Thor or Beta Ray Bill to come in to fill that role as Midgard’s champion? Who shall be worthy?

What about Lady Sif? I know the real reason she’s not here is because of Jaimie Alexander’s RL scheduling conflicts, but since she (Lady Sif) wasn’t present for Ragnarok (and the culling of Thor’s companions), maybe she’s still out there somewhere, and can rejoin her people at a later time.

How does Thor get from the starship at the end of the movie to the meet-up with the Guardians of the Galaxy in Infinity War?  What does that mean for the handful of Asgardian survivors? Will Asgard be refounded on Earth, perhaps in Norway, or even Oklahoma, per the comics?

Loki almost certainly grabbed the Tesseract while in the vault, so does he (once again) betray his fellow Asgardians by giving it to Thanos? Or does that go down some other way?

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Boss fight.  

Conclusions:

I liked this movie quite a bit. There are really great moments in it, and the comedy usually works, even if it’s at the expense of the drama at times. As I said before, I found the other two Thor movies entertaining, but not the best the MCU has produced. Thor needed a different take for the third installment, and I think this movie delivers on just that. It’s unfortunate that we may not see Chris Hemsworth in his own movie again, just as the Thor franchise seems to have found a combination that works. I do hope that Taika Waititi has the chance to helm another Marvel blockbuster, because I think he worked wonders with this one.

And that’s the way this fanboy sees it.

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Tropes I Can Do Without: Incompetent Antagonists

So, I’m breaking my rule here just a bit. My goal for this year was to write about those thing I love more than the things I dislike. But today is Halloween, and this one in particular has been weighing on my mind of late. I’m going to talk about a sci-fi/fantasy trope that I would REALLY like to see go away: incompetent antagonists.

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Trick! This post has nothing to do with either of them! Both of them are pretty cool as is. 

See if this sounds familiar…a plucky band of heroes is just so darn good. And clever! The bad guys, by contrast, might have cool tech and uniforms, but they are largely idiots, or exceedingly arrogant (or both). Because the heroes have the ‘heart’ of 100 Rocky Balboas, they are able to snatch victory out of the lazy, slackened jaws of defeat. Hooray! Everyone goes home.

Based on this, I’m proud to introduce Carson’s First Law of Villainy: The level of satisfaction the audience experiences from the heroes’ victory is directly proportional to the competence of their opposition.

Or, in other words, the greater the threat, the greater the payoff.  If it seems nigh-impossible for the heroes to succeed, the more of a “YAAAS” moment you get when the they finally—somehow— pull it off. Villains are key to this. You can have a weak villain and still have a fun, engaging story (Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’m looking at you in most cases), but the writer does his heroes a disservice if the opposition they face is weak or ineffectual.

Let’s look at some examples. Think of a bad guy or set of bad guys. This can be from books, movies, comic books, really anywhere. Why were they memorable? Why were they a threat to the protagonist, and what lengths did the hero or heroes have to go to defeat them? For me, one figure immediately springs to mind.

This guy.

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Come to the Dark Side…we have cookies!

Darth Vader.

Not, Anakin Skywalker. No, the Dark Lord of the Sith as he was portrayed in Episodes 4, 5, and 6. He’s powerful, in control, and a dire threat to anyone who get in his way. Every time the heroes cross paths with him, they pay for it. Obi-Wan goes down, he cuts off Luke’s Hand, and Han gets encased in carbonite.

He’s always one step ahead, and going up against him directly seems like a suicide mission. So, when Luke does finally defeat him, it shows how far the character has come. The Luke who whined about going into Tosche Station to pick up power converters couldn’t have faced Vader and lived. It had to be the Luke who wore all black, who single-handedly stormed Jabba’s barge like a boss to do that. In essence, Luke had to grow into Vader’s looming threat. As I’ve said before, it’s the presence of the wolf, not its absence, that makes the deer fast.

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And the winner for Most Improved goes to…

Of course, Grand Moff Tarkin does refuse to evacuate the station out of sheer arrogance, but that’s the difference between the two characters. Tarkin was certainly competent in other ways, but ultimately fell prey to this classic movie trope: His belief in his own superiority sews the seeds of his downfall.  In the end, however, I think the original Star Wars trilogy does a good job of establishing the Empire as a legitimate danger to make its defeat feel like an accomplishment.  (Stormtroopers who can’t hit the broad side of a barn, notwithstanding.)

Let’s look at a really bad example. I must preface this by saying that I’m big fan of this author’s work, and have been so for 20 years or more. But lately, the bad guys are bad at what they do. Really bad. Let’s talk about Shadow of Freedom, by David Webber, a novel in one of the spin-offs of his Honor Harrington universe.

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Despite being front and center on the cover, Honor Harrington never appears directly. 

I posted my review on Goodreads, but here’s the part that pertains to this topic. The bad guys are some of the worst I’ve ever read. There are multiple sets of them, and they are all idiotic, arrogant, AND their tech is way inferior to the good guys. In short, they are cockroaches being run over by a semi. They can’t even really fight back. They either flee or they die, without presenting even the slightest bit of threat or challenge.

If it only happened once in the book, that would be one thing, but it happens over and over again. And this isn’t the only Honor Harrington book where this is the case, I’m sorry to say. I want to see the protagonists struggle to achieve their goal, to really fight for it, sacrifice for it. There’s none of that here, because the bad guys are disposable, stupid, and pose no real danger.

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Yeah, pretty much like that. 

That brings me to Carson’s Second Law of Villainy: The audience should, in some way, empathize with the antagonist enough to—almost—wish them to succeed in place of the protagonist.

This is stepping outside the speculative realms, but think about Hans Gruber from the original Die Hard movie, played by the incomparable Alan Rickman. He is a cold-blooded killer, a terrorist, and a worthy adversary of Bruce Willis’ John McClane. Even though we hope McClane is able to triumph over Gruber, the moment that Gruber’s team opens the vault is genuinely exciting. For an instant, you almost feel elated that they have accomplished their goal, even though they’ve done some horrible things to get there. You temporarily suspend your wish for McClane’s victory in favor of Gruber. It’s only for a moment, but it’s there.

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The man himself. 

Even this can be traced to Gruber’s innate competence. He knows what he’s doing. He has it together. He has a thought-out master plan and the will and resolve to see it through. That he is very good at what he does contributes to the menace he represents to McClane. If Gruber and company were a bunch of bumbling idiots, McClane’s triumph wouldn’t have been nearly so resounding.

Another example of this is Gus Fring from Breaking Bad, in my opinion one of the greatest TV villains of all time, and Giancarlo Esposito’s masterwork. (Spoiler Alert) Even though Gus represents deadly peril to our protagonists, Walter and Jesse, it’s pretty satisfying to see him take down the Juarez Cartel. Again, we’ve seen this guy literally slit a guy’s throat in cold blood just to make a point, but in this moment we are glad that Gus has won the day. And he did this through superior planning, a deep knowledge of his targets and their foibles, and a driving determination to avenge his dead friend, Max. Again, competence.

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Is today the day, Hector? 

It’s these instances of success where we can’t help but cheer, even though we know we shouldn’t. And it’s these moments that lead me to Carson’s Third Law of Villainy: Antagonists should believe and behave as though they are the protagonists in their own story.

Perhaps the most chilling thing about some of the worst people who have ever lived in real life is that they thought they were the good guys. They all thought they were the hero in their own story. A well-rounded antagonist should likewise believe this. They aren’t just there to be a convenient obstacle, to wait around to be defeated or killed, they have goals and dreams like anyone, albeit twisted by our standards. In their view, the hero is the actual villain of the piece.

One of the most unsettling examples of this is the movie Falling Down. I’ve heard it said that you can tell the protagonist of a story by looking for the one in the most pain. Not so with this movie. Even though the story revolves around William Foster (Michael Douglas), he is really the antagonist. We see that he’s in pain, and that he’s fed up with the world, but when Robert Duvall’s Sgt. Prendergast confronts him at the end of the movie, Foster says “I’m the bad guy? How’d that happen?”

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His glasses aren’t the only thing that’s cracked. 

And, just to throw a curve ball into the mix, let’s talk about the Operative (Chiwetal Ejiofor) in Serenity. He certainly passes the competency test. He’s articulate and extremely dangerous, and also strangely empathic towards his victims.

He passes the first two laws of villainy with flying colors, but not the third. That is perhaps the only failing in an otherwise command performance. The Operative knows that he’s a monster, that what he’s doing is wrong, and yet he does it anyway. That’s the only part of this character that doesn’t ring true to me, especially when Shepherd Book says that men like the Operative  ‘believe hard’ and ‘never ask why.’ The Operative knows he’s a villain, which in my estimation, makes him less of one.

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Perhaps there is nothing left to see. 

Well, there you have it, Carson’s Three Laws of Villainy, and how the use of them can prevent a milquetoast antagonist. Villains fuel the story’s conflict, and what is a good story without conflict?

So if you’re writer of any sort of fiction, do us a favor and make your villain as compelling as your hero. Make your protagonist rise to the challenge. And if you can, have your villain go out with a bit of style or panache.  (That’s more of a personal request, however.)

Truth is, we all deserve better bad guys in our stories. Villains aren’t good, but by the horned helmet of Loki, they should at least be good at it!

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Burdened with glorious purpose, indeed. 


Strange Reports from Sector M: A Self Interview

My anthology of short, speculative fiction came out recently. I call it Strange Reports From Sector M. Customarily when a bestselling author releases a book, there’s a press tour, complete with personal interviews. Now this may come as a surprise to many of you, but I am not a bestselling author. Shocked face, right?

Since there aren’t a myriad of people busting my door down for an interview, I decided to do one on my own. The purpose of any one-on-one with the author is really just to let people know about the book, what’s it about, and why people should check it. I’m going to do that for you here, right now. So, look at it as glimpse into my pet project, or a strange sort of FAQ. Either one is fine.

Alright, let’s get this show on the road!

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Thanks for joining us here on Sector M, Matt.

Um, thanks? This is weird. I’m not the only who thinks so, right?

No idea what you mean. So, about your book. What is Sector M, exactly, and why are we getting strange reports from it, hmm?

Right, so Sector M has been my creative umbrella for a few years now. It covers all my social media, my books, even my wacky fanboy videos on Youtube. The name “Sector M” is a reference to my office, which at various times in the past has been called “The Museum of Matt” or “Sector Matt.” It’s my sanctum sanctorum. You know, just like Doctor Strange.

Okay, so Sector M is really just a proxy for saying “Matt Carson.”

In a way, yeah. I also set one of my earliest military sci-fi stories in a sector on the fringes of civilized space. The first surveyors had named all the star systems with words that began with the letter “M.” Thus, Sector M.

And is that story included in this anthology?

It is. It’s called “The Foeman’s Chain” and it’s the last one in the book.

What about the reports? Why are they strange? Do tell.

The stories in this book are pretty varied. Overall, it’s sci-fi, but there’s a bit of urban fantasy and horror mixed in as well. They all have some sort of anthropological or sociological theme to them. Humans are strange beings when you think about it. I’m perhaps a little stranger than most, so these resulting stories (or reports, if you will) are bound to be a bit ‘out there.’

Fascinating. Well now we need to take a quick break to learn an important fact about llamas!

Wait, what?

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And we’re back!

What was that all about?

Just trying to break up the text with some graphics. Now, how is the book structured? Or is it all just sorta willy-nilly?

The stories get progressively longer from beginning to end. The first few stories are really short. The middle of the book has a few stories of a more “traditional” short-story length. At the end, I have two novellas or novelettes, depending on which definition you use. So, if you’re in the mood for something quick, look in the front. If you want something more substantial, go to the middle or back. You can read them in any order.

And how many stories are included, total?

There are 13 stories, all told. That seemed like a decent variety of different types of stories, lengths, and genres. Some are standalone stories, while a few others take place in a shared universe.

Do you have a favorite? I bet you do.

They all have a special place in my heart. No, I’m serious! I certainly don’t have an overall favorite among them, but I would say I’m particularly partial to “The Gossamer Thread” and “The Mundanity of Miracles.”

What are they about?

If you buy the book, you’ll find out. *wink*

Real subtle, Matt.

Just kidding. “Gossamer Thread” is about aliens who view us, the humans, as the ineffable ones. It also deals with society as a fragile construct, and trying to do what’s right when everything is falling down. “The Mundanity of Miracles” is about how the lines between reality and fiction are blurred in the future, and the problems that may come about as a result.

You mentioned societal themes before. Is there an overall theme for the book?

Interesting question. I wrote these stories without ever dreaming I’d assemble them together, so there’s no intentional theme to the book as a whole.

Wait, so you’re saying there’s an unintentional theme?

As I put it together, certain themes began to appear to me, like a Venn diagram overlapping at various points. But, much like when I see a cloud that looks like a duck, I may be seeing a pattern that isn’t really there.

See a lot of clouds shaped like ducks, do you?

Uh, sometimes, yeah.

Like this one?

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Yeah. Just like that one. *mutters to himself.*

Well, what is this unintentional theme of which you speak?

No spoilers, for real this time. I’m going to leave that up to the reader to decide. I don’t want to bias opinions ahead of time. Come on, I have to leave at least a little mystery.

Isn’t that a bit of a cop out?

Maybe, but here we are.

Tool.

Oh yeah, and what does that say about you, then?

Good point. So shall we talk about the elephant in the room?

Sure…

Why is this book $12.99, huh? Who do you think you are, Dan Brown?

Not at all. This is a print-on-demand situation, which means the individual print costs for each book are  higher than if it were a large print run. I realize I’m not an established “brand” when it comes to authors, but when all was said and done the minimum cost to print each book was over $12. For now, I like to think of it as 13 stories for 13 bucks.

Cute. Did you practice that little catchphrase?

Maybe a little, yeah.

What if that price point is just too much for people?

The Kindle version is also out. Since it’s just electrons, those minimum print costs are no longer an issue. With Kindle, readers can get the book for $5.99.  That’s about one trip to Starbucks, and my book will last you a lot longer. *wink*

You’re winking again.

Oh, sorry…

If you’re gonna wink, at least take a lesson from the best.

And who’s that, pray tell?

So glad you asked…

Oh, here we go.

giphy

 

And, back. If we’re going with the “5 Ws and H” approach, what haven’t we answered yet?

Hmmm, let’s run them down:

Who: Me, Matt Carson.

What: A trade paperback book of short stories, all speculative fiction. Also on Kindle.

When: It’s out now! 🙂

Why:  See below.

Where: Amazon and CreateSpace. Links below!

How: CreateSpace Author Services.

Ah, so it’s the Why that we need to talk about. So why did you decide to put this book together?

These stories are a part of me, and I wanted to share them. While I’m glad to have The Backwards Mask out there for folks to enjoy, I realize its length means that it’s quite an investment of time. So, for those who don’t have time for a 309,000-word novel, here are multiple stories you can read in a single sitting. There’s also something about holding a physical book in your hands that cannot be overstated. It’s the first time my fiction has appeared in print, so that’s exciting.

But why should the readers care about it?

I see what you did there. *approving nod*. This book really has a little something for everyone in the geekosphere. There’s plenty of action, but also introspection about our strange existence. I talk about war, cruelty, courage, and humanity’s unconquerable, if wildly contradictory, spirit. If you like any of the speculative fiction genres, there’s something here to scratch that particular itch. And if you like all of them, so much the better.

Anything you’d like to say to all the folks out there, then?

Yes, please support my work and consider picking up a copy. AND please leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Those are the two most important things you can do for any indie author—buy the book and leave a review.

In that case, where can we procure said anthology?

Right now, there are two places: Amazon and CreateSpace, directly. The text on this blog can sometimes obfuscate links (they don’t always stand out in blue), so please click on the word “here” in all three cases.

For Amazon, click here.

For CreateSpace, click here.

For the Kindle, click here.

Well, Matt, thanks for stopping by Sector M. We should do this again sometime.

What are you talking about? I’m here all the time on Sector M. I’m you.

But are you? Are you really?

Yes…?

Sorry, rhetorical question. So, that’s all the time we have. Check out Strange Reports From Sector M on Amazon and CreateSpace!

Until next time, see you around the Sector!


The Mountain and the Sector of M

As I was doing research on Neil Gaiman for my last blog post, I came across a clip of him giving a commencement speech in 2012. Clad in an academic cap and robes, Mr. Gaiman gave an interesting thought model for how he steered his way forward, creatively.

I’ll be paraphrasing from that speech in just a moment. You can find it here in its entirety, and it’s well worth a listen. It’s the part about the mountain, that caught my attention. It’s a simple way of looking at things for a writer, or indeed any artist who wants to pursue art. As we explore the idea, I’ll tell you my own thoughts and goals.

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Only the road will not be as flat or straight.

So, imagine a mountain in the distance. That mountain is your goal, whether it’s to become an artist, write a novel, a screenplay, learn to play the trombone, or what have you. Whatever it is you’re dreaming of, it’s there in the distance, waiting for you. In my case, it’s to become a professional author, and be able to devote myself to writing fiction full-time.

Now, think about the best route to get to the mountain. It’s deceptively easy, and often easier said than done. What would it take for you to follow that route to the mountain? What it means in my case is to make enough of an income from being an author that I can pay the bills. I never write my stories with dollar signs spinning in my eyes like Looney Toons. And yet, if I am going to pay the electricity bill by way of my stories, money has to enter the picture at some point. (Unless the electric company starts accepting speculative fiction as currency, so yeah.)

Let’s say that you’ve clearly identified what life goal your mountain represents AND you have mapped out the best way to get there. If you’re at that point, you still have to actually get to the mountain, right? You still have to walk that path. This part is perhaps the hardest because no plan survives contact with the enemy. There will always be setbacks and obstacles, no matter your course, and along the way you will need to make choices.

And it’s here that Mr. Gaiman really nails it. Whenever you’re faced with a decision, ask yourself this: Does this move me towards the mountain, or away from it? He mentions that there are lucrative jobs he passed up because he felt they wouldn’t bring him closer to the mountain, jobs that he might have taken earlier on his journey, since those opportunities were closer to the mountain than he was at that time.

It’s a pretty beautiful way of looking at it all. Envision the goal, plan your way forward, and make choices with the goal in mind. And if you ever do reach the mountain, look for the next one.

Truth time, folks.

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He’s going to tell! He’s going to tell!

I’m on the third leg of that journey, the making choices part. I see the goal in front of me, I see what it’s going to take to get there, and I’m making far-reaching life choices to bring it about. What I realize, however, is that I will need help along the way. After all, a writer without a reader is almost nothing at all.

If you read this blog on a regular basis, or you are familiar with my work, I ask that you support what I do at Sector M, in whatever form you’re able. I’ll have plenty of links at the end of this post for your consideration.

The best way to support me as an author is to buy one of my books. Obvious, right? My novel, The Backwards Mask, has just been re-released in e-book format, and we’re working on a print-on-demand version. If you haven’t read it, now is an ideal time to check it out.

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Find it here.

Additionally, I have an anthology of short fiction coming out next month called Strange Reports from Sector M. It’s primarily science fiction with a little bit of urban fantasy and horror thrown into the mix. This release will include both an e-book and a paperback version. I’ll post the link here, among many places, when the book debuts next month.

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Coming soon.

If you pick up any of any of my books, I ask only that you leave a review. Aside from buying the book itself, leaving a review on Amazon or Goodreads (or both) is the single best thing you can do for an independent author. I cannot overstate this.

Outside of books, you can buy a Sector M shirt, mug, or the like, or support me directly on Patreon. Or PayPal for that matter, if you prefer one-time contributions.

Beyond that, there are many ways to support me on my journey that are free. For one, if you’re reading this blog, subscribe to it. The same goes for following me on various social media, whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, or any of them.

And if your mouse finger just can’t quite find the motivation, helping me out can be as simple as telling a friend about my work, or pointing them in the direction of my books and/or this blog. Know anyone who likes science fiction or fantasy? Tell. Them. Word-of-mouth should never, ever be underestimated.

Okay, I’m promised some links. One last time for those in back, please consider supporting my ongoing efforts by any of the following means.

The Backwards Mask — the re-release of my science fiction novel.

Strange Reports from Sector M — Link coming as soon as it goes live.

Sector M Store — T-shirts, mugs, phone covers and more.

Patreon—Support me directly, and get some cool perks.

PayPal— For one-time amounts, use: thesectorm@gmail.

Subscribe to this blog — If you haven’t already.

Like me on Facebook — A good place to start.

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram: @TheSectorM

Join me on Goodreads — See what I’m reading, ask me a question, read my reviews, etc.

Subscribe to my YouTube Channel — More content to come as time allows.

Check out my other works— I have a few stories out that you can read for free on my website, with more of them to come.

And there you have it, folks. My mountain is there in the distance, and its name is Sector M. With your help, I have no doubts that I will reach it.

See you around the Sector!

 

Si vales, valeo.

-MC


I Will Never Be Shakespeare, Tolkien, or Gaiman…and That’s Okay.

Neil Gaiman came to Dallas on the 14th. I’ve read many his comics and novels over the years, but I had never seen him in person before. He went on stage at the Winspear Opera House, answered some questions from the audience, read some of his stories, and it was fantastic. Every bit of it.

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The man himself. 

If you ever get a chance to see Neil Gaiman in person, do it. No, really. DO. IT. He’s funny, articulate, and brilliant. His voice strikes me as a not-as-ominous Alan Rickman. Let’s just say that if he had slowly uttered the phrase “Up…to something,” I would have thought Snape was in room. Or at least Snape’s upbeat, more charismatic cousin.

When you’re a relatively unknown author, and you see a famous author speak, this can cause you to question yourself. Will I ever get to a point in my career where thousands of people might come to see me speak? Could my work ever be a uniting factor for people who are otherwise from very different cross-sections of society? Will anyone choose to cosplay a character that I create? And really, when you’re looking around at a sold out show like that, it’s hard not ask yourself Will I ever get to *this* point.

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Imagine this, but with no empty seats. 

Now, I should point out that I don’t write because I hope to become famous. Far from it; my motivation to be an author stems from a deeply personal need to create and the knowledge that life is short. That’s a tale for another time, though.

This act of questioning yourself can take a negative turn, however, when you encounter someone so wonderfully brilliant like Gaiman. For those who have tried your hand at writing, or aspire to do so, tell me if this sounds familiar:

Gaaah! I just read something truly awful. I know I can write something better than that!

– Yeah, my ideas are coming to me now! See, I knew I could do better than that drivel.

– That doesn’t sound too bad. It’s not Shakespeare, but I think people will like it. Onward!

– I just don’t know. My pace has slowed down a bit now that I’m past the beginning. I need some inspiration to get those creative juices flowing again.

– Oh God, why did I just read Lord of the Rings again? The guy had a working knowledge of like forty languages. FORTY. And he created a whole bunch of languages on his own. There is NO POSSIBLE WAY I could do something like that.

– (*stares blankly at the computer screen*) Why did I think I could do this, again? My ideas are crap, my words are crap. It’s all crap. Maybe I should’ve let my uncle teach me about fixing cars, instead.

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Today’s not your day. Tomorrow doesn’t look good, either. 

Okay, maybe not the uncle thing. Whether you’re a beginning writer or a pro, chances are you’ve had a moment like this, usually as a result of reading something incredible and feeling humbled by it. This can lead to despair. If you can’t be as good as [Insert your favorite author’s name here], what’s the point?

I learned early on that making comparisons to others is an exercise in futility. To that way lies madness. It’s so easy to become demoralized and fall into that cycle of self-doubt. If this has happened to you, just remember what your ol’ buddy Jack Burton says at a time like this. (And by Jack Burton, I mean me.)

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Jack says what the hell…

Neil Gaiman isn’t Shakespeare.

That’s not a shot against the guy in a he’s no Jack Kennedy kind of way. No, I mean they are two different people, separated by space and time. One lived in Elizabethan times and the other is alive today. It’s the same to say that Stephen King isn’t J.R.R Tolkien, and H.P. Lovecraft isn’t Charles V of Spain.

Your very uniqueness is one of the greatest gifts you have as a writer, whether you choose to write or not. You, the reader, are a one-of-a-kind blend of your own thoughts, dreams, aspirations, and experiences. True, none of us will ever be Shakespeare or Neil Gaiman, but that’s because those roles are already taken.

So, if you choose to tell a story, no one can (or will ever) tell it quite like you. And if you are serious and passionate about the work, if you study your craft and pour your heart and soul into it, you have something to contribute to your genre.

43c4960db7c1652cac7dbe97f701b295I encourage people to write whenever I can. It’s a form of self-expression that, as Stephen King puts it in On Writing, is a form of telepathy. And time-travelling telepathy at that, since time will have passed between when I write these words and when you read them.

Writing is the act of sending our thoughts into the future, like so many messages in a bottle. Yeah, some may be thinly veiled cries for help, but the reasons that brought them about are likely interesting, and worthy of a read.

So for all my writing peeps out there who struggle to find their confidence at times (and this includes me), don’t try to be anyone else but yourself. Don’t measure yourself against anyone else, just focus on the blank page in front of you, and work your magic.

That’s the part that really matters.

 

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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”?