Archive for the ‘Star Trek’ Category.

Froon’s Farscape Watch, s1e01

[caption id="attachment_9208" align="alignright" width="300"]Ben Browder in Mambo shirt Farscape s1e01: Florida Man in Australian Shirt[/caption] It's 19 March, aka “Farscape Day”, and that strikes me as the perfect time to (finally) crack open the Blu-Rays and rewatch the series from the start... something I haven't done in, well, ever. I probably haven't watched most of these eps since they first aired, so this should be... interesting. (Well, interesting to me, anyway.) Gonna post some random reactions and thoughts for each. Nothing thorough, nothing of Deep Import, just some musings upon re-viewing something I worked on a Long Time Ago. My current wife Cheryl will be at my side for extra added snark, at least for ep 1. Off we go!

Premiere” (season 1, episode 1)

Written by Rockne S. O'Bannon, directed by Andrew Prowse And in our Very First Shot of the series, here's Ben wearing a Mambo Loud Shirt, an Australian brand that became the unofficial Official Shirt of the series. Most of us Yanks who had the privilege of working in Sydney got hooked on these shirts, but I think I claimed the record by buying somewhere around forty. (And I'm still wearing them, much to the puzzlement of my UCLA Extension students.) IASA, the International version of NASA. If I correctly recall, the show was trying to get permission from NASA to use the name/logo, but time ran out before it did (or didn't) happen, so IASA it was. (Which kinda bumps with a much later episode “Terra Firma” where the “IASA” folks are trying to keep all the alien tech that Crichton brings back to Earth for the U.S.A. only...) Oh, Lord, that darned “space” helmet. Made me wince then, makes me wince now. “Uh... Canaveral?” I'm going to be praising Ben's brilliant work A LOT, but never quite enough. I just love the way he throws that line away... Wow, I forgot that the first ep doesn't have Crichton's voiceover on the main title. Makes sense that it's not there, but it's weird not hearing it. (The first ep of the original Star Trek series didn't have Kirk's “boldly go” voiceover either.) No episode title either. We didn't start putting the episode title onscreen until season 2, if I recall right. Props to Rockne for titling ep 1 “Premiere” instead of the usual “Pilot.” Maybe it's because we had a character named Pilot? Folks might've thought it was all about him. Nice that Rockne's writing credit falls on a shot of Crichton saying “Oh my God.” One-Eyed DRD! First little yellow Roomba to make an appearance. Typical Rockne to give even a little skittering robot a distinguishing feature and a personality. Good heavens, Moya looks gorgeous, as does the Peacekeeper Command Carrier. Kudos to Ricky Eyres and his amazing designs. Seeing it after all this time, I marvel anew at just how astounding and alien both D'Argo and Zhaan look... and how wonderfully Anth and Virg brought the characters to life. And Farscape's fondness for bodily fluids manifests itself right from ep 1 as Rygel spits on Crichton. D'Argo says “This damned Leviathan has no idea where we are.” Whoops. One of the few instances of alien swearing that the Translator Microbes actually translated into English. (Hey. There's at least one time that Data used contractions in Star Trek: The Next Generation. These things happen.) Andrew does a lovely job of teasing each alien's first appearance; we and Crichton at first see Zhaan and D'Argo from the back, so we save the Full Alien Reveal for when they turn around. And here's Aeryn! Another nice reveal. Andrew loves to dolly the camera while shooting through foreground stuff. It's only Act Two and we're into helium farts. Yup, the series took a little while to settle down and find its best groove, but SO MUCH was right there in the first ep. Aeryn Has Attitude. I'm going to be praising Claudia's brilliant work A LOT . . . Ah, Rygel and the Proprietor. Every time I watch this scene, I give extra thanks to the late Jonathan Hardy, the amazing Voice of Rygel, because... well, I already told that story here. And D'Argo loses his first fight. That's gonna become a recurring theme, alas. Erp! Here's D'Argo's first vow. Sure had a lot of those. “Little yellow bolts of light” still gets a laugh out of me and Cheryl. Hmm, Crais is pronouncing Aeryn's surname as “son” rather than “soon” in this ep. Crichton fixing the DRD... ah, That's So Rockne. Lovely little character moment that quietly says a lot about our hero and his situation. The end! Wow. Gotta say, that's a pretty amazing pilot, and I think it holds up remarkably well after almost two frelling DECADES... One down, 87 to go...

“Liz Tells Frank” Gets a Foreword by Me

[caption id="attachment_1424" align="alignleft" width="187"]"Liz Tells Frank . . ." cover Click to embiggen.[/caption] For eight years on her blog, Liz Shannon Miller has been telling her friend Frank about TV series, movies, and books that he's missed, helping him catch up on the good stuff and avoid the less-good stuff. Two ebook collections of this noble work have already amused and thrilled countless readers around the globe. I was amused and thrilled myself when Liz approached me to write a foreword to her third "Liz Tells Frank" compilation, though I couldn't fathom why she chose me. (Perhaps because the book includes Andreanna Ditton's "Skip It/Watch It Guide" to Farscape, and writing a foreword would give me an opportunity for pre-rebuttal?) In any case, I leapt at the opportunity, and the result follows. Enjoy the foreword, and then go buy the ebook of Liz Tells Frank: The Skip It/Watch It Guides on Amazon! FOREWORD, by Richard Manning ((I write for television. I never get to use footnotes in scripts. I like footnotes. You've been warned.)) Tens of years ago, when typewriters ((Devices comprising a keyboard and printer but lacking CPU or storage; pressing a key imprinted a character directly onto a sheet of paper.)) still walked the earth and “personal computers” were clunky, cantankerous contraptions that could only beep annoyingly and display glowing pus-green text, when television was still in its infancy—well, okay, out of its infancy but still wetting the bed and refusing to eat its vegetables, when there were no InterNets and people had to walk miles in the snow ((Uphill both ways, naturally.)) to newsstands ((Retail outlets where one could purchase printed “newspapers” (daily or weekly compilations of advertising, comic strips, classified advertising, editorials, horoscopes, advertising supplements, and occasionally news) or “magazines” (weekly or monthly volumes of glossy advertising, fashion photos, gossip, or porn).)) to acquire their porn, the concept of “fandom” was all but unknown to We Who Work in Television. In those innocent yet rococo times, when “cutting a film” meant exactly that—chopping up and pasting together long strips of perforated celluloid, when broadcasters still respected their programming enough not to deface it ((The truly important portions of their programming, of course, remain pristine and untouched to this day; it's only the trivia in between the commercials that gets defaced.)) with logos and animated promos, and when the Great Viewing Public was only dimly aware that creatures such as “television writers” actually existed, WWWiT labored in a vacuum. ((Not literally, of course, because we'd've died, but there's a decent analogy rattling around in there somewhere about the lack of sound in a vacuum.)) Back then, the Creators and the Consumers ((Or, as I like to describe them, the “pushers” and the “junkies.”)) were twains that never met. ((Probably because they were on non-intersecting twacks. I agree that's awful, but the only other metaphor I could come up with was something like “shippers that pass in the night,” which seemed both too esoteric and not apt enough.)) WWWiT would conceive our ideas, birth our teleplays, nurture our episodes, and set them free ((Were this an audiobook, I would likely be singing “Born Free” at this point. Count your blessings.)) into the ether, to be met with a resounding silence. ((“Resounding silence” is a goofy phrase when you think about it, kinda like “a blinding darkness,” but folks keep using it, so who am I to defy the zeitgeist?)) No applause. No boos. No thoughtful exegeses. ((Nor even thoughtless exegeses.)) No floral bouquets nor shrieking groupies. In short, no feedback whatever. Sure, critics would review the pilot and perhaps a subsequent season opener or two, but beyond that? The audience may have been listening, ((As proclaimed by THX™.)) but its speech, if any, rarely reached the ears of WWWiT. However, when the mighty transcontinental series of tubes was completed ((The final connection, of course, took place at Promontory Summit, Utah and was commemorated with a Golden Power Spike. (This joke isn't quite as labored as it might seem; go look up “Golden Spike” and read about the U.S.'s first nationwide media event.)) and the World's Widest Web lurched to life, feedback sprouted everywhere. ((Like mushrooms... some edible, some poisonous. Now there's a nice metaphor. I could do something with that.)) We could now peruse countless discussion boards and discover that viewers had caught the obscure Monty Python reference we'd slipped into an episode... or that they'd mercilessly nailed us on some dubious plot logic we'd thought would pass unnoticed. We could lurk in chatrooms as our episodes aired and revel in real-time gasps and screams when characters kissed and/or killed each other. Some of us rebelled, not wanting feedback that was anything less than absolute worship. Some of us didn't react well, scolding our newly-voiced critics with accusations of “[writing] crap from behind the safety of anonymity” ((JMS v. Cronan, 1998. When they build the Fandom Hall of Fame, my first nomination will be Cronan Maliki Jamel Thompson... and my second will be Emily Salzfass who, like Cronan, left us far too soon.)) or “interrogating this text from the wrong perspective.” ((Rice v. Negative Voices on Amazon, 2004. Yes, it's from the world of literature, not television, but it's too delicious to leave out.)) However, most ((Well, many. Quite a few. Lots. Several. A not insignificant number. Well, me, anyway.)) of WWWiT ((Yes, I know, in this context it should be UWWiT.)) were (and still are) utterly delighted to sample the sprawling internet buffet of reaction and criticism. Some of it's tasty; some of it may be hard to swallow; ((But good for us anyway, like broccoli.)) all of it (yes, even the short and pointed reactions such as “YOU'RE SHOW SUCKZ”) is appreciated. We made something; you took the time to watch; you liked it or you didn't, and you made the effort to say why. Which, at long last, brings me to the motley and prolific Liz Shannon Miller, who's been serving up her own breezy brand of commentary since 2005. ((Good lord, that's a long time. As the Bible sort of says, “Greater love hath no fan than this, than a fan lay down and scan endless sludge so her readers don't have to.”)) Liz's critiques are packed with humor, taste, intelligence, plus a genuine love for the media she surveys—and the results are not only glorious to behold but also a hell of a lot of fun to read. So sit back, relax, ((Or stand up and be tense, if that's how you prefer to read.)) and enjoy Liz's third compilation of The Best of “Liz Tells Frank,” ((Okay, honestly, I don't know if it's really “The Best Of.” It might just be “Whatever Stuff She's Churned Out Since Volume 2.” You be the judge. (And then blog about it! “[Your Name Here] Tells [Some Other Name Here] About 'Liz Tells Frank!'”) )) as she and her outstanding sisters-in-snark Whitney Bishop and Andreanna Ditton ((Apparently they get to cover the stuff even Liz won't touch, like that weird frelling Fire Escape show.)) interrogate the text from the right perspective and separate the soaring eagles from the plummeting turkeys. ((Yes, this is a reference to “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly”—one of the finest punch lines in the history of television.)) If this book saves you from wasting that hour on that “Very Special Episode” that isn't so special after all, ((Or prompts you at long last to go try out that book/series/movie/videogame you've never seen—and fall madly in love with it.)) the tireless labors of its valiant authors will have borne fruit, ((Were this an audiobook, I would definitely be singing “Borne Fruit” at this point, to the tune of “Born Free.” You are SO lucky.)) and I hope you'll join me in rewarding them with a hearty chorus of “YOU'RE BOOK ROCKZ!!!!1!”

The Elements of Television

[caption id="attachment_815" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Element Froonium. Click for details."]Element Froonium[/caption] I was channel-surfing with my obnoxiously precocious six-year-old niece Gabby (her full name is Gabrielle Callisto Aphrodite Zimbelman; she was conceived at a Xena convention) when we stumbled upon a rerun of Blaster Patrol. “My favorite show! Did you write this one, Uncle Ricky?” “No, Gabby, I never worked on Blaster Patrol, more's the pity.” On the tube, Sam and Janet, the series leads, were being chased by evil alien Greebs and were simultaneously firing blasters and exchanging witty yet affectionate banter. “Sigh,” Gabby sighed, “they're soooooooo in love. Are they married?” “Sam and Janet? No, they never got married, even though, much to everyone's amazement, the show ran for six seasons...” “Not the characters, silly. The actors.” “Oh. Yeah, she's married. Third or fourth time; I can't keep track. Him, he'll never get married unless the father of the bride owns a shotgun.” Gabby couldn't fathom it. “But... they love each other... don't they?” “You kidding? When the camera's not rolling, they can't stand one another.” I omitted mentioning that she thought he was a lecherous drunk who couldn't remember his lines, and he thought she was a ruthless, upstaging diva who despised television in general and sci-fi in particular. Gabby's lower lip quivered. She indicated Sam and Janet, who were celebrating their escape from the Greebs with much kissing and fondling. “Look at them. You're wrong.” “Honey, it's all make-believe. They're actors. They're faking it.” Her Bambi eyes clouded with doubt—but as Sam and Janet exchanged perfect loving gazes, her conviction returned. “Nuh-uh. Nobody could fake that.” And there, I reflected, was the biggest reason why that otherwise unmemorable show had run for six years. Separately, the actors playing Sam and Janet had been no more than competent—but together, they had the most elusive and valuable commodity in show business: chemistry.

When the Cast Clicks...

It's never easy to cast a TV series. Acting talent alone is no guarantee of chemistry. (But it does increase the odds. Just as luck favors the prepared, chemistry favors the talented.) As we narrow our casting choices, we also begin auditioning them in pairs, mixing and matching to see who “clicks” with whom. On Farscape, for example, Ben Browder and Claudia Black “clicked” immediately. And even though Claudia didn't exactly match the image of the “Aeryn Sun” character that Rockne O'Bannon and David Kemper had in their minds, it didn't matter. Rock and DK knew a good thing when they saw it, and Claudia promptly won the role of Aeryn. Once we find chemistry, we fight to preserve it. The applicable showbiz buzzword is “UST”—Unresolved Sexual Tension—as in, “We don't dare let Castle and Beckett sleep together; it'll ruin that wonderful UST.” It's an article of faith among many in television that one should never take the “U” out of UST; proponents of that doctrine point to both Moonlighting and Cheers as two classic examples of how series risk losing their spark once the main characters finally “do the deed.” But the greater the UST, the harder the writers have to work to keep the characters apart—and the longer it drags out, the more artificial it feels. It's a tough call: when do we let them get together? Episode 10? 50? 100? Never? How long before the audience gets bored with the seemingly endless tease and wanders off? Of course, resolving the sexual tension doesn't have to settle the characters into a calm, uninteresting relationship. Nonetheless, one of TV's guiding principles is “if it ain't broke, don't fix it”—and when UST's nicely cooking along, who wants to risk it by tampering with it?

Compound Interest

We've been speaking of chemistry in its commonest definition: a romantic and/or sexual attraction between two characters that's palpable, believable, and fun to watch. But that definition's far too narrow. Other forms of chemistry—between friends, enemies, colleagues, and family—are equally important. Once again, you know it when you see it. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy on the original Star Trek series had terrific chemistry of a completely non-romantic, non-sexual sort (and please do not send me any fanfic to the contrary). Even in Classic Trek's worst episodes, the interplay between those three characters—indeed, any two of them—was always worth watching. In fact, stop and think for a moment: how often have you sat through a bad-to-mediocre episode of a favorite series for no other reason than to watch the characters interact? How many times have you said (or heard) something like “Last week's episode was awful, but you have to catch it anyway—just for that one great scene between X and Y.” This is music to a TV producer's ears; we know we can't hit a home run with each and every episode, so we hope and pray that the audience's love for the characters will keep them from tuning out during our inevitable clunkers. And preservation of chemistry also applies to an ensemble cast. Once a series is comfortably underway and the characters are meshing well, making changes can be tricky. Adding a regular character always shakes things up—but will it be in a good way or a bad way?

New Girl

On Farscape, when we introduced the character of Chiana (in the episode “Durka Returns”), we quite deliberately hedged our bet. At the end of the episode, Chiana took an enemy bullet that easily could've proved fatal. And the keen-eyed viewer will also note that Chiana only appears in a very few scenes of the following episode, “A Human Reaction”—again by design, so that it would have been easy to write her out of it entirely if she hadn't survived that pulse blast. We didn't give ourselves the out because we were afraid Gigi Edgley couldn't act; we knew darn well she could. What we didn't know is how well the character of Chiana would work with Crichton, Aeryn, D'Argo, Zhaan, Rygel, and Pilot. But after a few days' dailies, it was clear that Chiana was a “keeper”—even though we were fully aware that the fans were going to hate her. Why? Because fans always hate new arrivals at first. That's understandable; over time, they've bonded with a particular “family” of characters, and the new kid on the block is seen as a stranger, an intruder, even a threat. (“Those stupid producers better not even be thinking about making her a new love interest for Crichton...”) But after a few episodes, if the chemistry's right, the audience will grow to like and accept the new character as part of the family. (And when the next new character arrives, the cycle begins anew. “Who's this Jool person? They'd better not be bringing her in to take Chiana's place...”)

Equal and Opposite Reactions

Even villains need chemistry. The charismatic “villain you love to hate” is a television staple. Great heroes need equally great villains; it's the worthiness of the foe that brings out the best efforts of the hero. That was an early problem with Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Klingons were now our allies and the Romulans were being given a rest so the fledgling series could differentiate itself from Classic Trek. A new alien race of bad guys was needed—and the Ferengi were created. Trouble was, the Ferengi didn't come off as formidable villains, but as annoying leprechauns-gone-bad; you wanted to swat them, not shoot them. It didn't take long for the Ferengi to be stripped of their warships and relegated to comic relief. (In contrast, the character of “Q” came back again and again to butt heads with Captain Picard because John de Lancie and Patrick Stewart had—you guessed it—chemistry.) The quest for chemistry extends behind the scenes as well. Every good writing staff has its own peculiar chemistry, usually manifested in wildly disparate personalities who can yell and scream at each other all day long about trivial story points—and then all go out for beer afterward. Finding the right mix of people is vital for every department, because when creative people “click,” the whole becomes much greater than the sum of the parts. One might even say that TV producers are essentially chemists... that our main function is to assemble different elements into new, valuable compounds. But in truth, chemistry isn't the right word. Chemistry's a science. Television isn't; it has no infallible formulas, no hard-and-fast rules, no way to know in advance who'll click on screen and who'll clunk. We aren't chemists, we're alchemists—blindly casting spells and trying to transmute base metals into gold. When it works—when the characters come to life and light up the screen—it's not science at all. It's magic.