Friday, November 28, 2008

Ron Ely is Superman

In the 1980s Superboy series, Ron Ely briefly played the role of an alternate universe, adult Superman. It's funny how most Tarzan actors could conceivably play Superman and vice-versa.

Something about that set my mind on fire, even though it was an episode buried in the fourth season of a now mostly forgotten eighties show. It was not just because I'm a big fan of Ron Ely from his days as Tarzan.

The reason I was excited by the possibility of Ron Ely being Superman, the reason it feels so "right," is that Ron Ely personifies best how I've always seen the character of Superman: a quiet, cerebral guy. When I picture Superman, I picture him as an understated, intellectual person with quiet dignity. I've yet to see a Superman like this, though Brendan Routh comes the closest.

George Reeves was a blocky, aged fifties Father-figure, close to someone else's conception of the character, but certainly not mine. Christopher Reeve, as charming as he was, had the understatement down pat but his impish sense of humor felt all wrong. Come to think of it, with his deceptively nice-guy charm and quirky humor, Christopher Reeve would have been a better Hal Jordan than Superman.

A while back I argued that Superman's most important attributes as a heroic character are his experience and intelligence, even more so than his superpowers. Superman uses his powers cleverly, and I'm astonished at writers like Cary Bates and Len Wein that could come up with a new way to use superspeed and superstrength, a new "trick," regularly once per week. A good way to identify a true fan of Superman from a poser is to ask them whether they ever saw Superman throw an honest-to-goodness punch between 1956 t0 1985. Rather, Superman uses superstrength and other powers in really ingenious ways. When a tidal wave threatened to smash a beach, he used superspeed and strength to compress the sand, rub it and turn it to glass. Another example would be how he stopped a burning building by twirling around really fast in a circle to create a vortex that deprived the flames of oxygen. What's more, Superman tends to find ways to benefit people in weird ways. If he has to melt the ice of a speeding comet, he'd do so over a drought-stricken community as an added side-bonus. If Superman was just a really strong flying guy, he'd be indistinguishable from a ton of superheroic characters.

Likewise, a lot of people see Superman as the sort to inspire others and give speeches, a Kennedy, Obama or Churchill type. Thankfully, none of the actors have played Superman this way, as the character would be absolutely unbearable and nauseating, though the Superfriends writers featured Superman giving a Shatner-esque speech as the finale of many episodes. I've never agreed with this characterization.

My good friend Eddie Michigan once said one of the fundamental difference between Captain America and Superman is that Captain America is aware of the effect he has on people, and his ability to inspire (which is partially what led to panics like "Man Without a Country"). Captain America is a leader, a hero that fought in World War II. Superman on the other hand, is a very humble guy, and someone that is very self-sufficient. Captain America leads his friends into battle. Superman, though, charges into battle and looks back and sees his allies flying behind him, ready to go where he goes.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Science Fiction Greats: David Gerrold

I find it hard to believe that one man could create both the loveable tribbles AND the Chthorr, who are nothing short of the stuff of nightmares.

I suppose at this point I'll have to give a shout-out to my bud Paul Chapman, currently in Tarpon Springs, Florida, who got me into David Gerrold out of Paul's interest in the WAR AGAINST THE CHTHORR novels. Sure, I read THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF before, and I knew who the guy was, but I wasn't a fan of his until the Chthorr books.

THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF is in the category of unusual time travel stories along with Julian May's THE GOLDEN TORC. I've always enjoyed unusual takes on time travel, and this one posits a fascinating idea: eventually a guy travels through time enough to the point where he "folds himself," and multiple variations of himself exist through time.

It's worth noting that THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF was the direct inspiration for Roger Stern's "resurrection" of Kang the Conqueror (and Immortus). Stern refused to use any of the usual cheeseball techniques for bringing master villains to life, namely robots and clones, and instead borrowed a page from Gerrold: as a result of Kang's time travel escapades, there are dozens of different "variant" Kangs in existence, ruling different branches of the timestream. Thus, Kang really did die in the Old West (or at least that particular variant Kang did).

The CHTORR books have a particularly brainbending and terrifying idea behind them. It is a book series about alien invasion, particularly by formidable worm monsters called Chthorr, but the twist is that the invasion is ecological in nature, an entire biosphere attempting to replace earth life. Chthorr is a world where life is more hostile and lethally progressed evolutionarily speaking, and gradually parts of earth become more like the Chthorr homeworld, including its nasty flora and fauna that outperform our comparatively milder earth life with their toxic, polluting and carnivorous adaptations.

With the Chtorr worms, the question of what qualifies as sentience rears its head, a common science fiction theme also explored in H. Beam Piper's LITTLE FUZZY. One of the worst legacies of science fiction's early years is the tendency to anthropomorphize aliens, particularly in how they think. And, well, not to give any spoilers here, but the Chtorr worms don't think like humans, more like gods. They easily take their role as one of the most fascinating alien races in science fiction, along with Arthur C. Clarke's Overlords, Larry Niven's Puppeteers and Kzinti, and Alan Dean Foster's Thranx.

David Gerrold is best known for "The Trouble With Tribbles," but the one Star Trek script of his that I would most like to see, is one that was ultimately never made: "Blood and Fire," which was supposed to be in the Next Generation's first season. It dealt with the one topic that was taboo even for Trek: homosexuality, and featured an AIDS analogue, bloodworms, a disease so vile Starfleet orders are to kill patients infected with them. Gerrold himself is one of the few openly homosexual science fiction writers. "Blood and Fire" dealt with the way the treatment of fearful diseases creates a kind of anxious, ruthless inhumanity that lets us ignore suffering, which has always been a favorite topic of mine.

And the guy's still writing, too: I for one would love to see the next book in the Chtorr series. At least when it comes out, which at this rate sounds like sometime next century.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Spock's Brain

I vowed I wouldn't use this blog to talk about things I don't like, as I save being confrontational and negative for other people's websites, but still, this YouTube video reduces "Spock's Brain," the worst episode of the original series of Star Trek, into a hilariously awkward, sleek edit lasting four minutes.

It isn't that they say "Spock's Brain," it's that they. Keep. On. SAYING. "Spock's Brain" over and over. Even in the original episode, the effect is, er, impressive.

It's like in one episode they've distilled everything that was head-shakingly embarassing about the original series: female aliens with go-go boots and miniskirts, Shatner overacting and pretending to fall down, accents as unlikely as they are inconstant, and science fiction concepts that Hugo Gernsback would have thrown out from AMAZING for being too ludicrous.

To its credit, most of the original series was cutting-edge in many ways. It also ranks as the only work Theodore Sturgeon (yes, that Theodore Sturgeon) ever did that he somehow didn't insert his creepy incest fascination. Still, it's hard to talk about how the original TREK was a drama comparable any non-genre television before or since, when "Spock's Brain" makes the whole thing look like a goofy comic book.

"Spock's Brain" is like discovering a diary you wrote at age 15. You used purple prose to talk about your greatest crush a girl that, with 20/20 hindsight, you realize was a dimwitted peasant; you read Ayn Rand and had your world "transformed," as if you were the first self-absorbed teenager in history to ever do so, instead of the billionth; you talk about how the only person to ever really express how you feel are Morissey lyrics.


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Barack the Vote!

I could hug a random stranger right now, that's the general feeling. I'll be back to being a bastard that hates being touched in the morning when the euphoria wears off.

It's so weird to know I'm living in a blue state. "Landslide" would be putting it mildly.

The Obama campaign was a victory of ideals: the power of hope over the power of fear. Obama spent oodles of cash on advertizements where he didn't mention his opponent once. McCain spent his campaign either duplicating what Barack was doing (even his Iraq policy!) or arousing our fears with "boogedy-boogedy SOCIALISM!!!" cries.

Hope triumphed over the politics of fear.

The success of Barack Obama was made possible (and I can't believe I'm typing this) due to minorities: latinos, African-Americans. And especially by idealistic young people, who were able to tip the vote in nearly all swing states.

It's revenge of the nerds, like those movies where a bunch of loveable slobs and geeks beat the snooty blonde jocks that run the summer camp: the disparaged underdogs of America (young people, minorities) beat out aged geezers, traditionalists, jocks and snotty cheerleaders. Come to think of it, that's why Sarah Palin seemed to have such popularity: shallow, mean and unintelligent, she was the ultimate High School "Queen Bee."

The contrast couldn't have been more different than the crowd shots of both rallies. McCain's rallies all had reaction shots of depressed looking blonde Scandinavians and other assorted corn-fed douches. The reaction shots of Obama's rallies looked like real Americans.

All through the Bush years, I hoped for something like this to happen: a crushing landslide made possible by the young and by people at the fringe of America. They elected someone that otherwise wouldn't be electable: a black guy with an Arab-sounding name, who was the son of a single mother, who by his own merits rose to head of the Harvard Law Review and graduated at the top of his class in an Ivy League School. He was from Hawaii, not "the heartland."

God, how I hate "the Heartland." Not the actual place, but the dishonest, manipulative concept that America is about white working class Christians from rural areas. It's always irked me that because my parents are both immigrants I'm considered "some Spanish guy" despite my loyalty and love for the United States, the country where I was born and raised...yet Rene Zellweiger, who is also the daughter of immigrants and raised in the United States, is considered the "All-American Girl."

If America was all, or even mostly "hockey Moms" and "Joe Sixpacks" like Sarah Palin famously said, she'd be vice-president elect now. America is about Pakistani-immigrant cabdrivers working to send their daughter to college. It's about homosexual half-Mexican, half-Italian electrical engineers in Brooklyn. America is Christian, but also Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish.

That said, what is shocking is how broad the appeal of Barack Obama is: rural people, working class, whites, blacks, Latinos, urban white collar people, the elderly...heck, if McCain hadn't voted for himself, the win would probably would have been unanimous.

In other words, this election transcended just a mere victory for a single man. It was the victory of a broad, inclusive idea of America. It was a victory for youth and idealism. It was a moment where we shed our cynicism and said that government can be a part of the solution, and not the problem.