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Review: Star Trek: Miasma February 22, 2016

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Another Netgalley review.

Imagine there’d been a TV series set after Star Trek V, with Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Chekov, and Saavik on the Enterprise (Sulu’s gone off to the Excelsior by now). Imagine the episodes of that TV series sometimes revisited themes and concepts from the original series but with a group of older, wiser characters who’d learned from their past experiences. That’s what this novella by Greg Cox feels like.

While ferrying ambassadors to a diplomatic summit, the Enterprise receives a strange signal from an unexplored world — SOS call? warning buoy? something else? The universal translator can’t decode it, but the Enterprise goes to investigate. Spock, McCoy, and a few others take a shuttle to the surface (atmospheric conditions interfere with sensors, communications, and transporters). Things go wrong and they find themselves in a struggle to survive. Plotwise, it’s a new take on the classic episode “The Galileo Seven,” but with an older and wiser Spock and McCoy handling the situation much differently, and being aware of the parallels.

Being one of the ebook novella series, this is short enough to feel like a TV episode. Adding to the TV episode feel is the minor subplot of the cranky ambassadors, the kind we’ve seen a few times before, who don’t actually get much time on the page. The story could have worked just as well without them, so I can’t help but think they’re there to give this that extra bit of TV episode feel.

Greg Cox is an experienced novelist who’s been writing these characters (except Saavik) for many years, and he has a solid understanding of their personalities and the way they speak and interact. He also does well with Saavik, who (as played by Kirstie Alley in Star Trek II) was a fascinating character and hasn’t appeared in Treklit nearly enough.

This is scheduled for Star Trek’s 50th anniversary and it’s a good pick for that. In a concise, fast-paced novella you get a tale that lets the old classic gang have one of their late adventures, commenting on one of their earlier adventures. That allows it to be nostalgic without being only nostalgic. Good stuff.

A tale of two crossovers January 30, 2016

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cover80320-mediumcover80325-mediumSPOILERS!

There be spoilers in this reviews written in exchange for Netgalley advance e-copies of recent Star Trek/Green Lantern and Conan/Red Sonja crossovers. Be warned.

Crossovers are an eternal temptation in the comics biz, and Star Trek comics have been no exception. Various Star Trek characters have encountered the X-Men, Planet of the Apes, Doctor Who, Legion of Superheroes, and now Green Lantern. One lesson that seems to have been learned along the way: if you don’t have many issues to work with, don’t spend a lot of time on meet and greet/getting to know you stuff. Go straight to the action and let the characters fill each other in with a little dialogue along the way, and assume the reader knows enough already.

This one packs as much story and action into its limited amount of space as it can. You’ve got Green Lantern’s universe destroyed in an epic battle with Nekron, the surviving Lanterns dumped into an alternate universe (the current movie version of Star Trek), members of the Enterprise crew and assorted aliens getting power rings, battles involving Federation, Gorn, Romulan, and Klingon opponents alongside the Lanterns, and then the Enterprise crew and the Lanterns teaming up against Nekron on a zombie version of Vulcan. Not a lot of sitting around talking. The Trek side of the dialogue seems appropriate enough, and the art is quite good.

Definitely an alternate universe tale for both sides, because it ends with the Lanterns staying in the Trekverse and a lot of political turmoil in various unfriendly empires. Light and fast-paced enough to be reasonably entertaining even if you don’t like chocolate in your peanut butter.

Meanwhile, in the Hyborian Age…

Robert E. Howard created Conan as a brawling adventurer, mercenary, and, eventually, King in a long forgotten age. He created Red Sonya of Rogatine as a one-off character in a work of real world historical fiction. Roy Thomas, writer of the original 1970s Conan the Barbarian comics from Marvel, adapted Howard’s Sonya into Red Sonja, a warrior woman of Conan’s time who would have occasional encounters with him. She proved popular enough to get a solo run in Marvel Feature and then her own comic, though that didn’t last too long. She was brought back by Marvel for limited runs, had a series of novels, and a movie, then disappeared.

When Dark Horse brought the Conan comics back, they passed on the idea of reviving Red Sonja, so Dynamite brought her back, and with evident success. I haven’t been reading their series but I’m pretty sure they long ago surpassed the number of Marvel Red Sonja comics.

Red Sonja began as a Conan character, so a crossover is an easy proposition. Just have to have the rights owner and the comics publishers on board. No need to introduce the characters to each other or to each other’s world, as they already know all that, and the reader doesn’t need any introductions either. So, straight to the story.

The main problem here is that it’s a very familiar story. A bit of battling armies, a little debauchery, more battling, then up against a wizard and an old enemy. I feel like I’ve read this story quite a few times already. It’s done well enough but I’ve seen it all before.

One other quibble: these are the comic book versions of these characters. Howard’s Conan wore clothes pretty often, and his Sonya did as well. But the stereotypical image of these characters is still the same as they appeared in the early 1970s comics, Conan in a furry loincloth, Sonja in a chainmail bikini, both looking unprepared for a real fight. Marvel tried to present a more believable Sonja in a 1980s miniseries, but Dynamite took her back to the classic sexist look, and the artists have a field day drawing her body for the delight of… well, whoever reads comics and doesn’t have access to real women or Playboy magazines, I guess. It looks silly more than anything. But so does Conan, so what the heck. This would be a fun enough diversion for someone who used to read the comics years ago and wants a quick hit of nostalgia.

On taking things seriously January 17, 2016

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As far back as the 1980s I remember people watching the original Star Trek because they were amused by its campy cheesiness. The British TV series Blake’s 7 gets a lot of the same kind of “appreciation.” To be fair, there are certainly moments in each that are either accidentally awful or clearly just taking the proverbial. Take “Turnabout Intruder” or “The Harvest of Kairos.”

But I never cared for that approach. That kind of ironic appreciation, the whole “it’s so bad it’s good” has limited appeal for me. I can see sitting through something like Plan Nine From Outer Space, but several seasons of a TV series? Why put yourself through that?

There’s two sides of the equation, of course — the creator’s intent and the audience’s reaction. I think it’s safe to say that, for the most part, the creators of Star Trek and Blake’s 7 took what they were doing fairly seriously. They did the best they could with the resources at hand, doing what was possible at the time they made their shows. That the world has changed since then is beyond their control. The rerun/video audience is watching outside of the original context and isn’t seeing the show as it would have been received in its time.

So, as far as I’m concerned, if you’re going to invest enough time to watch a whole old TV series, you have to see past the years between you and the show. You have to see past old-fashioned and unconvincing special effects. You have to adjust to the slower pace. You have to engage with it on its own terms and see what is actually going on.

The original Star Trek is not about space battles, fistfights, and Kirk getting it on with all of the women in the galaxy. Those are cliches propagated by people who don’t take the show seriously enough to actually watch all the episodes and see that Kirk is actually a three-dimensional character, and that there’s more moral complexity and thoughtfulness in the show than some people grant it. Yes, you can name obvious counterexamples. But in the context of the whole series, they’re blips. Blake’s 7 is not just about Servalan camping it up or Avon chewing the scenery. The relationships between the characters have a fair amount going on onscreen and hints of more underneath. The show addresses the morality of the characters’ actions, too — they may be trying to be honourable freedom fighters, not terrorists, but there’s no shortage of dead innocents in their trail.

When you take the shows seriously you can see how the characters change, how much depth there is to their personalities, even on these old TV series that didn’t focus as much on those elements as some newer shows do. You can see their fictional universes expand and become more interesting, more able to generate new story ideas. You can understand why people still want to spend time creating or enjoying new stories in those universes without thinking they’re wasting their time doing it.

Catching up on Star Trek books (spoilers) January 9, 2016

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I was burned out on Star Trek for a little while (and a lot more interested in Doctor Who). But for a variety of reasons I’ve decided to get back to Trek. It’s the 50th anniversary, after all, and the whole mess of the Axanar situation spurred me on to watch some fan films and hang out on TrekBBS and next thing you know I’ve started to put a dent in the Trek books backlog.

Jeffrey Lang’s The Light Fantastic follows on from developments in his own Immortal Coil (was that really in 2002?) and David Mack’s The Persistence of Memory (2012). Like Immortal Coil, it deals with the one theme Star Trek keeps introducing and then dropping like a hot potato: artificial intelligences. This time around we get the welcome return of the holographic Moriarty, as well as the new and improved Data, his daughter Lal, and their pal Alice, along with a few others. It’s not a cursory bit of checkbox-ticking but a novel that continues the work of explaining Trek’s AIs while treating them as growing, interesting characters in their own right. Good stuff.

Tony Daniel’s Savage Trade is… mostly fairly enjoyable but also frustrating. It has a tendency to throw something new into the mix when what’s already there should be developed more. We’ve got a mission to a distant world with a Vulcan diplomat. And slave traders and raiders with some connection to a long thought dead civilization. And a bunch of Excalbians in human form like the ones in the episode “The Savage Curtain.” And a bunch of other Excalbians, aggressive and definitely not trying to take on the personalities of important figures of Earth history. And a Demiurge that has destroyed Excalbia and threatens the remaining Excalbians and the Enterprise. Is it any wonder that the storyline about the dead civilization fades into the background and is just barely given a quick resolution? Is it any wonder that the issue of how human the transformed Excalbians really are doesn’t get challenged as much as one might expect? Is it any wonder that some questions — why did the Excalbians take on only human form this time around, and why only humans from the 20th century and earlier, and how they adapt so easily — don’t get much of an answer? The book needed at least a couple of complications knocked out and more focus on the first few plot elements.

I’m well into David Mack’s Seekers 3: Long Shot and really enjoying it. More on that later, I expect.

 

 

Review: Star Trek Sex: Analyzing The Most Sexually Charged Episodes Of The Original Series January 9, 2016

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Another Netgalley review.

Okay, this is a bit odd. Apparently Will Stape contributed story elements to a couple of Star Trek episodes years ago, and in recent years he’s been producing ebooks of Star Trek essays. This appears to be his first in print form, and it’s an oddity.

The first 60% or so of the book is dedicated to examining the sexual content of a few dozen original series episodes and movies, followed by brief chapters on Kirk and Spock’s bromance, Star Trek’s sexiest women, and other topics. It’s a very casual pop culture book, not at all scholarly in approach. Given that there’s a chapter on Star Trek and Howard Stern, it’s a bit random in approach.

The tone sometimes seems a bit like a nerd trying to sound like a dudebro, or vice versa. I have no idea who this book is aimed at. It doesn’t make a lot of new, in-depth analyses and critiques of the show’s approach to sex and sexuality, so it’s not for the scholarly crowd, but the level of analysis is also probably on par with most fans’ thinking, so I’m not sure how much is there for them, either. Might be a fun read for more casual fans.

About JJtrek January 9, 2016

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On the subject, often expressed by Axanards, of how the JJ reboot movies aren’t real Trek, something I wrote in a Star Trek Into Darkness review a while back on another blogging platform:

Star Trek Into Darkness is a big dumb film full of dumb, simple mischaracterizations. It’s Star Trek by and for people who don’t know or care about pre-2009 Star Trek while thinking that it’s faithful to the original. It’s nowhere to go for all the things I ever loved about Star Trek over the years.

But. Star Trek Into Darkness is bad Star Trek, but… so are most of the previous Star Trek movies. With a couple of possible exceptions, they all tried much too hard to be big skiffy spectacles with lots of action. They warped the characters, they had plot holes, they learned the wrong lessons from The Wrath of Khan (it’s about the characters, not the villain). Even the ones generally agreed to be the best — Wrath of Khan, First Contact — don’t hold up under close scrutiny. You can tear apart pretty much every Trek movie ever made without much effort.

The best we can hope for from most Star Trek movies is that they don’t make us yell “oh, come ON” until after they’re over. And that they do well enough to keep Star Trek as a brand alive. But the best place to rediscover what made Star Trek the phenomenon it was for so long isn’t a movie theatre. TV Trek is the heart and brain of Star Trek. (And the books are what keeps them alive.)

TL,DR: almost all of the Trek movies fail at being real Star Trek. Because they’re movies, not TV.

Wrong things I have learned from Star Trek: Axanar fans January 1, 2016

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CBS and Paramount have filed a lawsuit against the producers of so-called fan film Axanar. The response has been enlightening.

  1. “I assume no one would have started a million-dollar project without their lawyers getting written confirmation from CBS and Paramount that this is a legal and licenced work.” Well, you assume wrong. There were no lawyers and there was no written confirmation from CBS/Paramount and there was no licence.
  2. “You can lose your copyright if you don’t defend it and since CBS and Paramount didn’t go after other productions, Axanar is perfectly legal.” Wrong. Copyright doesn’t have to be defended, that’s trademarks. Rights holders get to decide who they want to stomp on and who they want to benevolently disregard.
  3. “You aren’t violating copyright if you aren’t making any money.” Wrong. If you use what isn’t yours without permission and without meeting the terms of the exceptions under fair use/fair dealing, you’re violating copyright.
  4. “Freedom of speech! Fair use! This film is protected by the constitution of the United States of America!” Wrong. Freedom of speech means the government can’t shut you up without a good reason. Period. Even in the USA, there are secrets acts, libel laws, copyright laws, and other limits on speech. Raising money, hiring professionals, planning to sell tie-ins, and so on… that’s business, not speech or comment.
  5. “But it’s a fan film! Fan films are okay!” Wrong on both counts. Alec Peters has repeatedly referred to Axanar as a professional production, including in an annual report on the Axanar website. People are being paid salaries, professionals are working in front of and behind the cameras. This is not some fans in a garage with their homemade props and an iphone. Second, as said above, copyright holders get to choose who they stomp on. They’ve been nice so far. They don’t have to be.
  6. “CBS and Paramount are afraid of Axanar because it’s better than their garbage!” I love this one. There is no Axanar to be afraid of, just a talking heads fake documentary and one scene. They’re still building sets and casting characters (some of the planned stars have dropped out).
  7. “Axanar is Gene’s true vision!” Hell no. Not even close. Axanar is based on the FASA role playing game’s concept of a Four Year War. When Gene regained some power over Star Trek at the beginning of The Next Generation, he wasn’t happy with the war and military stuff in FASA’s RPG and had their licence revoked. (Update: their licence was revoked because they started doing TNG supplements without a TNG licence, apparently; this is a fan myth based on all the other anti-military things GR was saying and doing at the time, or so it appears.) He would have been as anti-Axanar as he would have been anti-Abrams. More, probably… he’d have liked the pandering sexism in the Abrams movies.
  8. “Axanar is allowed to film because Majel has Gene’s rights to Star Trek!” On the TrekBBS a few screenshots from Facebook show that there are people who believe Gene Roddenberry owned Star Trek, and when he died Majel inherited it, and at least one person believes she’s actually still alive and running things. Gene never owned Star Trek. Paramount used to, once it bought Desilu; since the Viacom split, Paramount owns the movies, CBS owns TV Trek. If Gene Roddenberry came magically back to life he would have no control whatsoever over any aspect of Star Trek.
  9. “Axanar will win!” In a pig’s eye.

Review: No Time Like the Past by Greg Cox September 13, 2015

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Sometimes a gimmicky notion works. Like, let’s do a TOS/Voyager crossover. In this case, it works by keeping it simple: there’s just one Voyager character meeting the TOS crew. Seven of Nine finds herself zapped to the 23rd century and manages to convince Kirk et al that’s she’s from Starfleet, she’s from the future, and there’s a quest to be followed to get her back to the future. She finds a piece of the mcguffin, gets a stardate that connects to a planet visited on that date by the Enterprise, and off they go to that planet, to find the next piece. It’s not quite that simple, thanks to the Federation ambassador on the Enterprise, the Orions who want Seven’s knowledge of the future, and the time travel shenanigans that ensue at each point, not to mention a big fight for the Enterprise when it’s boarded by Orions.

So, good action-oriented plot structure, some fun revisitations of a few classic TOS worlds, a mystery, solid work on the familiar TOS and Voyager characters. It’s a good romp.

However.

It’s Greg Cox, so there shall be in-jokes and references. Fortunately, the story doesn’t call for too many of them, and they tend to be less obtrusive than in some of his other books.

More important are two big Treklit cliches. There’s the idiot ambassador, for one. Enough said.

But there’s also the 1930s pulp fiction bad guys, in this case the Orions, who have all the character depth and dimensionality of a very very short strand of monomolecular wire.  They’re bad guys, nothing more. And they talk like too many other Treklit aliens. “Habroz nodded. ‘Let it not be said that the captain of the Navaar is a fool.’” Let it also not be said that the captain of the Navaar sounds like a character in a book written in the 21st century and set in the 23rd. He could just say, “I’m not an idiot.” It’s as if the universal translator was programmed to sound like melodramatic historical/fantasy fiction. Time for an upgrade.

So, as long as you don’t mind the Treklit conventions and cliches, there’s a good time to be had here.

Review: Star Trek: New Frontier: The Returned by Peter David September 7, 2015

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Three more Netgalley reviews in one, produced in exchange for free advance e-versions. I’ve put all three in one post, so beware of spoilers.

Part I

New Frontier fans will love this. Others may wonder what the fuss is all about.

There’s no denying the importance of New Frontier in the world of Star Trek fiction. It was the first books-only series and it was a hit with readers. Things have changed over the years, including the editorial staff at Pocket, and it’s been a while since the last New Frontier novel. That may be part of the inspiration for the title, but there are plenty of returns in the story, as well. Longtime New Frontier fans will be glad to see many of the old gang, who scattered somewhat over the course of the series, back together in action. And there are other returns, including various characters in the storyline set on New Thallon. So I expect fans will be very happy with this new installment.

Me, I’m not so sure. This is Star Trek written as Marvel comic, complete with superheroes. The dialogue tends to be wisecracking banter or portentous and stilted. And a lot of stupid setups are required to let the regulars get their buttkicking highlights. One of the most important planets is guarded only by a dozen Starfleet marines, instead of ships, satellites, force fields, automatic weapons arrays, sensors, and other 24th century tech. Why? So Mackenzie Calhoun can kick butt and almost do something he shouldn’t. Characters consistently make dumb decisions so they can blow up in their faces later. Characters who should be able to think of obviously solutions to technical issues fail to, so that other characters can reveal their brilliance. It gets tiresome. But it’s short and it moves quickly.

This is not a good jumping on point for new readers, because it basically picks up in the middle of a few storylines. But I’d be surprised if anyone who’s already a New Frontier fan is anything other than thrilled.

Part II

Fast moving but frustrating

Like its predecessor, this is an action-packed tale in which many of the characters can kick a lot of butt and none can think their way out of a paper bag. Characters impetuously jump into action and then decide they should have looked before they leaped. They’re constantly surprised when their choices have repercussions.

This one, more than the first may have longtime fans questioning a few decisions, but by and large it’s New Frontier for New Frontier fans.

Part III

Well. Definitely a must-read for New Frontier fans and possibly a what the heck?! experience for the unconverted.

It may seem like an easy shot to say that Peter A. David, who’s written a lot of comics for Marvel, DC, and other publishers, writes New Frontier more like a Marvel comic than any Star Trek TV series, but I think there’s some truth to it. And for some readers, that’s probably what draws them in. It’s a uniquely over the top and action-packed take on the Star Trek universe.

Part 3 of the saga wraps up everything set up in the first two installments — unsurprisingly, as it was originally announced as a single novel. It’s been said that, depending on sales, this may be the end of this particular series. If so, at least the D’myurj storyline and the Thallonian storyline are wrapped up, and there’s some character resolution as well, but PAD also drops a revelation or two that can lead to new stories if the series continues. Either way, job done.

I still have some issues with this miniseries within the series, though. Throughout all three parts, characters are much too eager to jump into violent hand-to-hand combat as their preferred method of dispute resolution. Captain Calhoun in particular commits some acts of violence that should have him drummed out of Starfleet and into a psych ward, but at the end of the book everyone seems to be happy with him staying in command of his ship. A surprise guest star whose identity is revealed at the end of the second part is also played as much more of a bloodthirsty and physically violent character than we’ve seen him in a very long time. The flipside to all this is that characters keep deciding the only way for them to resolve an issue is to let themselves get killed. It’s kill or be killed, except during the sex scenes, and one of them is pretty unpleasant, too. Nobody is capable of thinking their way out of a situation. What the D’myurj do doesn’t make much sense; what their enemies do doesn’t make much sense; how Calhoun tries to deal with them doesn’t make much sense. No one pays attention to what should be obvious developments just so they can be shocked by utterly predictable things they missed.

One minor example of the characters’ not thinking about anything but just blindly acting based on emotion, and this isn’t much of a spoiler: one Starfleet officer has had a baby with the late leader of an alien empire. She takes it for granted that the baby must some day lead that empire because of the divine right of kings or something, and no one questions it; no one says, maybe this empire would be a much better place as a democracy. It’s just not an issue. Of course this months-old baby is the only logical choice for leader of an interstellar empire not allied with the Federation because that’s what his dad wanted, and of course Federation/Starfleet people should interfere with the empire’s internal politics to make it happen.

But. It’s fast-paced, full of action, brings together a lot of the old gang again, ties up some story lines, and sets up a couple of things that could be explored in future books. So it does what it set out to do, and no doubt many readers will wonder how I could have any problems with it. It really is essential reading for New Frontier fans.

Review: Star Trek Volume 9 January 24, 2015

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This review is based on a free electronic advance reading copy obtained through Netgalley, though I buy all the comics and graphic novels anyway.

If the “Volume 9” turns off casual readers concerned about long ongoing stories, relax. IDW’s ongoing Trek comic tends to do short arcs of a few issues, so any given collection like this will stand on its own fairly well. The key thing to know is that these comics build on the two JJ Abrams Star Trek movies.

All that said… this is a bit of a surprising diversion from most of the comics in the series, being a crossover story with elements from the Abrams movies, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The title and the cover give away the involvement of the powerful and enigmatic Q, who appeared a number of times in The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. The Deep Space Nine crossover element comes as more of a surprise, not least because it’s set decades later in continuity. Blame Q. Without providing too many spoilers, I’ll just say that he’s decided to present James Kirk with a real no-win scenario in a possible future. The DS9 characters aren’t quite the same people we know from TV, living in a very different timeline, but the comic presents believable versions of them.

The art is strong here, with both character likenesses, settings, ships, etc, recognizable and cleanly depicted, with a distinctive use of colouring to enhance the imagery. The writing also works well, with obligatory cliffhangers or revelations every so many pages marking the points where individual issues ended.

This series hasn’t always thrilled or impressed me. I’m not a great fan of the Abrams version of Star Trek, nor do I care for the way the comics revisit original series episodes in ways that are supposed to demonstrate the differences between the two continuities but often simply seem arbitrary and poorly thought through. That’s not the case here. Bringing in DS9, even as alternate universe versions, gives this story a freshness I appreciated. Probably my favourite run of issues of this comic so far.