Monday, July 7, 2014

A Makeover for That Dame


I'm temporarily retiring That Dame from the market.

It's been nagging at me for a few years now how much I've been neglecting this book. I knew it had errors in it, didn't look too closely to see just how many, and now I'm finally at the breaking point. I need to fix this. Just because something has been written and published, that is no excuse to not improve it. As a reader, nothing takes me out of a story faster than an obvious typo.

I don't have an editor. I don't even have any friends or family who can or will do it for me. Nor do I have a lot of money for hiring one. So, I have to be my own editor. If you've ever written anything, then you might know the blind spots you develop in reading your own writing. Your brain plays tricks and automatically corrects whatever you're reading, because you know what you meant and therefore don't see what's actually on the paper.

Fortunately, That Dame has been completed for about 5 or 6 years now which removes me from it enough to be more objective. I'll be able to polish it with a fresh eye. The hardest part of it (any artist can sympathize) is keeping myself from trying to make it better. I know I'm going to want to add, remove, or rearrange things and I'll have to resist the temptation. Leave it alone. After all, That Dame was never meant to be some complex Pulitzer winning novel. I wrote it for fun and it should be read for fun. Short and sweet, really.

Which leads me to my next conundrum of whether or not this book qualifies as a novel. I actually think when I bring it back to the market, I'm going to market it as a novella instead. But, that's a decision for another day. For now, I have a lot of red marks to make.

That Dame will return to Lulu.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and Amazon.com at the same prices.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Freeing the Writer in Me

I didn’t grow up with the natural gift of storytelling. I didn’t have the endearing habit from the day I was born of constantly telling stories to entertain people. I was just a kid with an imagination like any other. But I wanted to be a storyteller. But for most of my life, I didn’t know how. I assumed it was something you either had or didn’t have.

            I had stories in me (albeit terrible, rip-offs of my favorite movies) and the only way I knew how to get them out was by talking about them with my sister. We created worlds and characters, but never anything with a solid plot, which is kind of important when telling a story. My efforts to write stories down always failed miserably. I struggled to get one paragraph out, I didn’t know that multiple drafts were required (I thought writing was a magical creature that just… popped up and was complete).

What worked against me the most was that I lacked conviction in everything. I was too passive about life. I was the kid that no one remembered being in the same class with for ten years because I made a point of disappearing. I dressed like a boy, but hated sports and rough play, so I wasn’t really a “tomboy.” I didn’t fit into any stereotype of being a “brain” or a “bookworm” or a “nerd” of any kind. I was in the upper-level Gate Program for supposedly gifted kids because of my grades, but I failed all of the special assignments and could never keep up with what the other “smart kids” were talking about.

        
    As any writer who knows their business will tell you, you need to read if you’re going to write. Unfortunately for me, it was rare that I ever found any books that swept me away. While all the other kids my age always had their noses in books—Goosebumps, The Adventures of Mary Kate and Ashley, Animorphs, The Babysitters Club and Wishbone—I just daydreamed and maybe drew a random picture of a dragon or elephant. None of those books held any appeal to me. At 8 years old and I thought those books were lame. (If only I had appreciated the importance of reading in and of itself.)

Maybe I never read the right Goosebumps book, but they never scared me or gave me goosebumps.


            It wasn’t until I had barely hit my teens that a book finally smacked me and turned my world upside down. That book was Wuthering Heights. It was the first classic novel that I had read on my own, without it being some school assignment, from cover to cover. The complexity of it astounded me. Not just the writing style, which was older than I was used to, but the story itself. The plot and characters and setting were so unconventional that I needed more. I read as many classic novels as I could from then on, jumping from Wuthering Heights to Frankenstein to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to The Picture of Dorian Gray and Cyrano de Bergerac (which is technically a play, but I read it before seeing it). There are many others, but those were the firsts for me that will always hold a special place in my heart and bookshelf.

This is the edition that I first read and still own. 


            With these stories raging in my brain, I finally had the conviction I’d always needed. After reading a stack of classic novels, and even some poetry, I finally returned to writing. Suddenly the words poured out of me, paragraph after paragraph. It felt something like the generic scene of a superhero movie where the protagonist is discovering their newfound powers and seeing the world (and themselves) differently because of it. I suddenly had the ability to put my feelings and ambiguous ideas into words.

            It was reading books that opened that door for me. But I should emphasize that it was reading the right books for me. No two people read the same book. To people who think reading is boring, they either don’t know how to engage with what they’re reading or they haven’t found the right book. A majority of the world is in love with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, I’m not. I read The Goblet of Fire and enjoyed it, and I love the Wizarding World and how many people it’s encouraged to read. But it’s never been my cup of tea. Neither was Goosebumps twenty years ago when all the other kids in my first grade class were reading it. I craved something else and found it in a book that was written by a young woman 160 years ago on the English moors.

            I don’t really have any solid point to make in this post, to be honest. If anything, it’s just to talk about the fact that I feel like I’ve found my calling in writing, even though I never showed any of the so-called tell-tale signs growing up. It took a lot of searching through various genres of books, multiple failures at writing, and a lifetime of imagination for me to finally free the writer in me.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Juggling Social Media

I neglect this blog.

The reason isn't because I forget about it. On the contrary, I constantly think about it. My problem is that I feel as though everything I put on here should be long winded and informative in some way or another. (At least I got the long winded part down.) So, I put a little too much thought into what I should and shouldn't post on here and end up neck-deep in unfinished drafts of postings.

More than anything, I am trying to figure out the specific purpose to each and every social media account that I have end up with. Dear God, there are so many. I've read my fair share of blog advice about how to gain followers on certain networks, what kind of content to put on said networks, and how often. (Not that I'm following any of that advice, mind you.) So, for the benefit of myself and me (since I think I'm my only follower) I'm going to put a tentative plan of attack for these things.




I can't help but wonder, though, if compartmentalizing social networks is worthwhile, since most of them are connected anyway. Either way, it gives me a headache.

Does anyone have any suggestions or advice?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Lon Chaney Sr.: The Human Soul in a Thousand Faces

"Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney." - Lon Chaney, Sr. (from IMDB)

Today is April 1st. On this day 131 years ago, the legendary Lon Chaney Sr. was born in Colorado Springs to deaf-mute parents.

Lovely photo of Lon Chaney Sr.

I could go into his life story, his role in Hollywood, and how he earned the title of "The Man of a Thousand Faces" but there are already a ton of exemplary sources for that all over the web. (All you have to do is Google it, I promise you'll find it.) So, rather than recycling the facts about this amazing actor, I want to write about what makes him amazing to me and why my discovery of him forever changed my view of stories and the characters in them.

The thing about Lon Chaney's majority of films is that the formula they followed was unlike any formula seen in most Hollywood films then, in the 1910's and 1920's, and even now in the 2000's. Whether he was a villain, a side character, or the star of the story, he hardly ever played the dashing hero who gets the girl and fights for all that's just and good in the world. His characterizations always intentionally went against the grain of expected storytelling. They were gruff, imperfect, hideous, deformed, tormented, outcast, sometimes cruel, and sometimes completely pathetic.

Lon Chaney and Lon Chaney. One of these is a film character.

But, to go with those stereotypical villainous qualities, Chaney was a master at weaving in the human element. To go with the bad was some good and sympathetic elements, such as vulnerability, victimization, desperation, loneliness, selflessness, agony, and most of all, the inherent human need to be loved. Many of his characters, such as Blizzard from The Penalty, or The Phantom from The Phantom of the Opera, committed horrific things that no one could forgive, but you understand the damaging history that led them into such a tragic path in life. None of his characters were evil for the sake of being evil.

I swear I heard something shatter in this moment.
Chaney as Alonzo in The Unknown.
This was because Chaney became the characters. He disappeared into every role (like any talented actor should). His characters had depth that I find hard to come by in even modern films, and he managed them without the aid of sound. It was all pantomime. He could tell you in a single flicker of the eye or twitch of a lip a lifetime of pain and misery without needing gesticulation or words. One of the most heartbreaking scenes (the most intense on-screen agony I've ever seen) was done, quite literally, without hands--because the characters had none. This was the painfully ironic moment of The Unknown, when his character Alonzo has his arms amputated for two reasons: 1) He was born with two thumbs on one hand, which left a rather singular fingerprint in a series of robberies he committed and then a murder; 2) The woman he's hopelessly in love with has a bizarre phobia of men's arms. He had been posing for some time as an armless knife thrower, so he learned not to be dependent on them and decided he could do without them to avoid the gallows. Here's the irony: After he has the surgery, he discovers the love of his life overcame her fear of men's arms and fell in love with a taller, more handsome strongman. The moment of this revelation is powerful. He laughs rather manically with tears in his eyes, then screams and collapses. This is a silent film, but you can just hear the anguished scream that he lets out.

This is just one example of many. But as a writer, his characterizations made me look at "evil" characters differently. It made me think of the intensity in which a "bad guy" could feel and that what sets him apart from the "good guy" isn't his lack of humanity, but the aspects of his life that corrupted it.

Sympathizing with and loving villains is all the rage right now with such attractive bad guys as Loki from the Marvel films, as played by Tom Hiddleston, and the upcoming movie for Maleficent. The problem, however, which applies to the Loki type of villain, is that the fans are willing to forgive him for everything, just because he makes us cry and happens to be good looking. I say NO.

What I learned from Chaney's performances is that even though a person is tragically led into a life of villainy an immorality, their ability to make you cry and pity them does not absolve them of all the crimes they've committed. The real tragedy is that they must now face the consequences of their choices, even if those choices may or may not have been determined by things out of their control. For example, The Phantom was born with a hideous face, which led him to be hated by humanity, and in return he hates them and is corrupted into an insane murderer and master torturer. His past is sad, and you ache for him in his desire to love and be loved by Christine, but a happy ending simply isn't meant for mass murderers and deliberate manipulators. Other characters of Chaney who fall into this category are HE from He Who Gets Slapped, Phroso the Magician from West of Zanzibar, Tiger Haynes in Where East is East, Echo from The Unholy Three, Sergei in The Mockery, Mr. Wu, The Blackbird, and Farallone in Ace of Hearts. 

Blizzard, the double amputee in The Penalty.
Probably the biggest bastard of them all.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
But not all of his characters had those villainous tendencies. Some of them were dealt tragic cards despite their hearts of gold. Tito in Laugh, Clown, Laugh is one of those. He had the misfortune of being a famous clown struck with depression, in no small part because of his love for a girl significantly younger than him. But his role in life is to make other people happy, no matter how miserable he is. Sergeant O'Hara in Tell it to the Marines is rough around the edges, but is very much a softy deep down who falls in love with a beautiful nurse who loves a younger, more handsome marine. Echo in The Unholy Three also has some sweetheart qualities, but chooses to be a petty thief that gets him implicated in murder. Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame is deformed and removed from other human beings because of it (and his deafness) and commits crimes for lack of knowing better and his loyalty for a man he doesn't realize at first is evil. Yen Sin of Shadows is a kind and harmless Chinaman who is pushed and discriminated against for being a "heathen" in a Christian community.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh. I can pretty much guarantee this movie will make you cry.

What his "good" and "bad" characters tend to have in common is a redeeming end. Whether they die or end up alone at the end, it is often a sacrifice made in the name of love. In the defining moment, they choose someone else's happiness (or life) over their own, no matter how hard they fought for those things throughout the story, often by less-than-admirable means.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh.

So to me, Lon Chaney may have been the "Man of a Thousand Faces" but he was especially the man of one inescapable condition, being human. He encompassed all the dark and light of humanity within one character at a time, each representing the many shades and walks of life.

He taught me that a meaningful, or simply entertaining story, doesn't need young pretty characters saving the day. When a character is forced, or thinks they are forced, into a life of cruelty and crime, it makes us the audience want to see them overcome the hard knocks of life and strive to be a good person in spite of it. This is what we should all strive for.

West of Zanzibar. Phroso realizing that the girl he'd been destroying as revenge against his nemesis is actually his own daughter. WOOPS.
Lon Chaney himself sums this all up pretty well in this quote that I snagged from IMDB:

"I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice. The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals. Most of my roles since The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), such as The Phantom of the Opera (1925), He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Unholy Three (1925), etc., have carried the theme of self-sacrifice or renunciation. These are the stories which I wish to do."


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Defense of Star Trek Into Darkness [Part III - The Story]

Holy Moses, we're going into three parts of this tirade. (Part I covered Khan, Part II covered Kirk.) The only thing fueling this is the endless war online I see between those who love it and those who hate it. So, in those arguments, there are the common points for and against Star Trek Into Darkness that a lot of people tend to raise:

  • too much action/SFX, not enough Shakespeare quotes and thought-provoking philosophical questions
  • messy script
  • considered a "rip off" of the episode "Space Seed" from the Original Series and of The Wrath of Khan (both stories involving the villain Khan, if you were wondering)


*****If you've never seen the movie and wish to avoid spoilers, TURN BACK NOW. I will have to touch on a lot of spoilers in this argument. *****

No matter which Trek movie it is, I die a little every time they break the Enterprise...

Too much action/SFX

So, JJ Abrams has been given a lot of flack by old school Trekkies/Trekkers for his abundant use of special effects. If there's one thing that is near and dear to the hearts of Star Trek fans, it is the underdog status of the franchise. It has always been woefully limited by budget which made it all the more dependent on powerful storytelling, much like a stage play. It was always theatrical and thought-provoking with laughable props and sets. That has always been the charm of Star Trek in contrast to the razzle dazzle of the likes of Star Wars.

The USS Enterprise rising out of the ocean. Awesome scene, makes no sense.

JJ Abrams gave us the first real taste of elite special effects in Star Trek with his 2009 reboot. It won an Oscar in the Makeup category, and this year Into Darkness was nominated for visual effects along with Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. By the standards of "the Industry" Star Trek is moving on up. However, old fans think it's at the expense of the storytelling. Many are convinced that these new movies have the original creator Gene Roddenberry rolling in his grave.

So, in order to even begin comparing the AU Trek to Roddenberry's original brain child, we need to strip away all good and bad SFX and look at the stories themselves (performances of actors is something else entirely that I won't get into here).

Not Enough Shakespeare or Philosophy

This can be generalized best as the use of themes. Star Trek has always been about messages and morals and I've read many a forum where Trekkie's complained of a complete lack of themes. Just because a story isn't as outwardly preachy about the lesson to be learned in the episode of the week, that doesn't mean there aren't messages being conveyed. As an English major, I can find themes in just about any story or sentence with the right amount of context. That being said, you don't need to study English to figure it out because Abrams gave us that context at the end of the film with the dedication to the post 9/11 veterans.

One thing that has muddled the criticisms of Into Darkness is that the haters say it missed the point of the original Wrath of Khan, but then they accuse it of being a carbon copy of the film. I would like to point out that it missed the point because the circumstances of the story are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. (Sorry to go all caps there, but no one seems to get just what an alternate universe it...) In The Wrath of Khan, the character were much older and had a different history together and behind them-- hence the themes of aging, death, mistakes, revenge, and regret.

 Into Darkness has the characters much, much younger and faced with different challenges. The themes that pop up here include some of the same, but some new ones too: Loss, revenge, justice, sacrifice, consequence, maturity, and humility. If you can't find as many philosophical questions in the gray areas of Into Darkness like you could with The Wrath of Khan then you might be watching movies wrong.

To be fair, the script was a little messy, but only because it moved so quickly. They had a lot of story to cram into 132 minutes so it moved too quickly and didn't afford enough moments for the audience to take a breath. This especially took away from the impact of Kirk's death at the end of the movie, but I don't think it took away from the necessity of it. (See Part II about Kirk.)

Run, run, run, run, run, run, run! AU Trek has more running than the rest of the franchise combined.

As far as quotes from Mr. Shakespeare go, I love them to death. I am always tickled when Star Trek villains quote Hamlet (like General Kang did in abundance in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country) or the fact that more than half of the Original Series episode titles are from Shakespeare's plays. There is no shortage of literary references throughout the Star Trek franchise, and in a way its the classics that make the sci fi work.  But that's me as an English major and a fan of melodrama. JJ Abrams had to appeal to a wider audience, so putting literary quotes in the middle of a more realistic Trek would have added a level of camp that would have ruined the integrity of the script for this generation. (I wish he would have done it anyway, but I understand the marketing tactic...)

Into Darkness "Rehashing" Old Ideas

(I put "rehash" in quotation marks because that's the word everyone seems to be most liberal with.)

Yes, Into Darkness touched on a lot of familiar territory, especially where The Wrath of Khan is concerned in the last act of the film. For many people, this made it amazing or it was just the last straw. I think it's fair to have either sentiment, but for me it was amazing (surprise!). I gave up watching movies or reading books for plot twists after M. Night Shyamalan became popular and subsequently fizzled out of all popularity. I don't aim to be shocked or surprised, I just want a story I can get invested in.

Into Darkness is accused of lacking all originality, which is completely unfair. Trekkies, of all people, should be familiar with just how often ideas are rehashed in the Trek franchise. For example, Star Trek: The Motion Picture had it's villain V'Ger, which was pretty much just Nomad from the episode "The Changling," but with a different name. And a lot of added special effects to amaze the audience. The movie was terrible, but I don't recall anyone saying it was because of "rehashed ideas." Another example: How was Nero from Star Trek (2009) not a Romulan version of Khan in The Wrath of Khan? Don't get me started on how often they used the malfunctioning holodeck of The Next Generation.

"From Hell's heart, I stab at thee! For Hate's sake, I--" Oh wait. Nero from Star Trek (2009).

The point is, ideas get recycled in stories. It's a sad fact of writing in fiction. So, it's not about the concept, it's about the execution. Rather than creating another Khan-based villain, the writers elected to just go with Khan himself. It's a bold move, obviously. But how could they not? Khan is the Moriarty to Kirk's Sherlock Holmes, the Lex Luthor to Kirk's Superman. We know the extent of their rivalry and this is a chance to see more potential for it. I always felt there were lost story possibilities between Kirk and Khan with the brief encounters they had in "Space Seed" and The Wrath of Khan.

On a final note, I'd like to point out that JJ Abrams et al snagged the perfect excuse for rebooting a franchise while allowing themselves creative freedom: They made it an alternate timeline. I find that to be the most respectful move they could have made for the original, since it separates it enough to not step on toes or erase a long established history. It covers all of their bases, from changed character arcs to improved technology. (Heck, it could even explain why Carol Marcus is suddenly British!)

We Trekkies have suspended our disbelief this long, why not do the same for Star Trek Into Darkness?

Read Part I - Khan
Read Part II - Kirk

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The New Jacobin Club

So, I received a ridiculously flattering compliment recently in the form of a book review. It was written by Xerxes Praetorius Horde of The New Jacobin Club. Sounds slightly random, but it's really not.

I discovered The New Jacobin Club through an ad on Facebook that was offering free downloads of something that could only be classified as Steampunk Heavy Metal. I'm not so hypocritical to say I wasn't pulled in by the prospect of free music. So, I got the music and fell in love with it. Not instantly, mind you, simply because it wasn't like the "Steampunk" music I was accustomed too (e.g., Clockwork Quartet, Abney Park, etc.). Because NJC has the heavy metal element combined with cellos. What especially struck me was the storytelling behind it. Each performer has a character and a story and I'm a sucker for fiction. At least, for the sake of the mortal men, let's hope they're fictitious...

The New Jacobin Club (picture taken from their website. Click to visit their page!)

I enjoyed the free music and sent a response to The Horde, and he responded. In fact, NJC has an exceptional awareness of the fans. It gave me the opportunity to learn more about them and their work. It is very much my kind of style-- Demons, dark societies, corruption of humanity. These subjects have always fascinated me in Victorian literature, and I always found it seriously lacking the Steampunk genre. And The New Jacobin Club has it all.

I've only written one story that could fall into the Steampunk category, if on a very subtle level-- The Brethren Souls. So, I shared it with The Horde, hoping it would (to some degree) fall into the sphere of interest for the NJC. I would like to think that it did, because the review was positive, but more importantly, it tells me that my book was understood for what it is.

Of course a good review will make any author giggle and bounce around like a prepubescent girl (don't lie, dudes) but this one was especially exciting because I received it from another artist that I respect the hell out of. They are talented, intelligent, and ridiculously down to earth. Their music certainly can stand on its own, but the brief email correspondence with The Horde himself solidified my interest in everything they do. I may or may not be under the manipulative power of otherworldly demons.

You can listen to a vast playlist of their music on their website, or just click here to go directly to it!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Defense of Star Trek Into Darkness [PART II - Kirk]

James Tiberius Kirk.

It may be argued whether or not Captain Kirk is the best or most bad ass captain in the Star Trek franchise, but there's one thing that we can all agree on: He is by far the most well-known to Trekkies and non-Trekkies alike. Even people who have never watched an episode of Star Trek in their life know who Captain Kirk is.

So, it's no wonder that J.J. Abrams was walking on thin ice when reviving the character with a new actor. Just as the wonderful essence of Khan was created by Ricardo Montalban, everything that made up Captain Kirk came from William Shatner. He was Captain Kirk. But also like Khan (which many hardcore Trekkie's refuse to acknowledge) is that the character can in fact live independently of the original actor. In this case, reborn in the alternate universe and portrayed by Chris Pine.

For the sake of attempting to avoid confusion in this argument, I'll refer to Shatner's Kirk from The Original Series as TOS!Kirk and Pine's from the Abrams films as AU!Kirk (AU for Alternate Universe).

*****If you've never seen the movie and wish to avoid spoilers, TURN BACK NOW. I will have to touch on a lot of spoilers in this argument. *****

As mentioned in PART I of this defense, there are a couple of things people disliked in Star Trek Into Darkness regarding the character of Kirk.

  1. Kirk is much more immature, stupid, and weaker than TOS!Kirk (this also applies to Star Trek [2009])
  2. Kirk's death and the deus ex machina solution for it

AU!Kirk Versus TOS!Kirk

William Shatner (left) and Chris Pine (right)

Like I did for Khan, I want to start with the actors themselves. The person most responsible, I think, for how Kirk turned out to be the daring and bad ass captain we all know and love was the personality that William Shatner put into it. The Shat is notorious for hamming it up and seen as having an ego to choke a whale, and that inevitably translated into the character. Contrary to what some people think, Shatner had more than his share of classical training as an actor. It allowed him to deliver lines in such a characteristic way that we remember it. It made Captain Kirk impressive (and maybe a little ridiculous on occasion). This was also the 1960's, so Kirk had to be a classy, hard working, all American boy who could woo any beautiful dame he set his eyes on. He was a man's man.

This set up a very specific character for Chris Pine to portray. But rather than emulate everything that Shatner did the in role, Pine brought his own personality to it. Some people might consider that a main reason for the character being "ruined" but I think it was a smart choice. Had Pine tried to channel William Shatner in every line and mannerism, it would have turned into a parody. It would have made the character and the rest of the movie too self-conscious to ever be taken seriously. Forty years after the character was first introduced on television, there was finally a new actor to play him which needed to take into account the difference in generations. The Kirk of the 1960's and 1980's (as in the films) would probably bore today's audience to tears. We like the young, gruff rebels with impressive sex lives. Why can't Kirk be that too?

Whether he's a cultured and career-driven Starfleet officer or a bar-hopping rebel who ends up bloody on the floor, when you boil it down, he's still James T. Kirk. The main difference is one that was made very, very clear in Star Trek (2009) when Spock explained the new timeline as caused by Nero, who traveled back in time and set of a brand new chain of events for the characters. Since this universe altering catalyst occurred on the day of Kirk's birth (actually, it was exactly where he was born too), he was affected the most significantly.

The main, and perhaps only, reason that Kirk grew up into an almost unrecognizable character from the one we know and love is his father, George Kirk. TOS!Kirk was raised with a father who was also in Starfleet, and we can easily infer that it was George who got him into Starfleet at a young age, supported, disciplined, inspired, and taught Jim everything he knew in the Original Series. Subtract that variable, Jim Kirk tailspins as a child and a young man. AU!Kirk didn't have the father figure to guide him and show him how to be a responsible and good man. Both Kirk's have that spitfire attitude, but only TOS!Kirk was taught how to direct it. Enter a new fatherly figure, Captain Christopher Pike, who fills that role and sets AU!Kirk on the path to becoming what he was meant to be. (As any Trekkie knows, Pike was specifically mentioned in the episode "The Menagerie Part 1" as being about the same age as Kirk, something that couldn't have possibly been altered by Nero... But we'll ignore that can of continuity worms.)



So, AU!Kirk is much less prepared to handle extreme circumstances than TOS!Kirk. He's still learning, and much more harshly. It's no wonder, then, that he seems so incapable in Star Trek Into Darkness. The writer's, (Orci, Lindelof, and Kurtzman) are aware enough of their story to know that Kirk has been thrown into his destined role without being prepared for it. That's a core point in the plot, and I think they managed it without it becoming too contrived. Kirk's passions get the best of him and he shirks his duties to follow his own inclinations, which, as we see, doesn't always pan out so well. He uses his command to get revenge on John Harrison, which nearly kills them all. I've heard people call him a stupid captain for that, saying that TOS!Kirk would never be that immature. Of course, I think those people have forgotten the episode "Obsession" where Kirk does exactly that in a Moby Dick inspired plot of the captain seeking revenge regardless of his crew and duties. In both "Obsession" and Into Darkness, Kirk eventually comes to his senses with the help of Spock and McCoy.

Kirk's Death

This is the part of Star Trek Into Darkness that tends to make or break the movie for a lot of people. It's either "the most emotional scene in the new movies thus far" or "the last straw to a crappy movie." Even though I absolutely loved it, it is dangerously close to feeling contrived because we all know where it came from. It is the exact scene, almost in verbatim, from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The only difference being that the roles of Kirk and Spock were reversed. On the surface, it might seem like lazy writing. But I was enthralled with it in the theaters, and here's why. (It's not because I'm easily swayed emotionally by movies, far from it.)

I went into the movie without knowing who the villain was. I'm a little gullible, I believed Abrams when he said it wasn't Khan. So, from the moment of the revelation on, I had more goosebumps than I did prior to that now famous line of "My name is... Khan!" By bringing such a well known character in, a new layer of icing was added to the movie-cake for me. It meant that I had an in-depth understanding of the villain now in such a way that I couldn't get from Nero in the previous film. I knew he was an antagonist to be reckoned with, so it was extremely exciting to see him team up (albeit temporarily) with Kirk. I knew that it was Khan who was responsible for Spock self-sacrificing and ultimately destroying Kirk's other, logical half. But this is a new timeline, anything could happen. So I knew what Khan was capable of without the boredom of knowing exactly what was going to happen.

The love that dare not speak its name?
This played on me in more ways than one when Kirk began to crawl into the warp core. I knew it killed Spock in The Wrath of Khan. They were giving every indication that it would kill Kirk. It made me really anxious as I wondered whether or not they would actually go there with the story. It seemed too obvious, which then had me thinking "They won't do it. Will they? No they won't. They are! No maybe not..." And so on. And, well. They did. Kirk died in front of Spock but separated by the glass.

To be fair, it did lack the emotional punch of The Wrath of Khan because Kirk and Spock didn't have the same history together. But it was emotional for different reasons. They had only just learned the power of their friendship (or romance, depending on what kind of fan you are). Kirk acted on impulse--as he is prone to doing-- to save lives the lives of the only family he has: his crew. It's a mirror to Khan's motives and actions. Where Khan would kill and destroy for his family, Kirk would sacrifice. The thing that really hit me hard in the feels, however, was when a tearful, dying Kirk said "I'm scared, Spock... How do you choose not to feel?" It's a raw moment of the bravado, fearless Captain Kirk admitting to vulnerability. Most importantly, he was admitting it to Spock. It's intimate, but tragic. (Won't lie, I did giggle a bit when Spock ended up screaming the famous line of "KHAAANNN!")

Of course, this powerful scene is a bit undermined within a few minutes of the film when a means to save Kirk is immediately found, i.e. Khan's magic blood. This is the deus ex machina that I agree kind of sucked. It came too quickly and too easily. When Spock died in The Wrath of Khan, it wasn't guaranteed that he would ever come back, even if there was the possibility of it thanks to the Genesis device. There was no time for the characters or the audience to cope with the loss of our lovable Kirk and Spock only got a few bruises in the melee with Khan to save him. It almost rendered the death pointless. Almost.

Having died and revived in so little time could have some interesting consequences on the character of Kirk (which will probably never be addressed in future films). In the 2009 film, Spock made it explicitly clear through the example of Kirk's father and the Kobayashi Maru that a captain "cannot cheat death" and Kirk follows the maxim that there is no such thing as a no-win scenario. He has officially won every situation where the odds are against him, triumphed by breaking rules, and lost nothing in self-sacrifice. This may or may not give an already egotistical character a God complex and take away any humility he might have had. This is setting him up for a great lesson in the future, or to make him an annoyingly invincible hero. (But then again, how many episodes of TOS had Kirk or some other character "die" and then come back before the episode was even finished? And at least they didn't drop a bridge on him.)

All we can do is wait and see what the third installment of Star Trek has for us.

Smolder. James T. Kirk from Star Trek Into Darkness (2013).

Read Part I - Khan
Read Part III - The Story

"Take me off your list!"

I don't think I've ever met anyone who liked getting calls from telemarketers. More often than not, the call is disruptive and they are selling you things you don't even want. It actually annoys me to no end, but there is a little part of me that always sympathized with the person who has to go down a list trying to sell something to people who don't even want it in the first place.

Marketing is a tough business anyway, from what little I actually understand of it. So, it makes sense to me that everyone would just be happier if that list was much more focused on people who might actually be inclined to buy the product or service. So, for businesses (especially new ones) that must face the necessary evil of marketing, their best bet is through a defined demographic of potential customers to sell to. To help with this is List Giant.

List Giant is pretty much what it says on the tin: A list provider.They help you narrow down and focus your marketing lists, whether or not your business is old or new. It's not just telemarketing either, it's every other medium of advertising that people can get easily spammed with if they don't and never will want your product--mail and email. The lists that they can provide will help you send your advertisements to people who will be less likely to hit "delete," hang up, or use your flyer to line the bottom of a bird cage.

List Giant, to me, is more about annoying fewer people than it about making sales. It's just a waste of time and resources to send randomized advertisements.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Defense of Star Trek Into Darkness [PART I - Khan]

Most of the movies and TV shows that we get these days are remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels, or spin-offs. I don't even need to give an example, you probably have 10 already popping up into your head. Because of this there's been an outcry against all apparent lack of originality. I agree, the industry can use something refreshing. But we humans have been telling stories ever since we found the need to explain the ball of fire in the sky, which has nothing new under it.

It's precisely because of this rehashing-of-old-ideas epidemic that I think there was a surprisingly harsh reaction towards JJ Abrams Star Trek Into Darkness in the summer of 2013. Yes, it got a lot of good reviews as a summer movie. But it borrowed heavily from past writings of Star Trek and took a lot of liberties to adapt them to a new alternate universe that the hardcore Trekkies simply couldn't stand for. To them, its the equivalent to rewriting the Bible.

I love Star Trek. No secrets there. But it has never been anything even close to a religion for me, even if I have my obsessive tendencies. My religion (if any) would be storytelling, and it's on that basis that I want to defend this movie.

*****If you've never seen the movie and wish to avoid spoilers, TURN BACK NOW. I will have to touch on a lot of spoilers in this argument. *****

For a start, here's a recap of some of the main reasons people really dislike this movie:

  • considered a "rip off" of the episode "Space Seed" from the Original Series and of The Wrath of Khan (both stories involving the villain Khan, if you were wondering)
  • Kirk's death and the deus ex machina solution to it
  • too much action/SFX, not enough Shakespeare quotes and thought-provoking philosophical questions
  • Spock's emotions
  • Kirk's immaturity
  • Khan. Just... everything about Khan.
As I said, my point of defense will be storytelling. I'm a writer and that's the only way that I can see a movie or TV show. If the characters and story hold together well enough, then I won't be offended.

So I'll start with the most prominent aspect to both the character dynamic and the story of Star Trek Into Darkness: Khan. 

Benedict Cumberbatch (left) and Ricardo Montalban (right). Both convincingly Indian.

He is, by far, everyone's favorite villain in the franchise. This mostly has to do with the performance of Ricardo Montalban who is more or less deified in the eyes of Trekkies/Trekkers, so it's not surprising that they felt skeptical of a new name and face in the role. Especially one that is so completely different than Montalban. I'm referring, of course, to Benedict Cumberbatch. The re-casting is surprising to anyone who knows anything about the character of Khan. Khan is a Sikh, described as being Indian. (Montalban was born in Mexico. Close enough. right?)

The reason why we love Montalban as Khan was certainly not because he was a convincing Sikh. He wasn't. It was because he had what any actor should when playing a role, and that was presence. He brought the character to life by carrying himself with the right amount of arrogance and power, intelligence and unreserved passions. Montalban was so good at playing the part that he's now a permanent part of pop culture. Unfortunately, that provided Benedict Cumberbatch with some pretty big shoes to fill. He's a lithe, pale British actor playing a character who was meant to be an Indian superman. Seems like a recipe for disaster, but I think he knocked it out of the park. 

Why? Because he's every bit as much of a serious actor as Ricardo Montalban was. He made the character frighteningly intelligent, arrogant, slightly ethereal, and when the story called for it, dangerously passionate. He did justice to the character by making him intimidating and vulnerable at all the right moments. Both Montalban and Cumberbatch are classically trained, which is exactly what a larger than life character like Khan requires. I think Abrams knew this in the casting process, because an unconvincing or ridiculous villain is poison to any movie. Because of the writing in Star Trek Into Darkness--unlike "Space Seed" or The Wrath of Khan--we actually get to see the bite behind his bark. We are given reasons to be scared of him through actions more than just words. 

This heralds the old "show don't tell" cliche of writing, and it is definitely more true for the film medium than literature. In "Space Seed" and The Wrath of Khan we, the audience, are constantly told how strong Khan and the other superbeings are, how super intelligent they are, and how merciless they are. True, we get glimpses of these attributes. Such as Khan pulling open a lock door on the ship with his bare hands in "Space Seed", or in The Wrath of Khan lifting Chekov a good two feet off the ground like he's a jug of milk. But the true extent of his power and ruthlessness is left to the imagination and replaced with a lot of literary quotes and strutting. Into Darkness shows us so much more in the writing of Roberto Orci, Damon Lindelof and Alex Kurtzman. We get to see Khan destroy a squadron of Klingons while wielding what looks like a canon from a ship, crush a human skull with his bare hands, and out logic Spock (mostly). 

The ethnicity of the character is rather irrelevant no matter which version you look at. In fact, in the original script of "Space Seed" as written by Carey Wilber and Gene L. Coon, Khan was going to be called Erickson and be of Nordic origin. There is nothing specifically Sikh about Khan that necessitates his ethnicity. The only indication of Khan's Indian ties is his name, and it is only given in full as Khan Noonien Singh once by Spock Prime.

But isn't the beauty of Science Fiction (especially Star Trek) the fact that we can explain away just about anything with a little technobabble? Isn't it conceivable that Khan had surgery upon being revived from his cryostasis so as not to be recognized as the warlord who lived three hundred years before? Or, why couldn't a white guy have a Sikh name? The point of the story is that Khan is the most formidable enemy Kirk and company go up against in their adventures, and the CumberKhan is definitely that. (EDIT: I've recently read that the official comic book for Khan explains the cosmetic surgery and re-calibrated vocal cords that account for Khan's new face and accent. I haven't read the comics, but they could be worth looking into.)

Moving on from the character himself, there is the issue of the writers' choice to have him in Star Trek Into Darkness in the first place. I've seen a lot of angry internet postings and comments saying it would have been better if John Harrison was just a member of Khan's crew and not Khan himself. I highly suspect, however, that if Abrams et al went that route, the fans would have complained with "They might as well have just brought in Khan!" There's no winning with Trekkies/Trekkers.

It never struck me as a lack of creativity to bring Khan in for Star Trek XII. Instead, Orci, Lindelof and Kurtzman are working within the context of the Star Trek universe for a fresh angle while keeping with the basic elements of what we know and love about Khan. If there is one thing that fascinates me, it's "what if" stories. That's what Into Darkness essentially is. What if it wasn't Kirk and the Enterprise that found Khan's ship in space? In "Space Seed", 20th century Khan learned all about a 23rd century starship within hours of just reading the ship manuals. What would happen if he had been around for a year? 

The new film gave a favorite character room to stretch his legs, to grow and show his layers. He's more than just a genetically-altered Captain Ahab after Kirk's white whale (I almost wrote "Kirk's Moby Dick" but that would have some unintended connotations... Looks like I said it anyway.); he's a super warrior, conqueror, genius scorned who may be "better at everything" but terrible at controlling his emotions. He's a character worth revisiting and I am happy that we were given the opportunity in Into Darkness. 

Cool guys walk away from a crashed starship and a decimated city. CumberKhan, ladies and gentlemen.