Bye, Bowie

I don’t get emotional over celebrity deaths. Of course I feel empathy, but despite the familiarity of their faces, celebrities are strangers.

BowieBut for some reason, the death of David Bowie feels different.

When I was a kid I watched MTV constantly. Cable was new back then. There were few choices. But MTV — I couldn’t get enough. And David Bowie was one of the pioneers of music video. Let’s Dance and China Girl played nearly every hour. They were fun, and there was something about Bowie that was just cool: he knew who he was and he was at ease with himself.

The older I got the more I learned about Bowie’s previous incarnations — Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke — and I grew to not only respect his talent and innovation, but also appreciate his strong sense of self. David Bowie was a chameleon. He was an iconoclast. He charted his own path.

I’ve never been one for a traditional life, despite how I appear, and my life so far has been one of forging (and re-forging) my own identity, apart from others’ and their expectations. In David Bowie I saw another human who invented and re-invented himself as he saw fit. In David Bowie I saw that such a thing was possible.

In these days after his death I’ve heard people say they loved him because he made being a misfit acceptable. I never felt like a misfit. I never saw that in Bowie either. What I saw was someone who was self-made. Maybe Bowie’s greatest talent was that he could be many things to many people while still remaining true to himself.

All men and women must die, and now Bowie has too. It makes me sad to think of this loss, our loss. But I’m glad for his existence and the example he gave to many of us.

Goodbye, Clara Oswald

FINALLY! A sign-off for a Doctor Who companion that was both fully satisfying and organic.

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While the return of Doctor Who to television a decade ago has been an overwhelming success, turning the BBC sci-fi show into a worldwide phenomenon, it’s had its share of problems in terms of storytelling. One of those problems is its reliance on convoluted plotting, red herrings, and Maguffins. They abound. I’ve learned to look past them.

Another problem is structural, and nearly impossible to overcome. It’s rooted in the very premise of doctor Who: a time-traveling alien with the capability to regenerate (and live an extremely long life) is accompanied by a naive Earthling (usually young, female, and pretty) as they streak across time and space in search of adventures. During these adventures, the companion has her mind expanded to the vastness of space and time, while the Doctor learns about compassion and humanity.

But the power imbalance can get distracting, and it rarely ends well for the companion.

ROSE–Rose Tyler ended up exiled in a parallel universe

–Martha Jones ditched the Doctor when she realized her love would never be returned

–Donna Noble had her memories of her time with the Doctor erased in order to save her life

–Amy Pond (and her husband Rory) were trapped in early 20th century America

But then came Clara Oswald (played by Jenna Coleman), the impossible girl, who ended up doing the impossible.

CLARA 1When Clara first appeared I didn’t know what to make of her. She was part of an EXTREMELY convoluted plot line that had her being split into a ton of different Claras and seeded throughout his timeline to save him from disaster at key moments. Uh, okay.

So, she was basically a plot device, not her own character. during that storyline I never got a clear picture of Clara as a unique person. Compare her to Rose Tyler, a working-class shop girl who confounded the prejudices against her, or Martha Jones, a smart and dedicated physician. Donna Noble was a tenacious smart-ass who grew spectacularly during her brief stint as companion. And Amy Pond constantly struggled with her childhood attachment and abandonment issues that revolved around the Doctor.

But Clara? Not much going on there after that initial storyline ran its course. Once the “recovered” Clara returned, we were left with a character who was just sort of there. She was cheery and a little sassy, and thank God she didn’t have a crush on the Doctor. But that was pretty much it.

CLARA 2

I was content to just enjoy the ride. Jenna Coleman is a good actor and she’s great to look at. Plus, when Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor ended, Peter Capaldi brought a prickly edge to the time-traveling alien that translated to his relationship with Clara. At least that was entertaining.

But, after this season’s three part ending, I realize how much of Clara’s development I’ve missed. In hindsight it’s obvious just who Clara was (who she’s always been), and how her character has developed in the most subtle of ways.

CLARA

It turns out Clara wasn’t a cipher. She was someone who was becoming the Doctor’s equal. And she did this through her own initiative and force of will.

The hints were there all along. Clara would pretend to be the Doctor, or she would remind the Doctor of what course to take. She was a quick learner, and she never assumed herself to be anything other than his equal. She was not lovestruck nor awestruck. She was no-nonsense. She was clever.

In the first episode of the season-ending three-parter, everyone assumed (myself included) that she was maybe too clever. Maybe she was deluded in her assumptions that she knew as much as the Doctor, when her brilliant scheme to save her friend ended up getting herself killed. The Doctor is always teetering on oblivion. He always defies the odds. Clara succumbed to them.

And so she was dead. That in itself would have been a fitting end to Clara. It would have been a dark lesson in hubris. That Clara embraced her death made it even more moving. And at that point, she would have joined the other companions who paid a steep price for the thrill of being at the Doctor’s side.

But, this being Doctor Who, that’s not how her story ended.

clara capaldi

When the Doctor pulled Clara from her time stream in the moment before death I was shocked. It seemed impossible, almost like cheating. But it worked.

If there’s one thing that Doctor Who does well it’s characterization. Doctor Who is a man outrunning tragedy. He has awesome powers and a will to do good, but he’s burdened by churning loss. He loves humans most of all, but humans have too short a life span. He gets close to people, he loses them. With Clara, he was determined to save her, and he did.

But Clara, when she’s pulled form her time stream, isn’t happy with him. She chose her fate and the Doctor unchose it for her. Her speech admonishing the Doctor was one of the most moving parts of her whole storyline.

When the Doctor hatched yet another plan to save her, he stole a spare TARDIS and took a device that would wipe her memory of the Doctor (similar to what happened to Donna Noble) in order to hide and protect her. But Clara caught wind and attempted to reprogram the device to wipe the Doctor’s memory of Clara instead. In another great monologue, Clara told the Doctor that her memories were hers, and it was not his right to wipe hers away, even if it might keep her safe. Neither Clara nor the Doctor were sure whose memory the device would erase, but they both agreed to chance it. In the end, it was the Doctor who ended up forgetting just who Clara Oswald had been.

Clara, on the other hand, had a TARDIS at her disposal, and the woman who always considered herself to be the Doctor’s equal, was now essentially immortal, and she had all of time and space at her disposal.

Wow. In the end, Clara Oswald was every bit the impossible girl.

Clara

 

 

What’s the single scariest moment on screen?

Horror/suspense fans out there, I’m talking to you.

Admit it. We love watching scary edge-of-your-seat movies for the same reason we love roller coasters: that rush of adrenaline, that supreme thrill that gushes through your body when fear jumps right out at you. I know I do.

Lord knows there are way too many chilling, thrilling moments on TV and in the movies (mostly movies) to catalog them all, but Flavorwire has taken the brave and controversial step of compiling the top 12. And they’ve done a solid job.

Among the better choices (and the ones that definitely made me jump the first time I saw them):

–The reveal of the demon-eyed urchin in Rosemary’s Baby

–The gut-busting birth of the baby alien in Alien

–And the final scene at the grave in Carrie

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All great choices. All iconic images. But for me, one of the most terrifying moments came in a movie that was hyped, if not overhyped, when it first came out. 1999s The Blair Witch Project was made on a shoestring budget. It was the first movie (or at least the most prominent) to be filmed and marketed as “found footage.” Sure, now it’s a cliche, but back then it was a novelty. And what got me about it was that so much of the movie took place in darkness and shadows. When we finally saw the big bad (or at least some version of it) at the end, though still grainy and dark, it was a shock. I definitely jumped out of my seat.

So for me, believe it or not, the low-budget nearly forgotten flick The Blair Witch Project gets my vote for scariest on-screen moment.

Blair Witch

The trouble with daleks

Confession here: as much as I love Doctor Who, the series has one glaring weakness, one that I’ve been able to overlook, mostly — its villains.

Capaldi

Before I get started on my rant, I’ll talk about what I love about BBC’s half century old sci-fi classic. Doctor Who is playful and thrilling and joyful. Its set-up, with an ever changing cast of Doctors (via regeneration) and revolving companions, keep the series fresh. I love the humanity of the alien Doctor, the creative plot twists (which often stretch the limits of believability), and all the fun timey-wimey stuff.

But the villains. Yes, I know that Doctor Who has its roots in a children’s series, so the monsters can’t be too monstrous. But none of the monsters have kept me up at night. Especially these sparkly things.

daleks

This latest season opened with a two-parter starring the Doctor’s biggest nemesis, the Daleks, created and controlled by the evil Davros. The episodes were exciting and inventive. We got to watch the Doctor’s  frenemy Missy (aka The Master, another renegade Time Lord) interact with and torment the Doctor’s faithful companion Clara. We glimpsed the Doctor being playful as he rode a tank and thrashed an electric guitar in medieval Britain, and we watched as he rescued a boy from death, a boy who would grow up and become a mass murderer.

davros

But I can’t get past the ridiculousness of the daleks. They look like inverted, bedazzled garbage cans with a plunger for a hand. Probably because the daleks were created in the 1960s, before such things as half-decent special effects. When Doctor Who was revived in the 2000s, the show was stuck with these ludicrous looking creatures as part of Doctor Who canon. I don’t find the daleks remotely terrifying, and their shrill cries of “exterminate” make me want to laugh.

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As much as I enjoy Doctor Who, the biggest failure of its revival has been the lack of a singular, terrifying enemy. The Silents came close, but they were dispatched. The Weeping Angels were pretty good too, but they only have one trick, which gets old quickly. Instead we’re stuck with the shrill, plunger-wielding daleks, and maybe once in a while, the clunky cybermen.

Here’s hoping the next head writer gives Doctor Who fans the villains we deserve.

Xena reboot: yes or no?

There was a time when genre shows were a rare thing on TV. In the years after The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, and before Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost, genre fans had only a few choices: the super serious X-Files, and the wacky Hercules, with Kevin Sorbo.

XENA

In 1995, the producers of Hercules launched a spinoff: Xena: Warrior Princess. It was like nothing on TV at the time. It starred not one but two action-oriented women, Xena and her trusted sidekick Gabrielle. Lucy Lawless, who went on to become a genre mainstay in both Battlestar Galactica and Spartacus, shot to fame playing the larger-than-life, nearly superhuman warrior. She played the role on two levels: she took it completely seriously, and she was in on the fun.

Xena_Gabrielle

But, like all good (and not so good) shows, Xena: Warrior Princess had to end. There are only so many storylines one can write, and Xena pushed it to the limit. It went off the air in 2001 after getting way too complex (I remember a plot line regarding an evil-spawn child of Gabrielle, for instance). By then, though, TV was opening up to shows that involved some element of the mystical or fantastic. Buffy the Vamipre Slayer was a critical hit, and SyFy (then Sci-Fi) was plowing ahead with original programming such as Farscape.

While it was great fun, Xena hasn’t been missed. There are so many choices when it comes to quality genre TV today, and strong female characters are no longer a novelty. Now comes a rumor that the powers that be are prepping for a reboot of Xena. Honestly I’m torn.

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On one hand, the world of Xena is rich one, bursting with mythology that could be spun into entertaining stories. She’s an iconic character, and it would be interesting to see how she’d be portrayed in a reboot. Who could possibly fill Lucy Lawless’s boots?

On the other hand, we have (dare I say it) too many great genre shows out there. I cannot keep up. I have a list of series that I’m itching to watch. But when do I fit them all in? And is it fair to all the amazing writers out there to continually recycle old ideas, rather than bring something new to the screen?

This is a tough call for me. As much as I’d like to see a new Xena (out of curiosity, if nothing else), I wouldn’t want to see my favorites — Buffy, Lost, Farscape — reimagined with a different cast. But I said the same thing when they rebooted Battlestar Galactica, and that turned out to be brilliant.

Robots: our ticket to life on the moon?

If I were a scientist intent on colonizing space, our very own moon wouldn’t be my first choice. But maybe, since it’s the closest of all celestial bodies, it should be. And, maybe the answer to us getting there is robots that would construct homes for us and pave the way for lunar life.

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What’s the proposal? Robots would be dispatched to the moon to set up solar panels in massive craters on the moon that would warm the craters up and make them more habitable for humans. Why craters? I assume they would provide some sort of natural protection from asteroids. And the craters contain ice, a necessity for human life.

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This makes sense. Look at what we’ve been able to do on Mars. We’ve dispatched robots to explore the martian plains, sending back tons of scientific data. We have satellites landing on comets, and probes sending back amazingly detailed images of our sometime ninth planet Pluto.

So why wouldn’t we eventually rely on robotics to construct complete habitats for our descendants?

moon

The European exploration of North and South America was a deadly and costly venture. There’s little reason to believe that human colonization of space will be any safer. And, as compared to our ancestors, we have little stomach for death. We no longer think it’s acceptable that some people HAVE to die in order for us to ultimately be successful. But, if we can make the transition to off-world homes both easier and safer, then maybe life among the stars will still be within our reach.

Aliens: do they look like us?

If anyone’s noticed, one of my minor obsessions is alien life. I’m not one of those who believes we’re being probed by Roswell-style aliens. My interest is more about fantasy (and maybe reality). If there’s a book or movie with aliens in it, chances are I’ll be interested. Take one of my favorite TV shows: Farscape. Human dude gets mixed up with a bunch of renegade aliens. What more could you ask for?

FARSCAPE

But I also love the scientific aspect of the search for extraterrestrial life. As we discover more Earth-sized planets, the question of extraterrestrials becomes more of when we’ll find them, rather than do they exist.

I’ve written about why we haven’t found any evidence of alien life yet. (short answer — we don’t know why). If we do find intelligent life, what will it look like? For Star Trek alienyears I’ve thought that alien life would be wildly different from our own. Not like Star Trek, where the aliens are basically humans with a few bumps and ridges, and a little different hue. Instead, the real aliens would, due to evolutionary forces unique to their home worlds, be more bizarre than we could fathom.

Not so, says a professor named Simon Conway Morris from Cambridge University in England. Evolution is a streamlined process — it selects the features best suited to thrive in life. And independently, different species evolve similar features (eyes, for instance). If this takes place on Earth, then the same process would apply on other planets.

He also states that evolution has produced life suitable for its environment. If you want a sophisticated plant, then you design it as a flower or tree. Aquatic animals would be fish-like, and creatures that fly would have wings.

The question remains, though, what about intelligent life? Could we assume that Calculating Godthey would look like us only because we’re the first intelligent species on the planet?

In his novel Calculating God, sci-fi writer Robert J. Sawyer had a intriguing take on ETs. Two different intelligent species contact humans. Both are similar proportion and of similar intelligence to humans, though one is a spider-like creature. These aliens were very like us, suggesting that intelligence is linked less to physical resemblance than to shared understanding, beliefs and values.

I guess someday we’ll find out the truth. Or maybe we truly are alone after all.

Read this book: Ready Player One

How do you write a book about a dense subculture and make it accessible to a wider audience. I don’t know that trick, but Ernest Cline, the writer of the book Ready Player
Ready PLayer OneOne
does. Somehow he managed to take the incredibly detailed world of video games and obscure Japanese anime, and make novices like myself care.

Ready Player One is best described as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Tron. The story takes place in 2044 in a world that’s suffering from a significant depression. While the people’s real world is dystopic to the max, they have an out — OASIS. Created by James Halliday, OASIS is virtual reality perfected. As such, most people in the miserable real word spend all their time and money in OASIS. Halliday dies, and his virtual perfection is threatened by the evil conglomerate IOI, which wants to corporatize OASIS.

But Halliday left a plan in place. He established a hunt — Easter eggs hidden throughout his vast virtual universe. Whoever finds these Easter eggs will inherit Ready 2OASIS. Here comes our hero, teenager Wade Watts (who also narrates the story). A video game fanatic, Wade, who goes by the name Parzival in OASIS, is among the scores determined to find these Easter eggs. Halliday, it turns out, was a fanatic of all things from the 1980s — music, movies, TV shows both foreign and domestic. Wade spends years geeking out and studying this era, as well as mastering the video games of that time.

Ready Player One centers around Wade’s exploits as he solves Halliday’s riddles. But he’s not the only one. Questing alongside him are his vfriend Aech (pronounced H), famous blogger Art3mis, who he has a crush on, and a pair of Japanese dudes — and all of these people he’s only met in OASIS, never in the real world. As this rag-tag group progresses, they must also battle the genuinely evil conglomerate IOI, which uses all its resources to win control of Halliday’s empire.

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So now the breakdown:

The good…

–Wade/Parzival is an engaging narrator. Cline writes Wade with an assured and consistent voice. Wade is one of my favorite types of hero: the ordinary guy who rises to extraordinary circumstances. Keep your crusading CIA/FBI/forensic detectives. Give me more Wades.

Ready 3–This book is a page turner. I am a slow reader. I read this 300 page book in a week. That is light speed for me. There were times when I did not want to put my Kindle down and get off the train. That good.

–I’m pretty agnostic when it comes to video games. I enjoy playing them, but I’ve never been a fanatic. If there’s one around, I’ll play, as long as it’s not too complicated. Ready Player One reads like it was written by someone who lives and breathes video games. Normally I wouldn’t be interested. Why would I care on that deep level? But by using an engaging narrator and a high-stakes plot, Cline makes the world of gaming accessible…and interesting.

–By peppering Ready Player One with a range of cultural references and tasks, Cline keeps the story interesting. For instance, one task involves Wade/Parzival having to play the Matthew Broderick role in a virtual reenactment of the movie War Games. Pretty damn inventive.

Ready Player One ends. There is no cliffhanger forcing me to wait, or pony up to read. Cline leaves ample room for a sequel if desired, but he doesn’t pull a literary bait and switch, where the end isn’t really the end. Save the sequels for book two, not book one.

And the not so good…

ReadyPlayerOne RD 1 finals 2–Cline spends a lot of time in the beginning building his world. The first fifty pages are exposition heavy and not as interesting as the rest of the book.

–The romantic subplot between Art3mis and Parzival was a little clunky. Parzival was a little too lovestruck, and Art3mis’s aloofness got annoying sometimes.

–With all the careful world building, I had a hard time blindly accepting that these people could spend hours and hours in their virtual reality gear (no food or drink, no bathroom breaks, no sleep).

But these are minor points. Ready Player One isn’t a book I would normally pick up, and I’m glad I did. I’m not the only fan — none other than the 1980s icon of film making Steven Spielberg plans to direct the movie version. I can’t wait to see how that turns out.