Why Rogue One Might Be Better Than the Force Awakens

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Star Wars fans should always be quick to remember that the Star Wars movies were not created in a vacuum (regardless of their various deep space settings).  George Lucas himself has stated that the Star Wars movies were essentially an amalgam of some of his favorite movies and genres assembled within a new and different science fiction setting.

For instance the Dune novels by Frank Herbert are directly referenced more than once in the Star Wars films and it doesn’t take much additional digging to find their influence throughout.

The samurai film epics of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa were another major influence on George Lucas and many elements from the movie The Hidden Fortress are woven into the narrative of the original Star Wars movie.

The film noir genre itself and movies like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca were ones Lucas grew up enjoying and many of the seedier elements of the Star Wars universe find their origins with them.  The Mos Eisley Cantina and Jabba the Hutt are a direct result of Lucas’ love of the gritty gangster ridden noir films.

There are of course other influences and aspects of the creation of the Star Wars movies which can be traced to many different sources; various science fiction, other films, fantasy literature, mythology, and even real world politics all of which are too numerous to mention here.  All of this is to say that originally Star Wars was never about the things for which it has now become famous, like reinventing the movie industry or altering the perception of science fiction on the big screen.  Instead I would argue that Star Wars was Lucas’ attempt to reintroduce many of the elements of “classic” Hollywood back into the harsh and often dreary cinemascape of the 1970’s.

At this point I must immediately interject here that I in no way believe Star Wars to be a rip-off or even unoriginal, in fact quite the opposite.  Although the Star Wars movies are heavy on familiar themes, pulp fiction references, and film making of a bygone era (even the scene transitions are antiquated wipes, pans, and dissolves) it was all pieced together in a wholly unique blend of space opera epic which introduced the world to the lightsaber, X-Wings, TIE Fighters, Wookiees, droids, and a whole slew of iconic planets, characters, aliens, and starships.

My point is this: As a long time Star Wars fan I have cultivated the opinion that, as a general rule, Star Wars (in all it’s varied forms and formats) is at its best when it emulates other things and frames them within the Star Wars universe; and doesn’t try too hard to be “Star Wars”.  Star Wars is not purely sci-fi, it isn’t purely fantasy, and it isn’t meant to be dramatic high art.  When any of these elements over shadows the others or when the elements of Star Wars itself begin to dominate the storyline the result is failure.

From my experience this balancing game falls apart in the expanded universe books, games, and other forums.  Though there is an argument for such an imbalance within the prequel movies as well and the reason why that trilogy has become so universally panned (though all of that is a topic for another time).

With the Star Wars novels in particular, especially the now defunct old EU, the authors attempt to capture the feeling of Star Wars too much by directly referencing the Star Wars universe in an awkward forced way.  Or they focus far too much on the sci-fi elements of the setting, presenting high tech jargon while casually rattling off obscure alien species and bits of Star Wars trivia in order to seem authentic.  All the while lauding a story lines which might seem clever in other sci-fi but seem out of place in the context of Star Wars.

There are however some great Star Wars novels, some of my favorites are the Death Troopers books by Joe Schreiber which are essentially horror/zombie novels set in the Star Wars universe.  Additionally Cloak of Deception and Darth Plagueis by James Luceno take up the staples of political thrillers set during the time of the prequel era and include all the Sith intrigue and Jedi apolitical maneuvering you’d expect, along with plenty of action and starships.

Similarly many of the best episodes of the Clone Wars series were when Dave Filoni and company played with various concepts and framed genre and  various trope story lines which had not been seen in the Star Wars universe beforehand.  The Clone Wars cartoon included murder mysteries, heist episodes, and giant kaiju-like monster attacks; all under the interpretations of the Star Wars universe.

Even the Star Wars video games have been at their best when they simply borrow from other popular video games and lend their unique and exciting Star Wars spin to the premise and gameplay.  Star Wars Battlefront was essentially Battlefield 1942 in space.  Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds was very much the Star Wars version of StarcraftStar Wars Racer, the Phantom Menace podracing game, was the Star Wars answer to any number of popular racing games of the day.  Those video games were GREAT!  Sure there were other impressive Star Wars games through the ages but many of those put a tight focus on specific characters or directly put the players in control of reenacting scenes from the movies.

Other Star Wars games did not stand up as well.

One of my least favorite games were the Force Unleashed series.  I believe they suffered from trying far too hard to feel Star Wars.  There certainly was some enjoyment in the array of Force powers available to Starkiller, the main character of the games, and the sandbox of destruction possible as a result.  However that game was a ridiculous mosaic of random elements from the Star Wars saga combined with fanboy wish fulfillment, wrapped in an incomprehensible story arc which was absolutely contradictory to the canon of the movies themselves.  I know a lot of people enjoyed that pair of games but not me and I’m sorry, it’s how I feel.

The only real example of a Star Wars property making a success from overtly trying to be “Star Warsy” was The Force Awakens, which does it’s best to redesign the original movie nearly beat for beat while adding several new and exciting characters and twists throughout.  In fact my biggest complaint regarding Episode VII is the plots general unoriginality.  However the characters and overall execution were so great that the redundancies in the narrative could be overlooked.

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This December will see the release of the first Star Wars spinoff movie, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (ugh.  Just call them Anthology Movies).  Rogue One is being touted as a war film, a pilot ace flick, and a heist movie all taking place within the setting of the Star Wars universe.  It is because of what we know regarding the plot that I believe Rogue One will be a great Star Wars movie and possibly better than The Force Awakens, for the reasons stated above.

The Star Wars universe is precisely that, an expansive diverse universe of possibilities and has the possibility to be so much more than a story of the Skywalker family and the Jedi.  Star Wars is also not simply a pattern of film making which if done right can be repeated ad nauseam into infinity.  And the Star Wars universe certainly is not just another sci-fi franchise that any tired sci-fi story can pasted onto, sprinkled with a few lightsabers, and titled Star Wars.  It is the exoticness of the well-worn settings and pervasive mandate for adventure which the Star Wars universe was built upon and which is able to take old stories and reform them in new ways.

Hopefully this is the case with Rogue One.

I really hope Rogue One takes off (pun intended) and is a big hit for Disney and Lucasfilm and I would love to see this first spin off movie blow The Force Awakens out of the water.  I’ve said this before, and although I have absolutely no ill will towards the Force Awakens, but I really hope that in the long run Episode VII really isn’t anyone’s favorite Star Wars flick.  With so much new Star Wars on the horizon hopefully as new movies keep opening up in theaters they will continue to outdo the previous ones in new and different ways.

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UPDATED! Possible New Series For Babylon 5?

I was checking my email yesterday and was sorting through some of my Google Alerts that I’ve let back up for too long.  One of my regular alerts is for Babylon 5, so I can try and stay on top of any new developments or commentary about the show.  Well the first B5 alert I checked contained a link that had both bits of information for me.  The link lead me over to this IGN story from Comic-Con.  There isn’t really much there to go on, but the coverage talks about a panel at the con featuring Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski discussing his previous work on the show, and an enigmatic mention of a new Babylon 5 series that may be in the works.  Warner Bros. apparently seemed to be looking to launch a new network (?) and were thinking about having a Babylon 5 spin-off as part of its lineup.  That scenario has changed however but from what it sounds like ol’ Joe Straczynski seems to think that there is still hope for this new Babylon 5 show seeing the light of day via some other channel through Warners.  One of the most interesting things mentioned in the article is that the deal Straczynski made would have given the show a much bigger budget than its previous incarnations and would have granted the creator full creative control over this new series.

Babylon 5 creator and writer J. Michael Straczynski

If even half of this Babylon 5 discussion turns out to be true I will be extremely excited.

If you are reading this and are a fan of the original B5 series you should help garner some interest for this new project by making your opinion known.  If you haven’t already, go over to the official Babylon 5 Facebook Page and hit them with a “like.”  Make sure to comment on their posts and bring up your enjoyment of the show and a desire for a new series!  It might not be a grand gesture but if there is enough activity on the page and if there is an influx of fans making comments, someone is bound to take notice.  Also get over to whatever geek and sci-fi message boards or forums you happen to post on regularly and bring up this idea of a new Babylon 5 series.  Rejuvenate the interest of the old fans and maybe pique the curiosity of some new ones.  It’s all part of my continuing mission to bring Babylon 5 back to the sci-fi forefront.

The early days of Babylon 5

UPDATE: 9/18/2011

So here’s some new information that has come to my attention recently.  At the recent Las Vegas Star Trek convention, Trek and Babylon 5 regular Walter Koenig revealed that he has had some recent talks with good ol’ JMS about this new Babylon 5 project that is in the works and that although he can’t reveal any solid details about the project at this time, there was apparently discussion that it might be a feature length film.  Whatever it is if Koenig is involved that pretty much blows my previous speculations out of the water (see below).  Clearly this project will be continuing the storyline left off from the original series and might be something along the lines of the story seen in the book Final Reckoning: The Fate of Bester and bring some kind final resolution to the mysterious fate of the regular B5 foil Alfred Bester who Walter Koenig portrayed during the five year story arc of the show.  With this new information there is still the possibility that there could be a new series in the works but now it feels more like another direct to DVD release similar to the last few B5 spin-offs.  Either way I’m excited.  I would of course love to see a new show, but I would also be glad to see any new story from the Babylon 5 universe even if it is just a single B5 movie.  We shall see though, I’m glad that the momentum for this project is still building and that this new development has people talking, eager to see more from J. Michael Straczynzki and the ol’ Babylon 5 gang.  Here is a LINK to the original story as reported by TrekMovie.com.

Now as far as my (now defunct) speculation goes as to what this new series could be about, I personally would love to see a prequel of sorts, perhaps focusing on the Earth/Dilgar war.  That would be a timeline that is just enough removed from the original that you could easily allow for a whole new cast while keeping the overall look of the series familiar to long time fans.  I would of course also love to see a show that picks up where the old shows left off, but sadly many of the best cast members of the series are now gone to us.  I personally wouldn’t want to return to the original timeline without the likes of G’Kar, Dr. Franklin, Zack Allen, or even Zathras.  In order to take the show in a new and interesting direction and to honor the memory of those wonderful actors who made the series what it is, my vote is for a prequel show.  A show that tells the story that leads up to the Babylon 5 station with some new faces and new stories to tell.  But let’s not forget that Babylon 5, like any sci-fi show worth it’s salt, has some time traveling elements.  So even if the new show takes place during the past, there’s still a slight chance we might be able to see some familiar faces one way or another.

Warleader Jha'dur fought against the Earth Alliance during the Earth/Dilgar war and was the last survivor of the Dilgar race.

That is all!

Worst Movie Universes To Call Home

Everyone has a favorite movie and some folks even fantasize about living within certain movie universes and partaking in the ideal settings or grand adventures portrayed on the big screen. Take me for example, I’ve got a whole life plotted out for myself should I one day happen to find that I’m living within the Star Wars universe. I would get a job at Cybot Galactica working in droid manufacturing, my wife would be a Twi’lek, we’d have a pet Ewok, we’d be model Imperial citizens, and there’d be a modest little prefab duracrete domicile in the rural outskirts of Tepasi that we’d call home.

But enough about that! We’re not here to read about my Star Wars RPG character, we’re here to discuss the movie universes that no one wants to live in, the most dangerous movie landscapes which if they were real, would surely claim the lives of all but the best of us. Of course as we all know movie universes operate under unique laws of physics that ensure the safety of all the leading men and lady types within them. But for all of us average schlubs and below average slobs these unreal realities would not be ideal worlds to call home.
Let’s take a look at what I believe are the top 5 most dangerous movie universes to live in!

#5- Any Zombie Universe!

Zombies suck. Rather, they bite, and how! It’s pretty obvious why living in a zombie infested world would not be cool. There are several different zombie movie universes and several varieties of zombies but they all have a few things in common. First of all, if you’re alive, you’re delicious. Zombies want to eat the living, that’s just what they do. Also they are mostly thoughtless, which means there’s no negotiating with them. That means zombie universes are the epitome of if you’re not with us, you’re against us. Second, zombies outnumber the living. Pretty much in every zombie flick whether it takes place in a small secluded town, or deals with a global undead outbreak the zombie-to-human ratio is tipped in their favor, not ours. In the movies no one seems to get their shit together to quell the zombie outbreak until half the population is already infected. Whompers. Finally, though zombies are undead creatures immune to pain they do have the “Headshot Weakness.” Everyone knows that if you put a bullet between the eyes of a zombie or bash its skull in with a blunt object, you’ll have yourself a re-dead zombie. That’s all well and good but that means if you want to make it in a zombie universe your ass had better be a class-A marksman or have decent upper body strength, but it’s hard to keep a steady hand when you’re constantly terrified and ones strength tends to get drained when you barely have time to eat and sleep between incidents of being chased around by the living dead.

#4- The Neverending Story Universe!

Now you might be asking yourself, “what would be so dangerous about living in this magical fantasy realm of friendly rock biters, talking tortoises, mystical princesses, and flying luck dragons?” and to be honest there isn’t anything inherently dangerous about the Neverending Story Universe, the problems occur when you remember that the universe of the Neverending Story is contained within a magical book, and that universes existence depends on said magical book being read. So if you live within that universe your entire existence depends on the reading comprehension level of whoever happens to pick up your book universe. Uh oh! Now do you see where the danger lies? People are stupid. Kids don’t read anymore! That was the whole plot of the first Neverending Story, the universe was being consumed by the Nothing, and if it was bad then you better believe it’s worse now! To be fair though it’s not really their fault they don’t read, what with teachers under tremendous scrutiny these days and testing standards which have deemed reading useful only for the purpose of answering questions presented in the various achievement tests. It’s surprising our society hasn’t already devolved into a bunch of proto-men speaking in grunts and monosyllabic phrases, only able to comprehend single letter text message style writing that is no longer then 240 characters. Needless to say I wouldn’t feel very secure living in a society that was based on the literacy of our culture. Though I guess there is a slight hope for the Neverending Story universe if they can manage to get their magical book onto a digital format, or better yet, simply convert their readership based existence into a viewership based existence powered by those who watch the movie instead of read the book. But alas that wouldn’t last very long either considering only nostalgic 30-somethings like myself still watch the movie, until there is an effects centric summer blockbuster remake of the Neverending Story I’d steer clear of setting up shop in that universe!

#3- The Godzilla Universe!

Unbridled destruction. Dispassionate stomping monster feet crushing thousands of people with each step. Battling monsters waging war with incredible powers that lay waste to countless square miles of cityscape with each uncanny blast. Well over thirty-five giant radioactive monster attacks have taken place since 1954 each more deadly and more destructive then the last! Does this sound like a world you want to live in? Clearly these people don’t learn their lesson seeing as they repeatedly fuck with nature or try to take advantage of the terrifying beasts of Monster Island. Though Godzilla and his cohorts seem partial to destroying Japanese cities they have not been solely limited to that island nation. Regardless, think of the constant fear the rest of the world would live with knowing that there were a great number of enormous monsters dwelling within the ocean that just need the slightest provocation to set them off on another rampage. The conventional weapons of man are useless against these behemoths and there is no environment on the planet which can deter them. It’s surprising that the petty human populace of the world haven’t turned to barbarism, fighting against one another and enslaving their conquered neighbors in order to offer them up as sacrifices to the unflinching monster overlords that could quite easily obliterate them without even noticing. Though this Lovecraftian existence isn’t quite what we have within the Godzilla universe, it is precariously perched on a razor thin edge and could topple into that type of maddening chaos at any moment. Who knows what world crushing tempest of impairment awaits mankind when the monsters decide to rise up again?

#2- The Alien/Predator Universe!

This one is a double whammy! Aliens and Predators. You can’t win with either of these guys. The future is bleak for mankind. Should we venture into the outer reaches of the cosmos we will inevitably run into the Xenomorph aliens of the Alien movies. However even if we seclude ourselves from the greater galaxy our strongest and most skilled warriors will still fall prey to the aliens from the Predator films, who scour planets for the most challenging prey to hunt and have found a favorite trophy with mankind. If you’re fat and lazy you’ll make a nice incubator for an Alien chestbuster, but if you’re fit and athletic you’ll find a tri laser scope aimed at your forehead. Worst of all is when the two species battle each other and Earth simply becomes the intergalactic proving ground to show which alien is superior, with us pitiful humans getting caught in the crossfire. The best advice I can offer if you chose to live in this universe is to really let yourself go, get off the diet, and forget the workout regimen but invest in a flamethrower and acid resistant body armor. Other than that, you’re on your own.

#1- The Matrix Universe!

Unless you’re one of the few resistance fighters who realize that you’re in the Matrix universe, then you’re already in danger! That’s right, within the Matrix every man, woman, and child has already been captured, bred, and programmed by the bad guys. The machines have already won and your unreliable genetic material is simply keeping things running until your body fails and you are recycled and your proteins are processed to feed your other pathetic human matrix-mates. But if you are brought out of the matrix and allowed to experience reality then the shit really hits the fan because you will be hunted down by the relentless programming and automated defenses that are in place to ensure that any rogue elements are dealt with swiftly. Though the resistance fighters are armed with a lot of wizard technology, gadgets, matrix tricks, and some cool characters dressed like badasses unless you’re Keanu Reeves, you’re still going to get your ass handed to you by Agent Smith and his evil omnipotent matrix constructs. In all honesty I still have not seen the Matrix sequels. I really enjoyed the first one and thought it was a really stellar idea for a movie. The action sequences were unique and groundbreaking and are still emulated and parodied to this day. I just thought it had a good ending point. At the end he realizes his full potential, he becomes aware of the matrix around him, he can control things, and he is a super powerful being within the matrix. A savior type of character who we just assume goes on to make quick work of the villainy within that universe, free all the unbeknownst slaves, and they all live happily ever after rebuilding the world that was destroyed around them. That however wasn’t where it ended and there were more movies. I just never got around to seeing them, and have since been told that I’m not really missing anything and so have stayed away. I can however tell you without a doubt that I would not want to actually live within the matrix universe. If I was stuck plugged into the matrix and still had to live this half-assed life, no thanks. If I’m going to be a brainwashed cyberorganic component powering some evil machine I at least want to be rich and carefree, not working some shitty 9 to 5 and hoping against hope that the wife and I can get the bills worked out this month. And I know for sure I wouldn’t have enough motivation to be one of the good guys, putting my life on the line to fight for some destroyed landscape in a post apocalyptic reality. You would literally have nothing to fight for. Everything you know and love is in the matrix and fake, and the real world is desolate and almost beyond repair. It’s a lose/lose situation at best as far as I’m concerned.

Anyway there you have it, five movie universes that I’m pretty sure no one would actually want to call their reality!

That is all!

The Greatest Thing I’ve Seen This Week

Have you ever said to yourself “Man I wish there was a band consisting of Will Robinson from Lost in Space, the One Armed Man from the Fugitive, the hot mom from Freaks and Geeks, and Rousseau from LOST!” ?  You have?! Well than today is your lucky day, because I come bearing good news.  There is such a band and they are called The Be Five.  Something they all have in common is that they were also cast members of one of the best sci-fi shows of all time, Babylon 5.

Amazing.

Earlier this week a friend of mine, who is also a Babylon 5 fan, sent me a link directing me to the information about this album and my mind was blown.  Apparently back in 1998 Bill Mumy, Mira Furlan, Claudia Christian, Andreas Katsulas, and Peter Jurasik at the height of Babylon 5’s popularity came together to make an album, calling their group The Be Five.  I’ve known that Bill Mumy was a musician but I had no idea he ever got together with his other B5 comrades to make music.  Apparently Mumy wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on the album which are mainly blues/rock and the other cast members take the lead vocals on two tracks each.  As if that wasn’t awesome enough Patricia Tallman, everyones favorite Vorlon enhanced telepath, has several cameos on the album as well, as a backup vocalist.

Unfortunately the album was basically only available at various cons where one of the stars were making an appearance.  Later it was more widely distributed but not in great numbers and apparently it is still rather hard to find a physical copy of the CD.  Thankfully however this one and only album of The Be Five “Trying to Forget” is available for digital download on Amazon!  I would suggest checking it out and at least listening to some of the samples from the tracks.  Hearing Peter Jurasik who played Londo Mollari sing blues is simply golden and I was quite surprised by the dark sultry qualities of Mira Furlan’s singing voice.

I had no idea this thing existed, but now that I do I can’t get it out of my head.  This made my week, and you’d better believe it is now at the top of my list of things to buy!

Here are a few links:

About The Be Five

The Be Five on Amazon

That is all!

Space Exploration is the Human Legacy

Yesterday NPR had a story about the possible next generation of spacecraft that might make deliveries and carry astronauts for NASA now that the shuttle program is being done away with.  The new spacecraft will be made by the private aeronautics company known as SpaceX (yes it sounds like “Space Sex”) and will have twice the cargo weight capacity of the current shuttles.  The new rocket is being called Falcon Heavy and could be making its first launch as soon as 2013.  You can read the whole article HERE.

The possible design of the Falcon Heavy by SpaceX

In other space news, a fascinating article by Steven Kotler in this month’s Playboy deals with the very real and very near future industry of asteroid mining.  Yes that long running staple of the sci-fi genre, asteroid mining could become a reality and change everything.  One expert in the article states that he believes the first trillionaires on Earth will be the individuals who take the risks and invest in off world resource gathering.  NASA has flown probes up to, and kept pace with, various asteroids collecting particles and dust in their wake.  The Japanese on the other hand have gone one step further, not only sending probes to match the speed of an asteroid, but have actually landed on the asteroid’s surface, scraped it for samples, and then flew back to Earth with the samples intact.  That is essentially what the industry of asteroid mining would look like, only on a bigger scale.  Since asteroids are not within our Earthly atmosphere they aren’t processed and diffused, they are highly concentrated chunks of ore which wouldn’t require extensive digging to cull.  Whatever materials you can scrape off the surface, is pretty much what the entire asteroid is made of.  Those materials include iron, nickel, gold, platinum, and water, along with hundreds of other minerals that can be in short supply here on Earth.  This work with asteroid interception and remote resource gathering is a perfect stepping stone for a manned Mars mission, and eventual off world colonization.  If we can obtain resources like water and iron from asteroids and send them to, say, a Mars colony without having to ship them from Earth, that would drastically lower the costs of such missions.

Artists rendering of remote asteroid mining

 

As far as I’m concerned space exploration is one of the most important endeavors humans can hope to undertake.  It is a topic I have felt strongly about for many years and I will continue to uselessly argue for it with anyone who can hear me until I’m dead.  My opinions on the matter are not new, or based in astute scientific research that I’ve conducted, or even all that original.  The reason I feel I must repeat my feelings though are because people seem to forget, and lose sight.  So few people think about the big picture of the world, the future of humanity.  How we live on a razor thin edge which could be toppled at any moment from any number of sources beyond our control and unless we look out toward space now, everything we are currently doing becomes excruciatingly meaningless.

Some time in the future, countless days from now, our sun will die.  It will grow colder, dimmer, and expand enveloping our planet and evaporating away our histories and cultures.  Of course I suppose even that is wishful thinking, expecting the human race to make it that long considering we will more likely kill each other off through violence, pollution, and war.  Though even if we were to survive our own very human struggles there is still the regular threat from any number of extinction events that have swept the world previously.  What I’m getting at is one way or another, our world is doomed, humanity is doomed, and unless we take to the stars and move beyond where we are now everything we know and will ever know will simply cease to exist as if none of it ever existed.  A brief flash of light in the darkness of the universe, that no one saw.

Of course it all sounds very nostalgic, perhaps naively optimistic.  What’s to stop Earth colonies on Mars or elsewhere from turning out exactly the same as Earth, with war, pollution, and poverty?  Nothing, most likely those ventures will start out as purely financial stakes, some sort of corporate interests that want to make a buck.  Whenever we do set up bases on off-world landscapes (and I firmly believe we will) I have no real expectation that it will be done with the human races best interests in mind, it will most likely be much more small minded and profit driven.  However such a venture will allow people like me to look beyond those two dimensional motivations and have some small hope, some reassurance that the human race is indeed stepping out and establishing itself with at least a larger scope in mind.  We all know the old saying, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  I honestly look forward to news of longer space voyages and established bases on other worlds because until that time there is always the dark pall hanging over us that perhaps the space programs will be completely done away with one day, and we will be stuck on this planet isolated, simply waiting to become extinct.  Until I see images of humans on other planets, there will be a slight sadness and sense of longing when looking up at the night sky.

Destination: Mars

Others out there are doubtlessly reading this and deriding these comments and my thoughts on the future and space exploration.  That’s fine, that’s understandable.  But when people say they are tired of seeing money spent on rockets into space when there are plenty of people here on Earth that need it, my only response to them would be “I guess you missed my point.”  Inflated military budgets and our war industry work more for the spread of conflict and loss of life then they work against it.  Our medical industry is working hard to make us immortal which will be nice when the shattering of Earth does eventually roll around, at least we’ll still be around to see it.  Our entertainment culture, which is important to the identity of the human race, should blindly keep shoveling millions upon millions of dollars into the movie, sports, television, and video game industries so that we can be thoroughly distracted from the realities of war and poverty, and so we don’t have to think about difficult and deep thoughts such as the future of the human race.  Why would we want to spend money on space exploration?  To perhaps actually preserve the legacy of the human race?  Preposterous!

I don’t have any real answers to anything and I’m certainly not really doing much in my life to change the situation or rally support for the space program or anything like that.  I suppose my main point in writing this post is simply to share my thoughts and perhaps invoke some others out there to think about the future, the planet, and the big picture as a whole.  If I’ve done that at all that’s great, and I hope you continue to think big and encourage others to do so.  If you’ve gotten nothing out of reading this, if you think I’m an idiot and you want that five minutes of your life back I say that’s what you get for reading a blog entitled “Mindless Philosophy!”

To the future!

That is all!

My B5 Mission

So here it is, another Babylon 5 blog post from me.  I’m sure you might be getting sick of hearing me go on and on about this defunct sci-fi franchise and I promise I will try and make this my last B5 post for awhile, but I just have a few more things to say about this series.

As I mentioned before I was overjoyed to hear that all five seasons of Babylon 5 are available to watch on Netflix now.  Unfortunately the show only saw a brief life in reruns due to some sort of distribution rights dispute that effectively shut down syndication of the series.  For years I relied on VHS tapes that I recorded from television with the commercials edited out in order to spread the word on the show.  Even that approach, or showing the series on DVD, requires finding time to meet up and watch all five seasons, episode by episode.  It’s often difficult to find a time when that works for both parties.  You of course can lend out your copies to friends and family, but as I grow older I more and more take the position of “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”  I know I still have movies and games floating around the house that I’ve borrowed from friends years ago, and there’s always a slight pang of displeasure when I am without a lent item for extended periods.

The Babylon 5 station

Now however, thanks to modern technology, all of that is a thing of the past at least when it comes to spreading the word on Babylon 5.  Ironically I myself do not use Netflix, the wife and I are currently crunching numbers in an attempt to save money, and though it isn’t that expensive, it does all add up.  It’s on our list however and I’m sure we will catch up to the rest of the world shortly.  This development though does mean that I can finally conveniently and efficiently urge my friends and anyone else I know with Netflix to watch the show.

I am taking up a personal crusade to prosthelytize Babylon 5.  I really believe there has not been a show to equal its scope and level of storytelling.  I love the franchise and the Babylon 5 universe, and unlike other major sci-fi franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek, Babylon 5 needs a bit of a fanbase boost because it seems to be slipping further and further away from the pop culture spotlight (doubtlessly due to the aforementioned lack of syndication.)  BUT I also do not want to overhype it.  I hate when that happens, when you get all pumped up for something listening to others talk about, and you go in with enormous expectations that can’t be met.  If you have never seen the show I don’t want you to take a look at the first season and think “What the fuck?  He was praising this?”  So here are a few things to keep in mind:

1-The effects, for the most part, are bad.  At the start of season 1, the special effects can be blocky, slow and a bit awkward.  You have to keep in mind though that this was an upstart low budget series.  This isn’t part of a big franchise like Star Trek where they can use the legacy of the show, and established fanbase for larger budgets for graphics and effects.  Like Babylon 5 itself in season 1, the effects department was just getting off the ground and starting from scratch.  Thankfully as time goes on the overall look of the show improves tremendously.

2- The show is dorky.  In case you weren’t aware the show is a sci-fi series which, on occasion, conforms to the stereotypes of the genre and has a few dorky moments.  A couple of bad puns here, an alien penis joke there, you know, those old chestnuts.  Though actually as the series goes on those lighthearted “dorky” moments really help reflect the heavier, darker, and more epically mature moments in later seasons.

The show does have a lot of genuinely funny moments

3- The show is thick with continuity.  Babylon 5 isn’t a show you can pick and choose episodes with, in fact I often compare it to LOST in that respect when talking with people about the show.  Sure you’ll get the idea if you just jump right into season three, but there will be plenty of moments where you find yourself completely out of the loop, asking yourself “Now who the hell is that guy, and why is everyone so pissed?”  Without following the continuity of the show you really lose a great deal in regard to the development of the characters which is crucial to the show, and which I’d say is the best part of Babylon 5.  Which brings me to the good things about Babylon 5.

This show is unlike anything else in television, as far as I’ve seen.  The characters in the show grow and evolve with each episode and through every season.  No character is static, or two dimensional.  They are given quite a bit to deal with on screen and there are a plethora of rich personal histories that are alluded to, and referenced which help flesh out the characters.  When I say “the characters” I don’t mean just the main characters, the stars, the heroes, I mean every character on the show.  The side characters, the recurring characters, the comic relief characters, they all evolve as the show goes on.  You find as you watch Babylon 5 that your opinions of characters drastically shifts, and are often completely turned upside down.  The entire Babylon 5 cast is made up of cast of complex individuals working through their issues during the intrigues and immense storylines of the series.

Aside from the characters, the setting for the show, the B5 universe itself, is also deep and well crafted.  There is a sense of history in the universe that is seen through the characters and the plot.  There are political tensions and feuds between various interstellar governments tracing back through these fictional histories.  There is a strong sense of realism, emotional honesty, mingled in through the high tech unreal world of Babylon 5.  In a way the political tones and issues portrayed in Babylon 5 were ahead of their time, I would go so far as to say that J. Michael Straczynski was the first television writer to capture the feel of the post 9/11 United States, before 9/11.  Which is a huge credit to the political savvy of the show.  Thinking about it now, with its themes of corrupted media, distrust of outside cultures, misuse of military power, government conspiracy, and so much more Babylon 5 is more timely now then when it was originally aired.

My last bit of praise for Babylon 5 simply goes to the writing.  The only word I can think of for the writing is epic.  The best description of the show I’ve read was that Babylon 5 was a novel on television.  That is exactly it.  A novel with a huge story arc, dozens of tangents, and varied and complex themes.  The show changed my expectations of television and of the sci-fi genre.  In a way the show changed how I viewed politics and science, encouraging a better understanding of both.  The best thing I’ve taken away from the show however are dozens of memorable chunks of dialogue.  From sharp tongued one liners to eloquent dramatic soliloquies, Babylon 5 has them all.

The character of Michael Garibaldi is one of the best examples of the series writing

So overall my mission now is to create more Babylon 5 fans out there.  Why am I doing this you might ask.  Because I believe in the show?  Because I respect the creators and actors?  Because I hope to share the series message of realism mixed with hope?  The answer is yes to all of those I suppose, but I believe it is all pretty simple, and much more selfish than that.  I’m looking for more folks to talk about the show with who enjoy it as much as I do.  Perhaps I hope to prove to myself that I have been correct in devoting my fandom to the series.  If others out there like it, then maybe that means I have been right to spend so much time following the adventures of a band of fictional warriors and politicians in space.

Isn’t that why fans of any ilk band together?  Whether it’s TV, movies, sports, don’t we all get together not simply to enjoy the subject of our fandom, but perhaps to reinforce to ourselves that we are not alone?

That is all!

Wizards, Jedi, and Vorlons: The Golden Age of Card Games

So over the past few weeks I’ve undertaken the task of organizing my collection of various card games I currently and formerly played.  A couple of weekends ago I was sorting through my Magic cards and this weekend found me extensively organizing my Babylon 5 cards.  (If those sentences haven’t made me sound like a complete dork then just wait for the next couple.)  As I was going through my B5 cards I remembered how awesome that game was and it also reminded me why I love that show so much, but it got me thinking about a time when collectible card games were king.  A time that has come and gone, when innovation and creativity were the banners held high for such games and their creators.  A day when several giants of the card game industry roamed the earth, unlike today where a single giant lumbers along with a few lesser known shrimps riding its coattails.

I have some experience with tabletop games.  I haven’t ever really successfully played Dungeons & Dragons or anything like that, but board games like Risk and Axis and Allies are a good time, most of the Cranium games are great, and I have discovered a few lesser known games like Zombies!.  Each year my New Years Eve festivities entail alcohol mixed with many board games with my wife and my entire family.  (Good times!)

During my college years I got into HeroClix, the superhero based miniatures game where four players build teams of superheroes from the Marvel and DC universes and then battle it out across a giant game map.  HeroClix is a personal favorite of mine because it is more or less a huge game of chess, but instead of the pieces moving in different ways, the pieces have super powers and they take clicks of damage, and . . . . well, it’s better if you just play it to see what I’m saying.

An example of a HeroClix game piece. Superman is a really good one to have, just FYI.

My first loves of table games however are card games.  I started in middle school with Magic: The Gathering, of course.  When that game was first getting started it spread like wildfire!  Nearly everyone I knew was playing Magic and it really is the game that started it all as far as collectible card games go, but let us fast forward several years to a time that I consider to be the peak years of card games: 1997 – 2001 The Golden Age of Card Games!  It was during these years that my geek culture and gaming interests collided in an epic fashion.

Magic: The Gathering is neither “Magic” nor a “Gathering.” Discuss.

This period saw card games expand in scope and complexity and brought us two more big games which would join Magic at the top of the stack, the Star Wars Collectible Card Game and the Babylon 5 Collectible Card Game.  For me, being a geek and a fan of both those properties, it was a glorious time.  Magic had set up the culture of card games and with the addition of popular franchises into the mix, card games were taken to a whole new level.  Players of the Star Wars CCG could watch the Empire Strikes Back while they defiantly reworked the movie’s plot on the table before them, having the rebels successfully repel the Imperial attack on Hoth.  Babylon 5 fans did not simply follow card text and use strategy to win the games, they had to make alliances and cut deals with their fellow players if they wanted to make any headway because many of the cards in that game relied on voting and political intrigue to succeed, just as you might expect for a card game based on a television show about intergalactic space politics.  For those who remember reading Scrye magazine back in the day, you will remember these three games dominating the covers of that bimonthly publication.  And as if these three games weren’t enough this is also the era that gave us the Pokemon Trading Card Game, the Star Trek CCG, and saw the beginning of the Lord of the Rings card game.

But let’s take a moment and examine what made each of the “Big Three” card games so great.

Magic: the Gathering The King of the card games, the Duke of decks, the sovereign of shuffling . . . . you get the idea.  Magic was and still is the number one card game of all time.  It’s broad fantasy setting and ever expanding library of cards has a wide appeal.  The single pile deck, straight across layout, and simple rules make it easy to learn, understand, and play.  Magic was unleashed onto the world in 1993 and was eagerly taken up by young and old alike.  The deceptively easy rules are offset by the wide variety of cards which a master player can assemble in swift and crushing strategies.  Overall Magic has endured because its original concepts are so brilliant and concise, and because of its general fantasy vibe which can change and evolve unlike games based on various movie and TV franchises.

This is Dr. Steve Brule’s favorite card.

Star Wars CCG– The loss of this card game still brings me down.  After its release in 1995 the Star Wars CCG was a solid second place in terms of sales behind Magic.  A smooth well crafted game that effectively captured the excitement and mythology of the Star Wars movies.  Somewhat more complicated then Magic, Star Wars still pitted two players against one another in a familiar linear layout but added the brilliant touch of having the deck itself be the “life” of each player.  In Magic each player starts with 20 life points and through battling that total is whittled away.  In the Star Wars CCG however each deck must have no more than 60 cards, which are then depleted through gameplay and damage from the opponent.  The main decks were cycled through three piles on each player’s side that would ebb and flow every turn like the Force.  This game mechanic was a practical solution to the problem of the “bad shuffle.”  The crisp, clean look of this game and the exquisite attention to detail made this card game not only fun, but a true homage to the Star Wars movies.  This game at one time held such great sway with Lucas that it was allowed to name and flesh out the history of several previously unnamed characters they depicted on their cards which have gone on to have some prominence in the Star Wars EU, which I suppose is the real legacy of this game.

C-3PO was included in the initial limited edition of the Star Wars CCG

Babylon 5 CCG-The Babylon 5 CCG had the smallest audience without a doubt, but surprisingly held onto the number three spot for popular card games for quite some time during this period.  Introduced in 1997 the Babylon 5 card game did not have the highest production value.  Whereas the Star Wars card images were heavily cleaned up and digitally enhanced, the B5 game often lacked such finery and was decorated with several fuzzy and grainy images from the television show.  This however was made up for by the intricate gameplay.  It wasn’t necessarily true to say that the Babylon 5 game was complex, because the mechanics were pretty straightforward, I would instead describe it as involved and strategically demanding.  Also Babylon 5 by far had the most accoutrement accompanying the game.  To play Magic and Star Wars all you needed were the cards, but to play B5 there were a few accessories.  I suppose you could play without some of these accessories, but they helped clarify a few things.  In the game each player represented an alien ambassador from the show who was representing their species aboard the Babylon 5 station, ala a UN in space.  During the game you had to keep track of political tensions between the races which could lead to peace or war.  You had to track your factions influence and the influence of the Babylon 5 station and other races that were not playable but which could affect the game and individual factions.  It all sounds very difficult and for a first time player or someone who knows nothing about the Babylon 5 show it doubtlessly was difficult.  However this was a unique game in that it was meant to be played by more than two players, it of course could function with only two players but then things would be rather dull.  This game did a good job of keeping their card mechanics in check, unlike Magic and Star Wars which seemed to introduce some new rule or card ability with each expansion.  Babylon 5 kept true to its original game concepts while continually encouraging action through the players and their own politicizing.

The Narn were one of the more adaptable factions to play as in the B5 card game.

In 2001 this personal golden age of card games came to a screeching halt.  In 1999 Hasbro bought up Wizards of the Coast, the makers of Magic: The Gathering which was a big deal at the time.  Hasbro is also the manufacturer of Star Wars toys and collectibles and is the long time holder of those production rights.  In 2001 Lucasfilm decided to consolidate their merchandizing, and did not renew their contract with Decipher, the producer of the Star Wars CCG.  Instead they handed the gaming rights over to Hasbro to produce a new series of games with their newly acquired Wizards of the Coast.  None of those games however matched the level of detail and quality of the Decipher game, or matched the success of Wizards of the Coast other big seller, Magic.

Later in 2001 Warner Bros. did not renew the Babylon 5 rights with Precedence, the card games developer.  Most likely this was due to a waning lack of interest, the namesake show had reached the end of its five season story arc and the cancellation of the spinoff series, Crusade, which was unable to match the tone and scope of Babylon 5 meant there was little in the way of future expansions for the card game.  The Babylon 5 CCG slowly winked out of existence like a dying star in the night sky.

Magic is still going strong and constantly making new innovative changes to the design of the game.  The Star Wars CCG though no longer in print, still has a large fan following, typical of Star Wars fans, and boasts a sizable online player community who still produce online “virtual cards” for the game and hold tournaments.  Babylon 5 however, like the show itself, has unfortunately gradually slipped further and further away from the public eye.  Immediately after the game was cancelled there was an online fanbase that took up a movement similar to that of the Star Wars CCG, but it lacked the numbers and the momentum of that game and is, as far as I can tell, all but dead now on the web.

That’s not to say that it’s too late for a resurgence of these games!  I still play Magic occasionally, but if anyone has any interest in playing some Star Wars or Babylon 5 let me know, I’m game!  Ha!

That is all!