An Unexpected Award!

As well as having the pleasure of seeing so many wonderful people winning Nebula Awards this weekend, I’ve had some personal good news. My colleague Phillip Wu and I have won a teaching award for our programme to use MS Teams for community building and social support among doctoral students! I’ve never remotely expected to be nominated for a teaching award, let alone win one, so this is really rather delightful.

The Starlost Episode Two: Lazarus From The Mist

Looking for the cryogenic suspension facility so as to revive someone who can help them, the hero trio are set upon by a band of aggressive tribespeople. “I’ll be all right!” shouts Garth as the other two escape to safety leaving him facing the enemy horde, and indeed they believe him, it’s a full six minutes and fifty seconds before Devon says “…and we’ve got to get help for Garth.”

Anyway, the A plot is that Devon and Rachel manage to revive an engineer, only to find that 1) he’s the wrong kind of engineer, and 2) the reason he’s in suspension is because he was exposed to a “radiation virus” (how very 1973) and has two hours to live. Again, this is an interesting enough idea which could have been quite powerful in the right hands, but this is underplayed so awkwardly that there’s no emotional heft to what ought to have been a quite tragicomic situation. At least he manages to infodump a lot about the ship and what they need to do next.

LEXX might have got away with this.

The B plot is, of course, the tribespeople, who are dressed in the rags of crew uniforms, are apparently descended from surviving security personnel, and are the sort of thing LEXX would have been able to get away with. There’s two ways you can go with this sort of setup, and, to its credit, The Starlost goes with the optimistic version (befriending the tribespeople and helping them find a home in an abandoned dome). We’re never going to see them again, of course, but it’s just as well.

The Starlost Episode One: The Beginning

Yes, that’s really what it’s called. There’s an alternate title, “Voyage of Discovery”, but that’s similarly meaningless.

Keir Dullea is a young man with a gigantic moustache in the Amish-type religious peasant community of Cypress Corners. For some reason he’s named “Devon” although everyone else, bar his friend and love-rival Garth, has an Old Testament name. The initial setup is interesting enough: Devon has been forbidden from marrying the woman he loves, Rachel, because the match has been deemed genetically undesirable, and the Word of God that the people obey appears to be coming from a supercomputer. In an even more interesting twist, Devon later discovers that it isn’t even that: the community elders record the divine pronouncements on micro cassettes and the computer is nothing more than a playback machine. Devon of course rebels and is cast out of the community only to discover— surprise!— that they are all on a generation ship, that there are thousands of other communities on there, and that the ship is off course and going to collide with a nearby “solar star” (tautological as that sounds), since the bridge crew are all dead and the bridge in ruins. There’s a supercomputer on the ship, played by a man with an excellent beard, but of course it has a lot of plot-convenient gaps in its memory. Devon, Garth and Rachel must now embark on a quest to save the ship and humanity and et cetera.

As a story, it’s not too bad. It’s a bit obvious (will Devon rebel, or will we spend sixteen episodes watching him raise barns and plough fields?) but then a lot of setup episodes are. The production values are pretty good for 1973, even if the CSO sequences haven’t aged well. I actually quite liked the uneasy relationship with technology in the Amish-type community: you expect the twist to be that the elders all know God is a computer, but the further twist that the computer doesn’t work and the elders are actually doing a different technological hack, was cleverer.

The main problems so far have to do with production decisions, dialogue, and performances. It would have been much more effective to shoot the early sequences on location (Black Creek Pioneer Village, not too far from the studio, had been running since 1960), which would have made the contrast with the spaceship sets more dramatic and given the whole thing a real sense of a ship big enough that people can live in it for generations.

Inadvertently hilarious face

As for the script, oh dear. The dialogue was mostly stilted pronouncements along the lines of “why must we obey the word of God?”, and the actors all spoke it with forced-sounding emotion, as if everyone was reading off cue cards. There’s barely a moment of naturalistic acting in the story. Also, the face Keir Dullea pulls when Devon accidentally sets off an inter-ship transporter and is hurled up the corridor is inadvertently hilarious.

The Starlost: Introduction and apology (sorrynotsorry)

The Starlost is a 1973 series which is slightly notorious in the history of telefantasy. It starred Keir Dullea, accompanied by such well-known guest stars as John Collicos, Barry Morse and Walter Koenig, was created and developed by Harlan Ellison with Ben Bova as scientific advisor and Doug Trumbull as producer…. And yet, despite all this talent, it was a notorious flop. Ellison took his name off the project (it’s credited to “Cordwainer Bird”), and Bova later wrote a notorious roman-a-clef about his time on the series.

It’s also of note for being a rare example of a pre-1990s Canadian-made SFF television programme (I can’t think of any other beyond the children’s series Read All About It, unless you count cartoons).

Now, I like television, and I have a certain fondness for bad television, particularly of the so-bad-it’s-postmodern variety, so I wanted to check it out. Having discovered that the whole series is available on YouTube, that place where once-forgotten television shows enjoy surprising second lives, I girded my loins and watched the whole thing. Let’s just say it was tough going, even for me.

Starting from next week, I’ll be posting the cleaned-up and edited version of the reviews I posted on Facebook earlier this year, for your edification, enjoyment, and warning.

The Lunchtime Writer Part Five: On Breaks

One question which leaps to mind on the subject of Lunchtime Writing is: can I (or should I) take breaks? Maybe take a day or two off and make it up later.

Well, sometimes you have to. There will always be days when you have literally no time, not even a spare half-hour, for writing. Or other days when you really should, for other reasons. I remember one of Isaac Asimov’s editorial columns from his magazine, where he boasted that he worked literally every day of the year, and then added (also as a bit of a boast) that this had led to his wife getting angry at him for excusing himself from a holiday visit with guests to go write. Let’s just say there’s more than one reason Asimov doesn’t have a reputation for the greatest social awareness.

But I’ll also say that part of the power of Lunchtime Writing comes from the fact that it’s a daily practice. It’s like learning a language or studying for an exam or exercising or playing a musical instrument: in some ways, doing it regularly is better for your brain than the amount of time you spend doing it.

You can also, of course, shorten the amount of time you spend on it. If you want to make sure you get in some writing every day, you could set yourself a target of 100 words, or even just 1 word, on busy days.

But if even that’s impossible… well, my advice is to keep breaks to a minimum.

Tales from the Workplace: On Being Wrong With Confidence

One of my many jobs when working for the Public Sector in Canada was, believe it or not, continuity announcer. This was at a historic military site which did twice daily shows of Victorian military drill or marching band music (alternating days). Those of us who didn’t do either, got to climb up a rickety ladder to an even ricketier crow’s nest with giant speakers, extract a binder of snappy descriptions of what the audience were seeing, and read those out over the microphone. If you were lucky, the drill sergeant would have told you the order of manoeuvres for the day. If you weren’t, s/he would just be randomising them, and you’d have to flip feverishly back and forth in the book for the descriptions, and hope you weren’t accidentally mistaking enfilading fire for form-fours.

Which is where I got a very useful piece of advice, from more senior people in the announcing trade: if you’re wrong, be wrong with confidence. Because you will make mistakes, or have to suddenly truncate a description, or have a page blow away in the wind, or similar, and the worst thing you can do is to stammer and stutter and sound like you don’t know what you’re doing. If you say it wrong, but with confidence, most of the audience don’t know there’s a screwup, and you can apologise to the ones that do later.

Fast forward twenty years, and it’s my first time reading out the names at Redbrick University’s graduation ceremony. I’m really, really worried about mispronouncing someone’s name, so I’ve been looking names up, asking colleagues who are native speakers of various languages how to pronounce things, and, in the final analysis, reminding graduating students that if they’re concerned about pronunciation, to please write a phonetic transcription on the little card that the attendant will pass to me with their name on.

The ceremony starts, and I’m reading off the names, and feeling more and more confident. I’m remembering pronunciations, and I’m helped by the fact that many of the students have written their names phonetically, and then I come to a card bearing the name: Jorje.

Which I know perfectly well is pronounced, to transcribe it for English speakers, “Horhey.”

And the student has helpfully written, above his name, “Horhey.”

But, unbelievably, and with confidence and gusto, I say:

“George.”

I looked for him after the ceremony to apologise profusely, but never found him. Jorje, if you ever read this, may I say that I am terribly, terribly sorry.

LEXX: 3.13: Heaven and Hell

If last week was Ingmar Bergman, this week is what you’d get if you handed Ingmar Bergman a tab of acid and a copy of the script for “Journey to the Far Side of the Sun”. Before you can say “aren’t the planets Fire and Water metaphorically like Hell and Heaven?” we discover that not only is this literally true, but a) you can’t have one without the other, b) Prince is Satan (leading to some nice speculation on what motivates him and why he even exists)… and c) in the season-ender cliffhanger, both he and the LEXX have now been unleashed onto the Earth.

Oh, and Xev gets dry-humped by a skeleton. Just in case all the metaphysics was getting to be too much and you needed to go back into the Pornography Zone.

I’m probably not going to cover LEXX season 4, because 1) it’s not on Amazon Prime, so I’d have to buy a box set, and 2) it’s Season 4, which I remember as not being remotely good in the slightest, and I have yet to see any evidence that it’s worth a re-visit, except possibly to be amused when various German actors who have since become known for other things turn up as guests. So my next set of TV reviews for this blog, at least, will be “The Starlost.”