We learned that fundamental rule very early in our stay here. The natives take their god seriously.
“Do Not Touch” is a simpler way to put it.
Our lesson came the hard way. Six of our best people were killed on the first expedition to the Giant – felled by the otherwise most congenial people we have ever encountered on our planetary explorations.
We don’t know whether the Giant is animal, vegetable or mineral. It was visible from orbit upon our arrival, which was the primary reason we set down here. The giant rules the horizon, driving us crazy with its nearby unknowability.
The giant appears to be worshiped by the planet’s primitive humanoids. We’ve been close enough to see the structures erected at its feet. Temples?
We’ve observed that some of those who march, single-file to the temples every four planetary rotations don’t always come back. Sacrifices?
Theories about the nature of the Giant abound, as one might expect in a scientific community denied access to the focal point of its curiosity and further hampered by an immensely hostile environment.
A few of us speculate that the Giant is a natural landscape feature, mindlessly forged by the same forces that shaped the planet as whole.
The least discerning eye cannot escape the detail of the Giant’s sagging face and posture.
More likely. The Giant is a mountain, painstakingly transformed, Mount Rushmore-style, as a tribute to some fallen hero from the planetary past. Yet, the inhabitants to not appear to have the technological means to create such a monument.
That leads to my pet theory: The giant was a living being.
He was a member of a king-sized race which preceded the current dominant species.
Slumped in despair at the demise of the rest of his kind, he was the final victim of the ice age that suddenly engulfed his world.
During the course of troubleshooting our equipment, he set every receiver in my house to the History Channel. That’s how I caught the tail end of an American Pickers episode and learned of the Forevertron.
It was a steampunk fan’s dream – on steroids. The Forevertron is 50 feet tall, 120 feet wide. And weighs 600,000 pounds. It was created by lifetime scrap metal collector and artist, Tom “Dr. Evermor” Every.
Sure. That’s what they want you to think.
More likely, the real explanation for its presence is something more like this …
The Wanderlust came down hard — not as hard as it might have, considering that it was a starhopper.
A big boat like that has no business chugging through a planetary atmosphere at 5,000 feet, but the captain was looking for signs of intelligent life on, of all places, Earth.
When the Firefly Drive, never intended to be used for anything but parking, suddenly quit under the strain of that gravitational proximity, the ship had nowhere to go but down.
The pilot was good. He headed for a dense pine forest and brought the ship’s nose up as much as he could. Slicing through nearly a mile of standing timber brought the ship to a gradual, smoking halt, turning what would have been complete destruction into mere cataclysmic damage. The trees slowed the ship, but they took their toll.
The Wanderlust had found its final resting place, a scenic Earth locale known as North Freedom, Wisconsin. Fortunately, the hopper had been cloaked when it came down. The incident was neither seen nor apparently heard, raising the question: If an interstellar spacecraft crashes in the woods when no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?
Nobody came to investigate.
The crew took stock. Miraculously, none had perished in the crash. The front third of the Wanderlust had been turned into scrap metal. Navigation, life support and communications were gone. The first two no longer mattered; the third did. The aliens had no ride home and no means of calling for one.
On the plus side, the planetary atmosphere that had flooded the ship when its nose was destroyed was breathable, and it looked as though the local flora could provide edible grains for the distinctly birdlike aliens when homegrown supplies were depleted.
Much of the ship’s equipment remained functional. The transporter showed promising signs of life, but its range was limited to the typical distance from orbit to planetary surface.
The crewmembers knew the drill. They got to work.
Yes, the Wanderlust would fly no more, but the crew could re-purpose its surviving equipment for alternative transportation. What they couldn’t salvage, they could find in stealthy visits to Terran landfill sites.
Within a surprisingly short time, they had constructed a device that, with a little help from lightning, took them to their nearest outpost. The device remained behind, mysterious, and nameless, until Dr. Evermor claimed it as his own.
Meanwhile, back in reality (or as close as I get) …
Holy Sith! The Forevertron incorporates such exotic components as a pair of Thomas Edison dynamos, a giant telescope, and the Apollo 11 space capsule decontamination chamber.
Dr. Evermor’s Sculpture Park is only a little more than 100 miles west of me? A must-go day trip went on my calendar. Even Mary, my decidedly anti-science fiction wife, agreed to join me, once she had seen a few Forevertron photos.
Matthew, my 8-year-old grandson, who thinks a trip to the supermarket is a never-ending journey, was the toughest sell. He spotted what he thought were a TARDIS and a Dalek in the photos, so he was in.
Two weeks later, under cloudy skies and a promise of sun to the west, we sallied forth. We wandered about the countryside near our goal for a bit — but we finally found the park, not visible from the highway, hiding behind a surplus store and what appeared to be a junk yard.
We were not disappointed.
Well, Matthew was a little bummed when we couldn’t find a Dalek, and the TARDIS he had seen in the photos turned out to be an old English phone booth — no phone but still bearing instructions for dialing numbers in Ireland.
Nearly four decades ago, in this very galaxy, I saw a movie called Star Wars.
I was awestruck. I became an instant devotee, an evangelist. Others might have less kindly described me as obsessed.
“Have you seen Star Wars?”
Friends and relatives started to avoid me because they knew I was going to ask that question. If they answered “yes,” a lengthy, often one-sided conversation about the film would be impossible to duck. If they answered “no,” they found themselves being hustled to the nearest theater still showing the movie. If necessary, I would even pay for their tickets.
By the time Star Wars had left the theaters, I had probably seen it a dozen or more times. Certain that I would never be able to own a print of the movie, I had gone so far as to sneak a tape recorder into the theater to capture the soundtrack.
I memorized virtually the entire dialog. I bought the musical soundtrack on LP. I bought a “black market” copy of the original theater poster.
I authored a 100-question Star Wars trivia quiz. I harassed other fans into taking the quiz, grading them and giving them the results. Most were not pleased. I did have an advantage with my bootlegged audio copy.
Relatives stopped alerting me about scheduled family gatherings. Friends made full use of advancing telephone technology to avoid my calls.
As the years passed, I was a release date regular at all of the sequels and prequels. The sequels were good; the prequels, not so much. None of them lived up to the original.
Thus, it was with tremendous anticipation that I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens, on Dec. 24. I was nearly a week tardy, but people willing to see a Star Wars movie with me have become sparse. My 7-year-old grandson, Matthew, agreed to become my less than enthusiastic companion after I dangled the 3-D option.
We were not disappointed. I loved it. A tougher critic, he liked it. So, we collectively give it three thumbs up.
My only reservation about the J.J. Abrams offering is how much it shared with the movie that started it all. It’s one thing to be true to an original, but it’s another to be so true that you start to wonder if you’re watching something truly new or a thinly disguised remake. While I reveled immersion in a warm, soothing, 1977 bath of nostalgia, I couldn’t escape the nagging sense of deja vu.
The central character, Rey (Daisy Ridley), is somehow able to harness the Force. She’s living on a desert planet when when she acquires an adorable droid, BB-8. The droid is carrying critical information being sought by both the First Order (bad guy successors to the Empire) and the Resistance (good-guy successors to the Rebel Alliance). So far, Rey seems to be following the Luke Skywalker path.
The chief antagonist is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Darth Vader’s grandson. Kylo wears a voice-altering masked helmet which apparently does not perform the life-support functions of his grandfather’s equipment. He keeps grandpa’s battered helmet on a table and talks to it. He has issues.
The new film features another Death Star (quickly shown to be much, much bigger than its predecessors), which may be why the First Order decided to go down that unpromising path yet again. Squadrons of X-wing fighters fend off TIE fighters as the Resistance focuses on the Death Star’s weak spot – once the protective force field has been disabled. As the attack continues, the Death Star is recharging and counting down for another round of planet blasting. The Resistance is only seconds away from destruction.
Finally, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, includes the unexpected death of a beloved character. In the original, Obi-Wan Kenobi was cut down by Vader; this time, the victim is Han Solo. Harrison Ford apparently really, really did not want to be included in the next sequel. It was a shocking and emotional scene, as Han appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough with Kylo, who is Han’s and Leia’s wayward, Dark Side-seduced son.
The inclusion of all the original main characters enhanced the connection with the original Star Wars, getting an audience response with each initial star’s appearance. The whole gang was there, at least briefly, including Han, Leia (Carrie Fisher), Luke (Mark Hamill), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and the Millennium Falcon (as itself). It was interesting to see how the actors had weathered the decades, but I was happy to see that minimal effort had been made to make them appear as their 1977 selves.
Abrams has, of course, presented new story lines to extend in coming sequels. Fans, myself included, want to get Rey’s backstory. The leading theory is that she is Luke’s daughter, which would explain her ability to use the Force. Also, does any hope of redemption still exist for Kylo?
The new movie’s close kinship to the original is probably best seen as Abrams’ masterful job of making a successful transition for the franchise. After all, he did have the daunting task of overcoming those three lackluster prequels.
I’ll be happily be standing in line when the next sequel is released.
Syfy has another contender for its winners column with The Expanse.
The new series made an impressive double debut Dec. 14 and 15. The show is Dark Matter done right — mixed with a little Killjoys to produce something that might even rival the gritty, dramatic appeal of Battlestar Galactica.
Blasphemy, I know. Also going out on a limb for an unproven series, but the first two episodes have been that good. Besides, I’ve been out on that limb before (Dark Matter, Zoo), and I know that the fall won’t kill me.
The Expanse encompasses a large swath of our solar system — from Earth to the asteroid belt. I was excited to see that the Human Race had colonized all the way out to Ceres. I was disappointed that greed and war had been taken along for the ride.
But, hey. What’s a plot without conflict?
We’ve got conflict aplenty, here. It’s Earth vs. Mars vs. The Belters. Earth, run by a sinister United Nations which has somehow grown very sharp teeth, is at the top of the pecking order. Coming in second are the rival Martians, a name requiring some mental adjustment knowing that they are humans who are neither green nor small. At the bottom are the rebellious Belters, who mine the asteroids and are heavily dependent on the kindness of the “Inners” for little things like water and air.
The war drums are pounding, and the Martians seem to have the biggest drumsticks.
In the premier episode, an asteroid mining ship, the Canterbury is taking a load of precious ice back to Ceres when it reluctantly responds to a distress call from another ship. The Canterbury is nuked for its trouble, vaporizing 50 crew members and leaving only the five who had been sent to investigate the disabled freighter alive. Things go downhill from there.
The world-building gets off to a fast start. Viewers get looks at life on Ceres and the political structure on Earth. It seems that UN officials are not above “gravity torture” when it comes to extracting information from off-world terrorist suspects.
The characters develop nicely for an opening episode. On Ceres, we’ve got Josephus “Joe” Miller (played by Thomas Jane), a hard-nosed Star Helix Security detective with a heart. Lost in space is Canterbury second officer and reluctant acting ship’s executive officer Jim Holden (Steven Strait); and fellow Canterbury crew member Naomi Nagala (Dominique Tipper), the captain Holden will never be. Back on Earth, we get a taste for UN authority with Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), nasty deputy undersecretary.
The special effects are great — from tiny details like how birds might fly on a low-gravity dwarf planet to exterior scenes in deep space. The plot, with its world-building and political intrigue, has me anxiously looking forward to learning more in episodes to come.
This episode review is brought to you by Vector Petroleum “Fueling our Futures”
“Same old, same old. Just the Doctor and Clara Oswald in the TARDIS!”
Not quite, Doctor.
The Doctor and Clara are, indeed, heading for trouble in the TARDIS. It was anything but “same old, same old” when “Under the Lake,” the third offering of the new season, aired Oct. 4.
Doctor Who seems have achieved personality equilibrium. Fans, rejoice!
Writer Toby Whithouse gave Peter Capaldi’s Doctor the biggest share of the personality pie, this time around. Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald got a smaller portion. A small slice was even awarded to the TARDIS, whose sentience had not manifested itself of late.
The available screen time and lines were in much greater abundance this episode, with the absence of the masterful Missy. The Time Lady formerly known as the Master is presumably still vacationing with her Dalek friends at that top vacation destination, Skaro. Could she possibly be working with Davros to create the foretold hybrid? Hmm. That would be a very clever idea.
All right. Back to “Under the Lake.”
The TARDIS delivers the Doctor and Clara to an oil company base sitting on the bottom of an artificial lake on top of a flooded village in the year 2119. The Doctor doesn’t know why they have been brought to this site. He does know that the TARDIS has taken them to the base against its better judgment. Clara, with her hair casually tied back and looking very girlishly companionlike, is challenging the Doctor to find something exciting for them to do.
“I want another adventure, Clara tells him. “Come on. You feel the same. You’re itching to save a planet. I know it.”
The look that passes across the Doctor’s face indicates that she is right. It doesn’t take too long before they discover the adventure has already begun.
Things have not been going well for the base and its crew. They’ve just brought a mysterious alien spaceship discovered on the lake bottom aboard the base. The base commander has just been barbecued by one of the ship’s engines. The ship seems to have come with a ghost dressed as an undertaker, complete with a black suit and mourning-veiled top hat. The crew calls the ghostly figure “Mole Guy.”
The Doctor identifies Mole Guy as an alien from Tivoli, That doesn’t explain the death of the commander, he adds, because the species is non-violent cowardly by nature.
“They wouldn’t say ‘boo’ to a goose,” the Doctor elaborates. “More likely to give the goose their car keys and bank details.”
Immediately after his death, the base commander reappears as the Mole Guy’s new ghostly partner. The crew has taken refuge in the Faraday Cage, a lead-lined compartment designed a shelter from a possible radiation leak. The room seems to have the only walls through which the ghosts cannot pass.
“So, we are fighting an unknown homicidal force that has taken the form of your former commanding officer and a cowardly alien, underwater, in a nuclear reactor,” the Doctor summarizes. “Anything else I should know? Somebody have a peanut allergy or something”?
Clara nervously giggles and gives the crew an apologetic look, as if to say “Hey, I’m only the companion. I have no control over this guy.”
Apparently, allergies will not be added to the base problems. The pair of ghosts have begun turning the ship’s systems against the survivors. Soon, another crewman is “ghosted.”
The key to solving the mystery is a series of alien symbols etched on one of the alien ship’s bulkheads. The symbols appear to embed themselves in the human brain when read. They’re translated by the hearing-impaired, lip-reading acting base commander into four cryptic phrases being silently and continuously mouthed by all three ghosts.
Once he has been told who’s in charge so he knows “who to ignore,” the Doctor declares he can bypass the interpreter and “speak” directly with the deaf officer. He quickly discovers that his command of sign language has been deleted and replaced with semaphore.
“Someone get me a selection of flags,” he demands.
The Doctor initially denies that the apparitions are ghosts. After he deductively comes that conclusion on his own, he announces “they’re ghosts,” as if he is the first to make that discovery. Clara points out that he had declared that ghosts do not exist.
“Yes, well-well-well, uh, there was no such thing as socks or smartphones and badgers, until they suddenly were,” the Doctor counters.
The Doctor becomes quite excited upon contemplating the possibilities of questioning real ghosts.
“Calm, Doctor, calm,” tells himself. “You were like this when you met Shirley Bassey.”
The Doctor eventually deciphers the alien symbols, then takes a professorial stance and runs the crewmen through the process. In true classroom lecture fashion, he wants his “students” to do some of the reasoning.
“Surely just being around me makes you clever by osmosis,” he says, after giving them opportunity to come up with the answer to the last phrase.
The Doctor’s apparent lack of sensitivity to the death of the base commander leads to a feature I don’t recall ever seeing — “the cards.” It seems as if the Doctor, for at least several generations, has been writing cue cards to guide him through situations he could expect to re-encounter. Clara suggests that he use them and selects the one that seems most appropriate.
She makes a good choice, but the Doctor needs to polish his delivery style a bit. He reads the card verbatim.
“I’m very sorry for your loss. I’ll do all I can to solve the death of your friend/family member/pet.”
Waiting in the wings for a matching situation is The Swiss Army Knife of cards: “No-one is going to be eaten/vapourised/exterminated/upgraded/possessed/mortally wounded/turned to jelly. We’ll all get out of this unharmed.”
Also on tap, the slightly less multi-purpose: “It was my fault. I should have known you didn’t live in Aberdeen.”
The show may have inadvertently given away its writing secret. Take a pack of cards, shuffle and voila! A new episode is born.
Again, going back to the plot, the crew discovers that a rescue sub has been ordered by the ghosts, a request sent in Morse Code (nothing suspicious about that). A crew member asks why the ghosts would do that.
“I don’t know,” the Doctor responds, “but I’m pretty certain that it’s not so they can all form a boy band.”
Along with the Doctor’s and Clara’s personality adjustments, it was great to see the TARDIS again play a role beyond time and relative dimension in space transportation. Still uneasy about its location, the TARDIS sounds the cloister bell alarm.
The Doctor is forced to apply the “handbrake” to keep their skittish ride from leaving on its own. The TARDIS also refuses to go near the ghosts, an issue that plays a part in cliffhanger ending.
Other high points of “Under the Lake” include the Doctor initiating an awkward conversation with Clara about their roles and taking risks, suggesting that she might do better to find another relationship. (Oh, God; no! Not another Danny Pink!). He notes that humans are “bananas about relationships. You’re always writing songs about them, or going to war or getting tattooed.”
We also get the answer to the question: Why did the Doctor turn the TARDIS radio into a clockwork squirrel?
Answer: “Whatever song I heard, first thing in the morning, I was stuck. Two weeks of Mysterious Girl by Peter Andre. I was begging for the brush of death’s merciful hand.”
As the episode drew to its exciting finish, the Doctor was about to employ a bit of time travel trickery to resolve what looks like certain death for Clara and the base crew.
“You’re gonna go back in time?” a crew member asks. “How do you do that?”
“Extremely well,” the Doctor responds.
The rescue plan leads to Clara’s best line of the episode.
“Guys, look, this is how we roll. He’s gonna go away, come back; and we’ll have to listen to how he did it.”