Wednesday, August 12, 2009


A basic archetype in myth is the quest object. From the earliest epics like Gilgamesh, who sought the secret of eternal life, through Seigfrid's Ring of the Niebelung and the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend and the sutra scrolls in the Chinese epic JOURNEY TO THE WEST, heroes have sought mystical objects or artifacts of great power. In modern myths, Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, Sydney Fox of RELIC HUNTER and now Annja Creed in the paperback series ROGUE ANGEL have hunted down everything from the Ark of the Covenant to Gabriel's Horn.

Where do these heroes put all these fabulous things when they find them? SyFy has a new series that answers that question in WAREHOUSE 13.

The idea of a secret storage for paranormal artifacts has been in the popular consciousness for a while. The warehouse archetype is probably derived from Hanger 18 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where UFO lore says that the Roswell remains were taken. That was expanded to Area 51 at Groom Lake, Nevada near Las Vegas, where alien tech is supposedly stored while scientists work on reverse engineering it.

That's another form of modern myth - the kind people believe in. The concept was popularized in popular fiction in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK when the Ark ended up locked away in a secret government storehouse. It was around in different forms before that, though. The 1930s pulp hero Doc Savage had a Fortress of Solitude where he kept, not artifacts, but inventions he's seized in his adventures that were too dangerous to let loose in the world.

The archetype appeared in the 80s tv series FRIDAY THE 13TH, as a curio shop that collected cursed mystical objects (coincidentally with 13 in the title too, which may set conspiracy theorists off and running). In the TV/DVD series THE LIBRARIAN it was a secret section in the Metropolitan Public Library. The whole thing was parodied in LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION when Bugs Bunny discovered Area 52 filled with aliens from 50s science fiction films, Daleks from DOCTOR WHO and more.

WAREHOUSE 13 soldifies the archetpe by focusing on the warehouse itself and the people who work there. Artie, the genius in charge of "snagging, bagging and tagging" artifacts is a colorful character brilliantly underplayed by Saul Rubinek in a role that could easily be over the top in a lesser actor's hands. He knows the thousands of items in the warehouse and can pull one up at a moment's notice.

His two agents, Pete (Eddie McClintock) and Mika (Joanne Kelly), are the field workers who hunt down the artifacts. They're a clever match of logic and feelings. She operates by observation and deduction and he works with hunches, and they've reversed the unusual stereotype of female intuition. McClintock plays Pete and does a great job of making likeable a character who could probably get really annoying in real life, and Kelly is wonderful as an agent who at first suffered Pete about as well as Mr Spock would one of the Three Stooges but is rapidly bonding with him.

CCH Pounder is appropriately formidable as their government boss Mrs Frederick, and Genelle Williams as Leena seemed underused until we saw her dispensing some of her wisdom to Artie in "Elements." Leena's real role may be counseler to the team.

Artie was recently joined by a newcomer, Claudia Donovan, a younger genius played by Allison Scagliotti. The day before I watched that episode she gave a moving performance on MENTAL as a girl ... I mean a boy ... you had to be there. I'll say again that she is an awesome actress. Claudia can out-think Artie (the actress calls her the punk to his steam) and their byplay should be as much fun as Pete and Mika. The scene that best describes their relationship has him yelling, "No no no!" and her "Yes yes yes!"

I like smart heroines with a tart sense of humor, in fact I used to play one in D&D (see Jan 24 2008). I can totally see Taryn saying "Serendipity is my stripper name."

The series is building a deep background mythology. Warehouse 13 is its thirteenth incarnation, one of the first being the Great Library at Alexandria; it moves to the center of power in the world and has been in America for 200 years (getting ready to move to India soon?). There's a touch of steampunk too, with devices designed by Nikola Tesla, something of a modern myth himself. It was designed by Tesla, Thomas Edison and MC Escher. Another new touch is that the artifacts are not always the created type - most are common objects that belonged to a historical character with a powerful personality whose traits were imbued into the artifacts. There's just enough talk about quantum reality to plant the series in SF instead of just mysticism.

There's probably a reason why the warehouse myth appeals to SF fans. Most of us collect - books, comics, movies, toys. WAREHOUSE 13 must seem like a fanboy's dream come true.

Monday, May 18, 2009

I Didn't Like STAR TREK (Spoilers Included)

No, I don't think the new STAR TREK movie is a ripoff of STAR WARS. But you have to admit the comparison is funny.

I feel like a dinosaur for not liking the movie, but also like I'm the only guy who can't see the emperor's snazzy new outfit. I'd heard a lot of good things about the movie, but mostly from people who think the original series (TOS) was "cheesy."

I had no problem with most of the changes from the original, like the crew knowing each other from the academy. The destruction of theVulcan homeworld was disappointing, because we'll never get to explore their unique culture as in episodes like "Amok Time." I didn't even need the alternate timeline explanation; I would've embraced a good reboot. It's a great fun action movie - but it isn't STAR TREK.

TOS wasn't an action show: it was a drama with enough action to satisfy the network executives who thought it was "too cerebral." Reflecting the Kennedy era's optimism and its space acheivements, it featured "mature adults solving problems in a reasonbale manner, usually cloaked around a parable about the cold war or racism or dealing with the changing forces within society. The characters acted and interacted in a believable way, akin to real officers in command of an aircraft carrier."(1)

That's exactly what was missing. TOS was Roddenberry's philosophy in action. I had hopes that in the Obama era, we'd get something similar. Instead we get a super villain and an action film. TOS had no super villains and very seldom solved problems by blowing things up (They even dealt with Khan peacefully!) JJ Abrams is a competent creator of universes on LOST and FRINGE; I'd rather he'd developed his own space movie without tarnishing the memory of somebody else's work. He did it with GODZILLA, okay?

But even if it had been a new series, there were plot devices ranging from irritating to just dumb. Kirk decides overnight to join Starfleet and just walks in; no applications, interviews, tests, psych evals? ALL of Starfleet is busy with one mission, so all they can send to help a founding member is some cadets? A computer with universal translator can't handle Chekov's accent? McCoy's gripes about space travel made no sense given that he was voluntarily joining Starfleet. (2)

Basically, the movie fails the Bat Durston(3) test for bad SF: make Starfleet the Cavalry and Nero a renegade Indian and it could be rewitten as a western.(4) It fails to introduce thought-provoking ideas, to really boldly go where no one has gone before.

I confess that I watched enough of the movie online to decide I didn't like it. People have told me I need to see it in the theater to appreciate it. I probably will, and enjoy it for what it is. It is just a setup, an origin story. Maybe future installments will be more about exploring strange new worlds, etc. It's disappointing to think that the series' creator's vision may be lost in all the action.

(1) from a fan on the Gene Roddenberry Philosophy Sphere site.

(3) The original Bones was wary of the transporter, but more on spiritual grounds, whether you left your soul behind; he didn't hate space nor technology. He considered anything but 23rd century medicine "barbaric."

(3) In the 50s GALAXY magazine defined a "Bat Durston" as nonSF, a story from which the SF element could be removed and the story rewritten into a western with only cosmetic changes. See details. For example, SERENITY was NOT a Bat Durston because the evil Alliance creating the Reavers has no western counterpart. But if you remove the time travel element (which was not a necessary part of the plot, just a device to set up an alternate timeline and distinguish the movie from TOS), STAR TREK is a space western.

(4) "Roddenberry did tell the network he saw the show as "Wagon Train in space" when he was trying to sell them on it. At the time, westerns and especially "Wagon Train" were big hits and his idea of having the Enterprise on a mission to explore new places was the same kind of open-ended storyline, with continuing characters encountering new communities and situations each week, that made "Wagon Train" successful." ~ from Movie Mom
In other words, that was his pitch to the networks, but TOS was so much more than that.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Old Friends and Aliens

I visited some old friends the other day. Picked up a book I've owned since 1971 but never read yet, MAJOR OPERATION by James White, one of his Sector general series.

White didn't write about star wars or space battles. He was a humantistic author apalled by the troubles in his native Northern Ireland, more concerned with helping and healing. The Sector General series has been called "the first explicitly pacifist space opera." He also wrote THE DREAM MILLENIUM, in which human and alien "dreamers," fleeing from their own violent worlds, form a peaceful community.

Sector General is a gigantic hospital in space, founded to promote galactic harmony among diverse species. It's staffed by humans and aliens with different forms, environmental needs and psychologies. The books are collections of related short stories. Despite their lack of battles the tales are exciting and fun. They are problem-solving stories with a lot of human (and alien) characterization. Usually before the doctors can figure out how to cure an exotic alien visitor, they must determine if it's condition is a disease or part of its normal life cycle.

The first books in the series, SECTOR GENERAL (1962) and STAR SURGEON (1963), have special meaning for me as I remember they were among the first books my parents bought for me. Reading MAJOR OPERATION was like meeting old friends again. It felt like no time had passed since I last visited Dr Conway, surgeon and Major O'Mara, Chief Psychologist and it was good to see them again.

I think White's works have influenced me more than I knew, both in my own pacifist leanings and my respect for diversity. They show my the modern myths of science fiction are important. It's hard to hate people because their skin is a different shade when you've palled around and worked with Dr Prilicla, a large, fragile empathic insect or Chief Diagnostician Thornnastor, who resembled a six-legged elephant or Charge Nurse Naydrad, a huge furred caterpillar, or to disapprove anyone's sexual preferences when you've known asexual Eddorians and multi-sexed methane-breathers. That's not just in White's stories either: science fiction readers grew up with Tar Tarkas, a 15-foot, green, four-armed, tusked Martian warrior, Tregonsee the Lensman from Rigel, an eyeless tentacled Galactic Patrolman, and Puppeteers with four legs and two sock-puppet-like heads.

Another reason why science fiction and fantasy stories (as long as we remember that they are only stories) make perfect myths for reflecting the values of the 21st century.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sense of Wonder

Science fiction and fantasy readers talk about a sense of wonder. There are definitions with impressive terms like "paradigm shift," but it's not really describable. It's something you feel. An expression of the awe and mystery in the universe, of how much more immense, timeless and strange it all is than we can imagine.
Edgar Rice Burroughs told stories about an imaginary Mars peopled by heroic civilizations, weird beasts and advanced science. Edmond Hamilton wrote from the 1920s to the 60s about an Interstellar Patrol of beings from many worlds, an inn at the end of time, and "the great booming suns of outer space." His wife, Leigh Brackett added, "and if they don't boom, by God, they ought to!" She herself wrote exotic tales of ancient Mars, Venus and Mercury. EE Smith told of colliding galaxies and beings of pure mind. JRR Tolkien and Robert E Howard created eras of magic and mystery that lived and died long before known history. HP Lovecraft wrote of the Great Old Ones who came from the stars and other dimensions eons before even the dinosaurs lived on Earth, and of the alien Great Race whose collection included "a mind from the planet Venus that would live incalclable epochs in the future and one from an outer moon of Jupiter six million years in the past." Michael Moorcock's Corum series was set in the days when "there were oceans of light, cities in the skies and wild flying beasts of bronze."
STAR WARS is a grand space adventure, but has little to inspire the sense of wonder. There are scores of Dungeons and Dragons fantasy novels set in cookie-cutter copies of Tolkien's world with no real feeling of awe or strangeness. Sense of wonder is an elusive concept. Not to say that modern novels are completely lacking; writers are using new discoveries like quantum physics and chaos theory to express the universe's majesty.
Once in a while it occurs in real life. Did you know that radio astronomers recently picked up a source of noise from farther out than any of the known galaxies that measures six times louder than all the emissions from all the galaxies combined?
But some people don't need booming suns or bronze beasts to know a real sense of wonder. The little Punkin Seed in the picture stares at things we wouldn't give a second glance - light bulbs, curtains, CD shelves or the Winnie the Pooh characters that circle over his swing seat - like he was gazing upon the mysteries of the universe. I'm priveledged to babysit him, and it's when I see his wide bright eyes taking in the world that I know what a real sense of wonder is.