Tag Archives: Firefly

But What About…? Part 4b: Healthcare Introduction, Part 2

In Healthcare Introduction, Part 1 yesterday, I started talking about the doctor/patient relationship, and how third-party decision makers (government, insurance companies) shift the medics’ accountability from you to them, shifts the decision-making ability from you to them, and I touched on how this drives the price up. I ended the post introducing another third party, how things become more complicated when an employer gets in on the mix.

When an employee gets paid, that money is the employee’s, and the employer has no reasonable right to any say in how the employee spends the money. Prior to that, there’s things the employer must pay for. Various insurances, Social Security. Various storms flew up with some employers that provided health insurance, when they were suddenly forced to pay for some coverage they found to be morally dubious.

And there’s the distinction. Some have argued that it’s the employees’ health insurance, and the employer should butt out of it. But as the employer is actually paying, they are morally complicit. This didn’t seem to be a big issue until the government stepped in with a gun to the employers’ head, saying “You don’t get a conscience! You must do these things!” On the other hand, if there are options you would choose but your employer won’t, that would obviously be frustrating.

Interestingly, there’s a conversity we haven’t seen much of: if an employer provides insurance that the employee considers morally dubious. I think there’s reasons for this getting less coverage, I also suspect there’s many who suck it up and live with it so as to not bite the hand that feeds them. “It’s better than nothing, there’s good in it that I don’t want them to take away.” Still, the same enforced moral complicity that I mentioned above exists here.

Another problem with third parties choosing what treatments you can and cannot have, is the value judgments. Does someone even deserve treatment. It’s understandable (but heartless) not to want to treat a smoker for lung cancer, but it sucks if you’re the smoker and you’ve paid your NHS taxes/US insurance. Or refusal to do a proper examination on a fat person until they’ve lost weight (a scientifically dubious demand in itself).
Patient: My knee’s shot, I think I might need a joint replacement
Doctor: Lose weight first
P: How?
D: Exercise!
P: On a joint that needs to be replaced?

There are kinds of treatments that the NHS won’t cover, rightly or wrongly. Even rightly, it robs patients of say and choice. To be free, one must be free to make mistakes. Grown-ups capable of making their own decisions should be treated like grown-ups capable of making their own decisions.

In conclusion, the greatest moral freedom, the greatest choices, the lowest cost, and the best care, come when you cut out all the middle men.

Although, a word of caution from the great philosopher Malcolm Reynolds: “About 50% of the human race is middle men, and they don’t take kindly to being eliminated.”

Let’s Talk About Tax, Baby: Part 1

In Friday’s post, I talked about property. Today’s post is related.

When you work, the income that you receive (“wages”), is earned.

The government skimming some off the top (“taxes”), is not earned. Sometimes you will find officials talking about your money (taxpayers’ money that isn’t yet taken in taxes) as their money – they just haven’t gotten it, yet.

Over the years, I have heard discussions of a fair tax system.

One is a flat percentage system. The argument against this is that, say 10% from a poor person hits them much harder than 10% from a rich person. The rich must pay more! (overlooking that the rich actually would pay more in this system).

A saying that I’m sure I shall bring up again in future posts, is “if you pay, you get a say”. Theoretically, not taxing the poor robs them of a voice. This may be outweighed by corporations, who, while they take every loophole they can get to reduce the tax, on the other side of things pay for lobbyists and various other expenses, to influence legislation.

A couple years ago, talk of a “Robin Hood Tax” was all the rage. Perhaps you’ll remember the slogan associated with Robin Hood (and Jayne, the Hero of Canton): “robs from the rich, and gives to the poor”.

In other words, there’s all these social programs I want to fund, I have no intention of funding them myself, but I’ll happily take money from someone else to pay for them.

Is it unreasonable to point out that envy and theft are not virtues?

People like to invoke Jesus on tax. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (the coins having Caesar’s likeness engraved on them). “And render unto God the things that are God’s” (each member of humanity – including Caesar – being created in the image of God. Subversive).

So we might render unto Her Majesty our Bank of England notes (do electronic Pounds in one’s bank account count as bearing her image?). And in the US, we can render our 1s to George Washington, our 5s to Abraham Lincoln, our 10s to Alexander Hamilton, our 20s to Andrew Jackson…

Did Jesus pay His “fair share” of tax? We don’t hear a lot on the subject, but one time He paid His and Peter’s Temple Tax with a coin that conveniently showed up in a fish. It seems that is not His (or Peter’s) “fair share” – it’s not siphoning off the fruits of their productivity, like modern income tax is. It’s undeclared extra income that’s being used.

Looking on the divine side rather than the human, if “the earth is the Lord’s, and all in it”, I think it safe to say Jesus didn’t give the adequate proportion of His cut of that to either the Temple, or to the occupying Romans.

This illustration has to be taken with a pinch of salt for a couple of reasons. First, the taxation system of the Roman Empire in 30-ish AD Palestine, is very unlikely to be comparable to the giant spiderwebs of either the UK or US tax codes. Secondly, giving to the Temple was seen as giving to God, and so Jesus gets a bit of a pass on that.

Overall, the point I’m trying to get across today, just at the basic income tax level, is that THERE IS NO FAIR SHARE. There is not a fair tax.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 for more.

Star Trek: Excelsior – Into Season 3

A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed a producer of the audio drama Star Trek: Excelsior. James is a friend from a different context, so while I’d heard of his show, I didn’t insert it into my listening schedule until just recently, when he announced the show’s intention to get two stars from Trek’s Original Series for a Trek 50th Anniversary Special episode.

When I started the interview, I’d only listened to a couple of episodes, and when I finished, I’d only heard a couple more. Now, I’ve worked my way through Seasons 1 and 2, and have started Season 3. James recommends new listeners start with Season 4, and if you enjoy that, then to work backwards: the quality of the production improves over time, and if you’re going to put your best foot forward, you might as well point out which foot that is.

So, if you’re interested, go start sometime in Season 4, you’ll be ahead of me. Here’s some thoughts on what I’ve heard so far.

The first thing to note, is I’m more forgiving of a story’s flaws, if I’m enjoying the story. And also, being aware that they don’t recommend starting at the beginning, ignoring that recommendation means I’m more obliged to give the benefit of the doubt, or be more forgiving in general.

Starting with the less-than-stellar: Mr Heaney mentioned the script for the pilot episode, “…There You Are”, is terrible. The briefing room scene certainly is a bit awkward, making very unsubtle introductions to a bunch of characters, and the show’s general concept. Once the story got going, and as it progressed into Season 1, there was less of that sort of awkwardness.

I remember noticing at points in The Next Generation, sometimes a character would introduce themselves, pronouncing their name one way, and then other actors would pronounce the name differently – like the actors interpreted the pronunciation from the script separately, rather than the characters being in the same conversation. Early Excelsior has moments like this, and it feels worst when a non-regular character does it to a regular character, like they really should have listened to some of the show. When Season 3 hits, we have a character mispronouncing the captain’s name, but pretty soon we find out he’s doing it on purpose. Hopefully, this signals the start of a more concerted effort towards consistency in this area.

Have you ever come across a story where someone has a long, formal, needlessly complicated name, and people are obliged to use the whole thing all the time? I can think of a couple of examples, but one acknowledges the concept and the other one outright takes the mickey. In Angel, some characters travel to recurring character Lorne’s home dimension, and he repeatedly gets called (and it’s far too late to fact-check this) “Kreblorne-swath of the Deathwalk clan”. After a few times, one is begging the TV to knock it off. The other example is Veggie Tales’ Lord Of The Rings parody The Lord Of The Beans. Gandalf-equivalent is talking to the Ent-equivalents, and it’s all “Randalf, son of Mandalf, keeper of the flame of” I don’t remember, and the other guy is “Lord Falaminion Tereglith, Son of Therabil Elithimon”. They say each a few times. While not as bad as these, there are points in the first season when the Valandrian leaders get dangerously close to this territory.

Small tangent into Red Dwarf. I read the novels, I had the script books, I watched the TV show. Sometimes lines would get said in the show, not quite in line with how they were written. In the books especially, “Zero Gee” was established as a sport in that universe. In a script, there’s a list of VR sports programs Lister played, and Zero Gee was listed before kick-boxing. Comma between them in the script. In the show, Lister says “Zero-G kick-boxing”. In Psirens, Lister lost his memory, and on being prompted suggests that Rimmer is his best mate. Kryten, acting as his medic, suggests that Lister might not be well. Reading the script implies the line was supposed to be “you are sick”. In the show, it’s delivered more, “you are sick“. There have been moments like this, not very often but occasionally, in my listening to Excelsior, so far. I think that the main part of the problem is that the actors aren’t really bouncing off each other, each reads the lines separately, then sends them to the editor.

Moving on from the negative, I must say I’ve been enjoying the story. I think Season 2 was an improvement on Season 1, and the plus side of listening in this order is that there’s definitely progression: the Season 2 arc definitely follows from the Season 1 arc, and the Season 3 arc (so far, I’m in episode 5) follows on from both 1 and 2.

There’s lots of humour. The title for the Season 3 opener, “All Good Captains Have Admiral Problems”, serves as a good example. And the humour goes hand-in-hand with continuity. A good Trek geek has looked at the Star Trek Encyclopedia, and seen examples of signage on the Enterprise-D, which aren’t in focus in the show. so the set designers put silly things on them. “Wherever you go, there you are” is one, and in the Excelsior show, it’s on the ship’s dedication plaque. It’s referred to in the pilot’s title, “…There You Are”. And then it’s used to humorous effect somewhere in Season 1.

There are also strict continuity references: the Iconian Gateway being technology introduced in TNG, and brought back much later in DS9, and now Excelsior uses one. Many more, of course. Does feel like they’re playing in the same universe.

But there are also sly references as treats for a broader geekdom. Using a sonic screwdriver here, and the Sub-Etha waveband there. If I wasn’t enjoying the story, I think these things would be likely to bug me, but as I’m enjoying the story, my reaction is more Captain America “I get that reference!”.

I think that subtlety can be a hard thing to pull off in audio drama. This is due to a couple of factors: one has to compensate for the loss of nuances one might notice in a visual medium, and so naturally extra emphasis has to creep in. Also, audio is a format where listeners can do other things while imbibing your content. Someone listening while driving is more likely than someone listening and not doing anything else. In short, Malcolm Reynold wouldn’t work in audio drama, because he mumbles way too much (much as I love Firefly). So I might understand someone using the word “overacting”, but I don’t think it’s happening here, I think extra-acting has too happen because of the nature of the beast.

Casual listening was tricky in Season 2, because some voices were entirely in one ear or the other. Made it difficult listening with only one ear in. Haven’t noticed that being a problem in Season 3.

In Season 3, I’m noticing some British phrases being used by non-British characters. I had some “Did they really say that?” that’s gone to “yes, it’s still there”. It’s not spoiling the story, it’s more of an oddity I’m noticing. One could explain it as colloquialisms becoming popular in cultures other than the one in which they originated, an evolution of language (which there would be over nearly 400 years). Or, I suppose, one could let it bug one, or one could ignore it and enjoy the ride.

I look forward to see how the show continues to improve into Season 4.

I think from all that typing, I’m better in a position to conclude.

I like the show.
Because it cares about the source material. Because the stories are interesting and enjoyable, and really fit the universe in which they’re being played out. Because the show has a lot of character.

I said at the beginning of this post, that there are certain things that make up for shortcomings and rough edges. Excelsior is not without rough edges, but it has more than enough of the good stuff, that I’m glad I interrupted my horrendously long podcast queue to fit this show in now.

The Kickstarter is getting pretty close to $10,000, and if it gets to $11,000 by/on Sunday, then an existing backer has promised to up their pledge by 1,500 to get Chekov on the show (they’ve already reached the threshold to get Uhura on). They stand a good chance of doing it. I jumped into pledging still listening to Season 1. Give a Season 4 episode a bit of a listen, and see if you like it, too.

Interview: James Heaney of Star Trek: Excelsior, Part 1

Today’s post is Part One of an interview with James Heaney, of the audio drama Star Trek: Excelsior. I know James from a message board about a game we both play. His sig lets us know about Excelsior, his main hobby, but he doesn’t push it a lot. I’d looked at the Excelsior website a couple of times. James and the Excelsior production has just put up a Kickstarter, trying to raise money so that they can get Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig into an episode celebrating Trek’s 50th Anniversary. This is what prompted me to start listening to Excelsior. I’m rather enjoying it, and I started with the part that they least recommend.

We explore all of the above in our conversation. Hope you enjoy!

The Limey Frog (TLF): How did your Starship Excelsior project come about? Who started throwing the idea around, and how did you get from there to recording with a cast?

James Heaney (JH): Way, way back in 2005, I stumbled into Star Trek: The Section 31 Files, which was one of the first fan audio series. Now, I had seen some fan films at that point, but this was 2005: fan films had a lot of problems back then. Even on the top shows, production values were low, with terrible CGI and questionable makeup, acting was very weak, and it generally took years to make episodes that would have been considered bad even in TOS’s third season. Section 31 was a revelation to me: because they were audio, they didn’t have to worry so much about production value: instead of making terrible CGI, they just told me the Nosferatu was being attacked by a battlecruiser of the Divine Celestial Imperium, invented a cool weapon sound effect, and let my own imagination fill in the blanks! Because they didn’t have to film all the actors together in one place, they weren’t bound by geography, and were able to get quality amateurs from anywhere in the world! And they could produce episodes as quickly as once a month, allowing Section 31 to develop complex serial storylines that most of the video series could never seriously attempt!

Audio drama, I decided then and there, was super-cool. But that was all for the moment.

Fast forward a bit. Now it’s 2007. A friend of mine and I had joined a roleplaying game in one of the larger Trek roleplaying federations, Bravo Fleet (they called it a “simm,” short for “simulation”). The simm was set aboard the U.S.S. Excelsior NCC-2000-C, and, for complicated reasons, they were part of a task force exploring the Delta Quadrant, and we played characters who had just joined the Excelsior crew on its way to starting a new mission. It was a fun game, but, partway into our first “mission” — a diplomatic trip to a matriarchal society called Valandria — the captain stopped posting, and generally disappeared from the Internet. Most of the crew went with her. The game very nearly fell apart.

My friend and I managed to play out the mission, but, by the end of it, we only had four people playing the game, and it’s really hard to play a good simm with fewer than six. So we started talking about recruitment. How do we get more people playing our game? We tried some of the traditional methods — forum posts and begging our friends and so forth — but it didn’t work. So one night, probably at, like, 3 AM, scraping the bottom of the barrel, I say to my X.O. (we’d been promoted to captain and first officer, respectively), “Hey, what if we made a fan film based on our adventures? People would tune in, probably a few hundred, and then we’d link to the game on the website, and some of them will join, and we’ll be the biggest ship in Bravo Fleet!”

To which my X.O. (rightly) answered, “How in God’s name will we make a fan film? We are all students, and we live thousands of miles apart.”

And then I asked him, “Have you ever heard of The Section 31 Files?”

Two days later, we had written the pilot script and published the absolute crappiest little audition site you’ve ever seen in your life. We were using a free Tripod webserver. It was atrocious.

The funniest part of all this: after, I don’t know, something like a quarter-million downloads of the audio drama, do you know how many new roleplayers we recruited from this? Three.

TLF: I’ve done what your site says I should not do under any circumstances: I started from the very beginning, “…There you Are”. At this point all your cast and crew are still learning how to do it, and I, as a listener, am trying to get straight all these new characters.

JH: Oh, don’t bother. Most of these characters will be dead or dying by the end of “Turns of Events.”

We always knew they were going to die, but we had some dumb ideas early on, like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be a dark twist if we introduced the audience to all 14 (or whatever) of these characters, made them care about them like we do, then killed them all six months from now?” It was a dark twist, and it does do a good job of announcing what kind of a show Excelsior is — we’re a show where anything can happen — but the execution was poor, and I think the end result was more confusing than anything else.

That’s one of the main reasons we tell people not to listen to the pilot, actually. There’s a, like, 15 minute mission briefing (which is embarrassingly overlong in itself), and the main purpose is to introduce all these different characters, and for about half of them that’s it. I still regret not telling the actors that their “starring” characters were marked for death.

So, seriously, don’t worry about it. The only thing that happens in the pilot that you sort of need to know about is Simon Westlake, the stowaway boy with the brain-rotting disease. He’s important later on. And some of the bits with Cortez are nice. Eleiece is a solid actress.

TLF: You know what, this kinda works for me. I’ve been known to start TV shows, and think that 2 characters were actually one character for a good chunk of the first season. This way, the overhead of learning a bunch of characters in one go is diminished, and the other half of the crew can get introduced more slowly, so it’ll be easier to keep them straight.

Tell me a little about what people have learned over the years of doing this, what changes you’ve made, and so on.

JH: When we started out, we were slaves to the roleplaying game. We figured, this show is a tool for recruitment to the RPG, therefore it should be an absolutely accurate reflection of the RPG. The pilot script is, word for word, almost an exact transcription of all the dialogue spoken in the RPG.

And the pilot script is terrible.

So, as Season 1 progressed, we became more and more willing to edit dialogue for the sake of a better radio show, but we still followed the RPG story exactly. In Season 2, we started to revise the overall flow of the story for the sake of a better drama, but still stuck to the major pivot points. At the end of Season 2, though, there was a really pivotal moment — a character departure — that I decided didn’t work, and, ultimately, we changed it, which radically broke with the RPG.

Ever since then, the audio drama has been its own show, looking to the RPG occasionally for inspiration, but otherwise piloting its own course based on its own needs. In my mind, that’s when the show got good, which is one reason why we recommend people start with Seasons 3 and 4.

There have been plenty of other changes behind the scenes as we’ve incrementally improved our process and our cast has grown, but I think that’s the most fundamental change: breaking the audio drama away from the RPG was just tremendous.

TLF: I’m not knocking your early efforts. I’m enjoying the story so far, which mitigates a lot. And though I think I read your “New listener page” before, I didn’t remember it when I bulk-downloaded all the episodes, and so I read the page again after I started from square one. That page acknowledges that things improved over the years, and recommends people start with newer storylines. That disclaimer mitigates a lot, too. But I’m patient (and possibly stubborn) and once I’ve started, I’ll generally continue through a series, see how people started and where they went after that.

JH: Well, thank you! For all its flaws, there is a lot of heart in that first season. The writers sort of included everyone in the RPG, desperately improvising, the cast was new and fresh and excited to be in a Star Trek show, and the behind-the-scenes crew was incredibly blessed with two very talented mixers who appeared out of thin air to help out (Garry Cobbum and Jim Smagata). We survived, we learned a lot, and I do think the story is, at its core, a good one. I’m always tempted to go back and do a George Lucas on it, redoing the whole season based on what we’ve learned since, but I think when you make art you have to let it stand on its own, and revising it might just kill a lot of what makes it lovable.

TLF: Visiting the site, I see the Excelsior name, and a Sovereign-class ship. I found this hard to look at, until I started “…There You Are”, and it explained about the ship being the Excelsior-C, and some background to the ship itself. Tell me some about the decisions around this setting.

JH: As you probably gathered by now, I didn’t pick the name. By the time I got there, the Excelsior-C had been running, off-and-on, as a Bravo Fleet simm for… oh, something like ten years before we took it over. (In the pilot episode, that stuff about “Grenn, Dhivael, Underwood, Riku” in the opening trailer — those are all former captains from the RPG.)

Truthfully, I thought it was a stupid fanwanky name at the time. I would have renamed the ship U.S.S. Visionary and made her a mid-sized cruiser, if we hadn’t been so married to following the RPG.

But, in retrospect, I was wrong. Star Trek is a series built on traditions, and on a particular formula. You can play with the formula — in fact, you have to play with the formula, in big ways, to stay fresh — but you also have to honor some of the key traditions, or you’re not making Star Trek anymore; you’re making Battlestar Galactica or Firefly or something that just happens to have Klingons in it.

Here’s a great example of this: Star Trek Aurora. Wonderful series. I adore Aurora. I binge-watched it this week, actually, just to unwind from the Kickstarter stress. Everyone should watch Aurora. But — and I hope I cause no offense to Tim Vining here — it’s not really Star Trek. Take Trek out of the title and make T’Ling slightly different — a member of some new “logical” race, or even just a very dour human — and it’s the same show, with the same feel.

The Excelsior name grounds Star Trek: Excelsior very firmly in the Trek tradition, setting the show aboard a top-of-the-line cruiser gives us most of the ingredients of the boldly-go formula, and setting it after Nemesis gives us the freedom to invent and explore in a way that we couldn’t if we were tied down to, say, the early 24th century. It makes us unmistakably, uneraseably Star Trek.

Now, as you’re going to discover, we are constantly looking for new ways to subvert the Trek formula — heck, our opening theme speech for Seasons 2 and 3 is a pretty massive subversion all by itself. But you can’t subvert the formula unless you’re deeply embedded in it first, and being set aboard the Excelsior-C puts us deep in the Trek tradition while allowing us the freedom to play around with it. We’re very lucky to be there.

TLF: I know you through playing the Star Trek Customizable Card Game, and honestly I remember more Trek trivia from that game than I do from watching the episodes themselves. When did you get into the cards, and have the cards helped influence the development of the show? Listening to “The Valandrian Expedition”, the first regular episode, we meet a society that made me think of both Matriarchal Society and Zaldan combined.

JH: I was given my first starter deck by a friend of my mother’s way back in 1995, and fell in love with the game right away. For a number of years in the mid-90s, my parents decided that Star Trek had gotten too racy, and forbade me to watch DS9 and Voyager, so, for quite some time, the CCG was my only connection to new Trek. I learned about the Cardassian/Dominion treaty, and the subsequent Dominion War, not by watching the show, but by opening up a pack of Dominion and reading the lore! Which, looking back, is an insane way to experience the Dominion War for the first time.

I stopped collecting shortly after Second Edition began, because my friends all stopped playing, and I just found the game too boring after a year or two of trying. But when I discovered the CC had relaunched First Edition, in about 2012, I fell in love all over again, and haven’t left since.

I can’t say I ever looked at two cards, combined them, and decided to do an episode based on them. (Although maybe I should try that!) But the cards have had such a profound influence on how I see the Trek universe, it’s hard to separate the two in my mind. For instance, the game’s idea that the Borg are fundamentally unbeatable, and the only reason they haven’t stomped you to death already is because they are playing an almost completely different, very alien game that frankly isn’t all that interested in your puny Klingon armada — that concept really captured the core of the Borg (the pre-First Contact “Q Who?” Borg especially, and yes I know that’s ironic), and stuck with me. It played a big role in shaping Season 3 of Excelsior, which goes to great lengths to re-establish that role for the Borg in Star Trek canon (after the depredations of Voyager): they’re not ants or zombies, and you can’t actually beat them, and they would wipe out out in ten minutes if they cared enough to try… but they aren’t even playing the same game you are, you puny Federation chumps, so you can survive as long as you don’t give them a reason to be interested in you.

Those Borg are scary, and I think I owe the card game a debt of gratitude for helping Excelsior envision them that way.

TLF: I saw on your Kickstarter pledge levels, that you have a timeline for the show worked out. Did you have this from the very beginning? How far back does it go, and how far into the future?

JH: No, I didn’t. And this caused problems. When you have a deeply interconnected, multi-season story with a bunch of moving parts taking place in different parts of the galaxy, it’s very, very important that you know when everything is happening relative to everything else… and I just plain didn’t have that, and inconsistencies started creeping in.

Fortunately, I started to notice the problems midway through the first season, and — with one exception in the pilot episode, plus two bigger exceptions we haven’t been forced to actually grapple with yet (because they deal with future events) — we were able to either reconcile or retcon away all those problems. Ever since then, every event with an associated date that is mentioned on the show has gone on the timeline, and stuff we’re planning to reveal later also goes on the timeline, all of it with source citations and relevant passages of dialogue so I know where the information is coming from (and how “set in stone” it is in case future retcons are required).

I honestly didn’t expect many/any backers at that level. I didn’t think there was all that much interest in an Excelsior timeline, especially when, for just a few dollars more, you can do things like invent your own character, which I just thought was super. But, in retrospect, that was stupid: how many copies has the Star Trek Chronology sold? So now I’m getting a little nervous about how much previously TOP SECRET information is going to leak out — but, hey, we’re committed now.

I plan to clean up the timeline a little bit before sending it out, because right now it’s full of shorthand that only I could understand, and that needs to be expanded for backers. But, in its current version, the timeline’s first entry is “~6000 B.C.” and the last entry is “2403 (Stardate 79283.2)”.

End of Part 1.

Tune in next time as discussion about the timeline continues, we talk more in depth of how the Kickstarter came together, and some brief chat about card-based shenanigans. Make sure to visit the Star Trek: Excelsior site, and give Season 4 a listen (with the side bonus of being ahead of me). And then head on over to the Kickstarter campaign, and give them all your money.

Part 2 now published.

Plotting Your Favourite TV Shows

Earlier tonight, my wife and I were revisiting a site that we have found interesting/amusing before, so I thought I’d share it with you.

This site takes the IMDB user ratings for each episode of a TV show, and plots them on a graph. Each season is given a different colour, and a line is charted for each season, representing the average, and showing whether the season trends as getting better, getting worse, or staying about the same. It is worth noting the scale on the left. Each episode has a score of 0-10, but the full 0-10 isn’t shown each time, often a chunk is cut off the bottom (and possibly the top), if no episodes are in that range. That can be changed, there’s an option below the graph.

Like Firefly, the bottom line is 8 and the top is 10, the lowest-rated episode is 8.3, the highest is 9.5, and the average line is pretty flat  at around 8.9.

It’s interesting how sometimes it’s one episode that will skew a season’s average line. Enterprise shows a gradual increase in perceived quality over the first two seasons, Season 3’s line starts a little lower than Season 2’s end point, then dramatically rises over the season, then the cluster of Season 4’s dots look like S4’s line should rise, too… but the line goes down. Why? Series finale “These Are The Voyages”, Enterprise’s lowest-scoring episode (not without reason) (IT’S NOT CANON! LALALALALALALALALA) skews the line into serious decline.

The other Trek series are worth a look as well, if you’re into that sort of thing.

I’ve been watching Pie In The Sky with my wife, and we’ve just finished Season 4. Looks like we’re just about to hit the low point of the series.

I didn’t watch it, but out of interest, I looked up Lost. Had to laugh when rather than the show’s real title, the site says “How Did You Get Here?”. And for all the bad I heard about the ending, it didn’t rate too badly.

You can hover over any dot and find what the episode is, and exactly what it rated. You can also click on the dot to be taken to the IMDB page for that episode.

Something that lasted a lot of years and has a lot of episodes per season can be fun. Here’s Doctor Who, 1963-1989.

We had a bunch of fun looking up a bunch of different shows we like. If graph-site’s search doesn’t work, you can find the show on IMDB and copy the show’s ID into the search box.

Comment below with shows you like, and looked up. Be careful, I’m sure you could be there all day looking things up…

New Trek Series Announced

There was a new Star Trek series announced today, which naturally has generated a lot of discussion. The article itself was terribly vague about what the show might be, other than “new characters” and “Star Trek”. Of course, any details they might be running with now, might change during development: premiering in January 2017 means they’ve got a year and a couple of months to get it to the screen.

The announcement article itself seemed to have as much focus on the deliver method (CBS’s premium streaming service) as on the fact that Trek was returning to the small screen (kinda) after a 12-year absence (Enterprise ended in May 2005).

There has been speculation that CBS’s pushing their own streaming service, not just for the new series but all the old shows as well, might spell the end of those Treks being on other services. With the monthly articles posted on Facebook I see about “What’s leaving Netflix at the end of this month”, it wouldn’t surprise me, but who knows.

The series is said to be unconnected with the upcoming movie Star Trek Beyond (Beyond what? With the last one being “Into Darkness”, I guess this is “Beyond Darkness”. It is very dark…. in space…). as Beyond is set for a July 2016 release, it would make sense for the stories not to be tied together. Also, with shooting finished on Beyond and production barely begun on Announced New Series, any direct crossover/set-up would be very unlikely.

A couple of snippets from the article:
“Alex Kurtzman will serve as executive producer for the new Star Trek TV series. Kurtzman co-wrote and produced the blockbuster films Star Trek (2009) with Roberto Orci, and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) with Orci and Damon Lindelof.”
from David Stapf, President of CBS: “we’re excited to launch its next television chapter in the creative mind and skilled hands of Alex Kurtzman, someone who knows this world and its audience intimately.”

I enjoyed Star Trek 2009 and Star Trek Into Darkness (though I’m still not sure that the latter makes sense after all the twists are unravelled). I do see what some Trek fans mean when they talk about those movies not feeling very like Star Trek, more a trek facade put over a not-Trek story. And even the Wikipedia page for Star Trek Beyond (which currently doesn’t give much in the way of details of the film) says:
“On the original draft by Orci, Pegg commented that Paramount “had a script for Star Trek that wasn’t really working for them. I think the studio was worried that it might have been a little bit too Star Trek-y.” For his role as the primary screenwriter, Pegg had been asked to make this new film “more inclusive”, stating that the solution was to “make a western or a thriller or a heist movie, then populate that with Star Trek characters so it’s more inclusive to an audience that might be a little bit reticent.””

For long-time Trek fans, particularly those of the TNG/DS9(/Voyager) era, this will temper any excitement we might have. But this sort of problem has been present for a while: initially the last TV series was called, simply, “Enterprise”, to distance from the Star Trek brand and encourage a new audience, before changing their mind later, and retitling it “Star Trek: Enterprise”.

The cynical might (and have) suggested that CBS don’t believe in the new Star Trek show enough to give it airtime (beyond the pilot), but hey, geeks will pay good money to watch it on streaming.

To put it another way, there has been a trajectory since (at the latest) 2001, where they want Star Trek, but without the Star Trek. It wouldn’t surprise me if a sizable chunk of the intended audience chooses to wait and see if the feedback turns out good, before spending any money on the thing. Which in turn could lower the hoped financial impact of the series, and a not-renewal even if it is good.

TNG had a cast that really liked each other, and the dynamic was shaken up a bit with two main characters leaving during the series’ run (one during the first season, and both actors returned as guests after they left). The cast dynamic added sparkle, even during those times where the characters didn’t have much to do.

DS9 gave all its characters stuff to do. All the main cast, and even pretty much all of the recurring guest cast. Even Morn, who was in many episodes and never had a single word of dialogue, had an episode all about him.

The original Star Trek had an intentionally diverse cast, which was pretty rare for the time. TNG and DS9 continued in that vein, in their own ways.

I think TOS put as many races as it could on screen, then for the most part refused to make a point about it. There’s a black woman and a Russian on the bridge with Kirk and McCoy, deal with it. TNG and DS9 probably made the most about race: Data with the desire to be human, Worf struggling to fit in with human culture while maintaining his own, Odo trying to find his race, the tensions between Cardassians and Bajorans (particularly see Duet, DS9).

Voyager again was intentionally diverse, and I’m not sure they made much of race at all, but it felt kinda forced. And some main characters didn’t get very much to do at all, and some actors apparently weren’t the easiest to work with. although there’s still lots to like about the series, there’s certainly parts that felt clinical and stale. And there was too much that was inconsistent. This week we’re surviving an encounter with 17 Borg Cubes, just one of which can wipe out half the Federation (to be fair, there was no battle there). Another week, we’re quivering in our boots at the sight of one Borg Sphere, which the Enterprise-E managed to take out in a single shot. And so much more.

The staleness continued into Enterprise. Parts of the first season were so forgettable, that at the end of an advert break, I couldn’t tell you what had happened before it. I didn’t get on with Season 3 when it first aired, I kept getting the “I waited a whole week for THIS?” feeling. It fared better on a later binge-watching. Season 4 did the impossible, the show really started feeling fresh and vibrant. Had they got a Season 5, I think they could have retrieved all the characters from the depths of blandness.

In Trek, generally there’s a few roles in particular that need filled. Captain. First Officer. Doctor. Engineer. Security. Science. Ops and Conn, or navigator and helmsman. Having such a large number of roles can be problematic, if the writers don’t write very well for ensemble casts. And there’s dangers of stereotyping, or not making characters very deep.

There are points when sci-fi on TV can seem stale, recycling old stories, nothing changes (at most, everything’s back the way it was after a two-parter), the characters aren’t interesting, or the interactions between characters isn’t strong, or you’ve seen these dynamics before. Then once in a while, a show comes along that freshens everything up. DS9 and Babylon 5 add some grittiness to the genre, a trend that may have reached its grittiest in Battlestar Galactica. Both DS9 and B5 did ensemble, character development, interplanetary politics and story arcs well, and story arcs became more of a trend. Fine balance to do right, but done well it’s great.

Firefly in particular became a defining moment for the genre, with the monolithic government and the monolithic Blue Sun corporation on one side, the Reavers on the other, and our heroes who jus want to go their way in the middle. Humour, quirk, many people with many motives, but a small core of characters, it’s not a surprise that it’s popular.

What do I want out of a new Trek?

Good stories, good characters. That’s about it. Optimism about the future would add to the Trek-ness, bleak having been more the order of the day since Trek went off-air.
If it’s a weekly show (CBS still in that world), I want each episode to be worth the week wait. If it’s released all at once (like many digital subscription shows have tended to be, in the era of Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime), I want it to be so good, it’s hard to stop after one episode (I remember staying up far too late watching Firefly, when I got the DVDs).

I want it to be the big breath of fresh air, not the stale, clinical, same-old. There’s much discussion about which Trek time-period it should be (contemporary with JJTrek would make most sense, given some shared leadership), but ultimately it doesn’t matter much if it’s good.

What might be a good way to shake up the crew dynamics?

Smaller core cast. Best way to do that? Science vessel. Go out exploring, to give them some variety, but build up to something major. Have an outpost or starbase that they need to go back to from time to time, can have some recurring guest cast there. Have the ship agile for evasive maneuvers, but not the kind of ship you really want to take into battle. Have a patrol ship or two in the area, that you can call in as cavalry or backup when you need it. Some more recurring guest cast.

Behind the scenes, try not to mess up the science too much, and try and get a cast that actually likes each other, and will still be happy to get together at conventions in thirty years’ time.

And good characters, good character interactions, and good character development. That ensign had better be promoted, maybe to a different role, by the end of Season 3.

Trek can be great. The new show could be a game-changer. And I’d really like it to be.

Will it?

We shall see. Depending if the show comes to a venue we have access to. Think they’ll do a DVD?

Best Track On The Album: Meat Loaf, part 2 – 2000-2015

Continued from yesterday’s post I’m talking a little about each Meat Loaf album and my favourite track on it. Yesterday I tackled everything pre-2000, today is everything between 2000 and now (it’s a bit premature to say what my favourite songs from future albums will be).

Again, the links to the winning songs are in the summary, at the end.

Unfortunately, today I must start with the one Loaf album I don’t like. So here goes…

Couldn’t Have Said It Better, 2003:
If I’d Lie For You (on Welcome To The Neighbourhood, discussed in part 1) was trying to be Anything For Love, the title track here was REALLY trying to be Anything For Love, and failing to live up to its predecessor even more miserably. Most of the rest of the album wasn’t any better. It seemed mostly defensive, but the shell was mostly hollow. But there are a couple of shining moments that contrast with the rest of the album. Narrowly missing out on being one of the shining moments is Because Of You, which has a cool chorus, but otherwise has absolutely no substance. Shallow, were Meat Loaf usually manages to run much deeper. The runner-up track is a cover of Bob Dylan’s Forever Young. As a bonus, that song finishes, but the track continues in silence for a couple of minutes before bursting into a hidden song on the same track, a cover of Mercury Blues, which is a lot of fun. The shinier light on the album, though, is Did I Say That (the album version is a bit longer than the music video). It’s the end of a relationship, neither side is innocent, his thoughts are conflicted, switching between giving blame and taking blame… this song feels really honest, and the other songs on the album seem to lack that.

Bat Out Of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose, 2006:
I remember finding out about this album while it was being highlighted by Ken Bruce on Radio 2. The long-awaited Meat Loaf studio cover of Jim Steinman’s Bad For Good hit the radio. Major geek-out moment, and ditching the “God Speed” section was absolutely the right choice. And the rest of the album, what a stunning return to form. Alive reminds me of Bon Jovi back when they were good (no offense, Mr Jovi. Remind me to do a post about Bon Jovi one day). The Steinman-penned tracks In The Land Of The Pig, The Butcher Is King, and If It Ain’t Broke, Break It. The absolute highlight of the album, however, hands-down, is Seize The Night.
On Steinman’s solo album Bad For Good, Track 10 was an instrumental called “The Storm”. It sounded like it could be from a movie soundtrack. On the song “Bad For Good”, it was easy to turn the lyric “You can hide away forever from the storm” to “You can hide away forever from Track 10″, for people who perversely enjoy doing such things. Like me.
Anyway, Seize The Night starts out with a redone version of The Storm, which was a total surprise to me when I heard it first. Big geek-out. At a point where The Storm shifts down a gear, Seize the Night transitions into a relatively soft section of singing. Which transitions again, and gears up and gears up, and runs screaming into Back Into Hell, a (technically) instrumental track from Bat II. The rest of the track switches between the song Seize The Night, and Back Into Hell. It’s a treat for fans who’ve followed both Steinman and Loaf over the years.

Hang Cool Teddy Bear, 2010:
A concept album, with the concept being a soldier dying on a battlefield, and possible futures flashing before his eyes, rather than his past. The songwriters weren’t told the concept, lest the songs become too literal, but knowing the concept you can see it. Very interesting. Also features Loaf’s first swear on an album (the word for female dog, in the duet with Jack Black, “Like A Rose”). I like Living On The Outside (very different from Standing On The Outside), the duet in If I Can’t Have You (reminiscent of the altercation with Cher in Deadringer), The Song Of Madness and its mythic imagery. The winner, though, is Love Is Not Real/Next Time You Stab Me In The Back. The character has obviously been emotionally hurt in his relationships. “Next time you stab me in the back, you better do it to my face”, perhaps intentionally quoting Firefly.

Hell In A Handbasket, 2011:
It took me a while to warm up to Hang Cool, Teddy Bear, so I listened to this album before I got it. The first three tracks (All Of Me, The Giving Tree, Live Or Die), were enough to convince me the album was worth getting. Think I like Live Or Die the most of those. I enjoy the antisocialness of Party Of One. I think the track I like most on the album is Stand In The Storm, a collaboration with other contestants on a Celebrity version of some reality show that Mr Loaf was in, but I didn’t see.

And I find out there’s a new album, Braver Than We Are, coming out either later this year or early next year. That one will have to wait…

Summary for part 2:
Did I Say That? music video / full version
Seize The Night
Love Is Not Real/Next Time You Stab Me In The Back
Stand In The Storm

A Game Night

Tonight we had a game night. We haven’t had one in quite a while, and it was relatively short notice, so our guest lineup was shaken up a bit (also, family visiting from England will throw that for a bit of a loop, too).

Shortly before people came, I was trying to brush up on the rules for Captains Of Industry, which I’ve been looking forward to playing for a long time (indeed, it’s been sitting in a prominent spot for a while), but in the end it didn’t seem like the right time to introduce a game that complicated. Maybe another time.

I brought up Catan, Dominion and Ticket To Ride from the basement, and we ended up not playing any of those, either.

I talked to one of the guests about the last game I Kickstarted, whose arrival I’m looking forward to: Bomb Squad. Co-operative but seeming to avoid the problem with games like Pandemic, of one player dominating (“here, you do this, you do this, then I can do this…”).

I know two games, brought by one set of guests, were played on a table I was not at. One was a trivia one, and some answers floated from our table to theirs.

The first game I played was Firefly Clue. I’d played it once before and enjoyed it. The last time, I’d just figured out whodunnit, and that was enough to tip the game’s owner to the same information and she won.

This time, I’d pretty much concluded the What, was pretty sure on the Who, and I’d lucked into the Where on my last guess, but that was enough to tip my mother off onto the right answers, so she got to the centre square and won.

Seems like you need a bit more space on the answer sheets, to write down who asked about what, who answered about what, and who has what, to keep better track.

The next game I played was Love Letter, which I was introduced to not long ago. We played nearly two games: the first game, I was in the lead with three cubes and only needed one to go, then one player had to go and another joined, so we started scoring from scratch. The second game, then, the new player, my sister-in-law, convincingly won.

We talked about playing Templar intrigue next, but there weren’t seven people free to play it with (7-10 players). There were still enough adults in the room to play it, but kid-wrangling was still going on, so we have to save this for another time.

The last game we played with guests, The Game Of Things. One player reads the text on a card (“Things you should not teach your pet to do”, “Things that don’t last very long”, “Things you shouldn’t do on a first date”, and so on), and all the players write something that fits with what the card said. The person who read the card reads the answers, and the next player has to guess who wrote what. If they get one wrong, the next player guesses, and so on, until everyone knows who wrote what (the player reading doesn’t guess, so the handwriting doesn’t give it away).

That was a pretty funny game, particularly as it was getting late, and people were verging into getting punchy and silly. Seems a good one to have on hand to be able to pull out.

We then chatted a bit about games we liked the sound of but haven’t tried. Currently on my radar of games I’d like to try and possibly even get, are Firefly The Game, and T.I.M.E. Stories. And I liked the story behind the creation of Euphoria: Build A Better Dystopia.

It sounds like we might get Love Letter in the household at some point, too.

The last game I tried, after all our guests had gone, was one my sister (and brother-in-law, and niece) had left for my kids. My wife had played it with Oldest (I think my mother-in-law played some with them, too). It was called Loopin’ Louie. A crazed pilots flies round and round, trying to knock your chickens down. You can make him pull up when he gets close to you. Sounds like the kids enjoyed it, I played it against my wife, and it seems you might be able to learn how hard to hit i and exactly when, to make the plane come down again in exactly the right place. On the other hand, it keeps a fairly even playing field between the kids and grown-ups.

A good, fun, night.

Remember: games are good for you, but don’t eat too many at once.

Dark Skies – the TV series

Science fiction has played a fairly large role in my life. I got into Star Trek when Next Generation started, some shows I watched as a kid before that, I remember that Return Of The Jedi was shown regularly on Christmas Eve for several years. And of course, many shows and movies since then.

The X-Files came out in 1993, and I watched a bunch from the first 2 or 3 seasons. Some of the concepts were pretty interesting (the one that’s stuck in my mind from its first airing in England is Soft Light).

I heard more than remember, that The X-Files was a bit flip-floppy on the subject of aliens.  “Yes, they exist!” “No, it was a hoax in that previous episode!”

Dark Skies came onto TV in 1996, kind of marketed as “like The X-Files”, or “for people who like The X-Files”, or something like that. But while some of the marketing may have given the impression of  a cheap ripoff of The X-Files, Dark Skies had a very different premise.

There wasn’t the “monster of the week” stuff. There wasn’t the “are aliens real?” question: that is answered very early on: yes they are real. No wavering on that point.

Another big difference in concept, is that Dark Skies is a period drama. It starts very early in the Sixties. I believe each season was supposed to be about a decade, then turn real-time when it hit the present-day.

The producers had really done their homework into UFOlogy: significant events, people, accounts, associated phenomena like Men In Black (who were in the first version of the pilot, but the studio insisted on their clothes being changed to gray because of a forthcoming Will smith/Tommy Lee Jones movie), Majestic 12, and so on.

The producers also knew ways to make their setting seem real. In organisations, people who work there often have shorthands and acronyms for things, and we see that sort of thing in the show.

The historic setting and the detailed research gave the producers two timelines, one of historic events and the other of UFO sightings and events, and the stories could come out of where both lined up. Plus, of course, references to events outside the setting of the show (Roswell, for one), and to other things going on at the same time, whether related to aliens or to the story (Project Blue Book as one example, the official US Government investigation into the flying saucer/UFO phenomenon).

John Loengard is the main character, and as a good entry point into the story he starts off as a complete outsider, and finds his way into being an insider. In this great clip from the pilot episode, he’s still adjusting from his ’60s Man On The Street self:

As the show goes on, we find John and Kim (his girlfriend) walk very wiggly paths as to their relationship with Majestic, their uncovering of the aliens’ agenda, and significant ’60s people and events.

There’s an episode that veers dangerously close to being a clip show, but in a twist that I really appreciate, some of the flashbacks aren’t what really happened!

The cast is great, in particular I’d like to call out Eric Close as John, Megan Ward as Kim Sayers, Jeri Ryan as Juliet Stewart (from her explosive entrance mid-season, a few months before she showed up on Voyager), J.T. Walsh brings a lot of gravity with his portrayal of Frank Bach, Conor O’Farrell as Phil Albano and Tim Kelleher as Jim Steele.

The soundtrack works well, too, with the use of period music.

The show’s title sequence won an Emmy, and is really cool. It’s interesting to note that the first regular episode after the pilot, has a slightly different theme to the rest of the season: “History is a lie”, which got changed to “History as we know it is a lie”. (actually, the differences between the pilot episodes are interesting as well: a lot was reshot. And the original pilot music was done by Mark Snow, who did The X-Files, strengthening the comparison, and the second pilot was done by Michael Hoenig, who did the rest of the series).

It’s a big “What If” story: UFOs were regularly in the news in the ’40s and ’50s, and even afterwards. What if there really is something to that, what if those in power (even if in power behind-the-scenes) knew about it, and what if the public never got told? How could the truth then completely change our understanding of events?

Much as I like the show, it does have its flaws. Like, sometimes it seems like episodes wrapped up a little too neatly. Then you wonder: is it from the show being a product of the ’90s, before things started getting messier, or is some of it from the influence of the optimism of the ’60s, which the show tried to bring across even more than the paranoia of the ’60s (which is still present).

Also, there’s something about the episode Ancient Future: the Native American/alien tie-in perhaps may not have been cliche at the time, but seems to be very much so now, and the pastor who has a crisis of faith, only to end up with a strong faith in… nothing specific… doesn’t really work. But then, I did like things about that episode, such as the projected future.

I still like this show, even now, almost 19 years later.

For a show about conspiracy theories, some of the history of the show itself gives conspiracy-minded people lots to have fun with.

NBC gave the show the biggest publicity campaign it had ever given a show – and then moved the show all over the schedule, and pre-empted it for sports and other events, so even those who wanted to see it had a hard time finding it (unless you watched it on Channel Four in the UK, like I did).

The pilot was released on VHS. This had a purple case. The first two regular episodes (Moving Targets/Mercury Rising) were also released on VHS, I only ever saw it in the larger rental-style box (I used to have quite a collection of ex-rental videos…). The next two episodes were also allegedly released on VHS. I’ve seen a picture of the case (green, IIRC), but I never saw it in a store, and never saw it in a catalogue (a friend ran a  store, and had a big catalogue of VHS tapes that could be ordered – DS volumes 1 and 2 were listed, but not vol 3).No more were released.

When DVDs became popular, consumers were asking for a DVD of the show. The producers went to the studio and said “We know music clearances can be a pain, we can change the music if you like.” The studio replied and said “No, we don’t think that will be a problem.” Next thing we knew, the studio decided not to release the show on DVD, because of “music licensing costs”. Eventually, the producers managed to get the show released on DVD by Shout! Factory, with all the original music intact.

I’d like to see the show revisited now, with the episodes less stand-alone and clean, more of that messy vibe that’s been running through shows like Babylon 5 season 4, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica/Caprica, Stargate Universe. Have a clear idea of where you’re going, but more threads that spread out over more than one episode. And we want to find out who else is Hive!

Today, the Dark Skies Facebook page has had a run of posts, including one that starts:

“DARK SKIES — the classic NBC cult-hit — could be rebooted!

Sony TV is finally talking to the creators about bringing back the series”.

I really hope so. I’ve been looking forward to finding out what happens – and given the way things were going for humanity by the end of the ’60s, what happened to set the Hive back in the meantime. And find out what else is wrong about what we know.

Check out their Facebook page, and the clips on their YouTube playlist. Give them some support, hopefully you’ll be hooked, too!

Independence Day and stuff

Days like today are always fun on Facebook.

One meme doing the rounds today is the British Union Flag, captioned “HAPPY TREASON DAY, UNGRATEFUL COLONIALS”.

It is a tragedy that many of the things the American colonists fought against, have slowly been re-implemented by the American government, not really mattering which mafia family political party is in control. Each time I see an example of this, I just don’t get it, America is basically saying Britain was right all along.

But enough of this, and on to happier things.

A friend of mine decided to watch the movie Independence Day today, and is already deciding to make it a yearly event. And what a fun movie. Corny, cheesy, jingoistic, perhaps even cliché, but definitely fun. I once watched it In German (in Germany). I had the fullscreen video at home, and my German host had it in widescreen. I didn’t understand most of the German as such, but I knew enough of the film for it to not really matter, and it was just better in widescreen.

Line that comes to mind most often: “All right, you alien assholes!”. I had “Welcome to Earth!” as a CAPTCHA today. And last year, I posted to Facebook a screenshot of the classic White House Blowing Up scene, for the 4th of July.

This year, I posted an image that is a very strong symbol of independence:

The good ship Serenity

It also works as an image to represent the other event of the day: my ninth wedding anniversary.

Still flyin’.

A raise of the glass, a tip of the hat, a nod of the head, the most casual of salutes to all of you out there who want to gather your crew, head your own direction, and live without much in the way of interference from folk who have no real vested interest in your lives. Keep flying.

Image taken from The Train Job.