Sci-Fi Cinema vs Sci-Fi TV – The Verdict?

I rarely go to the cinema any more, if at all. The last film that I went to see was The Avengers, four years ago in 2012. Before that, it was X-Men: First Class in 2011, Avatar and Star Trek, way back in 2009, and The Dark Knight, in 2008. All in all, I think I’ve been to the cinema no more than a half dozen times since my son died, back in April 2006.

Why? For starters, the cost. Going to the cinema is an expensive pursuit these days, and the cost of admission alone isn’t much less than the price of a DVD. Then on top of that, you have to factor in the transport costs to and from the cinema, plus paying out for something nice to eat afterwards or during the film. It can make for a costly night out, and it just might be cheaper to go to the pub instead.

So is it worth paying that kind of money just to watch a film, particularly when the chances of being badly disappointed by any new Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster are unfortunately extremely high? The quality of the typical big Hollywood sci-fi movie over the past couple of decades has been absolutely dire, especially when we look back at how good the classic sci-fi films of the 1950s-1980s were by comparison. I don’t even bother going to see most films at the cinema at all these days, no matter how much they’re hyped. I simply prefer to wait for the DVD to come out and watch the film in the comfort of my own home. The fact is that, for me, the cinema is no longer the essential large viewing experience that it once was.

In years past, if I wanted to watch the film on a large screen, I HAD to go to the cinema. Now I have a lovely big widescreen TV at home, I can buy the DVD when it comes out, and watch it as often as I like (with subtitles, pause, rewind, etc) in the comfort of my own home, either alone, or with friends. So Why bother forking out a load of cash to go to the cinema, where there are all kinds of annoyances (mobile phones flashing non-stop throughout the film, disruptive cretins yapping incessantly and misbehaving, annoying kids kicking the back of your seat, people walking up and down the isles or back and forth in front of you during the film, the inevitable sore backside sitting on those crappy cinema seats, which makes the last hour or so VERY uncomfortable during longer films, etc), when, for a less than £20, I can have the DVD, a few cans of beer (a pleasant bonus when viewing at home, but strictly verboten in cinemas), and lie back on the sofa and enjoy the film on my BIG television in comfort and in peace and quiet?

But the most important reason? It’s illustrated by a remark made by friend and fellow member (Dennis Howard) over on the FanCentral social network a few years ago. He said (in words to this effect) that he rarely watches (modern) sci-fi films any more, because he’s very rarely impressed by them, and because all of the best sci-fi is happening on television anyway, not in film. It’s a spot-on observation, in my opinion, and one that I agree with very strongly. There’s only so much you can squeeze into a two-hour film, and when you consider that most modern Hollywood sci-fi movies are mostly made up of action sequences, big explosions and special effects, it doesn’t leave much time for anything else. As a result, two of the most important things that should be paramount, but tend to suffer badly in newer Hollywood movies, are the actual stories/plots and character development. I almost always walk away from the cinema afterwards feeling dissatisfied about those two aspects of a film.

This is where television has cinema beaten hands down. Old-style sci-fi television was strictly episodic in nature, with a built-in reset button at the end of every episode. But Babylon 5 changed all that back in the 90s, and today, most decent modern sci-fi series can have intricate on-going plot arcs and sub-plots that simply are not possible in a two-hour film, and the same holds true for the ongoing character development of both the main and the supporting cast. Add to this the fact that modern special effects on TV have reached such a high level of technical quality and sophistication that television sci-fi no longer looks cheap and cheesy, and we can see that most decent sci-fi concepts would be better served in a television series than in a film. Hey, even if the series gets cancelled after one or two seasons (an ever-present danger with the TV networks), we still get a LOT more than we ever would from a two-hour movie.

Sure, I still buy the best of the films on DVD, although they do tend to be older sci-fi cinema classics rather than modern films. But these past couple of years, I’ve turned more and more to television shows, and taken to buying DVD boxsets of classic and modern sci-fi series. I started off with buying classic older series such as Doctor Who, Sapphire and Steel, UFO, The Tomorrow People, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, The Time Tunnel, Timeslip, Children of the Stones, Sky, Quatermass, The Invaders, Fireball XL5, Space Patrol, Moonbase 3, Babylon 5, the X-Files, Stargate SG1/Atlantis/Universe, Quantum Leap, and Star Trek TOS/TNG/DS9/VOY/ENT. But I’ve also been grabbing boxsets of more modern series as they’ve come down in price – Fringe, BSG, Heroes, Smallville, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, NuWho and a few others. I just wait patiently for new stuff to be released on DVD at reasonable prices, and buy them.

I’ve pretty much adopted the same policy as Dennis, to concentrate mostly on sci-fi television series, but take that further to such an extent that my objective has become one of grabbing as many classic sci-fi television series as I possibly can on DVD. Aside from having all these old gems to watch, it also gives me a lot more to talk about here on my blog, on FanCentral, and in any of the other geek forums that I hang out in. Which can only be a good thing, if I do say so myself.🙂

One Small Step for a Man…

On this day in 1969, humans set foot on another world for the very first time. Six and a half hours after landing on the lunar surface, astronaut Neil Armstrong emerged from the Lunar Lander Eagle and climbed down the ladder to take his first steps on the surface of the Moon, with the immortal declaration “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”. He was joined about twenty minutes later by co-pilot Buzz Aldrin.

I remember watching this on television as a young child of eight years of age. It was very early in the morning, (UK/Irish time), almost 3am, and my Dad had dragged me out of bed, bleary-eyed, to see the great event as it happened. I stood there, mouth wide open in amazement, watching the images on our old black and white television. Armstrong climbing down the steps, Aldrin joining him, the two astronauts, with their languid, almost slow-motion bouncing around on the lunar surface, planting the US flag, and collecting rock samples and other material to take back to Earth. Even at that early age, I was a hardcore space freak, and I fully understood that this was a most momentous, unforgettable event in human history. It is still one of the greatest memories from my childhood.

I know how memory can cheat, especially from so long ago, and at such an early age. It seems in my ancient memories as though they were out on the surface of the Moon for hours and hours, bouncing around and having fun, and that the Eagle was on the lunar surface for days. But they actually spent less than two and a half hours outside before climbing back aboard Eagle, and less than a day on the lunar surface before Eagle lifted off to rendezvous with the Command Module Columbia and Michael Collins, high above in lunar orbit.

The rest is history. The return to Earth, the splashdown, the triumphant celebrations. It seemed like the solar system was just waiting for us, and that we would be on the Moon, Mars and beyond before the end of the twentieth century. So what happened? Why did the Apollo programme peter out and manned space exploration beyond Low Earth Orbit end?

Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. Public apathy combined with corrupt, greedy, disinterested politicians who saw no more votes or money in funding manned spaceflight to the planets. But what a pathetic, lame excuse to bring such a premature end to mankind’s colonisation of space. We should be out there now, at least as far as the Asteroid Belt.

Hey, maybe in an alternate timeline we did it all. It’s nice to dream, isn’t it?🙂

The Eagle Has Landed – 47 Years Ago Today

It’s been a busy week for space anniversaries. Yesterday was “Mars Day”, the 40th Anniversary of the landing of the Viking 1 lander on the surface of Mars, so I guess we could call today “Moon Day”, with the 47th Anniversary of the first manned landing on the Moon.

On the morning of 16th July, the Saturn V rocket carrying Apollo 11 and its crew lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the first manned mission to take off with the mission of actually landing on the lunar surface, rather than just orbiting it. On the evening of 20th July, 1969, the climax of the Apollo 11 mission approached, as the Lunar Lander Eagle detached from the Command Module Columbia and descended down towards the lunar surface with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on board (with Michael Collins remaining above in the Command Module).

Armstrong’s famous words “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” heralded the landing of the Eagle on the lunar surface. It would be another six hours, early on the morning of June 21st, before Neil Armstrong was to take his very first steps on the Moon, to be joined twenty minutes later by Buzz Aldrin.

The first landing by humans on another world. One of the greatest moments in human history, in my opinion. So when are we going back, again, for good this time?

Golden Age Comics Characters: Captain Marvel

Whiz Comics 002
Captain Marvel first appeared back in February 1940, in the classic Golden Age comic Whiz Comics #2, published by Fawcett Comics. The Captain Marvel character was created by artist C. C. Beck and writer Bill Parker, and was the most popular superhero character of the 1940s (going by sales alone).

The character may seem quaint by modern standards, but he was hugely popular in the 1940s, a much simpler, more innocent era (at least when it comes to comics). Thirteen year-old newsboy Billy Batson is given incredible powers by an old wizard, and whenever he says the magic word Shazam! he is struck by a bolt of lightning, transforming him into Captain Marvel (saying Shazam! again changes him back into Billy Batson). Shazam! is an acronym for the first letter of each name of the six gods and legendary heroes from whom Captain Marvel gets his powers – the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the invulnerability of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. That’s quite a powerful mix!

Captain Marvel later acquired two super-powered sidekicks, Captain Marvel Jr and Mary Marvel, the three being known collectively as The Marvel Family. There were also later additions, both human and animal, all non-super powered. And there was also a retinue of nasty villains – Black Adam, an evil Captain Marvel analogue, Captain Nazi, Adolf Hitler’s champion, mad scientist Doctor Sivana, and, worst of all, Mister Mind and his Monster Society of Evil, which provided his longest running and most deadly adversaries.

Captain Marvel continued in Whiz Comics until #155 (June 1953), when the strip was forced to stop publication due to legal action initiated by National Comics, now DC Comics, who claimed that the character was too similar to Superman. That may have been technically true, but the lawsuit was quite cheeky and, in my opinion, ridiculous, as Superman himself was a blatant copy of earlier heroes such as Hercules, Samson, and even the character Gladiator, created by science fiction writer Philip Wylie in 1930, less than a decade before the creation of Superman. The influence of the Gladiator character on Siegal and Schuster in their creation of Superman is well known. After a couple of legal decisions in favour of, firstly, Fawcett, and then DC, Fawcett Publications finally settled out of court, Fawcett Comics ceased operating and stopped publishing all of their superhero comics, including the entire Captain Marvel stable of characters from 1953 onwards.

This legal nonsense was quite obviously an opportunistic act by National/DC to snuff out a more successful competitor, a perfect example of a large company using its greater legal muscle to bully a much smaller company into submission. More than any supposed legal objections, the major motivating factor in DC taking legal action against Fawcett was almost certainly financial, because Captain Marvel had been consistently outselling Superman and DC’s other titles by a considerable margin during that era.

I find it ironic that, in a nation which supposedly prizes competition, big companies prefer to use legal muscle to put dangerous competitors out of business, rather than take the more moral and logical route of trying to out-compete their adversaries in the marketplace. Even more ironic is that DC licensed the Captain Marvel stable of characters from Fawcett in 1972, and bought the rights to the characters outright from Fawcett Publications in 1980. As most DC comics fans are aware, Captain Marvel and Fawcett’s other characters live on to this day, and are now integrated into the DC Universe.

Some of the best battles in the DC Universe have featured Superman vs Captain Marvel, as both characters are so similar and equal in strength, one born of science and the other born of magic. There aren’t many characters in DC’s stable who can fight Superman to a standstill, but the Big Red Cheese is one of them!

Some Cordwainer Smith Books (Part 2)

Last time out, I was talking about receiving my first batch of Cordwainer Smith books in the post, and that I was waiting for another batch. Well, the second batch has now arrived, three books. Actually, two separate books, and an extra copy of one of them.

The two books are We The Underpeople and When The People Fell, both published by Baen Books. The reason that I have an extra copy of one of them is simple: I ordered both books and didn’t realise that they were different editions, different sizes. The original Baen 2007 edition was a trade paperback, and the 2012 edition was a much smaller mass market paperback, so they don’t go together too well on the bookshelf. I’d mistakenly ordered one of each, so I had to rectify my mistake, and immediately ordered a copy of the 2007 trade paperback edition of When The People Fell. The smaller mass market paperback edition will serve as a reading copy, while the two trade paperbacks go on the bookshelves. Extra copies never go to waste.🙂

The good news for hardcore Cordwainer Smith fans, or those just wanting to try him out, is that these two books contain ALL of the science fiction writing of this great author. There’s no need to track down any of his other books, unless you’re one of those OCD obsessives (like myself), who has to have all the different editions, with the different introductions and different covers.

We The Underpeople contains not only an excellent Introduction by Robert Silverberg, but also Smith’s only SF novel, NORSTRILIA, and five of his best short stories. When The People Fell contains an equally excellent Introduction by Frederik Pohl, the remaining twenty-two stories in his Instrumentality of Mankind future history sequence, plus six non-Instrumentality stories.

That’s all of Cordwainer Smith’s SF stories in two books. Awesome, truly awesome. And required reading for anyone who considers themselves true, hardcore SF fans. All I can say is: Go get ’em!

Some Cordwainer Smith Books

I’m back on a book binge at the moment, all sorts of books from Amazon, Ebay and other sources. From the SF lit side of things, I’ve been concentrating on one of my favourite authors, Cordwainer Smith, and the first batch of four Smith books has recently arrived on my doorstep.

The first of the Smith books is the original 1968 Pyramid Books paperback edition of The Underpeople, which is the second half of Smith’s only SF novel, NORSTRILIA. The first half was The Planet Buyer, which I already have in it’s original Pyramid 1964 paperback edition. I’ve had the Sphere Books 1975 UK paperback edition of The Underpeople for years, but I wanted the original US Pyramid edition to go with my US original edition of The Planet Buyer.

The other three books are interesting in that they are three different editions of the same book, namely The Best of Cordwainer Smith. First we have the July 1975 hardcover Book Club Edition edition, published by Nelson Doubleday Inc, then the September 1975 Ballantine Books 1st paperback edition. Aside from the larger size and different dustcover art of the hardcover edition, everything is exactly the same, except for a couple of things. Two of the stories are reversed in order for some inexplicable reason, and J.J. Pierce’s excellent Future History Timeline is in a much easier to read vertical format in the hardcover, whereas in the paperback edition it’s in a harder to read horizontal format spanning several levels.

The third version of the book is actually a UK edition, trade paperback format, No.10 in the SF Masterworks series, published by Gollancz/Orion. Aside from the larger size and beautiful cover art, the internals of this edition are exactly the same as the Ballantine 1st US paperback edition, including the horizontal format Future History Timeline. This one is worth having for the lovely cover artwork and the fact that it’s one of the SF Masterworks series.

I’ve still got several more Cordwainer Smith books due to arrive soon in the post. I’ll list those when they arrive.

“Dormant” (1948) by A. E. van Vogt

TITLE: “Dormant” (1948) by A. E. van Vogt
CATEGORY: Short Fiction
SUB-CATEGORY: Short Story
SOURCE: BEST SCIENCE-FICTION STORIES edited by Michael Stapleton (Hardcover, Hamlyn, 1977, ISBN: 0-600-38243-5, 750pp)
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: Startling Stories, November 1948

I was rummaging in the vaults a while ago, and I came upon an old anthology that I haven’t read in years. Well, me being me, I couldn’t resist having a browse through it, and looking at the extensive contents listing of excellent stories, the memories started flooding back.

I fondly remember this particular story as one of my favourites from that anthology. A. E. van Vogt’s short story “Dormant” was one of those Golden Age of Science Fiction classics first published in the November 1948 edition of Startling Stories, and the story isn’t one of those far-future, outer space tales, but is actually pretty much in a contemporary setting, 1948, the same year as the actual publication date of the story. Being an historian (I was actually studying history at school at the time I read it), I’ve always really liked the strong post-World War II setting of this tale, with the US destroyer Coulson and it’s crew doing mop up operations on a remote pacific island, finding hidden caches of fuel and other goodies left behind by the Japanese.

But they also find a lot more than just Japanese leftovers. There’s the perplexing mystery of a gigantic rock, weighing millions of tons, which seems to be able to move around the island at will. A rock with a surface temperature of many hundreds of degrees, and which hurls out seemingly random destructive radioactive blasts. A giant rock which is not actually a rock, but an ancient, sentient robot bomb left on Earth countless millions of years ago by some alien race in a long-forgotten interstellar war.

The sections of the story from the POV of the bomb are among my favourites. The bomb, which actually has a name (it calls itself Iilah), has been dormant for countless aeons, but has recently been reawakened by the radiation from the atomic bomb tests on Bikini Atoll in 1946. It has got only low-level life functions back, and is suffering from amnesia. It cannot see the water, air, and even the humans around it. It’s simply totally unaware of their existence. All it can see are the ships and the planes, which it takes for strange lifeforms, flying around in the “sky”. And it’s the bomb’s attempts to communicate with these “lifeforms”, to try find out where it can get more sources of atomic energy to revive it, which unwittingly causes so much destruction and kills so many people.

And of course the humans, predictable as ever, just HAVE to start shooting at the damned thing. The giant “rock” fights back, kicking their asses and destroying the Coulson, much of the other equipment, and unknowingly snuffing out dozens of lives of which it is totally unaware. The remainder of the taskforce is ordered off the island, and an atomic bomb dropped, which is, ironically, exactly what Iilah needs. The flood of energy totally reinvigorates it, and it remembers its mission. It IS a robot bomb, after all, so it promptly follows orders, explodes and knocks Earth out of its orbit and into the sun. And so the world ends in 1948.🙂

“Dormant” must be one of the first A. E. van Vogt short stories that I read (maybe even the first) back in the day, although I’d definitely read a few of his novels before that point. It was during this timeframe that I also came across three other van Vogt short stories – “The Monster”, “Vault of the Beast” and “Black Destroyer” – in anthologies that I’d taken out from the local library, but I’m pretty sure that I read “Dormant” before any of the others. Those four stories became huge favourites of mine during my mid-to-late-teens, and kick-started my obsession for hunting down collections of van Vogt short fiction.

“Dormant” (indeed all four of these stories) has stuck in my mind these past forty years, and is one of those early gems that cemented my newly-acquired obsession as a hardcore SF fan. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for this one.

Anyone who might want to read this story, and is finding it hard to get a copy of this anthology, can also find the story in a couple of van Vogt’s short story collections, notably Destination: Universe! and Transfinite: The Essential A.E. van Vogt.