Weimar World Service Science Fiction articles 

SF Archive
Internet Archive 
E-mail me 


Copyright © 2009 by John Zipperer.

Some of these columns first appeared, in edited form, on TVBarn or elsewhere as noted.

Planet of the -- Oh, Whatever
Tim Burton Releases a Big-Budget Ape-vs-Man Remake without Heart or Soul
By John Zipperer

(08/07/01) Director Tim Burton has made his career around weird. Not creativity so much as weird. Sometimes it has provided for some entertaining results, as with the first two Batman movies or Edward Scissorhands, but other times it leaves one wondering what all the fuss is about. Unfortunately, his latest film, Planet of the Apes, falls in the latter category. 

Almost two decades ago, Planet of the Apes existed as a television series. Airing on Friday nights (if my recollections are correct), it only lasted 14 episodes before being given the sack. But even that short time provided some excitement to me at an early age. It could hardly fail to do so; action and cool characters and heroes. I didn't have high standards at that age.

But before the television series there was a popular film series, itself based on a novel, and the film series and the book both aimed a little higher in their ambitions. It was the film series that probably most caught people's attention, starting with the Charlton Heston-starring Planet of the Apes in which an astronaut lands on a planet where apes rule humans and at the end finds out that it's a future earth. Sequels followed, in which we learned more of how that warped future came to be. Then the TV series came last of all, bringing the phenomenon to a temporary halt when it was cancelled.

For some reason, Tim Burton wanted to bring it back. I can understand why I would have wanted to bring it back, because I enjoyed the interplay of the action and the ideas. But from the product Burton delivered, there seems to be no obvious answer to the question of why he wanted it back. (WARNING: SPOILER IN THIS PARAGRAPH.) In his version, spaceman Leo (played by Mark Wahlberg) crashes on a planet -- definitely not earth -- where apes rule humans. He leads an escape and revolt (with the help of an ape sympathetic to the enslaved humans) and blasts off again in a spaceship, which then goes to earth, which ... is run by apes. (Did you understand the ending? If so, please explain it to me.)

But whereas the first movie had things to say about nuclear war and racism and barbarism, Burton's film seems to think it can trot out some comments about mistreatment of enslaved humans and then bang get back to the action, which is all that really matters. Is he correct? If money is all that matters, then perhaps he is right, for the movie made an amazing $68 million its first weekend, and by its second weekend had pushed its total above $100 million. But, again, is he correct?

I don't think so. I did enjoy the film: It is exciting; Mark Wahlberg is nice to look at; Charlton Heston does have a cute scene as a dying patriarch ape; the special effects and the costumes and the ape makeup are great. So Tim Burton got me to pay to see this film twice. But the action and the pleasant scenery aren't as much as it could have been, and Burton should be able to use his Hollywood rebel reputation to give us more than a mindless blockbuster.

Because, in the end (well, and in the beginning and middle), all Burton's Planet of the Apes is is a mindless blockbuster. Fun to watch, but it doesn't really challenge anyone. It makes no controversial statements (sorry; opposing slavery just doesn't have the cutting-edge it might once have had; he may as well have included a call to oppose the Spanish-American War) and doesn't even build up much human interest between its characters. There appears to be some slight interest between some of the main characters, but besides some going-away kisses at the end of the film (which elicited derisive laughter from the audiences I saw it with), there's no real attachment. Perhaps an additional 30 minutes of character development was left on the cutting room floor. I sure hope so.

To be challenging and useful, the film would have to challenge real audience beliefs -- something modern audiences still care about or are complicit in perpetuating. But Hollywood today likes to think it's more daring than it is, and it certainly isn't daring when it comes to its summer blockbusters. If a multimillionaire tinseltown heavy-hitter like Burton doesn't want to try to do more with his movies than make them fun to look at, he's free to do so and rake in the cash. It's not a crime. It's just a shame.

Sci Fi Resurrects “Babylon 5” with Telefilm
By John Zipperer

(3/25/01) The premise of the new Babylon 5 telefilm doesn’t sound original, but then again, neither did that of the original series when we first heard it, so who knows? The Sci Fi Channel is reporting that it will air a brand new B5 telefilm called Babylon 5: The Legend of the Rangers later this year. Series creator J. Michael Straczynski is reportedly writing the two-hour film even as we speak, er, write. And there’s more to come.

The film is said to deal with the Ranger fleet’s struggles to bring order to societies that were blasted in the Shadow War. As the Sci Fi Channel reports, “This new chapter of the Babylon 5 story finds the mysterious Ranger force -- a combination of humans and alien Minbari trained in space warfare as well as the unique alien philosophy of the Rangers and just about every conceivable form of martial arts -- faced with deadly challenges in its attempt to create peace out of the war's destruction.” There may be cast members from the original “Babylon 5” series, but no doubt there’s the mother of all negotiations involved, before that can come about.

It’s a familiar premise to anyone who’s heard of “Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda” series that launched this past Fall. In that series, a starship seeks out civilizations that have been separated by a cataclysmic war many years earlier and tries to bind them together again. It’s too early to tell how different the new B5 telefilm will be. But then, B5 launched at the same time as “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” which was about a deep-space station that eventually got entangled in an intergalactic war with an ancient race, bringing together in the process various alien peoples in new alliances.

For you non-Babylon 5 fans -- and shame on you ­ here’s a quick backgrounder. Babylon 5 is the name of a deep-space station (numbers 1-4 all were destroyed, making this one famously “our last, best hope for peace”) that ended up saving the known universe from the ancient malevolent aliens the Shadows. In the process, the political landscape of earth and its galactic neighborhood changed dramatically, bringing together long-feuding races into mutually beneficial alliances. Doesn’t sound original, either, on its face. Luckily for viewers, both Star Trek: DS9 and Babylon 5 developed into wonderfully complex series of their own, offering arguably the best televised SF of their time.

But Sci Fi most definitely is not limiting itself to B5 telefilms. After all, there’s only so much money in them. Franchises are the name of the game, so that’s why the channel is announcing that this telefilm will be a pilot for a Sci Fi Channel B5 series. That series, if it goes forward (and the Channel’s news item uses the present tense in discussing its leadership) would be executive produced by Douglas Netter and Straczynski.

In addition, the short-lived spinoff series, Crusade, will also receive an airing on the Sci Fi Channel, reports the indispensable Lurkers Guide to Babylon 5. Crusade begins its Sci Fi life Monday, April 9. (Episodes of the original B5 series already air nightly on Sci Fi at 7:00 p.m.)

And there’s more: The Channel also reports that its other hoped-for rebirth of a franchise, Battlestar Galactica, is going ahead. The show, being developed by Tom DeSanto and Bryan Singer, is getting outlines, the series “bible,” and other elements fleshed out. Richard Hatch, who played “Apollo” in the original Galactica and who has tried to get a revival of his own off the ground for some time, looks to have lost that gambit. His site dedicated to the revival is announcing that the producers of the new series “are considering the original cast,” but “NONE of them have been signed … and might not be.” DeSanto told Sci Fi’s news reporters that “I’m looking forward to sitting down and talking with Richard, because I think he’s got such passion.”

Barry Diller Positions Himself as Nonconformist in a Suit
By John Zipperer

(3/15/01) Saying "I don’t think you can rely on anything," USA Networks CEO and chairman Barry Diller attempted to give Internet World attendees what wisdom he has gained concerning convergence. Though it may seem strange to be preaching ignorance with a "just put one dumb foot in front of the other" approach, Diller said it worked for him in the past.

Diller’s background is largely in the network television arena, but he got his first big taste of convergence when he surprised the media world in the early 1990s by leaving his position at the head of the FOX network to pursue the shopping channel QVC. He said that he saw in that property more than the merging and sharing of telephones and computers and retail and televisions. One doesn’t replace the other; rather, the power of convergence lies "in the interplay between them"

But convergence to most people is probably sexier than selling imitation jewelry and clothing. The eyebrow-raising stuff is in communications and entertainment and retail and all that other stuff that is becoming epitomized by the AOL Time Warner megalith. And Diller tips his hat to Steve Case’s creation, saying that the two companies that merged brought together the best assets in the old and new media fields, positioning the new company to be "a dominant company forever," said Diller. "I don’t think you can say that about anybody else. You can say it plus or minus for some companies, but you can say it absolutely about AOL Time Warner."

For those poor souls who aren’t part of AOL, Diller said that what’s holding back their understanding about convergence may well be the assumption that one can understand convergence. After that, the business actions that result from that outlook do the rest to make it a scary and often contradictory process. Diller said that too many companies try to impose a business model and existing business structures on an uncertain future instead of remaining open to the possibilities of where the evolution of their companies and the economy and technology will take them.

For example, he noted that big media players such as wireless distributors, cable companies, and telephone companies are fighting with each other about getting into each other’s business, based on the assumption that big pipes for distribution are the key to media convergence. "All these companies’ intentions are good, but I think that the networks to multimedia hell will be wired with their good intentions."

He threw a little red meat to the lions, telling the Net business crowd that programmers should be more involved in decision-making and serving as the spark to the creation of new media content. That may or may not be a workable or even desirable approach, but Diller’s main message was that everyone involved needed to loosen up. After all, he’s still a Hollywood mogul, even in a conservative blue suit. 

In a matter for which "there are no mavens to be found, no guideposts, or divining rods to show you what to do," he urges diving right in, where "there’s money to be made and money to be lost."

When 14-year-olds Saved the World
By John Zipperer

(June 15, 1999) In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when American animation viewers were watching such uninspired TV fare as Superfriends and Scooby-Doo, Japanese and other Asian audiences were treated to the likes of Mobile Suit Gundam. As Americans would later discover from watching bootleg copies of Gundam, their Pacific Rim counterparts had the better deal. More recently the series has resurfaced in legit form. To watch these vintage Gundam episodes is to realize how poorly served American audiences have been by their animation studios until very recently. In the spirit of this season of repeats, here's a summer project that will be both enjoyable and educational. Let's look at what we Americans have missed.

For those of you who have never enjoyed anime (Japanese animation), you are in for a cultural jolt when you see Gundam and others of its ilk. As Kin Tso, a friend and Gundam fan, asked, "Did you ever notice that American science fiction shows center around adults, but Japanese shows center around kids? All those 14-year-old boys piloting giant robots." That may be a broad generalization but it's close enough to the mark. Like the popular recent video series Neon Genesis Evangelion, the star of Mobile Suit Gundam is a teenage boy -- and yes, he pilots a giant fighting robot. How to explain the recurrence of giant robots? And why do the Japanese keep putting in giant robots when there are probably other fighting vehicles that would be more realistic? Beats me; but then I can no more explain the entire American comics subgenre of superheroes. In both cases you either buy into it or you don't.

The series Mobile Suit Gundam premiered in the mid-1970s in Japan and appeared on Hong Kong TV and in other Asian markets several years later. With the recent release of the three-video box set, American audiences can see the early episodes of this cult favorite series compiled into movie-length form. The videos are Mobile Suit Gundam I, which is based on the first 13 episodes of the series; Mobile Suit Gundam II: Soldiers of Sorrow, based on episodes 16-30 and adding a third new footage; and Mobile Suit Gundam III: Encounters in Space, based on episodes 31-43 and with about 70 percent all-new animation. This box set includes more than seven hours of Gundam story, and it's thick with story; you can't nod off for two minutes and not expect to miss a lot of plot. There are newer series of Gundam episodes still being released in Japan, but they receive a mixed response from the show's fans. So before you taste the new ones, you may want to start with these originals, and wipe away a tear that you were watching "Josie and the Pussycats" while Japanese audiences got this great stuff.

Gundam features Amuro Ray, a boy in his mid-teens who is drawn into an active role in the battle between the Earth Federation and the rebellious Duchy of Zeon. The combatants are using mobile suits, which are giant fighting robots that battle on land, air and space using missiles and light-sabor-like swords (and occasionally their own metallic fists). When the Zeon fighters attack a giant orbiting space station, Amuro is separated from his father and discovers that he has a special talent for piloting the Gundam, the prototype mobile suit the Earth Federation is hoping will help turn the tide of the war. His Gundam is part of a battleship called the White Base (which also features a huge Guncannon and Guntank), and the White Base loses a great many people during the battle but picks up a lot of young civilians who become the new crew (including the three most annoying little kids in television history). The White Base leaves the embattled space station and heads toward its base on earth, fighting skirmishes with the Zeons the entire way and simultaneously dealing with the war-shock of its new civilian crew. Despite his success in piloting the giant Gundam robot, Amuro is one of those shocked civilian crew members. His case is complicated because his talent marks him as a special fighter -- a "newtype" with special abilities who supposedly represents the next step in evolution -- but who practically blanks out from the horror of having to kill people. His own mother even tries to disown him when she learns that her sweet, nonviolent son is now a fighter in the stupid war ravaging both sides.

Amuro and the war both progress through the three videos, a welcome change from the typical animated series practice of showing no change in your characters. (Flashback to the insipid Battle of the Planets anime that ran in the U.S. more than a decade ago.) In the first video we see Amuro struggle with a war he doesn't understand and with his role which he fails to fully comprehend. In the next video Amuro is more experienced, but he's still not reconciled to his role, and he even runs away from the White Base at one point. By part three -- the best video of the trilogy -- the Earth Federation is trying to take its battle to the heart of the Duchy of Zeon. Amuro is a veteran at this point, but still not so much that he isn't tongue-tied upon meeting his chief Zeon opponent, Char, on a neutral space station colony. And all through the series, we see the backroom political and personal battles among the Zeon's leadership, the petty bickering of the White Base's crew, and the growth of every major character.

The Mystery Science Theater 3000 folks like to poke fun at Japanese anime as being little more than violent porn cartoons. Admittedly there is more violence in these Japanese originals than in typical American animation or even in most Japanese animation distributed over American TV. Sometimes, as when Americans brought over the Japanese Space Cruiser Yamato and distributed it in altered form as Starblazers, robots were substituted for humans because American distributors needed to make death on the battlefield less traumatic for the kiddies. (I think that's counterproductive. Since no humans suffer in these violent scenes, what happens to the moral message that killing is wrong? At least the people in Gundam grieve for their lost companions and rage against a senseless war that kills good people.) And as far as sex, there are a couple very brief shots of an unclothed female character's upper torso. No leering, no American-style Barbie-doll impossible physique. Just a woman.

These are TV shows adults can and do watch and enjoy, and their themes and stories are accessible to young and old alike. Quite simply, they put American animation to shame, especially contemporary animation of the mid-to-late 1970s. In just one example, there's a scene in the third Gundam video in which Amuro stops while driving in the rain, watches a beautiful bird fly through the rain and drop down in a lake, after which Amuro meets a beautiful woman who turns out to be a newtype like himself. It is a scene unfamiliar to casual American animation viewers, who expect quick editing and silly lines; instead we get a slow pace, ambiguity, and some lines worth puzzling over.

And then after you've checked out these Gundam videos, take a peek at the anime on American TV screens, from the kiddie Pokeman and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to videos of the more-involved Neon Genesis Evangelion. (Anime occasionally makes appearances on the Sci-Fi Channel, the Cartoon Network, and in syndication.) Is Japanese anime better than American animation? Hai!

For more Gundam TV and video news, see http://gundam.anime.net/goods/video.html, http://www.gundam.com/, and http://www.animevillage.com.

The Long March of Star Wolf
By John Zipperer

(07/27/99) In 1980, Future Life magazine reported on an exciting attempt to bring thought-provoking SF to the big screen. A startup production company announced its effort to develop David Gerrold's 1972 novel, Yesterday's Children, as a film. It was, alas, not to be. More than a decade later, author Gerrold made a run of his own, this time developing the novel as a weekly TV series. That effort too proved unsuccessful. But as with Spock in that other SF franchise, death is never permanent, and this remains a good idea for a series.

In his introduction to the 1995 edition of Starhunt (as Yesterday's Children was renamed upon republication), Gerrold describes the origins of Starhunt, which started out as a story pitch to the original "Star Trek" concerning a generational deep-space ship. After being rejected for that series, the author pursued the story as a novel, eventually finding a more compelling story in the interstellar war aspects that were originally going to be mere framing for the larger story about the deep-space ship. What we got were two novels, with the original idea becoming the "Star Trek" novel The Galactic Whirlpool— and the space war developing into one of the gems of modern SF.

Part of the second novel's attraction lies in its depiction of war in space. Gerrold has noted that in productions such as "Star Wars" or "Battlestar Galactica," fighter ships zip through space and bank and roll as if they were World War II fighter planes (which were, in fact, the inspiration for George Lucas in designing the dogfights). Fun to watch, but there is another, more-realistic portrayal of war in space that can be just as exciting and even better at building tension. David Gerrold also went to earth war for inspiration, but instead of looking into the skies he looked under the seas, where submarines tried to track each other and surface ships across our water planet. The unfathomable expanse of space would resemble the submarine hunt more than the aerial dogfight, so Gerrold wrote "Yesterday's Children" against that backdrop. And he placed his characters on a none-too-trustworthy bucket of bolts that made the crew members unsure if they were tracking enemy ships or their own ship's sensor shadow.

When Grayson Productions tried to convert the novel into a movie in 1980, the company's leaders spoke proudly of producing an intelligent deep-space science fiction film. Producer Mark Nelson told Future Life, "We want to show the commercially oriented film world that you can put drama and true-to-life situations in a science fiction property, produce it for a reasonable cost, and still make it a marketable film." The group hired a director, brought in ace designer Andy Probert to do production designs, and began working on a script. Neither script nor designs would ever be filmed, however. "The 1980 Grayson Productions attempt went down in flames," relates Gerrold today, and he took the property back under his control.

Gerrold, a Nebula Award winner, made his mark in SF as a college wunderkind when he wrote the celebrated "Trouble with Tribbles" episode of the original "Star Trek," but he is no babe in the woods today. In addition to further contributions to classic "Trek," he has written episodes of "Tales from the Darkside," "Sliders," "Babylon 5," "Land of the Lost," and others. He also worked on the first year of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and following that stint, he was involved in other SF TV projects that led him back to Starhunt. (There are three books in the Starhunt series: Voyage of the Star Wolf, The Middle of Nowhere, and Starhunt. A fourth, Blood and Fire, is in the pipeline.)

Soon came an attempt to produce a Star Wolf series. Telescene, the Montreal-based producer of "The Hunger," "Urban Angel," and other series, was the base for this attempt. Again, designs were made, names were named (including TV veteran D.C. Fontana as a supervising producer and Gerrold as co-executive producer), and Gerrold wrote six scripts for the show's first year, along with rough drafts of about four more hours. After a promising start, including securing international financing, a U.S. market proved elusive, and the attempt failed. Telescene dropped out and the project — again — dropped back in the author's lap.

Gerrold describes the current status of the project as "exhausted. We've been all over everywhere. Everyone loves us. Conditions aren't right at this studio. That one has this other obligation. This fellow doesn't understand science fiction. That one is already invested in another show. These folks don't have the money. Those folks don't have the foreign market. Nobody can quite put all the pieces together. But we haven't given up. We're still pitching. At the moment, all options have expired, so we're starting at square one again."

The Sci-Fi Channel, which has undertaken some major first-run series in the past year, including "Farscape" and "First Wave," would seem to be an obvious target, but the management upheavals there have also made it difficult for the Gerrold camp to set up a deal. And the author is hoping for a non-network berth for his show. "There's little advantage to a network premiere — you get a little bit more publicity, but you often get a whole lot of people in suits giving you instructions on how to do your show right," he notes. "There aren't as many suits in syndication. Syndication also gives you the luxury of a whole season at a time. I would prefer syndication or satellite first-run — but I wouldn't turn down a network either, if I felt comfortable with the folks I was working with."

Why would The Star Wolf be a series worth watching? Why is it worth making by somebody? Because of David Gerrold. In his fiction and nonfiction, the author has served as a wonderful teacher, leading his readers through life and tackling troublesome philosophical issues, all the while producing enjoyable prose and good stories. He did so with the tired and scared crew in Starhunt and its sequels; he has done so spectacularly in his ongoing series of novels surrounding the colonization of earth by the Chtorr; and he did so in a quieter setting with such early novels as The Man Who Folded Himself and When Harlie Was One. After serving in other people's SF TV universes, Gerrold has a chance to create his own, to be the George Lucas of his own galaxy.

As someone who has a foot in both the TV and book worlds, Gerrold knows he can achieve different things with each medium. "TV lets you have visual impact, emotional impact, that is a lot harder to achieve in a book," he argues. "The effect of a single TV image is much more overwhelming. The image of Kirk up to here in tribbles is historic. There are few books that can get that deep into the collective cultural conscious. But a book universe is a lot more personal and a lot more detailed and you can go places you don't have time for in a TV universe."

"A book is a detailed canvas that the author has to fill in himself; this gives the author the luxury of tangents, explanations, digressions, extrapolations, and all kinds of personal touches," Gerrold continues. In the visual media, "you don't have the luxury of a profound in-depth conversation. People reach for the clicker. So you have to move from moment to moment as fast as you can and make sure that the series of moments gives the illusion not only of motion, but of meaning as well. Most directors will tell you that it's all in the script, all in the planning, but few films really demonstrate that kind of concern for meaning."

We've waited nearly three decades since the book's original publication and two decades since Grayson's aborted attempt, so viewers can wait a little longer. Let's just hope the wait is worthwhile, and the money people get together with the production people and finally agree that there's an intelligent and entertaining SF franchise sitting in their laps.

In other news...

* "Sliders" has slid out of time. The show, which began its run on Fox, was canceled by that network and resurrected by Sci-Fi a couple years ago (and, in the eyes ofmany, it was  improved by being forced to trade special effects for stronger writing by the smaller budgets allowed on the cable venue. See the recent SF Loft "Quality Sliding" review of this season's premiere. ). The Sci-Fi Channel's Sci-Fi Wire reports, "According to a Sci-Fi spokesperson, the channel thinks highly of 'Sliders' but feels the show has simply run its course." Hmmm, the Sci-Fi Channel had similar nice things to say about "Mystery Science Theater 3000" when canceling it. The channel's surviving series must be hoping Sci-Fi doesn't begin to think highly of them, too.

The Final Word...
"['Forbidden Planet'] was the grandfather of them all. And it could very easily have been a pilot film for 'Star Trek.' It could very easily have been 'We have gone no place where anybody else has ever been yet.'"
—Leslie Nielsen, "Forbidden Planet" star, in SFX