January 5th, 2008


Hears the notes, but not the music

My first-finished book of 2008 was the novelization of The Empire Strikes Back by Donald F. Glut. I wanted something quick and light; why not the between-covers version of one of my favorite films? Well, okay, it was quick and light, so it delivered. Just that way. But as a longtime reader and student of novelizations, I felt that this one took the events of said film and flattened them into uninterestingness. It plays the notes, but not the music.

There's no flair to the book; and compared to how well-written Matthew Stover's novelization of Revenge of the Sith was (which I read last year and which genuinely excited me), that was particularly disappointing. It's mechanical writing: this happens, this happens, this happens. Attempts to be poetic and more descriptive often don't work. Reading that the taun-taun had a "llama-like" head actually made me think "They can't know what llamas are in the Star Wars universe!" And there are (in my opinion) far too many exclamation points in the descriptive text for the often quiet, sad tone of Empire: it comes off more like the infamous "carnival barker" trailer for the film (by the way, the date at the front is wrong, as there's no way that trailer could've been done in 1978).

It could've been editorial constraints that kept the writing damped down like that; at the time, the known Star Wars backstory consisted of the first film, Alan Dean Foster's ghosted novelization of it, a handful of non-canonical tie-in books like Foster's Splinter of the Mind's Eye, and the insane (and massively non-canonical) Marvel Comics series. (Not to mention the Star Wars trading cards that had Luke a few years older than Leia. Oops. Heh.) We also didn't yet have Brian Daley's radio adaptations, which I believe are considered canon and which expand the films in interesting, worthwhile ways.

By the time James Kahn's novelization of Return of the Jedi came out in 1983, George Lucas and the other screenwriters had firmed up more details of the Star Wars universe, and Kahn could hint at more of what had come in the time before these three films. His book does have the first, fleeting flashback to Obi-Wan Kenobi leaving the greviously wounded Anakin to die, something not seen onscreen until 22 years later. I'm going on mid-Eighties memories here, as that's when I read Kahn's book, but I remember liking it and enjoying its sense of "bigger history," which is part of Star Wars's appeal: in each film, we're dropped into the middle of the action and we catch up, picking up on details as we go. There are odd additions that don't jibe -- didn't Kahn's book say that Uncle Owen and Obi-Wan were related? -- but I don't remember there being anything really jarring; they're more the "James R. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise" sort of niggling differences, as opposed to the "Greedo Shot First" differences. (Again, heh.) I wish Glut had had the chance to do that himself. Are his other books worthwhile?

I appreciate a well-done novelization, something adding detail and depth to a movie's story, and I'm lucky to have found people who are good at them: Peter David and Keith R.A. DeCandido consistently pull off well-done novelizations in between writing their own works. Orson Scott Card's sole novelization, for James Cameron's The Abyss, is a really solid work (and which even had an influence on the film; his chapters on Bud and Lindsay's early lives were given to actors Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and they worked them into their characters' backstories). George Gipe's Gremlins adaptation is hilarious, and pulls off some fun writing tricks (over 20 years later, I'm still impressed that Gipe wrote a two-word chapter). And as a Caitlin R. Kiernan fan, I appreciated her Beowulf novelization, and I'm also glad that that book gets her name seen by many more people. Let that lead to more readers for her, okay, please? I want her to be able to keep writing.

This has been a review. From a certain point of view.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Fear not. Two decades on, it holds up.

I already knew that: back in summer 2001 the Hollywood Theater screened Wrath of Khan, allowing me finally to see it on the big screen (which I’d done with every single Star Trek film but Khan ’til then). The film is famous for killing Spock — whose death was reversed in the very next film, so that Spock could still have a role all the way into the Next Generation era nearly a century after Khan — but at the moment it dawns on Kirk that Spock’s not at his station, only seconds after the Enterprise has escaped destruction at Khan’s hands, someone in the audience gasped.

I have a rather ludicrously large soft spot for The Wrath of Khan; it’s the sort of film I and many other geeks can recite. Ricardo Montalban’s acting battle with William Shatner; the most classically-inspired Star Trek script yet; the cat-and-mouse, submarine-movie vibe set amongst the stars and in nebulas; James Horner’s driving, insistent and emotional score; Kirstie Alley making a strong impression in her early role as Mr. Saavik…of course I’d take a chance to see it again. And like the now-annual Can’t Stop the Serenity screenings of another good science fiction film, it was for charity. You know, for kids.

Several people (though none in Klingon makeup, as far as I could see) made a night of it at the Bagdad Theater and Pub. As usual, hosting DJs Cort and Fatboy were broadcasting from their portable radio board from 7 p.m. until soon before the film’s 11-ish start time. Around 8:30 I met Mike “Culture Pulp” Russell and his friend and colleague David Walker, creator of the blaxploitation tribute magazine and website Bad Azz Mofo, at the front bar part of the Bagdad. We shot the breeze for over an hour over a plate of Cajun tater tots. Russell drank beers; Walker drank something not-beer; I drank a chocolate milkshake (a straight shake, not the McMenamin’s Terminator Stout Chocolate Milkshake, which I’ve heard is really good but which I wasn’t in the mood to have last night). I promised Walker and Russell that I’d be fair and not repeat our really neat conversation. What was said ’round the beers stayed ’round the beers.

And after 10, as we wrapped up our bar time and headed up to the Bagdad theater’s balcony, some of our fellow fans were already in there watching the classic Trek episode that introduced Khan, “Space Seed” (written by Carey Wilber and Gene L. Coon, and a sterling example of the sweet, sweet melodrama of the original series). It was a slightly special edition of “Space Seed”; recently a special effects company got the go-ahead to produce updated effects for Sixties Treks. What we watched, however, was a demonstration episode done by the competing effects company that didn’t get that contract. It looked interesting, but not quite finished and a little too slick; Fatboy noted its “PlayStation” quality. And there was a surprising coda to the episode, done purely with special effects, which ties directly into Wrath of Khan. (For those who’ve seen the film, in that new coda we see Ceti Alpha VI explode, which meant bad things for Ceti Alpha V where Khan’s people were left…and which would later lead to fanboy rants about “How the hell did Starfleet miss that A WHOLE FREAKIN’ PLANET IS GONE??!!”) That honestly threw Russell and me off (I don’t know what Walker thought of it), but with Cort and Fatboy’s introduction of the film and the film itself, we got past the oddness and settled in for a really good film-watching time.

I’ll end with a grab-bag of observations and moments:

* I’d say Russell spoke truth when he noted how much of the audience was both A) emotionally caught up in the Wrath of Khan drama and B) still feeling compelled to talk back to the screen. Both Russell and Walker grumbled about it; Russell called it “Mystery Science Theater…One Thousand.” That is, sub-par wannabe Mystery Science Theater Three Thousand. I understand their annoyance with that.

* My comment to Russell during “Space Seed”: “I could sing along to this music and the film’s music. I won’t.” I limited myself to air-conducting the music. A lot of air-conducting. I like this music. So does he. (Russell was unimpressed, though, that the end credits of the revised “Space Seed” were scored with Dennis McCarthy’s Star Trek Generations music. MUCH different than what was in the original episode…)

* Out-Of-Context Theater: “So that might explain my man-crush on you!” (No, you don’t get to know why I said that. That’s why it’s Out-Of-Context Theater!)

* Right before the film, some guy several rows back from us started making monosyllabic yelling noises. I thought, “Is he trying to do a Sloth impression? Dude! The Goonies was November’s film!

* For a brief moment Montalban, leaning back and looking shocked, looks like the fake Balok from The Corbomite Maneuver. (Joke! Balok walks into a bar and the bartender asks “Why the long face?”)

* Russell pointed out Shatner’s “mouth acting.” He’s really using his mouth as he builds up to the famous “Khaaaaaaaaaaaaan!” moment (which, yes, many many of us in the theater also screamed; my throat is still recovering!), and then as he, shall we say, wibbles at Spock’s funeral. (I would too, of course.) He also noted Montalban’s frequent quiet restraint, with all that whispering he does — only rarely does he scream — contrasted with Shatner’s more frequent, shall we say, demonstrative moments. It’s a fun contrast in acting styles.

* I let myself be intentionally lame at times. When a distraught Scotty carries his dying nephew to the bridge, Russell yelled at him “Why didn’t you take him to sickbay?!” I said, “Uh, the bridge is on the way to sickbay?” (Walker, for the record, said something like “Yeah, that’s always bothered me too.”)

* One more dose of Out-Of-Context Theater: what did Russell and I say in unison to Walker while walking away from the Bagdad at 1 a.m.? “Mannequin 2: On the Move!”