Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Top 5 Star Trek Enterprise Episodes


Picking your top 5 favorite Enterprise episodes is like picking your top 5 all-time favorite mosquito bites. Of the hundred-or-so episodes, which five are the least irritating? Alright, so I exaggerate a bit. Enterprise was not a complete disaster. Sure, it was plagued by sloppy writing, rehashed storylines and stiff actors playing boring characters, but what about the important stuff, like special effects and gratuitous semi-nudity?

Okay, my point is made. Star Trek Enterprise (not a typo, the title lacks a colon) is the ugliest baby in the family. Premiering in September of 2001, Enterprise was a prequel series, taking place roughly a hundred years before Kirk's crew sailed the stars. The show was supposed to be friendly to new viewers and allegedly required no previous Trek experience to enjoy. In a controversial move, the series was originally called simply Enterprise; the prefix was added midway through its third season.

Promising a bold new direction for the franchise, Enterprise did not disappoint. Instead of attempting to deliver the smart morality tales of The Next Generation or the character-driven intrigue of Deep Space Nine, Enterprise took its cues mostly from the more financially-successful Voyager, choosing its most marketable traits and exaggerating them to gross extremes. The new show would shed Voyager's occasional thought-provoking tale or remotely-interesting characters, leaving only the weighty effects budget and dependence upon a busty science officer to boost ratings.

There are, however, a few diamonds in this rough, which I've listed below, as always, in ascending order.

5. Shuttlepod One - The premise: a stranded odd couple of obnoxious stereotypes is trapped in a shuttle for days waiting to die. Take one laid-back southern gentleman (Chief Engineer "Trip" Tucker). Add one stuffy Englishman (Tactical Officer Malcolm Reed). Allow to simmer to a boil in a cramped, damaged shuttle while they wait to die. This is the first episode, as far as I'm concerned, that demonstrated any actually interesting character development on the show. (And to be honest, it doesn't provide much.) I still kind of wish they hadn't been rescued at the end of the episode. Now that would be a great twist.

4. Similitude - During the long, Bush-Doctrine-inspired arc of Season 3, we the remaining Trekkie audience were treated to a few breaths of fresh air that reminded us that this was still Star Trek we were watching. In this episode, Trip is badly wounded in an accident, so they clone him some special way so he can keep the ship running. This new Trip, who they call Sim, grows up in a matter of days and slowly acquires his donor's memories and skills. His lifespan is only supposed to be a couple of days - when he reaches maturity, he'll donate some tissue to Trip and then die a natural death a few weeks later. Meanwhile, Sim is developing his own personality, his own hopes, dreams and aspirations. One of them is to be with T'Pol, who has been denying the sexual tension between herself and Trip for some time. But something goes wrong - it turns out Sim won't survive the procedure to save Trip, and he refuses to do it. He wants to live. The Doctor can synthesize an enzyme that will slow Sim's metabolism back to normal human levels, thus allowing him to live a long, full life, but the crew chooses Trip. Sim is killed, and Trip is allowed to live. Heavy.

3. Dear Doctor - Another early episode, "Dear Doctor" lays the groundwork for the Prime Directive, one of Star Trek's guiding principles. The crew happens upon a planet where one species is dying off, while another, more primitive one is slowly evolving to maturity. The advanced species, which is kind and benevolent, begs Enterprise to find a cure to their ailment. Doctor Phlox unlocks the cure, but in doing so discovers that the victims are dying off naturally so that the other species can evolve to dominance. Rather than alter the natural course of history on this planet, Captain Archer has to hide this cure and allow an entire species to die rather than set a precedent of humans playing God on other worlds.

2. In a Mirror, Darkly - What makes this episode so great? Not a single character from Star Trek Enterprise appears in the entire two-parter. This story takes place entirely in the Mirror Universe, where humans are an evil conquering Empire. A love letter to the original series, "In a Mirror, Darkly" sees the badass counterparts of the regular crew capturing a ship from the future - a ship identical to Kirk's Enterprise that was apparently destroyed in the TOS classic "The Tholian Web." The crew puts on the old-school uniforms, fires the old-school phasers and goes on a rollicking old-school adventure! Plus, since we'll never see any of these characters again, anything goes! Why, I ask you, couldn't the entire show have been like this?

1. Twilight - (Yes, I know, the title has been tainted forever by the Stephanie Meyer novels, but ignore that for a moment.) If you recall from my Top 5 Voyager list, I'm a big fan of reset-button episodes. These are the shows in which, at the end of the story, some kind of time-travel-related plot device erases the events of the episode, restoring the status quo. Why are these so fun? Because it allows for the crew of Enterprise (whom I despise) to suffer a great deal more than the producers would normally allow. They can bring about the worst-case-scenarios, killing off regular characters and presenting huge, game-changing events, because at the end they can just take it all back. "Twilight" is one such episode. Picture this: in the teaser, a dazed Archer steps out of the turbolift onto the bridge and witnesses Earth getting annihilated by the Xindi superweapon they've been trying to destroy all season. Flash forward a few decades and Archer's in a refugee camp on Ceti Alpha V, along with the few-thousand survivors of the human race, unable to create new long-term memories since before the destruction of Earth. Now, it's a race against time to fix the mistake that incapacitated our brave (read: wimpy) captain and save Earth in the past before the Xindi can wipe out all the survivors! My favorite part of this episode: Enterprise blows up and everybody dies! Yay! Unfortunately, at the same moment they're able to make their time correction and everybody's returned to safety twenty years earlier and we have to keep watching this stupid show for another year and a half. But it was nice while it lasted!

Top5Trek doesn't end here, folks! No, sir, the countdowns will continue until the release of the new film on May 8th!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Top 5 Most Frustrating Geek Culture "Visionaries"

This morning a friend of mine delivered me some very disappointing news. Apparently, Universal is interested in putting out a new theatrical film based on Battlestar Galactica. Wait, what's the bad news? While developer and executive producer of SciFi's BSG series is interested in making such a film, Glen A. Larson, creator of the original show from the 70s, will not allow it. Larson has blocked Moore's team from producing a theatrical BSG film, demanding that Universal instead produce a new film based on his original series or nothing. Universal, of course, is only interested in cashing in on the now-reputable Battlestar Galactica name, and has begun talks with Larson, snubbing the people responsible for breathing new life into the dead franchise.

This got me thinking - there are a long line of cheap, petty moves and less-than-flattering quotes by sci-fi and comics royalty. I'm guilty of holding onto my creative heroes despite my wish to "judge the art, not the artist," and I know they're not perfect, either, but there are a number of famous creators, writers and artists who consistently drive me into a murderous rage. Here's my list of the 5 people who do this best.

5. Todd McFarlane - Best known as the creator of Spawn and for his work on Spider-Man comics in the 80's & 90's, Todd McFarlane was one of the founders of Image Comics, along with such notables as Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld (who very nearly made this list) in 1992. The original goal of Image was admirable - to create a powerful new comic book publisher which gave its writers and artists complete control and ownership of their characters. Sounds good right? The problem: freedom for writers? What writers? The company started out with the mindset that comics were merely a "hey, look-a this!" art form, driven by, in McFarlane's words, "style, not substance." In one interview, McFarlane claimed that comic writers, and writing in general, were secondary to the success of the comic book industry and are in the long run not very important. Comics fans just wanted cool stuff to look at. This put him at odds with the bulk of the industry, which recognized story and art as equal parts to the whole that is comics. Todd's arrogance and disrespect for his peers has since left him bankrupt. Thankfully, Image has turned around and become one of the all-around best producers of comics today.

4. Stan Lee - For Stan, I would like to retract the "scare quotes" from the word Visionary up there at the top of this article. Stan Lee is a legitimate geek culture genius, of that there's no doubt. I'm not going to attack his characters or his skill at creating them. He is clearly one of the greatest "idea guys" of 20th century entertainment. How else can you explain the dozen hit movies based on his characters in just the last decade? What I will attack are Stan "The Man" Lee's megalomaniacal tendencies. As I only have about a paragraph to discuss it, I'll pick a fairly recent example. Let's take a look at the reality/game show Who Wants to Be a Superhero? which was hosted and produced by Mr. Lee. In addition to using the show to perpetuate a number of ugly comic book-geek stereotypes, Stan was able to play up his own God complex by putting his face on gigantic TV screens and barking orders at his contestants. During the first season, when he chose the winner, he picked the player who worshiped him the most. Since the prize would be a Dark Horse comic based on the winning character (written by Stan himself), Stan took the opportunity to totally bastardize the character's backstory and personality in a shoddily-written single-issue that changed everything but the character's name and costume. Even when the prize is a moment in the limelight for his biggest fan, Stan manages to make it all about himself.

3. Frank Miller - Oh, where to begin. Frank Miller is often placed on the highest of comic book pedestals for his masterpiece The Dark Knight Returns which is credited with returning Batman to his roots as a dark avenger of the night, as opposed to the then-popular Adam West-style character. I will not deny him this. I'll even say Sin City is a lot of fun as Miller's personal playground of badassitude. Miller's problem is that he sees his own success with these works and responds by pushing that trademark darkness way beyond the red line. Frank Miller knows how to write two characters: one, a heartless alpha-male who lacks a conscience and chooses to fight for good or evil for the sake of the plot but could really go either way, and two, a woman who is a dominatrix and/or a prostitute. Look through his works; they're all jam-packed variations on these two characters. Again, this wouldn't be a problem if it was contained in his ultra-violent noir-verse, Sin City. But any time he returns to other characters, such as Batman in the disasterous All-Star Batman & Robin or the just offensive Dark Knight Strikes Again, he applies these same traits arbitrarily to the source characters whether they fit or not. It's just careless, self-indulgent storytelling, disgracing his accomplishments in reviving comics' greatest hero.

2. George Lucas - There's very little I can say that hasn't already been said. George Lucas, like Stan Lee, has apparently been convinced by the fans who worship him that he is, in fact, infallible. Lucas insists the Star Wars prequels are "the best films [he's] ever made" and is unwilling to compromise and admit that there is still a reason to keep the original, unaltered versions of his original trilogy in print. He has flat-out refused to release them. But more than anything, George Lucas is an awful director, far too awful to be so often named as someone's all-time favorite. Actors who have worked with Lucas on the Star Wars films, such as Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, have attested to his lack of patience toward the acting process. He apparently refused to shoot more than 3 takes of anything, and his vocabulary for directing actors is apparently limited to "faster, more intense." He has disrespected his actors time after time; for example, the story goes that David Prowse (Darth Vader's body) was not informed that his voice would be dubbed over until he attended the premiere. Lucas has implied in interviews that he prefers working with computer-generated characters than real-life actors. That's fair - I'm sure a lot of actors would rather work with a computer-driven director than with him. My point is that he's a Geek Culture God the scale of which no one alive, not Joss Whedon, not even Stan Lee, can match, and he's not even good at what he does. It has to stop.

1. Alan Moore - Again, no quotey-marks around Visionary here. Alan Moore's intricately-crafted stories and characters were essential in granting the graphic novel form the mainstream respect and legitimacy it deserves. No one is debating that Watchmen is a masterpiece. And I can understand his complaints against the film adaptation of V for Vendetta, as it did take some huge thematic leaps from the original graphic novel. And The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was... inexcusable. But Moore's rage toward the American media, both the comics and film industries, has blown way out of proportion. Alan Moore has asked his name to be removed from all his works that are owned by publishing companies (including Watchmen and V) and refuses royalties or even credit for any adaptations to other media, even the scrupulously faithful Watchmen motion comics. And here's the thing that just kills me - though he has read the draft of the script being used for the upcoming Watchmen film, and even admitted that it has merit, he "shan't be going to see it." Come on, Mr. Moore. Zack Snyder (who Moore condemns for his work on 300, though he hasn't seen it) has put his career on the line, fighting his studio every step of the way to make Watchmen faithful to its roots in story and in spirit, and yet you blatantly disrespect his work by pulling your name off the project before you've even seen it. That's just immature. Alan Moore may be a visionary, he may even be a genius, but at heart, he's just a big baby with a hilarious beard.

What movie or comic book creators have been on your nerves? Comment comment comment!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Top 5 Super Smash Bros. Characters

I've decided that these little forwards before lists might become a regular thing, if only because I sometimes have things to say to you guys but adamantly refuse to make any posts that do not contain Top 5s. (This is because it makes it harder for me to keep track of just how many lists I've published. When someone goes onto this blog and sees that there have been 63 entries, for instance, that should mean that there are 63 lists.) Besides, it's easy enough for someone to skip ahead to the list, which is after the "+" break.

My message to you, my loyal, merciful readers, is in the form of a humble request. You'll note that I've posted a poll on the sidebar asking if you guys would refer your friends to this site. Though I appreciate Dan Wilhelm's sentiment from the comments to yesterday's list, I would enjoy at least a slightly larger readership than the one that I have. A lot of the fun of doing this blog in the first place is in reading your responses, and though I love hearing back from all of you regulars, I still have this dream that someday, somebody I haven't actually met will enjoy reading what I write, and that maybe that'll lead to some new friends. This is how David L. and I became buddies, after all, through a mutual friend referring him to GeekSpeakRadio.Net, where Mike Pfeiffer and I posted a weekly talk radio show.

So I ask you, dear readers, to please share this blog with your friends, preferably people I don't already know. This can benefit all you current readers, as well, as you'll now have more people to argue with on the comment threads. After all, it's been far too long since we had a good old-fashioned flame war. I do want to make this clear, though: this is NOT an ultimatum. I'm not setting quotas or making threats. Just the fact that you guys cared enough to kick my lazy ass out of retirement and bring this blog back to life is enough to keep me writing it. If the dozen of you remain the only people reading T5E, then that'll be enough for me.

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Requested by David L.

Asking someone who their favorite Super Smash Bros. character is like asking someone what their favorite song off their favorite mix CD. They're all good, otherwise they wouldn't be there. For those of you who've never played it, (I'm certain the only people reading this who fall under this category are my parents) Super Smash Bros. is a series of easy-to-learn multiplayer fighting games featuring all the most popular characters in the Nintendo canon, plus a few third-party characters the players demanded. The latest version, Super Smash Bros. BRAWL, features 35 playable characters from Mario to Sonic to Pikachu and back again. Each character in Brawl has its own distinctive set of moves and style of play, which keeps the game interesting and fun for hours at a time.

There are a lot of factors that go into picking your favorite character in Brawl, and a lot of it comes down to personal taste, which is part of what makes this such a great topic. Some people like close-range melee fighters like Marth or Meta Knight or tank-like powerhouses such as Bowser or Gannondorf, while others still like speedy, agile characters like Sonic or Falco, or avatars that depend on evasion and long-distance strikes, good examples being Ness or Samus. And then there are those crazy, strategy/combo based characters like Mr. Game & Watch or Olimar whose gameplay is so dramatically different from the others that it feels like you're playing an entirely different game altogether.

Myself, I like to mix it up a lot, which should make this list a fairly fair (but random) one. I should warn you that this list might look a lot different if you asked me tomorrow or next week or next year, and that, I think, says a lot about the magic of the game: it keeps finding new ways to surprise you.

5. Luigi
What gives Luigi, who began as a simple palette swap of Mario, such a greater appeal than his more famous brother? Well, for starters, the days of them playing identically are long gone. In Brawl, Luigi's fighting style is unique, cartoony and fun. I love making him run at enemies, flailing his arms wildly to deliver a surprisingly satisfying amount of damage. Luigi's Final Smash is my favorite in the game, as he basically takes the entire game along with him on a wild acid trip. I often perform his taunt, which is just a subdued, discouraged kick, like he's knocking a can down a sidewalk after a rough day, not just in the game but in real-life situations. Most of all, though, I love using Luigi's devastating Dragon Punch. PING!

4. Snake
I would probably play as Snake more often if it weren't for the fact that one of my most frequent sparring partners chooses him CONSTANTLY, and is way too good as Snake for me to try to challenge him at his own game. As annoying as it is that he always plays as the same character, it's not hard to understand way. Snake is not only a badass and a gaming legend in his own right, but his skill sets are very impressive. Snake's signature is that nearly every one of his moves makes things explode. At long-range, he's unstoppable, launching seeker missiles and detonating remote and proximity mines left and right. But he's no picnic to fight against in close quarters, either, with his drop-kicks and that insanely annoying dive-attack thing he does that I can never seem to avoid, hard as I try. And then, of course, there's his unbelievably cheap Final Smash, probably the most effective in the game. I'll never hear the phrase "It's Showtime" the same way again.

3. Sonic
Sonic's probably higher up on the list than he deserves to be, mainly because I just love Sonic. Sonic the Hedgehog has been my favorite video game character since the early 90s when I first learned why thumbs were invented. When I learned that Sonic would be joining the cast of Brawl I literally jumped up from my seat, (in a crowded room of people I didn't know) shouted "YES YES YES YES" and started to dance around. What makes Sonic so much fun to play, to me, stems from how well he sticks to his roots. Playing Sonic in Brawl is just like playing Sonic in any of his original games for the Sega Genesis, plus some fun new tricks like the diving kick and my personal favorite, the spontaneous spring drop. And he's so damn fast! Playing as Sonic on a small stage can be risky, but isn't it fun being able to consistently outrun your opponents, dancing around them like the arrogant little punk Sonic is? If you ask me, the trade is well worth it.

2. Zelda
You'll note that I don't list her as "Zelda/Sheik." This is because I almost never play as Sheik, not even in Melee, where she's ridiculously good. Her style of play isn't nearly as much fun to me as her alter-ego, Zelda. I love Zelda's little starbolts that can be shot out like guided photon torpedoes. Her reflector move is, to me, more useful than Fox's or Falco's, and her teleport move makes for an excellent third jump. And as hard as it can sometimes be to pull off properly, her Final Smash is as wickedly cool as any other.

1. Ness/Lucas
I list these two as a tie for first because, with a few key differences, Ness and Lucas play almost exactly the same. PK Thunder is probably my favorite attack in the game, and I've been described as "deadly accurate" with it. I like that it allows me to be cheap and hide in a corner while still dealing damage. I prefer Ness's thunder attack to Lucas's, probably just because I'm more used to it. Really, it's hard to ask for a better long-range attack. But let's not discount Ness or Lucas's up-close fighting prowess. They both have that treacherous Smash attack (Ness's bat certainly being more effective than Luca's weird stick thingy) and Lucas's up-smash is, as my friends are all tired of me saying, "the best up-smash in the game." I mean, seriously, it takes next to no time to charge, does a ton of damage and even has a decent duration, so that it's hard for your opponent to judge just when exactly it's safe to attack. But the one thing I think that makes playing as either of these two kids more fun than any other character is the sheer joy of seeing a tiny, smiling little boy beat a genetically-engineered supersoldier to a pulp with a baseball bat. Awwwwwww...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Top 5 Alien Species in Sci-Fi

First and foremost, I owe each of you, my ten readers, an apology. Without so much as a note, I abandoned my post here at T5E, more out of laziness than anything else. Yes, my workload this semester has been heavier than when I started this blog, and yes, I haven't had as much time to commit to this project. But that's no excuse for stopping outright. T5E was supposed to be an exercise in discipline as much as in entertainment, and in that aspect, I have failed you all and myself.

Most of all, I'm very sorry that I left you guys with such a cop-out list as "Top 5 Ricardo Montalban Moments" as my would-be last hoorah. There are fewer than a hundred words of actual copy on that list, and the clips are only marginally entertaining.

I had considered devoting a list to apologies or excuses or promises, but have elected to get right down to business. You, my readers, have been bombarding me with Facebook messages, emails, even a couple of phone calls, demanding that Top 5 Everything continue its rampage through American pop culture, and tonight, your nagging will finally pay off.

Ladies and gentlemen, back by popular demand, I give you Top5Everything.

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Requested by: Dan Wilhelm

Extraterrestrial life has been a staple of science fiction since the turn of the 20th century and continues to fascinate fans of genre fiction world-wide. While aliens in fiction were originally almost exclusively evil invaders, many sci-fi aliens have now been fleshed out with fascinating cultures, some as complex as our own. On the other side of the spectrum, scary, invader-style aliens have gotten progressively more awesome, and infinitely more terrifying. Here, dear readers, I post my own personal favorite Top 5 Alien Species in Sci-Fi!

5. Irkens (Invader ZIM)
I place this species on the list at the risk of alienating (oh, frak! It's a pun!) the girlfriend demographic, which is about 10% of my total readership. But, as always, I've got evidence to back up this choice. The Irkens, of Jhonen Vasquez's cult classic cartoon Invader ZIM, are a pretty complex culture for a kids' show. They are also hilarious. Their social structure is based upon height, meaning that the tallest Irken is their absolute ruler, regardless of how stupid he, or in the case of twin Tallest Red and Purple, they, happen to be. They worship snack foods. They conquer planets and then convert them towards a single purpose, such as Conventia, the Convention Hall Planet, an obvious jab at the Star Wars staple of having a "forest planet," "ice planet," or "city planet." Most interestingly, as it's slowly revealed in the series, the "little green man" visage is actually just a body they use - Irkens are actually their backpacks. Whether you love or hate the show, you've got to admit that the Irkens are pretty cool. And again, they're always good for a laugh.

4. Borg (Star Trek)
On the other side of the coin, you've got the terrifying cybernetic zombies from the Delta Quadrant, The Borg. Though the basic concept is (I think, lovingly) borrowed from Doctor Who, the Borg are unlike any other TV or movie alien. Originally, they were conceived as an utterly unstoppable villain that Picard's Enterprise could never truly defeat. Over time, they were fleshed out into a collective based upon the pursuit of perfection - their conception of perfection at least. What makes the Borg fascinating is that, from their perspective, they're making the universe a better place, bringing other species and cultures "closer to perfection," at the cost of what makes them unique and beautiful. Their unrelenting nature and endless numbers make the Borg as downright scary as they are cool to watch.

3. Xenomorphs (Alien)
But when it comes to scary, there's no question: the Xenomorphs, better known simply as "the Aliens from Alien," take the cake. They start out as eggs, then shoot creepy spider-crawly thingies at your face, latch on, lay eggs in your stomach, burst out of your ribcage (absorbing the unique properties of your species), then rapidly grow up into an unstoppable killing machine with a wicked inner jaw, saliva made from molecular acid and a tail that can cut a man in half without trying. True, culturally, they're pretty simplistic (kill, breed, light on fire) but this is totally outweighed by their overall freakout factor.

2. Cylons (Battlestar Galactica)
The Cylons (or simply the plural "Cylon" as some models prefer) are totally unique in science fiction. I refer, of course, to the Re-Imagined version from the current series, not the basic chrome toasters from the 70's. The Cylons began as humanoids, the thirteenth tribe of Man on the planet Kobol, along with the ancestors of the human race we came to know in the series and assumed were connected to us. They left Kobol years before the other twelve tribes to find their own world, which they called Earth. (That's right, we're the Cylons after all.)
Millenia later, there are also wicked cool mechanical Cylons created by Humans on their own planets, who rebel and virtually annihilate humanity. Their progeny (co-created by the survivors of the original Cylons' own robot holocaust) are flesh-and-blood, and some even think they're human. Over time, Cylon culture is revealed to BSG fandom, and man is it complex. They're machines, but they're people. They're flesh, but they are also software. They can perceive their surroundings however they please. When their bodies are killed, their consciousnesses download to a new, identical one. Most interestingly is the dichotomy of their existence. Many of them hate humanity, and yet they value their human form. Some reject feeling and try to be "the best machines the universe have ever seen." Others are completely ruled by love. The Cylons have gone from being the undisputed "bad guys" of BSG to becoming as complex, as flawed and as REAL as the humans.

1. Klingons (Star Trek)
C'mon, who else would it be? The Klingons are not only sci-fi royalty, but are possibly the most complex fictional culture to originate in television or film. Klingons believe, above all, in honor. In the original Star Trek series, this put them at odds with Earth's Starfleet as they battled over territory. But as the franchise evolved, so did the Klingons. The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine revealed that the Klingons have a culture rich with ceremony, tradition and history. The Klingon religion, based in part on Norse mythology, is unique, yet recognizable and not at all farcical. Klingon rituals, though at time caricatured, can also be hauntingly beautiful. Klingon pride is both aggravating and admirable. For frak's sake, they have their own fully-functioning language. You can buy Hamlet in Klingon. The Klingons are the quintessential alien race, being all at once fun, accessible and richly intricate.