Star Trek: Lower Decks‘s “The Stars at Night”

It’s the third-season finale of Star Trek: Lower Decks (which actually went live last Thursday, but I forgot to post about it here, derpity derp) as we get resolution on more than one plotline, a couple of old Trek standby cliches, and a gripping feel-good climax. Best of all, no cliffhanger! Check out my review of “The Stars at Night.”

An excerpt:

However, this is the second straight episode (and the third of the last four) of a show called Lower Decks in which the lower-decks characters are really only supporting cast. We saw a lot more of Freeman in these last two episodes than we did our four nominal heroes, and speaking as someone who’s written quite a bit of Trek fiction, it’s a tough needle to thread. The reason why so many Trek stories focus on the captain and the folks in charge is because that’s where the fun stuff is. Yes, there are also stories to be told about the grunts belowdecks, and for the most part LD has been good about telling those stories. But if they also want to do big-ass finales, they wind up giving their main characters short shrift. As it is, they’ve covered it by having Boimler, Tendi, and Rutherford on bridge duty for the important bits, but that’s something else we can’t see too much of, lest we lose the lower-decks feel…

from the archives: the “Arrowverse” crossover that debuted Legends of Tomorrow

In 2016, the third of the Greg Berlanti-produced DC shows, Legends of Tomorrow, debuted following a crossover between the first two, Arrow and The Flash, which set LoT up. Here’s what I wrote about it back in early 2016. It’s amusing to read it now, especially with LoT having subsequently gotten so much better — and crazier — following its weak first season.

Wrenn and I lost track of The Flash last season about midway through, so when they got to the crossover in December that was setting up Legends of Tomorrow, we basically stopped watching Arrow. Last night we decided, the hell with it, watched the Flash half of that crossover (we’ve got the back half of season one of and the first half of season two of Flash, we just haven’t watched them yet), then watched the Arrow half, then watched LoT.

I enjoyed the crossover a lot more than the first two episodes of the new show, mainly because I love the easy camaraderie between the Flash and Arrow casts. Unfortunately, the three newest additions — Ciara Renée as Kendra/Shayera/Hawkgirl, Falk Hentschel as Carter/Koufu/Hawkman, and Casper Crump as Vandal Savage — are all pretty terrible. The biggest issue is Crump, who follows in the footsteps of Matt Nable’s weak-tea Ra’s al-Ghul to give us a relentlessly mediocre Savage. This makes twice in a row where Andrea Romano cast a voice actor who would’ve been a bajillion times better in the role in the DC animated universe of the 1990s/2000s than Greg Berlanti’s casting people can manage in live action, as David Warner and Phil Morris would have been infinitely superior as Ra’s and Savage.

Because the three actors have no chemistry, no bite, and appallingly little talent (in Renée’s case extending to her scenes with Cisco, in which the interest is entirely one-sided thanks to Carlos Valdes’s relaxed charisma), that aspect of the plots of the four episodes we watched last night was the least interesting part of it — which is a problem, as it was pretty much the catalyst for the entire storyline. Luckily, the stuff around the edges was great. LoT in particular has the advantage of some prime talent in the rest of the cast. Nobody ever went wrong casting Victor Garber in anything, and he kills it as Martin Stein, the intellectual half of Firestorm (the jury’s still out on Franz Drameh as Jax, the muscle of the pairing). Brandon Routh continues to make Ray Palmer a delightful combination of geeky and egotistical, basically doing him as a less creepy Tony Stark, and it works beautifully. Caity Lotz is doing zombie Sara Lance as someone trying to find her place in life while kicking all the asses — thus far in the first two episodes, she’s been the only consistently competent person, and she’s been magnificent. Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell take the chemistry they created on Prison Break and continued on Flash and put it to superb use here. (Our roommate Dale nailed it with Miller: he’s playing Leonard Snart/Captain Cold as Avon from Blakes 7, and it’s perfect.) And Arthur Darvil plays a renegade Time Master who steals a time-travel ship in order to be a hero — can’t imagine what he’d drawn on to play that role……………………

The biggest problem with LoT, besides the fact that the three actors who form the core of the ongoing storyline suck, is the ongoing storyline itself. It’s the common mistake of doing a movie plot on a TV show: when the storyline is directed to a particular goal, it means our heroes have to consistently fail or the show ends. With luck, the Savage arc will only involve the short first season, and if the show continues, they’ll move onto something else for season 2, with the team having gelled after taking Savage out. If not, it’s going to be a very frustrating repetitive show.

The second biggest problem is cast bloat. They fixed that in episode 2 by killing Hawkman off, which also removed one of those three terrible actors. The large cast of Arrow grew organically, and Flash has kept the supporting cast smaller and more manageable. Let’s hope they haven’t bitten off too much here.

gratuitous cover post!

It’s been a year since I did one of these……………

Three Time Travelers Walk Into… (with my story “What You Can Become Tomorrow”)

The Fans are Buried Tales (with my story “The Carpet’s Tale”)

OOOFF! BOFF! SPLATT!: The Subterranean Blue Grotto Essays on Batman ’66–Season Three (with my essay “Watching the Detectives”)

The Man Who Laughs: Exploring the Crown Prince of Crime (with my essay “Whatever Joker Wants, Joker Goetz”)

Phoenix Precinct

The Eye of Argon and the Further Adventures of Grignr the Barbarian (with my story “The Rat’s Tail”)

Phenomenons: Every Human Creature (with my story “The Light Shines in the Darkness”)

Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness–The Beginning #1

Unauthorized Offworld Activation: Exploring the Stargate Franchise (with my essay “Lonely at the Top: The Underused Leaders of Atlantis“)

Ludlow Charlington’s Doghouse (with my drabble “History Lesson for Royal Puppies in the Castle Portrait Gallery”)

Tales of Capes and Cowls (with my story “Smells Like Teen Spirit”)

Zorro’s Exploits (with my story “A Lovely View”)

cover reveal: The Eye of Argon and the Further Adventures of Grignr the Barbarian

Back in 1970, a young man named Jim Theis published a novelette called “The Eye of Argon” in a fanzine. A painfully poorly written fantasy tale obviously inspired by the works of Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, and their ilk, “The Eye of Argon” became infamous as an example of bad writing (and also bad proofreading). It got to the point that people did readings of it at conventions, where you had to read it word for word (including the typos and misspellings, which are legion) and with a straight face. Whoever lasted the longest would win.

Some cons did other variations, including performing the action of the story. One such group decided to do a new annotated edition of the original as well as various short stories that would serve as sequels. Or prequels. Or side stories. But the main requirement of all these stories, besides that they should tie into “The Eye of Argon” is that they should be like the original: poorly written and full of typos.

And so, next month, Fantastic Books will present The Eye of Argon and the Further Adventures of Grignr the Barbarian, edited by Michael A. Ventrella, and including not just the original novelette by Theis (with annotations by Ian Randal Strock), but also the aforementioned stories. The book is now available for preorder.

Here’s the full table of contents:

  • Foreword: “The Eye of Argon and Associated Earnest Musings” by Jody Lynn Nye
  • Introduction: “We Can All Be Grignr; or: How to Appreciate Very Bad Writing” by Michael A. Ventrella
  • “Publisher’s Apology” by Ian Randal Strock
  • “The Eye of Argon” by Jim Theis, with annotations by Ian Randal Strock
  • “The Return of the Eye of Argon” by Hildy Silverman
  • “The Rat’s Tail” by Keith R.A. DeCandido
  • “Grignr and the Drignr” by Peter Prellwitz
  • “Grignr in the Land of Er-Urz” by Ian Randal Strock
  • “God Quest” by Genevieve Iseult Eldredge
  • “Grignr’s Swift Sword of Vengeance” by Daniel M. Kimmel
  • “Ouanna’s Rock” by Jean Marie Ward
  • “Grignr and the Tomb of Really Bad Evil” by Michael A. Ventrella

The book will launch at Philcon, where I am the Principal Speaker, and at which we will be doing a special performance of “The Eye of Argon” as a stage play. It ought to be horrible….

stuff what I’ve posted to Patreon

My Patreon has a ton of cool stuff on it. Here’s what there’s been just since the 1st of September:

  • $1/month and up: a review of Clueless, Drive Me Crazy, and 10 Things I Hate About You
  • $2/month and up: 32 cat pictures
  • $5/month and up: reviews of Animal Kingdom, Sandman, and She-Hulk, Attorney-at-Law
  • $7/month and up: excerpts from Phoenix Precinct and “This Little Light of Mine.”
  • $10/month and up: a vignette featuring Bram Gold (with another that will go live on Hallowe’en)
  • $20/month and up: first looks at the drafts of Phoenix Precinct Chapters 1-23 and “This Little Light of Mine.”

Since that’s almost two months’ worth of stuff, for just $40, you’d have gotten all of that! And there’s more coming, as I’ll have a movie review in the next week (possibly of The Gray Man, possibly of Black Adam, which I’m going to see tonight), there is another vignette coming on the 31st, as I said above, and there’s a new excerpt from a work in progress every single week (usually on Wednesdays). Plus, of course, ever more cat pictures…….

So what are you waiting for? Become a patron!!!!!!!!!

Star Trek: Enterprise Rewatch: “The Crossing”

It starts out as a very promising first-contact story. It turns into a total fucking mess. The Star Trek: Enterprise Rewatch regrets taking “The Crossing.”

An excerpt:

The conversation between wisp-Tucker and Archer is really compelling stuff. I loved the idea of non-corporeal life forms trading places with the humans on board so they could compare notes on how the other half lives. It’s a perfect Star Trek plot.

And then it goes straight into the shitter as soon as Reed starts macking on the female crew. We go from one wisp being fascinated by the concept of gender, and then go straight from that to “tell me of this human thing you call ‘sex’,” and it’s just so lazy and uninteresting and predictable.

from Patreon: my review of Moonshadow: The Definitive Edition

When I reached fifty patrons on my Patreon in August 2020, I wrote the following as a special bonus for all of my patrons. I’m reprinting it here two years later in honor of writer J.M. DeMatteis’s new Kickstarter.

When I first started seriously getting into superhero comics in the early-to-mid-1980s, I read almost entirely Marvel Comics stuff. It was a great time to get into Marvel, as some of the greatest runs on their heroes were at this time: Chris Claremont’s X-Men and New Mutants, Roger Stern’s Amazing Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and Avengers, John Byrne’s Fantastic Four and Alpha Flight, Bill Mantlo’s Incredible Hulk, Micronauts, and Spectacular Spider-Man, Walt Simonson’s Thor, Denny O’Neil’s Iron Man, Jo Duffy’s Power Man & Iron Fist, Frank Miller’s Daredevil, and J.M. DeMatteis’s Captain America, Defenders, and Marvel Team-Up, among others…

DeMatteis was a writer I quickly took to. Several elements of his authorial voice appealed to me, from his naturalistic dialogue to his strong use of humor, from his fantastic ability to get at the human motivations behind both his heroes and his villains to his general belief in the goodness of human beings. (A lot of the work he did on Captain America proved to be the lasting basis of how the character was written both in comics and especially in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the lack of any kind of thank-you to him in any of the MCU films is a travesty.) There was also always a sense of hippie mysticism about his work that continues to appeal to this child of hippies.

From 1985 to 1987, DeMatteis wrote a miniseries for Epic Comics, Marvel’s line of creator-owned titles, called Moonshadow. The artwork was fully painted, mostly by Jon J Muth, with help from George Pratt and Kent Williams when Muth fell behind on his deadlines. It was one of the first fully-painted comics, and Muth et al’s washed-out watercolors gave the book a very distinctive, ethereal look that stood out in a medium that favored bright primary colors.

Moonshadow was reprinted by Vertigo in the mid-1990s, and then they published a coda one-shot called Farewell, Moonshadow, all of which was collected into The Compleat Moonshadow—which was recently reprinted, along with a ton of behind-the-scenes material, by Dark Horse as Moonshadow: The Definitive Edition.

Anybody who’s read DeMatteis’s work over the years will recognize many of the tropes in Moonshadow, from the general search for enlightenment that is the theme of the story to the romanticizing of mid-to-late-20th-century Brooklyn (where DeMatteis himself was born and raised) to the multiple literary references (including at least one reference to Fyodor Dostoyevski, a DeMatteis staple) to the charmingly goofy use of humor, including quite a number of Yiddishisms. 

DeMatteis is Jewish, and Judaism plays a much bigger role in his work than it does in most mainstream comics work. (One of his other 1980s creator-owned Marvel projects was a graphic novel called Greenberg the Vampire.) Reading The Definitive Edition now, there are several Yiddishisms that my teenage self totally missed the first time ’round (as an example, two planets are named Goyim and Shpilkuss).

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s a true delight, one part coming-of-age story, one part satire, one part fairy tale, and one part science fiction allegory. An older Moonshadow tells the story in flashback, with the main action taking place during Moonshadow’s teenage years. The title character is half human—his mother is a hippie burnout named Sheila Fay Birnbaum, who goes by the name Sunflower after she tuned in, turned on, and dropped out—and he has many adventures throughout the cosmos. The satire and social commentary is fast and furious in Moonshadow, with critiques of capitalism, war, organized religion, and more.

The most fascinating aspect of Moonshadow to me is the G’l Doses. They’re basically giant glowing smiley faces, created decades before emojis became a thing. They flit about the galaxy pinging, popping, and poofing their way through space, occasionally kidnapping people and putting them in their zoo for reasons that are never made clear. The G’l Doses appear to operate completely on whim, and all attempts to understand them are doomed to failure. (DeMatteis presents two philosophical texts that take opposite viewpoints on the G’l Doses: We’re All Ants in a Meaningless Cosmos by Ragstone Phillit, which obviously takes an existentialist, nihilistic view, and The Gospel of Shree Quack Quack H’onnka, which takes a much more optimistic one.) Sunflower is one of the people they kidnap, and — for reasons that are never elaborated upon, just like every other G’l Doses action — one chooses to marry Sunflower and impregnate her. Moonshadow is the result of that bizarre union.

One of the things I love about DeMatteis’s work in general and Moonshadow in particular is that he understands the importance and value of storytelling, and how the creation of art in general and of literature in particular is of such critical import to what makes life worth living. Each chapter of the story starts with a literary quote, and while they’re all excellent and apt quotes, by some of the greats, reading it in 2020, I have to wince at the fact that it’s made up entirely of white dudes from the late 18th to the early 20th century, and all but one from the U.S. or the UK (the exception being the aforementioned Dostoyevsky): William Blake, L. Frank Baum, William Butler Yeats, J.R.R. Tolkien, Percy Bysshe Shelley, J.M. Barrie, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dostoyevsky, John Keats, Henry Miller, and Samuel Beckett. While growing up in the G’l Doses zoo, Moonshadow had access to a huge library that supposedly had the entirety of human literature in it—but, again, all white dudes from a single hundred-and-fifty-year timeframe. 

Still, the story is superlative. DeMatteis effortlessly slides across set pieces and genres, from the horrors of war to the hilarity of worlds like Gimmegimme and Pillbox to the delightful flashbacks to Sunflower’s childhood and young adulthood during the oppressive 1950s and the turbulent 1960s. Throughout it all, Moonshadow is a delightfully romantic, naïve, competent, pathetic, brilliant, idiotic, complex hero whose journey to enlightenment is well worth the journey.

The art is beauteous, the perfect accompaniment to DeMatteis’s tale, ranging from Seussian absurdity to ethereal beauty worthy of William Blake (whose introduction to the Songs of Innocence provide the de facto epigraph and theme). Kevin Nowlan’s handwriting-style lettering is also perfect for the feel, though occasionally it is difficult to read the thin-lined lettering over the colorful art, at least for your humble reviewer’s aging eyes…

I’m of two minds about the Farewell, Moonshadow epilogue, which also slides from genre to genre but it’s not as effortless as it is in the main story, feeling a bit more disjointed in tone and feel. The initial bits with Moonshadow as a tinkerer works well, but the middle part with him basically becoming Job, with everything going wrong with his life, feels like it wandered in from a different story. Sometimes it’s best to leave parts of the story untold, and I’m not sure the epilogue works as well as hoped.

Still, this is one of the greatest comics stories ever produced, flaws and all. It’s tremendous fun, full of happy chear, and will make you feel good when you read it. It’s a great story, and that’s what makes life worth living.

nifty Kickstarter featuring one of my favorite comics writers

From when I first started reading Marvel Comics seriously in the early 1980s, one of my favorite writers was J.M. DeMatteis (and he still is). At the time, he was writing Captain America, Marvel Team-Up, and The Defenders. His Cap run is one of the best the world has ever seen, and while he tends not to get the same credit as your Roger Sterns, your Mark Waids, your Ed Brubakers, his run is truly one of the best and most influential, including the definitive Red Skull story (complete with expanded origin). His Marvel Team-Up was part of a golden age of Spider-Man that also included Roger Stern’s run on Amazing Spider-Man and Bill Mantlo’s on Spectacular Spider-Man. And his run on The Defenders was simply superb, bringing depth and brilliance to the Son of Satan, Hellcat, Devil-Slayer, Nighthawk, and Valkyrie, and also introducing the Gargoyle.

In the years since, DeMatteis has given us some amazing comics work, from the “Kraven’s Last Hunt” storyline — one of the greatest Spider-Man stories ever told — to his collaboration with Keith Giffen on the Justice League titles (and also on the independent comic Hero Squared) to the magnificent fantasy miniseries Moonshadow (which I reviewed on my Patreon) to his hilarious graphic novel Greenberg the Vampire to his brilliant miniseries Brooklyn Dreams to some amazing scripting work for various DC animated properties and so so so much more.

DeMatteis’s work has always greatly appealed to me, from his naturalistic dialogue to his strong use of humor, from his fantastic ability to get at the human motivations behind both his heroes and his villains to his general belief in the goodness of human beings. (He also has a sense of hippie mysticism that continues to appeal to this particular child of hippies.)

And now, he’s launching his own multiverse through Spellbound Comics, which is currently a campaign on Kickstarter.

I can’t recommend this highly enough, just on the strength of DeMatteis’s writer credit. It includes four titles, each of which plays to a different strength of DeMatteis’s: Anyman, a superhero tale that should be tremendous fun, with art by David Baldeón; Godsend, which will seem to play to his cosmic strengths and questioning of people’s place in the universe, with art by Matthew Dow Smith; Layla in the Lands of After, an all-ages fantasy that’s right in his wheelhouse, with art by Shawn McManus; and Wisdom, a weird wild West tale, with art by Tom Mandrake.

I’m eagerly supporting this Kickstarter, and you should consider doing so too. DeMatteis’s work is always worth it.

Star Trek: Lower Decks‘s “Trusted Sources”

A reporter is embedded on the Cerritos to document their inaugural mission for “Project: Flyby,” where they revisit planets years later. Yes, it’s the sequel to TNG‘s “Symbiosis” that nobody demanded! Plus, the return of the Breen (which somebody may have demanded….). Here’s my review of the latest Star Trek: Lower Decks episode, “Trusted Sources.”

An excerpt:

The title of the episode is a not-very-veiled reference to a trend that has been often seen (and made fun of) since Discovery debuted in 2017, as people have claimed online (mostly in YouTube videos) that they have “trusted sources” that tell them that Alex Kurtzman is about to get fired for ruining Star Trek. Five years on, with Kurtzman’s job as secure as that of anyone in Hollywood not named Kevin Feige, those videos are less prolific than they used to be, though they still show up every once in a while.

Star Trek: Enterprise Rewatch: “Canamar”

It’s the world’s most generic action-adventure sci-fi plot imaginable that has no surprises, no characterizations worth mentioning, and some really bog-standard action. Mark Rolston and Sean Whelan do Mark Rolston and Sean Whelan things as guest stars, and it’s really bog-standard. The Star Trek: Enterprise Rewatch slogs its way toward “Canamar.”

An excerpt:

There are some moments in John Shiban’s script that work nicely. The fact that “Tom” is actually helpful is a nice touch, and Shiban also understands that different levels of criminal are treated differently by law-enforcement. As long as Kuroda is just a guy who stole a ship, he’s a nuisance. If he murders Enolian law-enforcement personnel, he becomes a murderer, and they’re going to expend significantly more effort to find him in that case. And Sean Whelan’s babbling prisoner is hilariously horrible, with Connor Trinneer doing a lovely job as his long-suffering straight man.

But this episode is so ploddingly paint-by-numbers with absolutely nothing to make it interesting. Trek has dipped into the crew-as-prisoners well before, most notably in DS9’s “Hard Time” and Voyager’s “The Chute,” both of which were light-years better than this slog. Mostly because we saw the effects of incarceration on people. Here, we don’t even make it to the titular prison, and it’s really just a hijacking-the-ship episode. And it’s a spectacularly boring example of the breed, with the added lack-of-bonus of a simply endless fist fight between Scott Bakula’s and Mark Rolston’s respective stunt doubles at what passes for the climax.