Thursday, January 29, 2015

Fade In: Michael Piller's unpublished account of Star Trek Insurrection

From the book:

I wish I could have been there back in 1987 when Gene Roddenberry went to the studio and announced he’d found the perfect actor to play the new Star Trek captain -- a middle-aged, bald Englishman.

If the show had been scheduled on CBS, NBC or ABC, Patrick Stewart would never have been Picard. Give us another Shatner, they would have said. Youthful, bold, swashbuckling. Young demographics! But Star Trek: The Next Generation was to be syndicated, that is, sold on a station by station basis. What that meant was that Paramount could mount the show any way they wanted to and if they wanted to cast a middle-aged, bald, Englishman, so be it.

Personally, I feel he missed a perfect opportunity to replace "so be it" with "make it so," but that's just me. Here's the complete .pdf. If I could link you to a source where the book is purchasable, I would, but it was never officially published. It's my understanding Michael Piller really wanted to give this book to fans and aspiring writers. So go, spread it like wildfire. It's not a great book, but there is some good stuff in it. Like this:

Paramount had Patrick’s toupee overnighted from England and he returned the next day, this time with hair. Roddenberry took one look and said, “Take it off.” Everyone in the room realized that Patrick’s bald head carried a certain power.

I'm halfway through reading it and so far the book is more about writing than the fun bits of trivia. Writing is a lot like knitting. For people who are into that kind of thing, nothing is more rewarding than sitting down in a zombie-like trance and getting to work. But let's face it: talking about the craft itself is almost as dull as listening to someone go on and on about the meaning of the dream they had last night. If you spent all day cleaning the house, you'd probably have more interesting stories to tell than if you had spent your day telling an actual story.

The point is a good book on writing is rare these days. Fade In almost qualifies. In it, Piller writes about writing the screenplay to a movie only a die-hard Star Trek fan could like. More importantly, he (sometimes) makes it interesting without resorting to "tell-all" drama and tabloid controversy. The Kid Stays in the Picture it ain't, but it's honest and shows a side of Hollywood that rarely sees the light of day. When was the last time you read a book about Hollywood in which everyone was A) acting so professional and B) hard drugs weren't mentioned at all?

This is still brain candy, through and through, and I'm not convinced anyone but Star Trek fans would like it. And if you are a fan, you'll shake your head as Piller enthusiastically relates how he and other forces conspired to craft a film that was a letdown for most viewers. The previous film in the series, First Contact, had a lot of goofy stuff in there ("Assimilate this!"—Worf), but it's still one of the best and most lighthearted Star Trek films. 

Why Paramount would want to move away from that, why Piller would want to move away from that, why producer Rick Berman would want to move away from that, is beyond me. Usually with these kinds of franchises we wonder why they didn't deviate from the formula. Here, we wonder why they decided to deviate so unanimously when so many of us actually wanted more First Contact. Piller's book has many answers to questions like these, but they're not as satisfying as expected.

For instance, in the film Data is back to being the Data we knew before he installed his emotion chip. We saw him temporarily deactivate the chip when he and a security team fought the Borg in the previous film (Picard: "Sometimes I envy you, Data."), but why didn't he ever turn it back on? Piller, demonstrating good attributes for an episodic television writer but not necessarily a movie writer, says he wanted to avoid what he calls "The Rhoda Effect." He says audiences became uninterested in Rhoda after the titular character was married on the TV series. Well yeah, that's true, but I kind of became uninterested in Data after he fell down a few rungs of his character arc.

Another annoyance with books about screenwriting is the unnecessary amount of filler material they employ. Early on, Piller includes a treatment for the screenplay in its entirety. Not much of it ends up in the final product. While some die-hard fans will find its inclusion interesting, I found myself skimming. By Piller's own admission, when Berman read the treatment he said, "Who cares?" When I got to the second treatment Piller includes, I skipped it altogether. That's not the stuff I personally wanted from a book like this, but a greater fan than I might appreciate it.

I think the most fascinating thing about the book is it makes you realize that sometimes there's not really any one person or group to blame when a movie turns to shit. Whenever a movie in a series turns to shit, fans are always looking for excuses: "Oh, the studio ruined it," or, "Their creative decisions were all about money," etc. But everyone involved with the project was concerned with making an honest Star Trek flick, something that stayed true to the spirit. On the chairman of Viacom at the time, Jonathan Dolgen, Piller says:

As a rule, Dolgen doesn’t involve himself in creative decisions. But he breaks that rule for Star Trek. And it’s not (just) the money. He happens to be a huge fan. Dare I say, a Trekker?

Despite good intentions all around, it fell apart anyway. Apparently Piller didn't get that memo. You can tell he feels the film turned out great despite the mixed reception. I think my biggest problem with Insurrection is Brannon Braga and Ronald Moore had just proven a Star Trek movie works best when it resembles a bonafide popcorn movie more than a television episode. Piller (and even Patrick Stewart, as indicated in correspondence reprinted in the book) seemed more interested in making a two-hour episode of The Next Generation. And on the big screen, that's just kind of out of place.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Kotaku: "The Exceptional Beauty of DOOM 3's Source Code"

I've got DOOM on my mind. Again. Every few years or so I have to gush about DOOM here so bear with me. For the first time in years, a DOOM title has kept me up well past my bedtime. It's far from the first time ever.

Here's Kotaku's article on the beauty of DOOM 3's source code, which even I found fascinating, despite my lack of programming skills. Be sure to check the comments because there's a reply by John Carmack himself.

As I said in my last post, I reinstalled DOOM 3 (not the BFG Edition, mind you) and, surprisingly, had more fun with it than I ever did in the past. Yes, I was one of the many people who purchased computer hardware specifically to play this game ten years ago. Now that computer is collecting dust in my closet with three or four other obsolete systems. I've beaten the game at least twice, but that's nothing compared to the bazillion times I've played through the preceding titles, with and without mods like Brutal Doom. I've played vintage DOOM games on PC, a Super Nintendo emulator, Sega 32X, Nintendo 64 (a surprisingly fantastic version), XBLA, and even had a version of the original on my Android phone several years ago, minus the awesome music. So I haven't been as familiar with DOOM 3 as I was with the other titles.

Nor have I been as fair as I should have been.

I guess I was too nostalgic for the previous titles to see just how good of a game DOOM 3 really is... at least if you look at it as a standalone title. Compared to the controls and rapid movement of the original engine, DOOM 3's combat is a lot slower, though a little more realistic. And to be honest, we couldn't have expected id Software to release more of the same "outdated" frantic action of the previous titles. Nonetheless, I would pit DOOM 3 against a lot of the shit that came out last year, that is to say pretty much everything but the surprisingly great Wolfenstein: The New Order and Shadow of Mordor.

I'm disappointed the developers have said the next DOOM game is a reboot, considering DOOM 3 itself was a reboot. Kicking ass on Mars again was pretty awesome, but wouldn't it make more sense for the new one to follow Hell on Earth's plotline? Considering it's been ten years since the last installment, I wonder how many decades it will take to see the series brought back to Earth.

Reinstall DOOM 3 if you get the chance. Here's a simple guide to getting the game to run in modern resolutions.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Mytbusters to test DOOM


Well, I can't say I'm as excited about the episode as I am about what this likely means: we'll finally be getting a taste of the latest DOOM game very soon. 

Time to reinstall DOOM 3. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Apollo Robbins' amazing pickpocketing skills

Here's The New Yorker's in-depth profile of the famous pickpocket. In it, Penn Jillette tells him, "Fuck you." I imagine that's pretty high praise in the world of trickery. Here's Robbin's mind-boggling Ted talk on the art of misdirection. And here's a video of him tricking Neil deGrasse Tyson:


I love this stuff.

* * *

So it's been over two years since I started my current novel. Sure, I've finished a few short stories and a novella in that time, too, but I never imagined the damn thing would have taken so long (I expected six to eight months for the final draft). The thing is I've been writing novels since I was seventeen. I haven't written a good one until now, about a month away from my 32nd birthday. I've learned a lot more in these last two years than in the previous ten, probably because I took my time and didn't rush through the process for once. Just one more draft and I'll be completely happy with it. At least until I get some feedback on it... at which point there will be several more revisions. Hopefully then I won't get obsessive with it all over again.

The older I get, the longer I take. This would have horrified 21 year old me, who thought time was zooming by at supersonic speeds. Looking back, 21 was an eternity ago and I wouldn't suffer that guy's presence if my life depended on it. Since I began writing this novel I've found gray hairs and somehow didn't give a shit, finally learned how to play guitar with almost average abilities, and started eating a little bit better... just a little bit. I also tend to stay at home on Saturday night and play a ton more video games than I ever did, but hey, I think one of The Beatles once said that if you enjoyed doing something, it was time well spent.

Sounds good to me.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Expanse and The Man in the High Castle are coming to TV


Journalists are already calling it "A Game of Thrones in space!" Well, okay. If you guys say so. I know one of the writers of the source material used to work for GRRM, but let's not get all sensational and shit. Watch the writers wince when the lazy GOT comparison is made in this video.

I admit I'm usually not a fan of SyFy productions. I tried watching their Dune adaptation at least three times and never got very far into it. For the record, I've never finished the David Lynch movie, either. The trailer for The Expanse resembles too much of SyFy's stuff that I don't like: too slick for its own good, too shiny. At least it's got some good actors.

If it sounds like I'm not excited about this series, I assure you it's only because I'm not. But hey, I'll watch it anyway and I really, really hope I'm wrong. At the very least it reminded me I need to read the sequels to Leviathan Wakes. (I have a bad habit of starting series and not reading the sequels.)

You know what else is getting the TV treatment? Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Here's a clip:


Now that's more like it.

The Man in the High Castle has to be one of the best alternative history novels ever written. See, it's a novel set in a universe in which the Axis Powers won WWII. The characters themselves discover a novel set in a universe in which the Axis Powers lost. It's an alternative reality set within an alternative reality. Look, it sounds a lot more gimmicky than it is, trust me.