Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Babylon 5: Jews In Space

I’ve been watching the first season of Babylon 5 and just finished the first season. I wanted to point out some of the highlights of the episodes I’ve been watching. In the episode titled, TKO, that originally aired on May 25, 1994, Ivanova has to face the admonition of her Rabbi-Uncle who travels all the way from Earth to B5 (which is supposedly a very expensive trip) to assist her in sitting Shiva for her dead father. First off, it was heartening to know that hundreds of years into the future people will wear retro-eighties stylings but rabbis will still don the cloth of the early Twentieth Century. Rabbi Koslov could have showed up in a Saturday Night Live (SNL) episode where the Rabbi comes to minister to Jim Kirk in a Star Trek TOS spoof. I mean the guy comes off the shuttle with nothing but his Torah, his black hat and his Russian-Jewish accent. At first glance I began to wonder, “Did B5 actually just ‘jump the shark’?”

It gets better. Not only does Ivanova have to fend the good intentions of Rabbi Koslov but Garibaldi’s friend Walker Smith comes to B5 in order to try out for the part in Karate Kid Part XXIII. Or was it Bloodsport Part XXXX? By the time I hear that it was the dawn of the Third Age of Mankind I’m convinced of it.

Walker Smith isn’t really on B5 to try out for the Ralph Macchio convention; he’s there to enter into the highly suspect title of Mutari Master. This is the most ridiculous excuse for a contest that a human can’t enter since Anakin Skywalker raced his pod racer. I always try to give a writer credit when they have to invent a contest that “no human in the entire universe can ever compete.” We really don’t have any idea what that could be since everything we can think of to put on film would probably be a human based event. That being said, these guys have to come up with something a little better than an overblown drag race (pod racing!) or a no hold barred fighting event that looks more staged than “Professional” Wrestling. Currently, UFC has bloodier battles. I mean Walker Smith could have kicked that guy’s butt with his eyes closed. Wouldn’t a little more of a threatening figure or someone who actually knew how to fight martial arts (like say Darth Maul character?) been a better choice. That guy looked like a reject from MST3K! The storyline didn’t jibe for me, especially the whole abbreviated mentor relationship between Walker and the creepy alien.

Back to the Jewish angle: At first, that didn’t ring true for me either. The Rabbi seemed a little stereotypical for me, especially in a science fiction show. Then it grew on me. The thing that struck me most was how the writer’s made Ivanova so human by bringing her religious background in direct conflict with her personal feelings for her father. We learned a lot about her from this episode. Her conflict, her motivation and her basis for her strength of character. Being Jewish myself I did have an emotional attachment to Susan Ivonava for her religious struggle. There is something grounding about going to a service at Temple and timeless about being part of a ceremony that spans ages. It produced a good juxtaposition to see this Rabbi representing one of the oldest popularly practiced religions in space to help the second in command of Earth’s premier Space Station to sit Shiva for her estranged, dead father.

One of the things I appreciate about good science fiction is when they introduce a little authenticity into it. What I mean by that is the characters, setting and culture have basis in “our” world. While most SciFi or Fantasy takes place in alternate realities or made up universes there is something to be said about grounding the viewer or reader. Orson Scott Card does this in his fiction by drawing on cultural bits that we are familiar with and down paying the bang, whiz aspect of technology. Lord of the Rings, both the books and the movies, do this by depicting a gritty realism to the story and characters. LOTR looks and feels like history instead of fantasy. Star Wars did it with the “used universe” concept, which was a little lost in the prequels.

I make fun of the cheap effects and costuming in B5 but what it does it does very well, apparent even from this first season. The characters are solid and believable even if the stories are uneven. The one thing that works overall in B5 despite being just north of cheesy is that the characters are very strong. JMS did an exceptional job of fleshing out his characters’ backgrounds and motivations. They seem very human, even the aliens. So far this is the strength of the show, characterization and conflict.

That being said, I have been told that it gets better and I am one for giving a show a chance even through the rough patches. Season Two is on its way via Netflix and I will be waiting anxiously to return for a second dose.


Friday, April 21, 2006


While listening to the Slice of Sci-Fi podcast the other day they spoke about the TV show Medium. This is the show where Patricia Arquette plays a character who dreams the future and can talk to dead people. Supposedly, this character is based on real life medium, Allison DuBois. I checked her out and she has a new book coming out about her life. She claims on her website that the show is an accurate portrayal of her life with a little "Hollywood Magic" thrown in. Her husband, Joe, is accurately portrayed on the show as well, she says, and her daughters all are developing their own abilities.

I started watching this show from the first day it came out. I probably watched about five episodes and then sporadically caught some others. I left the show because as the summary on the official website put it, her husband comes to believe in her abilities and she must convince her boss, a D.A., that her visions can help people in the cases she is working on. The stories are good, I give them that. The personal lives of the people she comes in contact with need her help (ala 6th Sense) and they appeal to her to help them (ala 6th Sense) solve their questionable deaths. The problem comes in where after five episodes, her husband still is skeptical and unamazed at her powers and her boss, in every single show I watched, despite the fact that she has been right every time, still holds doubts about her contribution to solving cases.

If my wife came to me and said she had suddenly developed powers of perception, I would be skeptical too. If one of my employees closed the door to my office and mentioned the fact that they dreamed some things about our job that would help us, I'd probably entertain them for fear of them snapping and bludgeoning me with a tape dispenser. However, if, after they came to me five, six, seven times with this information and every time they were 100% accurate predictions, I'd be their biggest supporter. From the shows I’ve watched this progress was painfully slow.

Now, I realize that in a story there must be conflict for it to be interesting but the writers should have thought of different ways for her to have personal conflict. Yes, the husband is sometimes peeved because she takes off for various locales following ghosts to the places they died pointing out evidence and he is stuck home with the kids but you'd think that with her higher calling, eventually he'd understand a little. Also, if she's so good at this sort of thing and she is using her powers for good, doesn't somebody in the DA office got her back, especially her boss who probably comes out looking like King Midas when she solves all these cases for him?

The concept and the stories are really good, but to keep the personal drama up there was a reset aspect to the show where the people around her kind of regressed to their old skepticism at the beginning of each episode. Also, Joe (Allison’s aerospace engineering husband), have some sympathy for the poor girl. She wakes up in the middle of the night after seeing visions of horror and death and you bitch cause you can't sleep!

I do remember one episode that highlighted one of her daughter’s developing abilities that was quite good. Her husband was convinced that the girl was advancing in her Math skills exponentially. As he helped her with her homework, she became savant-like in solving complex math problems. By the end, it was discovered that she was not favoring his mathematic genes but Allison’s ESP traits. She was reading her father’s mind to solve the problem. Of course, like any American male, his ego was crushed to think that the wife was a bigger influence and his inherent abilities at advanced math were manipulated by the girl. That was a brilliant turn of events in the storytelling.

I see that the show won an Emmy award recently and that they are going to have some high profile guest stars on the show like Molly Ringwald(?) With the writing centered on the main themes being so good, I think the producers are coughing up some bucks to bring attention to their little spec fiction show. To me, that's a good thing. Any attention to a well-written and moderately successful show that is alternative or speculative is fine with me. Just please; tell me they've improved the relationships this girl has with her husband and boss.

Except for those little annoying problems, I have rediscovered this show’s better qualities. The stories are good, the characters are real but the development of their relationship to Allison needs to be improved. The creator of the show, Glenn Gordon Caron, worked on Moonlighting, which practically invented the idea of ongoing sexual tension on prime time TV between Bruce Willis and Cybill Sheppard. This will explain some of the lingering tension between Allison, Joe and the boss. It worked before and it might just worked again. Personally, I think the show benefits from maturing characters not sophomoric sexual tension that Moonlighting did so well. Having said that, I plan to watch Medium again.


Friday, April 14, 2006

Babylon 5

As a geek I am absolutely, positively, embarrassed to admit that I have never watched Babylon 5. Yes, yes, I know, I have probably lost a few of my dedicated readers but then again by admitting that I’ve probably picked up a few. If you were like me you passed this seemingly low-budget space opera by the first time around because it delved just a little too much into geek land. I mean, sure I’ll watch Star Trek: TNG (That’s Star Trek: The Next Generation for the uninitiated.) I am also a huge Star Wars geek but in the early to mid-nineties, if you were like me at all, you were consuming mass quantities of beer and hanging out in cool joints that played only the most ironic alternative music. Nobody I knew was geeking out about Babylon 5. None of the girls I was trying to pick up while whipping my long mane around and brandishing my NIN (again that’s Nine Inch Nails!) t-shirt, were following the adventures of the last outpost of galactic accord.

The first breath I heard of Babylon 5 came from a former employer who was a huge science fiction fan. I mean, she collected Star Wars figures before ebay ever existed! She also had to hide the fact that she was a huge geek. I remember once, her speaking in whispers to a college of ours about the show and how the creator promised a five-year story arc, a virtual novel on television. If you remember the time when Babylon 5 was in its first run the television was owned by king Seinfeld, and rightfully so. The show had innovative comedy. It reinvented the sitcom the way Nirvana reinvented rock and roll. Seinfeld for all its greatness was not a science fiction show even if Jerry did have a fascination with Superman. When I heard that Babylon 5 had a long arc that spanned seasons and was not a reset show like Star Trek but a continuing storyline more like Star Wars, I was intrigued but not enough. I thought, that’s a great thing but it can’t happen.

How could a show have a five-year plan? Star Trek TOS (The Original Season) promised a five-year mission right up front in its prologue and you remember how that worked out. It seemed like a waste of an investment of my time since the show was bound to be cancelled. I mean the closest show on T.V. (Television) at the time with the hint of a story arc was the X-Files and those stand-alone episodes were painful to get through just to get to the ones dealing with the main storyline. I promptly forgot about my brief brush with Babylon 5.

Recently, I’ve been feeling a little nostalgic for the old sci-fi shows and find myself lingering longer in the TV series aisle at Best Buy looking at the economics of paying hundreds of dollars for a series I am only going to watch once. I always pick up the first season of B5 (That’s Babylon 5 for those of us in the know…) and then put it down. I had been a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer but I came in around season five or six so I missed a lot. I went back and bought the entire series from start to finish plus the earlier theatrical release staring the girl from Skating With Celebrities. I went out and spent too much money for every season as they came out and promptly caught up on the entire series. I loved every minute of it. Joss Wheaton is a genius. He took the B5 idea of a novel for television one step further. I dare anyone to find one episode that doesn’t advance the arc. I dare you. He crafted a brilliant story and kept me hooked from season to season. It was like the second coming.

My biggest gripe with ST (Star Trek) was that it was episodic. Very rarely did one episode affect the other. Yes, they had hints and some characters did things that came to fruition many episodes later like when Q blasted the Enterprise out to Borg space and then the Borg found them many episodes later. That was cool but it took way too long for that to come together. Personally I’d have preferred an entire season dealing just with the Borg war instead of just a few episodes (which were the pinnacle of that series as far as I’m concerned.)

After rediscovering Buffy and Angel with their overarching storylines, I remembered my old boss and her little series Babylon 5. I remembered on the periphery that the show actually made it to five seasons plus some made-for-TV movies. But there was still the high price per season. I couldn’t justify the cost. First it was Buffy, then Angel, and now B5. But what about Farscape? I never watched that series either. Or what about Stargate? Or the second and third season of 24 that took the continuing story to a whole new level?

Then, G-d invented Netflix and I subscribed.

I had been avoiding Netflix in much the same manner that I had avoided B5. I heard it was not worth the money, the distribution was a problem, etc… But after hearing that Netflix had a superior selection of disks that surpassed Blockbuster, I acquiesced. On their site I found not only B5 but all the other series I had been looking to catch up on, in addition to the films I always wanted to watch or re-watch. It was a virtual goldmine of couch potato goodness. I promptly signed on for the three-at-a-time service. My queue is over 200 strong and I have every episode of B5 lined up, raring to go.

After finishing disk three which is approximately 12 episodes from the first season, I’m hooked. Sure the production is cheap and the acting, overacted and the characters a little cardboard so far, there is a hint of greatness there. The characters are starting to break out with their own dimensions becoming apparent and the conflicts are growing more intense and personal. I realize that the first season had more independent episodes and I hope the special effects get a little better but I am definitely in for the long haul. I even began thinking about rearranging my queue so that I only get B5 disks continually until the last TV movie is delivered.

Then I can move on to Farscape.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Erosion News

A few exciting things have been happening to the book. First, the listing is now up on Amazon.com and you can search for the book under “Lon Cohen”. If you search for it by “Erosion” then you get a bunch geological books, which is definitely not the subject of my story. It’s also been listed in the Google book search. The entire text is available to be downloaded for a fee from Google or Lulu, in case you don’t want to buy the actual book. I’ve been putting the feelers out there for local bookshops to stock the book on consignment or let me do in store readings. I will see how that goes. Two very exciting events are ongoing. Currently my friend, Phoenix, is now reading the book and if he likes it he will be mentioning it on his podcast. He runs a great blog and podcast that everyone should be listening to. Also, I was contacted by a radio show on WBAI 99.5 FM in New York City called First Voices Indigenous Radio to have me send them a copy of the book. If they like it they want to interview me! Cool. That’s very exciting. I’ll be promoting the heck out of that if it happens. Keep looking here for the latest info.