Culture and Media Archive

Evening Walk Musical Interlude

Posted April 5, 2015 By Dave Thomer

Had a great time at Easter brunch with my family. There was a lot of bacon.

This evening I took a walk around the corner to get something for Pattie, so I took the opportunity to listen to Neil Finn’s “Flying in the Face of Love,” from his recent album Dizzy Heights. It’s nice to hear that man still has his fastball so far into his career. (Can I use a baseball analogy with a musician from New Zealand?) If this track doesn’t put some pep in your step, you probably shouldn’t take any musical recommendations from me.

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For Me, the Force Was with George

Posted May 4, 2014 By Dave Thomer

So here it is, May 4, Star Wars Day. And if you figured a day that combines celebrating Star Wars fandom with a pun would be right up my alley, you’ve stayed on target. My daughter and I are both wearing Star Wars T-shirts today, and later on we might watch one of the movies, or play the X-Wing Miniatures Game, or maybe a few rounds of Lego Star Wars on the Wii. One thing I won’t be doing, though, is getting hyped up for the start of production on Episode VII. Ever since George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012, my interest in the future of Star Wars has waned. It appears that as much as I have been a fan of Star Wars, I was more of a fan of George Lucas and what he accomplished with the franchise.

That’s not to say I’ve liked everything that’s come down the pike since 1977. I could go on at great lengths about the special editions, the flat acting that Lucas apparently asked for and received in the prequels, and the unconvincing Anakin/Padme romance. I think that he made some unfortunate decisions that hurt members of his audience, like the Neimoidian accents in Episode I that sounded way too much like Asian caricatures of the past or the sidelining of Padme in Episode III. But a lot of his choices I did like, and more than that I was happy with the fact that he had the opportunity to make them.

For me, the story of George Lucas and Star Wars is the story of someone who was stubborn enough to bet on himself time after time, and in the process did something incredible. Now, I admit that I picked up a lot of the history from official, Lucas-sanctioned sources, but I have read other sources as well and I haven’t seen anything that contradicts the overall story. Lucas used the money he had earned from American Graffiti to continue preproduction on Star Wars even while 20th Century Fox was delaying on signing the final contracts. With those delays and the success of Graffiti, Lucas could have negotiated a higher salary for himself. Instead, he negotiated for the sequel and merchandising rights. When Star Wars was a huge hit, he decided to finance the sequel himself rather than sell the rights back to Fox. The Empire Strikes Back and the four movies that followed were independent blockbuster tentpole films, a vategory that I think they have all to themselves.

And with the money that came from Star Wars, Lucas built a number of companies that helped to innovate the technical side of making movies and telling stories, such as Industrial Light and Magic, Skywalker Sound, and THX. Some of the things he launched didn’t become successful until after they left Lucas, such as Pixar and the EditDroid system. Some, like the LucasArts gaming company, flourished for a while and then faltered. But I think it’s an admirable track record, and one that I don’t think any of Lucas’ peers from the 1970s filmmaking scene have emulated. And that’s no knock on them – maybe Spielberg, Coppola, and Scorsese never wanted to be entrepreneurs. But I admire Lucas a lot for forging his own path, which he kept doing right up until he sold Lucasfilm. The last film he produced, Red Tails, was a film he spent two decades trying to make happen, until he decided to put up the money himself. That’s a special kind of stubborn right there.

So my admiration for Lucas mixed with my enjoyment of the Star Wars movies and universe, and each enhanced the other. As a speculative fiction fan, I’m surrounded by creations I love whose creators were ill-treated by the corporations that owned the work. While I know that Lucas was helped by a legion of artists whose work he then owned, he was the creator and the investor, and thus he avoided the fate of Siegel and Shuster or Jack Kirby or Bill Finger or even Gene Roddenberry or J. Michael Straczynski. He didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission to tell the story he wanted to tell the way he wanted to tell it. So even if I didn’t like the story all the time, I respected the storyteller.

Now, Episode VII and any future movies aren’t being made because George Lucas has a story he wants to tell. They’re being made because Disney wants to make a profit. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy plenty of stories that are told from that motivation. But the unique magic of Star Wars is gone now. If I want a Disney-owned media-spanning fictional universe, I already have Marvel. If I want J.J. Abrams to combine old and new actors to revive a space-based adventure series, I already have Star Trek. With George Lucas, Star Wars gave me something I couldn’t find anywhere else. Without him, it’s just another corporate entertainment franchise, and that’s not enough to thrill me.

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As intrigued as I am by the possibilities of crowdfunding, so far my only foray into the waters of Kickstarter and similar sites has been my support of Toad the Wet Sprocket’s new album. I’ve already discussed how much I’ve enjoyed New Constellation, but in November I had the chance to enjoy another fruit of that support. The band was playing at the Keswick Theatre right outside Philadelphia, and not only did I have tickets, but I had the chance to attend the soundcheck and meet the band. This would mark my fourth time seeing the band, but for my concertgoing companion it would be the first. My daughter had taken quite a liking to New Constellation and some of the band’s more famous hits, so this show would be her first pop music concert.

When we got to the theater, a few other Kickstarter supporters were waiting. Shortly after, we entered the theater. It was my first time at the Keswick, which is a very nice theater that feels very comfortable and sounds great. The band was playing “Rare Bird” from the new album, and in the theater it sounded better than I remembered from the studio version. When lead singer Glen Phillips asked if we wanted to hear anything in particular, another fan quickly called for “Throw It All Away,” from 1997’s Coil. I like that song well enough, but I kind of regretted that I didn’t have a lesser-known favorite of my own ready to throw out there.

After another song we moved into the theater lobby and got to talk to members of the band. They were very friendly and open. Phillips talked about his family and fondness for his hometown of Santa Barbara. It’s always good to be reminded that even musicians who have sold millions of records have lives to live when they walk off the stage. He and Alex chatted for a few minutes, and we also had a chance to talk to bassist Dean Dinning. I got to tell the story of how I became a fan of the band in the early ’90s, when the owner of the comic book store that I shopped at gave me the CD single for “Walk on the Ocean.” It was the B-side from that single, “All in All,” that really grabbed me. When I gave my own copy of the CD to Dinning to sign, he echoed my reaction to the song, saying that it definitely would have been a good choice to go on an album.

We left the theater to get some dinner, and when we returned we took our seats two rows back from the stage. When Toad opened up with “The Moment,” one of my favorite songs from the new album, Alex and I sang along. As great as the music was, the experience was even better because I could share it with my daughter. It also helped that she was really enjoying it, and not just consenting to be dragged to some Meaningful Father-Daughter Experience. On that score, by coincidence, Phillips used Skype to play a cover of Paul Simon’s “Born at the Right Time” for his daughter, who was celebrating her birthday. So there was definitely a theme to the evening.

Alex and I saw that other fans were noticing how well she knew the songs, especially the new ones. I think that when you’re a fan of something that’s been around for a while, it makes you feel good to see that people are still discovering and enjoying the thing that means so much to you. That’s particularly true when the zeitgeist seems like it may have moved on; I think that just as the band has been reinvigorated by recording new material, it’s nice for me to feel like I’m not only trying to preserve a moment from my teens in amber. If other fans feel similarly, I’m not surprised that they would smile when they see a younger fan picking up the torch.

Had I been picking the setlist, I don’t think I would have done a better job of choosing songs. (Maybe I would found a way to work “Fly from Heaven” from Dulcinea in there.) Phillips introduced one of my favorites, “Windmills,” by talking up drummer Randy Guss’ intro, which led Guss to cut said intro short and say, “I wish you hadn’t done that.” In my memory, Phillips and Dinning used this opportunity to start bantering about the literary symbolism of Guss’ multitude of drum solos, but that might have happened at a different point in the show. Either way, Phillips was in good form talking to the audience, including a quick recovery from accidentally saying “Pittsburgh” instead of “Philadelphia.” (To establish that he understood the difference, Phillips described cheesesteaks as “world-famous” while saying that Primanti Bros. were, well, we’ll just say less well-known.)

Right after “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted,” which Alex and I both enjoy a lot, Alex called out “Play ‘California Wasted!’” Even from our close seats, I doubt the band heard her, but nonetheless, Phillips promptly said something like, “And now, here’s ‘California Wasted.’” Not only was the band playing one of our favorite songs from the new album, my daughter had successfully called for a song on her very first attempt. I’ve been going to concerts for 20 years, and I don’t think I can remember that happening when the artist hadn’t specifically asked for requests.

After the show ended, Alex wanted to wait in the autograph line because I hadn’t been able to get guitarist Todd Nichols to sign my CD. As we moved past the band and told them how much we enjoyed the show, Dinning greeted Alex and said, “I saw you out there!” We told him about her successful call-out, which he seemed to enjoy. Then, with my autographs in hand, we left the theater.

We did get one photograph with the band, but my iPod camera made it look like it had been run through a couple of Photoshop filters. Then again, the last lines of “Walk on the Ocean,” which also closed out the concert, seem fitting:

Don’t even have pictures, just memories to hold
That grow sweeter each season, as we slowly grow old

Here’s to more music, and more memories, in the seasons to come.

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I Can Still See Where I Am – Dada at The Note

Posted January 2, 2014 By Dave Thomer

I remarked earlier in the year that four bands were really important to me in the early 90s as I graduated from high school and went off to college: R.E.M., Matthew Sweet (all right, three bands and a solo artist), Toad the Wet Sprocket, and dada. While I have managed to see the first three live numerous times, for various reasons the closest I got to dada was being able to catch a three-song set that they played at the Tower Records near my house, back when there was a Tower Records near my house. (Since they played “Surround,” one of my all-time favorite tracks, I considered myself lucky.) But when the band announced that they would be playing in West Chester on the day before my birthday as part of their tour to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their debut album Puzzle, I decided that I had to take the plunge and cross “See a full dada show live” off of my Lifetime To Do List.

So I figured out how to get from work out to West Chester via public transit and eventually found my way to The Note, a a bar with a stage and a decent amount of standing room as well as a balcony with couches and chairs. One virtue of not drinking is that I spent no time at the bar and was able to get right up the stage. From there, there was nothing to do but wait. The bar clearly knew its target audience – or at least it knew I was coming. Once upon a time, I would title whichever mixtape had my favorite songs Daves Rich Pageant; now I have a 25-song playlist on my iPod with the same name. Within half an hour of my arrival at The Note, the sound people had played three songs from Daves Rich Pageant among the mix of 90s alt-rock selections. I had come to this show in part because as a 17-year-old, I had been unable to. I was already starting to feel a little bit like the place had been waiting for me.

The opening artist, Anna Rose, was definitely talented, and her opening song “Behold a Pale Horse” still sticks in my memory. Lots of the audience was still trickling in or hanging out at the bar, but those in the audience who were listening seemed to like what they were hearing. At around 10, dada took the stage. I was standing pretty close to dead center so I had a great view of drummer Phil Leavitt as he began to play, followed by bassist Joie Calio and finally guitarist Michael Gurley. As their opening jam took shape, I was pretty sure that they were getting ready to open with “Posters,” but they weren’t in any rush to get there. And that was just fine. I can’t really describe the start of the show and do it justice, but I can share this YouTube video of the band doing a similar intro in Atlanta earlier in the tour:

I’ve said a lot of times that recorded music is one of the greatest cultural bargains we have. I could buy the tracks that were played that night for around the same price as my ticket, and listen to them over and over again. In fact, I have. But to be a few feet away from the band as they made the music happen is an entirely different experience, and before Gurley sang a word I was already chalking that bus ride up as time well spent. I wish I could describe the joy I felt when Gurley, and the crowd, sang the opening line to “Posters.” I’ve said before that being a fan of something forms a bond with other fans; at that moment I was at home in a room full of strangers.

The band segued from “Posters” right into “Dim,” the single that got me to purchase Puzzle in the first place. As they reached the end, I thought to myself that if for some reason the band had to walk off the stage at that moment, I would still be a a satisfied ticket-buyer. Fortunately, they played until around midnight, which surprised me a little bit. When I had checked the setlists for the band’s other shows, they had run to around 14 or 15 songs. What I hadn’t taken into account is how much the band was willing to depart from the studio versions of songs in the course of the live performance. Not only did they insert interludes into several songs, but when Gurley wanted to adjust his pedals or check on something in the sound mix, Leavitt and Calio would just start to jam, and Gurley would join in as he completed his fine-tuning.

When I was younger, I didn’t give nearly enough credit to the actual playing of music. In my head, the musicians had to have the skill to follow the songwriter’s script, but I did not appreciate that the act of interpreting a song and bringing it to life in the moment is a fantastically creative act in and of itself. Fortunately, I had already become wiser in my old age, but if I hadn’t, watching dada play would have kicked the light bulb on for sure. It doesn’t hurt that the members of dada write great songs, of course, but even when they’re doing other material, such as the cover of “California Dreamin'” that they have performed a lot on this tour, you know that they’re a great band.

At a couple of points during the show, Leavitt thanked the audience for the years we have spent following the band. For myself, I can certainly say it’s been my pleasure. And hopefully I won’t wait 20 years before I see them again.

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So in the past couple of weeks, my daughter has discovered Horrible Histories, a British television program based on a series of books. It’s basically a sketch comedy program that takes historical fact as its source material. As a result, my daughter has a far better understanding of the Tudor and Stuart dynasties than I do. My wife has the theme song to one recurring bit, called “Stupid Deaths,” stuck in her head.

My daughter has been watching these episodes on YouTube because they are region-blocked at the BBC’s website. It’s not the first time I have thought to myself that I would gladly write the BBC a check for the television license fee if I could have access to all the stuff they put up for streaming.

It also has me thinking about how effective comedy can be as a teaching device, at least as an entry point. You probably need to have at least some interest in the topic in order to really get the humor, but if something makes you laugh then maybe that will spark your interest in going further. There are jokes or bits of physical comedy that I’ve done in class that students talk to me about later – this year’s seniors have made several references to the song-and-dance I did to They Might Be Giants’ version of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” when they were 9th graders. I just wish I were a better, and funnier, writer. Or that I had a staff to help me come up with 180 bits a year. 🙂

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I’m glad I’m not a movie critic, because I find it takes me a considerable amount of time to put my thoughts together about a movie past my initial impression. But the first day of Comic-Con International seems as good a time as any to put down some of my thoughts on Man of Steel, the latest attempt to reboot Superman as a film character, and likely the DC Universe as a setting for a film series.

Overall I enjoyed the film. The movie looked great, the cast was very good, and the script did a good job of building the setting and exploring the characters. I am glad that the film was willing to take liberties with some parts of the established Superman tradition, because what’s the point of doing the story in a way that it’s already been done? I wish that the film had found a way to work a little more joy into its tone. In the end, I will happily buy a ticket to the sequel. Now, on to specifics, and if you’re waiting to watch it at home, spoilers follow.

The tone

Man of Steel definitely shares a lot of DNA with Christopher Nolan and David Goyer’s work on the Christian Bale Batman trilogy. The hero is troubled and isolated. Every effort is made to ground the setting and events in a sense of realism. Even triumphs come with an emotional cost. Indeed, a friend reminded me that the Batman movies (at least the first two) probably had more light or humorous moments than this movie. This approach clearly connected with audiences in the Batman films, and it seems like audiences responded to it in this movie as well. But I would have liked to see the tension and melancholy interspersed with more joy and hope and inspiration. I enjoyed this movie, but I did not have much fun watching it. And I think a comic book superhero movie is a great place to have some fun.

I’m going to make two obvious comparisons here just to try to explain myself a little better. The first is to the Marvel films. Every one of the Marvel Studios films I have seen works in some humorous banter and shows the characters exhilarated by their powers and what they can do. Yeah, there are bad guys to be stopped and people to be saved, but the movies recognize that being able to fly like Iron Man or call down lightning like Thor is pretty cool. They find humor within the tension and the drama, and I don’t think that devalues the stakes of their stories. In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark has some pretty serious emotional problems to work through, but part of him working through it is cracking a joke. I cared about the character but I did not get depressed watching him.

The other comparison is with the original Richard Donner-directed Christopher Reeve Superman movie. I have a copy of the poster for the movie on the wall behind me, with the S-shield logo and the tagline “You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly.” Think about how much of that movie was based just on Superman being able to fly. Entire sequences, like the Can You Read My Mind encounter between Lois and Superman, were built around flying. In Man of Steel, there is a very brief sequences that hints at the joy of flying, but that’s quickly eclipsed by the need to fight a Kryptonian invasion. Not only that, the movie wants to emphasize the speed and power of the Kryptonians, so most of the flying a CG blur. There’s no leisurely flight into space while Reeve or Brandon Routh smile at the camera and turn; we just see Henry Cavill zip past on his way back to deal with pressing matters. I really would have liked to see that smile.

The stakes

I understand the rush, though. Matters are pretty pressing indeed. Even though Clark has been using his powers to save people for years, he’s pretty much stuck to natural disasters before he puts on the blue suit. He doesn’t get a chance to warm up against some common criminals or even a regular army. He has to go straight into battle with an army of Kryptonians in order to save the entire planet. Even though this is definitely an introduction movie, and there are plenty of flashbacks to Clark’s youth, it didn’t feel like an “origin” movie because the story was so much bigger. I wonder if the filmmakers will try to go smaller in the sequel, and create more character-based conflict, or if they will feel they need to up the scale. I almost feel like fighting Lex Luthor in the next movie would be a letdown, and wonder if we would see something more like Brainiac or even Darkseid. That would definitely set Superman apart from Batman, Iron Man, and a lot of the other superhero movies. This is the big guy, the guy who doesn’t need a crossover teamup to take on an alien invasion of New York, I mean Metropolis.

The universe

In fact, unlike Iron Man or Green Lantern, DC’s last attempt to launch a cinematic universe, Man of Steel did not feel like it was explicitly trying to set up a universe of films. Iron Man featured SHIELD and then introduced Nick Fury and the Avengers in its post-credits tag. Green Lantern included the character of Amanda Waller and used the post-credits tag to tease the creation of the Sinestro Corps, which is largely a Green Lantern concept but tied into some of the company’s crossover events. Man Of Steel had no post-credits tag, and while concepts like WayneTech and LexCorp apparently worked their way into the backgrounds, I did not get the sense that this movie was trying so hard to set up spinoffs or connections.

That’s not to say that the potential isn’t there. Superman was the original superhero and for a long time he was first hero in the fictional DC Universe as well. So it would be totally consistent to introduce other heroes into the world established by Man of Steel. And given that the movie introduced the idea of Kryptonian colonies and scout ships that remain dormant for centuries, there is plenty of opportunity to introduce other Kryptonian characters. If Man of Steel is a launching point for a series of connected films, I have two hopes. One is that now that the fairly-realistic setting has been introduced, future films can lighten up a little bit. I actually have some faith in this regard based on the little tag near the end of the film where Superman tells the general not to snoop around to figure out where he hangs up his cape. My other hope is that subsequent movies show as much willingness as this one did to reinterpret and reconstruct elements of the characters.

The changes

Some of the tweaks to Superman tradition are relatively minor, like Laurence Fishburne playing Perry White or the presence of a Daily Planet intern named Jenny but no photographer named Jimmy. Others are substantial enough to mark Man of Steel as its own version of the Superman story, even as it takes significant elements from established stories. The decaying Kryptonian culture where children were genetically engineered rather than biologically conceived reminded me a lot of John Byrne’s 1986 reboot, which was also titled Man of Steel. Indeed, the focus on Clark Kent as the primary character, who has to assume the identities of Kal-El and Superman, has appeared in many versions of the story over the last 25-plus years. (I’ve already written about how much I approve of that vision.)

But it is definitely a big deal that Lois Lane figured out who Clark Kent was before Clark Kent ever became Superman, let alone showed up at the Daily Planet wearing glasses. I could not be happier about that change. Trying to keep up the secret identity schtick tends to make Lois look clueless or Clark look like a jerk or both. Making Lois a partner in the secret gives her more ways to participate in the story rather than being the person Clark has to rescue and/or sneak away from.

It’s also a big deal that Jonathan Kent essentially commits suicide rather than risk Clark’s secret getting out too soon. I think I like the concept that both of Clark’s fathers sacrificed their lives in their efforts to protect him, and that their examples may have inspired Clark’s willingness to sacrifice himself to save Earth from Zod. I don’t know if I completely buy the way it was staged; I feel like Clark should have been able to do something while staying out of sight. But then, coming up with situations that Superman’s powers can’t solve is one of the biggest challenge of telling Superman stories. Overall, I liked the way the Jonathan Kent scenes explored the tension between the good that Clark could do for the world and the radical shifts that would come for both Clark and the world if he did.

Of course there is one more significant “change” that has occurred in the comics before.

The execution

I’ve read that the final conclusion of Superman’s fight with Zod came late in the filmmaking process. Originally Zod was supposed to get absorbed back into the Phantom Zone with the rest of the Kryptonians, but director Zack Snyder felt they needed a more dramatic resolution. So Snyder and Goyer had Superman break Zod’s neck in order to save a family that Zod was threatening with his heat vision. I feel like there’s a whole other essay and conversation about the “heroes don’t kill” ethic and maybe I should write that this week. The short version is that I am OK with the choice. I think that the filmmakers had done enough to establish that Clark was trying to save as many people as he could even though, frankly, he was out of his league. I think that in a world where our stories have developed to the point that villains are routinely threatening the deaths of millions of people, I do not find it dramatically satisfying to have heroes adopt the exact ethics of stories from an earlier time. I understand why some viewers disagree with me; they don’t feel like Clark’s heroism was sufficiently established, or that the necessity of the killing was earned. I can see where they’re coming from, but all I can say is it worked for me.

Of course, it may have been possible to avoid the whole no-win scenario, as the folks at How It Should Have Ended argue:

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Gazing at Toad the Wet Sprocket’s New Constellation

Posted July 2, 2013 By Dave Thomer

In my memory of 1993, four albums stand out as the essential soundtrack: R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, dada’s Puzzle, and Toad the Wet Sprocket’s fear. (Anti-capitalization was apparently a big thing in 1993.) I would play my cassettes of those albums over and over on my Walkman as I rode the bus or walked to school; the CDs had a priority spot on my CD tower. If you could find the DNA of my musical taste, you’d probably see those four albums smack at the center. I followed all four artists through the ’90s and into the 21st century.

Well, in Toad’s case, I had to follow the band’s component parts into the 21st century, because the band broke up in 1998. Lead singer Glen Phillips started a solo career and did a number of side projects with other musicians. (Way back in the early days of Not News, we even had a thread on our forum about his work.) Guitarist/singer Todd Nichols started a new band called Lapdog, at first with Toad bassist Dean Dinning and then with Toad drummer Randy Guss. The four have reunited for concerts numerous times over the years, and released a compilation of re-recorded versions of a lot of their most popular songs. But there hasn’t been a full new album from the band since 1997’s Coil.

Until now.

The group decided that they were ready to write and record new material together, so they started putting together an album. They also decided they wanted to stay independent, so they would try to use Kickstarter to raise money to promote the album that they planned to release in September.

They started the campaign in early June, and backers over a certain level were promised an early download of the album when the Kickstarter met its goal, which the band expected/hoped would happen in early August.

Instead, it happened in roughly 36 hours.

So it took a couple of weeks before the band could get everything together and send out codes to download New Constellation, but in the end they delivered. And in the week that I’ve been listening to the album, I can definitely say that I got my money’s worth. I had already been streaming the title track and lead single for a few weeks, in part because its energy and exuberance were very helpful in getting me through to the end of the school year. “Get What You Want” and “Is There Anyone Out There” have a similar up-tempo catchy energy.

Many of the songs are slower, lending support for the introspection and contemplation of the lyrics. It seems like a recurring thread in Toad songs is our inability to get out of our own way. That’s a feeling I can definitely relate to, so when those lyrics get matched up with the right piece of music, it’s a beautiful thing. “The Moment” is a great example of this; I really appreciate Phillips’ reminder that “for every door you don’t kick open there’s a million more to try,” even if I sometimes mourn the truth that “for every path you follow there’s another left behind.”

There’s still time to support the Kickstarter and get the album early, along with four bonus tracks. These are definitely not throwaways; the tracks are just as good as the 11 that made the “regular” album. I particularly like “I’m Not Waiting,” with lead vocals from Nichols. And back to that theme of getting out of your own way, the deluxe edition closes out with Toad’s version of “Finally Fading,” a song from Phillips’ solo album Winter Pays for Summer. When the chorus hits, and Nichols’ and Phillips’ guitars are playing off each other as Dinning, Nichols, and Phillips sing that “the voices trailing doubt are finally fading out,” I can’t help but cheer.

Welcome back, Toad. Hope you stick around for a while.

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Into Gray: The Moral Murk of the New Star Trek Movie

Posted May 22, 2013 By Dave Thomer

So over the weekend I got a chance to see Star Trek Into Darkness. I don’t want to do a full-fledged review here, but I will say that I felt about this movie much the same as I did about the first rebooted Trek movie in 2009: It looks great, the writers and actors really seem to get the core of the original characters, and a lot of the dialogue and character interactions are sharp. But the plot and the ideas don’t hold together very well, and as soon as you start asking yourself why A happened, you’re very quickly questioning B, C, and D. Now, a movie isn’t a logical argument, so I had a good time watching each movie despite whatever holes I found in the plotting.

But one thing has been bugging me about the new movie. I can’t figure out the basis for the moral or ethical conflicts that underpin a lot of the character conflicts. So I’m going to talk some of them out here. Needless to say, spoilers ahead.

Image Source: www.startrekmovie.com All Rights Reserved by ParamountThe movie opens with the Enterprise on a mission to survey a strange new world. Starfleet’s Prime Directive demands that the crew do nothing to interfere with the planet’s pre-spaceflight civilization, but Spock has figured out that a set of volcanic eruptions is about to wipe out said civilization. So he and Kirk put a complicated plan into motion to lure all of the natives away from the volcano while Spock sneaks in and detonates a device that will render the volcano inert. The plan mostly succeeds, but Spock winds up trapped in the volcano. Due to [insert technobabble here] the only way that the Enterprise can use the transporter to get Spock out of the volcano is to come out of their hiding spot and be seen by the natives. Spock tells Kirk to stay put and follow the Prime Directive, even at the cost of his life. Kirk refuses, saves Spock, and lies about it in his captain’s log. When Spock makes an honest report, Kirk gets demoted and Admiral Pike delivers a lecture about how Kirk is arrogant and unprepared for the captain’s chair.

What I can’t figure out is, where is the grave error in judgment? Was it in trying to save the people in the first place? Are we really supposed to accept the idea that it’s better to let an entire civilization be wiped out rather than take responsibility for interfering with it? Are we supposed to think that Kirk is a hothead because he cares about saving innocent lives?

OK, so maybe the initial interference is OK because they’re going to keep it a secret. But then things go wrong and Kirk has to choose: let his friend and crew member die, or let his ship be seen by people who aren’t yet aware that they’re alone in the universe. Now, Spock thinks he should go for the first option. He’s going to follow the rules, no matter the cost. But Kirk goes for the second option, and then lies about it. Now, he did break a rule, so I guess that’s the sign that he’s not ready to be a captain. And there’s a part of me that sympathizes with that to a point – society has rules for a reason, and if everyone decided to ignore them whenever they felt like it there would be trouble. But sometimes rules come into conflict, and you have to decide your priorities. I know that in the world of Star Trek, the idea of noninterference is called the Prime Directive for a reason. But it seems to me like saving everybody’s life deserves to be a higher priority.

Then again, other characters in the film don’t seem to share that view. The plot moves along with a Starfleet officer accepts an offer from Khan to cure his daughter of a fatal condition. In exchange, the officer mu knowingly set off an explosive that destroys a Starfleet facility. I say knowingly because the officer sends his superior a message right before he causes the explosion explaining his actions. I take it we’re supposed to feel bad for the officer and the impossible situation he was in, and at least understand what he did even if we don’t approve. But the guy knowingly killed dozens of people, if not more, to save his daughter. He did this even after he already had the cure. He did this without trying to find some way to tip people off, or give someone an opportunity to stop him, or even warn someone of what was happening. I just can’t get myself into the head of someone who would say, “Well, this guy just saved my daughter’s life. Guess I’ll go murder a bunch of my coworkers now because he asked me to!”

This attack, and a subsequent attack in which Khan is somehow able to get up close and personal to a meeting of Starfleet’s top officers, provide Kirk an opportunity to get back his command and bring Khan to justice. But through [insert technobabble here], Khan has hidden himself away on the Klingon homeworld. So gung-ho Admiral Marcus tells Kirk to go fire a bunch of super-duper proton torpedoes at the Klingon homeworld and kill Khan. Kirk is willing to do it, but Spock and others urge him not to. So he changes his mind and instead orders a landing party to go to the planet and get Khan themselves.

OK. There seem to be two main objections to firing the torpedoes. The first is that killing Khan without a trial violates his rights. I get that, and I can appreciate that the capture option eliminates that problem. But the other objection is that firing the torpedo is an aggressive action that might lead to war with the Klingons. So instead . . . Kirk violates the treaty with the Klingons, invades their territory, and kills many of them (with Khan’s help). How was that a better option? It seems like the only way that could work better is if Kirk’s team had captured Khan without being detected. And that’s not only a long shot, it implies that the ethical problem isn’t the action of violating the treaty, but instead is the action of getting caught. (Which would seem to justify Kirk’s attempt to hide his violation of the Prime Directive at the start of the film, by the way.)

I could handle some of my confusion here if I felt like it were part of a worthwhile character arc, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what Kirk has learned or what makes him a better captain at the end of the film than at the start. He’s still willing to break rules. He’s still willing to trust his gut instincts. He’s still fiercely loyal to his crew and friends. He’s humbled by circumstances when he meets some enemies he can’t outshoot or outthink, but I don’t see where his attitude changes. So the lack of a clear ethical position seems to contribute to the lack of a clear story, and that’s unfortunate.

Now, it’s entirely possible that I am overthinking this. It would not be the first time. So if you have a take on the movie, especially the ethical problems its characters face, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Off the Island

Posted April 1, 2013 By Dave Thomer

From the continuing exploits of the board game playing Thomer-Gillett family:

Today we tried out Forbidden Island, another cooperative game. I first heard about the game after the Tabletop episode Pandemic. I like cooperative games where the the players are working together to achieve a common goal, but trying to stop the global spread of disease seemed like too much of a downer of a theme. Wil Wheaton suggested on his blog that Forbidden Island had similar mechanics but might be less grim. After my daughter had a good experience playing the game on Tabletop Day on Saturday, we decided to give it a try.

Considering that the object of the game is to escape from an island before it sinks, I’m not sure it’s substantially less grim than stopping a global disease, but it was fun. We managed to win the game pretty much on our last turn. So we cued up the Raiders March on Pattie’s iPhone as we made the last move to escape the island. It’s definitely a worthwhile game if you’re looking for something that a group can play together.

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Shifting Sagas

Posted March 30, 2013 By Dave Thomer

I’ve loved epic stories for as long as I can remember. As a first grader I would race home from school so that I could get to the TV in time for Star Blazers, an English version of a Japanese series that featured a desperate starship crew trying to find a way to rescue Earth from irradiated extinction. I spent hours playing with Star Wars toys even before I got the chance to see the movies. I collected monthly superhero comics for almost twenty years. As television offered more intricate serializations, I threw myself into series like Babylon 5 and Farscape. The grander and more elaborate the storytelling, the happier I tended to be.

I’m writing this paragraph in my local Barnes and Noble, where the amount of epic fiction available boggles my mind. There are shelves full of graphic novels; the children’s book section is teeming with adventure and fantasy series. There are undiscovered movies and TV series over in the DVD section that I will probably never get to because I can’t even keep up with all the old series that I can watch on Netflix, let alone the new series that the service is ramping up. I would have gone out my mind if something like this had existed when I was in grade school.

And yet over the last five or ten years, I’ve mostly been filling my appetite for epic narrative in an entirely different medium. I dropped out of Lost and Battlestar Galactica midway through each series and have never found the motivation to go back, even though both are easily available through Netflix. I still buy several trade paperbacks every year, but it’s not the regular ongoing habit that it was for so many years. I devoured all seven Harry Potter books in about a month several years ago, and that’s been about it for my fiction reading. These days, when I want to visit another world, I tend to turn to my computer and play a game.

The use of narrative in computer games has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, and I’ve noticed a lot of the writers I followed in TV or comics also do work on video games. There’s long been some aspect of a story in video games – giving the player a motivation for what they’re trying to accomplish in the game creates more engagement than just saying, “We want to test your eye-hand coordination” or “Here’s a bunch of logic puzzles.” But I’m not going to say I was ever that absorbed in whether or not Mario would find the princess, so “Sorry Mario, the princess is in another castle” never hit me the way a really good cliffhanger would. But I feel like the writing and the story of the game world is becoming more important, not just in the amount of tie-in fiction available but in the game itself.

Now to some extent, story is still a dressing on a game that doesn’t really require it. I played LucasArts’s TIE Fighter a lot when I was in college, and there was a single player campaign that tried to put each mission in the context of the player’s growth as a pilot and the Empire’s continued effort to thwart the Rebel Alliance. But you could easily just play the missions without paying any attention to the briefing. When I play Rock Band with my daughter, there’s a veneer of a story about our band playing bigger venues and getting more resources, but you can just as easily just play a random bunch of songs. So as much as I enjoy playing those games, they don’t have the same kind of engagement that a story does.

In other games, there’s no story provided, but the game provides the raw material for me to come up with one in my head. I have spent a lot of time on the Civilization series of strategy/simulation games over the last few years. Each game can form the basis of a story of an empire’s rise (and often fall), but there are no real characters in the game – even the avatars of leaders that the game uses don’t seem to have any real psychological life, and you never have to confront the damage that constant warfare or technological change wreak on the citizens of your towns – those things are represented as numbers and game elements, but there’s nothing personal about them. And yet, I enjoy playing these games because each game is unique, and my curiosity about what happens next is increased because nobody knows what will happen next, and my decisions in the game will help affect the outcome. I am not just an observer, but I am also a participant in a way that I can not be when I watch Babylon 5 or Star Wars, even if the latter give me a richer character experience.

Beyond sim games, there’s a growing genre that tries to combine active participation with character development and emotional engagement. For the last six years I have been a tremendous fan of the games produced by a studio called BioWare. The studio is famous for its version of computer role playing games. I tried a few example of the genre back in the 90s, but I never really got into them because the games I tried focused more on the stat-building part of role playing, and I couldn’t get engaged in the fights I was getting into. BioWare put an emphasis on character and story into its games, surrounding my player character with a group of companions who had their own agendas and who reacted to my choices in the game.

It’s amazing to me how well this worked. My first BioWare game was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which I’ve talked about on the site before. I loved progressing my character and his or her relationships with the companions. The combat parts of the game almost became an afterthought – I enjoyed them well enough, but they were something I did in order to get to the next conversation. Replaying the game was similar to rewatching or rereading my favorite stories, with the added benefit that I could change the outcome if I wanted. And because I had to make those choices, I thought a lot about the characters and what they wanted, and whether they were justified in their actions. Knights of the Old Republic, in particular, explored some of the questions of identity and agency that I’ve enjoyed thinking about in science fiction movies and TV shows. So I was getting a lot of similar narrative stimulation, with the added bonus of being a participant and not an observer. It’s that double-feature that keeps pulling me to the PC instead of the TV.

Since Knights of the Old Republic I have played and replayed a lot of BioWare games, along with similar games from other developers. In particular, BioWare’s Mass Effect series has been at the center of my fandom for the last five years. Mass Effect took its interactive narrative to a whole new level. Across three games, released for the PC between 2008 and 2012, the player controls Commander Shepard as he explores the galaxy and first discovers, then tries to fight, an ancient threat to interstellar civilization. Choices from the first game carry through the first and second, changing the characters that you meet and the opportunities your character has. By the third game, conflicts that date back centuries are brought to a head and Nothing Is the Same Anymore – and in fact, nothing might be the same in my game as in your game, because of the different choices we made. The conversations the characters have between missions make them feel as real as characters in TV and movies, and their triumphs and failures resonate. It’s an amazing accomplishment that I will probably want to talk about in its own post. But the Mass Effect story has absorbed me just as much as Star Wars and B5 have over the years.

Now, don’t get me wrong – this is still a developing storytelling medium. The technical challenges of branching storylines offer a lot of potential for the control that they give to the player to shape the story, but they also impose limitations. You can go to YouTube and watch playthroughs of Mass Effect and other story-driven games, but if you do, I don’t think you’re going to find them on par with the latest Pixar film in terms of character animation or with a TV series like Battlestar Galactica in terms of dialogue and character development. Right now, the personal engagement and control are helping to make up for the shortcomings in those areas. Over the next decade or two, I will be fascinated to see if technological growth and years of practice are able to bring the best of all worlds together.

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