Thursday, December 26, 2013

Farscape: DNA Mad Scientist

My Farscape rewatch continues with "DNA Mad Scientist." And holy crap cakes, is this an insane episode. I mean, "PK Tech Girl" was my first exposure to Farscape and that was pretty damn hallucinatory-trippy-bizarre. I can only imagine what someone would think if they happened upon this episode with no prior warning!

Moya's crew arrives at the laboratory of a famed scientist called NamTar, who has amassed the largest cross-referenced DNA database in the known universe. So large, in fact, that he can pinpoint the system of origin of any species in the galaxy if he has a sufficient DNA sample. Since the crew is lost in the Uncharted Territories with no idea how to get back to their respective homes, they jump at the chance to obtain star maps from NamTar--even though the DNA extraction process involves a horrific needle in the eye. Yikes! Aeryn is the only crewmember who refuses to participate, since she is a Peacekeeper and can never return "home" without being executed as a traitor. NamTar announces he's located the home systems for every crew member... except for Crichton, of course. Earth remains distant and unknown. But NamTar demands a steep price--an arm of Pilot, since that species is rare and valuable to the scientist. What's worse is that Zhaan, D'Argo and Rygel go behind Crichton's and Aeryn's backs and assault Pilot, with D'Argo slicing off Pilot's arm with his Qualta blade. This naturally sets off some serious conflict amongst the crew. Crichton, as desperate as he is to get home, takes the others to task for their ruthlessness. While the arguments rage, Aeryn returns to NamTar, asking the scientist to find her a Sebacean colony far from Peacekeeper space, so she might live out her life among her own species. Instead of taking a sample of her DNA, however, NamTar injects her with Pilot DNA, which spreads like a virus and begins to transform Aeryn into a grotesque chimera.

Crichton takes Aeryn back to NamTar hoping to force the scientist to cure her, but the mad scientist proves immune to blaster fire--he simply regenerates the damage--slaps Crichton around and claims Aeryn as a lab specimen. NamTar wants to graft Pilot's vast multitasking capabilities to his genome, but his efforts thus far have failed and so he is using Aeryn as a bridge. Crichton learns from Kornata--NamTar's much-abused lab assistant--that NamTar himself started out as a simple lab rat, that Kornata herself was the lead researcher at the lab. As her team experimented with various genetic techniques, NamTar gained intelligence and began "improving" himself, unknown to anyone else, until he was able to take over. The maps home NamTar provided Moya's crew in the form of a crystal is actually a double-cross, meant to erase Moya's memory once downloaded, leaving the Leviathan lost in space. Crichton destroys the crystal just in time, Kornata develops an antidote for Aeryn on Moya, and also a drug to strip the grafted DNA from NamTar's genome. Crichton then confronts NamTar, who shows him Aeryn, almost completely transformed. NamTar then delivers a soliloquy about all creatures striving toward perfection, comments which remind Crichton very much of Hitler, or maybe Josef Mengele. Kornata surprises NamTar, injecting him with the reversion drug, and Crichton injects Aeryn with the antidote to return her to normal. NamTar is reduced to a rat-like Muppet that looks suspiciously like Salacious Crumb from Return of the Jedi. The ordeal leaves everyone shaken, Aeryn most of all, and trust amongst Moya's crew is at the lowest point it's been since the pilot episode.

Commentary: This is a cold-hearted episode. Up until this point, the disparate, occasionally antagonistic crew had been growing closer and opening up to each other. In fact, Moya's crew was in danger of marching happily into a Kumbaya, everyone-loves-each-other dynamic until this episode, which pulls the rug out from underneath the viewer's expectations. Zhaan, the peaceful, meditative Mr. Spock analog, suddenly became a ruthless enabler when her interests were at stake, fallout from her "dark" reversion in the battle against Maldis the previous episode. This episode showed that events in Farscape had consequences and the crew carried a lot of baggage along with them. I appreciated that. One of my big beefs with Star Trek: Voyager was that there seemed to be no consequences, and that the Maquis and Starfleet officers, who were ferocious adversaries, quickly fell into a trusting, disciplined relationship with each other. It seemed like every other episode a shuttle craft got blown up, yet nobody worried about replacing it--by the next week they'd replicated another, ready to be blown up whenever the script called for false drama. For a small starship cut off from all support and succor, this rang very, very hollow for me. Farscape never fell into this trap. Hell, there are episodes where the crew is desperate and on the verge of starvation. I'd have liked to see that on Voyager.

Also, lest I forget, the NamTar design is over the top. Crazy. Wild. The head is insanely articulated, but what really sells the alienness to me is the backward-facing knees and the stilted way he walks. A straightforward, practical effect, sure, but one rarely seen on SF television. It was much appreciated by me.

Crichton Quote of the Episode:: "Well, gotta give me a clue here, Aeryn. Is this something new? Or is this just your usual PMS, Peacekeeper military sh--"

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A very Picacio Christmas

Looks like Santa Claus paid an early visit to the Blaschke household. Although, to be fair, it wasn't the Jolly Old Elf himself, but rather the helper elves of the U.S. Postal Service that delivered my 2014 John Picacio Art Calendar along with various other Kickstarter goodies. You know what folks? Those oversized Loteria cards are even more gorgeous in person than online, and that's saying a lot. And the sketchbook... oh my. It's okay to be jealous. :-)

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Monday, December 23, 2013

Farscape: That Old Black Magic

My Farscape rewatch continues with "That Old Black Magic." I could've sworn I already wrote this up and posted it, but I can't find it anywhere. Bizarre.

While visiting a commerce planet, Crichton is lured into a trap by a jester-looking fellow who knows Crichton is from Earth and promises to help him return home. D'Argo and Aeryn find Crichton's body crumpled and unconscious in an alley--In reality, the being is Maldis, a kind of psychic vampire who feeds off hatred, anger and conflict. Crichton's spirit has been transported to an extradimensional labyrinth ruled by Maldis. Meanwhile, across the Uncharted Territories, Commander Crais, the maddened Peacekeeper who is pursuing Crichton for the death of his brother, receives a communication from Peacekeeper High Command, ordering him to break off pursuit of the fugitives and return to Peacekeeper space. Crais discusses the orders with his second-in-command, then retires to contemplate them. At this point, Maldis transports Crais to the same labyrinth as Crichton, forcing the two into conflict. To stoke the anger, Maldis pulls painful memories from Crais' mind--the death of his brother, their conscription by Peacekeeper command--all to undermine Crichton's desperate attempts to reason with Crais.

Back in the physical world, Zhaan learns from a local priest figure, Liko, that Maldis arrived some time before, killed half the planet's population and enslaved the rest. Liko's spiritual powers are too weak to defeat Maldis, but Zhaan, being a Delvian priestess, might be able to with Liko's guidance. The trouble is, when they attack Zhaan has to do so with intent to harm, which seemingly goes against her nature. Zhaan reveals that she has a violent history, which she's spent years trying to subdue and suppress within her spirit--but to save Crichton she is willing to unleash it. Crichton figures out Maldis feeds on conflict, so avoids Crais entirely. Maldis, frustrated and running low on energy, makes Crichton an offer: If he kills Crais so Maldis can feed, he'll then return Crichton to his friends. Crichton, worn down by running, agrees. He fights Crais, but just as he's about to kill his nemesis, Maldis transports Crais back to his Peacekeeper warship. The goal, Maldis explains, was to re-ignite Crais' burning hatred of Crichton so much that he'd bring the Command Carrier to the commerce planet, whereupon Maldis could take it over and then roam throughout the galaxy, wreaking havoc and feeding off the results. Maldis then moves in to kill and consume Crichton, but is surprised by Zhaan, who abruptly enters Maldis' spiritual labyrinth. Zhaan tells Crichton she's used her abilities to make Maldis temporarily tangible. Crichton doesn't need to be told twice, punching Maldis and reducing him to dust. Afterwards, Aeryn attempts to thank Zhaan by telling her she is much more of a warrior than Aeryn ever thought. D'Argo quietly informs Aeryn that her comment is quite possibly the greatest insult she could've inflicted on a Delvian priestess devoted to peace. Zhaan confesses to Crichton that she doesn't think she can suppress her savage side again.

Back on the Command Carrier, Crais asks his second-in-command if there's been any further communications from Peacekeeper High Command. When she says no, he kills her. She was the only other person to know of his earlier orders, and with her dead, he is free to redouble his pursuit of Crichton without anyone in his crew questioning him.

Commentary: Crais is back. Having seen the entire series, and the big role Crais played throughout, it's more than a little surprising to realize this is the first time Crais has appeared since the pilot episode. This was a deliberate strategy by the show runners, who wanted to prevent Farscape from becoming The Fugitive in space. That's kind of funny, really, when you consider that the series title was originally Space Chase. Crais shows himself to be the heartless bastard we all know him to be. When Crichton explains beyond a reasonable doubt that the death of Crais' brother was an unintended accident, Crais simply responds, "I don't care." Obviously, the re-introduction of Crais prods the series back toward the over-arching season narrative.

The episode also does some heavy-lifting to differentiate the characters from their Star Trek analogs. D'Argo, the Luxan warrior, is naturally equated to a Klingon (and more specifically, Worf from TNG) and Zhaan, the Zen-like Delvian priestess, is easily equated with the logical Vulcan, Mr. Spock. The revelation of her savage background reenforces that comparison, as Spock constantly works to keep his emotions in check (and "Amok Time" shows his savage background), but from here on out, Zhaan proves to be more unpredictable, dangerous and selfish than Spock ever was. That's an interesting development that goes against the expected character trajectory.

Crichton Quote of the Episode:: "It's not Kansas, and you're way too homely to be Auntie Em. Come here, Toto."

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Friday, December 20, 2013

Friday Night Videos

If Christmas is just around the corner, then it's time to play the best rock & roll Christmas song ever. Yes, you know it can only be the Kinks with "Father Christmas!"

Previously on Friday Night Videos... MST3K.

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Friday, December 13, 2013

Friday Night Videos

So, the Christmas holidays are upon us, and I have done nothing to acknowledge this fact. Lest I be accused by Sarah Palin or Ted Cruz of perpetuating the "War on Christmas," I feel compelled to observe the season in this week's installment of Friday Night Videos with a classic, time-honored carol. Here is the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000 with a heartfelt rendition of "Let's Have a Patrick Swayze Christmas."

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Artists United Against Apartheid.

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Sunday, December 08, 2013

Sailing Venus: NaNoWriMo post-mortem

So, this grand experiment I participated in this year, this NaNoWriMo, has come and gone. After careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that I suck at it.

With November coming to a close a full week ago, my total word count came in at just a shade above 4,000 words. That's a decent length for a short story, but far short of the NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words (which is itself somewhat short of novel length, traditionally 60,000 words or more). November simply wasn't a good month for me. Apart from the Thanksgiving holiday and associated travel, I had all manner of challenges present themselves to me this month. I had some medical issues to take care of, there was the funeral for a relative I got to be pall bearer for, family issues and a host of other little things that added up to exhaustion--both emotional and physical. Some nights it was all I could do to crawl into bed at 10 p.m., which is traditionally when my writing time begins. Couple that with the fact that I am by no means a fast writer, and this endeavor was clearly doomed from the start.

I never intended to write 50,000 words. I think I've written 2,500-plus words in one day exactly once in my life. My goal was the still-ambitious (for me) 30,000 word mark, which would've demanded an average of 1,000 words a day. That's doable, but would demand more hours in a day than I can normally spare. I ended up averaging a modest 500 words a day. Divide my 4,000-word total by that rate and you'll see the ugly truth: out of 30 days in November, I actually wrote productively on just eight of them.

The good news is that I intended NaNoWriMo to simply kickstart Sailing Venus, and this is has. I completed the first chapter and part of the second. I've outlined the entire novel, something I've never done before, and I continue to work on it. Hopefully, without any major headwinds like I experienced in November, I can have the first draft wrapped up sometime this summer. I wouldn't complain about that at all. And now, just to show that I am doing real, for-true writing on this story, I offer the following worldbuilding snippet:

The disembarking station curved around the berth, an unremarkable seamed white wall and slate gray carpet. Ages before, several mobile columns of ivy had been positioned at aesthetic intervals to break up the functional monotony of the room. Through neglect, all the ivy had died, leaving the bare, scalloped columns, now oddly threatening without vegetation to soften their hard edges.

To the left of the rightmost column, the large airlock hatch scissored open.

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Friday, December 06, 2013

Friday Night Videos: Mandela edition

Nelson Mandela died yesterday at the age of 95. As I've said elsewhere, I shed no tears for Mandela's passing, because how can one be sad for a life so well-lived?

Although I've lived my life 9,000 miles away from South Africa, Mandela has been a major public figure my entire adult life. When I first arrived at Texas A&M as a callow youth the fall of 1988, I didn't know anything about Apartheid, had never witnessed the chronic, overt racism that blighted our own country even during the years of my childhood. I was sheltered, yes, but also naive and unobservant. During most of my college years, I maintained this blissful ignorance: during my years at A&M, the student body elected its first black student body president in Stephen Ruth as well as the first black Yell Leader in Ronnie McDonald.

But I did witness something that sticks with me to this day. Between the Academic and Harrington buildings on campus, the student group "Aggies Against Apartheid" had secured a demonstration permit from the university and erected an "apartheid shack." The tumble-down structure was painted with slogans against the oppressive South African government. About once a week the shack was destroyed by vandals at night, only to be rebuilt a few days later. While nobody ever spoke openly in favor of apartheid, there were always plenty of students--sometimes from the Corps of Cadets, sometimes from fraternities, sometimes unaffiliated with any organized group--decrying the shack in the pages of the Battalion as an "eyesore" that deserved to be destroyed and removed. This battle went on throughout most of 1989, culminating with the ruins of the destroyed shack lying untouched and un-rebuilt for the better part of a semester, the debris taken away only after South Africa's apartheid laws were officially repealed in 1990. That give and take opened my eyes for the first time to the hypocrisy of some people intent on making a political statement, yet at the same time disavowing any negative consequences their stance might provoke (in this case, being rightly branded as a bigot). Seeing some of the venomous attacks against Mandela from right wingers today, I have to wonder about those who destroyed the apartheid shack back in the day. Did they truly believe their actions were not racist? Did they somehow convince themselves their opposition to those protesting apartheid did not constitute support for a violent, oppressive, racist regime? When justification of bitter resentment toward "the other" has to constantly be prefaced with, "I'm not racist, but..." maybe self-delusion and denial has taken root far more deeply than that person is willing to admit. What they really mean is, "I'm not racist, but I wish apartheid was still in effect because it really put blacks in their place." "I'm not racist, but things were so much better under Jim Crow." "I'm not racist, but slavery was da bomb."

The international community didn't just decide one day to pressure South Africa into scrapping its evil divided state. A grassroots movement, arising from college campuses across the U.S. and the world drew attention to the problem. Drew attention to Stephen Biko's death and Mandela's political imprisonment. Artists and governments followed. Corporations pulled out of South Africa--slowly and reluctantly to be sure--but the stigma grew too great. Determined, persistent youth effected change in the world, leading to the end of apartheid and the release of Mandela from prison in 1990. That was a good thing, and regardless of the strife South Africa is going through these days, the world remains a better place for it.

Anyway, enough pontificating. Here's Little Steven Van Zant and Artists United Against Apartheid with "Sun City."

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Lindsey Buckingham.

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