26 July 2010

Even Nickelodeon Can Scare You: The Third Eye

I don’t keep track of what cable network Nickelodeon does these days (I don’t have children), but even with the new logo I can’t imagine that the channel has altered much from the manic “no adults in the room” style that it started to specialize in during the mid-‘80s. That was the point when Double Dare and its profusion of goo heralded a rethinking of the channel’s former “education-and-imports” format it had used since its launch in 1979.

That’s right: for people who weren’t watching Nickelodeon during its debut years of the early 1980s, it may be hard for them to believe that the mega-children’s brand was originally educational programs done in the mold of Sesame Street and The Electric Company, and most of the show were imported from Canada and overseas English-speaking countries. Nickelodeon had very little original programming in the early years, and it purchased UK and Canadian shows to fill out its schedule. Some of these shows did break the educational format, such as a number of bizarre animated shorts and the trippy parody Brit-toon DangerMouse (which attracted many adult fans). And then there was the oddball Canadian sketch comedy starring a mostly young cast, You Can’t Do That on Television!, which proudly contained no educational content at all and instead dumped slime on people . . . The Shape of Nick to Come. (And borrowed, no doubt, from Bunny Rabbit pouring ping-pong balls on Captain Kangaroo.)

That newborn Nickelodeon was at the bottom rung of the ratings, but it really was a strange place, weirder for not actually trying to be weird. But why am I bringing up the cable network here, on Black Gate? Don’t I have Conan pastiches to shred apart?

The reason I bring up Nickelodeon at all is that hiding in the shadows of its young years was a genuinely creepy dark fantasy and science-fiction program called The Third Eye. It ran for only a brief time on the network, but I’m amazed how much I recall about it. Aside from DangerMouse, it’s the only show I remember fondly from my time watching the network when I was in elementary school. It was smart, clever, and scary. Kids who would later grow up on Goosebumps have no idea of what genuinely cerebral terrors they missed out on.

Read the rest at Black Gate. . . .

23 July 2010

Grim Grinning Guillermo del Toro

News flies fast out of the events at San Diego Comic-Con, which has turned into a film industry roll-out show for genre properties. So far, the most exciting news I’ve heard, aside from how great the Tron Legacy footage looks, comes the lips of one of my favorite directors working today, the prolific and brilliant master of the phantasmagoric and lover of H. P. Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany, Guillermo del Toro.

Del Toro was attached to direct a film adaptation of The Hobbit with Peter Jackson as producer—a prospect that thrilled fandom, and me in particular. But the legal problems of MGM have put The Hobbit into Purgatory, along with the James Bond series and a number of other projects such as the Red Dawn remake (which can stay in Purgatory as far as I’m concerned). Del Toro gracefully exited from directing in Middle-Earth.

Although I would have loved seeing del Toro’s vision of the monster-packed Tolkien novel, I wasn't upset to see him leave. He’s got too many great project ideas lined up to waste time waiting for MGM to officially just kill itself. And although I’m as hardcore a Tolkien fan as exists, The Hobbit isn’t as much a priority for me in the Professor's canon as The Lord of the Rings—and we've already got that. I can wait for The Hobbit, and it means del Toro is free to do . . .

19 July 2010

Movie Review: Inception

Inception (2010)
Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe, Tom Berenger.

You expected a review of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, didn’t you? I respect Dukas and Goethe too much for that. As apparently does the rest of the nation, since over the weekend the film made roughly the amount of change found in the lint catcher of the dryer.

Inception right now is the movie conversation. No matter what else occurs in cinema during 2010 (Tron Legacy! So hyped for that), this will known as the year of Inception. Even if We Make Contact. Inception is guaranteed to become a speculative-fiction classic that will sit on the same shelf with Metropolis, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, The Terminator, The Matrix, et al.

What? Did you think I was going to go against the grain of critical and viewer opinion that has almost cased and mounted Inception in the Hall of Fame?

I’m not. I can’t. The movie deserves every accolade it has received. I don’t even think there can possibly be a fan-backlash against it like there was with Avatar. Inception is as good as you’ve heard it is, and for many of you, it might even be far better.

But don’t walk into the theater with expectations, or even that much knowledge about it. Writer-director Christopher Nolan remained closed-mouth about the film in the build toward its premiere, which was the perfect approach. Inception isn’t exactly a “twist” movie (Bruce Willis was dead all along!), but it is a film of the constant escalation of surprise. Its story continues to plunge deeper and deeper, turning more complex with each passing scene, where the stories of most movie strip away complications as they head toward their finales. It’s a reversal that recalls Nolan’s second movie, the breakthrough Memento, but Inception is much more intricate in design. Hell, it makes Memento seem linear! Therefore, even though Inception can’t be spoiled with a single sentence the way you might spoil The Crying Game, it’s still best if you know as few details about the plot as possible or any of the specific scenes before you go in.

Read the rest at Black Gate. . . .

12 July 2010

Words Dungeons & Dragons Taught Me

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

I belong to the first generation of tabletop roleplayers. In fact, I’m probably among the youngest of that generation, since Dungeons & Dragons first started to reach popular culture when I was about seven, and my friends and I were playing it regularly by the time we were eight. We didn’t really know what we were doing—the rules for the game at the time, spread over various manuals and sets, could often be confounding to adults—but rolling the funny dice and fighting monsters was what our imaginations craved, and for us it became the equivalent of a previous generations “Cowboys n’ Indians.”

None of our parents understood what we were doing, and when the anti-D&D campaign hit the magazine circuit with its fundamental mis-understanding of roleplaying, we got some grief. Most older people thought that Dungeons & Dragons was a big waste of time, even if they didn’t think it was outright dangerous or unhealthy.

I don’t play Dungeons & Dragons any more. When I do play RPGs, which is rare these days, I only use Fudge, which is simply the greatest roleplaying system I’ve ever encountered . . . simple, flexible, and brings out great storytelling skills. And any game adapts to it. But I don’t regret one moment of my youth with D&D. Because I believe Dungeons & Dragons helped prepare me to become a fantasy and science-fiction reader, and eventually a writer as well.

I could go into great detail about how RPGs expand the imagination, but I’ve got more concrete and simple evidence: the words I learned for the first time from Dungeons & Dragons. My vocabulary expanded at an enormous rate for an eight-year-old because of this game, and not until I started learning Latin did I experience such a jump again in my personal lexicon. Some of these words are non-genre terms, others specific to the fantastic but useful for a writer. Going off the top of my head, here are words (and two suffixes) that I’m certain I first encountered in the roleplaying instructions and modules of Gygax, Arnenson, et al.:
  • requisite
  • prerequisite
  • charisma
  • constitution
  • initiative
  • polyhedral
  • alignment
  • chaotic
  • cleric
  • portcullis
  • acolyte
  • deity
  • footpad
  • longevity
  • cutpurse
  • necromancer
  • undead
  • retainer
  • encumbrance
  • wight (helpful when reading Old English texts)
  • berserker
  • troglodyte
  • bugbear
  • platinum
  • electrum
  • pseudo-
  • neo-
  • wyvern
I could keep rolling them out all night, and if I looked at my old manuals I’m sure even more would pop out at me, but that’s a good solid list.

And, thanks to the first edition of Deities & Demigods, I first encountered the weird, unpronounceable word “Cthulhu.” However, it would be many years before I came across the word in a context where I could make the most of it.

One of these words would later have an important impact on my life: Acolyte. In original D&D terms, this is the title of a 1st level Cleric. The dictionary definition is an assistant to a priest in a ceremony, or any sort of apprentice. Something about the term impressed itself on my young mind: I thought it a very beautiful word, with aural power and a sense of mystery. I started to encounter the word later in my fantasy reading, particularly Clark Ashton Smith’s work. (“Acolyte” is just his kind of medicine.) Eventually, I wrote a story where “acolyte” seemed the right word to use for a class of apprentices, and the word got into the title as well: “An Acolyte of Black Spires.” And this is the story that won The Writers of the Future Contest.

The morale of the story: I’m glad I wasted my time playing Dungeons & Dragons when I was a kid.

05 July 2010

The Real “Twilight”: John W. Campbell’s

I’ve discovered that once you start writing about 1930s magazine science fiction—a field small enough for thorough analysis, but bursting with enough wonders to fill the galaxy—it becomes difficult to stop. Pondering the marvels of Stanley G. Weinbaum’s 1935 classic “Parasite Planet” urged me to shift through my pile of Del Rey “Best of . . .” paperbacks, which are crammed with the stories that helped me reach a kind of SF maturation when I was a young reader.

The first of the Del Rey anthologies I purchased, long enough ago that it was new and sitting on the shelf of a chain bookstore, was The Best of John W. Campbell. The reason I bought this title was simple: it contained “Who Goes There?”, the basis for two movies I loved, The Thing from Another World (1951) and The Thing (1982). I already knew Campbell’s reputation as an editor, but hadn’t experienced his earlier career as two different authors, John W. Campbell and Don A. Stuart.

If Stanley G. Weinbaum was “a Campbell author before Campbell,” so too was Campbell—or at least, Don A. Stuart was. The proof is in “Twilight,” a story under the Stuart name that appeared in the November 1934 issue of Astounding Stories during the tenure of editor F. Orlin Tremaine. I may have bought The Best of John W. Campbell for “Who Goes There?,” but it was “Twilight” that entranced me and became one of my favorite short stories of any genre.

(And yes, as the heading of this post indicates, to me the title “Twilight” always means this story. It had too potent an effect on me to ever allow anything else, no matter how much popular culture it devours, to steal the word “twilight” for other use.)

Read the rest at Black Gate. . . .