Well that was real mature...

Well that was real mature...

Thursday, July 31, 2014

RobCon 2014 and NEW Jigsaw World

Just a little reminder. The second page of Jigsaw World went up today at www.adventuresinpulp.com. It's structured like a print book so I ask (ie beg) fans of the site to be patient. It will be rewarded.

I will be at ROBCON in Bristol, TN on Saturday Aug. 2nd and if you live near the Tennessee/Virginia state line, I encourage you to come by and say "hi!" There will be a writer's panel from 11-12 so if you want to hear me drone on in person (or you are just a glutton for punishment), pop on in and join the conversation. From what I understand, guests will be located on the stage at Viking Hall and the ADVENTURES IN PULP table will have a RobCon exclusive black and white rough draft of JIGSAW WORLD. It will have all 22 pages of chapter one as well as the original "mature readers" text. We will also have full color print copies of "DICK RUBY AND THE CASE OF THE LITTLE GREEN MEN" and "HAWK AND A HANDSAW" in a fun flip book as well a prints for each of those short stories. There will also be BRAND NEW print posters for our recently completed "FOUR HORSEMEN" and my partner in crime Matthew Childers will have several original prints available including "The Avengers," "Batman," "Star Wars" and more.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Revisiting a Patchwork Planet and a Modern Day Flash Gordon

This week we took a whole new direction with www.adventuresinpulp.com with the debut of "Jigsaw World." Originally our intent for "Season One" of the website was four experimental short stories ranging from 12-14 pages each. After three of our four tales wrapped, ("Dick Ruby and the Case of the Little Green Men," "Hawk and a Handsaw," and "Four Horsemen") we hit a decision point. With a big project looming and the pressure of the weekly pace mounting, we decided to launch our first full length tale. Jigsaw World was originally intended to be an ongoing mature readers PRINT series. Matt and I worked up a full issue and spent the better part of the last year shopping it around to various publishers and editors. The general idea was modern era "Flash Gordon," except our hero would travel a planet Earth pieced together from alternate reality Earths instead of the worlds of Mongo. We are really proud of the book and love the idea of doing the story long term. We just were not ready to let it go. If it had been picked up by a publisher, my plan was to do 4 to 6 issue story arcs until we told the story we wanted to tell. While it was ongoing, I did have the ending planned but,sales willing, it would be far on down the road. The first story arc (titled "A Brave New World") would run four issues (or chapters) and set up the series run by introducing the world, characters and ticking clock. So here we are: A concept and characters we deeply believe in and a website that is constantly up against a deadline. Let's face it, it doesn't take a genius to do that math.

But we have "format" problems to overcome.

Technically: Our web creations were, of course, set up horizontally to fit 16x9 widescreen HD monitors and screens. "Jigsaw World" was set up to be a standard vertical print book. Testing it, we discovered it still looked good, but format was not limited to image.

Structure: With our short stories, I wrote each page to be a stand alone sequence usually ending with a cliffhanger. But with a print book, pages are part of a scene and sometimes a sentence that begins on one page will finish on another. A week is a long time if pages break like that. Format also applies to...

Tone: This was a "mature reader" book, really hard R and Adventures in Pulp was an all-ages site (not a kid's comic site but appropriate for everyone) that might be considered PG at worst. The first arc was not an issue, I could tone down the language and violence. Later on some creative measures may have to be taken if I don't want to compromise the overall story.

We're gambling (and hoping) our readers will be patient and flexible with the changes and give the tale a try even if the flow is a little off. Chapter One will go 22 pages over 22 weeks. At that point we will come back and do our fourth short story, the 12 page "Ashes of the Immortals." Once that has wrapped, we will continue with Chapter Two of "Jigsaw World." We have several other ideas (and completed scripts) kicking back and forth, so I have no idea if we will continue to alternate between other tales and remaining two chapters of "Jigsaw World" or simply finish the third and fourth chapters so we can at least have the "pilot" story arc completed for the world to see.

In a little over a week (on Aug. 2nd) Matt and I will be attending RobCon in Bristol, TN and we will have RobCon exclusive B&W copies of the "mature readers" draft of "Jigsaw World" (pictured) as well as copies of our "flip" book that is a print version of "Dick Ruby and the Case of the Little Green Men" and "Hawk and a Handsaw."  (ok truth in advertising we did have some copies of our RobCon exclusive at HeroesCon recently - don't hate us.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Send in the Clones: Modern Day & The Fifth Horsemen



Matt once tweeted that page 12 was "hell" yet he managed to knock it out of the park. It achieves everything I wanted to do: Take a step back physically and have a stark contrast between modern world and the fantasy land we have been in for the past 11 pages. The big homage/Easter egg on this page was all Matt. My script had only: "an average businessman looking shocked, a newspaper crumpled in his fist."

And with that we come to the finish on page 13. The big reveal, set up all along was the FIFTH Horseman. Obviously hinted at along the way, but I hope with the direction I went, that I manage to surprise some of you with the with the reveal.  I tried to follow the rules I set up while breaking them at the same time. On one hand I went back to the same pattern as I had used on the four introduction pages, however in this case the clone was from our future instead of the past and he was from an Earth colony instead from Earth proper (I figured that was why he showed up separate from the others). It was fun and added a little sci-fi to our fantasy tale, which brought us back around to its initial concept roots (see my commentary on page 1). I think the page came out fantastic, my only real concern was the final panel, I was a little worried that it was too close to the Clone Horseman and people might not realize that he was also in present time (he was actually looking down on them through the tactical eyepiece in the final panel of the last page). If this experiment failed then at the very least I put up no less than six different genres (western, war, medieval, sword & sorcery fantasy, samurai and hard sci-fi) for Matt to put in his portfolio to show off his talent. While not as complex as our previous tales, it does have charm and because of the structure, it works better if read in a single sitting rather than a page at a time over three months. I really hope Matt and I can one day revisit our little team and see how they are doing on 21st Century Earth.  If we do it though, it will be a traditional story with actual dialogue. Matt has already asked (and by asked: threatened me with great physical violence) that I never do a dialogue-less story again. I agree it would have to be a special tale to go back to that... as I write this I hope I have a "fish taco" glint in my eye...*

*see the commentary on page 1 of "Four Horsemen" to get that joke.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Breaking Patterns, Recaps, Fighting and a Bullet to the Brain



Our heroes arrive on page 8. Matt suggested that we break the rhythm of the right/left of the large images because it looked like it didn't flow story-wise, and he was quite right, so we shifted it to the center, and it works great.

On page 9, I basically give a reminder recap of part one (pages 1-3) of our story and add in some new exposition to keep it fresh for readers as well as revisiting a seed that was planted that would play out later on. I liked the idea that the warriors are pulled out of time right before their deaths. This basically put them on borrowed time and gives them more incentive to fight.

Page 10: They fight. What can I say? It's an action page and Matt crushes it.

Finally, on page 11 we hit our climax, it's a little bit more cramped than previous pages as we veer away from the established pattern but it still has a pattern. The flying bullet panel is just below the panel where it is fired. The "smile" panel is just above the "important blow" panel. Our heroes, even on the run and in defeat, get a little victory at this point, and again Matt's work is excellent and his paneling is pitch perfect. If you will notice I specifically wanted the black Viet Nam era soldier to be helping the white Confederate cowboy character. What can I say, I just really like the irony. It is no coincidence that when the "important blow" is struck it comes from such an unlikely duo working together. To me as a writer is was subtle, but perhaps the most important part of the whole story. A simple message tucked into a little panel: If we can put aside our hate we can achieve things because we are stronger together than apart. If you take nothing else from this little tale, please take that.

With the action climax wrapping up we're now ready for the final two pages, that includes another set of "Adventures In Pulp" style twists to wrap it all up. Before I go, I will say that writing can be so much fun.  Where else can you plan to shoot someone in the head, have someone else carry it out, and NOT be charged with murder or conspiracy to commit murder. That begs the question: Am I entertaining you by writing this stuff or by reading my stuff or are you just keeping me from becoming a fully functioning psychopath? It doesn't really make a good advertisement does it: "Keep a killer where he belongs: behind the keyboard! Read Adventures in Pulp!"

Monday, July 21, 2014

Dramatis Personae: Introductions All Around (and around and around and around)!



The pattern of the writing will become more obvious here with these pages. Each horsemen gets his (or her) introduction. These were a real chance to give Matt an explosion of genres for his portfolio. In just one month he shows he can do, western, war, medieval, or samurai.  

It was Matt's idea to have the Knight in page 5 be a woman, which helped tremendously when I was looking for distinct motivations for each archetype.  I didn't just want the warriors to just be obvious imagery, but rather distinct characters should we ever revisit them (and while written to be a stand alone, I would love to do another story with these characters - you'll see why when you get to the final two pages).

I was hoping the cowboy text on page 6 would raise an eyebrow or two. Living in the south there are still people who believe the civil war was fought over states' rights and not slavery. States' right were a ploy invoked to stir up sentiment for the cause so that poor people who couldn't afford slaves would rush to fight for their "rights." It was a social and political trick to get the uninvolved riled up. It still goes on today. Listen to the rhetoric of politics today. If "states' rights" are invoked, it is almost always to get people to support something that really hurts a group of people. The reality is that the main right was the right to own another human being. If you don't believe me, just read the actual letters of secession (South Carolina is a good one to start with).

On page 7, Matt renamed my soldier (scripted as Wilkins) to Samuel Lawrence Washington. He said he almost went with Jackson. (Making him Samuel Lawrence Jackson or Samuel L. Jackson if you prefer).

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Another Couple of Helpings of Horse Meat (or Wizards, Warriors and Witches, Oh My!)



Because of the simplicity of the story and the structure, there just is not much to say, so unlike the other commentaries, I will be doubling up some pages.

On page 2 we continue the narrative and establish the Evil Wizard. As scripted, Matt has put another "hero" shot on the side of the page. Like the pattern of the text, I thought it was important to have a pattern to the imagery. We set up a further complication with the "Army of the Dead" and you will notice that the hand is skeletal. I wanted to avoid the zombie bandwagon that has been burning hot and heavy since "Walking Dead" exploded onto the scene. Matt was thrilled since he recently came off a job for Barter Theatre doing zombie posters for a play (pictured right), and he was pretty sick of the undead at that point. (you can see more of his art at www.matthewchilders.com)

Again, like page 2, on page 3, there is not a lot to do but marvel at Matt's lovely artwork. He was crushing it right off the bat. Story wise we have put a ticking clock on the heroine, and that forces her to cast her spell that pushes us into the second part of our tale: the introduction of our warriors (aka the Horsemen). I do plant a seed for later that many may take as a typo until page nine, when I briefly revisit it.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Origins and a Radical Departure (aka Writing on a Fish Taco Inspired Dare)

FIRST  A BRIEF ANNOUNCEMENT: New story starts next week!

We are going to deviate a little from our initial plan. Initially, our fourth short story, "Ashes of the Immortals" was going to start next week. However, we have decided to put it off a little while. Instead next week we will start our first long term story: "Jigsaw World." "Jigsaw World" was initially planned as a long running, mature readers, print book, but Matt and I have decided we do not want to wait for a publisher to pick it up, so with some minor tweaks (to make it more of a PG book instead of a mature readers book) it will start going up next week. The first complete story of "Jigsaw World" was plotted to be approximately 88 pages (four 22 page chapters). The current plan is to present each page Chapter 1 straight through at one a week, then take a break and present the 12 page short story "Ashes of the Immortals," then resume "Jigsaw World" with chapter two. Unlike our short stories presented to date, "Jigsaw World" was written and illustrated to be a print book so the pages will be vertical instead of horizontal and will not have the cliffhanger each page. Hopefully this change will not turn anyone off.  The longer form style allows us additional time to present a more complicated narrative with more complex characters.

 The genesis of "Four Horsemen" started at dinner with Matt one Saturday night. (Actually, that's not true, the seeds existed earlier but the ball got rolling that night). We were trying to decide on our fourth story for "season one" of adventuresinpulp.com. We were well under way with my creations of "Dick Ruby and the Case of the Little Green Men," and "Hawk and A Handsaw" and I had developed a plot around one of Matt's ideas (originally titled "Starlight" but now is underway as "Ashes of the Immortals"). We had a super-hero satire, and two detective tales one with a noir flavor and another that is sci-fi. Matt and I both lamented that neither of us were huge fantasy fans. Other than the occasional Robert E. Howard pulp or Conan comic, my interest in sword and sorcery was limited to fairly mainstream stuff like Lord of the Rings.

As we paid the bill, Matt dropped the gauntlet. "You know what that means," Matt said with a glint in his eye (or it could have been the fish tacos backing up on him).  "We have to do a fantasy style story."  The wheels spun as we drove from the restaurant to the coffee shop. I seized upon an idea that I just could not get to work in the past and ran it past Matt.

Several years earlier I had an idea for a sci-fi tale, where scientists on a doomed planet Earth of the future pulled warriors from the past to fight a desperate battle. It went through several variations (including a satire that would include Genghis Kahn, Hitler, Jesus and JFK) but I could never get it to work. I tossed out the basics, stripping the sci-fi elements from them. Jumping from science to magic is not that big a leap. Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." So why not, right?

Matt immediately jumped in as I explained that we should stick to some specific warrior archetypes. The ideas flew back and forth. We had our basic story idea. I went to plotting. I knew my twist ending and I wanted to do something unexpected with the climax.

It was time to start scripting and I wanted a lot going in:

I wanted to change up the writing style drastically. With "Dick Ruby" I used dialogue and first person narration, and with "Hawk and a Handsaw" I used dialogue solely to tell the story. I knew I wanted to do this one completely with third person narration and without any dialogue much like the old "Prince Valiant" strips. But I didn't just want to imitate that strip, I also wanted to invoke the feeling of a kid's storybook with simple sentences ("It was a good witch," "it was a blessed kingdom," etc.). I also wanted to have a pattern to the pages. Like a song where the lyrics change but the music is the same. I wanted a rhythm to the images and the words. I wanted a variety of images and locations (mainly as a "thank you" to Matt, who had to be feeling claustrophobic drawing so much of "Hawk and a Handsaw" in the confines of an asylum). Like, I said: I wanted a lot and all of it was going to be a radical departure. I like to think it has turned out well, you all can be the judge. When you try something different and take a creative chance,  it can be a tremendous success or a drastic failure.

Page one was pretty simple, we set up our heroine and the villain and get the plot ball rolling. Matt changed up his art style for this one. My initial suggestion was going to be to do the hero pose in color but to do the actual panels in black and white or a sepia tone. As you can see, Matt decided to go full on color much to my surprise. It looks great and, once this first page came in, my initial butterflies about the drastic stylistic change settled some.  Matt was clicking right away and there was so much fun stuff to come, how could it go wrong?  I mean, you know, other than me...

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A (Less than) Brief History of Star Trek (aka Anatomy of a Franchise Murder)

I found this old rough draft of an essay I penned back in late 2005 several months after UPN cancelled “Star Trek: Enterprise” (and quite a few years before the Abrams re-boot). It was about 85% opinion and then drifted into 15% satire (especially when I get into the "behind the scenes" of the end-days of the franchise).  It never quite worked for me and I always intended to either go back and either strip the satire out for a straight up opinion piece or go nuts throughout with some wacky satirical behind the scenes "speculation." Now with the re-boot it seems rather pointless so I thought I would post it as is warts and all. I'll leave it to you to decide my basic opinions back then were on target or not.

Ok, several people have asked for my opinion, as a hard core Trekker, about the state of the franchise in general. The more I thought about it the more I realized the past informs the present. To realize where you are (and where you should go) you have to know where you’ve been. So I’m going to share general feelings about the entire franchise. While it’s a topic I could whittle away hours with, I’ll try to keep it from being “War and Peace” but please indulge my occasional digression.

While the original series has not aged well at first glance, those who dismiss it because of gaudy colors, paper and plaster rocks, archaic FX, and over the top acting, are doing a disservice to the series. Yes, it is dated. If you try to hold the storytelling and production values to contemporary standards then sure, the newest will always be the best and the oldest the worst. Next year it will be 40 years old. When you think about that number it somehow seems younger. Second glance tells you that, yes it was a product of its time BUT FOR THAT TIME, it was light years ahead of anything else. Look at its chief rival/competition – “Lost in Space.” Look at what was popular at that time: “Beverly Hillbillies,” “Gilligan’s Island,” Taken as a 60s series… you realize the genius of the show.

The first season was stunningly tight in terms of production and storytelling. We had interesting characters. Look at how little Sulu and Uhura had to do on that show, but say the names and even people who are not fans, know who you are talking about. It’s iconic and ingrained as part of the popular culture. Now, I could dovetail into positive future, positive image of minorities, taking on social issues, blah, blah, blah.

It’s been done. To. Death. 

And it *is* part of the appeal. BUT for me personally, it was those things plus the rich and diverse characters, and the allegory to contemporary issues. That last one is key. I love it. I love the idea of replacing Black & White with Green & Purple and making a point. Oh, yea, and, of course, the “gee whiz” factor of the stories. We can’t leave that out. The Original Series (or TOS) writers who were weaned on the pulps and serials of the 30s and 40s were of age and trying to put a stamp on the genre. (It’s always the second generation that puts the button on the classics stylized by the original generation, (if you want proof look at what Tarentino did with the Blacksploitation  (“Jackie Brown”) or Revenge/ChopSockie flicks (“Kill Bill”) of the 70s, or Lucas and Spielberg did with the old Saturday matinee serials with “Indiana Jones” and “Star Wars.” Even Kevin Smith does “real” dialogue in a much more entertaining fashion than Robert Altman, or for that matter Anton Checkov, both of whom have been taking great credit for “realism in dialogue”  for what seems like forever, but really they’ve just been boring us to death).

But I digress (to quote one of my favorite blogs)...

Trek’s first season had characters that were as real as you could find on 60’s television. The stories were tight and had something to say. Look at “City on the Edge of Forever,” even watered down and re-written, this episode, dramatically, after 40 years of televisionary evolution can hold it’s own with darn near anything on the air today. “A Taste of Armageddon” says more about war and violence than most stuff does now. So does “Devil in the Dark,”  (as we prepare to drill in Anwar) it’s still relevant today considering how we use up natural resources with little or no regard for the animal kingdom (or the human kingdom for that matter), especially when you consider the fact that we now have to measure mercury levels before eating fish or the fact that the local news stations in some parts of the country issue clean air advisories to let parents know when they need to keep the kids indoors and yet there are *still* those who claim that environmental hazards are overdramatized. Anyhow, as I was saying: Writers like George Clayton Johnson, D.C. Fontana, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Brown, Gene Coon (who is woefully overlooked in favor of Creator Gene), and lots of others were going where only Rod Serling had ever gone before, and television in 1966-1967 was all the better for it. It had timeless themes and had something to say. About God (“Where No Man Has Gone Before,” “Charlie X,” “Squire of Gothos”), Nature (“The Man Trap”), and War (“Balance of Terror,” “Errand of Mercy”). It highlighted mankind’s strengths and weaknesses in numerous ways:  (“The Cage,” “The Enemy Within,” “Court-Martial,” “Galileo Seven,” “Conscience of the King,” “Arena”). Even the worst episode of the season, “The Alternative Factor,” had a lot to say about self-sacrifice. That’s something even today we (as in Americans) can learn from. What if the current Americans in the “gimme mine” culture were asked to ration gas and energy or give up their SUVs and gas powered mowers to help with the “War on Terror®?”  Can anyone really see people of this generation doing like out parents and great-grandparents during WWII and making ANY type of sacrifice?

Yea, me neither. But again. I digress... (sorry Peter) Point being: Trek. Timeless. Themes still hold up today even if the production values don’t.

Let’s side bar on production values for a second, mainly because I am so friggin’ sick of hearing people gripe about the cheesy sets and fx. Production values are icing on the cake. If the story is good, the characters interesting, then I can handle pie plates on a string. But even the best model and CGI can’t save a crap story or empty characters. If you have both, it’s like a bonus. I like to use “Operation: Annihilate!” as an example. The parasites attacking our heroes in that episode resemble something akin to plastic vomit on a string. They fly after our heroes using only a teamster and a fishing pole for locomotion.

Let's face it folks, it just ain’t pretty.

The story is ok, not one of the best, but not horrid. Real middle of the bell curve. Would CGI make the story any better? No. Would it make the episode better? Yes, but only from an aesthetic point of view. The plot. The characterization. All the same. And they didn’t have CGI back then all they had was, well, a teamster with plastic vomit on the end of a fishing line. Another example I use is “Arena.” The Gorn is basically a guy in a rubber suit. A suit so heavy that the guy in it can barely move. As a result, the fight looks kinda silly. Kirk should be opening up cans of whoop-ass all over the big lizard king. They even try to work in a line about the Gorn being slow, but strong. It doesn’t fly. But the episode isn’t about Kirk whoopin’ ass. It’s about Kirk *out thinking* the Gorn and in the end *showing compassion* when the Gorn wouldn’t have. The mechanics of the fight was not that important to the theme or story. On “Star Trek: Enterprise” (or ENT) in the final season we see Archer face off with a CGI Gorn. As a fan I was tickled. It was great to see it updated. But it didn’t change the episode for me (a darn corker, I’d like to add,  “In a Mirror Darkly, part 2”). I’d like to go on and use “Doomsday Machine” and “Devil in the Dark”  as other examples, but I’ve sidebared enough here, either you get it or you have been hopeless brain washed or spoiled by the post –70s “Star Wars” FX revolution and the post-90s “Terminator 2” Digital FX revolution. And shame on you for it.

On to season two which continued the trend but overall the show became a little lighter. Kirk a little more humorous and less of a “hard nosed one,” but in essence it was the same. It danced toward the edge of camp occasionally, but managed to hi-wire-walk the line without going over. Trek would have been better off to drift back toward the tone of season one, but is none the worse for wear with the lighter tone. It still worked, it just became a bit more obvious. We still had great drama (“Journey to Babel”), sci-fi (“Amok Time”), social commentary (“A Private Little War”) and comedy (“Trouble with Tribbles”) but now we had comedy-camp (“A Piece of the Action”) and Satire (“Bread and Circuses,” “Who Mourns for Adonis?”), and even a couple of not so successful whacks at horror (“Catspaw,” “Wolf in the Fold”). But all of it had something to say about family, bigotry, religion, politics, and even the television industry itself.

Season Three is when it fell apart. Roddenberry left the series as the show runner and budget was cut and it was abandoned to late night Fridays when most of the interested demographic (College age kids specifically and the young counter-culture of the 60s in general) was out trying to get laid. The new guy, Fred Freiberger, was not nearly the anti-Christ as history has painted him. Yes, the stories became dumbed down, simplistic and clichéd crossing that line into camp and cheesy melodrama and, not to mention, he seemed to scrape lower in the barrel for the writing talent and directorial talent (the latter needed to keep Shatner in line). The characters became parodies of their former selves or worse behaved totally inconsistently with how they had been established in prior seasons. BUT… in spite of the skimpier budget the effects, sets, and costumes were stunning, and creative (even in using NO set or partial sets and making it part of the story as in “The Empath” and “Spectre of the Gun”). Even the worst episode of the season, “Spock’s Brain,” has some nifty set construction particularly the planet set). Aliens were generally *ALIEN* (Notice how many human looking aliens were in the first two seasons versus the Tholans, Excalabans, Vians, Melkotians, Medusans, heck even the Klingons looked a little less like someone’s bearded Uncle Bob this time around). Come on, credit where credit is due. Fred, did more with less in the area where TOS ages least gracefully. Sadly the same kind of effort was not put into the actually stories – the things that have been holding up over time. So while the first two seasons had more to say, season three spoke of lesser things, just more eloquontly. Sure they still tried to tackle issues like bigotry (“The Cloudminders,” “Let That be Your Last Battlefield,” “Plato’s Stepchildren,” “Is There in Truth No Beauty”), blind ideology (“For the World is Hollow…”), Violence (“Spectre of the Gun”), Politics & War (“Enterprise Incident”). Imagine if we could have put the production values of year three with the storytelling and tone (and budget) of year one.

Yea, it’d still look dated.

Now that I think about it, maybe Freiberger is the devil after all.

After a hiatus of sorts (four years), we received The Animated Series (TAS). Two years. Twenty two episodes. This just doesn’t get the credit it deserves. It was more creative than the original (less budgetary constraints) and had some of the great writers from the first two seasons of the original. Sure, occasionally it dipped into the painful banality of 70’s morning cartoon fair (“Practical Joker,” “Loreli Signal,” “Terratin Incident,” “Counter Clock Incident”), but mostly it was as good (or better) than we could have actually gotten from a fourth season of the original (“Yesteryear,” “Eye of the Beholder,” “Jihad,” “Pirates of Orion,” “Albatross,” “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth”)

Another half decade later, with re-runs getting better ratings than the original broadcasts and after landing on the moon, I think it all became more interesting or believable, not to mention local programmers knew when to air the show – weekdays at 7 p.m. – when people are at home either just getting in from work or eating dinner or just getting ready to go out for the evening. Oh, yea, “Star Wars” cleaning up at the box office, so we get “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (TMP). Paned as bland, dull, and gray. There is not much I can add, that hasn’t been said before EXCEPT: The Director’s Edition DVD is the benchmark for post revisionist tinkering (I’m looking at you George Lucas). EVERY change to the original film is done according to the ORIGINAL storyboards. It’s not a “Where’s Waldo” of new bells and whistles but a restoration of the INTENDED film. And for purists who hate post release tinkering. EVERY scene that is cut or altered in ANY way is present as it was originally released on disc two.

Next we get “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn,” (TWOK) which is my favorite film of all time and all the credit goes to Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer. Smaller budget and a smarter more personal story equaled success. “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” (TSSF) followed and was a dip (but remains the strongest of the odd number films). There was action, characterization, drama, stunning visuals, and good stories. These two films had everything but the allegory, and honestly even the biggest trekker didn’t care because the stories were still good, and they would get that in spades with the next film. “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (TVH) was the next one and it hit.

Really, really BIG.

It proved that almost 20 years later Trek could have mainstream appeal beyond the cult. With deft humor, a fun story and a social message about the environment it became the highest grossing Trek film ever (both domestic and international). Money talks and BS walks, as they say and  “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (TNG) was born at that moment.

I have a love/hate relationship with TNG. I was thrilled that we would get new Trek by the original creator. But a new cast? Well, I got over it. Trek is universal, a way of telling stories and not about a single character. But Roddenberry at the helm was actually the worst part. He still structured Trek like it was the 60’s. Characters were static and non changing (and to be honest not nearly as interesting as the originals). There were no real continuing story lines. Although later on we would get a tiny Worf/Klingon thread that weaved as a minor subplot on and off again throughout the middle of the series. Hardly enough to call it a full blown arc or storyline, but it was more than TOS had and less that other TV of the time. Since TOS, TV gained shows like “St. Elsewhere” and “Hill Street Blues” where problems were not wrapped up by the end of the hour. Characters grew and changed. TNG was fresh material but used the same old template to execute it. Roddenberry also watered down the drama and excitement by trying to “fix” Trek by adding more realism (The Captain wouldn’t lead the planet side missions). Sure, Picard was the guy you would want to serve under in real life, but I was watching TV! I’d find myself screaming “Please somebody throw a friggin’ punch or shoot someone, and for God sake shut the captain’s shrink up, we know how he feels.”

It was two seasons of *very* mixed feelings. But, we had some good stuff (“Heart of Glory,” “Conspiracy,” “Measure of A Man,” “A Matter of Honor”) and we had some crap (“Lonely Among Us,” “Justice,” “Shades of Grey,” “Outrageous Okona”). Roddenberry tried to put in some social commentary/allegory at first: Environmental (“When the Bough Breaks”), drugs (“Symbiosis”), death penalty (“Justice”), predatory capitalism (“The Last Outpost”), but it mostly vanished after the first season.

Meanwhile Shatner got his hands of “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” (TFF). I'm not going to beat that dead horse.

Back to TNG:
Roddenberry turned the reins over to Rick Berman and Michael Piller in the third year. The former would oversee production and the latter ran the writing room. Fresh ideas, were tempered by the eyes of the creator keeping it true to his vision of Trek. It was still static from episode to episode, but fresh and invigorated. TNG may not have had as much to say as the original series, but at that point they started telling good solid, smart, exciting adventure stories (too darn many to list here). Like with TVH. Non-fans noticed.  TNG made Trek mainstream. Average people buzzed about the fate of Capt. Picard and Worf during the summer cliffhangers (“The Best of Both Worlds” and “Redemption”) Words like Borg and Betazoid became commonplace and the letter Q took on a whole new pop-culture meaning.

After two seasons of riding high, Roddenberry died early in the fifth year. Without his watchful but hands off approach and under the strain of popularity, TNG very slowly started to become stale. You see when something is popular the powers that be are hesitant to make changes for fear of screwing up the formula. TOS had its last round-up (“Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country”  - TUC), a successful one under Nimoy and Meyer capping their silver anniversary, and TNG was all that was left of the Trek Franchise and the Roddenberry legacy.

Paramount wanted to ready a successor and thus was born my favorite Trek – “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: (DS9). Piller moved on to DS9, the only Trek not set on a space ship, and it was immediately scored as too dark, and too stationary, despite having the best elements from each of first two series. Piller had shepherded DS9 into two seasons of occasionally brilliant but mostly only slightly above average television. While his successor on TNG, Jeri Taylor, quickened TNG’s decline to acceptable but mostly uninspired sci-fi in its final two years. In other words: perfect for the masses. Between the two shows there were some highlights for that couple of years. (“Duet,” “The Homecoming  the Circle and the Seige” three parter, “The Pegasus,” “Parallels,” “Pre-Emptive Strike,” “Cardassians,” “In The Hands of the Prohets,” “Face of the Enemy,” “Tapestry,” “Necessary Evil” and the “Chain of Command” two parter.) But the misses outnumbered the hits on both shows for those final two/first two seasons.

Then things got weird.

TNG jumped to the big screen, with, well, a really big expensive episode (Star Trek: Generations – GEN). Nothing more. Piller left DS9 bringing Ira Steven Behr (ISB). ISB is the man who made Trek great again. The rich characters were becoming more richly layered and continued to develop. Just to make a point, take any supporting character from DS9 – Rom, Nog, Leeta, Garak, Martok, whoever look at them when they first appeared then look at them in the last appearance, now do that with any of the main cast of TNG – Picard, Riker, Data, Troi, Crusher, LaForge. You will see a stunning difference in the DS9 characters vs. TNG characters, and they were only supporting cast. Episodes developed into storylines and arcs. We had real drama revolving around politics, religion, war, not just the occasional allegorical tale, but REAL meat and potatoes stuff going on. Only a fraction of the fandom seemed to be watching, the fans were turning in to either TNG or (later “Star Trek: Voyager” - VOY). DS9 for some reason was the red-headed step child of the franchise.  Probably to its benefit.

You see without the popularity, the writers did stuff. Sneaky stuff. Dramatic stuff. Ballsey stuff. Cool stuff. And the studio really didn’t care. In fact, except to co-opt “Babylon 5,” they really didn’t screw too much with the staff, which brings me to the touchy fan issue of B5 vs. DS9. When I’m lazy I frequently just say that DS9 is the best Trek because it does everything that Trek fans wanted with TNG (a war, continuing story lines, character development). In other words: it ripped off B5. But in reality it isn’t that simple. DS9 co-opted B5. B5 was created first but DS9 beat it to the air, so that it would look like B5 was a copy of DS9. That was the case during early DS9. The studio hears JMS was adding a space ship to his station. DING. A directive came down to ISB and crew (which ironically consisted of the best TNG writers), create a new spaceship and thus was born the Defiant. The studio hears JMS is going to add sexy redhead Lyta to the cast. DING. A directive to ISB to add sexy redheaded Leeta to the cast. Shadow War. DING. Dominion War. Beaureu 13. DING. Section 31. Now, I love both series, (and while DS9 is my favorite Trek, B5 does edge it as my favorite series), its that they manage to the same thing in vastly different ways. They are flip sides of the same coin. B5 is epic. DS9 is personal. B5 is about doing what’s right and hoping you don’t screw it up. DS9 about doing what’s necessary and hoping it’s right. Subtle differences. While fans battle back and forth, rather than being a fan of one or the other I embrace both. I could mention a list of the good in seasons 3-7 episodes, but there is just not enough room.

Meanwhile, TNG made two more movies. One great (“Star Trek: First Contact” - FC) and another that was nothing more than a bloated bland episode (“Star Trek: Insurrection” - INS). And then there was the earlier mentioned VOY.

Yea, I mentioned it. You knew it was coming, but, I’m not going to trash it. It’s too easy to trash it and not fair to boot. No Trek has ever had such a great set up. Interesting characters were created. Interesting situations were started in TNG and DS9 to set up the new show. The digital revolution was afoot. The decade old first-run syndication market that TNG helped to forge was giving way to new networks and the VOY pilot was to be the premier episode of the premier night of UPN.

Under Taylor and crew (DS9 got TNG’s great writers, VOY got the rest), VOY was good lined up against typical television fare and very good in a face off with *typical* SF TeeVee. But with TOS or TNG at their peak, or DS9 on any day, it even seemed to flounder (if not in ratings then at least in dramatic appeal) against the new and fresh takes on space opera like “Farscape.” It went back to TNG (and by extension TOS) style story telling only with the better production values that a decade offers. Unlike TNG or DS9, VOY never exceeded itself.

It simply maintained.

Never breaking loose and becoming better, sure there was a slight ebb here and there, but no REAL change. Now, I’m talking about theme or structure changes, a re-invention of self, if you will, NOT cast, set, or costume changes, but something substantial underneath it all. Not under Taylor (seasons 1 through 4). Not under Brandon Braga (seasons 5 and 6) and not even under Ken Biller (Season 7). Even in those last two seasons, after DS9 was off the air, and it was the only Trek on the air, which is the real sad part of it all.

At this point we come to the beginning of the end. We had 80 episodes of TOS, along with 22 TAS episodes, and 6 Movies, 178 TNG episodes and 3 movies, 176 DS9 episodes, 172 Voyager episodes. Trek had been on the air for 14 straight years.

That’s when the afore mentioned ENT, the Trek prequel hit airwaves, created by a seriously burned out Berman  and Braga (B&B). The former was taking more of an active role since in the past he was content to let Piller, Taylor, Behr, et al take care of the creative side, but I guess he didn’t want to be known as the guy who “signed the trek checks for two decades.”  The latter was one of the most disliked writers of the modern Trek era. To be fair to Braga, when he started writing for TNG, he was an asset, as a non-fan, he did help the show do some original stuff, that’s great as a writer in a room full of writers, but when you move on to show runner you have to: A) respect the fans and B) love the franchise. He didn’t. And it was obvious with every script, every decision for those first two years.

ENT got off to a rocky start. Sure, it had a known Sci-Fi friendly TV star lead (“Quantum Leap” star Scott Bakula) something Trek had never had before (it was a star maker, not a star vehicle), but it was a professed to be “character driven” instead of “plot driven.”  Which shows how much B&B knew Trek.  ALL Trek, good and bad, IS BOTH  character and plot driven. But when they said it here, it seemed to say: Character driven with thin plots that never made it past the “it would be cool if…” stage. Oh, and this was not the show to go “character driven” with. The characters (played by a great under-rated cast) were pale imitations of previous Treks (mainly TOS). Archer was a wimpy Kirk. Trip came across as McCoy and Scotty’s love child, Mayweather and Hoshi were just Uhura and Sulu with the ethnic backgrounds switched. Phlox was a retread of VOY’s Neelix with a medical degree. T’Pol was a funhouse mirror version of Spock. (Spock a loyal Vulcan male who controls his emotions. T’Pol an antagonistic Vulcan female who seems to emote all over the place). Only Reed was original to Trek and I think that’s only because no other Treks wanted to use the clichéd prim and proper British officer.

For two years ENT mostly slogged along VOY’s route occasionally hitting some out of the park (“Andorian Incident,” “Shuttlepod One,” “Cogenitor”), even trying to touch on some TOS style social commentary (“Detained,” a post 9/11 parallel to Arab-Americans, and “The Expanse,” a 9/11 style attack on innocents). They tried to pull an arc together (from the start) that featured a Temporal Cold War… that was underused and, well, left most of us remaining fans, um… cold.

Ratings were even falling below that of “Firefly” the critical success but ratings challenged space western by “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” & “Angel” creator Joss Whedon that was axed by Fox after only 15 episodes.
Then there was season three.

Braga, who was a horrid Trek writer, but not a bad writer in general, started *writing* Instead of putting out what he *thought* was good Trek (and usually wasn’t), he started trying to build a story, not his view of a Trek story, just a story. Out of the limp Temporal Cold War Arc came the Xindi Arc and ENT (and the Trek franchise) was reborn. Doing something never done on Trek. A massive single season story (a style being made popular in the mainstream by “24” and adopted years earlier by genre television on “Buffy” & “Angel,” “StarGate SG-1,” “Farscape,” and even to a lesser degree the Roddenberry created “Earth Final: Conflict”).

This is not the show it should have been, but dog-on-it it was finally a darn good show. I never would have guessed that Braga had it in him.

But it was too late, ratings were limp and had declined, "Enterprise" had lost 75% of its viewership over the first two seasons. Only a portion of hardcore fan was still watching. The mainstream had gradually tuned out and even the purists were wavering the year before. UPN wasn’t even promoting the show anymore. And it wasn’t just on tv, the previous year TNG’s fourth (and to date final) film (“Star Trek: Nemesis” - NEM) tanked at the box office. B&B were even claiming “franchise fatigue” and professed “going to the well too many times.”  UPN had the ax ready for ENT.

The writing was on the wall. Trek was dead. Except...

For the first time in years the franchise was getting critical praise. The decade old network had a decision to make. Do they pull the plug on a 17 year institution when getting critical praise and are just a year away from a nifty syndication package?

The answer is no.

If they keep it on and ratings continue to fall then they look magnanimous. A generous attempt to keep the Roddenberry flame alive (if they just happen to get a nice syndication package out of it, oh, it’s just a bonus, right?). Or at least that’s how they played it. If the ratings turned around due to critical response, then great, they have a hit show again (which they claim they believed in all along). It was win-win to keep ENT on one more season. And thus we come to the End of the End.

Writing on the wall. B&B blamed “franchise fatigue.”  Oddly B&B didn't stop with “franchise fatigue” I've heard they even went so far as to blame the fans for tuning out. Never once did they blame their own mishandling of the previous two TNG films, VOY and early ENT. Nope, the fans were blamed for not watching the “good season” (no blame for UPN for not promoting the third season, but, you know, they might want to work for them in the future, so, why not blame the fans, right?) instead of, you know, MAKING THE FIRST TWO SEASONS THAT GOOD TO START WITH. 


Anyhow. Writing. Wall. B&B knew this was it.  UPN slashed the budget in half, cut the order to 22 episodes and moved the show to Friday nights. The night that killed TOS. But things are different these days, fans can go out and tape or DVR ENT, right? Wrong.

Over the last decade (or more) Fridays had become THE Sci-Fi night. “John Doe,” “X-Files,” “Sliders,” “Harsh Relm,” “Firefly,” “First Wave,” “Lone Gunmen,” “Lexx,” “Dark Angel,” “Jeremiah,” “Dead Like Me,” “Wonderfalls,” and more. Sci-Fi Channel, Showtime, and FOX waged a Sci-Fi war on Fridays. Long and short runs. Winners and losers. Until SFC finally won the night with “Farscape” and the stolen from Showtime series “StarGate SG-1.” With announcements that the latter’s spin-off “StarGate: Atlantis” would be added to Friday with its predecessor and with Ron Moore’s (one of TNG & DS9’s most beloved writers) reimagining of “Battlestar Galactica” as well as the fifth and final season of (ironically) “Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda,” (developed from a Roddenberry idea by popular DS9 writer Robert Hewitt Wolf).  The geeks had a channel to TiVo and it sure as heck wasn’t UPN.

So B&B knew it was over and faster than political propaganda, they cut and run. Their names were on it and they wrote the series finale. But it was over for them. Braga went to work on his next series (“Threshhold” on CBS starring TNG actor Brent Spiner which started recently and it sure isn't looking good in the ratings) and one can assume so did Berman. They handed it off to someone else. A smart move, actually. If the show gets canceled on their watch then they’re the boobs that killed Trek. But if they hand it off, then it looks like the new guy killed it. The only flaw was what if the new guy made it better, created a groundswell of excitement like Piller’s fresh scripts did for the third season of TNG. Then they look like the guys who almost ran Trek into the ground. They look like the two who screamed “franchise fatigue” and “going to the well too many times,” when really it was just their own inability to get the job done right to start with.

This. Could. Not. Happen.

They promoted staff writer Manny Coto, a Trek fan who took a demotion to be a Trek staff writer during season three (and contributed to the greatness of that season), to show runner. Prior to this, he was show runner for two great but short lived sci-fi series “Odyssey 5” and “Jake 2.0.” He was a fan. He stacked the writing staff with novelists.

To (again) digress here - whenever someone laments that the franchise is dead and has nothing fresh or interesting to say I point at the novels. The novelists are FANS first and all the books are a labor of love. Sure some novels are horrid and only get printed because they have the Trek name on them, but far more are *really* good and would win awards if they did NOT have the Trek name on the cover (the bias works both ways). Some of the best Trek literature has emerged since guide lines and restrictions were eased by Paramount and given writers more of a free hand. The post finale DS9 books are as good as the series at it’s best, the post VOY finale books are BETTER than the series, So far the post TNG-NEM novels (which is actually two book series, TNG and “Titan,”) are off to a stunningly good start (better than the TNG movies). The original Trek Universe novels are great. Peter David’s “New Froniter” series, Keith DeCandido’s “Gorkon” series and “S.C.E.” series, Michael Friedman’s “Stargazer” series all are worthy of attention… now back to Coto…

Coto decided to shift the shows focus from Temporal Cold War to what it should have been from the beginning: The Founding of the Federation. He had a vision. A vision that B&B through fatigue or lack of knowledge just didn’t have anymore (if they ever really had it). They just couldn’t take the chance that Coto could pull it off.

So they sabotaged him.

They ended the great season three arc with the single worst cliffhanger ever used on Trek (Alien Nazis). They then directed that the premier had to be a two parter and promptly walked away. Coto stuggled with a lame inherited two part premier, hamstrung by half a budget and produced the worst two hours of the season. The two that would be watched by anyone who walked away during seasons one and two (or during VOY) who were now coming back because of good press. They left in droves.

Ratings dropped even farther (insult to injury Moore’s “Battlestar Galactica” was a huge hit, with double the audience on a channel in three quarters of the homes). But by the third episode, it started changing, alternating 2 and 3-part arcs and stand alones (again, another structure change for the franchise) Coto’s new direction and writing staff worked. Not only was the show better than the first two seasons it was something season three was not: A true prequel to Trek. It was as promised, what the show should have been to start with. The emphasis was on story, character, and as a prequel, continuity (a word B&B never bothered to look up), heck, he even worked in a little social commentary in his final two episodes.

Hard core fans were in love again. All five of us. Ok, that’s an overstatement (understatement?)… but not by much. Coto shepherded 21 episodes, 19 of which he was in full control. Of those 19, 16 are considered unqualified successes. The other three met with mixed reviews. B&B came back for the finale. Berman called it a Valentine to fans. This was a Valentine at least as much as rape is to love making.

In the end Trek went out mixed. Critically it was great due to someone who understood the franchise and loved it. But from the outside it looks like “franchise fatigue” and “going to the well too many times.” But your proof is there. When the guys responsible say things like this. They need to go. You need a guy who says: “We need more Trek. UPN should have a Trek night. It should be like “Law and Order” on NBC or “CSI” on CBS.” Coto said that. I agree. But only if it’s run by people who love it.

With a grand total of 726 episodes and 10 movies, someone who loves it can see what works and what doesn’t. They can see what’s been done and what hasn’t. They can go somewhere new but stay true to the series.

The question of the future will depend on who Paramount gets for the next incarnation. Will they go the movie route and get the flavor of the week who may or may not be up to the task or will they get someone like Berman who will create something despite thinking “franchise fatigue” and “going to the well too many times” just because it pays well. Will we get someone like Braga who just doesn’t get it. Someone like Taylor or Biller who is competent but not extraordinary. Someone like Freiberger, who is incompetent. Someone like Roddenberry who despite being the creator can’t really move forward. Or Piller who will stay only as long as he feels he can deliver the goods and then pass it off to someone else who maybe worse (TNG) or maybe better (DS9). Or Behr who doesn’t care what it is as long has he can tell a good story. Or a guy like Coto who just loves it.

Trek is only as good as the guy running the show. Who we get for Trek’s next incarnation will decide its ultimate fate and will either cement Trek’s death or, like Spock, be resurrected.

Till then, I’m waiting patiently for pocket to follow the steps of TNG, DS9, and VOY and start an ENT post series set of novels ‘cause Trek ain’t dead, it’s just resting.