Review: The Orville

Kitty Hawk

The last time I was thoroughly engaged with the Star Trek franchise was The Next Generation television series of the early 90’s. Nothing since has been able to capture my attention for more than a few episodes. Even the movies starring the TNG cast left me wanting.

While I did enjoy the first JJ Abrams reboot of the franchise, I realized the parts I liked were the parts that connected it to the iconic characters of the past and found the alternative timeline device a sort of “easy way out” (albeit commercially understandable) for Hollywood to move in new directions.

As it happens, earlier this year I began re-watching the TNG television series from the start. It’s been enjoyable if not predictable, and comes across somewhat dated in production values. It’s humorous to see them walking around with tablets and talking to the computer in the age of iPads and Alexa. As I reflected on the show and the state of the franchise, I couldn’t help but have a lingering bit of disappointment realizing I’m watching stuff 25 years old.

Then along comes The Orville. Having seen the initial advertisements, I assumed it was a pure comedy and figured I might give it a try sometime but didn’t get too excited about it. Given the amount of plane travel I have to endure these days for work, I’m always on the lookout for good content so one night I thought I’d give it a try.

I have thoroughly enjoyed it.

It’s as if a true Star Trek fan, with a wicked sense of humor and the clout to get something on the air, decided to make their own fan version of show (uh, Seth MacFarlane). It has everything you’d expect, except maybe transporters, and clearly avoids verbatim Star Trek vocabulary (using ‘quantum drive’ for example instead of ‘warp drive’).

The archetypes are there. You can’t have a bridge crew without a logical/unemotional type always questioning or seeking humanity. Update the production values and décor then sprinkle in some lighthearted plot elements and lots of one-liners, and you’ve got the idea.

Now, it’s not perfect. Sometimes the humor is a bit crass. Sometimes the science part of the scifi is a bit dubious even by Star Trek standards, but if you can let go of some minor rough edges, it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Several of the episodes involve the kind of metaphorical science fiction storylines the original series was known for, only updated for modern social concerns.

If you are missing a show that harkens back to the roots of Star Trek and are want a few good laughs along the way, give The Orville a try. Let me know what you think.

(Image Source)

Some Thoughts on the Atas Shrugged movie

In short, read the book.

As the first installment in a presumable trilogy, this movie was titled Atlas Shrugged: Part I. A more apt subtitle would have been Take 1. In a clearly rushed production, this adaptation overemphasized visual details such as clothing and decor, and lacked any of the buildup, character development and subtly of the original classic novel. Oh, and there is some really bad CG.

It was clumsily modernized in a way that leaves nothing to the imagination–unlike the book’s more timeless setting which allows the reader to draw the many and sometimes eerie parallels to today’s situation.

Without going into spoiler territory, the plot tipped its hand too soon, both in the lines spoken by the Fedora character and in the parting words at the close. Again, no subtly there. I doubt the movie would be compelling or even decipherable by anyone who hasn’t read the book or is not sympathetic to its philosophy.

When judged by how difficult the task was to adapt this complex book to a modern movie, it might earn a C-. When judged by how enlightening and influential the book was–and the movie should have been–it gets an F. It could have been so much better.

Unless Peter Jackson wants to sign on for Take 2 and spend a couple years on the rest of the story, they shouldn’t make a Part II and III. Like I said, read the book.

Review: HBO’s The Pacific

Today I watched the last installment of HBO’s The Pacific, culminating 10 hours of intense television that I had been anticipating for months. As with Band of Brothers before it, The Pacific was more than just education–it brought amazing perspective on the tragedy and violence of war and reenforced how small my own problems seem in comparison.

The Pacific was about as different from Band of Brothers as the Pacific Theatre was from the European during the war. As Eugene Sledge points out in this talk, the German soldier was a very competent killer, but in the end, wanted to get back to his family after the war. The Imperial Japanese soldier, however, had no higher honor than to die for the emperor. That led to a very different kind of brutality and a raw volume of killing thoroughly depicted in the series.

On balance, I felt Band of Brothers to be the better of the two–primarily due to the fact you are following one cohort through the war and get to know the soldiers, and their amazing leader Dick Winters, quite well over the 10 hours. The Pacific bounced around between different key Marines and only touched on some of the incredible leadership stories (Chesty Puller getting the most attention).

One of the most compelling stories, that of Captain Andrew “Ack-Ack” Haldane, deserved more attention. He represented the best America had to offer, a natural leader: captain of the football and baseball teams, president of the student council, beloved by his men and respected by his superiors. As you can read in this profile, and this news story, his impact is still felt.

Even as an American history buff, I did not know the whole story of John Basilone and intentionally did not read more about him beforehand so as to experience his story unfold in the series. That resulted in the second kick in the stomach of the series for me, the first being Haldane. After reading the citations for his Medal of Honor and Navy Cross, I couldn’t help but feel the depiction of both events in the series was lacking.

As with Band of Brothers, the series brought an amazing perspective to the “problems” I have in my “intense” and “stressful” corporate job. Since we don’t have cable at home, I bribed a history buff friend of mine to subscribe to HBO (thanks Scott!) so we could watch each episode over lunch at his house. The contrast couldn’t be more stark, going from my “hectic” office, to view (or rather experience) each episode in the dark of his living room, then emerge an hour later to a sunny afternoon in his bucolic suburban neighborhood. Each time I returned to the office, things seemed a little less dire at work.

Overall, I salute Hanks and the producers for putting this historic piece out there. It will educate countless viewers about what those men went through, and maybe make you think a little bit differently about Trumen’s decision to use the nuclear bomb to ultimately save lives. While I didn’t enjoy it as much as Band of Brothers, it is an important contribution to our historic memory and a superb tribute to those Marines.

Reading: Lever Action

I first encountered L. Neil Smith as an author of science fiction (notably Rosewell, Texas and The Probability Broach graphic novels) and particularly enjoyed his use of alternate historical timelines and variations on historical figures.  What stood out most however, was how consistent the theme of personal liberty was embodied in his characters and narratives.

Recently, I found this collection of his essays on personal liberty and it became quickly apparent to me that Smith is one of the strongest defenders of the Bill of Rights around today (particularly its “enforcement”).  In clear, engaging and often humorous language, Smith will have you questioning some of your basic assumptions about “rights” in America.

I’m sure you won’t agree with everything he says (I found some of his “colorful” language around contemporary leaders and events tiresome and unnecessary), but he will make you think.  As a small tribute to the spirit of the book, I’ve included the text of the first ten amendments below, since I know at least for me, it had been a while since I actually read them:

  • Amendment I – Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
  • Amendment II – A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
  • Amendment III – No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
  • Amendment IV– The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
  • Amendment V – No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
  • Amendment VI – In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
  • Amendment VII – In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
  • Amendment VIII – Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
  • Amendment IX -The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
  • Amendment X – The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

You can read more about the Bill of Rights, and see the original document, at the National Archives.

Smith, L. Neil. Lever Action

Reading: Atlas Shrugged

“Who is John Galt?”  I’ve been asking myself that a lot over the last few weeks.  Well, more than 1000 pages later, both that question and the world we’re living in are starting to make a whole lot more sense.

This is simply a book you must read yourself.  It’s a compelling narrative, that can stir deep thinking about humanity and change (or confirm) your perspective of what it means to really produce.  It’s timely, given where America is headed politically these days.

I’ve heard about Rand’s novels for years, and have been urged by close friends (including my wife) to read them.  I knew they had philosophical undertones, but they always seemed to get trumped by more obviously compelling material.

That changed over the last few months when Atlas started cropping up for me everywhere.  I noticed it in blogs I follow, in business texts I was studying, even in the mainstream media.  It was time to read it (and I wasn’t alone, see this Wall Street Journal article about a recent spike in sales).  I wasn’t disappointed.

There are several speeches in the book that you’ll undoubtedly dog-ear to reread in the future, particularly Francisco d’Anconia’s about money (rather than quote it at length, you can read an excerpt here).  It’s the kind of story you’ll want to read twice, and I eagerly await that opportunity.

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged

The Best BBQ in Town… a New Mammoth Tradition

If you are in the mood for BBQ after a long day on the mountain, you can’t go wrong with Angel’s Restaurant in Mammoth Lakes.  With how much time I spend up there, I can’t believe I just now discovered this jewel.  First, it’s exceptional BBQ.  When you pick up one of the St Louis style pork ribs, the meats slips right off the bone. You have to use a fork!  The wings are just spicy enough to make your reach for a drink, but not enough to scare people off.  The sides are also fantastic, especially the cheese scone rolls with honey butter, and you can’t go wrong with sweet potato fries.  Top it off with good prices and excellent service and I’d have to say it’s worth a visit on every trip.

Reading: Anathem

It’s not since Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game that I’ve been so vocal about recommending a work of contemporary science fiction. This time, it’s Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. Once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down–all 934 pages (if you include the ‘calca’ proofs in the back).

It is a thought provoking look into two different approaches to life: the monastic ‘avout’ who pursue scientific and philosophical knowledge in communities separated from the world for long periods of time (inspired in part by the Long Now Foundation’s 10,000 Year Clock), and the external world full of casinos, cell phones, and consumerism. The former is about as appealing as the latter is unfortunately familiar.

The novel is both intellectually satisfyingly (a pleasant surprise for fiction) and simply a ‘good yarn’. Drop me a line when you’ve finished it (and not before, I’d hate to accidentally spoil the plot).

You can watch the author speaking at Google both about the book and his writing practice.

Stephenson, Neal. Anathem.