Riverdale, Revisited

Ms. Grundy and Archie. This is as happy a moment as any you’re likely to see on Riverdale. (Image: CW)

Okay, so it’s been a while since I posted my thoughts on Riverdale, so time to check back in with the series and see what’s up. In that previous post, I expressed my thoughts, especially on the Archie-Ms. Grundy relationship the show was exploring. I was concerned about the direction the producers were planning to take that story line, and I explained why. I also said that they deserved the benefit of the doubt until we saw how that story played out.

I am happy to report that in the very next episode of the series, Ms. Grundy got driven out of town by Archie’s father and Betty’s mother because of the inappropriate relationship with Archie. So, hooray! Now, this is Riverdale, so there were a lot of nasty conversations and Betty and Veronica broke into Ms. Grundy’s car and stole her gun and a whole lot of other stuff that we wouldn’t want to see anyone do in real life but is par for the course in Riverdale, but hey, the story of that relationship ended without getting icky. (Maybe I should say “ickier.”)

No, the ending actually modeled some good ideas for any teenagers who might learn that a friend was in an inappropriate relationship with an adult. And by “good ideas,” I mean, “tell your friend the relationship is unhealthy and needs to end, then tell some adults.” Since this is Riverdale, there were also midnight sleuthing and petulant adults who can’t resist turning any discussion no matter how important into a rehash of decades-old grievances, but we’ll let all that pass because it’s Riverdale. What did you expect?

Some critics have remarked that the ending of the Ms. Grundy story line seemed abrupt. It all came to a screeching halt just four episodes in, which might surprise you, given that about half of the hype about this show before its premiere revolved around “Oooh, Archie is having an affair with Ms. Grundy, can you believe it?” It’s tempting to speculate that this represented some sudden change of heart. Perhaps the show runners were getting too much flak about this story line, and made a last-minute decision to cut it short? Maybe. But I say, what matters is that they made the right decision, and they deserve praise for that. How and when they made the decision is unimportant.

All right, so now that we are ten episodes in, and the Ms. Grundy unpleasantness is behind us, what do we make of Riverdale? Well, Riverdale is…weird. It’s a CW teen soap opera that’s so over-the-top that you can’t help thinking that it’s a sly parody of teen soap operas. But here’s the thought that’s bothering me these days: I asked myself, “If this show were exactly the same as what it is, except that the characters were not named Archie and Betty and Jughead and Veronica, if there were no tie-in to Archie comics, would you still be interested?” I have to confess that the answer to this question, at least for now, is a resounding “No.” A lot of the draw for Riverdale right now is seeing how amazingly far removed from the comics the show has gotten and watching it strain to move farther still, even from the recently re-booted and more realistic and relatable Archie comics.

But this is a draw that can’t go on forever. As the show enters its second season (it’s been renewed), it will become harder to keep going back to that well. Riverdale is going to have to stand on its own, without leaning so heavily on the comics. Otherwise the conceit of the show, “Hey, we sure are different from the comics you read as a kid, aren’t we?” is soon going to wear thin.

Reflections on Riverdale, Three Episodes In

image: CW

Okay, so I’ve watched the first three episodes of Riverdale, the new CW drama based on the Archie comics. Now, I remember Archie comics from when I was a kid in the 1960s, and frankly, they seemed archaic even then, with clean cut teens riding hot rods and hanging out at Pops Chock’lit Shoppe. In recent years, though, the comic books have been much more interesting and experimental, culminating in what I guess you would call a reboot that somehow manages to preserve what was best in old-time Archie while re-imagining the characters and their world into people and places you might actually believe existed in real life.

The funny thing is, I can recall people joking about a steamy Archie-based TV series on the CW called Riverdale since at least 2010. And now it’s a thing. The most recent episode, 1×03, is called “Body Double.” The main plot line of the episode revolves around slut shaming. I don’t want to focus on this plot line right now, so I’ll just say it didn’t work for me, though I will cut the show some slack, because it seemed their hearts were in the right place. Better luck next time.

I want to focus instead on the ongoing story line about Archie having had an (apparently sexual) relationship with his music teacher, Miss Grundy, who is a 30-ish hottie in this version of the Archieverse. The relationship is apparently over, although sometimes Archie and Miss Grundy look at each other in ways that suggest the fire is not entirely quenched. Miss Grundy is primarily concerned that Archie not tell anyone, for the sake of her career. Archie firmly insists he won’t, apparently out of a misguided sense of chivalry, but he wants Miss Grundy to give him lessons, because Archie has dreams of a songwriting career. In the most recent episode, Miss Grundy speaks with Archie’s father about Archie’s music, and persuades Mr. Andrews to support his son in his pursuit of his dream. We also learn that “Miss Grundy” has stolen the identity of an older woman (more like the Miss Grundy we know from the comics), and it is implied that she is involved in something shady, probably criminal. (In addition to sleeping with Archie, I mean.)

I used to practice law in the field of child protection, so I have some opinions about all this:

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What If It’s All Spam?

I just filtered out the ugliest, nastiest, most racist comment I ever saw at my website.

And here’s the thing: it wasn’t a real person. It came from Russia and was a spam comment intended to get you to look at fake Cartier watches. And this got me wondering. Do Russian spammers do this a lot? Is it possible that all the anger and animosity and turmoil going on in the US right now over racial and gender and cultural issues is actually being driven by Russian spammers out to sell counterfeit merchandise?

Sounds like a science fiction story.

Reflections on Star Trek, 50 Years Later

star-trek-premiere-ad-1966There are people who can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing on December 7, 1941, or November 22, 1963, or January 28, 1986, or September 11, 2001.

Me? I can tell you exactly what I was doing on September 8, 1966. I was watching Star Trek, and I would go on watching it for the next fifty years.

I had just turned nine years old, and I was already a stone science fiction fan. The thing was, science fiction was very much a niche interest at the time. In the rural community where I lived, it was considered children’s entertainment—for children who weren’t very old or very bright.

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A Writer’s Guide to Yes and No

So, thinking about how to write about seventh-century Anglo-Saxons raises questions about two simple words you would think no writer would need advice on: yes and no. But if you are writing out of your own time and place, you do need to be careful about what you do with these words. A few thoughts:

Modern English uses yes and no more often, I think, than did our ancestors in the past, and more so than speakers of other languages. In today’s global village, where English is used so heavily as a second language, it seems this trait of English is leaking into other languages. I think modern speakers of Spanish, say, use and no more often than they used to.

Some languages get by perfectly well with no words at all that correspond to our yes and no. Finnish, for instance.  Classical Latin did not have words for yes and no. These languages get by just by repeating the verb. For instance:

Has he left?
He has left.
He has not left.

So if you are writing a story set in ancient Rome, you can help convey the feel of being in a different culture at a different time by not using yes or no to answer questions. And, as I say, if your story is set in a foreign country with a different language, or especially in the past, you can help convey that by omitting yes and no, or at least minimizing the use of them.

In my case, with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I have all but removed yes and no from the manuscript. I do global searches from time to time to sift out cases when I used them without thinking, which I sometimes do. But the Anglo-Saxon language did have words for yes and no, so it needn’t be a hard and fast rule. There are times when you really want to use yes or no because the character is being emphatic, and that’s all right. Although they said yes and no less often back then, the times when they did use them, it was to be emphatic.

But the other tricky thing is that the Anglo-Saxons actually had four words: yes, no, aye, and nay. So if you’re writing in old or middle English, you really need to know how to use all four. Wikipedia has an article on yes and no that can help you. Basically, if the question is affirmative, you use aye and nay. If the question is negative, you use yes and no. For instance:

Has he left yet?
Aye, he has left.
Nay, he has not left.

Hasn’t he left yet? (Or maybe, Has he not left yet? has a better period feel.)
Yes, he has left.
No, he has not left yet.

So there you have it. I’ll bet hat’s a lot more words of explanation on how to use yes and no than you ever thought would be necessary.

What do you think? Have I got it right?

(Lots of good work on the project. I’m up to about 110,000 words.)

(Cross-posted at The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.)

More on Words

I’ve been thinking more about word choice, and I’ve decided I haven’t beaten this dead horse enough, so let me say some more.

As I’ve said, one of the glories of the English language is that there are often three (or more) different ways to say something, Anglo-Saxon, French, and Greco-Latin. Each one has its own distinct color. Or flavor, if you like.

This is something that all writers need to pay attention to in their own work, even if they are not writing epic fantasy novels set in Dark Age England. Because the colors are going to work for you (or against you), so you need to understand them.

Greco-Latin verbiage is technical, bureaucratic, and polysyllabic. This language can communicate with great precision, which is why scientists and academics and the educated frequently employ it. The difficulty inherent in using this language is that it can feel abstract and colorless. And though it is precise language, its very technicality facilitates confusion. Audiences can be misdirected by this language, and its very sense of sophistication can be used to induce the credulous to conclude that important ideas have been expressed, when in fact the language is basically empty of content.

French words lend themselves to express beauty, artistry, vision. It is the language of grace and balance, a ballet of letters that can touch all the pleasures and mysteries of experience. French words lend themselves to poetry. They are the music of the soul.

Anglo-Saxon speech is short, punchy, and earthy. The words are crisp. They show meaning without bloat. They are words of feeling. Words of love and hate. Words of life and death. Blunt, hard words that make sharp thoughts and quick deeds.

Did you see what I did there? Ha, ha, yes. I am so clever. I did the thing I was talking about while I was talking about it. But I think even in these hastily constructed and self-conscious sentences, you can see what I’m driving at. Note too that I constructed more complex sentences to go with the more complex language, and simple sentences that go with the simple words. The longer sentences are sentences of mood and contemplation. The short, punchy sentences are sentences of action and passion.

(I am now 107,000 words into this project. I am no longer sure whether I have two long books or three short ones. Who knows? Maybe three long ones by the time I’m done. I’ve decided to just go ahead and write the damn first draft already, and worry about structure later.)

(Cross-posted at The Sorcerer’s Apprentice)

My Proposal for a New Star Trek Series

As long as I am obsessing on Star Trek (“When are you ever not obsessing on Star Trek, Mark?”), I might as well bring up the new series, which is scheduled to premiere in just six months. As I write this, little is known about the new series, not even the era in which it is set. (For the non-Trekkers, Star Trek comes with three different eras: the 22nd century, 23rd century, and 24th century.) Now seems like a good time, before CBS gives out any information about the nature of the new series, to lay out my idea for what the new series should be.

I hasten to point out that I am not making a prediction. I have no idea what the actual new series is going to be. I just want to lay out my own idea—what I would do if, for some crazy reason, CBS handed the project over to me and told me I could do whatever I wanted. Here it is:

The 2009 Star Trek film established that a supernova in the 24th century destroyed the Romulan home world. My series would use that as its point of departure. Set in a post-Voyager 24th century, it would examine the consequences of the destruction of Romulus. I envision the Romulan Empire collapsing into chaos, creating both a military and humanitarian crisis. The rump Imperial government, now all but ineffective, requests assistance from the Federation. The series would be about Starfleet moving into the Empire to deal with the aftermath of the collapse.

The Romulans have always been depicted as xenophobic and unwilling to permit alien ships anywhere near their space. So I imagine Romulan space is not well mapped by Starfleet. There would be strange surprises. I imagine there would be Romulan fleet admirals who still command their own fleets. These admirals might set themselves up as warlord-rulers of sectors of Romulan space. Some would be loyal to the central government and welcome Starfleet assistance, others not so much. There would be political intrigue among these warlords. There would be planets inhabited by races not known to the Federation who were involuntary subjects of the Empire. Some of them may want to join the Federation. Some might be hostile both to the central government and to the Federation. Some might just want to be left alone. Some might be out for revenge.

And there could be the usual Star Trek-style strange phenomena, spatial anomalies, wormholes, life forms that live in deep space—again, perhaps already known to the Romulans, perhaps not, but certainly not known to Starfleet. And there could be my favorite idea: mad Romulan scientists working on isolated research stations who have discovered amazing new technologies but now no longer are supported (or controlled by) the Romulan government. Perhaps the warlords would fight over them. Perhaps one of these scientists might become the most powerful warlord….

The series would trace the adventures of one or more Starfleet crews as they do disaster relief in the Romulan Empire and deal with challenges like these. A series based on this premise could go on for years, and could include the “strange new worlds” aspect of Star Trek, along with a liberal dose of the Deep Space Nine-style political and diplomatic intrigue.

That’s a Star Trek series I could get excited about. Whether I can get excited about the forthcoming series…well, time will tell.

Thoughts on the New New Star Trek Film

You probably already know that there’s a new Star Trek film, Star Trek Beyond, coming out this week. This film, the third in the series of films that has variously been called the Abramsverse, or nuTrek, or The-Star-Trek-films-without-colons, but what we are now supposed to call the Kelvin Timeline, appears to have had a rocky development, and an oddly low-key marketing campaign, which made some (including me) wonder if the studio was disappointed in the film. But the buzz is picking up as we approach opening day, and the early reviews are encouraging, so maybe we won’t be disappointed this time.

But, as a hardcore Trek fan, it is my duty to look ahead and start worrying about the next Trek film, which is yet untitled, but everyone is calling Star Trek 4, although we all know there already was a Star Trek IV, and this next outing is really Star Trek 14. But anyway, the suits at Paramount are already planning this film, even before this week’s release of Star Trek Beyond, suggesting they are expecting Beyond to do well. We also learned that Chris Hemsworth, who is today best known for playing Thor in the Marvel movies, is being brought back to reprise his role as George Kirk, James Kirk’s father, in this newest Trek.

Film critic Devin Faraci at Birth. Movies. Death. has written a provocative piece about this news, and I want to piggyback on his ideas a bit. Devin notes that the attack on USS Kelvin and George Kirk’s sacrificing his life was the best moment we’ve seen in the Kelvin Timeline so far, which is absolutely right. He goes on to conclude that Hemsworth’s return to Trek can only mean that Star Trek 4 is going to be a time travel story.

I think that’s probably right, although I would add a few caveats. It doesn’t have to be a time travel story. Kirk’s father could appear in a holodeck simulation, a la “These Are the Voyages…”, the series finale to Star Trek: Enterprise. He could be seen in an old recording, a la Jack Crusher in “Family.” He could be a shapeshifter messing with Kirk’s head, or a vision as in “Journey’s End.” He could be Mirror George Kirk. I mean, really. This is Star Trek we’re talking about.

Still, the cynic in me says that no one is being that creative, and tends to agree with Devin that this will be a time travel story, where Kirk and possibly others will travel back in time to the destruction of Kelvin. Devin has something really smart to say about that:

Imagine if the crew of the Enterprise learns they are not only in an alternate timeline, but they’re in the bad timeline. What if the crew has to go back in time and save the Kelvin, in the process erasing themselves (and this whole alternate universe series of films) from existence? What if Kirk, who still has daddy issues in Beyond, gets to meet his dad, prove to his dad he’s great and then, as he’s fading out of existence Back to the Future style, his dad tells Alt Kirk that he’s going to raise his son (our Kirk) to be as good as this man from the future? Get weird, get scifi, revisit the moral quandary at the heart of City on the Edge of Forever, the best episode of Trek ever.

I’d be okay with that. I’d be okay with the series writing itself away. I would not be okay with just some bullshit time travel junk that doesn’t have any impact.

Exactly right, Devin. It has already been noted by many fans that in every other Trek story about alternate timelines, when our heroes discover one, they dedicate themselves to righting the wrong and restoring the “proper” timeline. But in the 2009 Star Trek, our heroes figure out they are in an alternate timeline and, well, shrug it off and move on. Devin is overlooking the additional fact that in this alternate Kelvin Timeline, billions of Vulcans died as the result of one madman messing with the timeline. If that isn’t an incentive to try to fix things, I don’t know what it. Especially for Spock, right?

I think Devin’s story would do a lot to redeem the other Kelvin Timeline films. It would turn the set of four into one long story arc, something close to an eight-hour “what if” Trek episode. It would also have the real world effect of “wiping out” the Kelvin Timeline, and would be taken as some as effectively an apology for ever starting it. I’d be okay with that, too.

The cast of the Kelvin Timeline films are aging (as are we all.) They were younger than their Original Series counterparts in 2009. Today, just three movies in, they’re roughly the same age as the original cast. At a rate of just one movie every 3-4 years, it’s not going to take long before Chris Pine will need granny glasses to read A Tale of Two Cities. This new cast is the best thing the Kelvin Timeline films have going, but they won’t be around forever. Devin’s story would allow them to retire from the roles with dignity.

P.S.: Mentioning that the cast “won’t be around forever” requires that I acknowledge the untimely passing of Anton Yelchin. I am more than twice Anton’s age. For people of my age, the death of someone as young and full of life as Anton was is just a tragedy beyond words. We can only guess at what great performances we have all been deprived of by losing him so soon. Rest in peace, Anton.

The End of Hidden Frontier

If you are a committed Star Trek fan, you probably know that there are a number of Star Trek fan productions out there on the internet, in which fans create their own episodes for the enjoyment of other fans. This has been going on for about 15 years, and the productions have been getting bigger and more sophisticated and, yes, it must be confessed, more professional. And you probably also have heard that last week CBS and Paramount issued guidelines spelling out what is and is not acceptable in a Star Trek fan production.

It must be said first, that until now, CBS and Paramount have been very indulgent with the fan productions. It should also be said that a set of guidelines is welcome. It helps clarify expectations, and give the fans guidance. That being said, the guidelines issued are absurdly strict, particularly in limiting fan shows to 15 minutes, which means telling a story that in any way resembles a real Star Trek story is now impossible. Not to mention, if these guidelines are meant to be retroactive, banning the further distribution of pretty much every Star Trek fan production ever made.

I have a stake in this, because I have contributed, in a small way, to one such fan production, Henglaar, MD, from Hidden Frontier Productions. HFP has been making video and audio Star Trek fan shows since 2000, set in the post-Voyager Star Trek universe, with original characters. And they have been pretty darned good, if I do say so myself. Not to mention that HFP quite literally changed my life for the better.

I discovered Hidden Frontier in 2008, ironically, just as the original show was winding down. At that time, a lot of us Star Trek fans were wondering, after the cancellation of Enterprise and the failure of Nemesis, whether Star Trek was played out. HF and its spinoff shows demonstrated conclusively that there was plenty of life left in Star Trek, if you put it in the hands of the right people. I have often said, and will repeat here, that if CBS wants to create a new Star Trek series, they could do worse than just buy up the Hidden Frontier episodes and re-do the series professionally.

When I was younger, I tried writing science fiction professionally, and after several years and exactly one (1) publication credit to show for it, I gave up. That was in 1997. I pursued a new career in politics. I didn’t write a word of fiction for eleven years after that.

When I discovered HF, I was hooked. Bad. Not just as an audience member; I wanted to play, too. It looked like everyone was having so much fun. I binge-watched every episode of Hidden Frontier in July, 2008. Afterward, story ideas began coming to me unbidden. In August, I sat down to write my first piece of HF fan fiction. I wasn’t sure I even remembered how to write fiction. Strangely enough, I discovered not only that I remembered, but in fact my writing was better than ever. My HF fan fiction was some of the best material I ever wrote. It turns out that when you get older, you get smarter. (Who knew?)

My fan fiction got me an invitation to write for Henglaar, MD, an HFP audio show (a medical mystery series set in the Star Trek universe, believe it or not), and that was a huge thrill. I had never written material for other people to perform before, and listening to talented people bringing my words and ideas to life was…an indescribably wonderful experience.

Of course, I still had a career in politics, so I wrote a few episodes, and that was that. Or, it was until November of 2014, when the voters, as the old joke goes, elected me to return to writing science fiction.

And so now I am back to writing, my own original stories now. I have written two novels (one of which has a gay couple as the protagonists–something else I learned from HF, the first Star Trek fan series, and therefore the first Star Trek, to depict ongoing characters in same-sex relationships) and several short stories. I am shopping them around professionally, but what’s different from 20 years ago is that now I will have the option to self-publish in ebook formats, which I will certainly explore.

Unfortunately, HFP has shut down their production in light of the CBS/Paramount guidelines, as they feel they cannot operate within those restrictions. I agree with the decision (I see no other option), but it is regrettable that CBS and Paramount have clamped down so hard. They are within their legal rights to do so, but legal rights and moral rights are different things. One could also argue that enlightened self-interest would and should lead CBS and Paramount to give fans greater flexibility. We can all hope that they will one day see this more clearly. But that day is not this day.

But I have HF to thank for starting me down this path (again!). So, thank you, HFP, and everyone associated with it, including the fans. You have helped me write the next chapter of my life.

UPDATE: A list of Star Trek fan productions and their reactions to the CBS/Paramount guidelines is here. It makes for grim reading.

UPDATE II: The folks at Paramount/CBS have clarified that audio productions are exempt from their guidelines, and Henglaar MD is back in business. So that’s great news. Of course, the rest of what I said above still stands.