Category Archives: Television

Animation nation, fall 2014 edition

While a number of news outlets have observed the demise of Saturday morning cartoons, a television tradition for generations of Americans, there is still a range of animation available in primetime, on cable, and online. Still, it will be hard for a younger generation accustomed to a wealth of streaming video to have a common pop cultural language.

Nicklelodeon, which has aired the surprisingly well-written Kung-Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness and How to Train Your Dragon: the Series, among other shows, recently moved Avatar: the Legend of Korra to online-only broadcast of its fourth and final season.

While Legend of Korra may not have the consistency or popularity of its parent, Avatar: the Last Airbender, the Asian-flavored fantasy series has still featured excellent characterization and world-building. Its story arcs and setting have inspired much of my current "Vanished Lands: A New Dawn" campaign.

I think Legend of Korra has bounced back from the rushed storytelling of its third season, which looked like it might be the end of that franchise (and the less said about the 2010 live-action movie misfire, the better). The new video game probably won't be enough to keep the franchise going.

Legend of Korra

The Avatar gang

Similarly, the Cartoon Network, which had ended Star Wars: Clone Wars after the Disney-Lucasfilm merger, continued its track record of canceling good shows such as Young Justice and Green Lantern: the Animated Series. At least Clone Wars managed to end well, filling in the gaps between the prequel movies and the classic trilogy.

Cartoon Network threw the final episodes of Clone Wars online and burned off episodes of Beware the Batman in one weekend. The sitcom Looney Tunes Show has also dropped of the schedule, but I'm sure Bugs Bunny and company won't be gone for long.

To be fair, DisneyXD had also canceled Spectacular Spider-Man in favor of shows for a younger audience. At least it has begun showing Star Wars: Rebels, which is a bit more kid-friendly than Clone Wars had become and features the familiar setting of George Lucas' galaxy shortly before the events of Star Wars [Episode IV]: A New Hope.

I'm enjoying Rebels so far, and its crew of adventurers is very similar to the characters in Jason E.R.'s recent "Star Wars: Dark Times" space opera scenario. With Disney/Lucasfilm working on more live-action movies, I expect Rebels to get a decent amount of promotion.

In addition to Avatar: Legend of Korra and Star Wars: Rebels, I've been enjoying the latest incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, although I don't know how long Nickelodeon will carry it. TMNT has all the wackiness of its predecessors and is still faithful to the core characters that Eastman and Laird created (again, don't get me started on the latest live-action flick).

There are many cartoons for younger children, such as Ultimate Spider-Man, as well as some long-lived ones aimed at young adults, such as The Simpsons, Robot Chicken, and Archer. Unfortunately, there are few all-ages shows that aren't formulaic comedies.

We've fared better lately with movies, but serious fans will continue to look at anime or other animation from around the world and wonder why cartoons on U.S. TV aren't more diverse.

Seasonal SFTV shifts

I'm still catching up on reviews of recent genre entertainment, but last weekend marked a definite changing of the guard on television. No, I'm not talking about the Emmys, which I ignored, just as the academy has ignored Tatiana Maslany's excellent Orphan Black performances (with Person of Interest, among the best shows of this past year, IMHO).

First was the third season finale of Avatar: the Legend of Korra, which I watched online because Nickelodeon has dropped the animated fantasy. It was bittersweet, because this season has been that show's strongest yet in terms of character development and plotting.

Last Airbender/Korra wallpaper

The heroes of Avatar

 Sure, Legend of Korra has continued the spectacular world-building and action of its progenitor, Avatar: the Last Airbender, but its first two seasons lurched from one set-piece battle to the next, its leads took a while to mature, and its villains' motivations weren't well explained.

It's also a shame that Legend of Korra hit its stride just as Nickelodeon abandoned it. The finale was rushed, with the duel between the eponymous heroine and dangerous anarchists quickly wrapping things up, with no mention of the crossover between the physical and spirit realms that had marked the season opener.

I look forward to a fourth season, which is reportedly in the works, but it's too bad that the Avatar universe hasn't gotten the recognition (or the live-action adaptation) it deserves.

On a related note, I've almost finished watching the final episodes of the computer-animated Star Wars: Clone Wars, which has managed to maintain a high level of quality even after Cartoon Network dumped it online. If this is part of a trend, that's bad news for genre fans; even as a few shows such as Game of Thrones are mainstream hits, other worthy ones will again struggle to find audiences and sponsors.

Star Wars: Clone Wars Season 6

Another online-only wrapup

I've argued for a while now that, as with The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, George Lucas, Genndy Tartakovsky, and Dave Filoni's creation has patched any problems from the franchise's most recent films. There are more hours of well-crafted entertainment from Clone Wars than in any of the less-popular Star Wars prequels.

Even though Disney/Lucasfilm/Marvel has decided to ignore most of the so-called Expanded Universe, Clone Wars has put that space opera on solid storytelling ground, and I look forward to Disney XD's Star Wars: Rebels.

Last but not least was the latest season premiere of Doctor Who, with the first full episode featuring Peter Capaldi as the Time Lord. I like an older Doctor, who reminds me of the courtly Jon Pertwee with a bit of Christopher Eccleston's edge.

Peter Capaldi joins an elite fraternity

Doctors Who

On the other hand, the frenetic pacing and reuse of the "Paternoster Gang" and clockwork villains seemed to be an attempt by producer Steven Moffat to convince the BBC and some fans that elements from David Tennant and Matt Smith's popular runs will continue.

It's no surprise that Jenna Coleman will be leaving after this year's celebration and transition, even as her character, the plucky Clara Oswald, has had to come to grips that the good Gallifreyan no longer appears as a young swain. I hope that the stories are more tightly written in the coming series/season.

What genre TV shows were your favorites this past year, and what are you looking forward to this fall?

Muppets Most Wanted review

On Saturday, 29 March 2014, Janice and I screened Muppets Most Wanted at the AMC Burlington Cinema 10. We enjoyed the latest film from Disney/Henson a bit more than its 2011 predecessor.

Muppets Most Wanted

More Muppet mania

As you might expect, Muppets Most Wanted combines self-aware puppets, celebrity cameos, and musical hijinks to good effect. The plot is simple enough for most children to follow: Immediately after the events of The Muppets, Kermit the Frog is sent to a Russian gulag in a case of mistaken identity, while his lookalike criminal Constantine takes his place as master of ceremonies as part of a devious plan.

I didn't miss Jason Segal or Amy Adams, thanks to strong casting. There were many fun appearances in Muppets Most Wanted's globe-hopping story, but the main supporting actors are worth singling out. Ricky Gervais, playing Constantine's henchman Dominic Badguy as smarmily as Charles Grodin was in The Great Muppet Caper, to which this movie owes several stylistic debts.

Tina Fey joins the song and dance show as Nadya, guard captain at the Russian Gulag (and a ringer for Rocky & Bullwinkle's Natasha). Ty Burrell matches wits with Sam the Eagle as Interpol Inspector Jean Paul Napoleon, who apparently went to the same academy as Inspector Clouseau.

As you might guess from the above, the movie does lean heavily on national stereotypes, but the jokes are clever enough for adults and broad enough for children without resorting to potty humor. The puppeteers can't quite match the frenetic energy and raw talent of Jim Henson and Frank Oz, but they get pretty close.

Unlike some critics, I liked that the overall tone of Muppets Most Wanted was a bit more upbeat than that of The Muppets, and I thought its script and soundtrack were better. As with Mr. Peabody & Sherman, it's hard to balance nostalgia with the expectations of today's audiences, not to mention keeping a beloved franchise going into the future.

Overall, I'd give Muppets Most Wanted, which is rated PG for slapsticky humor and mild innuendo, an 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, or a B+. The Lego Movie is still the best family movie I've seen so far this year, but not by much.

This coming weekend, I hope to see superhero sequel Captain America [2]: the Winter Soldier. In between game updates, I still hope to post thoughts on the current genre television season and more!

"Star Trek: Restoration" Episode 1 — Old and new foes

Fellow role-players, here are my notes for our Star Trek telecom scenario of this past weekend:

“Space, the final frontier. Our starship’s mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Almost four decades after the Enterprise-E fought the Borg and Remans [see Nemesis], among others, the United Federation of Planets and other interstellar states in the Alpha Quadrant are slowly recovering from wars and ecological disasters. A refitted vessel takes a new crew on its first missions of defense, diplomacy, and exploration….

Player Characters for Gene D.’s “Star Trek: Restoration” space opera one-shot, using D20/FATE house rules, Friday, 21 March 2014:

  • “Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Kyerak” [Bruce K.]-half-Vulcan with a temper, in the U.S.S. Rotha’s command division
  • “Lt. Jarric Jameson” [Dexter V.H.]-male genetically modified human colonist (former Maquis) communications and wilderness survival expert
  • “Lt. Orzzek Kalifa” [Byron V.O.]-male Andorian (blue-skinned humanoid with white hair and antennae), assertive science officer
  • “Lt. Mari Killu” [Sara F.]-female Caitian (felinoid) security/tactical officer
  • “Lt. Boran’ Gorir” [Josh C.]-male Jem’Hadar (Dominion soldier), aggressive envoy/engineer

“Stardate 95248 (1 April 2418):” The U.S.S. RothaNCC 1993-C, a refitted Ambassador-class ship, picks up three passengers from the U.S.S. Tempest. Capt. Andelina Nobatu is ordered to take them into the Neutral Zone to be relayed to Qo’nos, the Klingon homeworld.

Alternate ambassador

The U.S.S. "Rotha" NCC 1993-C

Capt. Nobatu later convenes a meeting of her command crew, as well as supporting junior officers [the P.C.s]. The Terran human asks the science division to check for star systems and planets in case the ship needs to hide or resupply en route.

Engineers are tasked with improving efficiency, while tactical officers prepare for the inevitable engagement with ships that ignore diplomatic protocols. After reporting to their superiors, the junior officers meet in the “Starlight Lounge.”

They compare notes as Bolian bartender Mr. Vallcin brings drinks. Lt. Jarric Jameson asked Betazed communications head Lt. Artemis Borellis for permission to work with the engineers on a cloak or other countermeasures to Klingon and Romulan technology. Lt. Kyerak and security chief Pierre McDonough assigned guards to watch the guest quarters.

Lt. Orzzek Kalifa and Lt. Boran’ Gorir checked Starfleet records for solar systems between Earth and Qo’nos. The scientist and engineer identify Acamar (Theta Eridani), which had been affected during a Borg incursion, and Khitomer, site of past negotiations between the U.F.P. and the Klingon Empire.

Lt. Gorir and genetically enhanced Lt. Jameson also worked with chief engineer Lt.Cmdr. Akira Gorou to optimize the Rotha’s systems. Dr. Jones, the holographic chief medical officer, prepared sickbay, and Trill first officer Cmdr. Nasami Wahid oversaw crew readiness.

Chief McDonough assigned Lt. Mari Killu to work with other crew members to ensure that the passenger handoff goes smoothly. Lt. K’dex, the three-armed, three-legged Edosian science officer, scanned for possibly cloaked enemy craft.

The junior officers’ discussion is cut short when Chief McDonnough contacts Lt. Killu to tell her to investigate the guest cabins. Apparently, the guards aren’t responding. Cmdr. Wahid orders Lt. Kyerak to accompany her.

The Caitian and half-Vulcan find En. Thompson regaining consciousness. He tells them that the Orion, Gorn, and a hooded guest emerged from their quarters and refused to wait. En. Jonas ran after them.

Lt. Kyerak and Lt. Killu draw their Type 2 phasers and ask the ship’s computer where the aliens have gone. It responds that they are on Holodeck 3. Instead of an Orion harem or a Gorn environment, the Starfleet personnel find a room full of humming machinery.

D’naar, a green-skinned Orion trader, claims that he just wanted to demonstrate water-purification equipment he had learned about in his travels to “Hand of Giblets,” the reptilian Gorn representative of the Klingon Empire.

En. Jones appears with a rumpled uniform. Kyerak subtly uses telepathy to communicate with Mari, who also senses that something is wrong. From the bridge, Lt. Kalifa and Lt. Gorir can tell that the gear in the holodeck has overridden security controls and is drawing extra power.

The Andorian and Jem’Hadar try to tell Kyerak, but their signals are jammed. Orzzek informs Capt. Nobatu of the situation, and Boran’ grabs his short sword and heads to the holodeck.

Chief McDonnough and Lt. Jameson try to shut down the unauthorized energy drain, and they find that the ship’s shields are fluctuating in a patter, presumably to broadcast a signal. The captain orders a full stop.

In Holodeck 3, Hands of Giblets [Byron/Non-Player Character] leaps toward Lt. Killu. D’naar [Josh/N.P.C.] disintegrates En. Thompson. En. Jonas hides among the machinery. Kyerak stuns the Orion pirate, and Mari shoots at the Gorn emissary.

Lt. Gorir arrives, and he runs after En. Jones. Lt. Kalifa asks Lt. Borellis for help restoring communications. Lt. Kyerak eventually stuns Hands of Giblets, and Lt. Killu restrains the Orion and Gorn before going to aid Lt. Gorir. Other tactical and medical teams arrive and secure the perimeter.

Boran’ recognizes some of the machinery and implements the LaForge Protocol. He and Orzzek manage to shut it down, but the signal has been sent as the Rotha entered the Neutral Zone.

Mari shoots at En. Jonas, destroying a personal holo-emitter and revealing that he is in fact an Undine (formerly known as Species 8472; the medical team later finds the actual ensign, who has been killed).

The Undine hits Lt. Gorir again, and Lt. Kyerak and Lt. Killu shoot at it. Mari stuns the gray-skinned alien, and Boran’ beheads it. Kyerak berates the Jem’Hadar for giving in to his bloodlust, but Lt. Jameson notes that D’naar and Hands of Giblets are in custody and can still be questioned.

From the bridge, helmsman En. Brandon Marks reports to Capt. Nobatu that a Valdore-class Romulan warbird has just de-cloaked off the U.S.S. Rotha’s port bow….

Valdore-class warbird

The Varguille

Beruk and Geoff, we missed you this past weekend, but I hope that everyone else enjoyed this “episode!” I’m sure we’ll return to this at some point, so please post your characters to the “Vortex” site on Obsidian Portal, where I’ll also post my background notes. Let me know if you have any questions. Live long and prosper, -Gene (“Capt. Tzu Tien Lung”)

March movie madness, 2014 edition

In the past few weeks, I've seen more movies than I usually see in months. I enjoyed Mr. Peabody & Sherman, 300:Rise of an Empire, and Veronica Mars, but I wouldn't recommend them to everyone.

On Saturday, 8 March 2014, Janice and I went to the Apple Cinemas in Cambridge, Mass., for Mr. Peabody & Sherman, which is based on cartoon shorts by Jay Ward, who's best known for the subversive Rocky and Bullwinkle. The computer-animated movie retains some of the original's cleverness and expands on the character relationships.

If you've seen the trailers or Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, you know what to expect. Genius dog Mr. Peabody (voiced by Modern Family's Ty Burrell) and his adoptive son Sherman adventure through time with difficult Penny Peterson. This Dreamworks film is aimed at younger audiences, with a PG rating, but its script includes a few adult gags. I'd rate Mr. Peabody & Sherman an 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, or a B+. It's not as witty as The Lego Movie, but it was still fun.

By contrast, I advise lowering one's expectations for the sword-and-sandals 300: Rise of an Empire, a sequel to Frank Miller and Zach Snyder's 2007 ahistorical epic. On Friday, March 14, I met fellow Game Master Jason E.R. for dinner and Rise of an Empire at the Reading 3-D IMAX.

Loosely parallel to the events of the previous 300 flick, in which elite Spartan troops tried to hold back hordes of Persians at Thermopylae, Rise of an Empire depicts Athenian general Themistocles leading the Greeks in naval battles against Persian despot Xerxes and his right-hand dominatrix, Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus. Miller and company clearly subscribe to the "great men" and "clash of civilizations" ideas, despite the fact that the Greeks weren't yet enlightened democrats, nor were the Persians mindless, monolithic barbarians.

The first third of 300: Rise of an Empire is arguably the most accurate, showing some of Themistocles' tactics and the daunting odds faced by the Greek hoplites. The middle of the movie would be a decent sword-and-sorcery film, with Xerxes ascending to weird demigodhood and Eva Green a better Belit from Robert E. Howard's Conan stories than Artemisia.

The last third of the movie features huge set-piece battles and lots of repetitive speechifying. It also manages to have the Spartan navy get credit for an Athenian victory, well-oiled bodies in slow motion, and yet more gratuitous beheadings. Jason and I were surprised to see young children in the audience, and at a hard "R," that's not a good idea.

I would recommend 300: Rise of an Empire to those who enjoy swordfights but aren't too worried about actual history (which is interesting enough in its own right). I'd give it a 6 out of 10, 2.5 to three out of five stars, or C+/B-.

As a contributor to the Kickstarter campaign for a cinematic follow-on to the Veronica Mars television series, I was predisposed toward this sleuthing sequel. In the noir TV show, Kristen Bell played a precocious adolescent who solved crimes around Neptune High School in southern California. I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for lunch and saw this film at the AMC Loews Boston Common.

"We used to be friends"

The cast of "Veronica Mars," then and now

The Veronica Mars movie picks up about a decade later. Veronica is interviewing for a high-powered lawyer job in New York City when murder and intrigues draw her back home. It was great to see the TV show's entire supporting cast, as well as a few celebrity cameos, and the darkly comic tone was pleasingly familiar, not unlike Joss Whedon's "Buffyverse."

The Veronica Mars movie is definitely a gift to fans; like Firefly/Serenity, newcomers won't understand most of the jokes or appreciate why some of us liked the original so much. The first season of the TV show was its best, but we should be glad that, with Bell and others busy, we still got a fond reminder and wrap-up. I'd give Veronica Mars, which is rated R, an 8.5 out of 10, four out of five stars, or an A-.

In the coming weeks, there's Muppets Most Wanted and Captain America: the Winter Soldier, and I'm also looking forward to Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the latest incarnation of Godzilla. I know it has been a while since I've blogged about non-gaming topics, but I'll keep trying to find the time!