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 Dawncampaign.

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?

Guardians of the Galaxy review

On Saturday, 2 August 2014, Janice and I met Beruk A. and Thomas A.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for an early dinner at Summer Shack and Guardians of the Galaxy at the Apple Cinemas Cambridge. Several other members of the Boston-area social/gaming groups saw the latest Marvel Comics-based movie this past weekend, and we all enjoyed it.

Plot: Guardians of the Galaxy starts out with a young Peter Quill, who is given a mixed tape by his dying mother and is then abducted by aliens. The rest of the movie follows an adult Quill, who has renamed himself “Star Lord” after traveling with space pirates.

A heist gone wrong lands Quill afoul of the Nova Corps (interstellar police) and in jail with a bunch of misfits. They join forces to break out and try to save the galaxy from the evil Thanos’ minions. More hijinks ensue.

The overall outline of the story should be familiar to fans of westerns, samurai flicks, and space operas from Star Wars to Firefly/Serenity. At the same time, the characters come from Marvel’s cosmic comics, giving the cast and crew more creative freedom because they’re not as well-known as, say, Spider-Man, the Avengers, or the X-Men.

Actors: Community‘s Chris Pratt is newly buff as Star Lord but still the cheerful, bumbling everyman he played in The Lego Movie. Unlike many modern antiheroes, the roguish Quill would rather talk his way out of a fight than kill anyone, and he is the heart of the movie.

The band of interstellar adventurers Quill gathers includes Zoe Saldana’s comely assassin Gamora, wrestler Dave Bautista’s bruiser Drax, and Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as talking raccoon Rocket and humanoid tree Groot, respectively. Audiences love the banter between the irascible (computer-animated) Rocket and laconic Groot.

Interstellar adventurers
Disney/Marvel’s latest success

Noteworthy supporting cast members include Michael Rooker as Quill’s piratical mentor Yondu, John C. Reilly as Nova corpsman Dey, and Glenn Close as Nova Prime. While they’re recognizable from numerous other movies, they all seem to be enjoying themselves here.

The bad guys include Lee Pace (from Pushing Daisies and The Hobbit) as Ronan the Accuser, Benicio Del Toro as the Collector (also seen at the end of Thor 2), and Karen Gillan (Doctor Who) as Gamora’s blue-skinned nemesis Nebula. In addition, Josh Brolin plays Kirby villain Thanos, who’ll likely be appearing again in Avengers 3.

Direction and cinematography: James Gunn does a great job of keeping the plot moving, focusing on the appealing characters, and maintaining a fun tone — even with some tragic backstories and the fate of billions at stake — throughout the movie.

Gunn’s love of the 1980s is evident in Guardians of the Galaxy‘s light touch, the many shout-outs to popular culture and science fiction of that era, and the soundtrack (more on that below). He also included numerous “Easter eggs,” or allusions to other Marvel characters.

The action scenes are actually exciting, if still somewhat busy and predictable, and Guardians of the Galaxy reminded me favorably of predecessors such as The Fifth Element, which also had exotic aliens, scruffy underdogs, cool space ships, and planet-hopping capers. As a longtime space opera buff, I’m glad to see such space-based adventures again.

Soundtrack: As the trailer already demonstrated, some 1970s and ’80s music goes a long way to setting an upbeat mood and suspending disbelief. Quill’s mixed audiotape provides the backdrop and impetus for several scenes, and even if I listened to different genres back then, I can appreciate today’s visceral reactions.

Rating: I’d give Guardians of the Galaxy, which is rated PG-13 for violence and unnecessary language, a B+, a 7.5 out of 10, or four out of five stars. Just as interest might be flagging in the current superhero boom on television and in the movies, Guardians of the Galaxy demonstrates Disney/Marvel’s savvy exploration of other styles.

Its plot may be predictable, but the cast and characters are likable, the pacing is solid, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Guardians of the Galaxy ends up being the strongest movie at the box office this summer.

Lucy movie review

On Sunday, 27 July 2014, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. at the Landmark Embassy Cinema in Waltham, Mass., for a matinee of Lucy. We liked this action movie, but it’s more science fantasy than science fiction.

Lucy 2014
Luc Besson directs Scarlett Johannson

Plot: As you may have seen from the trailers, Scarlett Johannson plays a young woman in modern Singapore who becomes an unwilling drug mule and develops superpowers after exposure to a synthetic hormone. Lucy has to stay one step ahead of a criminal gang, and she travels to Paris to meet with Prof. Norman, a scientist played by Morgan Freeman.

Lucy does repeat the myth that most humans use only 10% of their brains. While much of the organ’s processing power is still mysterious, we know that bodily functions and consciousness require an impressive neural network.

In addition, expanded awareness and intelligence isn’t the same thing as being able to manipulate reality, tap into wireless networks, or use telekinesis, telepathy, or teleportation, but it’s fun for a metahuman movie. I am glad that Lucy didn’t show the so-called singularity (merging of human and technology) as necessarily good or evil.

Cast: Johannson plays a naïve blank slate who becomes more than human, continuing her genre streak from The Avengers and Under the Skin. She may not exhibit great emotional range, but she is attractive and manages to convey the physicality needed for Lucy‘s transformation.

As he did in The Lego Movie, Freeman plays his usual sage self, gently spoofing his narration of nature documentaries. Some movie buffs will recognize Min-sik Choi as crime lord Mr. Jang, and Amr Waked is a sympathetic French detective, who is much more competent than usual for a police officer in such movies.

Direction/cinematography: While Disney/Marvel and Warner Bros./DC may be reluctant to produce a female-led superhero movie, Luc Besson is unafraid of such heroines, as seen in La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element, one of my favorite genre films of the past 20 years. (On television, Orphan Black covers similar territory well.)

I thought some Prof. Norman’s exposition and the surreal flashes were a bit heavy-handed, and while Besson brings up some big questions about the human condition, evolution, and the responsibility of power, he doesn’t try to answer any of them. Still, the action scenes are satisfying, and car chases involve massive collateral damage, but at least no cities are doomed in Lucy.

Rating: Overall, we liked Lucy, which I’d give a 7 out of 10, three stars, or a “B.” Of the two movies I saw last weekend, I enjoyed Hercules slightly more. Lucy was rated R for violence and language, and I’d recommend it to fans of transhuman fiction, superheroines, and action. Up next is Guardians of the Galaxy!

Fun and games in June and July 2014

As usual, the start of summer has been busy. On Saturday, 21 June 2014, Janice and I went to the Compleat Strategist in Boston for Free RPG Day. We then met role-players Beruk A., Rich C.G., and some of Rich’s friends at Pandemonium Books & Games in Cambridge, Mass.

I picked up free fantasy supplements for Castles & Crusades, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and Pathfinder, as well as quickstarters for the superhero Valiant Universe and cyberpunk/fantasy Shadowrun. Clearly, I’m still in a retro-clone, old-school Renaissance (OSR) frame of mind.

Other recent acquisitions include Arrows of Indra, Celestial Empire, and the FATE (Core) Freeport Companion, all of which should be useful for my long-running “Vanished Lands” campaign, which is currently using D20/FATE house rules.

As you may have seen by now, I ran four games in one week! After the latest Creation Star Trek convention in Boston (more on that later), I ran my usual “Vanished Lands: A New Dawn” telecom team on Sunday, June 22. The Player Characters encountered monsters while scouting an army approaching the city of Sogewa.

On Monday, June 23, the “Vanished Lands: Vistel’s Expedition” face-to-face group continued its adventures. That adventuring party has traveled through time to free some slaves.

Byron V.O., an alumnus of the Boston-area groups who now lives in St. Louis and participates in “A New Dawn” via Skype, stayed with Janice and me after a business trip back east. On Friday, June 27, I ran an extra “Vistel’s Expedition” session, and Byron and I were pleased at the strong turnout.

Byron V.O.'s June 2014 visit
“Vistel’s Expedition,” summer 2014

On Saturday, June 28, I ran “Star Trek: Restoration,” and it was nice to host a smaller group for the first time since moving from Needham to Waltham, Mass. The crew of the U.S.S. Rotha was involved in a tense standoff with Romulan warbirds!

After that afternoon session, we met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. and Josh C. for a solid Italian dinner at Fiorella’s in Newton. Byron, who is always a good houseguest and fun gaming companion, left on Sunday, June 29.

On Monday, June 30, Josh ran a one-shot of Tianxia: Blood, Silk & Jade, using FATE Core (reminding me of what I like and what I’d tweak). That wuxia (Asian-style fantasy) scenario was among the one-shots and miniseries my groups have tried out each summer in between longer campaigns.

Pregenerated P.C.s for “Hammer, Don’t Touch This!” — Josh C.’s Tianxia one-shot at Brian W.’s home in Newton, Mass.:

  • Ma Wei Sheng” [Gene D.]-male eastern human, wandering nobleman, taciturn warrior determined to get out from his family’s shadow and make a name for himself
  • Smiling Ox” [Beruk A.]-male human, master of the Demon Hammer, boastful brute with large appetites and a heart of gold
  • Sister Chuntao” [Brian W.]-female human, Bodhist nun and former thief, conscious of checkered past and seeking harmony, with monkey Sun
  • Jasmina” [Sara F.]-female tiger, talking animal with scars and a strong sense of justice
  • Han ‘Dragon Dog’ Ping” [Bruce K.]-male human, enthusiastic young adventurer and working-class hero
  • Yee Wong” [Rich C.G.]-male human, old Daoist wizard, immortal but absent-minded and irascible alchemist
  • Wolf-Eyed Yue” [Brian S.]-female human, wild woman and member of the secret White Widow sect devoted to helping women defend themselves

The Boston-area and telecom games took a break around the Independence Day weekend, during which Janice and I hosted one of our nieces. During the latest “JasonCon” on Monday, July 7, Jason E.R. (whose “Glassworks: the Devil’s Den” superhero scenario using Icons: Great Power recently ended) graciously hosted Rich’s School Daze, a narrative, rules-light game typically focusing on high school archetypes.

P.C.s for Rich C.G.’s third School Daze session, held in Reading, Mass.:

  • Emo Wallach” [Gene D.]-male human goth, junior at Trowbridge High School specializing in art and comfortable in dank spaces; discovered a dead dog and classmate during a stormy night at Camp Crystal Lake; later a friend of “Reasonable Squid” reporter Cynthia Hoskins
  • Chuck Taylor” [Jason E.R.]-male human jock, Trowbridge senior and friend of “Fighting Krakens” water polo Coach Bronkowski and his bullying son Murphy, helped defeat a homicidal alien with surprise tire-iron attacks; after a change of heart, became a nerd defender
  • Brandon Shaw” [Bruce K.]-male human, shop yank and Trowbridge junior, prone to bad humor; fancies himself a ladies’ man and good with an axe in a scrap
  • Alan Morris” [Brian S.]-male human Trowbridge senior and budding filmmaker; friend of Henry Lee Jackson, an old hermit with a hook hand; recorded attack by assistant camp leader “Ms. Bellum,” who was actually a mantis-like alien; dating Chuck’s younger sister Tracy
  • Feskilado ‘Fesky’ Mepeselph” [Erik R.]-male human Trowbridge senior, science and clank/electronics expert; snuck pet dogs and cat into camp; later found beheaded, and cat Severus was revealed as an alien guardian

I expect “A New Dawn” to resume this coming Sunday, July 13, and Bruce K. will begin his “Eberron/Pathfinder: Reign of Winter” miniseries next Monday. So many games, so little time!

In related news, the Dungeons & Dragons (5e/”Next”) Basic Rules have been released. While there are no earth-shattering revelations, especially after a lengthy playtest period, I’m pleased that Wizards of the Coast released this as a free PDF.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, this looks closer to what I would have preferred for D&D4e, with a mix of AD&D2 style and D&D3.5/D20/4e rules. We’ll still have to wait and see whether D&D5e will tempt role-players away from Pathfinder, OSR, and various indie systems.