Book review: The Year of the Geek by James Clarke

The Year of the Geek: 365 Adventures From The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Universe, by James Clarke. Published by: Aurum Press.

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When did it become fashionable to become a geek? Geekiness is, after all, surely after all, by definition a shameful, untrendy preoccupation. Does this mean that anyone who claims to aspire to be a geek is necessarily a pretender to the nerd throne?

Well, no. Some people blame this trend on things like US sitcom Big Bang Theory and the excellent but now defunct British near equivalent The IT Crowd. But, in truth, this tendency which has resulted in websites like Den of Geek and books like this, has always been there. After all, you can’t get Spider-man without meeting Peter Parker first.

This book takes a chronological approach with a different geek anniversary highlighted for every day of the year. This, it must be said, is potentially of some use to someone who writes professionally on geek issues like me.

May 25, for example, is the anniversary of Star Wars’ US release in 1977. Lord of the Rings’ author JRR Tolkien was born on January 3rd while even the fictional birthday of Harry Potter (July 31st 1990) is noted.

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Some of the anniversaries are arguably not very major (the fourth season premiere of Babylon 5 on November 4 1995 is commemorated – as if any of us would forget this date anyway?) Some are arguably not very geeky (the outbreak of the First World War in 1914) but are interesting anyway. There is some discussion of each anniversary.

What elevates this book above the norm, however, is the innovative use of infographics used to illustrate a rich array of charts which demonstrate everything from the longevity of respective Doctor Who actors to the box office success of the Star Trek films.

An excellent addition to the coffee table of every socially maladjusted maladroit in the land.

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Book review: The Impossible Has Happened by Lance Parkin

The Impossible Has Happened

The Impossible Has Happened: The Life and Work of Gene Roddenberry, Creator of Star Trek. Author: Lance Parkin. Aurum Press. Published: July 21st 2016.

It has been fifty years since the creation of Star Trek and the franchise is undeniably going strong. A new film and a new TV series are both scheduled to appear later this year.

Twenty five years after his death, the reputation of the series creator Gene Roddenberry is more uncertain. On the one hand, he has been subject to a personality cult almost as elaborate as that surrounding Scientology creator and sci-fi author. On the other hand, he has been demonised as a fraud, a philanderer and a phoney. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between.

He was born in 1921 and served with distinction as a pilot in the Second World War. After the war, ironically he came very close to death in a Pan Am air crash which killed seven people in 1947. He served in the US police force drifting into TV writing and creating one non-Star Trek series, a police-themed one called The Lieutenant. He then created Star Trek which ran for three series between 1966 and 1968. At the time, it was neither very successful or a failure. Mission Impossible which ran at about the same time was probably more successful. Leonard Nimoy indeed joined the Mission Impossible cast after Star Trek ended. But unexpectedly, Star Trek became a huge success after it had ended through syndicated repeat showings. The show grew and grew and grew.

Many of the myths surrounding Star Trek seem to come from stories Roddenberry himself told at science fiction conventions in the 1970s. Some had the commendable aim of consolidating a following for the series but others clearly had more to do with Roddenberry’s ego. Yes, the series did end after three series but Roddenberry’s claims that it was ended unfairly by small-minded producers don’t add up. It was no longer profitable and the last series was significantly worse than the others. Roddenberry also subsequently exaggerated his own role as a champion of equality and civil rights claiming falsely that he fought narrow minded studio heads over the issue In fact, though he wasn’t racist by mid-20th century standards, the 1960s series only ever featured as many other minorities as most other US TV series of the time. Nichelle Nicholls’ Uhura, for example, was barely ever given anything important to do. She was one of many women Roddenberry had affairs with and in truth, the original series really didn’t have a progressive role towards women at all.

Leonard Nimoy certainly grew to hate Roddenberry. The man would often claim sole credit for the success of the series, ignoring the contribution of many others. He had no role at all in the making of the most acclaimed film 1982’s The Wrath of Khan (which he hated) and his own increasingly drunken, ageing cocaine-addled influence partly explains why the ultimately excellent Next Generation series had such a dull start.

Author Lance Parkin provides a balanced portrait of a man who for all his many flaws took TV on a journey where no one had gone before.

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First Among Prequels

Once stories had a beginning, a middle and an end. Not anymore! Today, the trend is for the middle and the end to come first, then the beginning to come along later. For this is the age of the prequel.  Stay tuned for Part One of this feature next week…!

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The Hobbit (Book: 1937. Films: 2012-2014)

Strictly speaking, this isn’t a “prequel” to the Lord of the Rings saga in the sense that we’re using the term here. The book of The Hobbit was published well before the later trilogy (1954-55). But the films (the second Hobbit film is due out in December) are a different matter appearing a full decade after the Rings saga came to the screen (2001-2003). Got that?

Does it work?: Gandalf is greyer, Gollum a shade less green and Bilbo is Tim from The Office (Martin Freeman) rather than the one from Alien (Ian Holm). But so far, most complaints have been about the Hobbit saga being needlessly padded out into three films rather than about any inconsistencies n the chronology.

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Star Wars Prequels (1999-2005)

This attempt to explain the origins of Darth Vader was less well received than the original trilogy (1977-1983), many fans finding it more boorish, cartoonish and perhaps even racist than the original three. The last film Revenge of the Sith (2005) does wrap things up neatly though, ending around twenty years before 1977’s A New Hope. This trilogy also probably did spark off the modern fad for prequels too.

 Hannibal  (2013-?)

This acclaimed recent TV series focuses on the life of Thomas Harris’s serial killer Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), before the events of the very first book, Red Dragon (1981).

 Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

This film does cheat a bit imagining Watson and Holmes meeting at school: in fact, they clearly first meet as adults in the first Sherlock Holmes story A Study In Scarlet. But it is a fun film and features the first ever computer animated film character (a stained glass knight who is hallucinated at the start). The movie was a flop though.

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Young James Bond (2005-2008)

The adventures of the future 007 have been depicted in five books by Fast Show star Charlie Higson set in the 1930s when Bond was still at Eton. The books are: Silverfin, Blood Fever, Double Or Die, Hurricane Gold and By Royal Command.

The Magician’s Nephew (1955)

This was actually the sixth of CS Lewis’s Narnia novels but is actually set much earlier than the others. It opens in late Victorian England and explains the birth of Narnia. Some Narnia series today rank it as the first book in the saga, order-wise.

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Star Trek Enterprise (2001-2005)/Star Trek films (2009-?)

The Star Trek franchise was briefly killed off by the unexciting Scott Bakula series which chronicled the early days of the Enterprise in the 22nd century. The JJ Abrams series of films which detail the early lives of the characters from the original series (including a previously unmentioned liaison between Uhuru and Spock) have thus far proven far more popular.

Smallville (2001-2011)

Despite, rather oddly, being set in the present day, this TV show starring Tom Welling as the young Superman proved remarkably popular and enduring.

Endeavour (2012-?)

Before Lewis, there was Morse. And before even that, this recent 1960s set ITV series sees Shaun Evans playing Endeavour Morse at the start of his police career.

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Monsters University (2013)

Monsters Inc ended rather neatly. So this prequel flashes back to Mike and Sully’s (child-friendly) college days.

Muppet Babies (1984-1991)

The Muppets in cartoon-form in one nursery supervised by a giant nanny. Basically rubbish.

 

The Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-1996)

Taking its inspiration from the short sequence starring River Phoenix as a teenaged Indy at the start of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, this star studded  TV show saw the young adventurer played by several different actors (notably Sean Patrick Flanery) enjoying high jinks across a range of early 20th century locations. A pre-Star Wars example of Lucasfilm prequeling.

 
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X-Men Origins Wolverine(2009)/ X-Men: First Class (2011)

The first X-Men prequel (exploring Wolverine’s past) wasn’t great. The second one set in the Sixties (and featuring a cameo from Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine) was better. Despite James McAvoy’s Professor Xavier (the young version of Patrick Stewart’s character in the original X-Men trilogy (2000-2005) occasionally spouting lines like: “I suppose I am a real professor, aren’t I? Next thing you know, I’ll be going bald!” Ooh! The dramatic irony!

 

Prometheus (2012)

Very clearly a prequel to the Alien films despite various official attempts to deny it. Still not very good though.

 

The Godfather Part II (1974)

A sequel and a prequel, unusually. On the one hand, we see Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) continue to build his crime empire in the 1950s following on from the first film. On the other, we flash back to the start of the century and see his father Vito (Robert De Niro when he’s an adult) coming to America and slowly getting the family business started. Unlike the Michael stuff, these early bits are in fact derived from Mario Puzo’s original novel. The film ends just after Pearl Harbor (1941). The first film starts just after the war’s end (1945).

 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

An excellent prequel set in the near future which explains how the apes of Planet of the Apes (1968) managed to usurp humans as the dominant race on Earth.

 

First of the Summer Wine (1988-1989).

Prequel to the long running comedy set just before the Second World War. Peter Sallis (Cleggy) plays his own character’s father and Seymour appears even though none of the characters met him until a mid-80s episode of the original series. Not as bad as it sounds, as the young actors are well cast (including an extra one called Sherbet who we can only presume was killed in the war). It does rather miss the point though as “young men acting like children” isn’t quite the same as “old men acting like children”.