How Star Wars Conquered The Universe

A long time ago, in a small mining town far, far away, a young Chris Taylor discovered Star Wars via the back of a cereal box. Much like Luke on Tatooine, he only experienced the action in brief glimpses — comic books, more cereal boxes — until finally, his small town built a movie theater, and he was able to watch a Star Wars/The Empire Strikes Back double bill right before Return Of The Jedi came out. Which I guess is the equivalent of Luke arriving on Yavin 4? The rest is not exactly history, but is contained in this wonderful book.

how star wars conquered the universe

 

It’s no exaggeration to say that the staggeringly brilliant How Star Wars Conquered The Universe is not just the only complete history of the entire franchise from its Flash Gordon inspirations all the way through to its acquisition by Disney, but it’s also one of the most insightful and entertaining books ever written about movies and pop culture in general. It’s the only place you’ll find a combination of detailed behind the scenes info and a fascinating look into the fandom that has sustained the franchise. And on top of all that, it really is, as advertised on the front cover, an enthralling creativity manual.

Taylor, who by day is deputy editor of Mashable, illuminates the creative development and decision-making process as each movie evolved from scribbled notes to drafts, rewrites and edits. If you’re a writer, you will learn much from Taylor’s Yoda-esque teaching (he lifts up some major metaphorical X-Wings) as he breaks down how and why the various stories had to change on their way to narrative greatness (he also covers the prequels, but there are lessons there too). Side note: this book has helped me with my current creative projects immensely, on a practical and inspirational level. Thanks Chris!

If you’re not a writer, that’s OK, because this is also an expansive overview of the Star Wars universe from its earliest inception. We see Lucas struggling with his vision for “The Star Wars” while making other movies (THX-1138, American Graffiti), and watch its complex development through four drafts and an uncredited “humor polish”, with Brian De Palma apparently responsible for the final version of the opening crawl. That on its own would be enough, quite honestly, but Taylor goes so much further, like a Padawan becoming a full Jedi. He breaks down Empire and Jedi, the infamous Holiday Special, the Ewok movies, the comics, the novelizations, Alan Dean Foster’s “back up” Star Wars sequel that never was (Splinter Of The Mind’s Eye), the Expanded Universe, the Clone Wars, and, most impressively perhaps, the prequels. The chapter devoted to The Phantom Menace follows the fans who lined up for weeks beforehand and builds and builds until it reaches a symphonic, Spinal Tap-esque crescendo with the reactions of those fans as they stumbled out of the midnight showing. Taylor also takes time to walk us through the various stages of grief that many of us experienced after listening to discussions about trade laws and watching Hayden Christensen talk about sand. With the able assistance of Bryan Young (a novelist who also co-hosts the amazing and essential Full Of Sith podcast with Tha Mike Pilot (possibly not his real name) — btw, if you haven’t listened to it, subscribe now), Taylor goes through intensive Prequel Therapy. It actually helps.

Fans waiting for The Phantom Menace. Therapy not pictured

Fans waiting for The Phantom Menace. Therapy not pictured

It’s a book about the fans as much as the franchise, and Taylor gives us a compassionate, even-handed view of all aspects of the fandom, from the 501st to the R2 builders, from Steve Sansweet’s Rancho Obi-Wan (the world’s largest collection of Star Wars memorabilia which therefore serves as a de facto time machine back to all of our childhoods) to those fans who wait in line for weeks at a time, to the homemade spoofs and homages (like the classic Troopers). There are many realms in the fandom, just as there are in the franchise itself; Star Wars has created a fandom that reflects it, and its fans are incredibly dedicated and creative, which Taylor wonderfully illustrates.

The book backs up its title over and over again, showing how the world has been swept away by what ultimately comes back to an R2 unit telling a story to the keepers of the Journal Of The Whills. It’s engrossing, moving, inspiring, and at every point, reminds you why you fell in love with this world. Even if you’re not a hardcore fan, it’s essential reading. If you’re more of a casual fan, and just want an entertaining and frequently very funny analysis of movies, pop culture, merchandizing, and how all of this has changed in the wake of Star Wars, you’ll love it. And if, like me, the original trilogy defined your childhood, with Star Wars as the first movie I ever saw in the cinema (right around the time I was watching those same black and white Flash Gordon serials that originally inspired Lucas on TV), and catching the 70mm first run of Empire with Roger Christian’s Black Angel short in front of it… if you’re one of so many who have special, cherished memories of these movies and the toys (oh god, the toys! Taylor spends a lot of time on this phenomenon too, from the “cardboard for Christmas” beginnings to the peak where there were more Star Wars figures on the planet than U.S. citizens), then this book approaches the miraculous.

That’s a lot of praise, but then, this is a book that works on so many levels, is written so well and flows so smoothly even with the many thousands of details that Taylor somehow weaves together, that even this level of praise doesn’t do this masterpiece justice. It’s more level-headed than this review, that’s for sure, and it’s that clear-eyed, patiently wise tone that helps this book make sense of the sprawling universe that Lucas set into motion. Written with an elegant, clear style, laced with generous quantities of British wit throughout, it’s always engaging, and full of knowledge, information, and entertainment.

Basically, to sum up: the force is strong with this one (sorry, I had to go there).

TL;DR It’s great, buy it.

(And then probably buy it again when the revised — “special” perhaps? — edition comes out with all the skinny on Episode VII).

Rating:

Five out of five binary sunsets

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New writing alert! Altered Sequence book two published!

Hello. Just wanted to drop an update: book two of my YA sci-fi series ALTERED SEQUENCE is now available! It’s called CORRUPTED, and picks up right where ALTERED left off… As of right now, ALTERED is $0.99, and CORRUPTED is $2.99. Details of both books below!

 

CORRUPTED is available for Kindle at Amazon US and nook at Barnes & Noble.

Also: Buy For Kindle UK

Get CORRUPTED in paperback!

Altered Sequence Book One: ALTERED

ALTERED is available for Kindle at Amazon and nook at Barnes & Noble.

Also: Buy For Kindle UK

Get ALTERED in paperback!

Grasshopper Jungle

In the very best of ways, Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith is one of the more unusual novels you’ll ever read. Smith has delivered a genuinely unique experience: spikily soulful and inventively propulsive YA sci-fi in a contemporary setting, with an escalating horrific and hilarious R-rated apocalypse; in short, it’s about the end of the world as experienced by Austin, a confused teen in a very, very small town in Iowa.

GrasshopperJungle

Everything about this book is twisted in just the right kind of way to feel completely fresh and new: its evocation of the endless feeling of teenage summers, the intense hormonal confusion and heightened emotions, the torture of high school and parents who just don’t get it…. Oh yeah, and the unstoppable horror that is set into motion by a series of mundane, by-chance accidents.

Basically, they unleash a bunch of 9 foot tall armor-plated bugs that just want to eat and f**k.

The extreme day-to-day reality of the setting, as well as the obsessive limitations of the narrator, create a very grounded environment, which makes the sci-fi all the more terrifying and visceral.

Austin is not necessarily the most likeable of narrators, but there’s still something very engaging about his honesty and loyalty. He’s also very funny. He’s a skewed perspective through which to see a bunch of giant horror bugs tearing apart life as we know it, but that’s just what this story needs. Side note: talking of skewed perspectives, the fact that Edgar Wright (Shaun Of The Dead, The World’s End, formerly of Ant-Man…sadface) is directing the movie adaptation is cause for massive geek rejoicing and celebration – his quick-witted, hyper-stylish visual and emotional genius is beyond perfect for this story.

All in all, this is an insane, gripping, unputdownable, novel. It’s an Unstoppable Read.

Rating: five out of five Unstoppable Soldiers

The top 8 rules for writing you can possibly ignore, and the one that you can’t

1) Write like a ninja.

You gotta be able to write anytime, anywhere. No prep, no routine. Just write.

2) Write constantly and always.

On your phone, on napkins, on your hand.

3) Stories are emotional moments.

Whether it lasts a few seconds, or a hundred years.

4) All writing has motion.

Emotion, action, plot, psychology, humor… something must always be evolving.

5) Justify the emotional truth of every scene.

Every scene.

6) Every character needs an emotional POV.

They all think they’re the hero. They all want something. They’re all going somewhere. They’re all thinking their equivalent of “I am Iron Man.”

7) Follow EVERY path in the first draft.

You have no idea what the novel is at the beginning; you only know at the end. So don’t shut down ANYTHING when writing the first draft. Often huge problems that come up later have solutions earlier in the text that you thought were throwaway moments. They weren’t throwaway. You were seeding your solutions.

8) Dream between the lines.

Dream… wander in your mind palace if that’s your bag… worry about the lines, but dream between them too.

…And finally, the big kahuna, the one you must obey above all others:

9) Story is the only rule.

The most important rule of all… the one rule to uh, rule them all: do what’s right for the story.

And do it well.

Bunnies, jumpsuits and clones: TV’s ongoing golden age, 2013 edition

It’s interesting that three of of the greatest seasons of TV in 2013 were all debut shows, two of which came from non-traditional sources.

While Masters Of Sex, a richly nuanced telling of William Masters and Virginia Johnson’s pioneering 1950s sex study, is as burnished and high-quality as you would expect from Showtime, the other two shows came from a DVD rental shop and a cable network not known for original programming. Orange Is The New Black (privileged white girl gets sent to prison for transgressions in her younger life) was a breakout hit for Netflix, while Orphan Black (a twenty-something mother trying to get her child back discovers she has multiple clones) was a phenomenal success for BBC America. They tell very varied stories, but they all share a key quality: an immersive, kinetic, almost urgent sense of emotional turmoil and evolution.

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan

Masters Of Sex, from showrunner Michelle Ashford, has a beautiful, gleaming quality reminiscent of Robert Redford’s Quiz Show. It’s shot and directed in a gloriously low-key yet detailed manner that still finds time to be transcendently visual. Even though it focuses on a groundbreaking study about people having sex, it’s really about the journeys that Masters and Johnson go on, which requires many conversations about methodology, belief systems and statistics. Ashford’s genius is making this an incredibly dynamic and fascinating show, scene after scene, episode after episode. It dives deep into its characters, and elevates their struggles to a mythic level, even as it grounds them in the most fundamental of human needs and desires. Lest that sound too weighty, it’s a very funny show, shot through with a dry, sly wit that emerges not just in dialogue, but also visually (the greatest visual moment of television in 2013 may well have been the sight of a post-coital male rabbit collapsing into sleep the second it, uh, “finishes”).

Coitus not pictured

Coitus not pictured

The writing is always smart, the acting is revelatory across the board, and it all looks amazing.

Taylor Schilling

Taylor Schilling

Orange Is The New Black is a deliberately scrappier affair, as befits the chaotic nature of its subject matter. Piper is a WASP-y character who ran wild during her early twenties, carrying out all kinds of illicit and illegal activities at the behest of her girlfriend and lover, Alex. Eventually, Piper gave it all up, and got engaged to NPR-worshipping, brunch-loving Larry. Years later, Piper’s name is given to the authorities, and she is arrested for her crimes, and sent to prison. What follows is Piper’s fraught, emotionally charged journey through prison life. It’s upsetting, terrifying, moving, hilarious and horrifying in equal parts, and never less than utterly gripping. Showrunner Jenji Kohan nails the tone of the show, keeping every episode flying with emotional energy, humor and conflict. It’s a natural fit for Netflix, as it is literally impossible to resist binge-watching this show. The prison is full of vastly different women, all of whom have their own pasts and arcs; it’s a rich and diverse source of stories, all fueled by human beings on the edge, desperate to survive, to make it through, to make it out.

Tatiana Maslany

Tatiana Maslany

Masters Of Sex and Orange Is The New Black deal in realism. Orphan Black, developed by Graeme Manson, has different DNA; it’s a sci-fi thriller with a bleakly beautiful contemporary feel. Very quickly, lead character Sarah Manning discovers that she is not alone; there are young women out there just like her. Not just demographically, but literally: there are identical clones running around and bringing the ruckus (including, notably, a terrifyingly feral assassin clone, although even she is somehow overshadowed by the antics of the soccer mom). The show unfolds its techno-thriller plot with the verve and emotion of Fringe, and the relentless grip of Homeland. The conspiracy widens and the truth evolves. These fantastical elements are grounded in some jaw-dropping performances. The two leads, Felix (played by Dylan Bruce) and Sarah (played by Tatiana Maslany) are originally from Brixton, in the south of London. This is one of the most specific British accents there is; Bruce and Maslany are both Canadian, but both deliver flawlessly authentic and thrillingly naturalistic performances. But it doesn’t stop there, because Maslany also plays the clones, all of whom are wildly different, in character and mannerisms. It’s an acting showcase and masterclass that weaves breathlessly around the ferociously unfolding plot. It’s highly engaging, and never lets up for a second.

Three brilliant seasons, three brilliant shows.

There were many other great seasons of TV in 2013 too: Almost Human, The Walking Dead, Person Of Interest, Arrow, Nashville, The Tomorrow People, The Blacklist, Shameless, Game Of Thrones (which delivered the year’s most talked about episode of TV, the Rains of Castamere), Homeland (which seemed to nosedive for three episodes before revealing that it was in fact its most ruthlessly brilliant season yet),  as well as the UK hit The Wrong Mans, a brilliantly off-kilter and kinetic “action sitcom” about being an ordinary man caught up in a Bourne-style conspiracy.

Special shout out: the fifth and final season of SouthLAnd, one of the greatest TV dramas of all time, which inexplicably received the worst DVD handling of any TV show in history (barely getting a release, appearing as “DVD on demand”, then bundling odd groups of seasons of the show together, never once releasing a prestige blu ray set, even getting its theme music replaced on some DVDs and digital downloads). The lack of options undoubtedly held back its ratings (binge-watching catch-ups are a key part of keeping shows alive in later seasons), and although the show ended on a typically intense and emotional high, it’s a shame it isn’t easier for fans or newbies to own it in a quality format.

All these shows featured compelling characters, gripping emotional journeys, killer banter, and dynamic pacing. TV is going through a continuing golden age that only seems to deepen as shows start emerging from unexpected venues. There are more channels greenlighting more shows year-round, instead of the usual handful during the more typical pilot season. Now fantastic shows are constantly springing up and demanding great acting and writing talent. It’s an astonishingly fertile, lively, beautiful time for television drama. It’s hell on my DVR and my writing schedule.

Long may it continue.

Almost Human: under the Skin

It can be tough for a new show to maintain momentum in its second outing. Fortunately for Almost Human, episode two (“Skin”) featured a Cheo Coker script about sexbots. This was basically the exact opposite of a Kobayashi Maru scenario.

Coker has perfected the art of yielding deep character revelations from the smallest of moments (on SouthLAnd), and the skill of wielding heavy exposition on the fly (on NCIS:LA). These abilities are essential in the future world of Almost Human, which has a network procedural chassis powered by a cable-style character-based engine. The words were the supple human skin on this artificial life form: the hour was full of emotional, wry, hard-hitting and rhythmic dialogue. With a steady stream of killer details (cats, balls), Kennex and Dorian bantered like pros. Karl Urban and Michael Ealy played their scenes to perfection, continuing an endearing chemistry that makes us want to spend the entire hour listening to them ragging on each other.

Almost Human Skin

Both actors can convey emotional nuance with the smallest of actions, which fits the style of this show perfectly; it’s a gritty, flinty, fast-moving world, composed of shards of light and emotion amongst the steel and glass. Cityscapes glitter and shine brightly with future-light, androids behave as though they have souls, and no one is quite what they seem. The hard-bitten noir quality runs through every aspect of Almost Human, as does the connection with Blade Runner, which is not just there in the concept and visuals, but also in the dialogue, with a character at one point talking about a blush response. Of course, the key debate of that movie was whether Deckard was a replicant. It’s a rich seam to mine, and J.H. Wyman’s show is doing it thoughtfully.

At the same time, it’s distinguishing itself from its sci-fi forefathers and brethren, establishing its own unique identity through a new language of crime: flash masks, DNA bombs, tag scramblers. Wyman is delivering on his promise to only feature crimes that are entirely dependent on futuristic technology. This is a sci-fi geek’s dream in the best kind of way. The concepts are clever, but the emotions are always real: Dorian’s pain at the destruction of another synthetic was palpable and moving.

And yet, in a sign that this show has a great line-up in the writers room, possibly the most moving moment of the episode was the tiny robotic giraffe that Kennex hands to the small child of a kidnapping victim. That emotional moments can be handled so quietly and simply amidst the chaos of the day bodes extremely well for the sophisticated nature of future episodes.

All of the show’s emotions are enhanced by The Crystal Method’s beautiful, futuristic and ambient score, which flows through every scene artfully; it’s up there with the best sci-fi scores, in TV and in film. If machines did dream, this is what it would sound like.

Almost Human has started with an astonishingly assured one-two punch. It’s thrilling TV; exhilarating concepts driven by emotional truths. As long as it can give more time and complexity to Captain Maldonado and Agent Stahl, both of whom currently exist in a “popping in and out of scenes with information” status, there’s nothing to stop this show cementing its status as best new drama of the season.

Random uploads:

  • “You scanned my balls.”
  • Gareth from The Office (the UK original) as a specialist in robots. Brilliant.
  • Kennex stabbing his leg and scaring the kids.
  • That giraffe, man. Beautiful.

Almost Human: Pilot Episode

That Fringe-shaped hole in your TV world is about to be more than filled with ALMOST HUMAN, a show that might just be the purest display of high-octane sci-fi ever to hit the small screen.

The pilot episode, penned by former FRINGE showrunner J.H. Wyman and produced by sci-fi uber-titan J.J. Abrams (FRINGE, PERSON OF INTEREST, REVOLUTION, SUPER 8, STAR TREK, STAR WARS), is a fiercely gritty introduction to the police procedural world in 2048. Cops are partnered with androids, and programmable DNA is the target of choice for the future-tech criminals they chase down.

Almost Human

The pilot accomplishes more than most first seasons. Wyman’s world-building is precise, deep and always on the fly. It’s a world of constant motion. This is kinetic sci-fi of the highest order. And it’s all driven by character and emotion, memory and loss; every piece of tech, every cool idea, is serving the story. Wyman’s great skill is to introduce us to multiple strata of the world, as well as our two lead characters: Kennex, the embittered cop struggling with the continued fallout of a mission gone wrong, and his partner Dorian, a “synthetic” who is programmed to feel. They both have something to prove, and almost certainly something to hide.

Their relationship is the cornerstone of the show; it all depends on their arcs, their dialogue, their chemistry. Wyman’s script does a stellar job making all this completely naturalistic, and the two actors, a fantastically grizzled Karl Urban and a smoothly assertive Michael Ealy, trade hard-bitten noir-ish lines with ease.

That combination of sci-fi noir and androids programmed to seem human unavoidably calls to mind the ur-text of this genre: BLADE RUNNER. To its extreme credit, ALMOST HUMAN is never derivative, but doesn’t shy away from the resonances either. Indeed, it richly plays with our expectations by giving us just enough to wonder if Kennex is as human as he seems (read EW’s excellent breakdown of this theory).

The sci-fi in the show serves the story entirely; and simultaneously the story couldn’t exist without the tech that drives it. That’s why this is pure sci-fi, the very best kind: emotion, action, concept, heart and character are all the same here.

It’s an outstanding pilot episode, one that holds a tremendous amount of promise for the rest of the season.