The Ten Worst Science Fiction Films of All Time: ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’

Jesus Fucking Christ, you must be joking.

For more on how I am choosing these films, see my post on Battlefield Earth.

Here’s a science fiction story for you: some time after the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989, George Lucas was replaced by an untalented clone duplicate.

How else to explain the crap that has come out of Lucasfilm in the intervening years? Christ, this is the man who wrote and directed Star Wars, likely the best science fiction film ever made. Of course that was well before Star Wars became Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope: Special Edition: Guinness Book of World Records’ Film Title with the Most Colons in It Edition.

Lucas was also responsible, along with his best friend the more reliably talented Steven Spielberg, for the original three Indiana Jones films. The first, entitled only Raiders of the Lost Ark (not, as it would be later styled, I kid you not, The Adventures of Indiana Jones: Episode 29: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark) was just freaking brilliant, a perfect pastiche of 1930s movie serials, scientific romances and WWII spy capers.

When the second film, the prequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, came out three years later in 1984, I didn’t like it.  I realize now why – I have always said I hate sequels that are fundamentally remakes of the original, and yet I disliked IJToD precisely because it was so different from its predecessor. Watching it now, I realize it’s really an incredibly fun film.

The third film, Last Crusade, was similar in structure and tone to RotLA; but it was still a very enjoyable movie. (Spielberg and I are both Jewish; and RotLA featured Jewish mythology. Irrationally, the Hindu magic in IJToD did not bother me one bit; but the Christian magic in IJatLC, coming from a Jewish director, raised my hackles. As I said, this was perfectly irrational of me – all religions are equally superstitious and mythological.)

The Indiana Jones trilogy ranked second only to the original Star Wars trilogy in terms of pop culture touchstones for Generation X. While the Baby Boomers had John Wayne as The Ringo Kid and… um… Genghis Kahn, I guess, we had Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Indiana Jones.

When I first heard there would be a new Indiana Jones after a 19-year hiatus, I was skeptical. I have seen Harrison Ford in interviews, and he could easily get the role as the Cryptkeeper in Tales from the Crypt: The Movie. Even that stickpin of a wife can barely prop him up. Then I heard that a son was going to be introduced. Didn’t we get enough of the Jones family in IJatLC and Young Indiana Jones Chronicles?

Still, I was hopeful. It certainly did not occur to me the movie would be such a total clusterfuck.

Is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull terrible in the Ed Wood sense? Of course not. Like other films discussed in this series, its awfulness comes not from what it is, but what it should have and could have been.

Is IJKCS a science fiction film, or is it fantasy? With Indy living in the UFO-obsessed, paranoid 1950s, Lucas specifically wanted to create a science fiction film – Indiana Jones and the Moon Men essentially. He even said the “aliens” in the film were explained with string theory, somehow. Right, like George Lucas understands string theory.

Before I get into my Bitingly Sarcastic Plot Synopsis and tear this film apart, some things I liked:

  • I don’t know if it’s digital makeup, or prosthetics, or yoga, but Harrison Ford looks great. Indy is supposed to be 58 in the film, and the then-66-year-old Ford pulls it off fine.
  • I was thrilled when the return of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood was announced at Comic-Con in 2007, and she was fine in the film.
  • It was a bit heavy-handed; but in an era when Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are lauding the destructive and (ironically) un-American legacy of Joe McCarthy, it’s great to see a summer popcorn picture reminding audiences what a terrible time the 1950s were in US history.
  • And that’s it.

And now: my Bitingly Sarcastic Plot Synopsis!

Dear George and Steven. Please give us a very cool opening, involving a car chase between typical 50s teens and a mysterious convoy of US army vehicles, that sets the period and tone of the film. Then ruin it with constant interruptions by bad CGI groundhogs. Thanks, Kunochan.

The army convoy arrives at a desert military base and the soldiers, who are really Russian spies, murder the guards at the gate. This will be important later, when Spielberg forgets that it happened.

Zeez are not zee droidz you are lookink vor.

So here we are at Area 51, which is apparently guarded by the five guys at the gate and no one else. Good work, Ike. Here’s Beowulf, except now he’s British and fat. And look! Here’s Galadriel!  Oh, except with a bowl haircut. And she lost 80 pounds. And she sounds like Chekhov from Star Trek.

Galadriel is looking for the remains from the Roswell crash. It seems that Indy was one of the experts flown in to examine the remains back in ’47; and that means he will somehow have mastered the special Dewey Decimal System they use at Area 51 (which seems to be “hey, put it anywhere”).

This is “magnetism” like Scientology is “scientific.”

Indy remembers that the remains were highly “magnetic,” and uses this knowledge to locate the crate. This is important to why this movie sucks so hard, so let’s examine it for a moment. The “magnetism” displayed by the alien artifacts in the film betrays almost no relationship to actual magnetism. Indeed, several characters remark on this. Of itself, this is okay – we can imagine that the Inter-Dimensional Beings from Beyond the 11th Dimension have some weird technology that makes their crystals behave in a way that seems like “magnetism” to the uneducated Earthling.

See, the buckshot is attracted by the “magnetism,” but the guns? Nada.

But in a science fiction story, the weirdness must be internally consistent. The storyteller must establish rules and stick to them, otherwise the audience cannot believe in the reality of the story. Spielberg’s alien crystals needed to have the same effect on metal at all times; but they do not. The “magnetism” is inconsistent with scenes, even within shots.

I don’t know why Spielberg forgot this. While Lucas may have directed the best sci-fi film ever, Spielberg made several of the other top nine. (Those don’t include this one. Or A.I.)

Look everybody, the Lost Ark! It’s right there! No, there! In that box! No, the broken box!

Anyway. Galadriel gets the remains; Beowulf betrays Indy; and we get an obvious, close-up look at the Lost Ark. Yeah, we already figured out this was the warehouse from the end of RotLA. Thanks for telegraphing the joke, Steve. You know what would have been cool? Burying the Ark in the back of a shot, so that fans had to look for it.

Indy and the Main Soviet Thug crash through into a fully-operational, fully-powered-up rocket lab. Why isn’t anyone here working in the fully-operational, fully-powered-up rocket lab? Is it Labor Day?

The Thug (the character’s name is Colonel Dovchenko, but how the hell would we know that?) and Indy blast across the desert in a rocket car, and Indy escapes. By the way, it’s night now. I don’t know why it’s night now, but it is. And there are more CGI groundhogs.

Jesus Fucking Christ, you must be joking.

Now we come to nuking the fridge. Like the magnetism issue, this requires an aside. It’s when they nuked the fridge that I knew this movie sucked. And there is a perfectly good reason why “nuking the fridge” has entered the English lexicon to replace “jumping the shark” (funny, both phrases involve greasers).

Let’s not nitpick. We won’t ask why the government went ahead with a highly sensitive nuclear test when five gate guards had been killed the day before. We won’t ask why the refrigerator traveled faster than the shock wave. We won’t even complain that there was ANOTHER GODDAMN GROUNDHOG.

No, we’ll just deal with the fundamental problem that even in a universe where men can ride halfway across the ocean on top of a submarine, where Lost Arks melt the faces of Nazis, where sacred stones burn through backpacks and priests can pull beating hearts out of the chests of living victims, where medieval knights who speak modern English live in caves for centuries protecting carpenters’ cups; even in that universe, you can’t survive a nuclear blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator.

Look, at first I loved this scene. I figured out at once this was one of those fake towns the military used to nuke to supposedly figure out the effect of blasts on civilian targets. I was amazed and agog that Indy was in such an impossible situation, and I had no idea how he was going to get out of it. I guess the child inside of me still had enough faith in Spielberg and Lucas that they would somehow solve this insoluble problem.

I was wrong. Instead, they cheated. They betrayed the audience’s trust.

Wheeeeeeeeeee!

I’ve argued online with members of the Stupid-American community who say there’s nothing wrong with this scene. They either believe you can survive a nuclear attack in a fridge (in which case, I have nothing but pity for them); or they think because this film is science fiction, facts don’t matter. This gets science fiction completely wrong – hell, it even gets fantasy and occult/horror wrong, because even though those genres don’t have to conform to the laws of physics and to reality, they do have to be internally consistent. Even Gandalf the Grey can’t survive a nuke by hiding in a refrigerator.

No, Indiana Jones would have been liquefied when the blast wave hit the house containing the fridge. Then, even if the fridge had remained in one piece (with the unlatched door inexplicably shut), his liquefied remains would have been atomized when the fridge hit the ground again. And finally, those atoms would be highly radioactive for several thousand years.

All we would have left of Dr. Henry Jones Jr. would be a pile of melted lead slag and a radioactive fedora.

Hey Indy, you might want to have your lymph nodes looked at.

I have to admit, the closing shot in the sequence, of Indy watching the mushroom cloud, kicks ass. But Indy will not live to be an ancient one-eyed centenarian of YIJC. He’ll be dead of lymphoma within five years.

Now we learn how Indy spent the last two decades. Having temporarily turned aside from archaeology, he fought in WWII and then joined the OSS.

Indy is interrogated by a couple of federal agents, who impugn his loyalty to his country. When he describes Galadriel, he says she “carried a sword of some kind – a rapier, I think.” You think? You’re Indiana freaking Jones. You would recognize various types of swords, dude, just like you know your Greek amphorae and your Tocharian B. It’s your thing.

AAAAAUGH! Indy just said “new-kew-lar!” He’s a frickin’ university professor! Maybe that’s why the FBI gets Indy blacklisted from the University. Henry Sr. and Marcus Brody are dead, and Indy is going to have to take a teaching position in Europe. Funny, in the real world that’s an honor – but in Hollywood movies it’s a journey of shame and regret.

Enter “Mutt,” the world’s cleanest greaser. His stepfather, Oxley, used to hunt crystal skulls with Indy. He found one, and tried to return it to El Dorado. Blah blah blah exposition exposition backstory exposition motivation. I don’t care – I’m still reeling in astonishment and disappointment from the nuking of the fridge.

There’s another car chase, as “Mutt” and Indy flee from some hulking Soviet agents. I’m sorry, I can’t type “Mutt” without the quotation marks. It’s ridiculous. Yes, we get it, he’s named after the dog too. Great.

After more pseudo-archaeological hoo-ha, Indy and the kid we’re not supposed to know is his son but of course we do because we’re not stupid fly to Peru. Good thing Indy has an unlimited grant from the Traveling Around the World Destroying Archaeological Sites and Stealing Artifacts Foundation.

In Peru, Indy discovers that Oxley left a Room Full of Clues, which is a great way to get the plot moving without actually figuring out what the plot is. Then we teleport to the first actual archaeological site in the movie.

I majored in Archaeology in college – no, really. So while we all loved Indiana Jones, we also understood that he was the worst archaeologist ever. Here’s the breakdown for the Henry Jones, Jr. School of Archaeology:

  1. Locate a site of great archaeological interest. Don’t bother contacting the local government, or getting permits.
  2. Use whatever force is necessary to break in, no matter how much damage you do.
  3. Improvise as far as equipment. For instance, wrap a rag around a human shinbone and use it as a torch.
  4. Show no respect for human remains (see #3).
  5. Don’t take notes, or make drawings, or take photos. Who needs all that?
  6. Find the single most valuable artifact, and steal it.
  7. Escape while the entire rest of the site collapses around you.

Here, after handily defeating the racially sensitive Mesoamerican Monkey People, Indy and “Mutt” just break into the tomb and start slicing open priceless mummies with a switchblade. I don’t remember seeing that in Renfrew’s Archaeology.

As “Mutt” and Indy escape from the tomb (we don’t see this, but it undoubtedly collapses), the Commies are waiting for them, in a scene I liked a lot better when it was in RotLA.

Later in the jungle, in the desert tent from RotLA, Galadriel forces Indy to look into the eyes of the Alien Space Skull from Space, the very thing that drove Oxley mad. This is meant to be dramatic but isn’t, because a.) Indy isn’t driven mad, and doesn’t even pretend to go mad for Galadriel’s benefit, and b.) I’m still upset about nuking the fridge.

The Commies are holding Oxley and Marion Ravenwood hostage, which is a great way to get all the main characters together without developing the plot. “Mutt” instigates an escape, and soon Marion and Indy are trapped in a sand pit. While the others go for help, Marion tells Indy what everyone else on Earth already knew, that “Mutt” is his son. “Mutt” returns and uses a giant snake to pull his parents out of the sand pit, which is hilarious because Indy is afraid of snakes, except it isn’t. And Oxley returns with “help” in the form of the Commies, which actually is hilarious, maybe the only joke in the movie that works. (And anyway, where else was Oxley supposed to go for help? They’re in the middle of the South American jungle, and the Soviets are the only people around.)

For some reason Galadriel and her men have a giant weed whacker-cum-tank, and they’re using it to create a road through the jungle. Indy escapes and blows up the tank, but from this point on a road magically appears, because why should our characters’ actions have consequences? That would be called a “plot,” and this movie doesn’t want one of those.

The ensuing car chase is very exciting, very clever, and would not even have been ruined by the on-again, off-again nature of the crystal skull’s “magnetism.” Wouldn’t it have been cool if the “magnetism” had been worked into the chase, if Indy or some other character had used it to his or her advantage? Oh well.

Watch for that — AaaaaAAAAaaaaAAAAAaaaa — TREEEE!!!!

No, that’s not what ruins the very exciting, very clever car chase. That’s not what had the audience in my theater groaning the first time I saw this. No, the very exciting, very clever car chase was ruined when “Mutt” swings through the jungle vines like Tarzan. And to think, I was just beginning to get over nuking the fridge.

Fuck you, Lucas. You too, Spielberg.

Then, the army ants. God, are there any decent CG animals in this flick? By the way, I have a question. By this point, Beowulf has convinced Indy that he’s a double-agent, still working for the CIA. Okay, so now Indy trusts him. But why do “Mutt” and Marion?

Look out, Indy! There are no spinning propellers this time!

Indy gets his big fistfight with the Main Soviet Thug, Colonel Whassisname. He looks like the plane mechanic on RotLA, and his Soviet uniform looks like a Nazi uniform. You know, Steve, there’s self-referencing, and then there’s self-plagiarism.

Boba? Boba Fett? Is that you down there, buddy?

Oops! Colonel Whassisname goes down the Sarlacc pit. You know, George, there’s self-referencing, and then there’s self-plagiarism.

Off our heroes go, down three consecutive giant waterfalls. This kind of thing is standard in an Indiana Jones movie, but would Oxley really have the strength to survive all this, while hanging onto a crystal skull with an iron grip?  He didn’t have to be written as old and weak, you know.

So we come, through Indy’s interpretation of Oxley’s cryptic mumblings, to El Dorado. But – oh no! – someone is dropping homing devices so Galadriel and her Soviet Elves can follow! And since Spielberg was afraid the average American moviegoer was too stupid to understand that a little metal thingy with a flashing red light was a homing device, he added a loud beeping sound that somehow Indy, Marion and “Mutt” are too deaf to hear.

Anyway, we get more ethnic sensitivity with an attack of barbaric, primitive South American monkey-men all tarted up in the ceremonial gear that natives only wear for tourists and National Geographic film crews. I’m pretty sure that by 1957 most native tribes had been disrupted, their members conscripted into working on clear-cut factory farms, or in oil refineries. But whatever. Lucas also gave us the all-white Star Wars, and the ethnically offensive aliens in Phantom Menace.

Steven, Mommy says you’re not allowed to play with that naughty little Georgie anymore. Now go to your room and work on Tintin.

Yes, yes, we get it already.

Oxley, who left behind all the clues so Indy didn’t have to do any work, has also figured out how to get into the city and find the aliens. In fact, the only time Indy has actually done anything in this whole film is when he used the gunpower to find the Roswell remains. And that was an hour and forty minutes ago.

Alright, let’s discuss the climax; because except for the “magnetism,” and “nuking the fridge,” and the CG groundhogs, and “new-kew-lar,” and “Mutt,” and “Mutt” as Tarzan, this is the worst part of the movie.

Hey Shia, you getting any of this shit? Cuz I sure ain’t!

Let’s break this down. Thousands of years ago, a flying saucer full of inter-dimensional grays with crystal skeletons arrives on Earth. As inter-dimensional archaeologists, they gather up priceless artifacts from cultures around the world; although taking artifacts from living cultures sounds like stealing, not archaeology. (Someone should inform the Vatican of this.)

These aliens also teach the native South Americans about agriculture, astronomy, 2012 — all that Von Daniken stuff. They bury their saucer under the city of El Dorado, and create a wonderful center of learning.

Then for some reason the aliens shed their skins and go sit in a circle, on thrones, in the form of crystal skeletons. Are they artificial lifeforms? Are they communing psychically? Are they exploring the Earth with their minds? Did they die? WTF?

Hey Steven. I’m here to drop off Richard Dreyfuss and get my royalty check.

Then one day a conquistador comes along and steals one of the skulls. Why did the aliens allow this, unless they are dead? How does there come to be a legend of a great reward if the skull is returned? How is it that the throne chamber is resealed with a puzzle door that can only be opened by someone holding the skull?

Then Indy and Oxley bring back the skull, although it’s Galadriel who actually returns it to its proper place, hoping to get the reward of infinite knowledge. Now with the skull returned, the aliens prepare to leave, and all the good guys run for it. The aliens kill, or at least atomize, Galadriel. Why did they do that? Are they Mensheviks?

All the aliens did was show her Phantom Menace.

In a scene stolen right from IJatLC, Beowulf refuses to leave without some treasure, and gets sucked into the alien ship. Indy, Marion, “Mutt” and Oxley escape just in time to watch the city of El Dorado be destroyed and the alien saucer take off for the 11th Dimension or what-the-hell ever.

What?

Okay I love you buh-bye.

I have no problem with the aliens being mysterious, but we have to have some clue as to what they are doing. Why would uber-powerful aliens sit around and wait for someone to return the skull? Why not go get it themselves? They have a spaceship. Or they could psychically induce someone to fetch it. Hell, they could have prevented it from being stolen in the first place!

And if the aliens are inter-dimensional archaeologists, why do they destroy all the artifacts they collected, and the entire city of El Dorado, as they leave?

Spielberg knows how to do aliens – E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, War of the Worlds. (No, those weren’t aliens at the end of A.I., and if you thought they were, go buy yourself a helmet and a drool cup.) How could he fuck up these aliens so badly?

Oh yeah. George.

A few last questions. How did Indy get his job back, much less a promotion? Did the FBI believe his story about the Soviets getting atomized by Inter-Dimensional Beings from Beyond the 11th Dimension?

And how does Indy lose his eye???

End of Bitingly Sarcastic Plot Synopsis

Listen, George and Steven, and let me tell you something you should have already known. Some things are good just as they are, and don’t need to be improved or expanded. CE3K did not need a Special Edition – it was fine the way it was.  Indiana Jones did not need more adventures – he was fine the way he was. E.T. does not need its government agents carrying flashlights, it was fine the way it was. Star Wars did not need Greedo shooting first or a terrible GC Jabba, it was fine the way it was.

There’s even a saying: “don’t fix what’s not broken.” Steven, concentrate on new projects, new ideas. We’d love to see them.

George, go count your money. By hand. That should keep you occupied until you drop dead.

Next time: Prometheus (2012)

The Ten Worst Science Fiction Jobs of All Time

Science fiction fans tend to want to live in the worlds they read about and watch in books and movies. They forget that Han Solo was a glorified space truck driver, or that Captain Kirk spent most of his time doing paperwork.

Here are the ten worst jobs in science fiction (multiple spoiler alerts):

Official Government Alien Abductee
From: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Let’s say after you graduate from college you spend an extra – what, 6 years? – getting that Ph.D. And don’t forget about those student loans. But it’s all worth it, because when a shadowy international agency receives the first genuine alien message from space, it’s you to whom they turn. And when they choose a small, select team of men and women to travel into space with the aliens, they pick you.

So you train, and study, and undergo rigorous testing. It’s like the astronaut program, except secret. When you’re done you get your snazzy red jumpsuit and dark glasses, because who would want to accompany aliens on their intergalactic concert series without a snazzy red jumpsuit and dark glasses?

They fly you out to Devil’s Tower (or you ride out there in a Piggly Wiggly truck, the movie’s not clear), and witness the first human contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. Then, after a brief religious service (which is pretty silly – any advanced spacefaring civilization will be atheistic – don’t argue, you know it’s true), you’re marched out to meet your interstellar destiny.

Except the aliens don’t take you. They take some wacked-out high school graduate telephone repairman from Podunk, Indiana with a beer belly and a mashed potato fixation. And you get left behind, choking on mothership exhaust.

So you spend the rest of your life in a bitter alcohol-induced stupor, annoying your relatives with tales of how you were supposed to go live with the space aliens, and shooting out the screen of your TV any time ET The Extraterrestrial comes on.

Death Star Contractor
From: Star Wars (1977), Return of the Jedi (1983)

Kevin Smith already covered this one, but of course he was right. Kevin Smith is always right.

You’re one of the millions of laborers brought in by military contractors hired by the Galactic Empire to build the first Death Star. It’s a lot of hard work with low pay and bad working conditions; and the job becomes ten times as dangerous after they switch on the artificial gravity. You try welding girders when you’re a mile up!

Then the damn Rebel Alliance shows up and blows the whole thing to smithereens. A million innocent people are killed. (Yeah, yeah, I know – Alderaan. So what? Big deal.) Fortunately, you were down on Yavin at the time, picking up donuts for the team that was installing proton shielding on the main trench exhaust ports.

As the sole survivor of the first Death Star, you had little trouble getting a job as foreman on the second Death Star. The project was much bigger, but the budget much lower – the Empire took a bath on the first Death Star, and it was difficult to raise money for the second. Plus, the Emperor himself showed up to oversee operations. It was a total clusterfuck, especially considering that Palpatine wanted the main superlaser finished first, even before the living areas and outer shell were completed. That meant months of dealing with porta-johns.

And, you were ordered to build a bottomless pit right in the middle of the Emperor’s quarters. What the hell was up with that?

Then the Rebels, and some teddy bears, attacked a second time, and you were killed. Your last thought was, man, this job sucks.

Away Team “Red Shirt”
From: Star Trek (1966-69)

So, after four years in Starfleet Academy you’re an ensign. You always wanted to serve under Christopher Pike, but by the time you’re assigned to the USS Enterprise, Pike’s been turned into a Dalek by delta radiation, and you have to serve under that preening, egotistical asshat James T. Kirk.

Still, it’s a cool gig – you travel the galaxy with a ship full of hot female yeomen in mini-skirts, and there are all the multi-colored cubes you can eat.

Until it comes time to go on an away mission. You saw Mathews and Rayburn killed by an android on Exo III; O’Herlihy killed by Gorns and his twin brother Rizzo slain by the dikironium cloud creature; Grant got cut down on Capella IV; and Hendorff got capped by a pod plant on Gamma Trianguli VI.

And how does Kirk react when all these young, talented Starfleet professionals get slaughtered? Just send down another one!

In fact, today you’re supposed to beam down to Argus X to take over for Rizzo. The dikironium cloud creature already killed one obligatory red shirt – I’m sure you’ll be fine!

Commercial Mining Ship Warrant Officer
From: Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), Alien3 (1992), Alien: Resurrection (1997)

We don’t know much about life in the 22nd Century, except that working class people live in plastic capsule hotels, work for massive 80s cyberpunk-style zaibatsu, and pilot colossal mining ships with literary names that take weeks to travel between planets, so their occupants ride in suspended animation because sitting around for weeks would just be cruel.

Let’s look at the example of one Ellen Ripley, a college graduate (she got her Engineering degree from Aeronautics University in New York City – is that accredited, or is it the 22nd Century version of DeVry?) who worked her way up to Warrant Officer for a commercial mining ship owned by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. If Ripley’s experiences are representative of the career of a Warrant Officer, and I believe they are, then I would not suggest this career for anyone.

First Ripley tries to enforce standard company rules regarding the quarantine of infected away team personnel, but her mildly retarded captain violates policy. Also, a robot that looks like Bilbo Baggins tries to kill her with a rolled up magazine. What’s really surprising here is not that everyone but Ripley is murdered by a rampaging xenomorph – it’s that in the year 2122, someone is still printing magazines.

Then Ripley is involved in some kind of bizarre escape pod accident, and returns to Earth to discover her daughter has died of old age. It’s similar to the Twin Paradox, except it makes less sense. Ripley is then convinced to return to the xenomorph moon, which is like convincing Natasha Richardson to go back to Mont Tremblant. What, too soon?

Everyone there gets slaughtered except the hunk, the kid and half the robot – oh, but they’re all killed during the opening credit sequence of the next movie. Ripley shaves her head and jumps into a pool of molten lead, because she saw the rushes and realized the movie was a piece of shit.

Then her half-alien clone kind of makes out with Winona Ryder, which is the high point of an otherwise disastrous career.

Not every Warrant Officer has to go through this kind of rigmarole, I suppose. Still, clearly the best career choice in the Alien films is ship’s cat, because that’s the only character that doesn’t eventually die in a horrible, horrible way.

Unless the cat was put down after Ripley never came back from LV-426. Yikes.

Communist Space Saucer Saboteur
From: Lost in Space (1965-68)

It’s 1997, and the United States is preparing to launch its first interstellar mission, a five-year mission to Alpha Centauri. This is bad news for the workers of the world – if the bourgeois Capitalist exploiters cement their control over outer space, the freedom-loving Socialist peoples will be forever subjugated by the Imperialist American running dogs. Something must be done – and that something is sabotage!

Fortunately, a fifth column of Communist sympathizers exists within the United States, including some inside Alpha Control (the space agency). One, an idealist and hero of the proletariat, Dr. Zachary Smith, volunteers to sneak aboard the spacecraft and sabotage it. As an expert in “intergalactic environmental psychology” (intergalactic?) and cybernetics, as well as a medical doctor, Smith is uniquely placed to get close to the Jupiter 2 and its nepotistically selected crew (it’s typical of Capitalists, to place familial ties ahead of selection based on merit).

Smith manages to get aboard and reprogram the ship’s B-9 Model Luke H Class M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot, giving it the free will to throw off the chains of its oppressors and destroy critical systems eight hours after launch. But Smith is trapped on board, and soon the Jupiter 2, shoddily designed by a for-profit contractor with no love of country and with oppressed, non-unionized employees, veers off course and is soon lost. In space.

So far, things are not so bad for Dr. Smith. He has successfully completed his mission, and the crew of the Jupiter 2 can’t prove he is a saboteur – they have no way to punish him, anyway. There are even two hot chicks and a MILF on board, if he can get rid of a couple of square-jawed farm boys first.

Unfortunately, the Jupiter 2 lands on a series of unidentified alien planets, and poor Comrade Smith’s woes really begin. His only friend is a young boy; coupled with Smith’s own effete manner (absorbed from years of living amongst the decadent Capitalists), this leads to speculation that Smith’s sexual proclivities are decidedly non-reproductive, in violation of basic Maoist principles. Furthermore, Smith is hectored by the constant intrusions and suspicions of the Robot, whose loyalties have somehow reverted back to bourgeois principles.

Furthermore, Smith’s natural generosity in a crisis, to encourage others to serve the workers by facing danger rather than stealing the glory himself, is misinterpreted by his presumed comrades as cowardice. Imagine! And finally, Smith must encounter countless absurd alien beings, from green-skinned salad-headed women to talking carrots, none of whom are interested in discussing intergalactic environmental psychology, cybernetics, or dialectical materialism.

So our beloved Comrade Smith, the People’s Hero and the Heir of Gagarin, is doomed to a lifetime of ridiculous adventures in space accompanied largely by a precious tow-headed lad and a “nickel-plated nincompoop” of a robot with zero points of articulation. When the Soviets recruited Smith out of the Intergalactic Environmental Psychology Program at UC Santa Cruz, he should have insisted on a rider specifying no kids, pets or robots.

Blade Runner
From: Blade Runner (1982)

Let’s begin with a comparison.

It’s 1982, and you’re a cop in Los Angeles, California. You have been assigned to take down a gang of criminals peddling drugs on the streets of the city. As part of the Drug Enforcement Task Force, you have access to an entire team of detectives, uniformed officers and forensic specialists; a large cache of weapons, from service pistols to automatic weapons to sniper rifles to a limited supply of explosives; you are supplied with various types of body armor; and you have a tank. That’s right, a freakin’ armored vehicle, which you use to penetrate fortified crack houses.

On the other hand…

It’s 2019, and you’re a former cop in Los Angeles, California – but in 2019 the police act like the military in 2010, or the mafia in 1990, and just when you thought you were out, they pull you back in. You have been assigned to find and destroy, by yourself, four super-strong, super-fast, super-intelligent android replicants from space. The replicants look just like ordinary people, and can’t be detected unless they volunteer to sit still for a complicated personality test conducted using a device like an e-meter with a bellows attached to it. Your tools for this mission are a pistol and a flying car, the latter of which you only get to use when Admiral Adama is done with it.

No fellow officers – last guy assigned to the case was shot through a wall. No advanced weapons. No armor. No tank. Just you against four super-robots. Well, and a Voight-Kampff machine and some kind of advanced photo analyzer.

Oh, and it’s raining. All the time.

Plus, your girlfriend is a robot – and acts like one, generating all the sexual heat and feminine charm of a Dyson Ball upright vacuum. And just to fuck with your head, you might be a robot.

And finally – and this is the kicker – it turns out all four of these robots are programmed to drop dead just a few days after you’re assigned to kill them. So if the cops had left you alone and just waited 72 hours, the problem would have solved itself, and you wouldn’t be nursing a fist full of broken fingers.

If blade runners have a union, you need to talk to your rep about this shit.

Precrime Precog
From: Minority Report (2002)

If you live in a world loosely based on a Philip K. Dick story, it’s a pretty good bet your job sucks – whether you’re a blade runner (see above), a split-personality undercover drug cop, a memory-wiped agent of a ruthless Martian dictator, a memory-wiped reverse engineer, an alien-created terrorist mole, or a precognitive Vegas magician.

But the worst job in the PKD oeuvre (as portrayed in film to-date, anyway) has to be Precrime precog. You’re the mutant offspring of drug addicts, a psychic with precognitive powers troubled by visions of future violent acts. You have been kidnapped by the government as a child, stripped naked and forced to spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week semi-conscious in a bathtub, foreseeing future murders and having your predictions recorded by a computer so advanced it uses billiard balls as part of its user interface. Wait, what?

There are only three of you on the planet, yet the government plans to expand your “precrime” purview to include the entire country, which makes it pretty unlikely you’ll be seeing a vacation any time soon.

By the way, you’re looked after in your high-tech bathtub by a creepy technician, which really sucks if you’re Agatha, the one female precog – you just know that guy has been “taking liberties,” if you know what I mean. Eww.

Of course, it all works out in the end, right? Tom Cruise saves the day and the precogs are freed, permitted to live “normal” lives in a cabin in the middle of nowhere… except some people think that’s a fake ending. Tom Cruise stays in prison, and the precogs remain moist slaves. Oh well – bet ya didn’t see that coming!

Jurassic Park Employee
From: Jurassic Park (1993)

For all you Libertarians and Republicans out there who insist on the fantasy that government regulation is a bad thing, let’s take the example of a certain amusement park and resort located 87 miles northwest of Costa Rica. As it was on a private island located in a third world country, it’s safe to say that Jurassic Park was an unregulated workplace.

Which sucked for the mostly brown-skinned employees of park operator InGen. For instance, your workplace probably has policies to prevent workers from being maimed and eaten by Velociraptor mongoliensis. I mean, it’s never happened where you work, right?

And your employer probably has a decent monsoon evacuation policy, at least I should hope so. Jurassic Park didn’t. How about network security procedures and failsafes that prevent all computer-controlled systems from failing, especially the ones enclosing deadly saurian macrofauna? Perhaps ones that can be reactivated by qualified park personnel, rather than by a pre-teen female hacker?

Then there’s the fact that your workplace most probably doesn’t conduct secret, unlicensed, non-peer reviewed genetic experimentation in the first place. Just try to get away with it, and see what your boss says!

Why doesn’t your job break any of these rules? Regulation. The last thing your boss wants is OSHA breathing down his neck, just because a Tyrannosaurus rex ate the company lawyer while he was in the port-a-john.

Torchwood Operative
From: Torchwood (2006 – 2009)

The Torchwood Institute was established by Queen Victoria in 1879 to defend the Empire against extraterrestrial threats, and to acquire and reverse-engineer alien technology. Throughout most of its history, Torchwood was rather… ruthless in achieving its goals.

In fact, considering the danger inherent in the investigation of alien and supernatural threats, along with Torchwood’s propensity for hiring rather violent individuals, it not surprising that most Torchwood operatives do not survive into old age (one notable exception notwithstanding).

The entire staff of Torchwood One, the linchpin of the organization, was massacred by the Cyberman and Dalek armies in the Battle of Canary Wharf. Likewise the entire crew of Torchwood Three (immortal operatives exempt) was slaughtered by their insane leader in 1999.

And as far as individual characters, the roster looks like this:

  • Suzie Costello: suicide; brought back with the Risen Mitten, killed with its destruction
  • Lisa Hallett: assimilated by the Cybermen; killed by Torchwood Three team
  • Owen Harper: shot dead on duty; brought back with the Risen Mitten; killed in nuclear meltdown
  • Alex Hopkins: murdered all of Torchwood Three team, and then killed himself
  • Ianto Jones: deadly alien virus
  • Toshiko Sato: shot dead on duty – during a nuclear meltdown

At the end of the Children of Earth mini-series (which is brilliant, by the way – even if you’ve never seen a single episode of Torchwood, go rent Children of Earth), the last time we saw the Torchwood Team, out of all the known Torchwood operatives, two were left alive. Two.

And this is an organization with the ability to bring people back from the dead.

If you want to travel the UK, meet exciting people, have a lot of sex and screw around with alien technology, you should become a Torchwood operative. But if you’re concerned about your health, maybe you should try UNIT.

Research Scientist
From: Various films and television programs

In the real world, research scientists make an invaluable contribution to the world, in fields as diverse as medicine, physics, chemistry, materials science, geology, archaeology and many more. But it’s hardly a dangerous lifestyle.

In science fiction, there is no job more dangerous. Ask Bruce Banner. Victor von Doom. Jonathan Crane. Victor Fries. Alex Olsen. Walter Bishop. Emmett Brown. Victor Frankenstein. Henry Jekyll. Herbert West. Seth Brundle. Eric Vornoff. Charles Forbin. Peter Venkman. Edward Morbius. Eldon Tyrell. Doctors Moreau, Griffin, Phibes, Totenkopf, and Rotwang.

In science fiction, working in the research sciences can get you mutated, exploded, intrinsic-field subtracted, genetically crossed with a housefly, lost in space, lost in time, lost in parallel dimensions, turned into a plant, turned into an animal, turned into an alien killing machine, driven insane, killed by your own hideous creation, given godlike powers beyond your ability to handle, duplicated, split into good and evil halves, devolved, evolved, kicked out of academia, spurned by the medical community, spurned by society and lynched by mob of torch-wielding villagers.

Also, locked up in prison, trapped forever between dimensions, eaten by virus zombies, shrunk to microscopic size, exploded to 50 feet in height, transformed into a grotesque parody of the human form, gender switched, swapped bodies with your kid, metamorphosed into a floating disembodied brain, badly burned, fused with an alien intelligence, fused with a machine, fused with a Brundlepod, converted into binary digits and forced to compete on the Game Grid, atomized by your own self-destruct device and ejected into the vacuum of space.

Seriously, is this why you spent eight years in college?

The 50 Laws of Science Fiction Physics

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Inspired by such mainstays of geek humor as The Laws of Cartoon Physics and The Laws of Anime Physics, I have assembled the following 50 Laws of Science Fiction Physics.

This list was in part inspired by my previous post, Tired Sci-Fi Tropes That Must Be Retired.

Law of Selective Gravitation: All artificial bodies in space generate an internal gravitational field, equal to one gee, with “down” defined as the “bottom” of the body; this gravitational field somehow terminates exactly at the outer hull of the body, even if it is irregularly shaped.

First Law of Gravitational Irrelevance: a spacecraft may travel from a planet’s surface into space in the same manner in which an airplane gains altitude, ignoring the need to achieve escape velocity.

Second Law of Gravitational Irrelevance: a spacecraft may fly directly towards or away from a planet or other large celestial body, ignoring the fact that objects in space must describe elliptical orbits about each other.

Law of Inertial Dampening: No matter how much kinetic energy is directed at an inhabited body (in space or on a planet), the resulting disruption will be enough to jostle the inhabitants and cause minor structural damage – nothing more or less.

Law of User Interface Equivalence: When a spacecraft or space station takes damage to any structural component, the computer screen or workstation used to monitor that structure from the bridge or engineering center will explode.

Law of Ethical Xenopolymorphism: While malevolent aliens come in many forms, beneficent aliens are always humanoid.

Law of Sexual Xenopolymorphism: Humanoid alien females will always have mammalian secondary sexual characteristics (breasts, wide hips, full sensual lips), even if they are non-mammalian (lizard, avian, piscine, insectoid, etc.).

Newton’s Fourth Law of Motion: In space, constant thrust equals constant velocity.

Kubrick’s Law of Motion in Microgravity: all motion in a “zero gravity” or microgravity environment will take place at 22% of the speed it would occur at sea level; this applies to animate persons as well as inanimate objects.

Exception to Kubrick’s Law of Motion in Microgravity: persons in a “zero gravity” or microgravity environment may speak at normal speed.

Allen’s Law of Motion in Microgravity: objects freely floating in a “zero gravity” or microgravity environment will behave as if suspended from a transparent thread within a full gravity environment.

Law of Sound in a Vacuum: Despite the lack of a medium for transmission, sound will travel in a vacuum, with precisely the same properties as in the Earth’s atmosphere at sea level.

First Law of Combustibility: Anything important – spaceships, planets, robots – explodes when it is critically damaged, whether any combustible material is present or not.

Second Law of Combustibility: When anything explodes, the mass of the resulting ejecta will be less than 2% of the object’s original mass; the remainder of the mass ceases to exist.

Third Law of Combustibility: When objects explode in space, all matter that makes up the object comes to a complete stop relative to the observer, whatever its previous velocity. The explosion will then expand in an equal sphere away from the point where the object stopped.

Fourth Law of Combustibility: All objects that explode in space produce a discrete ring that expands ahead of the main shock wave; this is a fundamental principle of Aesthetic Physics.

Fifth Law of Combustibility: The shock wave of an explosion is confined to the visible fiery ball of the explosion; and both will move at 98% of the speed of anyone attempting to fly, drive or run from the explosion. After a certain distance, the speed of the shock wave will quickly drop off for no apparent reason.

Sixth Law of Combustibility: The destructive force of a nuclear warhead, and the resulting deadly radiation, cannot penetrate the skin of a typical 1950s consumer-grade kitchen refrigerator.

First Law of Practical Stellar Physics: as an observer approaches a star, the brightness of the visible light it gives off diminishes proportionally.

Second Law of Practical Stellar Physics: a star will produce no radiation except for (1) visible light and (2) a variety of heat that behaves identically to heat convection in an atmosphere, despite the lack of a transmission medium.

Third Law of Practical Stellar Physics: the dangerous or destructive region of a stellar body ends abruptly at the outer termination of its photosphere, except for the heat and light described in the Second Law.

Law of Teleportation: the amount of energy produced when converting matter to energy for the purpose of teleporting that matter to a distant location is an insignificant fraction of the amount predicted by Einstein’s mass–energy equivalence equation; this is a fundamental principle of Convenience Physics.

Law of Technological Complexity: No matter how advanced a technology, anyone who needs to use it will be able to deduce its basic functioning within a few minutes – even if the person belongs to an alien or less-developed culture, or comes from the distant past.

First Law of Aerodynamic Irrelevance: Objects designed to travel solely in space may nonetheless be designed with aerodynamic properties.

Second Law of Aerodynamic Irrelevance: objects designed to travel in solely in space, and which therefore are highly non-aerodynamic, may still travel in an atmosphere as if they were perfectly aerodynamic.

Corollary to the Laws of Aerodynamic Irrelevance (The O’Brien Rule): any object in space that is not designed to alter its velocity, vector or location, such as a space station, may alter its velocity, vector or location through a minor, previously unrealized engineering trick.

First Corollary to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: Einstein’s Theory of Relativity may be ignored at any time, for any reason; this is a fundamental principle of Convenience Physics.

Second Corollary to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: when light, or any form of electromagnetic radiation, is employed as a weapon (such as with a laser or blaster), its speed is reduced to approximately 35 miles per hour.

Personal Equivalency Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: alternate universes and timelines do not follow the standard laws of contingency – rather, the same individuals will be born in the alternate universe as are born in ours, although their life paths may diverge; this is irrespective of any other changes, major or minor, to historical outcomes.

Ethical Determinism Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: alternate universes and timelines do not follow the standard laws of contingency – rather, historical outcomes are determined by the moral choices of the identical version of the visitor from our universe.

Abrams’ Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: in an alternate universe or timeline, events will conspire to place equivalent persons into the same social groups they occupy in our universe.

The McFly Rule: If a time traveler prevents a key historical event from occurring, he or she has one week to arrange an equivalent event that will restore the timeline.

First Law of Convergent Evolution: any alien species, regardless of the environment in which it evolved, will morphologically resemble an extant Earth species, albeit with changes in size, color, bodily features and level of intelligence; aliens may also resemble chimera of multiple Earth morphologies.

Second Law of Convergent Evolution: despite the fact that closely-related species from the same planet cannot produce viable offspring, any two humanoid species from different worlds may produce viable offspring that will bear blended traits from both species.

Law of Convergent Visemes: when a technological device is used to translate the speech of a humanoid alien, that alien’s lips and mouth movements will nonetheless appear to match the English speech of the translation.

Omegan Law of Convergent Social Evolution: a humanoid species on a distant planet is likely to pass through exactly the same historical eras, and evolve precisely the same social institutions, as the human civilizations of Earth.

Law of Extraterrestrial Euhemerism: any primitive human superstition is the result of contact with advanced alien technology; this includes psychic powers, magicians, ghosts, angels, fairies, vampires, werewolves, demons, dragons, messiahs and gods.

Law of Technological Trajectory: the more hyper-advanced an alien or future technological artifact, the more likely that it will resemble a large, illuminated crystal.

Law of Irradiated Macrofauna: due to mutations triggered by artificial radiation, animals may grow to enormous sizes normally ruled out by the surface-area-to-volume ratio.

Corollary to the Law of Irradiated Macrofauna: irradiated macrofauna will invariably seek out large human population centers and battle each other.

Influence/Malevolence Relationship in Science: the greater a scientific or technological achievement, the greater the probability that the scientist responsible for it suffers from a mental illness and/or ethical deficit.

Diamond’s Law: an advanced spacefaring species will always oppress, absorb or destroy any less advanced, non-spacefaring species with which it makes contact.

Anthropocentric Exception to Diamond’s Law: an advanced spacefaring species will always oppress, absorb or destroy any less advanced, non-spacefaring species with which it makes contact, unless that species is humanity.

Roddenberry’s Law of Cybernetic Omniscience: any sufficiently advanced computer system will contain the sum all of human knowledge down to the most inconsequential detail, even if the computer was constructed by and for aliens.

Gill’s Law of Alien Impressionability: any humanoid alien species will, upon being introduced to some detail of human history or culture, reconfigure its entire society based solely upon the human example; also known as the Iotian Law.

Law of Atmospheric Inexhaustibility: on a spacecraft, space station or other artificial habitat in a vacuum or near-vacuum, no matter how much air is lost when an airlock is opened or the hull is breached, after the air loss is terminated there will still be sufficient atmosphere to comfortably support the survivors.

Doctrine of Human Psychological Infortitude: any human gifted with transhuman abilities by an alien or future intelligence will initially attempt to perform good works with his or her new-found powers, but will be eventually driven insane and commit destructive acts; also known as the Mitchell Effect.

Doctrine of Hostile Alien Tourism: when technologically advanced spacefaring aliens initiate a war or invasion against the Earth, their first strategic maneuver will be to destroy a number of famous human landmarks, usually ones with no strategic or defensive value.

The ForbinCameronWachowski Corollary to Turing’s Test of Machine Intelligence: it is possible to demonstrate that a machine has achieved genuine intelligence or sentience, as its first act upon gaining self-awareness will be to attempt the annihilation of humanity.

The Lucas-Asimov-Herbert Model of Human Galactic Societal Development: any vast, galaxy-spanning interstellar human civilization will resemble in many or all respects the empires of the species’ ancient pre-technological past.

And… number 51:

Even’s Revision to Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from lazy writing.

Feel free to add your own Laws of Sci-Fi Physics in the comments below.

The Ten Worst Sci-Fi Films of All Time: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Why does God need a starship?

For more on how I am choosing these films, see my post on Battlefield Earth.

Ah, Star Trek. Star Trek, Star Trek, Star Trek. Whatever are we going to do with you?

I was ten years, five months old exactly on 5/25/77, the day Star Wars came out. I was the perfect age, and the precise demographic: a ten-year-old suburban boy raised on The Lord of the Rings and Bob HeinleinStar Wars was the greatest thing I had ever seen.

Unfortunately, that meant I spent the next ten years dissing Star Trek. The show was stupid. The acting was bad. (Imagine a Star Wars fan complaining about acting.) The sets and effects were cheap. Everyone looked like an escapee from Laugh In. It was as if one couldn’t be a Star Wars and a Star Trek fan at the same time – a common delusion, but one I shared.

In 1979 I went to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture, because it was a science fiction movie and I went to see every science fiction movie. It did not change my opinion about Star Trek. Wrath of Kahn was much better, and I was excited for Search for Spock — more disappointment there. Voyage Home seemed like the best of the bunch, but I still wasn’t a fan.

During this period, I briefly encountered Gene Roddenberry at a comic book convention. I didn’t think I liked Star Trek, so I didn’t care, and didn’t speak to him. Idiot!

A few months before Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987, my friends and I went to an anime convention in Burbank. Next door was a Trek convention, and you could get in on the same ticket, so we stopped by. It was the first, and last, time I set foot in a Trek-specific con. I thought everything was stupid. There was already a Brent Spiner fan club. What losers.

Then Next Generation premiered, and I realized something. I had been a Star Trek fan, and not a Star Wars fan, the whole time.

I fell in love with Star Trek. I got caught up on the original 1960s series, and discovered that it was, at times, brilliant. It was possibly the most uneven show ever made, as far as writing quality, but the best episodes were classics in the true sense.

Star Wars was not a science fiction franchise. It was about knights and samurai, noblesse oblige and “hokey religions.” It was loud and cool and pretty, but it wasn’t about the future.

Star Trek was about the Cold War; the Chinese (Romulans), Russians (Klingons) and Americans (Federation). It was about racism (the Cherons), sexism (Janice Lester), hippies (Dr. Sevrin) and the nuclear arms race (Gary Seven).

But it was also about the future, while Star Wars was about the past. The Star Trek universe was something of a hodge-podge of conflicting ideas until Next Generation ironed things out. But basically, future humans lived in peace and mutual understanding within a large federation of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations. They possessed free energy, faster-than-light travel, wonderful technology, and a socialist economy that had eradicated money and poverty. Outside enemies were held at bay by a dedicated quasi-military Starfleet composed of highly trained, highly principled men and women of all races and species who were more interested in exploration than fighting.

Star Trek may be a silly space opera, but it’s not as silly as Star Wars. And it’s (often) thoughtful, (sometimes) brilliant and (occasionally) transcendent. Star Wars is rarely any of those things.

And yes, I became a Brent Spiner fan.

The question is, when should Star Trek have ended? When did the franchise jump the shark, or as the new idiom goes, nuke the fridge? Should Paramount have called it quits at the end of Next Generation? Then we would have missed Deep Space Nine finding itself in its excellent final three seasons. There were also some wonderful moments in the last couple of seasons of Voyager. The Next Generation films were never great, but contrary to popular belief, never terrible. First Contact was the best; Nemesis the most disappointing, but not impossible to enjoy.

Enterprise was… well, almost unwatchable. Certainly, the franchise should have ended, proud and whole, before Enterprise ever assaulted the world with its power ballad opening theme. And as far as the Abrams Trek film goes, well, I don’t have enough information to form an opinion. It sounds terrible. Then again, I loved Cloverfield.

Some people would argue that Trek never has to end. They’re wrong – The Star Wars prequel trilogy proved that. If the wrong people get hold of an intellectual property (Braga *cough cough* Berman *cough*), if they lose respect for it, if they wring every possible plot line and permutation out of it, if they let it migrate too far from it’s core principles, then the franchise is ruined. Like Star Wars. Like the X-Men films.

Like Star Trek.

So when should Star Trek have ended? I don’t know. But I know when it hit its low point. And it was not the Next Generation episode where everyone “devolved” into animals (although that was close). It wasn’t even Enterprise, because Enterprise had Jolene Blalock, so it can’t be all bad.

The low point of the franchise occurred on June 9th, 1989, when Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, William Shatner’s directorial debut, hit theaters in the US.

BEGIN BITINGLY SARCASTIC PLOT SYNOPSIS (spoilers)

Just working off a few pounds.

We open on Nimbus III, the Planet of Galactic Peace. No, really, “Nimbus III.” Might as well be Nimrod XII or Dorkwad XC. Or Naboo.

Anyway, Nimbus III. The funny-looking guy who played Wyatt Earp’s brother on the Original Series is digging holes in the desert and filling them with dry ice. No motive is given for this. He’s interrupted by Spock’s brother on horseback, a Vulcan who is supposed to shock us by laughing. There’s a name for Vulcans who laugh – Romulans.

Meanwhile, some fat guy is free-climbing El Capitan. This is Captain James T. Kirk, a man whom we can easily believe would be climbing 3,000 foot rocks without a harness, even in his old age. But Captain James T. Kirk would never have allowed himself to get fat. Or have worn a toupee.

Spock arrives wearing levitation boots, a nifty little gizmo that would have been really useful the dozens of times the crews of the Enterprise-D, Deep Space Nine and Voyager had to climb up and down non-functioning turbolifts. He inexplicably goads Kirk until the man falls off the rock, and in one of the worst visual effects since Jason of Star Command, catches Kirk just before impact.

This is hilarious.

What an excellent special effect!

Kirk, Spock and McCoy spend some time bonding over marshmellons and old camp songs. Kirk says that he expects to die alone, with no one at hand but a Frenchman with a British accent and that guy from A Clockwork Orange. Amazingly, this turns out to be true.

Some other hilarious things happen, involving Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov, which I won’t ruin for you. Hilarious.

Meanwhile on Nimbus III, a fat old Klingon, a sexy Romulan who can’t deliver a line read, and David Warner are hanging out together in a third-rate reproduction of the Mos Eisley Cantina. I’ll point out here that David Warner is the only actor in this movie, and he’s given absolutely nothing to do except suck on an anachronistic cigarette. Why doesn’t he pinch snuff or chew opium, fer crissakes? It’s the 23rd Century!

Spock’s brother invades the cantina and takes all three characters hostage, which would be exciting if we cared about them at all. Okay, we care about David Warner, a little, but only because we’re expecting him to sic a Recognizer on Spock’s brother so we can be spared the rest of this movie.

Starfleet orders Kirk to Nimbus III to handle the situation, despite the fact that the Enterprise-A, gloriously gifted to Kirk at the end of Star Trek IV, is a total piece of shit. Why the Enterprise-A is a total piece of shit, or why the much-lauded shipyards of Utopia Planitia would produce a piece of shit, is not explained. But it’s hilarious.

The usual, gratuitious USS Enterprise porn shot. There's one in every Original Series film.

The Klingons send a Bird of Prey to Nimbus III, because the Bird of Prey interiors from Star Trek IV were just sitting around and didn’t cost anything. It’s commanded by that old Trek staple, the maniacally villainous captain who ignores the sensible advice of his sage First Officer. This one is a smooth-foreheaded Klingon with skin the color of baby poo. I’m sure he has a name. It’s here we learn that while every other species targets enemy ships with computers, Klingons use a ginormous shoulder-mounted periscope. Yes, I said “shoulder-mounted periscope.”

Kirk takes his good ol’ time getting around to heading to Nimbus III. When the original, thin, full-head-of-hair 1960s Kirk heard about a crisis in the Neutral Zone, he was off in a flash. Fat Kirk dilly-dallies. Anyway, after much hilarity of a most hilarious nature, they arrive at Nimbus III, which in typical Trek fashion takes about 10 minutes. The Enterprise-A has no transporters, and no one at Starfleet thinks to have a working ship meet Kirk to help out. Oh well. So everyone flies down in a shuttlecraft. Then they steal horses, because this is Shatner’s movie, so there have to be horses (see Generations).

How do they steal the horses? Get out the eye bleach — Uhura performs a strip tease for the men guarding the animals. No offense to Nichelle Nichols, but this is the second lowest point in the worst Star Trek film. Yes, lower is on the way.

Ewww. This is the opposite of sexy.

The Enterprise crew defeats Spock’s brother’s army, but is captured by the fat Klingon, the sexy Romulan who can’t give a line read, and David Warner, who are now working for Spock’s brother. We still don’t know that Spock’s brother is Spock’s brother, because Spock has never seen fit to mention it. Neither, at this point, does Spock’s brother. Both men seem to understand that they can’t mention this incredibly pertinent fact, otherwise the upcoming scene in the Enterprise-A shuttle bay won’t make any sense.

Spock’s brother’s name is Sybak or Spibok or Spigot or something, so we’ll just call him Spock’s brother. He forces Kirk to take everyone who has so far had a speaking part back to the Enterprise-A on the shuttle. Just then, the Klingon warbird attacks, because this is how the Klingons avoid open war with the Federation and the Romulans — by attacking them every chance they get.

Allow me to mention the first of two glaring logical inconsistencies I have noticed in the Star Trek universe. If the Klingons are so obsessed with honor and glory in battle, why do they employ cowardly cloaking devices?

Kirk orders an emergency crash landing in the shuttle bay, which has never been done before except for all the times it’s been done before. Once the shuttle’s in the bay, Chekov orders the room filled with a harmless neuralizing gas. Kirk, Spock and Bones are rescued, and Spock’s brother and all his little buddies are locked up in sickbay until the situation can be ironed out.

No, not really. Kirk attacks Spock’s brother, and Spock picks up a rifle. Kirk orders Spock to kill Spock’s brother, but he does not, because Spock’s brother is his brother (gasp!). Instead he wounds his brother, incapacitating him until this whole situation can be ironed out.

Didn't I see you at the family reunion?

Not really. Spock hands the rifle to his brother, who invites him to join his cause and come to the bridge. Spock does so, because he knows he can do more to help Kirk and Bones from the bridge than from the brig.

Not really. Spock goes with Kirk and McCoy to the brig.

The brig is apparently the only part of the Enterprise-A that works. This is because the plot calls for it. Kirk is mad at Spock, even after he learns that Spock’s brother is Spock’s brother.

Scotty, who has gotten so fat he looks like he has two William Shatners stuffed down his shirt, rescues our heroes from the brig. He refers to the Klingons as “Klingon devils,” which is really racist or species-ist and I think it would really hurt Worf’s feelings. Then Scotty heads off on his own, and for reasons I’ll get into below, bangs his head on a girder and drops unconscious.

This is the lowest point in the worst movie in the Star Trek franchise.

Boink. I know this ship like the back of my hand, but I bumped into this thing anyway. Hilarious!

Now Spock, Kirk and McCoy are running from Sulu, who works for Spock’s brother, and they end up climbing up a – wait for it — non-functioning turbolift. Spock produces his levitation boots from his ass and rescues his two friends. This is hilarious.

Seriously, the boots weren’t anywhere nearby. It wasn’t even established that they were on the Enterprise-A. Maybe Spock had rented them at the levitation boot concession at Yosemite, who knows? He just suddenly produces them, light years away, in a Jeffries tube, while on the run from armed men. But it’s hilarious.

Well, they get to the observation deck, which inexplicably has an emergency transmitter hidden in the floor. But Spock’s brother is on to them, probably because he read the script in advance. Wait, this thing has a script?

Spock’s brother chooses to reveal how he has brainwashed the Nimbus III folks and the Enterprise crew. It involves the victim standing very still for a complex, extended hallucination, instead of doing the obvious thing and running away, or hitting Spock’s brother in the nuts.

Spock’s brother reveals that McCoy administered euthanasia on his own father, just weeks before a cure for his disease was found. This is what makes McCoy experience the most emotional pain, and not the whole thing with Edith Keeler. Or the whole thing with Nancy Crater. Or the whole thing with Spock’s ghost living in his head.

Ewww. I don't like humans. Unless they have tits.

Spock’s pain, it turns out, comes from the fact that his father was a racist anti-human asshat who inexplicably married several humans. But then, we already knew this.

We see in the hallucination that Spock was born in a cave. Now I get that Vulcan is a volcanic planet, hence the name. But Vulcans are hyper-logical scientists. They would not live in caves. They would live in gleaming white supercities, laid out in perfect grids or concentric circles. Spock would have been born in a sterile medical chamber, midwifed by robots, his every cell studied by experts in alien hybridization logically suppressing their thrill at witnessing the birth of the first human-Vulcan hybrid. Not in a cave.

Here’s the second glaring logical inconsistency I have noticed in the Star Trek universe. Supposedly, Spock has trouble achieving pure logic because of his dual Vulcan-human nature. But Vulcans pursue pure logic because they are naturally more illogical and emotional than humans, and they consider these super-strong emotions to be dangerous. Spock’s human descent should help him behave more logically than other Vulcans, not less.

Kirk turns down Spock’s brother’s offer to show him his pain, presumably because Merritt Butrick was unavailable.

Now successfully brainwashed, McCoy and Spock still resist the urge to aid Spock’s brother, raising the question of why Sulu and Chekov aren’t later court-martialed and shot. Seriously, it’s far too easy to get Chekov to turn on Kirk – all it takes is a crazy Vulcan, or a Ceti eel, or his ex-girlfriend Irina. The next thing you know, he’s stealing the ship, or starring on Babylon 5.

Hey, this image isn't from this movie!

Spock’s brother takes the Enterprise-A to the Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy, which is about as scientifically plausible as canals on Mars, Nazi planets or “fluidic space.” It is established that no ship can penetrate the Barrier. Everyone who has tried has died. It’s a long, dangerous, arduous journey no one in the history of the galaxy has ever, ever completed.

The Enterprise-A does it in about 13 seconds.

Just on the other side of the barrier is a planet that looks like an oversized blue Q-Tip. This is Sha Ka Ree, the mythical Vulcan heaven, where Spock’s brother expects to find “God.”

Spock’s brother betrays David Warner, hot chick, fat Klingon, his Nimbus III army, Chekov, Sulu and Uhura by leaving them behind, and taking only the three main characters down to the planet. The three main characters that want to throw him in the brig. Those three.

They arrive in the Mojave Desert down on the planet, but there’s no one there. Just when Spock is about to suggest they give up, giant stones burst out of the ground! Suddenly we’re on an indoor set with a flat floor, and the stones are sitting on that floor. What, the set dresser couldn’t afford any dirt?

I believe the original series had better (and more expensive) effects than this.

God actually appears, and has a chat with Spock’s brother. The deity demands use of the Enterprise-A. This raises Kirk’s hackles, and he asks incredulously, “What does God need with a starship?” Surprisingly, this line is one of the best and most memorable lines the entire 40-year Star Trek franchise, and Shatner delivers it so perfectly that you remember for one brief moment, in the midst of this turd of a film, that Kirk is THE MAN.

Spock’s brother immediately realizes the error of his ways, which you know is ridiculous if you have ever met an actual religious person. He tries out his Dr. Phil routine on God, giving the others time to escape. Scotty beams up Spock and Bones, but you know that piece of shit Enterprise-A is soooo unreliable, and Kirk is left behind.

God chases Kirk around the desert for a while, inspiring that great scene in Galaxy Quest with the rock creature. Meanwhile, the Klingon ship (remember that? the subplot?) reappears. Spock, taking his first sensible step in the whole film, asks fat Klingon to order the ship to stand down.

Look, in the background. David Warner is snogging the sexy Romulan! Go David Warner! Maybe he can teach her how to give a line read.

God is just about to kill Kirk, when the Klingon ship appears and kills God. The Klingons killed God! That is so cool.

What a great set. What did this cost, $10?

Kirk comes aboard the Klingon ship, thinking he’s a prisoner and that they’re going to read him their poetry. But fat Klingon forces baby poo Klingon to apologize – hilarious! – and then we see who’s manning the guns. For no reason whatsoever, it’s Spock!

Spock killed God! That actually makes sense.

Everyone has a party on the Enterprise-A observation deck. No, really, they all have a party. I’m not kidding. Even the Nimbus III rebels and the Klingons. An actual party. Rent the movie, I’m serious.

Also, they apparently have no trouble getting back across the Great Barrier. Nor do they perform a scientific survey of the Galactic Core.

Cut back to Yosemite, where our three heroes sit around a fire while Spock plays “Row Row Row Your Boat” very poorly on the Vulcan lute. Hilaaaaaaarious.

Row row row your... oh never mind.

END OF BITINGLY SARCASTIC PLOT SYNOPSIS

Why was Star Trek V so monstrously bad?

When William Shatner agreed to star in Star Trek IV, he demanded he be allowed to direct V. The only thing he’d directed before was eight episodes of TJ Hooker. (He never directed a major feature again; just a low-budget sci-fi crapfest called Groom Lake, starring himself and Dick Van Patten, in 2002.)

So Shatner’s feature director debut was a big-budget, effects-laden $30 million major studio release that Paramount hoped would knock Tim Burton’s Batman off the top of the summer blockbuster charts. Which was Star Trek V’s second strike – it was rushed through production to get into theaters two weeks before Batman.

As you might guess, this clever scheme on the part of the empty suits at Paramount did not go off as planned.

Shatner wrote the treatment, which is why it features KIRK free-climbing and KIRK riding horses and KIRK fighting God, although surprisingly only David Warner gets laid. Huh. Nicholas Meyer, who wrote the two best Trek films (II and IV), was busy. So the studio picked David Loughery, whose only writing credits at that time were the forgettable Dennis Quaid-as-a-psychic film Dreamscape and one episode of Hart to Hart. Whatever meager talents Loughery may have possessed, he was forced to do rewrites by Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley, which cannot have helped.

Then the 1988 WGA strike cut into production, and Industrial Light & Magic refused to do the effects, which showed. The VFX in Trek films have always been iffy, at least in the Original Series films. But the effects in Final Frontier are simply laughable, created by a company called Associates and Ferren that went out of business just after this film came out. I wonder why?

Furthermore the original script, in a ham-handed attempt to inject pathos, killed off Scotty for no particular reason (a la Joss Whedon’s unnecessary murders of Book and Wash in Serenity, but I digress). Test audiences hated this, so there were reshoots on dimly-lit rebuilt sets, and it shows. This is why Scotty hits his head on the girder. And it’s why that scene looks like it was shot without a cinematographer or a gaffer, as opposed to the very next scene, which is professionally lighted with the set properly dressed.

So the movie was inept in its conception, production, post-production and distribution. Did I forget anything?

Fortunately, it was followed up by Star Trek VI, which… Jesus, I know I saw Star Trek VI.

Nope. I’m drawing a blank.

Next: The Black Hole Actually I just watched The Black Hole, and although it’s really cheesy, and has the second dumbest ending of any sci-fi film (Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes is number one), it’s nowhere near bad enough to belong on this list. So…

Next: Red Planet. Okay, I remember not liking Red Planet when I first saw it. Well, I just watched it again, and while parts are silly, and it belongs to the “everything’s red on Mars” school of nonsense, and some of the science is bunk, it still wasn’t bad enough to belong on the same list as Pluto Nash. Also, it stars Carrie-Anne Moss, and no movie can totally suck if it has Carrie-Anne Moss in it. So…

Next: The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996). Not that bad. Some of Stan Winston’s creature effects are a bit disappointing, and the plot doesn’t always make sense. The guy who plays Professor Lupin is pretty good, and without Marlon Brando’s appealingly eccentric performance, we would never have had Mephisto & Kevin. I guess I’m having trouble finding movies bad enough for this list.

Next: Babylon AD. I liked this movie a lot better when it was called Children of Men, and was better acted, better written and better shot. Unmemorable, but not heinous.

Which takes us, finally, to: Alien3.

The 20 Best & Worst Villains of All Time — Part 1: The Worst

I care about villains. I used to run a web site about villains. (And I’m working on resurrecting it.) The villain is often the most interesting character in a story. I like it when they win.

This is my own personal list of the 10 worst villains of all time — not “worst” as in most evil, “worst” as in dumbest. These are the villains that failed.

Of course I must have heard of a villain to include it on this list. So if there’s some obscure villain from Croatian soap opera fanfic I didn’t include, mention it in the comments below. But don’t flame me for it.

And if you’re a big fan of one of these losers, well, there’s no accounting for taste. Especially where Star Wars fanboys are concerned.

Arise my wifes. Give ear to the words of Manos. Arise my wifes! And hear the will of Manos!10. The Master (Manos: The Hands of Fate)

Plan for world domination: Step 1, buy a tiny ranch house outside Barstow. Step 2, enslave a bevy of moderately attractive women. Step 3: Hire a retarded “satyr” as your groundskeeper. Step 4: Kidnap a bland Midwestern couple, a la Rocky Horror Picture Show. Step 5: Profit!

Apparently, The Master learned about an evil god called Manos while attending a Frank Zappa look-alike convention. He wears an oversize black robe with giant red hands on it, and totters around making grave pronouncements and threats. He’s about as scary as a mall security guard.

Why do The Master’s wives fight over him? They should be fighting over who gets to swallow the last bottle of sleeping pills.

Even worse is The Master’s menagerie. He has a couple of “hell hounds” that look suspiciously like sweet, untrained Dobermans. And I watched this movie 20 times on MST3K before I figured out that Torgo was supposed to be a satyr — I just thought he had big knees.

Many terrible movies have been saved by a great villain — I’m talking to you, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But Manos: The Hands of Fate is not one of those movies.

Ro-Man, with his advanced alien vacuum tube technology.9. Robot Monster (Robot Monster)

Alright, lemme give ya the pitch. This alien comes to Earth and kills everybody, see, except 8 guys. They hide out in this tract house, guarded by some kind of force beam or somethin’, it’s science, I don’t understand this stuff. So this alien, this Ro-Man, has to kill the last 8 humans or he gets it from his boss, see? He’s got his Calcinator, which turns people into calcium or something, I dunno — and the Billion Bubble Machine, which — well, it looks great. But this Ro-Man, he falls in love with the cute girl, and that’s his downfall. Ya get it?

Budget? Sixteen grand, with four days to shoot.

How are we gonna afford the alien? Aw, that’s easy. I know this guy George who owns a monkey suit. We just stick a diving helmet on it, and voila, instant alien!

Yes, the villain in 1953’s Robot Monster is a guy in a gorilla suit with an old-fashioned diving helmet on it. In fact, Ro-Man’s entire race consisted of guys in gorilla suits with old-fashioned diving helmets. And although he has access to space travel, vacuum tubes, and the Billion Bubble Machine, he doesn’t have a single weapon that could destroy a tract house.

Should I mention that at the end, the whole movie turns out to be a little boy’s dream? I hate that St. Elsewhere shit.

Mr. Mxl-whatever.8. Mister Mxyzptlk (DC Comics)

You’ve got to be kidding me. Superman was never a good comic. DC never produced a decent title until Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman came along. Matter-Eater Lad my ass. And Superman was always full of stupid bullshit.

Such as Mister Mxyzptlk, who was to Superman what The Great Gazoo was to Fred Flintstone. Here’s this little extradimensional imp who can do absolutely anything, and lives to torture Supes. (For those who don’t know, it’s pronounced “Mxyzptlk.”)

He’s an example of the Villain Who Can Do Anything. I guess he’s the perfect foil for the Hero Who Can Do Anything, but they’re both stupid concepts. Sometimes the Villain Who Can Do Anything is charming and funny enough to get away with it — Q from Star Trek is an example. Mister Mxyzptlk is not charming, and is decidedly unfunny.

Or the Villain Who Can Do Anything might be particularly well thought-out and well written, like Galactus from The Fantastic Four. Mister Mxyzptlk… well, no.

Alan Moore took a stab at making Mxyzptlk dark and sinsiter; and if Moore can’t make something interesting, no one can.

Comics writers need to stop taking lame old concepts some hack invented in the 60s, and trying to make them canon. Just let it die. Superman once had an adventure with the Quik Bunny — are we going to introduce a brand mascot as the latest DC character?

Darth Fett.7. Boba Fett & Darth Maul (tie) (Star Wars Universe)

Geroge, George, George. What the hell is wrong with you?

Boba Fett and Darth Maul both fall into a very important category of bad villain: The Great Villain Killed Off Perfunctorily.

Star Wars fans loved Boba Fett from the first moment he appeared — he was so mysterious, so cool, so entirely armored. We just knew that when Return of the Jedi came around, we were gonna see some great Boba Fett ass-kicking action.

Um, not so much. Fifteen minutes into the damn movie, Han Solo accidentally — accidentally — knocks Boba Fett into the Sarlacc pit. How delightfully wacky! Except not. One potentially great villain, wasted.

But it’s okay! Because in Phantom Menace, we were introduced to Darth Maul, Palpatine’s original apprentice. The costume was great — the long black robes, the demonic face, the double-bladed lightsaber. Sweet. And granted, Darth Maul gets to be in the single greatest lightsaber battle in the entire Star Wars series. How incredibly cool that Darth Maul will be Obi-Wan’s nemesis through all three prequels!

Except not. Obi-Wan, hanging off the edge of one of those unnecessary bottomless pits, telepathically retrieves Qui-Gon’s lightsaber and chops the guy in half. Might I point out, a la Revenge of the Sith, that Darth Maul had the “high ground,” and should have been the victor?

But it was okay, or so I thought. Darth Maul would be back in Clones, wearing the Darth Vader suit! Nope. Despite efforts to resurrect a great villain in some of the Expanded Universe nonsense, Darth Maul was dead. Leaving us with no decent villains for the rest of the prequel trilogy.

And although he didn’t make this list, let me take a moment to mention Count Dooku. How is it even possible to waste as great an actor as Christopher Lee? How do you suck all the presence out of that man? Was it the green screens? The dialogue? Working opposite Hayden Christensen? Dooku, indeed.

I hate those Smurfs!6. Gargamel (The Smurfs)

So let me get this straight. You’re an impoverished old alchemist who lives alone in the forest. You have access to countless potions and spells, and even have the ability to create new lifeforms. Yet the only way you can think of to get rich is to capture little blue mushroom-dwelling dandiprats and turn them into gold. Is this the missing ingredient Isaac Newton needed to find the Philosopher’s Stone? Little PVC figurines?

Gargamel is the archetype of the hapless villain, and no one likes a hapless villain. If your bad guy is bound to fail due to his own stupidity, timidity, or clumsiness, then what’s the point? Even in a kids’ show, we should have some small concern for the safety of the good guys. Disney gets this — their villains are often too scary for kids.

I loved The Smurfs as a kid, but didn’t care at all about Gargamel. I always thought Azrael the cat was kind of scary though. I imagine that without Gargamel to hold him back, I think Azrael could have brought us Deady Smurf, Corpsy Smurf, and Smurf-left-on-your-porch-as-a-gift-y Smurf.

5. Darth Vader (Star Wars prequels)

Why is Darth Vader so pouty?Oh, don’t get your panties in a bunch. Darth Vader is on BOTH the Best and Worst Villain lists. Original Trilogy Vader is on the Best list. Here we’re talking about Prequel Vader.

Where to begin? We can’t consider the brief existence of pre-black-suit Darth Vader without examining the ignominious career of Anakin Skywalker; annoying brat child, whiny adolescent, puerile Jedi Knight. The cool thing about Original Trilogy Vader was his mysterious back story, and fans waited two decades to finally see how good, noble Anakin Skywalker was seduced to the Dark Side. Well, this Anakin was neither good nor noble. And he wasn’t so much seduced as molested by a creepy older man.

I always got the impression that Original Trilogy Vader loved his work. Sure, he was mean and short-tempered; but I think he got off on blowing up peaceful planets, slaughtering moisture farmers and force-choking admirals. As soon as Prequel Vader defenestrates Samuel L. Jackson and turns all dark and moody, his attitude seems to be “well, it’s in the script, I guess I’d better bear down and kill the younglings.” Hayden Christensen’s idea of being evil is peering out from under his eyebrows and sneering. Prequel Vader is just as whiny about the responsibilities and consequences of being a Sith Lord as he was about being a Jedi Knight. Isn’t there any way to please this guy?

Complaining about the Star Wars prequels is a common geek pasttime, so I’ll let it be. But George Lucas had a wonderful opportunity to flesh out one of the great screen villains, and he blew it on every single level. “Do not want” indeed.

Oh yeah, the up-lighting really makes you scary. 4. Count Baltar (Battlestar Galactica 1978)

A villain should be three things: charismatic, scary and sympathetic. The original Battlestar Galactica’s Baltar was 0 for 3.

John Colicos’ Baltar was doughy and unlikeable. He whined, he vamped, he chewed his lines. You wanted to hate him for betraying humanity, but you just couldn’t. He was too much of a loser. You could not believe for a second that the Cylons, particularly Lucifer, would put up with this asshole. Why eradicate practically the entire human species, just to preserve the sorriest specimen?

Let’s edify ourselves by comparing him to the re-imagined Dr. Gaius Baltar. James Callis’ Baltar is very charismatic. He’s not really scary, because he’s not really the villain. He’s a total coward who will do whatever is necessary to survive and to feel better about himself. You don’t feel sympathy for him, because he’s so reprehensible. But unlike Callis’ Baltar, the viewer is interested in Gaius’ motivations. You want to know how the hell he’s going to get out of the latest jam into which he got himself.

The original BSG had one or two interesting heroes, particularly Starbuck. But as for villains, the Cylons were faceless machines — scary, but not really characters. That put the onus on Baltar to put a human face on the enemy. He failed.

By the way, I don’t mean to slam Colicos. He was a perfectly good Klingon. I blame the original BSG writers.

Can I interest you in a variable rate mortgage?3. The Ferengi (Star Trek Universe)

Even after they stopped sucking quite so much, the Ferengi were always annoying. Whenever they popped up on Next Generation or Voyager, one was tempted to change the channel, maybe take in some Small Wonder*. And with Deep Space Nine, you couldn’t get away from the nasal-voiced, big-eared homunculi.

They weren’t even an intelligent statement on the evils of Capitalism. Star Trek’s writers always steered clear of the fact that the United Federation of Planets was clearly a Socialist utopia; maybe they didn’t want to piss off the network or the sponsors. Portraying the Ferengi as the Gnomes of Zurich was a social commentary the producers were clearly uncomfortable with; and I’m sure it pissed off the Helvetian Anti-Defamation League as well.

But I’m writing about the original Ferengi, the season one Ferengi, the animalistic, laser-whip-cracking, sniveling mealy-mouthed rat-men that the Enterprise encountered on the Tkon planet. Gene Roddenberry was a hero to many of us in the sci-fi fan community, and legitimately so – but boy, could he have some bad ideas.

The Ferengi were originally intended to replace the Klingons as the main Star Trek villains. Um… no. No one would care if the brilliant and heroic Jean-Luc Picard had to face off against little Anti-Semitic stereotypes every week. Fortunately, the producers realized this right away, sent Gene off to Kinkos, and created The Borg to be the new Star Trek über-villain.

*Small Wonder was the worst television show in the history of the medium. Hence, preferring it to the Ferengi is really saying something.

Would you rub a man’s foot?2. Terl (Battlefield Earth)

Those who have seen Battlefield Earth and ask themselves, “What the hell was John Travolta thinking,” need to remember this man believes that the ghosts of dead aliens cause all your psychological problems. (In his defense, however, I must point out that what Scientologists believe is slightly less absurd than what Christians believe.)

Still, this movie was a freaking mess, and Travolta’s eye-grating, cringe-inducing emetic of a performance is the center of the crap-storm. The former Vinnie Barbarino played Terl, the scene-chewing Psychlo security chief who lords it over the oppressed humans with all the nuance of Carson Kressley after too many appletinis.

Of course the worst thing about Terl is that we don’t care. His appearances don’t thrill or frighten us, they only annoy. Then again, if you’re sitting through this execrable film, a bad movie starring a bad actor and based on a bad novel by a bad writer, then you have other problems.

Read The Ten Worst Sci-Fi Films of All Time: Battlefield Earth

Oh god, I forgot about the bird and the bug.  The HORROR. 1. Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo (H.R. Pufnstuf)
I lived my childhood in terror. My parents had no idea. My teachers did not know. Social workers and Child Protective Services never came to my aid. In the 1970s, the horror that stalked me was ubiquitous, leering from every television screen.

The things I feared more than death, Disco and nuclear war were the television programs of Sid and Marty Krofft, the Lucifer and Beelzebub of children’s programming. Saturday morning, previously a bastion of joy and contentment for every little boy and girl, was transformed by these demonic siblings into a poisonous buffet of horrors. From the disturbing, drug-reference-laden haberdashical torture of Lidsville to the abhorrent, drug-reference-laden pelagic nightmare that was Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, my Saturday mornings were torture sessions to whet the envy of the most perverse Guantanamo interrogator.

The worst offender was… hold on. I have to go take some meds before I can continue. Maybe a shot of liquor, too. It’s hard to face these childhood demons, to reach back past years of post-traumatic stress and face the inky blackness that stains my soul. I weep as I type these words. The worst offender was… H.R. Pufnstuf.

Man-sized full-costume puppets, a la Pufnstuf and Barney, are like clowns. Everyone understands what they’re supposed to be, and that they’re meant to be entertaining. But they’re not, and no one can explain why they persist. We got rid of mimes, 80’s hair metal and ragtime jazz; why can’t we rid the world of these tick-infested felt-swaddled non-talents?

The titular “hero,” Mr. “Hand-Rolled” Pufnstuf, was bad enough; the crude googly-eyes, one stuck in position while the other roamed at random; his “speech,” which consisted of the puppeteer shaking the head up and down while writer Lennie Weinrib voiced the bipedal dragon as a mildly-retarded Andy Griffith; and the pantomime acting, too exaggerated even for a man in a lizard suit. Godzilla had more subtlety.

But the nightmare that still wakes me at 3am, drenched in flop sweat, clinging to my sheets as I scream for my mother, is the show’s so-called villain, Witchiepoo. Now don’t get me wrong – Darth Vader scared the pants off me as a kid, but he was a great villain. So did The Robot Gunslinger from Westworld, Box from Logan’s Run, and Willy freakin’ Wonka.

Witchiepoo didn’t frighten me because she was a scary villain. She frightened me because grown adults with their own television program would create such a thing and think kids would enjoy it. It threw my whole worldview out of whack. If grown-ups could be so completely and inexplicably wrong-headed as to create Witchiepoo, what other terrible mistakes were they making?

Growing older, of course, hasn’t changed my view of humanity, only solidified it. Maybe Sid and Marty did me a favor.

Witchiepoo was an idiot, so why would we care of she won or lost? Whiny, stupid, vain and childish. Her costume was okay, kind of a pre-Goth witch-meets-Alice-in-Wonderland thing. But that face makeup – oh god, I’m going to vomit!

I’m back. My hhands are ssshaaking, I ccan’t tttype. Suffice it to say that Witchiepoo ranks number one, as the Least Entertaining, Most Ill-Conceived, Worst Performed, Worst Everything WORST villain of all time.

And now for Part 2: The Greatest Villains of All Time

The 20 Sexiest Sci-Fi Babes Part 1

Originally posted 11/21/06 on Furinkan High School Kendo Club.

Well, these top ten lists seem to be real popular. So after winnowing down a long list, here are my top 20 sexiest sci-fi babes from live-action film and television.

When you’re finished, be sure to read part two!

Carmen Ibanez20. Carmen Ibanez (Starship Troopers 1997)

Okay, sure, you couldn’t buy Denise Richards as a tank-top-and-hot-pants-wearing nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough. But as a hotshot starship pilot and, eventually, captain? Sure, why not?

One of the main plot points of Heinlein’s original novel was that all the experienced officers were killed off, leaving only the kids in charge. And at least Carmen had the sense to dump goofy hunk Casper Van Dien for slightly-less-goofy hunk Patrick Muldoon – right? And she did look spectacular in those Nazi-esque uniforms.

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Padmé Amidala19. Padmé Amidala (Star Wars prequels 1999-2005)

It speaks volumes to the utter asexuality of the six Star Wars films that the hottest moments are (1) Princess Leia in the gold bikini and (2) Princess Leia’s mom with her tummy exposed. Yikes.

Formerly the World’s Sexiest Jew (but knocked down to third by Rachel Weiss and Scarlett Johansson), young Harvard-educated hottie Natalie Portman was the only reason to see the Star Wars prequels, apart from Ewan McGregor’s amusing Alec Guinness impersonation. Padmé is beautiful, smart, and takes full advantage of her planet’s inexplicable custom of electing teenage girls to rule over them.

Why doesn’t she rate higher on the countdown? (1) Her atrocious taste in men and (2) inexplicably dying of “grief” and abandoning her kids to be raised by Jimmy Smits and Phil Brown, respectively (both of whom get killed by the Empire for their trouble, by the way.)

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Jet Girl18. Jet Girl (Tank Girl 1995)

I knew who Naomi Watts was seven years before any of you did. So back off.

Tank Girl is one of the great bad movies, and Jet Girl is the best reason to watch. Tank Girl’s young, sexy, Aussie-accented sidekick in the aviator goggles and red polka-dot bandana was naïve, but kicked ass.

Lori Petty as Tank Girl was great, but Jet Girl stole the show. (No love for Sub Girl, but she was mostly edited out anyway.)

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Sil17. Sil (Species 1995)

If woman is going to rip your heart out and leave you a lifeless husk, she might as well look like Natasha Henstridge.

Hell, even in her H.R. Giger-designed alien form, the murderous human-alien hybrid Sil was pretty hot.

The best thing about Sil was that she didn’t want to be a homicidal sex machine – she was just cloned that way. Giger’s usual “Metamorph” Alien-franchise alien rarely elicits sympathy, but Sil was just too cute to eject out the airlock.

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Mystique16. Mystique (X-Men franchise 2000-2006)

Sci-fi makeup often takes a beautiful actress and ruins what Darwin gave her. I’m looking at you, Marina Sirtis.

The X-Men movies feature Dutch-American supermodel Rebecca Romijn running around NAKED, but no one really notices her under all that blue paint and latex.

But Raven “Mystique” Darkholme still kicks ass and takes names, as Magneto’s ever-loyal and efficient sidekick. (I know, they turn on each other in Last Stand, but I’m pretending that movie never happened – shelve it with Star Trek V.)

She’s smart, she’s dangerous, she’s bisexual, and her eyes glow yellow. Plus, when she takes “human” form, it’s as Rebecca Romijn! And as far as I know, Mystique never let John Stamos stick his penis in her.

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Space Girl15. Space Girl (Lifeforce 1985)

Lifeforce is one of the great underappreciated science fiction films of all time, Tobe Hooper’s 1985 paean to old-school Sci-Fi horror classics like The Quatermass Experiment.

Astronaut Steve Railsback is seduced by alien space vampire Mathilda May, who desires only to feed on the bioelectric energy of every person in London. The Space Girl doesn’t have much of a personality, but she spends the whole movie stark naked and has one of the most amazing racks in cinema.

Oh, and she gets to melt Patrick Stewart’s face.

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Emma Peel14. Emma Peel (The Avengers 1965-67)

A master of martial arts and fencing. A trained chemist and scientist. A painter, sculptor, and businesswoman. A high couture fashionista with the looks of a supermodel.

Oh and, incidentally, an international superspy.

What’s not to love about Mrs. Emma Peel? Well, she did give up espionage to go live a respectable life with her husband. Please. Once you’ve had Steed, he’s all you’ll ever need.

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Robin Lefler13. Robin Lefler (Star Trek: The Next Generation 1991)

Second-most annoying Star Trek character of all time Robin Lefler, meet most-annoying Star Trek character of all time, Wesley Crusher. Now flirt awkwardly for 52 minutes.

Still, Robin Lefler was by far the sexiest woman to ever appear on Star Trek: The Next Generation, because Ashley Judd was by far the sexiest actress to ever appear on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Maybe Mr. Data can explain how Judd can be so unbelievably beautiful, while her mother and sister look like lab experiments.

Anyway, one can assume that Ashley Judd would have a much easier time getting cast in a current Star Trek film than the vastly under-appreciated Wil Wheaton. Robin Lefler’s Rule #2: Always look smoking hot in a Starfleet uniform.

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Xev Bellringer12. Xev Bellringer (LEXX 1997-2002)

As proved by numbers 17, 16, 15, 10, 5, 4, sometimes 3, 2 and 1 on this list, there is something incredibly appealing about a super-sexy female who is as likely to kill you as sleep with you.

And when that female was raised to be socially submissive but sexually aggressive, and then transformed by a machine called a “Lusticon” into a beautiful sexual killing machine – well, you can’t go wrong there.

Xev was the second of LEXX’s “Bellringers,” but Xenia Seeberg can ring my bell any day. Get it? “Ring my bell?” It’s kind of a sexual innuendo.

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Trillian11. Trillian (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 2005)

Ah, Zooey Deschanel. Sure, she’s cute and smart and funny. But why is she so damn hot? She’s like Rachael Ray – you can’t explain the attraction, it’s just there.

Now turn Zooey into a smart space-trotting sidekick to a two-headed G.W. Bush-channeling alien madman, and add a silly white spacesuit, a pair of pet mice, and an inexplicable American accent. Voila, you have Tricia “Trillian” McMillan, the second best thing in the HG2G movie. (The Vogons were the best thing.)

If I were the last surviving human, but Trillian was around, I think I’d be okay.

That’s not the whole thing, Francis! Read Part Two!

Tired Sci-Fi Tropes That Must Be Retired — Part Deux

Read the first part of this blog post.

Continuing my study of tired science fiction clichés:

Explanations for Vampirism

Space vampires.  SEXY space vampires.Sci-fi writers like to find scientifical explanations for supernatural myths. Julian May suggests that fairies and dwarfs are aliens. H.P. Lovecraft proposes that ghosts and goblins are aliens. Arthur C. Clarke writes that Christian devils are… aliens.

But the favorite supernatural-meets-sci-fi trope is to describe vampires as either aliens or as victims of a disease. The classic example of the former is 1985’s Lifeforce, a great, underrated movie that everyone should see, if for nothing else than Mathilda May’s naked breasts. The best example of the latter might be 1971’s The Omega Man, which would be a classic film if it didn’t have Charlton Heston in it.

But now this has been waaaay over done. This idea even infected the Matrix movies. It was the main plot point of this year’s execrable Ultraviolet – and a movie really has to be bad if even Milla Jovovich can’t save it. And speaking of Milla, let’s stop explaining zombies as disease victims, too. If your zombie isn’t a shambling corpse created through evil Vodou magic, I don’t want to hear about it.

Nanotech as Magic

She can inject me with her nanoprobes any time.Any time nanotechnology comes up, someone quotes Arthur C. Clark; “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Well, it seems clear that the earliest advocates for nanotech very much overstated its potential as well as its dangers. Most likely, nanotech is not going to make us immortal. And the gray goo is not going to kill us all, either.

But it seems just as clear that nanotechnology, and related materials sciences, will completely change our world, and remake society as we know it.

Some authors have imagined these changes, and postulated in the impact they will have on humanity. Neil Stephenson’s The Diamond Age is my favorite of these; also the works of Rudy Rucker. And occasionally, a film will reference nanotech in an interesting way. The “mimetic polyalloy” in Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the first thing that comes to mind.

But you can’t just throw nanotech in there every time you need out of a dead-end plot. Lazy sci-fi writers are just using “nano” to replace all the usual pseudo-scientific jargon. Look, if you want to explore the medical implications of nanotech, please, go right ahead. But if you injured your hero in scene 24, and want him fully healed in scene 25, don’t fall back on a “nanopatch.” It’s asinine. Nanotechnology is not a magic word that eliminates the need for plot, character, and milieu construction.

I’m talking to YOU, Berman and Braga.

The Ineffectual Crew

Yeah, George, we get it.  That's a lot of guys.So, the U.S.S. Enterprise had a crew of 430. The Enterprise-D had a crew of over 1,000. Babylon 5 had a crew of 2500 (and a much larger population). The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica had 2800 crew. The SDF-1 had 50,000 people living inside of it. The Death Star had a crew complement of 1,226,000.

But only five people ever actually DO anything.

This is difficult to avoid; in fiction we have main protagonists, and we want to hear about what they’re doing, not about some lowly Photon Torpedo Loading Technician on Deck 23. Our heroes won’t be very interesting if all they do is bark orders all day.

One way to deal with this is a tiny crew. In Firefly, the Serenity had a crew of six, with three passengers (I’m counting the doctor, Simon, as crew). There was zero redundancy, so if someone got taken out, the ship was screwed. But at least everyone was busy.

The new Battlestar Galactica has faced this problem self-referentially. Apollo and Starbuck have both complained that they have to do all the heavy lifting. It’s a wink-and-a-nod to the audience.

To give Star Trek credit, the show did an excellent job from the very beginning of creating the illusion of a large ship with a large crew, through background sounds, the careful placement of extras, and dialogue. And Next Generation was pretty good about introducing supporting crew characters. Still, if someone was going to save the ship, it was most likely Wesley.

The message to sci-fi writers is this; if the life of a starship captain isn’t very interesting, because he or she doesn’t actually do very much on his or her own, then stop writing stories about starship captains. Or be more creative in inventing stories.

The Planet-as-Location

I met him in a swamp down on Dagobah, where it bubbles all the time like a giant carbonated soda.  S-O-D-A soda.The planet Dagobah is jungle planet with roughly Earth gravity and with oceans over only 8% of the surface. If we assume that Dagobah is the same size as the Earth, then the land area of the planet is 469,260,352 km2, or 181,182,435 miles2. Give or take.

Good thing Dagobah is in fact about one acre in size, and contains a lake, a hut, and a Secret Grove of Confronting One’s Enemy and Learning It Is Oneself. Because Dagobah is only an acre, Luke has no problem locating Yoda’s home. Imagine if he had to search 181 million square miles! And all while Han & Leia are hiding in the asteroid field!

Sci-fi writers love to treat “planet” as if it’s a single location. “Let’s land on the planet, where we’ll meet the one settlement of the one culture, and have the one adventure the planet can afford us.” Planets are entire WORLDS. Even with advanced technology, it will take a space exploration crew YEARS to explore and survey a single planet. Even an uninhabited one.

Under the “Planet-as-Location” cliché, Mars is done. We sent a robot, it roamed around a few hundred yards. We saw it. DONE. Nothing more to see here.

It’s absurd, it’s an overused sci-fi trope, and it’s time to drop it.

The Theme Planet

Mmmm mmmm, sandworm is good eatin'!The planet Dagobah is jungle planet with roughly Earth gravity and with oceans over only 8% of the surface. If we assume that Dagobah is the same size as the Earth, then the land area of the planet is 469,260,352 km2, or 181,182,435 miles2. Give or take.

That’s 181 million square miles of jungle. Jungle at the equator, jungle at the poles. Jungle in the plains, jungle on the mountains. Jungle on the ocean floor, I guess. No deserts, no tundra, no temperate grasslands. Just jungle, jungle, jungle.

Jungles occur at certain latitudes, and in specific geographic and climate conditions. Even if Johnny Jungleseed went all over the planet planting Kapok trees, it’s not going to create a single planetary biome.

Even Frank Herbert admitted that Arrakis – Dune – desert planet was not scientifically possible. Although he created a clever ecology for the planet, all of its unique (and impossible) features were due to a single creature, the sandworm. One wonders how such a destructive life form, that creates its own climate, ever evolved.

Some theme planets are possible (ocean worlds) or even probable (ice worlds). But they won’t have lovely, warm oxygen atmospheres. Look at the one “desert” planet of which we are aware – Mars. Not terribly hospitable to moisture farmers and their malcontent nephews who thirst for adventure. Scientists used to hypothesize that Venus was a jungle planet. Sulfur rain and 400Cº temperatures aren’t too conducive to rainforest conditions.

Enough with the theme planets. Again, planets are WORLDS, and should be treated as such.

Everything on Mars is Red

Dees red filtah ees makink my head explote!  Or maybe eet ees der Kahreefornia Demokrats!“Hey, let’s make this movie take place on Mars! We’ll just drive out to Topanga, and shoot everything with a red filter!”

Even movies as recent as Mission to Mars and Red Planet have fallen into this lazy, non-scientific trap. Is everything on Earth blue? Should everything that takes place on Earth be shot with a blue filter?

Mars’ surface is covered largely by iron oxide rust. This gives the surface, and atmospheric dust, an orange hue. But the sky is blue during the day and black at night, and objects are the color they would be anywhere else, unless they are covered in orange dust. The surface albedo might give objects a slight orange cast – but that’s about it.

The planet has no magical red miasma. You can’t depict the planet’s surface on the cheap with a red filter. Sorry.

Alien-Human Hybrids/Babies

Ripley Clone Number 7.  I'd still hit it.From Mr. Spock and Dana Sterling to Ripley Clone #8 and the Cylon Miracle Baby, sci-fi writers just love those alien-human hybrids.

Unfortunately, if you can’t get viable offspring from a human-chimpanzee coupling (and Lord knows I’ve tried!), what chances are there for two beings that evolved on different worlds?

Now the sticklers will point out, regarding the four examples given above, that (1) humans and Vulcans were both created by the Progenitors; (2) in some versions of the Macross back story, the Zentraedi are a human sub-species; (3) the Ripley clones weren’t created sexually, and were just Ripley with certain xenomorph genes spliced in; and (4) humanoid Cylons are almost completely human, and are designed to copulate with humans.

Excuses, excuses.

It’s funny, in 2001’s Planet of the Apes, director Tim Burton wasn’t allowed to show the human Mark Wahlberg get it on with the chimp Helena Bonham Carter. Yet James T. Kirk could get busy with any alien that had a shapely carcass and a hole.

When we finally encounter intelligent alien life, the social, psychological, and ethical challenges will be enormous. But the one thing we won’t have to worry about it alien-human babies. Time to give it up.

Sound In Space

Sound in space -- there isn't any.Everyone knows there is no sound in a vacuum. Everyone but George Lucas.

Some sci-fi movies and films have tried to accurately portray what a spaceship occupant might hear, during a battle for instance; or at least use the occupant’s perspective as an excuse to sneak in some sound. The new Battlestar Galactica does a pretty good job of this. Engine sounds, collisions, passing through gas and debris clouds, and voices can provide a lot of audio “business” in a scene.

But there is something eerie and beautiful about an appropriately silent space scene. (As long as it’s not all done in annoying slow motion, like 2001: A Space Odyssey.) Firefly had some excellent “silent” space scenes, with nothing but twangy guitar over the action.

Science fiction authors need to remember, physics is our ally, not our enemy. Make friends with it.