Google+

Nov 18, 2017

I, Tobor

in the Ekcolir Reality
original cover art by Harold McCauley
Back in the previous millennium when I was a kid, there were three television networks; ABC, CBS and NBC. I never knew about the first television network, the DuMont Television Network, which in 1946 began with two east coast television broadcast stations that were linked by a telecommunications cable. By 1956, the DuMont Television Network was gone, having been unable to compete successfully against CBS and NBC, two television networks that could draw on radio station connections and talent.

Captain Video
The DuMont Television Network had many "firsts" for television, including what evolved into the first science fiction television show: Captain Video.

Video Ranger, Captain Video and
video of the future.
As far as I can tell, it was completely accidental that Captain Video actually became a science fiction show. Originally (1949), Captain Video and his young side-kick Video Ranger were intended to work from their headquarters to direct the actions of squads of cowboys. This was how DuMont Television hoped to monetize some old footage of Westerns that the company owned. They would splice out action scenes from the Westerns and introduce the action with a quickly improvised frame plot provided by Captain Video.

Black Planet script, 1st page
click image to enlarge
source
However, viewers were apparently more interested in Captain Video and his evil-fighting Rangers than the old Westerns. Starting in 1951, the show had a sponsor with deeper pockets (General Foods) and Olga Druce became the producer of the show. Druce had prior experience producing radio programs for children that had tried to adhere to minimal standards of scientific authenticity. Knowing nothing about science fiction, Druce got help from experienced science fiction story writers including Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Jack Vance.

Galaxy II - source
Apparently Clarke refused to write scripts for the show, but he functioned as a kind of Sci Fi consultant, helping with the design of the show's interstellar cruiser, a spaceship, called Galaxy.

Jack Vance and a Captain Video script
Unable to restrain his cutting humor, avoid violence and write "appropriately" for a young audience, Vance apparently got himself fired from his job as a writer for Captain Video. One of the episodes that was written by Vance is "Black Planet Academy". Here is the IMDb summary for that episode:

"The Captain and Ranger are summoned by Prince Spartak to the Black Planet to establish a Video Ranger Academy. Soon, however, a Martian research laboratory reports the theft of powerful weapons, and this diverts the Captain's attention to investigate the implications of the crime."

source
Additional Captain Video episodes attributed to Vance at the IMDb:  "Adventure On Phobos",  "Dark Empire", "End of Nowhere" and "Mercury Observatory". See also: "A Bottle From Space".

"The Captain's final adventure found him dueling the villainous Murgo of Lyra with swords; the Captain won, of course, thanks to the rigorous training Prince Spartak had given him on the Black Planet!" It is fun to imagine the influence of Jack Vance and other Golden Age science fiction story writers on the young George Lucas.

the robotic Tobor and the evil Atar
Tobor
Asimov is credited at the IMDb as having written an episode called "I, Tobor". This story includes a robot that was to have been called "Robot-I", but the name tag got reversed. However, I'm skeptical about Asimov's supposed role as a writer for Captain Video.

"The giant robot Tobor comes under the control of a young girl who is determined to use the subservient machine against the Video Rangers."

cover art: Darrell Sweet
Asimov created "Lucky Starr" as part of a plan to make another (and hopefully better) science fiction television program. That planned television show never made it on the airwaves, but some of Asimov's stories that I found in book stores when I was in my teens were Lucky Starr adventures in novel format. I must say, I preferred his books that were not written for a juvenile market.

Television in the Ekcolir Reality.
original cover by John Bunch
I like to imagine that in another Reality, both Asimov and Vance might have been heavily involved with creating science fiction television programs (see The Phaeton Effect). 

In the Ekcolir Reality, the pace of technology development was a little quicker than in our universe. Color television arrived in time for a television program that was based on Isaac Asimov's Galactic Empire novels. Kyle MacDonnell began a new phase in her acting career when she was cast in the role of Artemisia. As Artemisia, she helped establish a strong and growing Galactic Empire through three years and a sequence of linked programs that began in 1952 with Battle for the Galactic Empire.

Visit the Gallery of Book and Magazine Covers.
 
Visit the Gallery of Posters.

Nov 11, 2017

We, Knowing

"I fully expected them to sprout wings
and manifest as angels... But no." - Roger Ebert
I've never sat down and watched the entire 2004 film, I, Robot. I have seen a few small parts of that movie on television, but I'm made uncomfortable by the idea that some folks in Hollywood put Isaac Asimov's famous Sci Fi character, Susan Calvin, into a story that did not originate as one of Asimov's classic positronic robot stories. Hollywood does strange things to Sci Fi stories, and so I've always needed a trustworthy guide to science fiction films.

Roger Ebert
Back in the previous millennium, when I was in my Golden Age of discovering the science fiction literary genre, I occasionally got to see Roger Ebert on television (Sneak Previews), reviewing films.

See the future, be the future.
Click image to enlarge.
As a kid who almost never went to a theater to see a movie, what was interesting about seeing Ebert on T.V. was his battles with fellow film critic Gene Siskel. Ebert came across as someone who could thoughtfully and rationally explain why he enjoyed certain films, particularly science fiction movies. My tastes in science fiction did not always match those of Ebert, but I was happy to make use of Ebert as a source of information about Sci Fi films.

Sneak Previews
Roger did not like the film I, Robot (his review) and I've long suspected that it is a movie with simply too much Hollywood in it for my tastes, so I've never tried to view the entire movie {can this be true: the movie depicts lake Michigan as being dry in 2035?}.

I feel there really is an Asimovian robot story at the core of the I, Robot movie (with robots gone bad and Susan Calvin helping to put things right) but, as Roger said, "the chase and action scenes are pretty much routine for movies". The idea of sticking Susan Calvin into a typical Hollywood action movie format is unsettling for fans of Asimov's fairly cerebral robot stories.

Susan Calvin wonders what Asimov would think
about Hollywood's version of I, Robot.
I always fear the folks in Hollywood can find a way to ruin ANY science fiction story. Too many people have a predilection for warping science fiction stories into anti-science fiction stories, horror stories or fantasy. And I don't want to see your silly military science fiction film... ICK.

Asimov was interested in stories about space exploration and many of his positronic robot stories involved space travel or were taking place on another planet. In Asimov's imagination, robots were helpers for we bumbling humans and it was with the help of robots that we would reach the stars and spread through the galaxy.

Bicentennial Man
Roger Ebert also did not like second half of the Asimov robot story-inspired film Bicentennial Man (his review).

In the Bicentennial Man movie, a household
helper bot eventually finds robo-romance.
As described here, I feel that since Bicentennial Man was able to make it to the big screen without the usual Hollywood explosions and car chases, it should be counted as a success. In contrast to Roger, I was only mildly put off by the way Bicentennial Man was turned into a romantic story about a robot that falls in love. I feel that Bicentennial Man captured the tone of thoughtful optimism that Asimov put into his robot stories.

taken by cancer
Ebert grew up as a science fiction fan, and he was a rarity in the world of film: someone who actually understood and enjoyed science fiction. Sadly, Ebert died in 2013 when he was 70 years old. Ebert went through a long battle against cancer, but towards the end of his life he had reached the Internet Era and so his movie reviews continued to reach his fans even after his voice was extinguished.

"I know ... let's include a train crash, a plane crash...
I recently read Ebert's review of the 2009 film Knowing and I was motivated to watch the movie. However, as for I, Robot, I was worried that Knowing would be spoiled by including too many elements of a standard Hollywood film, in this case a thriller/disaster movie. Some folks in Hollywood seem to think that there must be an explosion or a gun fight every 5 minutes or the audience will fall asleep.

... and a car crash!"
This is how Diana dies.
Related Reading: Knowing Critics and Roll the Dice.

Contact 2: the needed sequel.
Alex Proyas
Knowing was directed by Alex Proyas, who had previously directed I, Robot. As much as I disliked the idea of cramming Susan Calvin into a movie that had an army of murderous clanking robots, I'd actually enjoyed the short fragments of that film I had seen on T.V., so I was willing to watch Knowing.

Zemeckis
I don't usually care about who directed a movie. Among the few directors that I can name is Robert Zemeckis, who (like Ebert) grew up in Illinois as a fan of science fiction. I think Zemeckis did a great job with both Back to the Future and Contact (review by Ebert).

Proyas in Hollywood ... dealing
with marketing people who think
Earth is a world with no clouds
and that bleeds prophetic red
numbers when split open.
I wondered: might Alex Proyas be another director who, like Zemeckis, could be trusted to consistently tell a good science fiction story on the screen, even with all the dangers that lurk in Hollywood, dangers that can ruin a Sci Fi movie?

 "...what I love about the genre {science fiction} is that it is about ideas, and it’s actually quite rich with thoughtful concepts." -Alex Proyas

"The best film of 1998..." - Roger Ebert
Sci Fi Cred
According to this interview, Proyas developed his love for science fiction by reading science fiction novels when he was in his early teens. There is glimmer of hope when someone in Hollywood did not learn about Sci Fi from movies.

Knowing the Future
"The Energy Converter is the Master
and QT-1 is his prophet!"
As a science fiction fan who enjoys time travel stories, I'm going to discuss Knowing as a story about time travel. Other viewers have often interpreted Knowing through the lens of their religious upbringing.

I have no objection to religion as an element of science fiction stories. Carl Sagan's story Contact provides an interesting example of religion in a science fiction story and I've previously blogged about religion in one of Asimov's robot stories and mentioned how Asimov included religion in his Foundation saga.

1920s television in the Ekcolir Reality (source)
Classical time travel stories show a time traveler jumping through time in a way that is impossible, but fun. Another type of time travel story only involves sending information through time, not entire people. In Knowing, one little girl is depicted as having knowledge of the future and she is able to pass what she knows on to Nicolas Cage. Why?

Aliens
While I view Knowing as a time travel story, it is not about we humans having time travel technology. Knowing depicts alien visitors to Earth who can either send information backwards through time or look into the far future (we viewers never know which).

Aliens watching Earth
aliens disguised as human beings
During most of Knowing, we are given brief mysterious glimpses of lurking men in black who seem to be stalking Caleb, a young boy. These men in black are alien visitors to Earth who know that all life on Earth will soon be destroyed. However, the aliens seemingly can't (or won't) speak or communicate with humans in a normal fashion. They only communicate with a few rare humans who can hear the telepathic transmissions of the aliens.

alien spaceships leaving Earth
These lurking aliens know that everyone on Earth will soon die during a great catastrophe and they are preparing to take a few people off of Earth and transplant them to another planet. Near the end of the movie, we are shown that the aliens have been disguised as humans. They discard their nanite shells and reveal themselves to be strange glowing, semi-transparent artificial life forms who own cool spaceships. In fact, right before all the animal life on Earth's surface is extinguished, there are dozens of the alien spaceships on Earth, each presumably there to "rescue" some of the living creatures from our planet before the surface of Earth is sterilized by fire.

Alien Abduction Alien Invitation
Caleb, Abby and two furry friends (right) just before
leaving Earth. A dumbfounded Cage (left).
When one of the alien spaceships finally de-cloaks and opens its door to pick up Caleb, Nicolas Cage is the only one who is surprised (image to the left). Caleb has already been told about his future via telepathic contact with the aliens.

Caleb's vision of the future
Nicolas Cage wants to leave Earth with his son, Caleb, but the aliens stubbornly insist on only taking those rare Earthlings who can receive the telepathic thoughts that are transmitted by the aliens. Only those who can "hear" the telepathic messages from the aliens inviting them to leave Earth can be saved from destruction. Caleb is invited to leave Earth, but he is young and reluctant to leave his father behind.

Caleb sees the true form of the aliens
In fact, the central problem of the entire movie is the trouble that the aliens have getting Caleb to voluntarily leave behind his father. Using telepathy, the aliens have shown Caleb the future: a horrible future in which the surface of Earth and every animal will be burned to a crisp. Even with that foreknowledge of the future, Caleb is reluctant to go with the aliens if it means leaving his father behind on Earth. The aliens, having seen the future, know that Caleb's father must be carefully prepared and positioned so as to help Caleb agree to leave Earth with the aliens.

We Have A Problem
Cage deciphers the alien message
Since Caleb's father (played by Nicolas Cage) is unable to "hear" any of the telepathic messages from the aliens, how can the aliens influence his behavior?

The End of Eternity
MNC
I like to think of this problem from the perspective of Asimov's time travel story, The End of Eternity. In that novel, Asimov depicted Reality Changes, alterations made to the timeline of Earth. In the case of Knowing, I assume that the aliens needed to trigger a Reality Change that would alter the behavior of Caleb's father, allowing him to understand that it is best if Caleb departs from Earth with the aliens. If this Change is not made then Caleb will die, and given Caleb's telepathic abilities, the aliens REALLY want to keep him alive.

the MNC
To accomplish that Reality Change, the aliens send a message to a young girl in 1959. That message must be designed so that 1) it can reach Caleb's father 50 years later, 2) not be recognized as an alien message by anyone but Caleb's father and 3) reveal to Caleb's father that he should allow Caleb to depart from Earth with the aliens.

In The End of Eternity, alterations to the timeline are called Minimal Necessary Changes (MNCs). A time traveler must make as small a change to an existing Reality as is possible so as not to trigger any unwanted alterations to the flow of time. In Knowing, the MNC takes the form of a long sequence of numbers written down by a young girl and placed in a school's time capsule in 1959. The girl is one of the rare humans on Earth who can receive alien telepathic communications. She simply writes down the numbers that the aliens "whisper into her mind".

Caleb and Abby have been taken to a new planet.
Fifty years later, Caleb attends the same elementary school and when the time capsule is opened, he receives the sheet of paper with the numbers. Caleb's father is an astronomer and he is able to quickly decode the alien message. Because of the coded message, Caleb's father knows that anyone remaining on Earth will die, so he needs to allow Caleb to depart from Earth with the aliens. The aliens' MNC has been successful, and with last-minute encouragement from Cage, young Caleb voluntarily leaves behind his dad, gets on the alien spaceship and he is taken away to help start a new (and presumably telepathic) human civilization on a distant planet.
GAME OVER: a wave of destruction sweeps the surface of Earth.
 
Shit Happens
Earth? Who needs it? Game over.
As viewers of Knowing, we must ask questions such as: were the aliens responsible for the destruction of all animals remaining on Earth? I like the idea that the aliens might be cosmic gardeners, growing creatures like we humans on planets like Earth. Maybe Earth had reached a dead end. The aliens had worked hard to evolve humans with telepathic abilities, but they were stuck... only a few rare humans on Earth had telepathic powers. The aliens decided to take the best genetic stock from Earth, go to another planet, and start a new round of human breeding experiments.

imagine that
Point (my interpretation of Knowing)
The aliens used their advanced technology to induce the Sun to emit a powerful burst of energy that sterilizes the surface of Earth. The film Knowing seems to reach the same end point as did Childhood's End. Many viewers might be shocked by the idea of "angelic aliens" who would abruptly sterilize the surface of Earth as casually as we might sterilize a test tube in a microbiology lab, but from the perspective of alien beings who could be a billion years more advanced than we humans are, Earth's biosphere might be viewed as having little remaining value after Caleb and his fellow telepaths have been extracted from the planet.

I watched Knowing with the usual trepidation that accompanies any Hollywood Sci Fi flick. The obligatory car chase and terrorist fear mongering scenes were relatively easy to get past. I think there was about 30 minutes of film that could have been left on the cutting room floor, but I'm glad I took the time to watch this movie.

Counter Point
"and so, shit happens. Q. E. D."
Other viewers have interpreted Knowing in different ways. Example: "... our own demise; it was planned by nature in an unchanging way before the first human ever stood upright." I don't like this interpretation because there is no scientific evidence that our Sun can spontaneously produce the kind of giant "solar flare" that is depicted in the movie.

The first disaster that is recognized
on the aliens' list of disasters.
Knowing does ask the question: is the human species simply the result of random processes and natural selection? I don't think the film answers that question. This issue is raised by the main character, an astronomer (played by Nicolas Cage). He grew up as the son of a religious man and then his wife was killed in a hotel fire. At the start of the film, he is trying to survive as a single father while unable to see evidence that the universe will ever offer him anything more than a series of senseless random events like the death of his wife.

Diana and her daughter, Abby (2009).
However as viewers, we must wonder: maybe the aliens killed Caleb's mother as part of their plan to have him ready to voluntarily leave Earth just before the surface of our planet is vaporized. Maybe Diana (the mother of a girl who is taken from Earth on the same spaceship as Caleb) had to be killed so that she would not prevent her daughter from going with the aliens. Diana's mother was the little girl in 1959 who received the alien MNC. Diana'a daughter, Abby, inherited her grandmother's ability to receive alien telepathic signals.

Diana's mother (1959)
When Nicolas Cage receives and deciphers the message that was sent to him by the aliens, he discovers that most of the long string of numbers is a list of disasters (earthquakes, plane crashes, etc.) that have occurred during the past 50 years. This part of the message convinces Cage that someone back in 1959 had information about events that would occur in their future. At the very end of the list are a few more disasters, yet to happen. The next on the list (a plane crash) takes place right in front Cage, convincing him that this strange prophetic message from the past was specifically intended for him.

"Get off the train!"
Cage tries desperately to stop the next disaster on the list. He arrives at the scene of an impending subway train crash. Believing that the train he is on will soon be struck by another speeding train, he tells a woman holding a small child to get off the train. Many other passengers do rush to get off of the train, but they are killed when the other train jumps from the tracks and crashes/skids along the station platform.

Oh ya, life goes on...
At the end of the day, even with Cage trying to prevent this disaster and save the lives of people on the train, exactly the same number of people die in the subway crash as had been indicated in the sealed time capsule message from 50 years earlier. Viewers must ask themselves: can Cage do anything other than conclude that he is helpless to change the future? Yes, there is another interpretation...

Just because he could not stop a train derailment does not mean that Cage has no agency, that he should simply give up on living. And so he keeps trying to protect his son and his parents. His parents won't even try to survive the coming fire storm: they seem content to die if it is "their time to die" as decided by God.

Life: can we get a re-write?
Die Vision des Propheten Ezechiels
von der Auferstehung der Toten
Life Goes On
In the end, Cage realizes that he was given the message (the MNC) from the aliens so that he would be able to let go of his son and help Caleb escape from Earth. If he could find the courage to leave behind his father, Caleb would continue to live on another planet as part of a continuing human civilization. Cage is only able to help Caleb make that difficult decision because of the alien MNC.

"Knowing is a movie alive with possibilities, and it does not spoon-feed the audience any single answer." -John K. Muir

Are the aliens in Knowing evil? Many people are comforted by the idea that God is looking over us and has a plan for humanity.  However, what if our Creators were alien beings from a distant galaxy, beings that have very little in common with us and who are about as concerned with our fate as we might be concerned with a dish of bacteria? This is one of the questions at the core of the Exode Saga. I'm impressed that the makers of Knowing were able to bring such a disquieting theme to the big screen.

ancient aliens and Hollywood
I find it intriguing that "ancient astronaut" films such as Knowing can provoke warnings to the faithful such as this: "At its base, it is a lie being used by godless people to 'scientifically' explain away Biblical miracles and events—and God Himself." (source of this quoted sentence)

horrifying
Way down near the bottom of that long webpage is some commentary by Rachel Leah, age 13 ("It was really awful"). Knowing was rated PG13 and I'm sure that some thoughtful and sensitive 13-year-olds should wait a few years before seeing this film. It is central to the story told in Knowing that a very young boy must face the loss of his parents and the fiery destruction of all creatures on the surface of Earth. The first time I confronted a fictional account of human extinction was when I was about 13 and I read Level 7. Reading that book was horrifying enough to haunt me for years, and it had none of the visual effects that are found in Knowing. The themes and depicted death and destruction in Knowing constitute meaningful art and adult fantasy, but children can easily be upset by this movie.

Knowing More
Knowing More
It would be fun if there were a sequel to Knowing. I'd like to know more about these aliens. They seem to be constrained in how they interact with we humans. Are they following some kind of rules that are designed to keep the people of Earth unaware that aliens have been visiting Earth for millions of years?

Knowing the Golden Age
Original cover art by Robert Jones
Were we ever shown the true form of our alien Creators in Knowing? Maybe the glowing artificial life forms are simply automated helpers for the aliens and we have yet to actually meet the true aliens.

Maybe a sequel to Knowing should be set before 1959, back in the Golden Age of pulp science fiction. Cage could play a very old Nikola Tesla who discovers how to build a radio receiver that can detect the technology-assisted telepathic communications of the semi-transparent visitors to Earth.

Next: journey back to televised Sci Fi in 1953
Visit the Gallery of Posters.
Visit the Gallery of Book and Magazine Covers.