Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Alice's Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement

I'm not going to say Arlo Guthrie's 18+ minute song off his debut album changed my life. I was kind of kidding. That would be a gross exaggeration. But it did change the way I looked at things. But all that is navel-gazing gobbeldygook, and you don't want to read it, so instead, I'll tell you about the one time I was a plagiarist.

The year was 1989, and I was a wee lad of 12 or 13 (depending on which part of the year this happened, and I can't remember) and my English teacher assigned a story-writing exercise to the class. He had broken us up into groups, and there were two other people in mine—whose names shall remain hidden. Part of the assignment was to write good definitions for a set of words, and the rest of the assignment was to place these words into a story in such a way as that they were used correctly.

Yeah? Yeah.

I went to junior high/high school in a place called Roma, Texas, along the border of Mexico on the Rio Grande. I don't want to say the place was backwards, but it certainly seemed divorced from the rest of civilization. The closest shopping mall was 50 miles away, and to a brand-new teenager, that was the goddamn moon.

So, with this backwoodsian idea in my head, I thought for sure no one there would have heard "Alice's Restaurant." How could they have?! I only heard it while we were living in San Antonio the year before, a place that might also have been the moon. Armed with that surety, I wrote out the first half of the song's narrative—the bit with the garbage and the cops and the jail and the trial—and found spots where I could substitute vocabulary words, or found other places to further embellish the story so that I might add the required words.

Oh, my God. I was so slick.

I think I wore a self-satisfied smirk all that day. My partners were relieved that I had taken it upon myself to do the writing bit of the assignment, but they had no idea what I was up to. Nobody did. It was the crime of the century! When the teacher began to read the assignments, I sat back in my chair, arms crossed, ankles crossed, smirking. I was coated in Teflon and K-Y. Authorial ninja. Before Sam Fisher, I was Sam Fisher with a pencil.

And then he took his glasses off and looked up at me.

You can all guess what came next. I exonerated my partners and took all the blame for my wrongdoing, but it opened my eyes to how much wider the world was, to how much further widespread things were than I'd thought. Pop culture was more than I knew, and everything was much less... insular.

That's all for this post, really. Have a happy Thanksgiving, and next time, I'd like to talk about the Kindle.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Gospel According to Lucas (And Other Blasphemies)

Howdy, howdy.

For as long as I can remember, I've been a Star Wars fan. In fact, the only story which took hold in my brain before George Lucas' space opera ripped it open was The Hobbit. Oh, I read all about Encyclopedia Brown and Bunnicula, but I knew and loved the adventures of Luke Skywalker and his merry band of Rebels better than anything else.

As a matter of fact, I can only remember six of the VHS tapes we had in the house during my formative years. There were others, many others, but the six constant tapes were Conan the Barbarian, Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers, and the original Star Wars trilogy. Those movies were imprinted indelibly onto my growing mind. Even today, I could sit and watch any of those with the sound all the way off, and no one in the room with me will miss anything anybody has to say. It's annoying as hell, too. So I've been told. watching a movie with these guys.
Fast-forward to early 1997, and the movie theater on base in Pearl Harbor had just finished being remodeled extensively. One of the things they had done was to put in a THX sound system, which meant (ah-HA!) they could show the theatrical re-release of the Star Wars trilogy, which they did. For free.

As a yound sailor, this had staggering implications for me. I was broke all the time, and I had just gotten someone to agree to go to the movies with me. And she was alright with the base theater. And, she was excited to see Star Wars. Be still my beating heart. I was really enjoying myself, until something happened that ruined our date. (Well, it ruined it for me; I can't speak for the unfortunate girl who was stuck with my company for the rest of the evening.)

Greedo. Shot. First.

I was apalled. I was aghast. I was... some other word, also appropriately alliterate.

There were other things in the movie that were, you know, effing awesomesauce. The revamped special effects were spectacular, and the additional scenes were icing on the cake, but come on. Han shoots first. Everybody knows that. That was firmly planted in my psyche. Rooted there.

I can't really put it into words how much it bothered me. (Yes, I know, I'm a writer and occasional poet. The irony does not escape me.) When I was a pre-teen, just a wee baby, I wanted to be Luke Skywalker and run around the galaxy with my laser sword and fight bad guys. When I got a little older and started to notice girls, I wanted to be Han Solo. A scoundrel.

And Han? Hell. Han is the guy that shoots first.

Except now he didn't, and I know I'm beating this with a dead horse, but I'm trying to make a point here. And I'm about to jump a gap to the other part of this here blog.

*insert pun here*

My parents are very Catholic people. One of them is Irish and the other Mexican, the perfect storm of Catholicism. I'd learned from a very young age that, where the Bible was concerned, it was best to sit down and shut up.

Not from my parents, by the way. Whenever I had questions about that big-ass book, my dad did his best to answer them, and my mom referred me to the mysterious ways God has. No, the repression came from the nuns. As a young proto-person, I went to a Catholic school in Chicago, and I guess it was a pretty good one. (I know this because one year, I went to public school, and the teacher consistenly mispronounced chameleon as "CHA-ma-lonn." Yes, I got into trouble there, too.)

One of the things that bothered me was that the many policies of the Church didn't actually come from the Bible, and I think I was too young to understand that. But I was old enough and had enough reading comprehension skills for the other thing that bothered me, that the Gospels didn't quite agree with each other all the time, and the other contradictions between the Old and New Testaments.

I sat and thought about it for a long while. To be honest, I can't remember where I'd heard this, but the idea was floating around in my head that the Bible was the inerrant word of God. So, how could it be wrong? Or, how could it even contradict itself? Or, how could this happen in the first place?

As I got older, I became less and less worried about who I upset and began to ask these questions out loud to people who I thought should know. Some of them were helpful, some were condescending, and others outright furious I could even entertain the notion. Mistakes, please. You must be defective.

One of the arguments I got quite often was, "If God took the time and effort to give us the Word, don't you think He would take steps to prevent its corruption by the hand of man?"

My immediate response was that time and effort wasn't anything to an omnipotent God, but I learned sooner or later that didn't really move the conversation forward, so I swallowed that one. My follow-up question was usually something along the lines of, "Maybe that's what God is doing, what with the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls and all."

I was referred back to the mysterious ways, which frustrated me to no end.

Conversations that do this make Baby Jesus cry.

Well, that's not true. The end was when I stopped chasing the truth of the Bible and gave up the whole mess for other people to worry about. I had other problems to worry about besides that, most of them from all the different views of God that were being jammed down my throat by well-meaning friends and pastors and youth ministers.

I think it was about this time I found my dad's copy of Chariots of the Gods... but that's a blog for a different day.

For a long while, I went through the motions to keep my mother happy. I played guitar in church, I did all the... the... I even forget what they're called now. Sacraments? I went to catechism and got Confirmed, and then after graduation from high school and joining the Navy, never stopped to think about God or any of that unless someone else brought it up.

Still, I'm always curious as to what happened. Not just what happened back then, in 33 A.D., but what happened to the gospels and letters and books, and who changed what and why. All that. Every time there was a show on TV about it, I'd watch it. Not only am I intensely curious about all this, but I had to keep loaded up on things that make people mad. Am I right? Of course I am. With that in mind, I read a book by Bart D. Ehrman.

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.

This book was excellent. It set up scenarios, and explained not only how the Gospels were being copied, but by whom, and how that led to the first changes, intentional or not. It's a whole big thing, too big for this blog, and if you really want to get into it, the name of the book is right above this paragraph.

What it really did, though, was make things okay with the changing Star Wars universe.

*insert second pun here*

Going back to that. Since 1997, Lucas has changed other things in his grandest of works, and I don't think any of them have been received like he planned. Greedo shooting first, the original thorn in my side, was altered yet again to have the shots coming almost simultaneously, and that helped a wee bit. Other changes included dubbing Temuera Morrison's voice over the original actor's who had played Boba Fett (Jeremy... something? See, I'm slipping.) which I could live with, and putting Ian McDiarmid's face in the hologram for Empire, and that I could live with.

The changes became more loathsome to me when we got to Return of the Jedi. You know the one I'm talking about. Ghostly Hayden Christensen. I know all the rationale behind it, that Obi-Wan said Darth Vader "betrayed and murdered" Anakin, and the ghostly version is of the young self because that was the last time he was Anakin, I get it. But I don't like it. By changing that, Lucas was saying, "Hey, yeah, he redeemed himself at the end, but he still wasn't my Anakin."

I used to get mad about this kind of thing, and about how after approving storylines and official history for the Star Wars Expanded Universe, Lucasfilm trampled all over it, but now? I'm okay. Seeing the changing face of the Bible and the gospels over the course of their early lives made me see how things we take for granted as fixed and immobile aren't really either, as goofy as that might seem.

For now, I'm looking forward to what the next Gospel of Lucas (According to Walt) will bring.

Next time, I'd like to talk about twenty-seven eight by ten color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was, and how they might have changed my life.

-Thom Brannan

Monday, November 5, 2012

Doctor Who?

Three things spring to most people's minds when you say "Doctor Who," depending on their age, I think. The first is the TARDIS, the blue box what travels in time and space and is bigger on the inside.

...if that holds true for this, too, I should be able to get an extra large pepperoni and 2 liter of Pepsi in it, no probs.
 The other two are just about equally split between the most popular actors to play the character.

Tom Baker was the Fourth Doctor, and he had the longest run of all so far. John Pertwee regenerated into Tom Baker in the cold winter of '78 and the Fourth Doctor ran his floppy hatted, long scarved, widely smiling, Jelly Baby handing out Time Lord ass all over the entirety of Time and Space (and E-Space) until the spring of '81, when he handed the reins over to Peter Davison. He was a madcap, and it showed in almost everything he did.

"A sonic PROBE, you said?" asked Davros.
 David Tennant roared into the role as the Tenth Doctor in 2005, taking over from the very able Chrisotpher Eccleston, and making it entirely his own. He had some very memorable adventures as the Doctor, and ran into all manner of beastie, even some from the Classic Series which had changed, like the Macra and Cybermen, or which had stayed largely the same, such as the Daleks or even the Master. (No goatee, though. For shaaame!) He stayed until 2010, when he passed the role on and Matt Smith took over.

Ugh. You know where that's been? Look up.
One of the things I like about the 2005 version of the show is its reverence for the Classic Series. Every once in a while, you'll see a "roll call" of the previous incarnations of the Doctor, and in particular when the Eleventh Doctor shows his library card, and ooh! Guess who's there?

"Take the picture, will you, my boy, HMM? I haven't got all of time and space to wait for you to find the button."
 That Doctor, the definitive article, as you might say, was played by William Hartnell from '63 to '66, briefly reprised for a one-off appearance with his two successors in "The Three Doctors." He was an irascible old man, and he made a lot of mistakes in his early adventures. The First Doctor was a scientist and a grandfather, and an exile from his people.

Now... hold on a minute. I'm going to put something here that should describe him nicely.

"He was a tall, elderly man, all dressed in black, with slick white hair pulled back, except for a rebellious lock on his forehead. He was smiling an all-knowing, mephistophelean smile, such as Milton could have given to his Lucifer. His eyes were of a penetrating blue; they never wavered..."

And another...

"An old man, dressed all in black. He was tallish, wrapped in a cloak and wore a fur hat and a long, striped scarf. His silver hair was slick and long in the back, with a rebellious lock tilting upward on his forehead. His eyes blazed with intelligence, and a prominent, beaky nose gave his face an arrogant and somewhat aristocratic look."

That's pretty accurate, yeah? Except... it isn't. That's not a description of the First Doctor, but of another character, someone out of French pulp fiction. The person being described is Doctor Omega, from a novel written and published in 1906 by Arnould Galopin about this person who is cut off from his own people and, with his three companions, travels through time and space in his ship, which is like nothing else on Earth.

"Oh, dear me."
 The best part about all this is it's all a coincidence. Sydney Newman, the creator of Doctor Who, had never heard of Doctor Omega and Galopin's book, which isn't all that far-fetched.

After hearing all this the first time, I was skeptical. Now, having read the translated-from-the-French and slightly-revised Doctor Omega from Black Coat Press, I'm more convinced the similarities are mere coincidence. That's not to say some of the revisions made to the novel by the brains behind Black Coat Press weren't made with the mind of making the story closer to a First Doctor adventure. If anything, the ties between the two have been strengthened by this, and by the frequent use of Doctor Omega as the First Doctor in several volumes of Tales of the Shadowmen, a series of anthologies featuring a cross-pollination of French pulp fiction characters and others from around the world.

I'm proud to say one of my own Doctor Omega stories, "What Doesn't Die," is in the collected volume Doctor Omega and the Shadowmen, where Doctor Omega and Nikola Tesla do what they can to deal with a terrifying version of the Bride of Frankenstein.

The reason for this whole thing is, I've been watching Doctor Who from the beginning. It's easy to see where the writers were starting to hit their stride, where they realized, "Hey. We can do... anything!" I thought it would be nice to take a little time and string some bits of the Whoniverse onto the blog for all those interested, and maybe spark some interest in those who haven't any. Doctor Who is a brilliant show, and it's one of the few that has gotten all the air time it deserves, and will hopefully continue to do so for a good long while.

Also, buy my books. All of them. HAHAHA!!!!

Next time, I'd like to talk a little about Star Wars and the Bible and how I've found peace.

-Thom Brannan