Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Monster Hunting: Some Recent Movies Worth Watching This Halloween

The spooky season is once again upon us—my favorite time of year—so I thought I’d share a few horror-movie recommendations.  Despite my curmudgeonly assertion this past spring that I don’t enjoy movies anymore, each suggestion below gives lie to that.

In compiling this selection, I tried to choose A) relatively recent movies, from the last few years, that B) you’ve likely never heard of, hence the reason worthy entries like Get Out, Split, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Conjuring, and The Witch didn’t make the cut.

What all of the following lacked in budget they more than compensate for in creativity; they remind me of what I found so exciting about filmmaking in my youth, before corporations controlled all of our popular entertainments, and Hollywood was ushered into our ignominious Era of the Endless Reboot.

As always, I’ve included each movie’s Save the Cat! genre classification.

 

It Follows (2014)

Genre:  Monster in the House (“Supra-natural Monster”)

This one you may have already heard of (it isn’t quite as obscure as some of the titles to come), but I had to include it for the simple reason that it’s the most terrifying horror film I’ve seen since I was a kid.

After a one-night stand, a college student finds herself afflicted with the mother of all STDs:  an invincible supernatural entity (which can shapeshift to appear as anyone:  an old woman, a middle-aged man, etc.) that follows her ploddingly but relentlessly—night and day, wherever she goes, however far she runs—and will kill her upon catching her.  The only way to rid herself of the demonic fiend?  Pass on the “curse” by sleeping with another person!  Of course, if the wraith kills that unlucky fool, it reverses course to work its way back up the vectorial chain—meaning there’s no way to permanently outrun the malignant spirit pursuing you!

Just like an STD, It Follows leaves a stinging sensation you just can’t seem to shake once exposed.  (I’m actually looking over my shoulder as I type this at 12:45 in the afternoon.)

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Goodbye, Mr. Bott: Reflections on an Unlikely Mentor

On the first day of ninth grade, I was dropped off at the wrong high school—an all-boys Jesuit academy called Fordham Prep—and through a series of tragicomical misunderstandings too complicated to explain here, wound up staying through graduation.

Up till that point, I’d been exclusively a New York City public-school kid, where I’d spent nine years as a reliably mediocre student.  In truth, my “C” average was deceptively flattering:  My overall GPA was given a crucial bump out of the “D”-level basement by the lone “A” I could be counted on to earn in my English classes.

Despite my subpar scholastic track record, however, when I advanced from elementary school to junior high, I was, in what can only be explained as an administrative error, placed in the city’s now-defunct SP program (“special progress”—essentially a gifted-and-talented curriculum), in which students completed three years of schooling—seventh, eighth, and ninth grade—in only two.  During that time, I took two years of Latin, algebra, biology—all before I ever set foot in high school.  I passed them all, too—painfully and often barely, but still.

And this was at a junior high school, I should add, that was at the time regarded by pretty much everyone in the neighborhood as a disgrace—an unfortunate but unavoidable way station between elementary school and high school.  (I wonder what Neil deGrasse Tyson, an alumnus, would have to say about that?)  Parents simply pinched their nostrils, registered their kids, and counted the days till they’d move on to the Bronx High School of Science or some other esteemed learning institution where their real education would resume in earnest after a two-year waste of time—an institution like, in my case, Fordham Prep.

 

THE “ZONE UNKNOWN”

When I wound up at the Prep’s doorstep, however, the syllabus I was handed looked alarmingly familiar:  introductory Latin; algebra; biology—I think you see where this is going.  The lion’s share of kids who attended the Prep were coming from the parochial school system, and Fordham’s curriculum was designed to pick up where that left off.  Trouble was, I’d left those courses in the dust already, but when I explained my predicament, the administrator—I’ve long since forgotten his name (or more likely just willfully repressed it)—got a look on his face like he’d just swallowed a lungful of bus exhaust and said, “But… that was public school?”

Indeed, this was a “fresh start”—one whereby Fordham would graciously overlook my plebeian origins, and that meant erasing all trace of them.  Good news:  None of it ever happened!  Admission to the Prep was a rarified privilege, I was assured, for which to be grateful.  Fordham Prep’s name, after all, was uttered almost exclusively in whispered, reverential tones—the Prep!—and the honor of attending was one most of its students had been anxiously anticipating since preschool.  It all meant nothing to me, though:  Six months earlier, I’d never even heard of the place.  This perhaps gave me a more sober—a more realistic—perspective on the school, even at fourteen years old, than my peers or their parents.

The Prep’s sterling reputation for academic excellence, I argued without success, was largely a product of skillful self-mythologizing.  Christ, how good a school could it have been, really?  After all, I got in!  Shouldn’t that have been the first red flag?  Bronx Science—a public high school—walked the walk:  They quite rightfully wanted nothing to do with me.

And my own dismal grades notwithstanding (though I did make the honor roll freshman year, but any idiot can ace a bunch of classes he’s already taken—and passed—before), there were some objectively intellectually challenged students at the Prep.  I was a longstanding public-school kid, and knew a knuckle-dragger when I saw one (I preferred their company, for the most part), and that place was wall-to-wall with them.  All of which prompts the question:  How did Fordham achieve—and sustain—such impeccable standing if they were admitting riffraff like yours truly?

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Short and Sweet: Talking Spinal Tap for Two-Plus Hours

For those who can’t get enough of my inexcusably verbose essays on pop-cultural arcana, you’re in for a special treat:  Now you can listen to me wax esoteric for four half-hour segments!

I recently sat in on the podcast Spinal Tap Minute, moderated by Heidi Bennett and Sean German, which deconstructs Rob Reiner’s classic 1984 comedy This Is Spinal Tap minute by minute.  Coincidentally, I’ve written previously about Spinal Tap on this blog, demonstrating how the band seamlessly emerged from the contained narrative framework of the movie—in the absence of precedent for such a fourth-wall traversal—to evolve into the longest-running instance of reality-blurring performance art in the history of contemporary pop culture.  (And the joke is still ongoing:  Harry Shearer is currently prepping the Derek Smalls solo album Smalls Change.)  Tap’s influence on comedic storytelling—from the “mockumentary” format so prevalent in our sitcoms (The Office, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family) to the fictional-character-who-walks-among-us pasquinade of The Colbert Report—can’t fully be quantified.

Michael McKean (as David St. Hubbins), Harry Shearer (as Derek Smalls), and Christopher Guest (as Nigel Tufnel)

But it can be more deeply appreciated, and that’s what I attempted to bring to the table during the four episodes to which I contributed.  These are my first-ever podcasts, so your feedback—should you take the time to listen—would be most welcome.  (Who’s gonna be the first to offer up that dreaded two-word review:  “shit sandwich”?)  Here’s a content rundown (with links to each episode):

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Richard Matheson: The Man Behind the Famed Author

Writing is a necessarily solitary occupation in virtually all of its stages:  studying craft, breaking stories, producing drafts, editing manuscripts—each of these tasks consigns us to endless hours in the privacy of our own imaginations.  Opportunities to bond with colleagues, a given in nearly any other profession, are often few and far between for us.

Likewise, reading is a conscious act of seclusion, as well—one in which we submit to the imagination of an author.  We often (usually) have no relationship with these artists outside the forum of their fiction itself, despite the profound sense of intimacy engendered through their creations, which have the capacity—and we’ve all experienced this, regardless of the extent of our own personal creative inclinations—to shape our very apprehension of reality.

In our many discussions of storytelling craft here on this blog, and our ongoing appreciation of some of the masters of the discipline, I haven’t yet addressed the subject of relationships—either direct working associations, or the kind of indirect (yet no less meaningful) familiarity fostered with the artists we revere through their stories.  Today I’d like to share a special instance in which those two roads intersected, and from it developed the rarest of all affiliations:  friendship.

After featuring my first interview here last month, I am pleased to host the blog’s first guest post.  Barry Hoffman works with Gauntlet Press, a specialty press devoted to publishing signed limited-edition collectibles and trade paperbacks; in the essay that follows, he discusses the influential fiction of legendary horror/science-fiction author Richard Matheson, and shares personal insights from his experiences as Matheson’s admirer, publisher, and friend:

 

Richard Matheson passed away June 23, 2013.  Many might not recall his name, but you know his work.  Matheson wrote twenty-two scripts for Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, including what many consider the most famous, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which starred William Shatner as a crazed airplane passenger who sees a monster on the wing of the plane.  He wrote scripts for the two acclaimed Kolchak movies of the week (he was not involved with the inferior series).  His most famous novel was I Am Legend, which most recently was a film starring Will Smith (the movie, though, doesn’t adhere to Matheson’s original script or novel).

Richard Matheson’s seminal vampire novel has inspired no fewer than three very successful feature-film adaptations, starring legends-in-their-own-right Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, and Will Smith in the title role

He penned What Dreams May Come, which was also turned into a film.  Both the film and the novel were of great comfort to the families of victims of the Columbine school massacre in 1999.  He also wrote The Shrinking Man and penned the script for what became The Incredible Shrinking Man.  Matheson didn’t achieve the name recognition of Stephen King because he jumped from genre to genre.  He wrote two acclaimed horror novels (I Am Legend and Hell House), five westerns, a war novel (Beardless Warriors), science fiction (Earthbound), several thrillers, and novels like What Dreams May Come that defy categorization.  He wrote well over a hundred short stories but abandoned the form as his short fiction couldn’t feed his family.  He was a true Renaissance man who also wrote music (unpublished).

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A Conversation with “Shots Fired” Writer/Co-Producer Marissa Jo Cerar

Marissa Jo Cerar is a film and television writer who grew up in a family of eight adopted kids, five of whom her parents adopted from foster care—at once.  That fateful decision has provided her with endless material, and life as the only brown girl in rural Illinois, population 1,600, was unique, to say the least, because she only saw people who looked like her on television and in the movies.

After placing on the Hit List and the Black List in 2012, a pair of annual surveys of studio and prodco execs that rank the most well-regarded unproduced screenplays in Hollywood, her script Conversion sold to KperiodMedia in January of 2016.  She is a co-producer on the upcoming film Burden, currently in post-production.

Marissa Jo spent three years on the television show The Fosters (seasons 1–3).  Last year she joined the writing and producing team of Shots Fired as a co-producer; the 10-hour limited series premiered at Sundance and currently airs on Fox, Wednesday nights at 8/7c.  She now works as a Supervising Producer on season two of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, set for release in 2018.

Screenwriter Marissa Jo Cerar

I first met Marissa Jo in 2009 at an industry Christmas party in Century City (isn’t that how the plot of Die Hard got started?), and a few months later, along with six other working screenwriters, we formed a writers group that met twice monthly to trade notes and war stories over dinner.  Speaking for myself, it was an invaluable association that made me a better writer as well as a sharper analyst, and was a great source of camaraderie and confidence—two short-supply resources in a vocation as solitary and enervating as this one.

An uncommonly emotive screenwriter, Marissa in many respects served as the emotional barometer of our workshops.  For instance, when I first pitched Escape from Rikers Island in 2010, the group enthusiastically helped me brainstorm the high-concept potential of a “zombie outbreak”–meets–“prison break” genre mashup, but it was Marissa who responded from the get-go to the story’s emotional through-line—the volatile dynamic between the two leads, a white Gang Squad detective and black gangbanger forced by circumstance to team up—thereby encouraging me to make that the primary focal point of the narrative:  It would be a story about two lower-class city kids who grew up to be men on opposing sides of the law, who share more in common than either would care to admit, and whose relationship would be examined in all of its messy, morally gray complexity; that zombies were exacerbating the tension between them became almost incidental.

Somehow, to my pleasant surprise, this action thriller about alpha males trying to escape a detention center overrun with cannibalistic monsters became, at heart, a funky sort of love story—one about the love between enemies.  I don’t think I would have otherwise been inclined to reach so high—and dig so deep—with such a pulpy, commercial premise had Marissa not inspired me to do so.  In a business that’s always looking for the hook, Marissa’s instincts are to find the heart.

That profound sensitivity, coupled with her one-of-a-kind formative experiences, have been a tremendous asset to the character-driven television dramas to which Marissa Jo has contributed, which have explored such thematically challenging subjects as multiethnic blended families and LGBT equality (The Fosters), race relations between the police and public (Shots Fired), and teen suicide (13 Reasons Why).  She’s brings a unique point of view, a master’s command of her craft, and a fearlessness to her writing—because it takes courage to put your heart on the page, and risk having crushed the very thing you only wish to share.  For those reasons, I’m delighted Marissa agreed to be the subject of my first interview here on the blog:

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Spring Fever: On Baseball Season and the Joy of Not Being an Expert on Some Things

Forget the alert on your iCal.  To hell with the buds of green sprouting on the branches outside your window.  It isn’t really springtime until legendary announcer Vin Scully utters, on opening day of the new season, “It’s time for Dodger baseball!

Alas, Vin retired last fall after a 67-year run, ending one of the great rites of spring.  I can’t blame him, though; he’s more than earned his retirement.  There isn’t a person in the world that doesn’t wish him a long and happy ride into the sunset.  Life, meanwhile, goes on.  Spring came just the same.  So did baseball season.

Fellow Bronx native Vin Scully at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles

I have a special fondness for spring.  It is the season of my birthday, which evokes all those happy associations from childhood—not just the parties and presents, but emerging from the long winter frost to be tempted back to the streets by the perfume of blooming flowers, the petrichor of rain-slick pavement, the gentle, pre-summer warmth coming back around for a long overdue visit.  Nothing, however, heralds the season for me so resoundingly as the resumption of Major League Baseball.

This has not always been the case.  Truth be told, baseball is a fairly recent personal pastime of mine.  My wife is the real sports nut in the family, having grown up only blocks from Shea Stadium as a card-carrying—and long-suffering—Mets fan.  I was raised in the Bronx, right up the Deegan from Yankee Stadium, though it’s probably for the best I was never much of a baseball enthusiast, and certainly not a Yankees fan, otherwise our two-decade romance might have proven too star-crossed to survive one of the great New York rivalries.  Given how resolute (to put it diplomatically) team loyalties can be, it was fortunate I was decidedly nonpartisan.

I guess you could say I discovered the pleasures of baseball the really old-fashioned way—by sitting in the stands and watching the games.  And that only happened here in L.A.  Through her work, my wife regularly receives Dugout Club tickets to Dodger Stadium—those fully catered VIP seats right behind home plate.  (Yes—they’re as fantastic as you might think.)  I’ll admit I initially went along for the all-you-can-eat Dodger Dogs, but, somewhere along the way, I learned the game—and got invested in it.  That’s the thing about baseball, after all:  For three-plus hours, you have nothing to do but sit and watch (once you’ve reached your gastrointestinal limitations from the buffet, that is), so eventually you’re left with little choice but to start paying attention.  Baseball doesn’t wow you into engagement so much as lull you into complacency.  But more on that point shortly.

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Foundations of Storytelling, Part 1: The Logline

This is the first post in an occasional series.

With the Second World War looming, a daring archaeologist-adventurer is tasked by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant—a Biblical artifact of invincible power, lost for millennia in the desert sands of Egypt—before it can be acquired by the Nazis.

On Christmas Eve, an off-duty police officer is inadvertently ensnared in a life-or-death game of cat-and-mouse in an L.A. skyscraper when his wife’s office party is taken hostage by a dozen armed terrorists.

Over the Fourth of July holiday, a resort-island sheriff finds himself in deep water—literally—when his beach is stalked by an aggressive great white shark that won’t go away.

All of the above story concepts should sound familiar—that’s why I chose them.  Yes, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard, and Jaws are all popular—now classic—works of commercial cinema.  But they are also excellent exemplars of storytelling at their most basic, macrostructural levels, as demonstrated by the catchy summaries above, known in Hollywood as “the logline.”

When a single image, let alone a single sentence, imparts the essence of a story, the underlying concept is a powerful, primal one

 

THE LOGLINE AS A SELLING TOOL

The logline is a sales pitch:  In a single compact sentence, it conveys the protagonist (respectively:  the adventurous archaeologist; the off-duty cop; the beach-resort sheriff), the antagonist (the Nazis; the terrorists; the shark), the conflict and stakes (possession of the Ark for control of the world; the confined life-and-death struggle; the destruction of a man-eating leviathan), the setting (1930s Egypt; an L.A. skyscraper at Christmas; a summer resort), and the tone/genre (action/adventure; action-thriller; adventure/horror).  You can even reasonably glean the Save the Cat! category of each:

  • Raiders as Golden Fleece (Subgenre:  “Epic Fleece”)
  • Die Hard as Dude with a Problem (“Law Enforcement Problem”)
  • Jaws as Monster in the House (“Pure Monster”)

A cogent synopsis like any of the above allows a prospective buyer to “see” the creative vision for the movie, ideally triggering the three-word response every screenwriter longs to hear:  “Tell me more.”

Note what isn’t included in the logline:  The names of any of the characters.  Thematic concerns.  Emotional arcs.  Subplots.  Descriptions of particular set pieces.  That’s the “tell me more” stuff, and none of it is necessary—it is, in fact, needlessly extraneous—for the “elevator pitch,” so called for the brief window one has to hook to an exec before he steps off onto his floor (read:  loses interest).  The point of a logline is to communicate the story’s most fundamental aspects, and to capture what’s viscerally exciting about the premise.

I mean, if you’d never seen Raiders, Die Hard, or Jaws—if you knew nothing else about them other than the information contained in those loglines—you’d already have a sense of why these are, or could at least make for, gripping stories.  Pitch any one of them to a movie executive, and he can immediately envision the scenes—or at least the potential for them—suggested by the central premise.  Each one piques curiosity and, one step further, inspires the imagination.

The Raiders logline is so compelling because it takes (what was at the time) an arcane scholarly discipline, archaeology, and credibly applies it to an action-film archetype, typically the province of superspies like 007.  It also features historical elements that don’t seem like they should belong together—Nazis and Biblical relics—to envision something simultaneously smart and thrilling.

The Die Hard and Jaws loglines are exciting because they take their police-officer protagonists and essentially reduce them to “everyman” status (unlike Raiders, which features a specialist as its hero) by putting them in overwhelmingly harrowing situations that play to some of our most primal fears:  terrorism and sharks.  In short, they have that compelling What if? factor.

That’s how those stories got sold, and how the movies themselves got made.  We don’t need any information beyond what we get in those loglines to want to see the finished product.  As such, condensing a story to its logline is an absolutely essential skill for any screenwriter.

Let me amend that:  It is an essential skill for all storytellers, novelists included—perhaps especially.  And its applications are far broader than simply marketing.

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Writing as Fast as I Can: On Time Management and Working More Efficiently

For the better part of the past decade, my wife and I have both worked out of our home.  This is a great setup if you can get it, especially in Los Angeles, where the perpetually logjammed freeways have been known to erode the sanity of many a daily commuter.  During business hours, we essentially treat one another like cubicle mates, pausing to chat every so often over coffee, but basically respecting one another’s need to prioritize work—something made easier owed to the positioning of our desks at opposite ends of the apartment.

After her company was recently acquired, however, the wife started working out of a central office again.  It’s a reasonably short subway ride away, so at least it isn’t a “killer commute,” though it has been an adjustment—for both of us.  Speaking strictly for myself, I discovered in short order that many of the domestic duties we’d shared—be it walking the dog, making the bed, running laundry, buying groceries—were now falling, to a necessarily greater extent, on me.  This isn’t a complaint, mind you—I still had the better end of the deal in that I continued to work from home, with all the freedom and flexibility that entails.  But there’s no doubt I found myself in the throes of a time-management crisis, as days and sometimes weeks would pass without any appreciable progress—or any progress at all—on my manuscript.  I was overwhelmed by all the shit that had to get tended to just to keep the household running.

Quick digression (and I promise it’s relevant):  Anyone who’s followed this blog for any amount of time knows I’m a guy’s guy.  I’ve written odes to 24, Rambo, Heat, the Dark Knight trilogy, Rush (the Canadian prog-rock band that, by its own admission, doesn’t inspire overwhelming female devotion), mob movies, and the cinema of horror maestros Wes Craven and John Carpenter, the latter of whom trades in tough guys like Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken and James Woods’ Jack Crow.  For that matter, my forthcoming novel, Escape from Rikers Island, is populated almost entirely with alpha males, inspired in part by the crime fiction of Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, and Richard Price.  Hell, at my last checkup, my doctor informed me I have the testosterone of an eighteen-year-old.  Like I said:  guy’s guy—now medically validated.

James Woods as monster hunter Jack Crow in John Carpenter’s “Vampires”

I’m secure enough, then, to confess I have a softer side, too.  I’ve waxed analytical about Katniss Everdeen and Jane the Virgin and the addictive melodramas of Shonda Rhimes, as well as professed my undying love for Dirty Dancing on more than one occasion (like here and here).  I’m hooked on Fixer Upper and the interior-design wizardry of Joanna Gaines.  And my favorite show of all time—seventeen years and running—is Gilmore Girls, and it doesn’t get more girly than Gilmore—“Girls” is right there in the title!  Last year, the long-awaited return of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo didn’t hold a candle, in my view, to the overdue encore of Lorelai and Rory; I would willingly and happily trade every future Star Wars movie for more Gilmore.

So it was for that reason I picked up a copy of Lauren Graham’s new memoir Talking as Fast as I Can a few months ago.  I’d hoped to get insight into the development and production of the Gilmore revival A Year in the Lifeand the book doesn’t disappoint in that regard—but the last thing I expected was a practical, step-by-step solution to my time-management problems… though that’s exactly what I found.

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This Counts, That Does Not: On Canonicity in Media Franchises

It may surprise you to learn this, but the events of Star Wars never actually happened—the majority of them, anyway.  I mean that sincerely—not for a minute should that be interpreted as snide or condescending.  But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself…

In 1983, George Lucas brought his Star Wars trilogy to a close with Return of the Jedi (oh, those bygone days when movie franchises actually reached—wait for it—a conclusive resolution).  Throughout the eighties, the series lived on by way of a pair of made-for-television Ewok movies and the Saturday-morning cartoons Droids and Ewoks, which continued to stoke interest in the franchise—and its lucrative action-figure line… for a while.  But by the end of the decade, with no new big-screen productions to energize the fan base, Star Wars had resigned its position at the top of the pop-cultural hierarchy.

George Lucas looks to the horizon

Lucas, who had always been a forward-thinking businessman as much as he was a visionary filmmaker (he negotiated a reduced fee for writing and directing the original Star Wars in return for ownership of sequel and merchandising rights, which the studio deemed worthless and was only too happy to relinquish), had plans to revisit the Star Wars galaxy in a prequel trilogy that had been part of his grand design when he was developing the earlier films—hence the reason, in case you never thought to ask, they are numbered Episodes IV through VI.  Even though the prequels themselves were some years off—production on The Phantom Menace wouldn’t commence until 1997—he began laying the groundwork to return Star Wars to its lofty place in the cultural consciousness by commissioning science-fiction author Timothy Zahn to write a trio of novels set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi—what later became commonly known as “the Thrawn trilogy” (named for its chief antagonist).

The books were released successively in ’91, ’92, and ’93 (my best friend Chip and I couldn’t get down to the local bookstore fast enough to buy a copy of each upon publication, though being a year older, he got to read them first); they were New York Times bestsellers that not only got their intended job done—reigniting public interest in a dormant media franchise—but also led to an endless, ongoing series of novels that explored every facet of the Star Wars galaxy:  No character or event was too small to be the focus of its own story.  Thus, the Star Wars Expanded Universe (SWEU) was born.  Han and Leia had twins!  Luke got married!  Chewbacca sacrificed himself for the Solos’ son Anakin!  A universe of stories, far beyond the contained narrative arc of the classic trilogy, took on a life of its own and captured the imagination of a generation that invested itself in the ongoing space opera collectively known as Star Warsa vast, complex continuity that Lucasfilm maintained with curatorial oversight to prevent inconsistencies and contradictions in the expansive mythos, which comprised movies, books, comics, TV shows, RPGs, and video games.

The Force awakens? For many fans, it never went dormant

When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, however, they had their own ambitious plans to expand the franchise, and didn’t want to be tied down to every addenda in the extensive mythology.  And just like that, everything other than the feature films and then-current Clone Wars animated series was “retconned”—still commercially available, mind you, under the new “Legends” banner, but henceforth declared noncanonical.  This was an outrage to many of the longtime fans who considered these “expanded universe” adventures sacrosanct—who’d invested time, money, and interest in the world-building fictions of the Star Wars continuity that had been undone with the stroke of a hand.  Some of their favorite stories were now apocrypha, whereas the much-derided prequels, on the other hand, were still canonically official.  Where was the justice—the sense—in that?

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Classifying the “Star Trek” Movies by Their “Save the Cat!” Genre Categories

Star Trek turned fifty this year (something older than me, mercifully), but you needn’t be a fan to appreciate some of the lessons writers of fiction can take from its successes and failures during its five-decade voyage.  I mean, I probably wouldn’t myself qualify as a “Trekkie”—I simply don’t get caught up in the minutiae.  What I’ve always responded to in Trek is its thoughtful storytelling and philosophical profundity.  “Even the original series, for all its chintziness,” someone told me when I was thirteen, “it was still the thinking man’s show.”

I recall watching The Original Series in syndication, and being swept away by the classic time-travel episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”; finally I understood that Trek was about ideas, and those could be just as thrilling—more so, in fact—than set pieces.  Anyone who was around for it certainly remembers the excitement when The Next Generation premiered, unknowingly kicking off perhaps the first major-media “shared fictional universe” two decades before Marvel got there.  I watched the pilot with my father—which was a big deal, since television wasn’t his thing (the nightly news excepting)—and I haven’t forgotten his lovely, two-word appraisal of the first episode when it was over:  “It’s kind,” he said, with no further elaboration.

It took some years to fully appreciate that assessment.  Having grown up on the adventures of James T. Kirk, the original captain’s renegade spirit and cowboy diplomacy appealed to my juvenile worldview; Picard, on the other hand, seemed like a high-school principal in comparison.  But over time, I came to identify with Picard’s genteel, introspective mindset, and every line he uttered—even the technobabble—sounded like poetry from the mouth of Patrick Stewart, who endowed his performance with such dignity and conviction.  For me, the best part of Star Trek was getting Picard’s closing takeaway on the issue du jour.

The franchise continued to grow as I did, and my wife, whom I started dating at nineteen, was as much a fan as I was, it turned out, and we looked forward every few years to the next feature film, until the series finally, against all expectation, sputtered out with Nemesis (2002) and Enterprise (2001–2005).  Among other reasons for that, Trek had been eclipsed by a new sci-fi franchise—The Matrix—that spoke to the ethos of our new Digital Age.  Perhaps more than any other genre, science fiction needs to reflect its times, and times change; finality is something to be accepted—embraced, even—not feared.  The Enterprise, thusly, had been decommissioned.

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