29 September 2012

FWS Forgotten Classic: Soldier (The Outer Limits 1964)

With the recent blogpost on the super-soldier, I thought we could revisit one of the earliest super-soldier stories seen on American TV. The foundation ideas that populate modern science fiction are sometimes tricky to track down. Prior to me watching 1964's the Outer Limits episode 'Soldier', I would have guessed the origins of the super-soldier could have traced back to Sparta or the Samurai, or even, the Sardaukar from DUNE, however, it may have started with this episode and the 1957 short-story it was culled from. Back in 1964, Soldier was the premier episode for the second season of the Outer Limits in 1964, and starred  veteran Star Trek Klingon actor Michael Ansara. Since the episode aired in the 1960's, Soldier has gone on to influence science fiction creators, and even was the root for 1984's the Terminator. I was disappointed when the Outer Limits came back on TV from 1995-2002, that they did  not remade Soldier.

The Plot of Soldier 

In the 38th century, two men wait on a scarred landscape of burned out buildings, fog, and laser beam dancing. Here two soldiers raised by the state, with no regular human experiences to speak of, square off on the this battlefield. As Qarlo attempted to take a break with one of his self-lighting cigerettes, when command issues a simple order: "Find the Enemy. Kill the Enemy". With their break canceled, they storm off into the fog, only to get zapped and thrown into a temporal tear. Qarlo is transported to the American of the 1960's, and while it does not say this in the show, I imagine where they fighting in what was left of Los Angeles, that is why Qarlo was transported to the back-lot of Paramount studios.
Trapped in the past, Qarlo is hunted down by the police, captured, and tossed into a padded cell, while two men, one from the FBI, and another, Philologist Tom Kagan are trying to figure him out. Qarlo repeats the same odd speech over and over, and while some of it sounds like English, most of it too gutterly, and laced with unfamiliar words. Kagan does locked on to his words, and informs the FBI that what the soldier of the future is saying is his name, rank, and serial number, just in the dialect of the 38th century. Over the new few weeks, Kagan and Qarlo build a bridge towards understanding, using pictures and films, all while Qarlo's nemesis from the other side on the future conflict is trapped in time, struggling to get out.
Kagan becomes convicted that the only way to reach through the level of program that Qarlo has been subjected to is for him to live with his family. It is during Qarlo's capture that they figure that based on drawings of star patterns that he is from 1800 years in the future, and his DEW rifle will work even without a few parts, and the power supply could last for months even while fired continuously. More shocking was that Qarlo was born from a government military hatchery, raised for war. Kagan soon hits a wall with his patient, and asks the FBI for Qarlo to transferred to his care at his own home. Once Qarlo is sent home with Kagan, he processes to freak out his family and the cat.
For another few weeks, Qarlo tries home life in early 1960's, which is completely alien to him, calling them 'not the enemy', but has a odd relationship to the cat. But soon, Qarlo breaks into a gun store, because: "soldier needs a gun." But this point, Qarlo's enemy from the other side is loose, and using his tracking equipment hunts down Qarlo to the Kagan's home. Using his DEW rifle, the enemy soldier burns a frakking hole through the Kagan's house, and points the weapon at the family. Qarlo leaps into action, wrestling the enemy soldier to the group, but both are killed in a flash of energy. Did they go back to their own time or were they both killed? And now that the 1960's knows about the dark future ahead, will things change?

The Historical Context of Soldier 
Soldier was adopted from Harlan Ellison's short story Soldier from Tomorrow published in Fantastic Universe magazine in 1957, perhaps making it one of the earliest military science fiction stories being one year earlier than even Heinlein's Starship Troopers. In the original text aligned the 38th century to the political realities of the 1950's, were the Qarlo's capitalistic Tri-Continentals battle against the Ruskie-Chinks. This is in keeping with the trend at the time of wrapping non-mainstream political opinion under the thin veil of science fiction allowed the writers to explore the topics of the day without being labeled. One popular with the writer community was the Red Scare of the 1950's and 60's, and the militarization of the society. In the 1950's, when Harlan Ellison was writing, the globe was still recovering from the Second World War, and before the dust was settled and the bodies buried, America was already squaring off with a new foe...Communism. Writers like Ellison were worried about the future, and the growth of the military. It was easy to imagine, at the time, the military-industrial complex continuing to grow in power, and needing to field tube-raised soldiers.

Some Observations about Soldier
While the uniform that Qarlo and his enemy where is seemingly nothing like modern tactical gear, it is closer than you think. Both of the DEW 'heat-ray' rifles feature pop-up sights, similar to modern reflex red-dot sights on seemingly on every single weapon on Modern Warfare 3. Both soldiers wear regular, loose fitting garments under their hard-plate chest armor. This is once again similar to modern soldier, that wear BDUs under their tact-vests that feature ballistic armor plates. Then we come to the helmets. Communication gear is directly fitted into the helmet, along with a night-vision visor and topped off with a antenna. Unlike in the 1960's, modern soldiers have such gear hanging off of their helmets, but were not as stylish as the ones featured in Soldier. 

The Terminator/Soldier Connection
One of the elements that Soldier was better known for was it connection to 1984's Terminator and resulting lawsuit. This trouble all started back when Terminator was being filmed, and a Starlog writer, Shapiro, visited the set. When the Shapiro asked Cameron where he came up with the idea for the Terminator, Cameron responded by saying: "rippled off a couple of Harlan Ellison stories." For those that have seen Soldier and Terminator know that they start off in a similar visual sense, and have Qarlo/Reese being chased down by the police. Then we have the enemy, in both stories, hunting their prey and being noticed less that the hero of the story. When Harlen made inquires about Terminator and wanted to see the strip, Cameron and his wife-at-the-time, Gale Hurd, blocked Harlen's request. After Ellison tried to screen Terminator being a film critic, he was blocked, that caused Ellison to break out the lawyers to find out what the hell Cameron and company where hiding. Starlog magazine contacted Ellison telling him that Cameron was putting pressure to not publish what James had said about ripping off some of Harlen's stories for the basic idea. Bowing to pressure, Starlog omitted that omission by James Cameron. Given the relationship between Starlog and Ellison, an original copy of the interview was handled over to Harlen, containing Cameron's omission.
With this, and other pieces of evidence, Orion Films and the Cameron's settled out of court for about hundred thousand dollars and a credit at the end of the film. The ironic element in the story was that Harlen would have allowed Cameron to use his Outer Limits stories if he had just asked, and without the exchange of money, but Cameron's ego had gotten in his way. While James Cameron bitched about the lack of connection, I can tell you, I've been obsessed with the dark future scenes from Terminator since I first witnessed them in the mid-1980's, and doe moment Soldier episode of the Outer Limits popped up on my laptop, I knew there was a direct stylistic connection.

The Soldier/ Hulk Connection?
The 1983 issue #286 of the Incredible Hulk writer Bill Mantlo mined the 1964 Outer Limits episode for a story that sets up a future soldier and the Hulk for adventures in time travel. In the 41st century, a future soldier similar to Qarlo. who loyal only to the state, gets transports back to the 20th century via a DEW discharge and a gamma storm and directly into Bruce Banner's lab. Shortly after, this the soldier and the Hulk are teleported to the 41st century. Once there, the Hulk learns that robotic statue of Kang the Conqueror commands one of the sides in this future war. Of course, the Hulk smashes the statue, freeing the slaves-soldiers of this war. Hulk smash. Brilliant. Of course, a portion of the plot is similar to Soldier, but the connect is deeper, Kang the Conqueror has the same name of the Klingon character that was played by Michael Ansara.

Was Soldier (1998) named after Soldier (1964)?

Then we come to another film about emotionless super-soldiers born into service and used for the purposes of the state without remorse or concern or consent: 1998's Soldier. Much like Qarlo and his nemesis, Kurt Russel's Todd-3465 is very similar to Qarlo, according to the opening narration of the Outer Limits: "trained from birth by the State. He as never known love, or closeness, warmth. He is geared for only one purpose: to kill the enemy." So, is Soldier from 1998 another work based on the genesis of Harlen Ellison? Not according to official sources. David Peoples, the co-writer of BLADE RUNNER's primary script, cited Soldier being writing around the time after his work on BLADE RUNNER as a work to focus on the Replicants at war on the off-world colonies. When the script was altered to direct it away from the 1982 work, David People's called Soldier (1998), a 'sidequel'. It is heavily likely that the Outer Limits played a part into the foundations of this story, but it is not official acknowledged.   

The Soldier/Captain Power Connection...WTF?
Many of the readers of FWS know that I grew up watching Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, but it wasn't until I watched this epsiode of the Outer Limits that I saw yet another connection to that 1964 classic: 1987's Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. Much like the dark future of Qarlo's time, Power's 22nd century Earth is still scarred from the crushing Metal Wars, where a few human attempt to resist the evil machine empire. Of course, Captain Power is wholesale connected to Terminator, but I also see a basic connection to Soldier: the visor is a dead give-away!

Why is Soldier a classic?

Classics are older works that impact the genre they written in, and if you look at the list above, it is easy to see how much a single episode of cult TV series can have on the genre of military science fiction. Despite this episode of the Outer Limits was pitted against other higher rated shows, and much like today, the network threw away this episode away. Soldier survived with help from passionate fans and heavy rotations on independent TV stations James Cameron used Soldier has the basis for Terminator and the resulting lawsuit.


Here is a video on the Soldier/Terminator Connection

20 September 2012

FWS Topics: By The Numbers: The Size, Organization, and Logistics of the Spacefaring Military

About a month ago, FWS asked for topic ideas, and one that came across was an article exploring the size, organization, and logistics of a deep space military. At first, I was overwhelmed with having to research these topics, however, my mind would not let it go,finding the topic engrossing, and over a period of a few weeks, I had most of this written. It is all too common in military science fiction to over simplify these factors of a real military, either by not addressing it or using the high technology of sci-fi to solve these issues, much like the replicators of Star Trek. However, for most those authors interesting fleshing out a complete future spacefaring military picture, is blogpost is for you...so, pour a Blue Moon, and enjoy the read.

The Organization of a Future Deep Space Military

The term 'Military organization' is how the armed forces are structured involving everything from on how many troopers in a platoon, to rank structure, even to which division of the armed forces get what types of vehicles or guns. This by far is one of the toughest aspects for science fiction authors to accuracy portrayal in their fictional works. Forming a convicting overall organization framework for a deep space future military has caused most sci-fi authors to either dumb down the organization or simply ignore it. Sure, most authors and creators (like me), can research, but it is dumbed down and never lives up to the experiences of people that have served in the military. Then again, sometimes, military novels that deal in the complexity of a detailed explanation of military organization drown out the story like too much salt in a recipe.
There are two lines of thought on how a deep space military would be organized, the hard and the soft prospective on the science in sci-fi. In a hard science universe, where superluminal travel and communication are not possible, interstellar warfare is a slow, isolated and long proposition. Soldiers deployed to exosolar colonies will spent years under cryo, and the generals and politicians that sent them to that point of light in the sky would long dead (see the Forever War). Given the distance, this would make any commander of the taskforce the sole authority and interrupter of the original orders, much like a US nuclear submarine. It is also likely that the armed troop transport would be automated, much like the Sulaco, furthering the infantry officer's authority.
This presents problems for a government, whatever decision the marine commander make on-the-ground, like nuking the site from orbit, which would make the government and the brass back on Terra instilling a great deal of trust in those officers out there. It is also possible that future deep space expeditions would be under the command of not a flesh-and-blood officer, but a military AI, similar to HALO's Cortana. How does this effect the organization of the future military? It simplifies it a great deal, streamlining it to be more lean and mobile, because the current massive organizational system that modern militaries operate under would be impractical. It this regard, works like ALIENS, HALO, and BSG may be correct, where there fewer officers and ranks. Due to the length of time it would take for replacements to arrive to the exosolar battlefield, promotions would happen with the ranks of the expeditionary force, much like what happened to Corporal Hicks in ALIENS.      
When it comes to a soft science fiction universe, where FTL travel and communication are similar to Star Wars and Star Trek, the military organization could be even complex than today's, simply due to the amount of space that the government has to project power to. The reason behind this is simply, FTL travel takes days or weeks to arrive at a hot spot, rather than years, and Captain Picard can communicate with San Francisco in real-time, receiving orders from the Admiralty that fit the situation unfolded lightyears away. In addition, Starfleet can send more ships and personnel to a crisis point, fueling interdependence, while the more hard science military has to self-reliant. Also, the soft universe military battlesites would be hotter than the hard, due to the availability of reinforcements, heavier vehicles, and combat starships.    
Of course, my friend Jesse came up with a easy answer to a hard science deep space military: carve out an asteroid, attach engines that run off a mineral inside the asteroid,      have a robotic factory installed inside the asteroid along with a Cortana-level AI, then sent along its way. By the time the asteroid arrives at the exosolar war zone, the asteroid is filled when Centurion Cylon models ready to kick ass and obey the original orders. Problem solves, problem staying solved. The only issue with this solution is that it breaks Burnside's Zeroth Law of Space Combat, which states that the human audience relates better to another human being in the situation than an armed toaster, so, sci-fi authors will put humans in place of robots for the sake of story. So, to sum up: hard science universe=less complex military organization. Soft science universe=more complex military organization.

Logistics of a Future Deep Space Military
Warships are great, especially when kicking arse up there in the black, making sure that GSO is secure, but when the fight moves downstairs to dirt-side, the fight to keep our space marines feed, caffeinated, with fresh magazines, and toilet paper is critical to the success of the planetary invasion underway. That means the logistics of an interstellar military, with a supplyline that could run many lightyears. Once again, I'll be discussing if FTL is possible, and if it is not.
The real bitch is if FTL is not possible, then the supply line becomes lifetimes in length, if you are not lucky enough to have a replicator onboard. Colonial worlds could have a underground network of supplies and equipment  bunkers that are just waited for the ball to drop. This was a tactic used during the First Gulf War, when the Saudi Arabia desert bunkers of US equipment were accessed. Of course, given the amount of time it would take for a troop ship to get to the colonial hot-zone, that equipment would be painfully out of date. Another avenue is for deployment of automated supply stations along the common navigation. When a request is made, the robotic space warehouse station could send out automated supply vehicles to the combat zone.
It is possible to also have automated machine shops on these robotic deep space stations that manufacture up-to-date military equipment with engineering pattern packets sent from communication relay satellites. Other sci-fi works, like the Mimic from All You Need Is Kill, or the Thing from The Thing, use the local environmental to supply them, fashioning weapons and food from the local conditions.Then there is the more likely solution: take it with you. Any deep space warship that is designed to repel or take a colony, it would be platform for said operations, and outfitted with the supplies and landing vehicles to carry it out.

On Replicators...
I confess this many times on FWS, but I am a recovering Trekkie. The first movie I saw in a theater was Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and I regularly quote from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and have built my share of Enterprises and Excelsiors out of Legos. And has a recovering Trekkie it sometimes easy for most Trekkies overlook one of the best pieces of Trek technology, the replicator. Working off of raw organic materials onboard, along with recovered materials from the close ecosystem of the ship (just think about that for a minute!), the good ship Enterprise can generate all manner of foodstuffs, including hot Earl Grey tea. According to several technology manuals, the replicator uses massive software storage and micro-transporter technology to generate nearly any dish that diner selects, and does a close job of it. Certain areas of the ship have special replicators, like Ten-Forward, that are more exact on replicating alcoholic beverages and fancier dishes.
Imagine that if a Nimitz class nuclear carrier could replace their staff that prepares 1800-2000 meals per day, and carries enough food stores onboard to operate for 90 days independently. Smaller carriers with the same capacities could be constructed, and deceasing their need for resupply. Not only was the replicator used to make tea and gagh, but also to construct small tools, like the hyperspanner, which also cut down on storage. Truly, any future military that possessed replicator technology would be at an extreme advantage over a hostile force that did not have the device. The replicator-equipped force could simply out-supply the hostile force,  not relay on the logistic supply train, and most items are as far as the touch of a button.

 The Size of a Future Deep Space Army
Creating fictional future military organizations is fun, but when in comes to details of hard numbers, often creators swing too high, making an army of billions, or too low, making an off-world military that has to project power of light-years. The thing is that each fictional universe is individual and depending on certain factors, such has how large the civilian population is, how many colonial worlds are we talking about, length of time it takes to get out to these colonies, and who the enemy is of this government and what kind of government it is. After all, if it the Terran Overlord Government, they are going to want to project power on their colonial holdings, increasing the size of the military. If they are the Foundation from Asimov's series, than it will naturally be smaller. And if they are Cylons...never mind. All add into a complex equation how many troopers you should have ready to kick ass if the need arises.  In sci-fi, as I demonstrate below, the numbers vary wildly, much like modern military organizations today, from a hundred thousands, to several million. The number of military personal should hover around 1%-3% of the total population, unless there is some sort of call to arms to invade Klendathu.
For example, in 2010, the US military was composed of 1.43 million active service members involved in two low-intensity wars, while the Red Chinese Army is about 2.8 million members, compare that with British military with 220,000 in active service, with 180,000 in reserve. What do these numbers tell us? The United States is more reliant on mobility, technology, and excellent training to win wars, while the Chinese depend on numbers, and the British are a more seaborne military that also has excellent training, but does not need the numbers of the US, due to their geographic, geopolitical, and proximity to NATO allies than the US. Then that bring us to the Israel Defense Force, one of the most active military forces in the 20th century, who draw their ranks by mandated three-year service for most civilians of Israel, however, in practice, only 50% of the recruit pool serves. This gives Israel a huge advantage if they are invaded, or forced into a sudden war, which all are common in their short, but violent history.
Personally, I think that the IDF is a good model for a future military and it's size: independent in production (for the most part) if cut off, developed their own weapon systems for their style of war and the local conditions (the TAR-21 for example), and a trained populous. If you consider FTL (if it is possible), than any colonial world would need a fight force based onplanet to deal with an invade force until the central government can send reinforcements via some sort of colonial rapid response team, as seen in ALIENS. Bottom line, the size of an army needs to be realistic, taking in consideration what kind of FTL system, if any, are used by this future government, and what kind of government it is. Here are some examples of the manpower numbers of some of the better known future armies in MSF:

The Galactic Padishah Empire's Sardaukar Legions

In the universe of DUNE around the year of 10,191, Emperor Shaddam Corrino the IV is ruling over the known universe, controlling thousands of settled worlds across intergalactic regions. The books never tell us the size and scope of the Galactic Padishah Imperium, but given the instant space travel afforded by the Spacing Guild's use of the Spice, Shaddam the IV, can project power unlike most ruler in science fiction, but only if the Spacing Guild agree with the move. This domination of space travel by one group makes the military project power of the imperial forces difficult to gauge, but the Sardaukar Legions are a truly fearsome future army.
According to the original text, the post-atomic prison planet Salusa Secundus, kills six out of thirteen children before the age of eleven, making these terror-troops masters in cruelty and projecting fear. So feared were the legions of Sardaukar that the threat of their use was enough to drive planets back into the fold, and there numbers are impressive, too. Based on text from the book and 1984 film, there are about 50 legions of Sardaukar in 10,193, each legion is composed of 30,000 terror-troops, which works out to 1.5 million Sardaukar that invaded Arrakis at the final battle of Arrkeen. After Paul took to the throne, Shaddam was allowed to have one legion of Sardaukar during the exile on his prison planet.  

The United States Colonial Marine Corps (2179)

According to the 1996 ALIENS: Colonial Marines Technical Manual, the United States Colonial Marine Corps is made up of four active divisions, with a fifth in reserve. In addition to the divisions spread out over the American colonial arm and the Sol system, there are four active and one reserve aerospace wing serving the CMC's transport,starlift, and support needs. At the core of the CMC is the Marine Assault Unit, composed of a battalion of marines, medical, command, and maintenance companies, along with a RECON platoon, a squad of scout/snipers, and a platoon of combat engineers. Adding to the mix of flexible space-projection is armored teams, aerospace elements from the USASF, and one drop wing and one assault wing. In terms of numbers, the Colonial Marines were at a peak of 240,000 during the 2165 Tientsin Campaign, but at the time of ALIENS film in 2179, the numbers were at around 165,000.

The ROBOTECH Expeditionary Force (2022-2044)

There is some debate among ROBOTECH fans and canon about the number of people that survived the Zentradi holocaust, and then left with the REF about ten years after billions died in space and on Earth. The official ROBOTECH: The Sentients RPG manual printed by Palladium Book, there is an essay on the confusion over the numbers. According to this text, about 350 million Terran survivors of the Zentradi holocaust of 2011, rebuilt Earth, and somewhere around 10,000 left with the REF onboard the SDF-3 in 2022.
However, duirng the 3rd ROBOTECH War, a vast REF fleet comes to liberate made up of hundreds of Sentient constructed warships, thousands of fighters, and ground forces. This has lead Palladium Books RPG manual to debate the number of original REF members, and states that the combat forces of the REF were human or microized Zentradi, while the crews of the REF warships were composed of joint crews. Some other fansites, say that the REF mounted recovery operations to evac Southern Cross personnel that escape the Invid Invasion on off-world inter-solar system bases, colonies, or ships.

The ROBOTECH Master's Zentradi Forces (2011)

When it comes to size of a future, as far as have researched, the largest military force ever seen in science fiction is the Zentradi forces of the ROBOTECH Masters. Over four million warships under Supreme Commander Dolza came to our third rock from the sun to kick our collective ass. Adding to this number was the Zentradi loyal to Lord Breetai, the SDF-1, and whatever UN Spacey ships were left. Some estimates online place this armada at 100 billion with about 48 billion killed in total, that's Zentradi and the majority of the Earth population. Now that is one hell of a bloody battle!

The Alien Legion of the TOPHAN Galactic Union

Okay, there is little to go on, in terms of hard numbers, for the Legion. It does not help that most of the stories in the first series concerned on Force Nomad's core characters. Only in the graphic novel did we see a mass legion force composed of thousands of soldiers. Force Nomad was expanded during the second series, allowing us to a much large force, however, I doubt it was any bigger than 5,000 legionaries. When I was reading Alien Legion comics, and even today, I wonder about the size of such a force that had to protect three galaxies worth of space(!). One of the only other works that had a government composed of several galaxies is, Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda, whose Systems Commonwealth, at its apex, had over 1 million members. So, based on that, it is likely that the Legion is composed of millions of legionaries and thousands of ships. Helping clear some things up, the official Alien Legion website had a breakdown of the organization of the Legion:
  • LEGION- 50,000+
  • CORPS- 20,000-45,000
  • DIVISION- 10,000-15,000
  • BRIGADE- 3,000-5,000
  • SQUADRON- 300-1,000
  • COMPANY- 62-190
  • PLATOON- 16-44
  • SQUAD- 9 or 10 Legionaries 

The Jedi Order of the Galactic Republic
At the opening of the Prequel Star Wars films, it has been estimated that the Jedi Order, the protectors of the Republic numbered around 9,000 to 10,000 Jedi Padawans/Knights/Masters, with an unknown numbers of Younglings at the Temple. In their place within the Republic, the Jedi Order was more of a peacekeeping organization, and possessed nothing in the way of warships, ground vehicles, artillery, or even special forces. Not to mention that 10,000 protecting a galactic-spanning government gives way to more weakness. It should be noted that most member planets of the Republic maintain a small planetary defense force, as seen during the Trade Federation invasion of Naboo, to protect themselves until the Jedi can arrive.

The Grand Army of the Republic
 When war came to the Republic against the Confederacy of Independent Systems, the grown clones from the Mandalorian DNA of Jango Fett waged war for the Republic. The original order placed for the army was for 200,000 units with a million more in process at the opening of the war. This was along with war machines and ships. As the Clone Wars heated up, Kamino pumped out about three million total clone troopers over the three years of the Clone Wars period. Augmenting these clone trooper numbers were Jedi Knights, some local military forces, and various armed groups.

Deployment Size
When it comes to a future deep space military that is charged with protecting the off-world colonies spread over many solar systems, the question comes up with how many super space dreadnoughts and space marines legions do you send? That depends on the importance of the colony and the situation. The hard fact is that not all colonial properties would be treated the same. Just look at recent global history, when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, and threatened Saudi Arabia, the United States deployed the Airborne to prevent Iraqi tanks from invading one of the US's most important allies in the region. But when the civil war in the former Yugoslavia broke out, and charges of ethic cleansing were confirmed, it took years for NATO or the UN to become involved militarily.
Why? The simple answer is that Saudi Arabia is critical ally to the United States, mostly because of oil, and if a madman like Saddam had control over the Saudi oilfields, the world would be fucked. In DUNE, when the Fremen were close to booting the Harkonnen off of Arrakis, the Emperor sent fifty legions of Sardaukar terror-troops to secure the exportation of the spice...because it must flow. However, if the trouble have been on the piss-ant desert world of Tatooine I doubt the bulk of the Galactic Empire would have come to kick some Jawa ass. Much can be said about the two Jedi sent to the crisis on Naboo, and even when things did heat up, there were the same two Jedi protecting the Princess. Shows how much Naboo rated on the Senate's radar.
The same could be said if we examine the United State's response to the downed colonial transmitter on LV-426. The Colonial Marines sent a single rapid-response platoon with an air support unit, one officer, one adviser, and one Weyland-Yutani representative and a heavily armed automated transport vessel. This may seem like a underwhelming response, but not when you consider that the only settlement on LV-426 was Hadley's Hope comprised of about 158 souls, not exactly Reach is it? When it comes to warships, this greatly depends on what types of warships you have in your sci-fi work, and the situation. I think it is unrealistic to see the sky darkening with 4.8 million green warships to end the threat of one small planet...just remember moderation when it comes to all things in science fiction.

15 September 2012

FWS Movie Review: Virtuality (2009)

After the end of the legendary Battlestar Galactica reboot, science fiction fans wondered what Ronald D. Moore would unleash on us next, and in 2009 we got our answer, Virtuality. Never heard of this RDM work? Not surprising. The two-hour pilot Virtuality was aired only once on normal TV in June 26th, 2009, and I was lucky enough to catch it, just before FOX washed their hands of this little sci-fi gem like so many before.
Personally, the film is one of my all time favorites, and encompasses some of the best elements of great science fiction. And best of all, it helped fuel my mind to forge my book Endangered Species. While Virtuality is not military science fiction, it is a great space sci-fi tale that deserves more attention, so I decided to devote one blogpost to this amazing, but failed effort to bring some great space sci-fi back to the small screen. Damn you, FOX!

The Plot of Virtuality

In the late 21st century, the International Space Federation launches an daring expedition to  star Epsilon Eridani, some ten lightyears away to search intelligence life, and test the ability for mankind to leave his star system. Backing this 200 billion dollar project in conjunction with the ISF, is the Consortium, a giant organism of business aligned to fund the Phaeton project. To make money off of the space voyage, the crew of 12 is stars of their own reality series and product placement (much like ABC’s Defying Gravity), called Edge of Never. For months, the nuclear pulse propulsion Phaeton has been taking a slingshot journey to Neptune, then out of the Sol system bound for Epsilon Eridani. When the show opens, the crew is only a few days from Neptune, and the go-no-go decision point. Phaeton is a massive vessel, with the crew living in a spinning hub around a central cylinder and all controlled via a computer called Jean that appears as a 3-D projected circularly shape. This ten-year mission of exploration radically changes months into the mission, scientists back on Earth inform the crew that their homeworld is becoming unstable due to environmental damage, and in less than century, Terra will be uninhabitable for human life, transforming the mission of the Phaeton into surveying Epsilon Eridani for a atmospheric world to house humanity.
 This, coupled with spending months in a metal tube, causing friction among the crew, as the show opens, morale is at all time low, eroding the chain of command, and causing doubt on carrying onwards. To escape the confines of the Phaeton, each of the crew has their own virtual reality headset that allows them access to a world of their own choosing, from Commander Pike’s Civil War simulation, to the Doctor’s painting program, or Dr. Meyer mountain climbing program where he gets to walk. Just as go-no-go comes up, there is a glitch in the VR software, several of the crew are murdered or raped in their simulations, and given the level of interactivity to the VR headsets, and the experiences seem real. This especially plays havoc with Commander Pike, making him seem manic, and setting the crew uneasy as the big decision comes up. Adding to the list of problems, the only medical doctor comes down with Parkinson’s disease, fuelling more tense onboard the ship, as the camera roll for the reality show. As Neptune comes into view, the journey only gets stranger for the crew and even deadly for another, who question if all of this was reality.

Waitaminute...wasn't there another series like this?

Yes...sort of. Around the same time as Virtuality was getting the axe-in-the-back by FOX, ABC had their own hard science fiction space epic, called Defying Gravity starring Ron Livingston. While Virtuality was about a mission to leave the star system and travel to a nearby star, the eight mixed-sex crew of the Antares (another hard science spaceship complete with Whipple Shield!) was on a mission to explore the solar system for NASA. I watched Defying Gravity and was fairly impressed with the series as a whole, but not surprised when ABC killed it after just ten episodes, (but 13 were filmed and on the DVD set). The series was sold to ABC as "Grey's Anatomy in space", but never lived up to that billing, thanks the gods.  


Realism. That is what the viewer of Virtuality gets over the spit-and-polish world of Star Trek (where RDM got his start), and it makes for compelling TV. If you’ve experienced RDM’s reboot of BSG, than you know his hallmarks: human drama over space opera. The good ship Phaeton’s crew seems to be rotting inside some six months after launch, the only married crew members are experiencing an affair, arguments are common, and the overall morale is cratered while the crew seems to be escaping into their VR modules more and more, ignoring normal taks of the mission.
Then there is the density of the material that is populated with three dimensional characters made of all races, backgrounds, sexuality ornintantion portrayed by good actors making the most of their time in front of the camera, complete with a script that gives all of them a different voice, and nods to the viewer on the overall mystery of the mission to Epsilon Eridani. Adding to this density is the brilliant set-design, mixing elements of replicated homey environment, and the cool hardness of the starship. 
Often the mark of good storytelling is it leaving with you wanting more, and Virtuality does that. It is madding to watch these two hours of great story telling, only to have the horrid realization that there are no answers coming. No spoiler website to inform me on if Frank Pike is alive or what is really going on with the mystery man in the VR modules, if the Consortium is lying to the crew and what awaits the crew once they reach another solar system.
Bottomline, Virtuality is the best science-fiction exploration show I’ve ever seen, and despite seeing a dozen since I bought the DVD in 2010, I still love to watch it several times a year.     


The flip side to RDM’s chewy, layered, realistic characters is that they come off with standard issues seen in RDM’s other works. After all, what would BSG without personal conflict and eye towards realistic human behavior? Oh yeah…the original 1970’s series. Still, while I love most of what he does, and the people he surrounds himself with, portions of Virtuality can see tiresome. These carefully selected astronauts are coming apart at the steams, which either is great storytelling about the hard realities of long space missions or Moore being Moore. That extends to only marriage on the ship, between the biologist and the psychiatrist, he is obsessed with the Edge of Never  reality show for FOX that ignores his wife, who looks to Commander Pike for some VR sack-time. Now, I liked this angle, but it is classic Moore, who has been divorced, and I personally do not think supports the concept of marriage, because it consistently bleeds into his sci-fi. That brings us to the other minor players in Virtuality who were going to get developed later in the series if it had been picked up, but in the two-hour movie-pilot comes off has background players. I am mainly taking about Kenji Yamamoto and Alice Thibadeau. They are the happy relationship onboard the Phaeton, but are seen in a limited fashion onboard ship, and I'll bet if the show had continued, the sparks would have flown.  
The worst crime against Alice is that her VR module simulation is lame. Really lame, and it left me with questions about how developed her character was by the creators of Virtuality. Her VR simulation that allows her to escape the confines of the metal tube? Getting pregnant and going to the doctor’s office. Really? I did that with my wife when she was pregnant with our daughter, and it was not something that I would want to be my escape (VR HALO anyone?). I can only hope that there was some greater purpose for that VR sim-world. For all of their critical need onboard ship and the attention paid to them in the plot, little is explored about the VR modules themselves. Who made them? Are you only allowed on simulation matrix per person? Are there other ‘standard’ programs for interaction? Like when we see Sue using her VR headset when she is on her bike or surfing, is that her VR world that she selected prior to launch? Or is that some standard excise program at all of the crew has access to? 


FOX Television gets the ugly portion of this review for rejecting Virtuality and dooming one of the best sci-fi hard science space exploration epics to the dusty DVD rack of aborted FOX sci-fi shows, right next to Firefly, Space: Above and Beyond, Terra Nova, VR5, and Harsh Realms. I agree with FOX that the payoff for the audience would take many years to come to reality, some ten years if told in real-time to get to Epsilon Eridani, then ten more years for the voyage back to Earth. But, Virtuality could have been a summer or limited series that could have aired annually, much like Rookie Blue on ABC or even Mad Men on AMC. It pisses me off that I will never get the answer I seek for what the hell was going onboard the Phaeton...thank you very fucking much FOX.    

The Good Ship Phaeton 

Setting Virtuality apart of the normal soft science fictional starships is the ISA Phaeton, one of the only nuclear pulse propulsion  ships very seen on film. Via a remotely controled setup, the Phaeton fires missile-shaped nuclear charges out of the rear of the vessel, exploding them, and the shockwave pushes a series of plates on the ship to propel it faster and faster, depending on the amount of nuclear charges used. During this sequence during the pilot, Dr. Jimmy Johnson says that needs to deploy 180 charges to get the Phaeton close to light-speed.
The power for the rest of the ship's systems is a fusion generator (only mentioned once), and possible some solar panels. Artificial gravity is achieved via the habitable hubs of the Phaeton rotating at 6 RPM, while some of clean water/air are plant-based systems. Portions of the Phaeton ship are designed for the crew's comfort with trees and more earth-like surrounds, like the living quarters', while others are designed for the machinery, the core or spine of the vessel being one of these sections.
Not seen or mentioned in the pilot (and only) episode, is the ander bay the 'front' of the ship, and other habitable sections. One of the few faults of the hard-science Phaeton was that it lacked a Whipple Shield to protect the near-lightspeed propelled vessel from space debris/micro-meteors and no visible heat radiators.

What the Hell Happened to Virtuality?

The easy answer: FOX strikes again. It is amazing me to the steer amount of talent, skill, and writing that was thrown into this project, for it to become nothing, which really pisses me off. Anyway, off of my rant, Virtuality died because FOX did not the faith in the show finding an audience, and I believe that they did not see the viewers tuning in for five years to see what the crew finds in the Epsilon Eridani system and how far the rabbit hole goes. So now, Virtuality lives on a single bare-bones DVD, and a few articles on-line. It is hope one day to met Ronald D. Moore, and talk to him about this grand attempt.

The Virtuality DVD

Another insult thrown at us fans of the pilot was the bare-bones DVD release...ugh...very basic, like white bread. It was the same treatment with the Space: Above and Beyond boxset a few years ago, with little or no thought or care thrown into the DVD. That is a really a shame, because they could have included the interview series with the cast, some design notes on the ship, and maybe RDM explaining the whole thought process to us about what the hell is going on.
The good news, the DVD is available at Best Buy for about five dollars...best five dollars I've spent in a long time...expect for that time in Bangkok...

The Music of Virtuality 

One of the cool things about Virtuality was the original musical score and handpicked music packed into this two-hour film. Here is the list of the music so you don't have to google it. You're welcome, by the way.
At the opening of Commander Pike taking his tour of the ship, there is a reggae/dub track playing with the words 'desolation' being sung in an audio-tuned voice. It is from noted British bass player and composer Jah Wobble's 2007 CD Heart and Soul, the first track, Desolation. Damn fine track, if you ask me., even though it is not my type of music.
In the VR simulation of computer nerd/reality show host, Billie Kashmiri is a rock goddess and super-spy, channeling Buckaroo Banzai. She rocks out before a large Japanese crowd, and sings in Japanese. When I watched the show, I kept thinking I knew the tune. It was the Munsters theme song, and it drove me nuts until I figured it out. Thanks the Lords of Kobol for Google!
During the nuclear pulse propulstion acceleration scene, when the Phaeton sling-shots around Neptune, the music that is playing is a familiar one. It is the track 'Alive Alone' by the Chemical Brothers off of their 1995 release, Exit the Planet Dust. Love that fucking song. The only remaining mystery of the Virtuality soundtrack is the end track that plays during the final credits. It sounds like a hard/dub/reggae song...I've wondered if it part of Jah Wobble's catalog?

Should you watch Virtuality?

YES! This pilot was amazing hard science work that mixed human drama with technology and a desperate space mission. This one of my favorite DVDs to watch, and if I were a ten year mission to a nearby star, this would be in my library! Virtuality is for all fans of sci-fi, and even if you hated the Ronald D. Moore BSG...but how could you...right?


Here is one of the best posts on the internet about the nuclear-pulse starship Phaeton:

An RDM Interview about Virtuality from io9