Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Dramatic Presentation Hugo In Review

The Hugo award has for dramatic presentation has been awarded exactly fifty times. Once it was awarded for an outstanding movie and that award became the dramatic presentation category to include other media.

So having collected all of the films and television shows that have won I have to say it's an impressive list:

1958 - The Incredible Shrinking Man
1960 - The Twilight Zone
1961 - The Twilight Zone
1962 - The Twilight Zone
1965 - Dr. Strangelove
1967 - Star Trek: "The Menagerie"
1968 - Star Trek: "City on the Edge of Forever"
1969 - 2001: A Space Odyssey
1970 - News coverage of Apollo XI
1972 - A Clockwork Orange
1973 - Slaughterhouse-Five
1974 - Sleeper
1975 - Young Frankenstein
1976 - A Boy and His Dog
1978 - Star Wars
1979 - Superman
1980 - Alien
1981 - The Empire Strikes Back
1982 - Raiders of the Lost Ark
1983 - Blade Runner
1984 - Return of the Jedi
1985 - 2010
1986 - Back to the Future
1987 - Aliens
1988 - The Princess Bride
1989 - Who Framed Roger Rabbit
1990 - Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
1991 - Edward Scissorhands
1992 - Terminator 2
1993 - Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Inner Light"
1994 - Jurassic Park
1995 - Star Trek: The Next Generation: "All Good Things"
1996 - Babylon 5: "The Coming of Shadows"
1997 - Babylon 5: "Severed Dreams"
1998 - Contact
1999 - The Truman Show
2000 - Galaxy Quest
2001 - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
2002 - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
2003 - The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Conversations with Dead People"
2004 - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Gollum's Acceptance Speech at the 2003 MTV Movie Awards
2005 - The Incredibles and Battlestar Galactica: "33"
2006 - Serenity and Doctor Who: "The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances"
2007 - Pan's Labyrinth and Doctor Who: "Girl in the Fireplace"
2008 - Stardust and Doctor Who: "Blink"

For the most part they're safe choices but that isn't a bad thing since most of the movies are reasonably good. I might not think they're the best film of that year for the most part but I don't hate them.

There's really only six awards on the list where I think a bad decision was made and most of them took the Hugo because of their connection to something better that was beloved by fandom. The six I don't care for are:
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (from a much superior Vonnegut book)
  • A Boy and His Dog (from a better Harlan Ellison novella)
  • 2010 (sequel to 2001)
  • Contact (from the Carl Sagan novel and released shortly after his death)
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Conversations with Dead People" (the introduction of the short form dramatic presentation Hugo opened the door to television again but years after the show actually deserved to win)
  • Gollum's Acceptance Speech at the 2003 MTV Movie Awards
Thanks to the acceptance speech Hugo Peter Jackson is the most honored creator in Hugo history with four awards for his efforts in adapting The Lord of the Rings. George Lucas (the original Star Wars trilogy), Steven Moffat (writer of the Dr. Who episodes that have won), Rod Serling (Twilight Zone), Robert Zemekis (Back to the Future, Roger Rabbit, and Contact), Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove, 2001, and Clockwork Orange) and Stephen Speilburg (Raiders, Last Crusade, and Jurrasic Park) tie at three Hugos each. There's so many people tied at two Hugos that I can't list them all, but I will note Gene Roddenberry who died before the winning Next Generation episodes were made.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Review - Stardust

2008 Hugo Winner for Best Long Form Dramatic Presentation

And this is it; the last of the Hugo winning dramatic presentations. Fifty years worth of SF media leads to this, a fine addition to a body of pretty good and usually rather popular titles.

Stardust was easily my favorite SF film of last year. It's not perfect, there's some structural flaws with it, but the production design was superb and it retained a great deal of the charm of author Neil Gaiman's writing.

The small English village of Wall is named for the ancient wall that runs near it and they maintain a guard over the one gap in it. An adventurous young man sees a shooting star land somewhere past the wall so to impress a girl who has insisted on getting the star for a birthday present he slips through the gap.

On the other side of the wall, however, is a magical kingdom that is hidden from view. This kingdom does not follow normal heredity rules of the first born son taking the throne, instead it is the last surviving son encouraging conspiracy and murder among the princes of the realm. Unfortunately for the dying king his sons were too crafty for their own good and on his death bed he is left with four of them. Rather than select one he casts one of the crown jewels into the heavens declaring that which ever prince recovers it will be king.

When our adventurous young man finds the fallen star he discovers it is in fact a beautiful woman who had been knocked out of the sky by the king's jewel. A promise is a promise, however, and the young man attempts to drag the star home to his would be girlfriend.

And adding complications to that are a trio of ancient crones who want the star so they can regain their youth. Naturally whirlwind fairy tale style adventures ensue.

That's a lot more summery than I usually give and that's because this movie is dense. There's a lot of things happening and to their credit director and screenwriter Matthew Vaughn manage to juggle them all admirably. The complications arise when it seems as though he doesn't trust the audience enough to remember a plot point; several times in the film it pauses to give exposition the viewer already knew. I read it more as studio executives meddling than a failure on the director's part but in the end they are disruptive.

I mentioned the production design before and my only complaint about it is that it doesn't look quite like original illustrator Charles Vess's designs. They did try, however, which mitigates that complaint quite a bit. This was not a big budget film and yet they managed to make the markets filled with wondrous stalls look lively, the castle of the witches look appropriately sharp edged and menacing, and the whole environment just magical in general.

The cast didn't wildly impress me, even Robert DiNiro in one of his "two days of work for a minor film" roles wasn't spectacular. On the other hand I was never annoyed with them. I was very entertained by the spectral princes who as they die one by one hover around to provide a greek chorus to events.

This film made me smile. It wasn't the perfect romantic fantasy comedy of The Princess Bride but it is very much in that same vein. It might not have gained much attention on release but I predict that Stardust will be a cult favorite for years to come.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Review - "Dragonrider", "Mother to the World", and "The Planners"

1968 was the first time that the Hugo and Nebula winners completely diverged. As time went by this became more and more common. It's also the first time that I disliked all three winners.

It was also the height of the New Wave and the free love movement so you can guess what that means: ugly prose and bizarre sexual politics abound in these stories.

by Anne McCaffrey
1968 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

You might recall when I reviewed "Weyr Search" I liked it even though I can't stand McCaffrey's books in general. It had a fairy tale quality to it so that despite the flaws there was a charm I appreciated: a hidden princess, a lost kingdom, and "magical" beasts added up. Unfortunately McCaffrey wasted no time in flushing that premise for one of the most annoying protagonists ever.

"Dragonrider" is roughly the last third of the novel Dragonflight and "Weyr Search" was the first third. The middle third was never placed in a novella but it is referenced in "Dragonrider" just to stack the confusion for those fortunate enough to not read Dragonflight. The time has come for the killer spores to fall out of the sky but there aren't enough dragonriders left to protect an entire planet. Fortunately our heroine discovers how to time travel; a trick that has been overlooked from the beginning because it requires someone to remember the place they're going to rather than just going there. She also has special powers that no one else has, has found true love with the greatest warrior in the world as her first sexual experience (who's also a sensative man), summons a deus ex machina, and does all of this with no real effort on her part.

I hated both of the protagonists. They're painted in the broadest of possible strokes (he's the good guy, she's the spunky love interest) with what McCaffrey spells out in the text but anyone examining things closely sees the unintentional ugliness of the characters. Thanks to time travel they learn that one of the plans they are forming will have some mild success but kill a good friend. There's some inherent drama right there; having to send a good man to a lengthy, horrible death to avoid breaking causality. So naturally McCaffrey ignores that and our heroes giggle about their prescience knowledge as they send him into years of torment and eventual death. I can't say it made me hate the protagonists since I already did but it cemented those feelings.

I'm going to follow my self-imposed rule of no spoilers but I will say that the conclusion of the story is clearly intended to be a "happy ending". I, on the other hand, was left with the chilling realization that they've triggered a political upheaval that is going to kill thousands (potentially millions) and could let the world turn to ash in its wake.

That's the problem at the heart of "Dragonrider": McCaffrey didn't understand the consequences of the story she was telling. When that story is an epic world spanning adventure it introduces problems like reqiring every single person involved with the dragons for centuries to be complete morons. If the reader doesn't get swept up by the idea of fighting on dragon back then there's going to be left questioning why things are so screwy.

Ironically while writing this someone pointed out something that summed up my feelings on the story much more briefly.

"Mother to the World"
by Richard Wilson
1968 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

A middle aged man and a mentally handicapped woman are the only survivors of a war that used a biological weapon to kill every other person on Earth. They get around to the work of repopulating it.

I'm going to give Wilson the benefit of the doubt and say that he recognized just how disturbing the premise is. In my case he was unable to overcome the premise. All I could see while reading "Mother to the World" was that the survival of the human race depended on an abusive relationship. It was unpleasant to read about these characters.

Unfortunately there is little else to the story than them. It's reasonably well told alternating between diary entries and prose though there is a clumsy misstep where Wilson inserts the new Eve's diary entries with commentary from an unknown source that does not enter the story before or after. Also for people who have chosen to do the needful with regard to repopulating the Earth they don't actually appear to work at very hard. That kind of thing just adds mixed signals to a story that is more troubling than interesting.

"The Planners"
by Kate Wilhelm
1968 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

Speaking of thoroughly unlikable characters, this story features a doctor who is working on an intelligence enhancing project and his fantasy life. Really, that's it for the story; there is no narrative arc, it just drifts between his real life and his fantasy. He is dealing with SPCA protests against his research on monkeys and a wife that he's become distant with but these elements are poorly explored and not really resolved.

I had a major problem with the prose in this story; Wilhelm drifts back and forth between fantasy and reality with no transitions either way and the result was I often was flipping back because I thought I missed a characters or vital plot element. As a result I was consistently pulled out of the story.

In addition the main character is more creepy than interesting. The constant diversion into his woman hating sexual fantasies is just unpleasant. The net result was to make me wish that I hadn't read the story.