Saturday, April 30, 2011

Questions for Writers: Different Colored Masks

So let's say you have a character that's doing a little bit of superhero work, even if they're not a superhero in the strict, power-wielding sense. Maybe they're stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, or attending clandestine meetings that help save the world. Whatever it is, your hero wants to hide his true identity with, at the very least, a mask. What colors might be interesting for your character to wear?

I mean, sure, there's always the black mask. The bad guys always seem to have them. And Zoro. And Westly from the Princess Bride. Yeah, there's a lot of black masks going around. I'm sure that's because their wearers can hide better in the dark, or want to present an ominous front, or blah blah BORING.

Give me MAROON. Give me FOREST GREEN. Give me CHARTREUSE. But not necessarily in all caps.

What could your character wear to give them a little, well, character?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

TNG Ep 18: Home Soil

This episode is known in my household as the "Ugly bags of mostly water" episode, a line I actually remember from the first time I saw it. Kudos to Data for teaching me that humans are 90% water, and before I was old enough to attend school. Talk about a lasting impression!

The Enterprise stops by Velara III to check on the terraforming crew. They all seem fine, except that Counselor Troi can sense that Mandl is hiding something. Picard insists on sending down an away team as visitors, and while they are there, one of the terraforming group is killed by a psycho drilling laser. When Data and La Forge are checking out the vicinity for clues, they find a glowing speck which they take to the Enterprise. The speck is inorganic, yet appears to be alive - this becomes a certainty when it not only speaks to them through the ship's translator, but also self-replicates. Picard then has a stern talking to the terraformers because some of them kinda sorta knew that there might be life on the planet. The speck becomes a ball and declares war on humans for destroying it's habitat. By this time, the alien has taken over the remote controls to the lab. The Enterprise then figures out that the alien subsists on light, so they dim the lights to the lab manually. Everyone reaches a truce and the aliens are returned home with the promise that humans won't bother them for a while.

This may not be the most amazing episode ever, but the premise appeals to me. As a scifi writer, a non-humanoid alien can be fun to write. An inorganic alien that communicates with patterns in the sand? Heck yes.

Of course, what really takes the cake for this episode is the "ugly bags of mostly water" scene. When the aliens get the translator really working, that's the first thing they say. Picard is baffled, which is always fun to see, and Data has to explain it to him, which is also always fun to see.

I have to say though that this isn't an episode you take seriously. It may be amusing, but you never really feel like the characters are in danger, even though the alien is taking over the ship. None of the characters really stand out, either - oh! Unless you count Data kicking the butt of the psycho laser. Yeeeeeees. Is that not the point of having a super-human android?

This episode was on the predictable side, but I still enjoyed it. It taught me science when I was an impressionable preschooler! Win!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Theory Train Submission Deadline

One week from today is Theory Train's submission deadline for issue 2. Visit our website now to review the submissions guidelines and submit your speculative fiction prose and poetry!

If you are interested in helping promote or review Theory Train and have not yet contacted us, please email theory train (at) gmail dot com about issue 2.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Questions for Writers: Useless Talents

Real people have useless talents. What about your characters?

If a talent is truly useless plot-wise, do you even mention it in the story? Lets assume we're working with a novel, where there's more room for character development and backstory. Still, even in a novel, you don't want to ramble and risk boring or confusing your readers. How could you work a detail like this in appropriately? What would be the wrong way?

And then of course there is Chekhov's Gun. A character might have a talent that seems useless, or even a liability, until the climax. How do you pull that off believably? There might be some middle ground, too. Like, a talent that's useful a few times but doesn't come into play when beating the bad guy. That kind of detail can make a character seem more rounded, if you pull it off right.

This is kind of like two questions, unless you think about it as a question of balancing details. So sue me.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

TNG Ep.17: When the Bough Breaks

The Enterprise is led to a hidden planet analogous to Atlantis, Aldea. The natives lower their planet's cloak and invite them planet-side, then reveal that they have no children and would like the Enterprise's. Riker, of course, says no, so they return the crew to the ship and steal the children using their superior transporter technology. The children are immediately assigned to families and given cool toys to play with. Because Wesley is one of the children stolen, Picard takes Dr. Crusher on the negotiations with the ?. With Wesley's help, Crusher obtains scans of the aliens which eventually allows her to develop a cure for the sterility and other health problems which are caused by their planet's shield. Meanwhile, Wesley leads the children on a food strike that upsets their new parents. Riker discovers how to beam down to the planet through a weakness in their shield, and he and Data disable the planet's mega-computer to give Picard and Crusher time to convince the aliens that their sterility is from radiation poisoning. Dr. Crusher cures their sterility and the children are returned to the Enterprise.

Is it wrong that my favorite part of this episode is Wesley and him leading the kids on a strike?

Wesley fandom aside, I really liked this episode because the antagonists weren't really enemies of the Enterprise. They were arrogant and desperate, but they weren't going to kill anyone even if the Enterprise told them no. Knowing this, Picard tread carefully and did a lot of stalling to give his crew time to find a peaceful solution. Sure, the Enterprise could have blustered and tried something more violent, but such an attempt was doomed to failure because of the planet's superior defensive technology. So, what I'm saying is that Picard and the rest of the crew were smart, and I like to see that they deserve to run a star ship.

And Wesley deserves to be leader of all the children. Seriously, he didn't break down into tears even when he saw his mother after the kidnapping. He knew how to talk to the younger children and how to talk for them. If I were five, I'd want someone like that watching out for me if my parents couldn't.

I also liked seeing all the parents in the meeting room with the crew. It's only fair to include and inform them as much as possible in that kind of situation.

The only thing off the top of my head that we could have seen more of is Dr. Crusher worrying. I mean, the ultimate solution rested on her head and she knew it. She was much calmer than in "Haven," though in Haven Wesley was threatened with death and the natives were barely willing to talk about it. Or maybe she was calmer this time because she now believes that Picard would do anything in his power to get her child back. That an go a long way. Still, there might have been some more wringing of hands on her part.

It's hard to hate anyone in this episode. All the characters behaved smartly and even the bad guys weren't so bad. I think we'll need some more Q or Lore to make the universe feel dangerous again!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Question for Writers: The Superpower Reveal

In the majority of superhero stories, the superhero wants to hide his or her power, but they also want to use their powers to save others. The superhero is constantly in danger of being exposed, whether they use their powers to fight crime or they keep to themselves as much as possible. At some point, the hero is confronted with a choice: expose themselves to save someone, or don't. Protagonists usually chose to save that someone, and maybe they don't actually get found out by the whole world, but they took that risk because "With great power comes great responsibility."

But what if they didn't? What if they were a coward, or the person who needs saving wasn't so dear to them? What if they weren't The Hero? Or maybe their exposure carries higher stakes and there is no "right" answer. So, they let the kid die. Or their husband. Or a bus full of refugees.

What happens then? How does that change the themes of the story? How does it change the character? Would you write an antihero? Is it even possible to avoid anti-hero vibes if your character knowingly lets someone die?

Sorry, bus, but we just put the (anti)hero's life above yours. Cue evil author laugh!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

TNG Ep.16: Too Short a Season

The Enterprise delivers Admiral Mark Jameson to negotiate a hostage situation on Mordan IV
, accompanied by his wife. The Admiral, who suffers from Iverson's Disease, begins to show marked improvements in his health after self-administering an overdose of an alien anti-aging medication. By the time they reach the planet, he appears to be in his 20s and in excellent health. Meanwhile, the admiral discovers that the hostage situation has been concocted to exact revenge for a hostage situation he negotiated 45 years ago. Then, his agreement to give arms to both sides helped spark a 40 year civil war. The Enterprise sends an armed away team to rescue the hostages under the orders of the admiral. When this fails, the Admiral gives himself up to save the hostages. By then, Dr. Crusher has informed his wife that the Admiral is dying from the medication. Picard spends a few tense minutes convincing governor Karnas that the young man before him is really the Admiral. The Admiral dies in his wife's arms, and the hostages are released.

I liked that this episode had a lot going on, yet these things were all tied together by a theme of regret. It was like the character building episodes I like so much except that the character was not part of the regular cast. I suppose that allowed them to do things like, you know, kill the character at the end. If that had been Picard instead of the Admiral, Dr. Crusher would have found a way to reverse the deadly changes at the last minute.

I also like how this episode touches on the Prime Directive but doesn't really dwell on it or on blaming any of the characters for the 40 years of civil war. The Admiral feels guilty for his part, but you also get this sense that his choices at the time all sucked. Even the armed rescue, which he says he should have done the first time, failed. If anything it's an argument that you shouldn't negotiate with terrorists - but yeah, the hostages probably will die when you don't. Life sucks.

But on the positive side, the Admiral's wife still loves him even though he experimented on himself and took the anti-aging dose that he'd expressely gotten for her. Seriously, like taking all of his dose at once wouldn't do the trick. I'm not saying this is a plot problem, though, because some people really are that dumb when they feel desperate. And kudos to the wife, I guess, since the Admiral was dying for his mistake. No need to be mean to him in his last pain-filled moments, right?

Finally, I liked that the episode cut to the chase about the hostages. When ? spoke at the beginning claiming that dissidents had the hostages, I was suspicious. On the Admiral's second time speaking to ? He challenges him and learns the truth, that there are no dissidents. Later, Picard cuts to the chase when he tells the Admiral that he knows he's hiding something and to spit it out already.

All in all, a well-rounded episode with good pacing and enjoyable acting. Even if they didn't manage to save the hostages in a SWAT-style raid.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Question for Writers: Ice or Fire?

Say you need to kill off a character, maybe in an elemental battle, or maybe on a lonesome journey of them versus nature. Would you rather write a character dying by the cold - frozen in a magical blast of ice, slowly freezing to death in a snow storm - or by heat - like in a house fire, or in the desert? Is there one you feel you could pull off better? Do you think one is scarier than the other?

Would it matter whether or not the character was the protagonist? How might the themes of the story affect your choice? Would you chose fire for a fast, sure death? Is ice necessarily slow, or less certain? Can you unfreeze someone and save their life? Can you magic ashes back to life?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

TNG Ep. 15: 11001001

The Enterprise arrives at Starbase 74 for routine maintenance, which is performed by aliens called Bynars, which exist in sexless pairs. On their homeworld, Bynars communicate with their supercomputer and have developed a strange, quickly spoken language as well as an affinity for computers. Many crew members take their leave of the ship during the maintenance, but not Riker, Picard, or Wesley, who is expressly told to watch the Bynars for any funny business. The Bynars use the holodeck and an enchanting AI named Minuet to capture both Riker and Picard, at first unbeknownst to them, while the ship is evacuated over a warp-drive failure, also unbeknownst to them. The ship is set to scoot away as soon as the evacuation is complete, which it does, except that Picard and Riker are still on board. Not-so-magically, the engineering problem corrects itself and the ship heads for the Bynar's home planet. When Picard and Riker figure out the scheme, they leave the holodeck, set the ship for self-destruct just in case, and find the Bynars unconscious on the bridge. They turn off the self-destruct and determine that the Bynars are trying to save their home planet by resetting their supercomputer after an electromagnetic pulse from a supernova wiped it out. Picard and Riker facilitate this and bring the Bynars back from the brink of death. The Bynars explain that they were afraid to ask for help because the Enterprise might have refused. The Enterprise returns and there is some mention of a trial for the Bynar's kidnapping of the ship.

This episode had action and kooky aliens. Score!

The Bynars might not be the most awesome alien Star Trek has ever come up with (um, hello. Vulcans are) but I loved their answer at the end, that they didn't ask because the Enterprise might have said no. Little things like that are what make an episode feel like it was planned, and planned well, from beginning to end, instead of being written by 15 different writers of different backgrounds and experience. Yeah, let's not get into how most TV shows are written, and why sometimes their revision practices don't work. After all, this episode is modest proof that it can work, and we all love TNG or else you wouldn't be reading this.

The only weird part of this episode is that Wesley isn't more astute, or more vocal. His superiors set him to watch the Bynars, and even though I'm sure the Enterprise didn't expect any trouble, they did expressly tell Wesley to let them know if anything strange happened. Maybe it was because he was blinded by the coolness of aliens being connected to a comuputer and talking so dang fast. I guess the Bynars could have been whispering about how freaky-tall humans are instead of how they planned to steal the Enterprise.

And evacuating the Enterprise? My favorite part of this episode. I know, I'm supposed to say that the hot holodeck chick is the best part, but she disappears at the end, becoming a non-entity. Evacuating the Enterprise, on the other hand, gave the sense that not only are there a lot of people on the Enterprise, but they are all vulnerable to things like the ship blowing up. And having to leave their captain, because the passengers and the rest of the crew comes first, and they only have a few minutes to evacuate.

Good thing the Bynars are peaceful, right? I bet from now on the Federation only lets humans work on their ships - no, wait, that doesn't always work out either. Sometimes the crazy AI starts for-real shooting at the other Federation ships in a mock war [reference]. Oh well. I guess that's just life in the Star Trek universe.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Question for Writers: BFF! Genders?

Say your protagonists are best friends, or that your protagonist has a best friend. Potato, potata. You could say there's something unique about a best friend relationship, but they're not one-size-fits all even in fiction.

One big factor in a best-friend bond is gender. Would you want these friends to be the same gender, or opposite? If the same, are they M-M or F-F? What different themes could you explore, and what plot devices could you use based on gender? If nothing else, their genders would affect how others percieve their relationship and whether or not it is socially acceptable.

Crime-fighting women? Boys who discover a magical other-world? Or perhaps a boy-girl team who save a mistakenly convicted felon from the electric chair?

And while your best friend team is off saving the world, is there anything that would challenge their relationship? Do they grow apart? Fall in love? Does one decide to fall in with the bad guys?

Feel free to answer/ramble in the comments. If the question inspires a Flash Friday or something similar, feel free to link to your story in the comments and please link back to here on the applicable webpage.

Best friend team GO!