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Babylon 5.1
by Rick Norwood

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Ratings are based on a four star system.
One star means that the commercials are more entertaining than the program.
Two stars watch if you have nothing better to do.
Three stars is good solid entertainment.
Four stars means you never dreamed television could be this good.

Space travel is back.

Moon (***), by Duncan Jones and Nathan Parker, is about an astronaut on a mining outpost on the far side of the Moon Moon. It, and the new Star Trek, are the first movies set in outer space in four years -- the genre has almost disappeared. Moon is fairly well done, moderately interesting. I think a lot of the attention it has drawn is because people miss science fiction movies -- real science fiction movies.

If you've been successful so far in not knowing the plot before seeing the film, I'm not going to spoil it for you. (I don't think it is any surprise that the off-screen villain is an evil corporation. In what modern movie is that not the case?) The special effects are good, in a workman-like way. They make one blunder common to most SF films. The gravity on the moon is moon gravity outside, but Earth gravity inside. Given the modest budget, there was probably no way around that. The science is mostly pretty good. I like the use of a linear accelerator, the kind Arthur C. Clarke so often used to launch objects from the moon.

Why am I not more enthusiastic about a movie that does so many things right? Because space travel is boring. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey is boring. It's gloriously boring, but still there are long, long stretches where nothing happens. Space travel is not alone in that respect. All travel is boring. That's why we bring a book with us when we travel. The pioneers on wagon trains rolling west must have been bored most of the time. But the western genre figured out how to make stories about wagon trains interesting. You introduce sympathetic characters and then skip the boring bits. You do a quick transition from the flash flood that almost sweeps the wagons away to the Indian attack three weeks later. Star Wars and Star Trek did that, but the "serious" science fiction film has not gotten the hang of it. So, the first twenty minutes of Moon, before the plot kicks in, are kind of boring, in a mildly interesting way.

One thing that drove me crazy: the plot would have moved a lot quicker if people just asked and answered obvious questions, instead of going all moody and refusing to talk about what is clearly on their mind. I suppose people do that in real life -- my ex-wives certainly did. But it still drives me crazy, and I would think astronauts would be more sensible.

Mundane critics had problems understanding the plot, but readers of science fiction should be OK. If you have any questions, you can ask them on the film thread on the SF Site Forum.

See Moon, but don't expect Star Wars.

The other new space travel story in a visual medium is the television series Defying Gravity (***) by James D. Parriott. It held my interest. It introduces sympathetic characters and does a quick Defying Gravity transition from the flash flood to the Indian attack. The spaceship itself, and the zero-g effects, are sometimes beautiful. Occasionally they forget they're in zero-g and drop something, but not often. I've watched the first three hours so far, and most of the major characters are well established -- there are a couple of the astronauts I'm still not too clear about. Blessedly, pop-up ads (my bête noir) are limited to the first few seconds of each segment, and don't intrude on the climax. Thank you, ABC.

Reviewers on the web seem to love this show or hate it. I can take it or leave it. It's the best thing on the air this summer, so I'm watching it. They make some science mistakes, but the science is way better than what passed for science on Battlestar Galactica. Contrariwise, they are a long way from reaching the dramatic heights that Battlestar Galactica reached. There are a few embarrassing plot blunders, such as two characters having sex in space in the first episode, when in the third episode we're told that the astronauts are all wearing "halos" that prevent sex in space.

Both Moon and Defying Gravity are mildly entertaining, but I don't plan to buy the DVDs. I'm glad to see us thinking about space travel again, more than thirty years after the last moon landing. We went to the moon in the 60s to beat the Russians. Maybe we'll go to the moon in the teens to beat the Chinese.

Copyright © 2009 Rick Norwood

Rick Norwood is a mathematician and writer whose small press publishing house, Manuscript Press, has published books by Hal Clement, R.A. Lafferty, and Hal Foster. He is also the editor of Comics Revue Monthly, which publishes such classic comic strips as Flash Gordon, Sky Masters, Modesty Blaise, Tarzan, Odd Bodkins, Casey Ruggles, The Phantom, Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Alley Oop, Little Orphan Annie, Barnaby, Buz Sawyer, and Steve Canyon.

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