Monday, March 31, 2014

Jeopardy! Turns 50

Yesterday came and went without much fanfare, but Jeopardy! reached a milestone. Fifty years have passed since the airing of the first episode.

Now, if you've been watching the current version with Alex Trebek recently, you might think I've made a bit of a typo. The Trebek version has been celebrating the show's thirtieth anniversary this year. But that's just the amount of time that's passed for the current version. Before Trebek took the reigns of America's preeminent quiz show, the show had a previous life — several lives, actually — starring Art Fleming.

The concept behind Jeopardy! actually grew out of the game show scandals of the 1950s. Creator Merv Griffin's wife was allegedly musing about how all those contestants on all those shows back then had been given the answers to questions beforehand. She wondered about a show that actually made that the gimmick, as if to say, "Sure, we'll give you the answers, but now you've got to give us the questions!"

The rest, as they say, is history.

Alex Trebek 2009The original version of Jeopardy! only lasted for nine years. There was also a syndicated version that lasted for about a year (simultaneous with the end of the original run) and a revival that, itself, lasted for only about five months just a few years after the original ended. Nonetheless, the fact that Art Fleming had hosted all of these versions meant that there was a fair bit of controversy when he was passed over for the 1984 revival in favor of Trebek, who at the time had hosted a sizable handful of shows that never seemed to last very long. Now, thirty years later (and nearly two decades after Fleming's death) game show fans can see that Trebek and Jeopardy! were a perfect match for each other. With Trebek presumed to retire in another couple of years, speculation is already high about what the future of Jeopardy! may look like. For now, it's time to celebrate!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Reflections on Gallifrey One 2015's Pre-registration. What Might BotCon Be Able to Learn?

'IMG_0005' photo (c) 2012, The Nerdy Girls - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/So, apparently, this past Friday was the day to be online if you wanted to go to the 2015 edition of Gallifrey One, a major Doctor Who convention that takes place here in the Los Angeles area every year.

I will not be going to Gallifrey One in 2015. Or ever, very probably.

Before I get into the "why," I should mention that, being a fan of Doctor Who, I've had a passing awareness of Gallifrey One for many years now. But whenever I've looked into the page (only once in a blue moon) to see whether it might be worth my putting the money into attending, I invariably soon learn that the reservations for the upcoming convention are already sold out.

For the convention set to happen in February, 2015, nearly a full year away, pre-registration opened this past Friday at 10:00 am PDT... and sold out all 3200 slots in just 75 minutes! I had no idea that pre-registration was going to be that day, and only stumbled upon the fact later that evening (that is, almost half-a-day later) quite by accident.

Now, let me be clear. I'm not complaining about this fact. I understand the reasons for "limiting" admission to a certain number of people, and 3200 is actually a pretty large number. If there are so many fans who are willing to hover by their computers to make sure they can get in, more power to them. The fact is, as much as I enjoy Doctor Who, and might even enjoy the convention, I really don't care enough about it to set aside the time (and money!) to do what these 3200 people (to say nothing of those who tried, but didn't get in!) have done. That's not the fault of those who volunteer their time to run the convention. If I want to go, it is my responsibility to abide by the rules the convention organizers set up.

Of course, my main convention-going interest for the past decade or so has been with BotCon, and so although there is some inevitable apples-to-oranges in attempting to compare Gallifrey One — a convention dedicated to an enormously-popular science fiction franchise that just celebrated its 50th anniversary — to BotCon's admittedly more niche market, I still find some attempt at such a comparison interesting. Gallifrey One strikes me at being at the pinnacle of doing exactly what they want to do. Whatever else might be said for or against BotCon, I do not get the same impression of them. BotCon's organizers would prefer to continue to expand from where they currently are. Because of the differences in convention-model and franchise popularity, I do not know just how much the folks at BotCon can learn from Gallifrey One's success, but I can't help but feel that there may be some lessons to be learned somewhere in there.

In one sense, it's pretty impressive that Gallifrey One can pre-register such a large number of attendees so quickly. 3200 is roughly a thousand people more than BotCon's entire pre-registration limit*, which has never been completely sold out in less than 6 or 7 days (and that includes non-attendee box sets!), and sometimes hasn't sold out before the convention at all. Granted, pre-registration for Gallifrey One is a good couple-of-hundred dollars cheaper. But then, Gallifrey One pre-registration doesn't offer any cool exclusive toys, to the best of my awareness. Even still, Gallifrey One's quick result is especially amazing given that practically no information has yet been released regarding special guests or events for the 2015 convention. It has built up such a strong reputation over the past 25 years of previous conventions that people trust that it will be a great time even without any of that information. I think it's safe to say that the same cannot currently be said of BotCon.

On the other hand, Gallifrey One does not allow walk-in attendees, which BotCon does, making it all-but certain that BotCon is actually a larger convention (at least some years). I'm definitely a fan of the walk-in model, as it allows people (especially younger fans) to be able to attend without so much of commitment of their time or their money. That said, one of Gallifrey One's stated reasons for not increasing the pre-registration limit or allowing walk-ins (and there are several) is that, being a volunteer effort, they're really at the upper limit of how many people they can handle. BotCon, being more of a profit-driven venture, is how some of the folks behind it earn their living, and thus they have more incentive to expand, and to hire additional help when and where necessary to ensure that the larger convention is successful.

At a guess, Gallifrey One has become successful by focusing their efforts on doing just a few things, and doing them extremely well. It may be that BotCon's struggles (of which I've not really commented here, but there's plenty of that on other blog entries, to say nothing of other parts of the web) stem from trying to do too much, and thereby not being able to do as well at any of them. I hesitate to make that as an accusation, but intend it more as a question to ponder. Having never actually made it to Gallifrey One, the most I can really do is raise questions. I'm not in a position to supply definitive answers.

I'm curious to hear other people's thoughts on the subject, however.

*I'm thinking specifically box-set packages here, noting that exact numbers are not yet available — if indeed they ever will be — for BotCon 2014, but based on past precedent, a thousand more from Gallifrey One's 3200 is going to be pretty close.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Requiem for a Misguided Effort - Transformers: ReGeneration One

I've made no secret of the fact that, among the many versions of the Transformers franchise to come and go over the past 30 years, the 1980s Marvel Comic holds the most value for me, personally. To me, it remains the definitive version. The standard that other re-tellings of the struggle between the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons continue to be measured against. This is, no doubt, why I was so excited when I learned that IDW Publishing was continuing that continuity with the book that eventually become known as ReGeneration One, which ended its run with issue #100 earlier this week.

If you've gone back and re-read that link from 2011, you'll perhaps note that I tried to temper my enthusiasm. I knew, even then, that recapturing the essence of what made the first 80 issues of that series (that is, the ones published by Marvel, with IDW's effort starting with a free "issue #80.5" before properly picking up with "issue #81") would be difficult, even with Simon Furman (writer of the last 20-odd issues of the Marvel series) on board. Even so, I said at the time that I hoped that the series would "leave on a high note."

I'm sorry to say that this was emphatically not the case.

Some fans, apparently with a higher opinion of ReGeneration One than mine, have criticized those of us unhappy with the direction of ReGeneration One as being unhappy simply because this wasn't the story we wanted it to be. It's certainly true that it isn't. I think I speak for a significant number of fans when I say that I wanted to story to pick up more or less where issue #80 left off. But we also acknowledge that reports even before issue #80.5 came out made it clear that this simply wasn't what Furman wanted to do with the story. Instead, he brought the timeline up to the present day and suggested that most of the Transformers have been living quietly on Cybertron for the past 20+ years with no interaction with Earth or Nebulos (the main other worlds of Transformers franchise significance) at all. While there are certain elements of that premise that don't seem to make much internal sense (you mean the Autobots really never bothered to check up on Earth after dropping off the humans they had with them in issue #80?), these flaws would not have prevented ReGeneration One from being an engaging story on their own, and I reject the premise that those of us who went into this hoping for something different couldn't accept that Furman was simply telling a different story than we expected. Unexpected plot twists are often what make a story interesting!

We also accept that ReGeneration One could never have been exactly "what we would have gotten in 1991 if Marvel didn't cancel" because of work that Furman has done in the real world since then. Indeed, those of us who follow these things already know that Simon Furman used some of the ideas that he would have used on the Marvel comic, given the chance back then, on other stories he's written for other Transformers lines over the years, so it really wouldn't have made sense to do those stories again now. A conspicuous "time-jump" surely wasn't the only way forward, but for good or ill, it was the way that Furman chose. Again, I think most of us accepted that as reality, and moved on, still hoping for an enjoyable story.

So what went wrong?

I think that there are several factors. One of the most glaring, to me, was the pacing. In broad strokes, the 20(-ish) issues of ReGeneration One were broken into four story arcs, each containing (about) five issues. The first few of these issues would invariably move the action forward in only the most minimal way, while the last issue of each arc would rush to a (kinda sorta) conclusion. The pattern would then repeat with the next arc. When you're spending around $4 every month (not including tax!) for an issue, you want each issue to have some value on its own.

It might have been bearable if it felt like some of the "lack of movement" in those early-arc issues was because space was being devoted to character growth, but I never really felt it. Even Hot Rod (arguably the main character of ReGeneration One) didn't really feel like a real character so much as a plot device. Indeed, pretty much all of the characters felt more like props that existed simply to fill roles in the story Furman seemed to want to tell, no matter how poorly each "prop" really fit the role they were being made to play, or how inconsistent the portrayal may have been with pre-ReGeneration One events.

It is often said that good storytelling should "show, not tell." It's not just that comic books are a deeply visual medium, but that even when using words, those words should show the action happening, rather than just tell you that it happened. Yet, some of the most important "action" of ReGeneration One apparently took place off-page. Either it happened in the 20+ year gap between issues #80 and #81, or we were presented with seemingly inexplicable turns of events that were handwaved via some form of deus ex machina (sometimes in perhaps the most literal way possible). This really isn't what strong storytelling is supposed to look like.

I'm reminded of the old adage "be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it," but honestly, I don't think that I really did get what I wished for. Although I certainly did support the petition to pick up the Marvel continuity when IDW made it clear that it was actually a viable possibility, it's not like I'd spent a lot of energy pushing for it to happen beforehand, and I definitely didn't want the Marvel continuity to be continued in anything like this lackluster fashion. But, ultimately, ReGeneration One is only one attempt of several to continue the Marvel Comics continuity, so I can safely ignore it in favor of one of the others that have happened in years past. Note that I'm not suggesting that fans should hold out for some better continuation yet to come. While I probably wouldn't oppose such an effort, I think that the main lesson of ReGeneration One is that perhaps it's best to let our beloved Marvel continuity finally lay to rest, remembered nostalgically to be sure, and let future storytellers focus on the Transformers stories of the future.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Transformers Thunderous Thirty #30 - Megatron

If you were to ask pretty much anyone who the leader of the "bad guy" Transformers is, they'd probably be able to tell you: Megatron. However, if they're not able to tell you very much else about the Decepticon leader, they can probably be forgiven. It can be hard for those of us who are known for being Transformers fans, too!

When the character was first introduced 30 years ago, there were (broadly speaking) two ways you might learn about Megatron: the Marvel comics and the cartoon. The Marvel comics were of limited help, at best. Megatron only held the position of Decepticon leader for roughly 10 issues of the entire 80-issue run (he did have a few more appearances than that, but it should be noted that he didn't always appear in issues during his run as "leader," either)! While he appeared in far more episodes of the cartoon (during the first two seasons, in any event), I'm not sure one could say more about his personality than "stereotypical evil megalomaniac." Almost every episode, he'd come up with another scheme to take over the world, but one didn't have to be the Brain to recognize the vast hole in nearly every plot.

And this guy is said to be the fearsome Megatron, whose very name is supposed to cause all other Transformers to tremble?

While some early comics (especially in the UK) tried to flesh out Megatron's history by making him a formidable gladiator who rose to power to lead an army, it really was left to more modern comic writers to give Megatron real motives for his tyrannical ways. Megatron, we eventually learn, was a miner during a period in Transformers history when corrupt politicians held power on their home planet of Cybertron. While the older "gladiator" history was retained, Megatron's rise to power was now given rationale as the future tyrant initially saw himself to be a freedom fighter trying to overthrow oppression. Unfortunately for pretty much everyone, the would-be oppression-ender ended up becoming the oppressor himself.

In the original days of Transformers, Megatron turned into a realistic Walther P-38 pistol (with attachments for long-range capacity). I haven't been comfortable with this alternate mode being in my home for some time now, and thus I have no pictures of my own to share (they're not hard to find if you really want to). I'm clearly not the only person to feel this way, as Hasbro themselves have had issues with releasing Megatron in this form in recent years (even the tiny Legends scale toy, released in 2010, ended up with a bright orange safety tip). As a result, Megatron has had a fairly wide variety of alternate modes over the years, although variations on the tank form seen here are the most common. This enables Megatron to retain the impression of having tremendous firepower without turning into something that lawmakers fear might possibly do real harm to an actual child someday.
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