Movie Review: The China Syndrome – Yes, Let’s Build More “Nucular” Power Plants Part II

Written by Mike Gray, T.S. Cook, and James Bridges
Directed by James Bridges

I’ve heard people lately – mainly those lobbying for us to start building atomic energy plants again – stating that Three Mile Island was proof that all of the safeguards at the plants worked. I say they were damn lucky.

The China Syndrome was released in the U.S. just two weeks before this accident occurred. The title refers to what happens when the core is exposed and the fuel overheats, melting through the bottom of the plant. When it hits groundwater it releases radioactive steam and would render an area (the size of Pennsylvania – those words are used in all ironies) uninhabitable.

Jane Fonda is Kimberly Wells, a fluff-piece reporter at a local Los Angeles television station. She’s sent with her cameraman, Richard (Michael Douglas), out to cover the Ventana Nuclear Power Plant as part of a series about energy in California. While they are there, they experience what they at first believe to be an earthquake. Unbeknownst to anyone, Richard keeps his camera covertly rolling. They aren’t sure exactly what happened, but they both seem to know instinctively that it wasn’t good.

When they arrive back at the station, Kimberly is eager to roll with the story as the lead story, but it’s killed. Richard steals the footage and takes it to hearings being held on the opening of a second plant to get input from nuclear specialists.

Jack Lemmon is plant manager Jack Godell. I’ve come across three types of people in this world. There are people who just blindly believe that everything in the world will work out good (at least for them). There are people who believe in what they are told until they see different for themselves, and there are people who are just by nature suspicious of what’s presented to them. Jack Godell seems to fit into the second category. He completely believes in the use of nuclear power. That is, until something nags at him about the incident at the plant. He begins poking around and comes across some things that bother him – water leaking in an area that it shouldn’t; x-rays of welds that just show the same weld over and over again. The question is – why is he investigating this when others aren’t? The people he is clashing with are all the first type of people; they believe that nothing bad will happen despite the fact that there have been shortcuts taken with the building of the plant that they’ve known about for years. You would think that these people who have to live in the same area where this plant is and are exposed to the same level of danger would want to make sure that they and their families are as safe as can be, but they seem to live in the fantasy world where bad things can never happen to them; where things just can’t go wrong on the grand scale that those of us who live in the real world know they can.

The story is terrific as it builds to the climax. What was strange was just how similar to the events of Three Mile Island this film was. No, there were no faulty welds at Three Mile Island, but the accident there was similar to what is depicted in The China Syndrome. If that wasn’t enough alone to catapult this film to the notoriety it received, the performances themselves are really terrific. It’s tightly written at a good pace without dumbing itself down to the audience.

I grew to like the character of Jack Godell quite a bit. Jack Lemmon did a terrific job with him. He’s not got the hysterics of someone who’s against nuclear power as he believes in the job he’s doing. However, at the same time he has a conscience and is willing to call out those he thinks are putting the public at risk. Lemmon portrays Godell as intensely conflicted and does it well. I thought his performance was probably the best of the film. He really brought out the human qualities to him without overplaying who he is.

The story that got lost in all of the fracas surrounding this once Three Mile Island broke is the story of what it was like to be a female reporter at that time in this country, and it really wasn’t all that long ago. As Kimberly Wells, Jane Fonda is given mostly “fluff pieces” about singing telegrams, a tiger having a birthday party. Her bosses comment on her hairstyle and tell her “not to worry her pretty little head” about such matters.

Fonda does a terrific job as Wells. She’s been hired based on how she tested with the audience. She’s even called a “performer” at one point. What she wants to do is hardcore reporting. What she’s assigned is something entirely different. She’s hungry for more than she’s been given while trying to tread the line of being a woman in what is mostly a man’s world. If she gets too forceful, she’ll end up on the street, while at the same time if she stays too meek and nice she’s going to be relegated to the same “human interest” stories she’s currently being assigned. A casual exchange between her and her co-anchor demonstrates this where he tosses a casual insult at her and she tosses it right back at him. It was all right for him to insult her and denigrate her as just a pretty face, but he takes umbrage at her shot back at him as being a threat to his credibility.

Michael Douglas does a fair job as Richard, but I got the feeling that he was pushing for a big story that will get him the limelight, no matter whether it’s something being blown out of proportion or not. That’s the whole point – what they witnessed is the system working and there was no story there. The depth is in what Godell knows about the x-rays being falsified. When Richard and Kimberly uncover that, they have their story, but both of them are so hungry to prove themselves they are willing to make mountains out of molehills.

Trivia : When Jack Godell is trying to lose his tail, he follows a fire engine. It’s “Engine 51” from the old Emergency! television series.

The truth is The China Syndrome wasn’t a blanket indictment of the use of nuclear power. It was a blanket indictment of human failures as the reason we aren’t mature enough as a species to be using this power. We are too powered by our natural greed and selfishness to put safety first and foremost – no matter what the cost. We don’t ask questions, naively believing that everyone will do everything on the up and up and not take shortcuts which will save them money when public safety is involved.


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Star Trek: Day of the Dove – Peace in Our Time

Written by Jerome Bixby, Arthur H. Singer, and Gene Roddenerry
Directed by Marvin J. Chomsky

The third season of the original Star Trek series was the one that was the most erratic and bipolar. There were some terrific episodes and some of the worst of the series produced this season. The reasons for this generally had to do with low budgets and the creative staff running for the exits. On the surface, Day of the Dove is not that spectacular an episode. However, couched against the growing unrest about the war in Vietnam in 1968 it becomes quite the argument against it. Star Trek was the only show that was doing this at the time, as its pacifist message went over the head of the network censors as well as some of the audience.

The Enterprise responds to a distress call from a colony that is under attack. When they arrive, there is not a trace of the colony remaining. Captain Kirk (William Shatner) leads a landing party down to the surface to investigate. While they are down on the planet, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) communicates to the Captain that a Klingon battle cruiser has just been sighted. Thinking they are responsible for the colony’s destruction, the Captain orders Mr. Spock to engage in battle. However, as the ship approaches it becomes apparent that the ship is already disabled without the Enterprise firing on it.

Commander Kang beams down to the surface with his own landing party and quickly takes Kirk and company prisoner. He threatens to torture Chekov (Walter Koenig) unless the Captain orders the Enterprise to beam them up.

Someone wants the Federation and the Klingons at war with each other. It’s this blob of light that keeps changing colors nearby while all of this is happening. The audience knows it, but the characters do not. Chekov keeps talking about the Klingons having killed his brother, yet Sulu (George Takei) says he had no brother and was an only child. This energy being seems to thrive on the animosity between the Klingons and Enterprise crew, and also influence them. Scotty (James Doohan) is sent to check the weapons and finds all of the phasers have been transformed into elaborate swords.

Slowly the Captain comes to realize they are being manipulated, and the only way to defeat the being is by ending the fighting. Much the same way he comes to the realization that the way to solve the problem in A Private Little War is to stand down he must do that here and convince the Klingons of the same.

Day of the Dove is a good anti-war episode. The message that to keep fighting is futile comes across strong. The non-corporeal light being I would say is representative of the military industrial complex who profit when wars are being fought and will do anything to keep those profits coming.

The problem is there is overlap in the story between several different episodes we’ve already seen. Not only A Private Little War, but the idea of the non-corporeal being casting an evil influence over them is reminiscent of Wolf in the Fold. Day of the Dove does manage to draw the two of these concepts together nicely, but it’s been done and it feels a bit tired.

The Klingon makeup is terrible. I knw they were going for a bit more than what was done earlier with Klingons in the series, but this is just awful. It looks like someone went entirely too heavy with the spray tan and then decided to film like they were in Mississippi and sweating all the time. With the series being remastered, it makes it all the more noticeable and distracting.

The acting here is stellar, though. Michael Ansara is Commander Kang and pretty much defines Klingons from here on out. He is a warrior through and through and more than a match for the Captain of the Enterprise. He displays the right air of confidence and swagger as a race built on conflict would show. Really, the Klingons we see in The Next Generation and beyond are built on this performance right here.

The regular cast shine too. Walter Koenig takes Chekov in a completely different direction than we usually see from him. Chekov is scary in this episode, and because he’s under the influence of an alien, this being a part of his darker side is never explored again. Sometimes that plot device is used to excuse any type of behavior, such as Spock showing emotion and never having to answer for it. Here, Chekov appears ready to rape the Kang’s wife and never suffers any fallout for it. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) also has a moment when she overreacts to frustration as does Doctor McCoy (DeForrest Kelley) when he rails against the Klingons. It’s all being driven by the alien, but they are allowed to go darker than they ever did before in the series.

Day of the Dove is a very watchable episode and a good representation of the series. There are many missteps, but it still holds up very well all these years later. I give credit to the actors for that.

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Thoughts From the Mountain Top One Year In

View from my back deck

One year ago we were looking at a lockdown for who knew how long. I had all these reviews from my years writing at Epinions sitting in spreadsheets I’d downloaded when it shut down in 2014. My buddy Alex had a successful blog that he was forced to abandon, sort of, due to Conservatives and their version of “cancel culture.” All this came together to finally make me commit to starting a blog of my own.

I’d had a few starts over the years but never completely followed through. I’d get tired after a while and just not want to bother. I figured I’d have plenty of material to fill in with when I didn’t want to write. I think, so far, it’s worked out pretty well.

My first post (other than the about me post) had to do with COVID and our situation. It seems like so log ago now, but it wasn’t. I think there are many things that we take for granted that we won’t again for a long time.

In the meantime, I managed to re-work and re-post all of my Star Trek: The Next Generation reviews. Those were some of the first reviews I posted at Epinions and got me attention for my love of science fiction. I had reviews written for about half of the Original Star Trek series and I’ve been trying to finish that up these last few weeks. It’s harder than I thought it would be. Next, I should move on to Star Trek Deep Space Nine but I also have a yearning to review Babylon 5 episode by episode and the two series are so similar I really don’t want to be doing it at the same time, so we will see what happens. There are other shows I’m interested in analyzing episode by episode, such as The West Wing. The nice thing is on my own blog I don’t have to worry about whether or not there is a product listing, like I had to at Epinions.

I’ve re-worked and re-posted many old book reviews and plenty of new ones as well. The same with movies. I really wanted to wade through the Marvel Universe and all that’s in it, but haven’t had the time to watch the movies and pay as much attention to it all as I should. Everything I write about I watch at least twice, sometimes three times. It’s hard to dedicate that much time to something when I am also doing work from home and playing taxi driver for my family.

And geocaching. A lot of my original intention with this blog had to do with my geocaching activity. I’ve taken a few trips this past year and written about a few places I hiked with my son and granddaughter. However, for the most part I didn’t think there was a lot that was interesting in those adventures. The truth is, my media reviews get way more hits, not that I’ve made a lot of money. I write about geocaching when I feel like it. I’m taking a 10-day road trip to Kansas this month, so hopefully I will have a lot more to write about at some interesting roadside attractions I’ve planned to visit.

My stats as of this morning are 16,782 hits and a total earned of $6.16. Not much to write home about then. I’ve made a few friends here and enjoy reading some of the other blogs. Getting rich here isn’t going to happen.

I stopped writing for the most part after my daughter committed suicide in 2013. It was just too hard. About six months later I suffered my traumatic brain injury and that was it for any creativity for a long time. Even now it can be difficult to concentrate and write. Sometimes it flows easily, sometimes I feel like I’m fighting my own brain to write. There comes a point where my brain just doesn’t want to function that way any more and that’s when I just need to quit. It doesn’t make writing the blog easy at times.

Thanks to everyone who reads and comments. I wouldn’t keep doing it if I didn’t get feedback. Let’s see where the next year takes us!

Book Review: Designated Targets by John Birmingham – A Military Thriller with a Science-Fiction Edge

In the second novel in John Birmingham’s “Axis of Time” trilogy, he capitalizes on the events which took place in Weapons of Choice knows as “the Transition” or “the Emergence”. In that novel, a multi-national force set on taking on Muslim extremists in the year 2021 get caught up in a science experiment gone awry and are transported back in time to 1942, just before the battle of Midway. In fact, most of the ships end up right in the middle of the U.S. Fleet bound for Midway – and I do mean literally “in the middle” in one case.

You would think that the Allies having advanced technology from the year 2021 would make their victory over the Germans and Japanese a given. That’s not the case, however. Not only have some of the ships ended up in the hands of the Axis powers, but by showing what the future holds for them, Hitler is able to forge an uneasy truce with Stalin and keep the U.S.S.R. out of the conflict on the Allies side. This frees much of the German forces for a renewed push at Great Britain, including possible invasion forces. The Japanese, in the meantime, have invaded Australia and are committing atrocities there. How far will they push onto the continent? Is that their change in strategy, or is more about to be let loose? Perhaps the most detrimental thing brought back from the future is the knowledge of what will happen.

Then there are the social ramifications. A completely integrated force where both men and women serve in combat along with embedded reporters of both sexes clashes with the societal structure of 1942. In addition, there is more known about the people of 1942 – such as J. Edgar Hoover’s homosexuality – that causes social changes. Riots break out when African-Americans and other minorities, used to their rights in the future, clash with the bigotry of the past.

As the people from 2021 try to settle into a country now in social flux. They manage to set up their own area out in California where they begin trying to figure out how to manage their depleting stocks as well as create more for the advanced weaponry. Led by Admiral Kolhammer, he tries to stave off the egos of those who resent his presence and his command of all the future weaponry.

All along, Birmingham weaves a tale that is well-written in so many ways. His detailing of military weaponry and tactics often goes way over my head but are written with enough detail that it makes the situations believable how the weapons and tactics work in the battles of the Second World War – well, this version of that war. The writing during the military and battle scenes reminds me greatly of Tom Clancy’s writings.

The characters Birmingham has created, both from the future and the past, are compelling. There are interesting situations such as the embedded female reporter from the future who becomes engaged to a high-level Navy commander of the past that sort of bridges the gap in a lot of places. Birmingham weaves together the historical characters well with his fictional ones. In addition to Hoover, he portrays Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Douglas MacArthur in much the same way they have been written about over the years. Couple that with some nice cameos from Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, John Kennedy, and more there are enough humorous moments in between the technical and military strategy that the book moves along at a great pace without being too intense. In addition, an heir to the British throne is among those transported back with the Multi-National force from 2021, just to throw another curve-ball into the mix. After all, at this point his grandparents haven’t even met yet!

Birmingham has left open enough loose ends to make me anxious for the third book in the trilogy. My interest was particularly piqued by the hint dropped about who committed a murder which took place in Weapons of Choice. It was a subject I thought was going to be written off as just another case of prejudices gone wild, but Birmingham hints here that there is a lot more to it.

Alternate history fans or those who like military thrillers will likely enjoy the series. Those who would break out in hives at the thought of an aircraft carrier named for “the greatest wartime President the United States ever had” – the U.S.S. Hillary Clinton probably will enjoy it less. There’s no real overt politics going on, but I think Birmingham probably enjoys those little digs. I also think he manages to subtly make the point that the often-reminisced “good old days” weren’t that good for women or minorities, a position I have held for quite some time. Some people might be bothered by having that illusion shattered.

To really get a good feel for what’s going on, I’d recommend you read Weapons of Choice first. Designated Targets is not the place to start. Birmingham’s first foray into this genre is a winner and I hope he either continues the series past the third book (last I heard due out in December 2006) or decides to stick with this genre again in the future.


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Movie Review: Eye of the Needle – The Downfall of a Top-Spy is Almost Always a Woman

Written by Ken Follett and Stanley Mann
Directed by Richard Marquand

I’d never been a big fan of spy thrillers, but Eye of the Needle is a film I’ve watched a few times over the years and enjoyed quite a bit. This was one of the first “adult” films my parents ever took me to see, so I have a soft spot for it.

Eye of the Needle was directed by Richard Marquand who also directed Return of the Jedi and based on the novel by Ken Follett of the same name. Set in England during the Second World War, this is a well-paced thriller. Donald Sutherland is Faber, a Nazi spy in England known as “The Needle” due to his ability to make efficient use of a switchblade when needing to protect his identity or secure information. No one is sure what he looks like, save one young boy who looked up to the alleged “war hero” until “The Needle” was forced to murder his mother when she discovered his secret.

This is set up in the first half-hour, along with the story of Lucy and David. On the day they are married, David, a daredevil fighter pilot, crashes their car. The accident leaves him paralyzed from the waist down. Somehow Lucy survives the terrible accident intact and manages to bear their child. With nothing else to do, the small family moves to Storm Island to operate a sheep farm.

Faber discovers crucial information about the Allied invasion of continental Europe. He is directed to bring the information directly to the Fuhrer, and none to soon. The English are hot on his tail, having finally been able to uncover the truth about the spy in their midst. While trying to rendezvous with the U-Boat dispatched to pick him up, Faber encounters a terrible storm and ends up washing up on the shore of Storm Island.

Hungry for any sort of companionship, Lucy finds herself drawn to the stranger. Her husband has been cold and distant for years, and usually leaves her and their son, Joe, alone to go drink with the caretaker, Tom.

As the story slowly unravels, the pace picks up and it becomes a case of who will win out. It’s also a question of who will survive as the body count rises.

The story is excellent, setting up a great story of a man who has been isolated in being a spy for many years. Faber has not been able to get close to anyone. At the same time, Lucy has experienced a similar isolation. That the two are drawn together is no surprise. That the spy falls so hard for the lonely woman might be. It’s hard to believe that after all the years of keeping his guard up he’d let it down just when he is about to deliver one of the greatest secrets of the war to Hitler. Perhaps the book explains this part better. For me, it was the only hole in the story.

At the same time, David seems to be eager to let his wife have the romantic encounter with Faber. It seems as if he knows what will happen before it does, and he is either indifferent or looking for something else to hold over the poor woman who has done her best to cope with his anger, emotional abuse, drug abuse and alcoholism as well as shelter their son from it.

The last portion of the film as a cat-and-mouse game ensues between Lucy and Faber as she learns of his duplicity and must do what she can to keep herself alive while at the same time stopping him from returning to Germany with the valuable information. The pacing is terrific as each time I’ve seen it I sat on the edge of my seat, despite knowing how it turns out.

One of the great lines is when Faber tells Lucy “The whole war comes down to the two of us…” It sums up what is so good about the story. Through cutaways to the British authorities pursuing “The Needle” we know what’s going on in the war. The interaction between these two characters may decide the course of the war.

The performances are excellent. Donald Sutherland is perfect as the spy. He seems to be a natural fit in his surroundings when he’s being something he’s not in the beginning of the film, as well as being comfortable and believable when his darker side is shown. He is falling for Lucy, and Sutherland does a great job with subtle inflections when he’s around her, such as changing the tone of his voice or his mannerisms to reflect a gentler quality.

Kate Nelligan is Lucy and she gives a very convincing performance. She’s been a dutiful wife for so long, but having been isolated and subjected to emotional abuse, she’s starved for companionship and the feeling of validation of herself as a human being. There is great chemistry between her and Sutherland. This makes their romance, begun within a day of their having met, more believable than many other war films which have tried the same tact and fall short.

Christopher Cazenove handles the role of David well. His paranoia and anger after five years living as a paraplegic seem a natural evolution from the hot-shot overconfident pilot shown in the beginning. That the paranoia when it comes to Faber is well-founded really doesn’t matter; David has become so belligerent and obnoxious that it’s hard to develop any sympathy for the man, although I did find myself rooting for him. This is despite the fact that I think he deliberately held out on his suspicions of Faber in order to have something else to berate Lucy with. To bring that many facets to a single role is admirable, and Cazenove seemed to capture the essence of the man perfectly.

The music is excellent, and something I appreciate all the more on repeat viewings. It really accompanies the story well, keeping the mood perfect and creating the right sense of suspense or romance as the scene dictates

One major fault I found was that the voiceover on Lucy and David’s young son Joe is pretty awful. I could see the tot moving his mouth as if he’s saying the lines most of the time, but for whatever reason the director elected to use one of those adults-trying-to-sound-like-a-child and in my opinion it really distracts from the film.

There is some nudity and sex scenes, so the “R” rating is certainly justified. However, it’s a very good suspense film that I’ve enjoyed several times over the years. The DVD contains no Bonus Material, so catching it uncut on cable would be the same as seeing it on DVD. Either way, it’s worth it.



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Book Review: Settling Accounts: Return Engagement by Harry Turtledove – Tell Me Again, Who Does Mary Pomeroy Hate?

At the point that I began reading Settling Account: Return Engagement by Harry Turtledove, I was well invested in the series. There were seven books to the series before this one. I was looking forward to reading this since Turtledove seems to write much better about wartime than he does about the peace in between.

Settling Account: Return Engagement takes place in an alternate timeline where the Confederacy managed to win the Civil War. They fought with the United States twice since then. The first time they were victorious, the second time they weren’t. This laid the ground for the Nazi-like Freedom Party to rise up and gain control of the Confederacy, headed by the self-righteous lunatic Jake Featherston.

Al Smith is the Socialist President of the United States. He’s tried to maintain a peace, but that’s not what Featherston wants. The two nations clash once again in a vicious battle.

The Confederacy has attacked the United States. Featherston was on the front lines to see what went wrong last time, so here he’s shrewder than the military elite in the Great War (World War I) was. He also doesn’t mind going against some of the “rules of war” by trying to assassinate specific military personnel on the U.S. side who he knows are the biggest threats to him.

He also doesn’t mind encouraging the Mormons in Utah to rise up again and give the U.S. difficulty. At the same time, the Negroes in the Confederacy are somehow getting arms and mines. Featherston has a devious plan for the Negroes, however, and although they have some wind of what’s going on, the complete picture isn’t clear to them although it is to me since I know what happened to the Jews in Germany during World War II.

The pacing of this novel is good – better than some of the others before this one. Instead of the feeling of the war plodding along, the modern warfare using barrels (tanks), artillery, planes as bombers, and trucks for troop movement give the novel a faster pace. The speed with which some events happen is good and propels the story along nicely.

However, the repetition is enough to make me crazy. This isn’t the first book Turtledove has done that with, and I am sure it also won’t be the last. It seemed that every time Irving Morrell was brought up, I had to hear again about how the United States dropped the ball building barrels (tanks) to be prepared for war. Every time Sam Carsten is brought up I hear about his sunburn and how the zinc oxide ointment does nothing for him (oh give him skin cancer already and put me out of his misery). Every time the Scipio/Xerxes character who lives in Augusta, Georgia is brought up, I hear about how awful it is to be black, how awful they are treated, how dangerous it is to live in “The Terry” and how his “penguin suit” from working as a waiter at the Huntsman Lodge keeps him from getting in trouble for being out past curfew. Finally, there is Mary Pomeroy, the Canadian who has a penchant for bombing things. Every time the story wanders around her way, I hear about how much she hates Yankees, how her father and brother were killed by them, how she has to be careful and not get caught, etc.

The other problem for some people with the amount of jumping around Turtledove does. There are no fewer than thirteen point-of-view characters. To propel the story along, there is frequent jumping to each character. I could follow no problem, but for some people it might be a tad confusing and hard to follow.

If the story weren’t so fascinating, I would probably give up. At 623 pages in my hardcover, I think at least 100 pages could have been shaved off if the editing of the repetition was done with a heavier hand. Turtledove has drawn me in with the characters he’s created and let me see various aspects of what’s going on at the same time. I’m not wondering what’s happening in California, because there are characters set there. I know what’s going on in Confederate Intelligence because there’s a point-of-view character there. I know what’s going on in Congress in the U.S. because the Socialist Congresswoman from New York is still there.

Turtledove also only gives a cursory paragraph or two throughout the novel to what’s going on elsewhere in the world. I would have liked to have heard more about that. I wonder if France and the U.K. will be sticking with their alliance with the Confederacy once what is happening to the Negroes there is more public. The pictures have been brought out of the Confederacy and despite Flora Blackford’s best efforts as the previously mentioned Congresswoman, it seems to be glossed over by the government. That is, until she starts asking questions about some budget items that don’t seem to add up and suddenly everyone in the President’s administration is stumbling over themselves to do whatever she wants.

This is what makes it impossible to skip the sections. Most of it might seem like repetition of the same thing over and over again, but there are little clues as to what’s coming that are dropped in. These snippets might seem like nothing right now, but the payoff on them will be coming down the road. Turtledove could write it tighter, however. There is a scene where Featherston has a meeting with a physics professor who is onto the theory of nuclear bombs. However, Featherston brushes him aside feeling that the professor is just looking for money. That conversation is brought up about three more times in the book. I think it would have been more effective to just drop the whole thing until the point came where maybe Featherston should remember the conversation.

All complaints aside, I enjoyed the book quite a bit and I know I will be devouring the next two in the series. I wish he would do more than three for World War II in the United States/Confederacy vein as I think there’s a lot of ground to cover and he’ll have a hard time squeezing all of that in. The story is very good and told very well, with more detail than many other alternate history novels because of all the characters he uses. I have my pre-order in for the second novel in the series coming out in August.


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Star Trek: Spectre of the Gun – No Phasers at the O.K. Corral

Written by Gene L. Coon, Arthur H. Singer and Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Vincent McEveety

Ever feel like you just want to be left alone? I have those moments. It’s one of the reasons I love where I live, surrounded by second homes. Lots of peace and quiet and I really don’t have to have a conversation with anyone if I don’t want to. I think I’m part Melkotian.

Who are the Melkotians? They are a race of beings who just want to be left alone. However, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) is determined to make contact with them. The Enterprise is nearing Melkotian space when it happens upon a warning buoy of sorts, which he ignores, of course.

As punishment for intrusion on territory, the landing party from the Enterprise, consisting of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Doctor McCoy (DeForrest Kelley), Chekov (Walter Koenig), and Scotty (James Doohan) are sent to the old west at the time of the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. They are seen by the town residents as the Clantons, the men who died in the shoot-out there.

No matter the argument, nothing changes the opinion of the townsfolk – and Wyatt Earp (Ron Soble) – that they are the Clantons. Knowing the history, the landing party knows they will die in a shoot-out with the Earps at 5PM. They try to leave town, only to learn there’s a force-field keeping them in.

Chekov, meanwhile, catches the attention of Sylvia (Bonnie Beecher) who seems enamored of “Billy Claiborne.” They flirt and at one point she proposes getting married. Chekov is smitten with her, and then is gunned down by Morgan Earp (Rex Holman) who is jealous of Billy.

Is it a surprise that Chekov isn’t really dead? Is it a surprise that the landing party figures a way around all of the obstacles in front of them? No, it isn’t.

This episode is mixed in many ways, and what really hurts it is the budget. The setting of the western town of Tombstone is cheap. They didn’t even spring for the money to go film on one of those western backlots every studio had back in the 1960’s. Instead we get a “town” filled with false-fronts and nothing behind them in most cases.

The story, however, is a good one that suffers from being set in what seems like an unreal setting. The idea that the Melkotians take a snippet of a story in Captain Kirk’s memory and build what is essentially a “test” around it is a good one. The follow-through is decent too. When you look at the townsfolk not as really representative of the Old West but rather as products of the Melkotians interpretation from a memory, it works much better. Kirk cannot reason with them because they aren’t human; they have no sense of reason. The problem is, to the casual viewer it just looks like a terrible interpretation of the Old West.

To the Melkotians, this was how they would execute the intruders, by making them a victim of their own violent tendencies. It is the presence of Spock that will allow them to survive, yet the humans are given credit for growing beyond those violent tendencies. Captain Kirk never does correct that misinterpretation.

The problem with Spectre of the Gun is you really have to look at it deeply to enjoy it, otherwise it looks like a cheap, schlocky western episode. It’s one of those that gets better as you realize this, but it’s a hard place to get to.

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New York: The City and the Country – A Documentary Film by Ric Burns

Famed documentarian Ken Burns’ brother embraces the genre with this wonderful offering about the city I grew up just outside of; a place I will always consider my first home: New York.

Narrated by David Ogden Stiers, New York: The City and the Country aired on PBS details the rich history of the greatest city in the world from it’s inception through modern times. Totaling seven chapters in all, an eighth and final, separate chapter was added by Ric Burns about two years after the initial release.

On September 2, 1609 Henry Hudson steered his ship off of the Atlantic into a bay where a mile-wide river emptied. Although he didn’t find the route to China he was looking for, he did discover one of the greatest natural harbors in the world. The Dutch opened a trading post here in 1624, and so it began.

Most people don’t think of New York as a historical place, but the argument is made here by various writers and historians that it is actually the most historic city in America. New York was the proving ground for many cultural, economic, and industrial ideas. While other colonies in the New World were founded on the basis of religious freedom, New York was founded as a business proposition. This is how the diversity of New York came to be. Since the basis of the colony was business, there were no exclusions to whom was allowed into the city. All faiths were welcome and the Dutch East India Company actually turned down Peter Stuyvesant’s petition to evict a boatload of Jewish people escaping the Spanish Inquisition in Brazil.

Burns covers the political rise of Alexander Hamilton as the story of so many other New Yorkers. However, he was the first. Born a bastard in the West Indies, he flees to the colony looking for a new identity and a fresh start. He comes into his own with the Revolution and charts his course as one of Washington’s top aides. Burns also devotes time to other New York personalities such as Walt Whitman, P.T. Barnum,

Much of the first chapter is told through sketches and old paintings of the early leaders of this country. Later on, there are more photographs. First they are the early black and white, but eventually color is added, as are the motion picture frames of that era. I loved the original motion pictures. These were short films first giving people outside of the city a glimpse into city life. Burns uses the same style of filmmaking as his brother, Ken, often lingering for long periods of time on a particular photograph or portrait and using the music to create the emotion he wishes to convey. He moves the camera or pans in and out to give the effect of movement. Together with a dramatic score, this serves to evoke emotion and give a setting for the time period. The narration is also handled very well, with quotes from letters, novels, newspapers, and other sources used to covey the feeling of a picture or a period of time in the city’s history. People such as E.L. Doctorow, Brendan Gill, Kenneth T. Jackson, Margo Jefferson, Fran Lebowitz, Rudy Giuliani, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Peter Quinn contribute their comments to the history of this magnificent city.

Immigration is a major focus of the story, as that is probably what has had the most impact upon the city and culture of New York. At the same time, the crunch for living and business space is weighed against the need for open spaces and parklands. It’s interesting to see how modern-day Manhattan evolved.

The history told here is one I hadn’t heard before. The history of New York was often glossed over in history class. What little was told was always positive; there were no details about the earliest economic boon of New York being on the trading of slaves.

The history of the families who would one day be known as “New York Society” is told in this documentary as well. The Astors, Vanderbilts, Fultons, Rockefellers, and J.P. Morgan are all here. Their beginnings are less than stellar and really bring home the point that the pedigree means little. Enough of the dark events of New York are told as well, such as the draft riots, rise of “Boss” Tweed and his era of corruption, and the poor living conditions of many residents so that the film is not an unrealistic look only at the highs in the history of the city.

The moments of outrage are some of the best parts, especially the events surrounding Jacob Riis’ How The Other Half Lives. The photos accompanying this section are heart-rendering and something we tend to forget about in our modern age.

To celebrate my grandmother’s birth, Brooklyn decided to finally join New York City in 1898 (okay, not really, but it was the same year she was born!) This was a time of high immigration, something which always seemed to be a trademark of the City and continues to this day. The narration theorizes that this is one reason why New York is so cosmopolitan, as various races, cultures, and religions had to learn to get along with each other within a small tract of land.

One of the fascinating parts was the details about the garment workers general strike of 40,000 women in New York. It was amazing how the women stood up to the factory owners and was the spark that eventually forced the factory owners to the bargaining table to revolutionize the terrible conditions under which the workers were forced to spend the bulk of their time. The culmination of it all was the horrible Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire in 1911 which killed 146 women, most of whom jumped to their deaths as the exit doors were locked to keep the women from leaving during work hours as well as keeping out union organizers.

By the time we move into the era of my parents (who were born in the 1920’s and grew up in the mostly German sections of Queens, Ridgewood and Glendale), New York City is in the throes of The Great Depression. This was the era of Fiorella LaGuardia and Robert Moses. Although some may curse some of the projects now, they were instrumental in having the city reinvent itself after the stock market crash into what was then one of the most modern cities on the planet. The sights of The Great Depression – “the “Hoovervilles” sprung up all along the rivers and in Central Park – are somewhat shocking. One in three workers in the garment industry were laid off; there were protests and rioting in the streets.

What pulled New York out of it were the many public works projects initiated by Moses and LaGuardia. It’s fascinating to look at the black and white films of the projects as they are built, as well as once they are complete. I loves seeing the pictures of the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary bringing the soldiers home from the war into New York harbor. Some of the saddest scenes are the destruction of classic buildings such as the old Penn Station to make way for the “modernization” of the city. It’s interesting to see how the people of the Lower East Side mobilized against a plan to put an expressway through their section of the city against Robert Moses. This is especially poignant in light of the recent “eminent domain” decision by the Supreme Court. Could these citizens have succeeded in the current climate? I do not know.

There’s an abundance of shots of New York City throughout the documentary taken from at the time this documentary was being filmed, prior to September 11, 2001. As such, I immediately noticed the abundance of shots of lower Manhattan, including the World Trade Center. One of the favorite shots is looking downtown past the Empire State Building with the Twin Towers off to it’s right. I think the documentary plays better without the influence that the events of that day might have exerted on it, especially in the seventh chapter which deals with the most recent time period.

I plan to purchase this boxed set as a Christmas gift for my parents. It’s an excellent piece of work, especially heart-rendering for those of us who have lived here through various cycles of the city. I don’t think a portrait of any other city in this country would be as colorful and entertaining as that of New York City.

EPISODE INDEX:

Episode One: 1609 – 1825 The Country and the City
Episode Two: 1825 – 1865 Order and Disorder
Episode Three: 1865 – 1898 Sunshine and Shadow
Episode Four: 1898 – 1918 The Power and the People
Episode Five: 1919 – 1931 Cosmopolis
Episode Six: 1929 – 1941 City of Tomorrow
Episode Seven: 1945 to the present The City and the World

SPECIAL FEATURES:

– Charlie Rose interview with Ric Burns
– New York Trailer
– Archival motion pictures
Library of Congress Paper Prints
Over the East River (1919)
Manhatta (1921)
Empires of Steel excepts (1930-1931)
– Deleted Scenes
Imitations of Mortality: Empire State Building Crash
Alternate Prologue to Episode Six
Outtakes from Episode Seven Epilogue
– Interview Outtakes with Martin Scorsese, Fran Lebowitz, Donald Trump, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Caro


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Star Trek: Is There In Truth No Beauty? – Beauty and the Beasts

Written by Jean Lisette Aroeste, Arthur H. Singer and Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Ralph Senensky

Back in the episode Friday’s Child, writer D.C. Fontana said her goal was to present a woman who had no desire to be a wife and mother and was a strong female lead. I think her ideal might have been watered down in the presentation. However, Is There In Truth No Beauty? does manage to hit that goal.

The Enterprise is charged with transporting the Medusan ambassador, Kollos, and his entourage back to the Medusan homeworld. The Medusans are non-corporeal intelligent life that reside inside a container. No one is allowed to look upon the ambassador, as the Medusans are considered to be so repulsive that looking at them drives people insane.

The entourage consists of Larry Marvick (David Frankham) and Doctor Miranda Jones (Diana Muldaur, again.) Doctor Jones is a human telepath who studied on Vulcan to learn to control her telepathic powers and be able to block out the cacophany of people’s thoughts. This gave her the ability to work with the Medusans when no other humans can. She’s decided to spend her life working with Ambassador Kollos as she’s come to admire him and his work so much. This grates against Marvick, who makes a last-ditch proposal to Doctor Jones that she turns down.

Marvick then attempts to murder the Ambassador, something Jones senses. Although he is prevented from murdering the Ambassador, Marvick has seen enough to go insane and hijack the Enterprise, taking it way off course and to the outer reaches of the known galaxy.

There are many things going on in this episode, and that detracts from what would otherwise have been a very good one. There’s the story of the unrequited love Marvick has for Miranda Jones that is the first hint that either her abilities or the presence of the Ambassador is an added stressor to the situation. Normally in control of those kind of emotions, Marvick reacts violently out of character for someone this revered in Starfleet.

There’s also a secret Doctor Jones manages to initially hide from everyone beyond her telepathic abilities. This makes sense later on when thinking about why she would be so desirable as someone who could work with the Ambassador. Jessica Walter was the initial choice for the role of Miranda Jones, but Diana Muldaur stepped into the role when Walter was unavailable. She appeared in the second-season episode Return to Tomorrow and was a favorite of Director Ralph Senensky. Her performance here makes it very obvious why. The episode hinges on her and she more than holds her own in the role and surrounded by men.

That Doctor Jones is a woman surrounded by men is another dimension to the episode. They all seek to dismiss her on some level. Captain Kirk (William Shatner) sees her mostly as someone to be flirted with to see how far he can go. Marvick, of course, sees her as someone who should give up all she has worked for and choose him. Even Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) initially dismisses her. Doctor Jones is somewhat jealous that as a Vulcan, he can mind-meld with Ambassador Kollos and reach him in a way she can’t. It makes for great fodder near the end of the story when the survival of the ship (and in particular Mr. Spock) hinges on her.

Add into all this putting the Enterprise in peril at the hands of a madman at the edge of the galaxy and it’s a lot to get through. Still, after the disastrous episode before this, Is There In Truth No Beauty? is a bit refreshing. There’s no great battle scenes nor are there much in the way of special effects. It’s character driven and the right actors are in the right roles to make the story work for the most part. It’s a bright spot in the third season.

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Book Review: The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder – Snow Has Never Been This Colorful!

When I was about nine, a friend of the family gave me my first Little House book. I was immediately captivated by the stories within and read them over and over through the years. The copy I had contained wonderful illustrations to accompany the story by Garth Williams. Eventually I was given all of the books in the series, plus a few other collections of Laura’s writings. I gave my set to my oldest daughter and it soon became scattered in their room. I purchased a second set for my now nine-year-old.

About a year ago I wanted to read the books again for myself. Unfortunately my daughters could no longer assemble a complete set between them. I wanted a set of books for ME now that would be hand-off for the rest of the family. When we traveled to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri I saw exactly what I wanted.

The Long Winter tells the story of the Ingalls family and the town of DeSmet during a the first winter this town was on the Dakota prairie – 1880-1881. That winter, blizzard after blizzard descended on the town, with only a day or two between each one. It picks up in the fall following the events in Wilder’s previous novel, By The Shores of Silver Lake.

With no son in the family to help him cut and stack the hay needed for the winter, Pa enlists Laura’s help with Ma’s begrudging consent. Haying is not something considered “ladylike” but the family has no choice. The first sign that a bad winter is on the way comes when Laura spots a beaver house nearby and Pa sees just how thickly they have built the walls.

One day when Laura and her sister Carrie venture into DeSmet to purchase a replacement for a blade in the cutter, they get lost on the way back and Laura has her first meeting with the man who will become her husband, Almanzo Wilder, where he is cutting hay with his brother, Royal.

An encounter with an Indian one day when Pa is in town is enough to spook him into moving his family from the homestead into the building in town which he built at the end of By The Shores of Silver Lake. The Indian warned the townsfolk that it would be a harsh winter, and the Wilder brothers also move into their store in town.

Laura tells much of the story of The Long Winter from the perspective of the Ingalls family, but she also occasionally jumps to the perspective of Almanzo Wilder. It breaks up the story nicely in a lot of ways as this different perspective breathes some new life into the story. The Ingalls’ have always been a family that struggled financially but kept their spirits up. The Wilders are two bachelors who have enough in money and supplies to survive the winter on their own. Yet Almanzo’s conscience won’t allow him to let those less fortunate go without or even starve…

The story is one hard to imagine. Whenever there’s any sort of decent snowfall predicted for our area even in this day and age there’s often a run on the supermarkets. Imagine a time when for months upon months the trains cannot get through and the stores run out of supplies. The school has been shut down, all of the coal is gone from the lumberyard. The Ingalls’ are twisting and burning the hay Laura and Pa cut the previous fall for heat, and yet there is still no end in sight. It sort of puts into perspective the whining I hear from my kids if the electricity is out for more than a couple of hours.

I found The Long Winter to be a troubling book to read with my kids in some ways. It’s frightening in a way to think about a whole town being abandoned by the railroads to starve, and that’s pretty much what happened. I had to reassure my nine year-old several times the first time we read it that they survived – after all, this book was written. At the same time, it taught valuable lessons about sticking together, not just within the Ingalls family but as a community. Almanzo could have abandoned any sense of responsibility for those beginning to starve around him, but instead he rises to the occasion and possibly saves all of them. When a store-owner attempts to price-gouge in the face of high-demand and dwindling supply, the town collectively lets him know that he will change his mind if he wants to continue to do business with them after the winter is over.

I spent several weeks reading The Long Winter at night before bed with my daughters the first time we read it through together. Laura’s descriptions of the setting and events is excellent, and comes with years of practice being the “eyes” for her blind sister, Mary. I don’t find her descriptions to be overwritten and bogged down, but fascinating. In a book about snowstorm after snowstorm, it could easily have become tedious, but she manages to craft different angles into the events of each chapter and creates a pacing that gripped all of us to find out how long the terrible storms would last and who would be alive at the end. It also sparks discussion about the differences between the current time and life back then, some questions about which I don’t have the answers to.

My new edition of The Long Winter is a paperback bound book with the same beautiful illustrations by Garth Williams that I grew up with. The difference is that they are now in color, rather than the pen-and-ink style drawings I first saw all those years ago. It’s interesting to see how the color can be used to set a tone in the drawings. For instance, in the picture of Laura first attending school in DeSmet where she sees her friend, Cap Garland, the sky behind him is a light blue, giving a more light-hearted feel to the evens surrounding that drawing. In another drawing where Pa and some other men are riding a hand-car down the railroad tracks to clear them of snow, the sky is a darker blue, creating a more ominous tone. The color also adds a dimension to drawings such as Royal helping Almanzo defrost his feet after his treacherous journey as the shadows cast by the lantern-light are more evident.

In any of the earlier books, I noticed an increase in the font size with the new editions. That doesn’t seem to be the case with this edition of The Long Winter. When I read the story with my girls, the chapters were the perfect size to read one each night at bedtime.

If you’ve never read the books, I definitely feel they are worth it for adults as well. I am enjoying reading them again just by myself for the first time in years. If you have children, it’s a wonderful experience which will spark lots of conversation and questions about life so many years ago.


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