DNA Podcast 030 – Interview with Dr. R.N. Shukul

rnshukul

In this episode Rob and Don sit down with Journalist and TV Producer Dr. Rashid Narain (R.N.) Shukul to discuss Television and Media in India. Along the way, they touch on RN’s career as a cameraman and war correspondent, his time as TV game show producer in India, his time producing documentaries for Fremantle Media, and some of the political figures he’s encountered. Are Indians into Scifi? What is their preferred style of heroic fiction? And what’s up with all the singing and dancing? All of these questions and more will be answered in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

DNA Episode 027 – Horror Hosts with Michael Monahan

220px-ghoulardi

In this episode, Rob and Don sit down with Michael Monahan, author and co-producer of the documentary American Scary, to talk about Horror Hosts. We delve into the origins of the Horror Host phenomena from its early days with Vampira to the megahit Ghoulardi and the modern incarnations which still stalk the airwaves. All this, and why Bob Wilkins is a name every scifi fan should know, is coming to you in this, the 27th episode of the Department Affairs!

Don’t know what Horror Hosts are? Watch the short video below for a quick primer of a few of the more famous ones in action.

 

DNA Podcast 019 – Ghosts of Saturday Mornings Past

Crusader Rabbit

In this episode, Don and Rob discuss North American TV animation, tracing it from its roots in the 1950s to the rise of Saturday morning television and its eventual evolution in the age of Netflix. Along the way, they spend time with Huckleberry Hound, The Flintstones, Josie the Pussycats, the Micronauts, and Goober and the Ghost Chasers. All this, and why Fred and Barney sold cigarettes on air is waiting for you in this, the 19th episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

Volton: Legendary Defender Review (Very Lite Spoilers)

I just finished watching the first season of Netflix and Dreamworks’ new attempt at rebooting Voltron, and I have to say I was impressed. This is no surprise, since the people behind the reboot are the same team and studio behind Avatar: The Legend of Korra, and they bring their trademark style of character, action, and humor to the project. So what did I like and didn’t I like?

Likes

  • The animation is beautiful, and they’re not afraid to mix different styles together and do tricks like dropping to black and white line drawing at certain dramatic scenes. They’re very in control of the medium, and even though we’re looking at a mix of CGI and 2D animation, it all blends very nicely.
  • The story is overall well written, and while it starts a little rushed it picks up quite well as it goes along. While each episode stands on its own, there is a clear overall story and progression, and they deftly avoid falling into the “Voltron fights monster of the week” trap. (In fact, I was shocked by how few monster battles there actually are.)
  • The monster battles that happen are extremely well thought out and well choreographed, not “fight>fight>fight>blazing sword>end” but requiring the characters to think each monster through as a problem, not just as an obstacle to their goals. (Which makes the monsters more scary and actually intimidating.)
  • They made Hunk, Lance, and Pidge into distinctive (and very loveable) characters who all have a purpose in the story and aren’t just sidekicks.
  • They’ve expanded Zarkon’s forces into an actual race, The Galra, and treat them like an actual military force and even gave them bits of their own language.
  • The shift towards an active role for the team instead of passively sitting there waiting for the next monster to attack.

Undecided

    • The original Voltron used Keith as it’s core anchor, and then slowly expanded on the rest of the cast as it went on. (It was following the formula set up by Gatchaman (aka Battle of the Planets/G-Force) and which is still used in Sentai today, where the Red Ranger is always the default hero/leader.) This new series is all ensemble, all the time, with no clear focal character except a character that the episode might choose to focus on. While this works okay, I found this results in the Hunk/Lance/Pidge trio getting the majority of lines and screen time, while the actual more heroic warrior characters of Keith and Shiro kinda get shafted in terms of story focus. Keith and Shiro start the season as enigmas, and pretty much end there too, in fact Keith is now reduced to being just another skilled but generic pilot, and a boring one. (Imagine a Legend of Korra where they spent 75% of their time on Mako and Bolin instead of Korra, and Korra just turns up to fight.) I’m hoping this is because Keith is now on a slow-burn towards hero-dom and it will be remedied in the following seasons.
    • The new Voltron design is okay, not great, not bad.
    • Every time they form Voltron, I keep having GaoGaiGar flashbacks, because the new Voltron combining sequence is a total GaoGaiGar “homage”. Watch…

Forming Voltron (however, this is the shorter version, there is a longer version which is even more like GaoGaiGar’s Final Fusion)

GaoGaiGar’s Final Fusion sequence for comparison.

Dislikes

  • I’m oldschool this way, but to me Voltron isn’t Voltron without this theme! (Which I’ve been humming since my childhood.) Instead we get a bunch of really lackluster synth music that’s functional but nothing exceptional.

Overall, it’s a very well done show, and in some ways is superior to the original. It kind’ve reminds me of the Thundercats reboot they did a few years back, although that show had a little more depth to it. This new Voltron series is just a simple and fun retelling of the original Voltron story, and I look forward to seeing where they go with it.

Rob

P.S. Here’s your useless Trivia of the day! The original Voltron series wasn’t supposed to be translated from Beast King Golion at all. It was supposed to be translated from another series called Daltanius, which also featured a robot with a lion component. However, during pre-production World Events Productions asked their Japanese partner to send them tapes of “the one with the lion” and Toei Animation accidentally sent tapes of Golion instead! WEP liked Golion so much they decided to translate it instead!

And now you know…the rest of the story.

The Kung Fu Puppetry of Taiwan

Pili Puppet show at Taoyuan International Airport, Taiwan

Pili Puppet show at Taoyuan International Airport, Taiwan. Picture by Harris Tsam

 

As far as I know, Taiwan is one of the few places where puppetry is not only appreciated, but where puppet shows are shown on national television. In particular, the Pili programs of gloved puppetry shows have continued to capture the imaginations of young Taiwanese with their creative and colourful puppet storytelling.

The credit for upholding the long lasting popularity of Hand Puppet Shows in Taiwan, no doubt, belongs to the Huang family. Through their creative performances and their skillful management, they continue to find new ways to evolve the Hand Puppet Shows. Ultimately, the Huang family had developed the famous PiLi Dynasty with the PiLi Puppet Theatre. Following the current trends of modern society and the technological media- television became the new performing stage of the Puppet Shows and delivered this theatrical artistry to even a much broader audience. In its effort to attract the young viewers of the new generation, PiLi Puppet Theatre continued to create new and interesting concepts in their stories, including- illusionary time and space themes and action-packed Chinese kung-fu sequences. Now, the Puppet Show’s stage and presentation techniques can now expand to a different level of possibilities.  From e-pili.com.tw

During my own time in Taiwan, I have seen first hand how popular these shows are, as there are specialty stores selling copies of the puppets and related merchandise and even a Pili-themed museums. The puppets themselves are so beautiful, I was tempted to buy one just for display.

How beautiful are they? Watch this amazing 2010 opening for one of the Pili TV series:

 

There have been several attempts to bring these shows over for English audiences as well, the first was an international release of Legend of the Sacred Stone, a somewhat rare film that has garnered a 7.3/10 rating on IMDB and a small cult following for it’s crazy-ness. You can see a sample here:

 

The other was in 2006, when Cartoon Network took one of the Pili series and dubbed it into a show called Wulin Warriors. Sadly, as is often done with foreign non-animated properties (and some animated ones as well!) the dubbers decided to have “some fun” with it, and “liven it up”. So while the visuals might still give you some of the spirit of the original, the dub itself and the creative changes seem targeted squarely at 8-10 year old boys. Someone has put all 13 episodes up on YouTube, if you can get through that many…

And that character that rambles on about pizza and makes bad jokes? In the original show, he’s a deaf mute. (I guess now we know why!) I haven’t seen the original, but I imagine it’s a heck of a lot more watchable. The only redeeming thing about this one is the beautiful puppetwork.

Anyhow, if you happen to come across one of these Pili productions or characters, now you know what they are. Unfortunately, there’s no fansubbed versions of the shows out there, and unless you speak Mandarin you won’t be able to follow the originals well. My own Mandarin isn’t up to the task, yet, but maybe someday.

More about Taiwan puppet culture in this short 5 minute documentary:

Rob

Legend of Korra Finishes (spoiler lite)

And with tonight’s episode, Avatar: The Legend of Korra reaches it’s final conclusion with the end of Season Four.

It’s been a rocky road for what has turned out to be one of the best animated series Americans have ever produced. The show itself was only meant to last a single season, and then suddenly given three more when it turned into a mega-hit, which left the writers scrambling to continue a story they’d rushed to finish at the end of Season One. Then, once Season Two didn’t get the ratings of Season One, the executives at Nickelodeon lost faith it in to the point they pulled it from the air halfway through Season Three due to “low ratings”. (Low ratings on a show that they didn’t advertise, and which they threw onto the air during the notoriously low-rated Summer season. Surprise!) In the end, it only got a fourth season because it was already in the can when Season Three was stuck online-only, and because it still got great ratings in overseas markets.

Despite all this, the writers and producers of Avatar: The Legend of Korra managed to produce a fine show. A series with unique characters that grew and had a life of their own, a setting that actually changed with the story, and some amazing heroic action sequences that could be mind-blowingly good. Korra started as a unique lead, a hotheaded “female jock” who didn’t fall into the stereotypical “strong female lead” traps, and changed as the series went on into a balanced and considerate person. She suffered, and grew from her suffering, and since the theme of the show was “change and transformation”, she exemplified those ideas in the best possible ways.

Each of the villains represented a different philosophy- equality, harmony, anarchy, and order taken to a radical extreme (mostly in the pursuit of power) and that gave the show a thoughtful edge that challenged the preconceptions held by the main character and the audience. It forced Korra to expand her way of thinking about the world, and in doing so also made the audience question as well. Even if it was all in the service of some great action/adventure stories, it gave the show a subversive depth you rarely see on TV anywhere, much less on a Nick cartoon.

It wasn’t a perfect show, of course. There was the horribly rushed ending during the last 15 minutes of the first season, and then the second season didn’t come anywhere near the quality of the first in terms of writing. (It was very much a generic “evil villain wants to take over the world because he’s evil” plot.) And, while the third and fourth seasons were amazing (and even managed to make the second season look better in retrospect of what we learn later), there was a lot of character randomness as the writers struggled to make characters designed for one season work over four seasons. (This was especially true of Asami, but more on her shortly.) There was also the decision to “break” the link between the Avatar and her past selves during Season Two that I maintain was a big mistake that even the writers felt later on. But, what’s done is done.

And, in the end, it all came together in a spectacular fourth season that echoed real Chinese history, with Kuvira standing in for Shang Kai-Shek and his Nationalist Army. The finale played to the show’s strengths, and the whole thing showed how Korra had really changed the world and herself through her actions and choices. If Korra hadn’t come along, the ending never could have happened, and that’s the mark of a good story- where everything fits together.

Everything except one small piece…

SPOILERS from here on in! Don’t read if you haven’t watched the ending yet and care.

So, first, let me say that I don’t care who Korra ended up with. I’m not a (relation)shipper, and don’t often invest in character romance stories or pairings. In fact, Korra could have ended up with Kuvira, or Tenzin, or even the Ghost of Uncle Iroh for all I care. That said, I didn’t like the pairing of Korra and Asami at the end, and in fact it pissed me off.

When I first saw it, I actually smiled. Both because it was nice to see Korra start a new relationship, and because I was impressed a Nick show would end with such a LGBTI friendly ending. It took guts to end the show that way, and they must have worked hard to slip that past the Suits. (I wouldn’t even be surprised if it’s edited for later airings after a flurry of “concerned parents” write like crazy to Nickelodeon.)

However, something bugged me, and after a bit of thought I realized what it was.

You see, one way to see a story is as an argument. The whole story is an argument for why it ends the way it does. It sets up evidence and puts into motion events that produce the ending we get. A perfect example of that is Varrick and Ju-Li. Varrick starts as a heartless capitalist rogue with Ju-li as his assistant, and then after he loses everything she still sticks with him. When he loses her too and goes on a journey of self-discovery he comes to realize that she is the most important thing in his life, and eventually appreciates her and asks her to marry him. (Something the Varrick we first meet would never have done.) She also grows in her will to be a person, and in doing so, earns his love by not just being his assistant, but by being his partner. You can think back and examine the trail of evidence, and reach the conclusion that this was the proper ending for their story.

Not so for Korra and Asami.

When Asami was introduced, it was as a romantic rival/femme fatale/non-bender character who represented the new technological age and stood between Korra and her love-interest Mako. She was intricately tied into the story for Season One, since her father was one of the main villains, and so when Season Two came around the writers struggled with what to do with her and ultimately stuck with the romantic-rival role. Finally, partway through Season Three, she took on the “best friend/confidante” role, and that’s where she sat until literally the last second of the story when it’s implied she and Korra are starting a romantic relationship.

Now, over-viewed like that it doesn’t look so bad, but in actual presentation there was zero clues or hints of anything romantic between the two of them until the very very end. Like nothing. After more than two seasons of chasing a man and being passionately in love with men, and being heartbroken about losing men, they suddenly decide to run off together. How does that work? This would be like if at the end of Harry Potter, Harry and Ron suddenly decided to run off together after spending the whole story chasing girls. It’s a valid ending, but is it the valid conclusion to the argument the story makes?

Now, you could make an argument that Korra wasn’t emotionally in a position or ready to take on a relationship like this until the end of the story. She’s a changed person, and as a result she’s ready to try something new and go in a new and more balanced direction. That would be fair, however, it takes two to tango, and Asami was never shown to have any romantic interest in Korra either. If she had, I could have bought the ending, but we’ve never had even the slightest hint that Asami also likes women, and every piece of evidence in the show tells us the opposite.

So there’s the problem, we have not one, but two characters making total left-turns at the end of the story out of the blue. I can only guess that the writers/producers wanted to do something controversial, or perhaps please the Korra/Asami Shippers by giving them the ending nobody expected to get. Then again, it was the ending that nobody expected because it didn’t make any sense, not because it was socially radical.

For the record, I was rooting for Korra and Bum-ju. (It had just as much evidence to support it.)

Rob

House of Lies

I just started to watch House of Lies on Netflix (Canada), and I have to say the writing is so sharp I think I cut myself on the remote. This (Hard) R-rated comedy about consulting packs a hour’s worth of show into half that time, and the episodes I’ve seen so far are just so solidly done I can’t believe I missed this gem. The dialogue, the story structure, the characterization, the acting, the gratuitous sex- I think I’m in love!

Oh, and it’s damn funny too. My hat’s off to whoever writes this thing. It’s my new Breakfast television!

Rob

Hosting Horror

To me, as a kid, Saturday afternoon was a sacred time. I spent each Saturday from 1pm until 6pm watching Superhost Marty Sullivan show old horror and sci-fi movies from Cleveland, OH. In fact, I dare say it was a more religious experience to me than my Sunday mornings at church!

http://www.clevelandseniors.com/photos/marty-sullivan/superhost.jpg

As such, I have a great fondness for Horror Hosts and the Creature Feature programs they hosted. According to what I read, they were the result of packages of old B-Grade Horror Movies being sold to small and independent stations back in the day to pretty much act as filler content during lulls in programming. The problem was that these movies were all of odd lengths, and generally needed to be fit evenly with commercials into 2-3 hour blocks. So, they created Horror Hosts like Vampira (the first horror host was actually a Host-ess!) to fill in the gaps or occasionally narrate around edits for time when things needed to be shortened.

This evolution was chronicled in the documentary American Scary, which you can watch in full here:


American Scary by filmow

Each Horror Host had their own schtick and style, and there were a lot of them! Superhost was the one I actually watched on a regular basis because of his fondness for Japanese Giant Monster Movies, but I did occasionally watch Sir Graves Ghastly from Detroit if there was something he was showing I thought it was worth staying up for.


Most Hosts did extra comedy skits, and many of them became very famous local celebrities, often appearing at special events and doing charity work.

Oddly enough, Cleveland (which is right across Lake Erie from my own city of London, ON) was a hotbed for Horror Hosts, and the producer of one of the most famous- Ghoulardi. Ghoulardi was way before my time (1963-1966) but was so influential and popular that there’s even a convention in his honor held every year which attracts many fans of the genre. There was also an Emmy award-winning documentary made about him called Turn Blue, which you can also watch on Youtube…


Sadly, Horror Hosts seem to have been a uniquely American phenomenon (here’s a list of the Top 12), with the only non-American host I’ve been able to find being one in Australia. I tried to find examples of Canadian ones, but we don’t seem to have had any true ones. (I have heard there might have been one in Montreal, though.) They’re a cultural artifact which has mostly passed into history, as there are only a tiny handful of them left, mostly on local public access TV channels in the US. I’ve also heard there are a few modern Horror Hosts doing their thing on Youtube, but haven’t found any yet.

I’m not sure why they interest me so, I guess it’s just nostalgia as I get older. They’re an artifact of my childhood that I wasn’t aware was different while I was growing up, but are gone now that I’m old enough to appreciate them. Yeah, there’s Rifttracks and MST3K, but it’s not the same. I guess you just had to be there! 🙂

Stay Sick!

A few sites with more information:

http://www.horrorhostgraveyard.com/

http://myweb.wvnet.edu/e-gor/tvhorrorhosts//

http://www.horrorhostmagazine.com/

Heroes of IP Theft

A slightly amusing and sad situation has popped up surrounding Syfy’s new series Heroes of Cosplay (see above trailer), mostly due to a misunderstanding of copyright law on the parts of several parties.

It seems that the show contains numerous still shots of the cosplayers mixed in with the video, and this is a bit of an issue since those shots are legally owned by the photographers of those shots, who were neither paid nor credited for them. The producers of the show acquired these shots from the cosplayers, who it seems were under the mistaken assumption that because they’re the stars of the pictures they have co-ownership rights. However, unless releases are specificically signed saying so, or the pictures are commissioned and paid for by the cosplayers, this isn’t true at all.

So, the owners of at least one set of pictures are demanding payment from the show’s producers, who are reasonably freaking out. According to the linked article, they’re trying to blame the cosplayers, but the cosplayers did give them the contact information for the photographers in question as well, it was the producer’s fault for not actually following up on things.

I said I find this sad and amusing. It’s sad because with a little bit of homework and effort, this whole mess could have been avoided. (I see someone getting fired in the near future…) It’s amusing because Cosplay itself is a giant exercise in intellectual property theft, and technically the rights holders to the original characters being cosplayed would be within their rights to demand similar payments from not just Syfy, but also the cosplayers and the photographers (should these photographers actually get the money they’re demanding). Anyone making money from their intellectual property should be giving them a cut, and all these people are. Luckily the rights holders seem to still see this as free PR, so they’re letting it slide- for now.

It’s also amusing because apparently cosplayers regularly get mad about the idea of photographers selling images of them without giving them some payment, but don’t seem to feel the need to pay the original IP owners a penny for the property they’re borrowing themselves.

Then again, if you read the comments under that article, it seems that the one thing most people seem to agree on is that the photographer has no rights to demand payment for their works, and that the corporations and cosplayers do. Sigh.

Rob

Marvel’s (White) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

So, ABC finally made the obvious official- there is a new TV series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe called Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. For which you can watch the first trailer below…

Looks amazing, doesn’t it? Gonna be a heck of a show, and I’m seriously looking forward to it. But, there is something that bothered me about it, and I think I can demonstrate with the official cast picture…

marvels-agents-of-shield-cast

Look, I’m not someone who thinks every cast needs to be equally male and female, nor am I someone who believes that every cast should look like it was designed to appeal to every cultural/ethnic group. I always believe what’s more important is the characters, and they should be whatever the creators want them to be, political correctness be damned.

That said, that cast couldn’t be a bunch of whiter people if we sent them to Harvard and dipped them in yogurt! Even the token Asian chick (who is supposed to be the team’s “tough guy”, good luck with that) is one of the whitest and most caucasian looking Asians they could possibly find. (And if you’ve seen other pictures of Ming Na Wen, they’re working hard on the make-up end to made her as un-ethnic as possible.) This cast looks like it was for the SHIELD TV series of 1963, not 2013! Did the execs at ABC not get the memo? Or, did they borrow the casting director from the CW?

Also, is there a factory churning out clones of Nicolas Brendon (Xander from Buffy:TVS)? Because the lead male there could show up at his house for dinner and Brendon’s family wouldn’t even notice! (They’d probably just assume it’s his identical twin brother dropping by to say hello.)

Now, I’m not sure who’s responsible for this, whether it’s the Whedons (the show is done by Josh, his brother and his sister-in-law (who’s Asian)), or whether it’s the execs at ABC. I lean towards the execs at ABC- it is the middle-America Disney channel now, so they are targeting that demographic. But really, a whole show about white people running around and the only major black character in the pilot is a street thug with superpowers? Well, I guess that does fit in with the ABC mindset nicely.

I really would have liked to see a person of color as Coulson’s second in command (or anywhere else on the team!), especially since the Marvel movies are about a group of superpowered white people saving the world again and again. This show could really have been a chance to balance that off a little, and show that the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t just inhabited by white people saving the day.

But apparently, it is.

Rob