Monday, December 30, 2013

Harlan Ellison: Edgeworks Abbey on Amazon

Brain Movies: The Original Teleplays of Harlan Ellison, Vol. Three
Brain Movies: The Original Teleplays of Harlan Ellison, Vol. Four 
Brain Movies: The Original Teleplays of Harlan Ellison, Vol. Five
Harlan 101: Encountering Ellison 

Honorable Whoredom at a Penny a Word 
None of the Above (Unproduced Screenplay based on Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron)
Rough Beasts: Seventeen Stories Written Before I Got Up To Speed 
by Harlan Ellison
(Edgeworks Abbey, $29.99-$39.99)

      Last year I wrote about how science fiction/fantasy/TV writer Harlan Ellison was publishing new, old and revised works through a publisher so exclusive that the books could only be ordered from a dedicated website -- not from, say, a brick-and-mortar bookstore or Now he (or his publisher) has relented and the books are appearing on Amazon (some of them, anyway, but still not on Barnes and Noble), and the publisher is now listed as something called Edgeworks Abbey, a reference (I guess) to the old Harlan Ellison Edgeworks reprint series from White Wolf that went bust.

     I only received one reader comment on the earlier post, and it was critical of my criticism, specifically my complaint that the books seemed overpriced ($40 for a softcover book about the size of a Yellow Pages) considering that they were filled with "found" material, either scripts for TV shows and films -- some never produced -- that Ellison had long ago written, or material that Ellison hadn't previously considered worthy of reprinting, now slightly revised.

     (One famous or infamous example is the story "Invulnerable," which was scheduled for his collection Stalking the Nightmare, and was included in the manuscript sent to Stephen King for his perusal prior to his writing a laudatory introduction to the book. King singled out the story for praise, devoting many paragraphs to it, but after HE sent King the ms., HE had a change of heart and removed the story from the book as unworthy. He did not remove King's comments from the intro, however. Now he's "fixed" the story. I object on two grounds. First, I think that was rude to King and his readers to remove the story, and I also disapprove of authors rewriting stories and book after publication. Mary Shelley did this with Frankenstein, and H.G. Wells did this with his excellent short story "The Country of the Blind." It is almost always done for a buck. I prefer to see the original work, warts and all. Tinkering with history in this way reminds me of Orwell's 1984.)

     My critic argued that the books were facsimiles of the original scripts, with marginal notes and therefore invaluable for anyone interested in studying TV and film writing. (I suspect Ellison has just photocopied the pages so he doesn't have to have them typeset. The comments/changes/etc. could appear as footnotes, take up fewer pages and therefore be more convenient to read. If they take up fewer pages, which seems likely, they might also be cheaper.)

     (I like -- or rather liked; I haven't read much in the past couple of decades, so I'm not sure how I'd feel about them now -- much of Ellison's work, including his scripts, but considering his track record in getting scripts produced -- despite the awards and acclaim they receive -- he might not be the best example for a struggling screenwriter to emulate. Just saying.)

     The non-script volumes HE released, including a best-of volume that doubles as a writing manual, were priced about the same as the books of scripts (I think one goes for $30). Do these also have the marginal notes my critic thought justified the cost for the script volumes? Some of these are only half as long as the script volumes.

     My critic also failed to comment on my criticism that the books were cynically arranged so that fans of one of one segment of the author's writing -- say, his Burke's Law scripts, or the story that became the Outer Limits script Demon with a Glass Hand -- couldn't just buy one or two volumes, but would have to buy several (I believe his Burke's Law scripts are spread out one per volume). All are equally deserving of attention, in HE's opinion, so he throws them together in a way to make it more difficult for his fans. (Fortunately HE's fans should be used to such treatment; see the earlier Edgeworks series, for example.)

     As I said in the earlier post, I don't object to these books based on their quality. If they were a third the price, or they had been published 20 years ago,  I would probably buy them all. If I could see them in the stores. I might buy one or two on impulse. But these books will do nothing for HE's reputation or legacy. The prose is rewritten juvenilia or best-of stories that are or should be readily available elsewhere, not from an overpriced small press. The scripts are a specialty item, but poorly packaged to appeal to fans or even serious students of HE because of the way they are organized. The supplemental material, such as the prose that became Demon with a Glass Hand, are curiosities that HE previously refused to release, the sort of item in fact that he has said he has specified in his will as to be burned after his death, now released apparently to shake a few coins out of his most devoted fans.

     HE does have one long-promised publishing venture Ellison could actually put out from this imprint that would be a genuine service to the general public and many of his fellow writers, living and dead: The Last Dangerous Visions. More about that next time.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Murdoch Mysteries: Enough with Gillies already!

     Every series detective must eventually meet his nemesis, a foe too powerful or clever to be disposed of in only one adventure. Holmes had Moriarty (though to be technical and pedantic -- two things I often am -- he was actually eliminated in the same story in which he was introduced, but there have been many sequels and prequels by other hands), Nero Wolfe had Arnold Zeck, Doc Savage had John Sunlight, Superman has Lex Luthor, Batman has The Joker and Ra's Al Ghul.
     William Murdoch, the constable from Toronto in the Murdoch's Mysteries TV series, has one, too (I could be wrong, but I don't think a comparable character exists in the books): James Gillies. That's good news for actor Michael Seater. who has played the part three times this year alone.
      Unfortunately, while a nemesis is supposed to define the hero, to show his greatness by defeating a worthy adversary, Gillies is showing Murdoch up to be a weak and ineffectual would-be hero. So far, Gillies has been stopped not so much by Murdoch's efforts as by Gillies' own flaws. The ease with which Gillies then escapes to plot against Murdoch again suggests that Gillies might be letting himself get caught so he can attempt to defeat Murdoch again.
     Gillies was introduced in the season two episode Big Murder on Campus as a sort of Leopold-and-Loeb thrill killer. He was belatedly re-introduced three years later when it was discovered he had faked his death in prison and escaped to seek revenge on the only man who out-thought him in Murdoch in Toyland. In the end, he disappeared while in police custody, returning with a more involved scheme to frame Murdoch's true love, Julia Ogden, for murder in Crime and Punishment, then to taunt Murdoch so he can put the detective in a death trap, supposedly forcing him to choose between suicide and saving Julia in The Murder Trap. Again, he is caught, and mention is made through several episodes of the following season to his trial continuing, his execution being postponed by appeals (his family is wealthy) leading up to A Midnight Train to Kingston. His fate is uncertain at the end of the episode, though it is presumed he has survived, and he is no doubt fated to return again.
     Frankly, he's pretty puny for a master criminal. His crimes were never personal or for profit; he just wanted to prove he was a super-man, better than everyone else. Murdoch puts a crimp in that, so he must destroy Murdoch.
     What makes Gillies so much less interesting than say Moriarty or Hannibal Lecter is not that he is insane but that he is barely functionally insane. How he passed for normal for so many years is a mystery because he is now a raving lunatic. Having escaped prison and the hangman's noose he is so insane that he neglects to seek his revenge from a distance and by proxy. He is always caught, after killing other people or causing them to be killed. He is so clever that after numerous escapes from custody, he still manages to escape from dedicated lawmen, including Murdoch.
     Gillies must go. He is too one-note to be interesting any longer. The producers would be well-advised to just let him die, let his lifeless body be found in a future episode, as when Vincent Donofrio's Goren discovered his nemesis on Law & Order: Criminal Intent was dead. Catharsis denied for the detective can be good for the viewer, particularly if it spares us another meeting with Gillies.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Christmas TV (of the Non-Traditional Kind)

     Back in 2011, I posted some of my favorite non-traditional Christmas TV episodes, most of which were twisted versions of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. I can't improve on that list, so here it is again. I don't know if you can find any of them on TV (some may not even be available on DVD), but all are well-worth seeking.

Out-of-print VHS edition from
     First is a British program of which my wife and I seem to be the only local fans. In fact, she says I’m the only person she ever met who even knew of its existence: “Blackadder’s Christmas Carol” (1988). It was a special show featuring the cast and characters of several related British historical comedies involving a despicable man named Edmund Blackadder. The series starred Rowan Atkinson (best known on this side of the Atlantic for his “Mr. Bean” character and as the novice vicar who mangles the second wedding ceremony in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) in different historical periods, including a nobleman in the court of Queen Elizabeth I and the man servant of Prince Regent George IV. In these series he is conniving, duplicitous and only out for himself.
     In “Christmas Carol” he plays Ebenezer Blackadder, the kindest man in all of Queen Victoria’s England, who is taken advantage of by everyone he knows or meets. On Christmas Eve, he is visited by a ghost (Robbie Coltrane, aka Hagrid from the “Harry Potter” films) who thanks him for being the only decent Blackadder ever to have lived, and then makes the mistake of showing him visions of his ancestors at Christmas. Ebenezer Blackadder is surprised to discover that being evil can pay off. He further discovers, due to another unfortunate vision from the ghost, that if he were to become evil, his distant descendant would end up ruling the universe. The next morning, Blackadder has become as wicked as his ancestors, although the conversion proves to be ill-timed. (Look for the episode for more details; it’s included on the “Blackadder III” DVD.)
     “A Very Sunny Christmas” (2009), a special episode of the FX series “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” also borrows some of the “Christmas Carol” format. Dennis and Deandra Reynolds try to finally get some Christmas presents from their father, Frank (he’s always bought himself presents at Christmas and flaunted them in front of his children) by enlisting Frank’s old business partner (who Frank cheated out of his half of the business) to pose as a sort of ghost of Marley. Then Frank tries to shoot him, and the partner says he holds no grudge against Frank. The plan eventually seems to work, but complications ensue. (In a parallel plot, the series’ other two regulars, Mac and Charlie, compare their families’ Christmas traditions, and realize that things were not really as they remembered.) It’s available on DVD or Blu-ray.

      Then there was an obscure anthology show called “George Burns Comedy Week” which included “Christmas Carol II: The Sequel,” a followup to Dickens’ story one year later. Scrooge (who I thought was played by James Whitmore but who isn’t listed in the IMDB credits) is now being taken advantage of by everyone, including Bob Cratchet. The ghosts visit him again to tell him there is a middle ground between being a miser and being foolishly generous. To my knowledge, this is not currently available anywhere. Maybe it will pop up on one those extra digital channels you only get with the Digital-to-Analog TV Converter Box; they seem to show a lot of otherwise unavailable old TV programming.

     While it’s not "Christmas Carol"-derived, I have to mention “Saturday Night Live - The Best of Saturday TV Funhouse” (2008),  which includes a bunch of Robert Smigel Christmas parodies, including variations on “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and Rankin/Bass (“The Narrator That Ruined Christmas,” “Santa and the States” and Darlene Love singing “Christmastime for the Jews”), as well as Christmas-themed episodes of “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” and the “Harlem Globetrotters” cartoon.

     Finally, “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Essentials” includes Joel and the ’bots commenting on the classic bad film “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” (Pia Zadora’s first film!), plus the inspiring “Road House”-inspired song “A Patrick Swayze Christmas.”

     Do you have any nontraditional Christmas favorites? Let me know.