Sunday, July 31, 2011

On tie-in books in general

I don't remember the first Star Trek episode I ever saw. I do remember the first Star Trek book I ever read: Mission to Horatius by Mack Reynolds. The second was Star Trek 3 by James Blish.

I read two tie-in novels about The Invaders in the early 1970s. I didn't actually see an episode of the TV series until the first two episodes were released on VHS to cash in on X-Files mania.

I had seven of eight Tom Corbett Space Cadet books before I realized they were based on a TV series. I didn't see any episodes of the show until the early 1990s.

I've read books based on Get Smart, Rat Patrol, Mission: Impossible, Man From UNCLE, Hawaii Five-O, and yes, Bewitched.

I read the original edition of the novelization of Star Wars. The one with the Ralph MacQuarrie cover released six months or so before the movie came out. I read it as soon as I could find a copy, well before the movie premiered.

Looking at the bookcase to my right, I've got books based on dozens of SF and fantasy TV series and movies. It's not because that's all I read, by any stretch. No, there are two reasons. First, when I started watching SF the only way to have your own preserved version of a show or movie was to buy tie-in books. Second, much more important, and still relevant: a good tie-in book makes the experience of the TV series or movie deeper, richer, and more rewarding. TV and movies can be immersive, but they can also be watched with a fraction of your attention while you eat supper, or IMDB that actor you can't quite place, or make out with your significant other.

Reading demands your attention. You have to immerse yourself more deeply. You can't turn the pages while doing something else and take for granted that you saw enough out of the corner of your eye to keep you from losing track of what's going on. Plus, books aren't on TV for free, and they aren't usually over in an hour. You invest more time and money in reading.

Writers reward that effort and that immersion by going where filmed media can't -- inside the characters' thoughts; in places that aren't practical for filming; they can deceive us and keep us in suspense in different ways from film. Good tie-in writers are giving us a different experience, one we could only have this way, and one that lets us go back to the filmed original with a new perspective on the characters, the setting, the stories.

Sure, sometimes what you get instead is a hack job by someone who doesn't seem to have ever seen the property in question, who gets the basics wrong, who does things that are simply ridiculous. It happens. But it happens in what some folks call canon, too -- look at all the character abuse in Star Trek V, for a start.

If I really like a TV series or movie and I think there's more stories there than we're getting, if it's something that lends itself to expansion in print form, then I'm interested. Sometimes I'm disappointed, as I was by the failure of shows like Farscape, The X-Files, and Babylon 5 to produce strong and lasting tie-in lines. But sometimes the books exceed my expectations. There are whole universes of storytelling in series like Star Trek, Doctor Who, and (though I'm not so much of a fan) Star Wars in book form that go far beyond the filmed canon. Take Vanguard, for example. Bernice Summerfield. And so much more.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm in the middle of a Torchwood novel that fills in some of what Gwen and Rhys were doing between Children of Earth and Miracle Day.

Going slightly off topic for a few posts

Cover of Doctor Who and the Ice WarriorsGreetings from the nonexistent Prydonian Academy Library website. There's not much Trek stuff to report on these days, so please indulge me in a temporary detour.

Looking back ten years ago...

The summer of 2001 was a great time to become a Doctor Who fan. The show had been off the air for years, the McGann TV movie was already five years in the past, and it must have looked to some like a dead franchise. It was anything but. The BBC was publishing Eighth Doctor Adventures and Past Doctor Adventures every month, and you could still find a lot of the New Adventures and Missing Adventures novels in bookstores. The Chapters bookstore chain carried a lot of videotapes and DVDs in its stores and you could find plenty of Doctor Who episodes for sale. Big Finish was producing new monthly audio adventures with TV cast members. Telos was just a few months from starting its line of novellas. Doctor Who Magazine was publishing a new issue every four weeks.

On the fan side, the Internet offered plenty of information and interaction. The newsgroup was still alive, Outpost Gallifrey was already going strong, and Daniel O'Malley's Timelash Tardis Library website offered all the information someone trying to get a sense of books, videos, and audios could need.

And you could find so much stuff in bookstores. Virgin and BBC books in the chainstores, Targets in the used bookstores, VHS tapes in video stores. You could find any number of things before you'd need to go to Amazon, eBay, or specialized retailers like WhoNA.

There was no sign of any new TV Doctor Who on the horizon. But did it matter? With 26 years of TV to explore, dozens of original novels, comic strips, audios, and more, Doctor Who was very much alive.

And so it was that in July of 2001 I finally took the plunge I'd contemplated for many years.

In the late 1970s, I first heard of Doctor Who in newspaper articles and, no doubt, Starlog magazine. I saw the occasional Target (and Pinnacle) novelizations and was curious but thought they looked too much like children's books. And I couldn't find the show on TV. I saw my first episode in the summer of 1980 in a hotel room in Thunder Bay, Ontario, while we were making our way across the country, having been transferred from Edmonton, Alberta to Summerside, PEI (about 5000 km of driving). All I remember is Tom Baker and lots of wandering around caves. I was only moderately intrigued.

A few months later I bought the first four Marvel Premiere comics to reprint UK Doctor Who comic strips, but they didn't hook me. I picked up a copy of Doctor Who and the Ice Warriors and, again, wasn't quite hooked. At university I went a little deeper, watching the occasional Tom Baker episode on PBS with confirmed Who fan Peter Jarvis. (We may have watched Full Circle; I know I remember him explaining E-Space.) I was tempted by the books again, but there were eighty of them by then. It seemed like too much to take on.

But I watched a few Pertwee episodes in the summer of '85, including The Daemons, and in '86 bought and read The Doctor Who Programme Guide Volume One. Starlog was running more articles on UK SF TV series, and now I was in a city where Doctor Who was on TV regularly. This was the perfect time to get hooked, right? I saw at least a couple of Davison episodes, possibly a Colin Baker episode, and still didn't get hooked.

In the early 1990s the New Adventures books started appearing on bookshelves, New, original novels that looked more adult than the Target books... but no. Then one of the contributors to a Star Trek mailing list I was on started getting her Doctor Who novels published, so I picked up a Kate Orman book, looked at it, and thought, I don't think I'll have a clue what's going on if I read just this one and didn't buy it. Another missed opportunity.

1996: the TV movie. I watched it, though I did some flicking between channels. I liked it reasonably well. Another opportunity missed.

So why July 2001? A few things, People posted about Lovecraftian elements in Doctor Who novels in alt.horror.cthulhu. I was doing a little research into the various Who book lines for a feature article on SF tie-in books on my website. There wasn't much good SF TV happening, with Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 over and X-Files way past its prime.

Anyway, on July 6, I bought one of the novels with Lovecraftian elements, The Taking of Planet 5. There was so much happening in that book -- it was not only part of an ongoing story arc, it was also a sequel to an episode I had never seen -- that I was lost. Utterly, But I was also fascinated. I bought a few Who books at a used bookstore a few days after buying ToP5. I asked Laura if she's watch a Doctor Who video with me -- she'd watched it occasionally many years earlier, and said sure. I bought The Stones of Blood on VHS.

In the next month I bought more than 60 Doctor Who-related books. Half a dozen or more videos. I started buying Doctor Who Magazine. There was no turning back.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

IDW news

After a long run of months with next to no Star Trek comics (aside from some reprint collections and two issues in the Infestation crossover), IDW has made some big announcements you already know about.

There's been a bit of a fuss over the Legion of Superheroes crossover. It doesn't bother me; it's not going to be an ongoing thing, and it's not unprecedented (see the X-Men crossovers). The idea doesn't appeal to me mainly because I don't know anything about the DC universe; I currently read their Vertigo titles, and when I was young and read superhero stuff I was much more a Marvel reader. But this isn't likely to hurt a comic book line that reportedly has had really low sales. Not that this will change that. Maybe there are a lot of Legion fans who haven't previously bought Trek comics who will pick this up and be intrigued... but they won't have an ongoing original series Trek comic to latch onto. It's not a gateway for new readers, it's a dead end.

The bigger development is the ongoing monthly set in the new movie continuity. The bestselling comics have been those that tied in with the movie, so it make sense. IDW switched over to an ongoing monthly for Doctor Who some time ago, though not exclusively.

My concerns here are that, well, I haven't enjoyed the movie continuity comics. I liked the movie itself a lot more than many of the first ten Trek movies, and I was excited about the Pocket novels that ended up getting canceled at the last minute -- I still want to read those some day. I believe it is possible to get some compelling, original, and worthwhile tie-in fiction in this new continuity. I don't think I've seen it yet. The YA novels are entertaining in their own right, but they're more Hardy Boys at the Academy than anything uniquely Star Trek. As for the comics, Nero and Spock: Reflections made next to no impact and Countdown made plenty, all of it negative.

If it's true that the comics will visit original series stories to see how they play out in this changed timeline, though, I'm a lot less convinced that this is going to have much lasting appeal. The movie worked because it treated its elements as something new and not tied down to the past. The best argument for the comic, really, is that it may keep the movies from following the same path.

Vanguard Declassified

I'm not sure Declassified really needs to be reviewed. Either you're already a Vanguard fan, in which case you've already read this book, or you aren't, in which case this isn't the place to start. (That would be Harbinger, the first novel in the series.)

Declassified breaks up the storytelling by offering four novellas, each set at a different time and featuring different key characters from Vanguard's large cast. And while it's the work of the series' longtime braintrust, there's a surprise or two -- Ward and Dilmore fly solo instead of together, and original editor Marco Palmieri contributes one of the novellas. The stories range from before Harbinger to after Precipice, the most recent novel, and they're not just a casual side trip -- very significant events in the lives of the characters and in the Vanguard story arc appear in these pages. And with only two more novels before Vanguard reaches its end (as planned by its writers, not dictated by sales or any other external force) it's very much a core book in the series. Each of the stories has its pleasures; if anything, the narrower focus of the individual stories may make this an easier experience than the novels sometimes are, as they have so many characters and storylines to balance. It's a good approach, one that would have been worth keeping in the mix if Vanguard continued beyond two more books.

If anyone who's followed the series was wondering whether Marco could write -- don't worry, he doesn't let the team down. As an editor he seemed more concerned than some of his peers with his writers' style, not just their plotting, and that same care is evident here. It's just too bad that the scheduled end of the books makes any more Marco contributions to Vanguard very unlikely.

As for the issue of Vanguard coming to an end: it's good news and bad news. I like the idea that we'll be able to look back at Vanguard as a story, and one that didn't overstay its welcome. More series, and I'm not just thinking in Trek terms, could use that kind of thinking. That doesn't mean I'm happy about Vanguard ending, though; it's been one of the most successful runs of books in the Trek line in the last decade, and I'd happily keep on reading more. Hell, maybe they could do the occasional novella collection like this one, revisiting unexplored scenes throughout the Vanguard timeline.

Oh, and Declassified was the first book I read on my new ebook reader, a Kobo Touch. I bought the print version, of course, but Laura decided we needed dedicated ereaders because the iPad is too backlit, too shiny, too heavy for reading in certain situations. We bought them just as I was about to start reading Declassified, which made it an obvious starting point (damn that tiny print -- you're getting value for your money, but my eyes aren't getting any younger). It was a pretty good experience, with one exception. I'm used to looking at paper and turning pages and just tuning out the physical reality of reading a book. I've been doing it more than forty years now. With the ereader, I was more distracted by the mechanics of the process, holding a different kind of artifact and engaging with it in a somewhat different way. I'll get used to it, and I can easily imagine situations in which I'll be very glad to have an ereader. But for Star Trek and some other core collecting areas, I'll still be buying print.