The 9 year old and the 11 year old are long time fans of Star Trek. That's Star Trek with a period. They like Next Generation ok, but they're not smitten. Voyager, Deep Space Nine, Enterprise---forget them.
They love Star Wars too, but they aren't full fledged geeks yet and don't debate the relative merits of the two universes, although the 9 year old is clear about the differences. Star Wars is fantasy. Star Trek is realistic.
If you want a quick thumbnail understanding of the two Mannion boys, just keep in mind that the 11 year old is Obi Wan, and the 9 year old is Jim Kirk. On his bad days, the 11 year old slips a little toward Anakin. On his bad days, the 9 year old slips a little toward Spock. An 11 year old Anakin is a lot easier to deal with sometimes than a 9 year old Spock.
Lately, thanks to their Uncle Merlin's influence, they've both become big fans of Stargate SG-1. Their mother and father have joined the fan club right along with them.
We're only just getting to the end of Season One and Uncle Merlin assures me there's a long, wild ride ahead and I've only got a glimmer of all that's going on.
Couple of things though.
I get a kick out of Colonel O'Neill's sense of humor, but I get an even bigger kick out of the way the show's surrounded him with characters who never get his jokes.
Amanda Tapping as Captain Carter passes my Sharon Gless test. Gless played Cagney on Cagney and Lacey and she was the first and still to my mind the best actress I've seen play a tough lady cop. Tyne Daley was second, of course, second to do it, second best at it. S. Epatha Merkerson, Lt. Van Buren on Law and Order, is a very close third. Most actresses try to play tough by acting like actors acting tough. They lower their voices, they bark, they growl, they stand ramrod straight when they're still and they strut when they have to move, and basically they provide a lesson for actors on how not to act tough. Nobody remembers that John Wayne's usual posture was relaxed. It's been too long since I've seen an episode of Cagney and Lacey, so I can't be sure if I'm remembering Gless's performance well enough to describe it. (When will C and L come out on DVD?) But my feeling was always that Gless never tried to give Cagney power. She understood that a cop's power and authority come with the job and the conditions under which most people encounter cops. A cop with a partner holding a gun on a perp does not need to muscle the mook into the cuffs. Gless knew that and she, and Tyne Daley, knew that when they pointed a gun at someone the gun was a pretty good encouragement for that someone to stop moving and that it was the gun that scared them not the cop shouting freeze so they didn't have to put all their energy into shouting it.
On SG-1, Tapping plays a tough lady soldier, which is trickier than playing a lady cop, because she's always in fatigues and combat boots and can't show she's a girl by wearing a dress now and then or flashing some cleavage. If she were to act tough by acting like a man acting tough she would disappear inside her camos. There'd be four men on the mission and the pretty one would be Michael Shanks.
Tapping doesn't try to play through her uniform and she sure doesn't give in to it. She seems to have decided to play Carter as a tomboy. She's always a girl trying to keep up with her big brothers and is content to be along for the fun without having to prove she's one of the guys. There's no way Carter could be tougher than O'Neill, the super soldier, or Teal'c, the superhuman Jaffa warrior, anyway, so Tapping doesn't try to out-macho them. She doesn't come across as weak, though, partly because she's helped by the presence of Shanks' Daniel Jackson. Jackson is a scientist not a soldier and Shanks plays him that way. Like Christopher Reeve, whom he resembles a bit, Shanks is big and beautiful but very graceful and he plays mild mannered well. Next to him, Carter is Superman. This frees Tapping up immeasurably.
But Tapping also seems to have taken Gless lessons. Carter is tough, but Tapping knows that it's her training and, even more so, her weapons that make her tough. She knows that she doesn't have to project the power in any situation, her guns and bombs do that for her. On top of this, she has made Carter's proficiency with weapons and in martial arts a sign of her essential geekiness. Carter is a scientist, first and foremost. She had to learn how to shoot a rifle as part of her military training, but she's in the military because it's the best place she's found to do science. She has become good with weapons because they're machines and the tools of her trade and she's into tools and machines.
When Carter starts explaining the damage a bomb she's set will do, she doesn't assume unto herself the power of the bomb. She is simply talking numbers and talking numbers is something she's very good at and enjoys. (It's also something O'Neill dislikes about her so when she is at her most competent she is often also at her most insecure because she's worried she's annoying O'Neill.) She's a geek before she is a girl and that keeps her a girl when she's acting tough.
O'Neill doesn't like numbers and he doesn't like scientists, but apparently he doesn't like them because a love of science and a head for numbers are sides of himself he doesn't like, the way Sam Malone doesn't like the side of himself that is "graceful." But O'Neill can't shake his inner geek. He's a Super-soldier but he's played by Richard Dean Anderson---MacGyver, the geek's geek, and Anderson, who is one of the show's producers, and the writers take care to remind us of that. There are regular MacGyver in-jokes. O'Neill's sense of humor is the McGyver in him trying to get out.
So what Stargate has at its center, then, is the same thing Star Trek had at its center---a trio of geeks out saving the universe. Kirk was a science nerd and history buff and an A student at Starfleet Academy and in his way he was as a big a geek as Spock and McCoy. With O'Neill, Carter, Jackson, and Teal'c, SG-1 is like Star Trek would have been if Kirk, Spock, and McCoy went on every mission with Worf from Next Generation.
Besides the cast, the other thing I like about SG-1 is that it was made by adults who aren't just remembering what it was like to be 8 years old and love Star Trek. It's made by adults who are remembering also what it was like to be 12 and to start seeing plot holes and logic failures in what used to be your favorite sci-fi movies and TV shows.
Last night we watched "Mirror, Mirror," one of the best Star Treks ever. When you're a kid you see it and you think, wow, how cool, a universe that's the exact opposite of ours, where the Federation is evil and Captain Kirk is a villain and Spock has a beard! If you think about it in any depth you think, That must mean the Klingons are good! Boy, it would have been neat if they showed them.
But you watch it again when you're a little older and this time you have some questions. Ok, that universe is a perfect mirror of ours and everything that happens here is paralleled in that universe so closely that the two Enterprises are in orbit around the same planet an the same instant and the barbaric Kirk and his landing party and our Kirk and his landing party are beaming up at the exact same instant through identical ion storms, so---how come the planet they were on isn't opposite too? In our universe the people down there are peaceful, friendly, and uninterested in the Federation's wealth and power. So how come in the other universe they're not warlike, hostile, and greedy? And if people in the two universes are living mirrored lives so that everybody who's on the first Enterprise has a counterpart on the second Enterprise at the exact same stage in their careers, and we know that as soon as the barbarian Kirk gets back to his Enterprise he'll have Chekhov executed and then Spock will assassinate him, doesn't that mean that our Kirk and our Chekhov ought to die at the same moment too, if not in the same way?
But we know they don't. They live on through two more seasons, a cartoon series, and six movies. What happened? Did the crossover break the mirror?
And how did the two landing parties switch clothes anyway?
SG-1's writers, so far, have anticipated questions like that and they build the answers into the dialogue. They've also remembered to head off nitpicky questions, like:
How do they always know what kind of greeting they're going to get on the other side of the Stargate and what the weather will be like and if the gate on the other end is even open.
Answer: they send robot probes ahead of them on every mission.
Or: How come they never run out of bullets or that marvelous explosive C-4? How do they come up with every tool they need when they need it?
Answer: they take a little supply wagon with them every time.
With Star Wars, I can't get rid of the feeling that the logical incoherance of old sci fi movies is what George Lucas thinks was great about them.
The other day the boys watched the bonus disk that comes with the Star Wars Trilogy. Lots how they made it stuff, with George Lucas appearing in most of it. There's a format. The narrator tells us in awestruck tones about the vision and the genius of George Lucas and then Lucas himself appears coming across as modest, unassuming, far more interested in talking about his movies than himself and always giving credit to the various special effects wizards and artists who helped him bring the movies to the screen.
I don't think the mild-manneredness or the modesty are phony. But humilty is not incompatible with a large ego. In fact, that's why humility is a virtue. You have practice it and the bigger your ego the more virtue there is in your humility. Lucas knows he didn't do it all on his own and he's happy to give credit where he believes credit is due.
I just think that he gives people the wrong kind of credit.
I noticed this when he was telling the interviewer about how the great illustrator Ralph McQuarrie's concept art helped him sell his, Lucas's, vision of Star Wars to the suits at 20th Century Fox. Lucas was grateful to McQuarrie, but he didn't seem to realize that McQuarrie had done the actual work of creating the look of the Star Wars world. He seemed to think of McQuarrie as the artistic equivalent of a stenographer and what McQuarrie produced as the equivalent of taking dictation. It didn't occur to him that along with influencing the studio execs' images of what the movie would look like, McQuarrie was influencing Lucas's own.
In other words Lucas appreciates everybody who works for him as extensions of himself. He doesn't really see them as artists in their own rights and especially doesn't see that in many cases they are far better artists than he is.
So he doesn't learn from them.
I don't think he knows how much of the first two Star Wars movies he owes to not just the artists, model builders, costume designers, set designer, cinematographer, and special effects technicians but to Alec Guinness, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Frank Oz, and (yes, Trish Wilson) Peter Cushing.
I think Lucas' inability to learn from the people he works with explains why as Lucas has asserted more and more control over every aspect of the movies. each movie since Empire Strikes Back has been sillier than the one before. Not being able to learn from his actors has especially hurt him. In the new movies he has assembled a much more talented collection of actors: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee, Ian McDiarmid, Jimmy Smits. I even think Hayden Christensen's doing a good job. And he's wasted them. Every one of them. Worse, he's made Natalie Portman look bad.
He made her whiny!
Well, at least we know where Luke gets it from.