Best of 2016: Podcasts

Science Fiction/Fantasy books and films may have been disappointingly sparse this year but it was a banner year for Podcasts.  As I indicated in earlier articles, I have come to appreciate audio dramas on my long car-rides – the best of them really fire up the imagination and given the low production costs, there are some imaginative work being done which you would never be able to pull off on television.  Here are the best ones I listened to this year.

OSc9XVbVwa_logo1200-300x30012135149_1006953446016578_1975958249_ndownload

BLACK-TAPES-PODCAST-LOGO-17bimages

 

 

 

 

Hadron Gospel Hour:  My life was a pointless and bleak existence – I prayed to all manner of Gods for release but they never answered.  That is when the mad scientist dressed in a lab coat and skull face makeup stepped out of a dimensional rift and told me I could save the multiverse.  I took his hand and stepped through the rift.  Now my life is filled with delightful things.  Last night the love child of Steve Reeves and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, dressed up as Colonel Wilma Deering and gave me a lap dance in the front seat of an Oldsmobile Delta 88.  Dave Bowman, still dressed in his space suit and helmet told me to ‘Open the Pod Bay Doors’ from the front seat and the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000 cheered me on from the back.  The Bee Gees ‘More than a Woman’ played on the radio while a shirtless Kirk fist-fought the goddamned Gorn Commander on the hood of the car.  Thank you, Hadron Gospel Hour – you are the only thing in the world I wish to remain the same.  The only thing I love that loves me back.

We’re Alive:  I will get fried for saying this but We’re Alive is a better and more believable zombie story than The Walking Dead.  It was 143 episodes long and ran from 2009-2014.  It was high production values and had a great cast of characters but I think the thing I appreciated most about it was no one was a superman in this show – they made stupid calls, paid for them, and it wasn’t afraid to paint large on its canvas.  It seemed more real to me than The Walking Dead and I was invested from start to finish.  If society collapsed, I think it would look closer to this than anything else.  Best of all, it is a complete story – something which doesn’t occur so much in the world of podcasting.

Hello from the Magic Tavern:  What would happen if a Chicago comedian was transported to a fantasy tavern and interviewed its guests while in the company of a pompous Wizard and a sex badger.  Remember when I said shit happens in podcasts that can’t happen on TV?  This podcast proves the point.  Completely improv but if you’re going to start, do so from episode one because after a year of doing this they have constructed an elaborate and entertaining world complete with its own rules.  I almost crashed my car laughing at Usidore’s reaction to being asked if the dark one’s secret villain name was Count Dooku?

Bright Sessions:  I love superhero stories, especially when they don’t know their superhero stories.  The Bright Sessions is about a therapist with an unconventional practice – young men and women with ‘abilities’ and all the associated issues which come with it.  As a guy who once did some time on a therapist couch, I find the interactions to have an authenticity to them which is gratifying.  I won’t spoil the surprise but it becomes apparent there is more going on here than just therapy and this series is poised to break out of the therapy room and into the larger world.

Tanis & The Black Files:  Both series are interrelated and come from the fictional Pacific Northwest Public Radio.  They are both telling different stories, one a gothic horror owing much to the Cthulhu mythos and the other a more bizarre mixture of surveillance, science fiction, and ancient evil.  They both possess high production values and tell compelling stories.  I think I like the gothic story in the Black Tapes a bit better mostly because I feed the lead narrator a bit more compelling and the creepiness factor is exceptionally well done.  However, the science fiction angle on Tanis is right up my alley and new episodes of both series are happy days for me.  Both are on season break and will be returning with their third seasons in the Spring so now is the time to catch up with the Black Tapes first and Tanis second.

Other ‘Best of…’ lists from 2016:

Books

Movies

Computer Games

Best of 2016: Computer Games

It is almost Christmas and I note there is the Christmas sale on Steam.  Means it is the time of the year to get computer games for dirt cheap.  Here are my recommendations for best games of 2016 to help guide your holiday choices.  All the games here are PC and IOS games:  I enjoyed Overwatch on XB1 but wasn’t infatuated with it and I’m still working my way through Final Fantasy XV on PS4 but they didn’t make my top games.

Stellaris:  One of my most treasured gaming memories was playing Master of Orion 2 on an ancient PC in the basement of my parent’s house on summer break.  I feel like I have been chasing that memory my entire gaming life.  I finally caught up with it with Stellaris.  Not every design decision works in this game and like all Paradox Interactive products, it is a toybox which gets dramatically better and more complex with every expansion.  But Stellaris manages to pull you in to its galaxy of galactic exploration, warfare and intrigue.  It reminds me of the old TV show, Babylon Five.  It has sunk its teeth in and I imagine like PI’s other game, Crusader Kings 2, I’ll probably be playing it for years.

stellaris_map

Endless Legends:  I liked Civilization 6 – I got a solid month of enjoyment out of it and then put it back on the shelf and haven’t thought much about it.  I first played Endless Legend in 2014 and picked it back up again with its latest expansion and the magic is there.  Endless Legend is what would happen if you mixed Civilization 6 with Skyrim and a great Science Fiction novel.  There really is nothing like this game out there and with five expansions and a bunch of DLC (all dirt-cheap right now on Steam), now is the time to pick it up.  Amplitude, a French studio, is one of those studios that dares to put out radical new ideas.  There first game, Endless Space, was an interesting failure.  This one is a knock out of the park and a better game than Civilization 6.

endless_legend_-_battle_deployment_1

Rimworld:  A newer game and like personal favorite, Cataclysm Dark Days Ahead and Crusader Kings 2, it works best as a story creator.  This game is what happens if you dumped a bunch of toons from ‘The Sims’ onto an alien world and told them to get to work.  The graphics are simple but the underlying game systems are a complex web of survival and relationships.  Get one of the variables wrong and the whole colony can descend into cannibalism and flames.  It is one of those games where failure is fun and you revel in the chaos as everyone dies in interesting ways.

defenseline

Pathfinder Adventures:  I have grown to love collectible card games but interestingly, Hearthstone really doesn’t do it for me.  Pathfinder Adventures did click and has become an addiction.  It can be frustratingly random – you get through a game well played only to lose in the end because the dice rolls go against you.  But it has that ‘one more click’ factor which brings me back for game after game.  Unlike a lot of IOS games, it doesn’t try to steal your wallet.  You can pay one price and get all the content.  Also, available on PC but honestly, this is the perfect tablet game.

unnamed

Sentinels of the MultiverseAnother collectible card game but much different than Pathfinder Adventures.  There isn’t any random dice rolls here – it is all strategy and playing your cards in the right order based on the situation.  It is a superhero game – those are always welcome – and they have several expansions out with several more funded.  I love the game because with all the expansions, there is an endless array of possible matchups which delivers a unique experience every single game – none of them play out the same way.  Pathfinder Adventures is a more addictive game, but Sentinels is the more complex and thoughtful game.  Available on IOS and PC though like Pathfinder, enjoyed best on tablets.

26834_tempest_hp

Other ‘Best of…’ articles for 2016:

Movies

Books

Best of 2016: Movies

Just like it was a sparse year for books, it was also a sparse year for movies.  I felt it was a much better year for TV science-fiction and fantasy.  Still, there was some good SFF movies to be had if you ignored a bunch of middle of the road superhero films.  Here are my four favorite SFF movies for the year:

Rogue One:  The most recent movie on the list and an amazing addition to the Star Wars catalogue of films.  It wasn’t perfect – it was unevenly paced in its first half and the leads, while competent, were a step down from last year’s now iconic Daisey Ridley and John Boyega.  But Disney set out to do something different with its now forty-year old franchise and it succeeded.  I just re-watched Star Wars:  A New Hope and found Rogue One changed the whole tone of the film for me – I enjoyed the heroics but now realized there was a great human cost behind the eventual Rebel victory.  It makes for a more complete experience.

cloverfield5-xlarge

10 Cloverfield Lane:  I enjoyed Cloverfield – I thought it effective and certainly thought better of it than the dismal Godzilla remake a few years back.  I never realized it needed a sequel but it got one anyways and I’m glad.  This movie works because it doesn’t try to one-up or heck, even try to reference the first film.  Instead, it is a claustrophobic study of personalities inside a fallout shelter.  Putting aside my love of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman steals the show as a dangerous and erratic man-child in charge of the bunker.  I forget how good of an actor he can be and here he reminds us.  I’ll be happy to revisit this universe if we can get good high quality film like this one.

The Witch:  I love horror movies but I’m often disappointed.  Modern horror seems to be either about jump-scares or torture porn and frankly I’m bored with both.  Real horror is about the blurry shape in the woods, the things unseen, and the dread of impending unstoppable doom.  The best horror movies are bleak and quiet.  The Witch is about a family of Puritans expelled from their 17th century colony and living in the rural woods of New England apart from everyone.  It is about religious fanatics living a hard scrabble near starvation existence and may be under threat from Satan himself.  I’m not easily frightened but this movie terrified me – the family goat, Black Phillip, is a more frightening creature than anything seen this year.

The Arrival:  This one is a polarizing addition to the list.  I adored it but so many of my friends were turned off by its slow pacing.  Movies like this just don’t get made anymore.  I felt it comparable to 2001, a slow-paced movie about how science works in a high-pressure situation, a film filled with majesty and not afraid to linger.   There were moments which I could have did without in this film – the conflict in the final third felt a bit contrived and tacked on to me, but the ten-minute sequence where the linguist first meets the aliens was far more cinematically interesting than the entirety of Independence Day Two.

Other ‘Best of…’ articles:

Books:  Best Books of 2016

Movie Review: Rogue One

 

Rogue One opened last night and I’m happy to say that Rogue One delivered forty-five minutes of the best Star Wars since The Empire Strikes Back.  Please note the distinction because the movie took about forty-five minutes before I really got interested in it.

The story takes place immediately before Star Wars:  A New Hope and serves as the prequel you never knew you wanted.  The setup is interesting and for a moment, it grabbed me – the time-period of Imperial consolidation before the Rebellion is fertile for interesting stories.  Who accepted their place in the new order?  Who sought to break away and why?  The movie starts with those questions and made me think about what it may have been like in 1936-38 Germany.  One character when asked later if they were fine with Imperial flags flying overhead replied, ‘It isn’t a problem if you don’t look up’.  I would have watched an entire movie dealing with that proposition.

hero-jyn-rogue-one-japan-poster

But then Rogue One kind of lost focus as it jumped around frantically trying to set the pieces on the board.  There were so many interesting things to see – the Rebel Bunker on Yavin-4 and talk of Rebel discord, black dealings in alley ways, and a firefight in the dusty streets of a desert city which played like a Star Wars version of 2005-06 Baghdad.     There were fascinating sequences which we should have spent more time but just as you started digging into it, the frame shifted to something else.  I remember getting kind of irritated for a few moments.

Once the movie settled down and started delivering, it got way better.  The mission to get the Death Star plans was handled amazingly well and this was where the espionage war story really came into play.  It was an extended firefight which contained acts of heroism, sacrifice, tears, and a space battle which rivaled the big one in Return of the Jedi.  The hand-off between this film and A New Hope was so perfect that I have the first film playing on the TV now.

The actors in the film were good.  Felicity Jones and Diego Luna were good in their roles but not iconic – frankly, I think Daisey Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac left a more lasting impression as characters in The Force Awakens.  But they didn’t need to be iconic, they needed to be competent and I thought they were.  On the hand, K-2SO – the repurposed Imperial security droid – was clearly the best new character in a long time.  His sarcasm caused me to laugh aloud several times (“I will stand with you.  Captain Andor said I had to”).  I never again want to see C-3PO or R2-D2, K-2SO is now the gold standard for Star Wars droids. Also, anytime you get to see Darth Vader off the leash is quality time well spent.

There is a friend of mine who took issue with the movie – said it didn’t feel like a Star Wars film.  There is probably some truth there given the first forty-five minutes.  But as I sit here writing this review, it occurs to me that Star Wars as a franchise is almost forty years old.  If I had a complaint with The Force Awakens is that it didn’t really feel different enough.  I know that Disney had to bridge the gap and given it was good, I gave it a pass.  Rogue One is Disney’s first attempt to try something new with their franchise and this attempt succeeded in my book.  Rogue One caught my imagination and my money and it will capture yours as well.