July 5, 2022

Review: Locklands

Locklands Locklands by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This final book in the Founders Trilogy is an epic thrill ride of sky-high stakes (the fate of reality itself), incredible battles, and a re-imagining of the Big Bad from book 2. But despite the twists and turns of the plot, the author does not skimp on the characters...and the fate of our two protagonists, Berenice and Sancia, made things get very dusty in the room as the book reached its climax.

This is an epic fantasy, but it also deals with classic science fiction concepts: reality as a computer simulation that can be manipulated with the right codes, a transhuman future, and gestalt consciousness--one being spread across many bodies. (This last point, vital to the plot, remains as creepy as all get-out to me, even though the author depicts the concept about as benevolently as I think can be done. But I want only my thoughts in my own freaking head, damn it.) The magical system shown here, called "scriving," has undercurrents of physics and quantum mechanics that gives the story a hard-science edge, at least to me. It's definitely in my sweet-spot blend of genres.

The story takes place eight years after the events of the second book, Shorefall, with our increasingly desperate protagonists fighting a losing battle against the unholy villain from the second volume. The author's continued and favorite theme of events from hundreds or thousands of years past reverbating down to the present continues here, as we finally get the complete story of what happened to Clef and what he did. This book, like the previous two, is more than 500 pages, but it held me riveted from start to finish.

I've looked back on previous books of this author I've read, and I've given almost every one of them five stars. This series is incredible, and you should not miss it.

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July 3, 2022

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1 Ep 9, "All Those Who Wander"


 

Following the last two lighter episodes, I thought the remaining episodes of the season would be heavier and darker.....and wow, was I ever right with this one. It's the darkest episode of the season. But it's also one of the best. 

The Gorn have been the running antagonist of the season, and in this episode we got to see them in their computer-generated glory. Of course, this being CGI and not the cheesy bipedal 60's suit, they were a lot more menacing. The head design was pretty similar to the adult Gorn seen in the original series' "Arena," but the babies are apparently more quadripedal, at least in the early stages of their development. They also grow terrifyingly fast, which is why they attack and eat anything around them, including each other. This and other facts about Gorn hatchlings are used by La'an to save as many of the crew as she can.

Obviously this scenario owes a lot to Alien, including the hatchlings bursting out of the body of a hapless blue-skinned guest star. In fact, I suppose this episode could be construed as Star Trek's version of Alien, albeit without the greedy murderous corporation. So I guess La'an would be....the Ripley analogue? If so, Christina Chong does a good job of it, including her cathartic shriek when she smashes the frozen hatchling at the end. 

The setup is simple: Enterprise is on the way to deliver vital time-sensitive supplies to Deep Space Station K-7 (which hasn't gone all tribble-ley yet), when another priority one mission comes in: the Peregrine, exploring beyond Federation space, send out a distress call and makes an emergency landing aboard a Class L (icy) planet. Since Enterprise cannot divert from her primary mission, Pike tell Una to complete that and he will take a landing party to see what happened to Peregrine. He words this as "taking the kids [meaning the cadets, including Uhura, who have come to the end of their rotations] on the station wagon for one last road trip." (Which is fine for the viewer, but made me wonder how anyone born and living in the 23rd century would even know what a "station wagon" is. This scene was delightful, however, as Pike holds his briefings in his quarters over breakfast or some other meal, and in this one even made Spock do the dishes.)

On the planet where Peregrine set down, they find the ship intact and the crew dead, and killed in a messy, brutal fashion. There are two survivors, a human girl, Oriana, and the aforementioned blue-skinned alien the magical universal translator apparently can't talk to (which leads to one of the few humorous moments in the episode, as La'an says, "Uhura, do something," and Uhura blurts out, "That's not how linguistics works!"). But the logs from the dead captain tell the tale: the Peregrine picked up three castaways on a Class M Planet, these two and an Orion...and the Orion was infected with Gorn eggs. Oriana says "the monsters are all gone," but we soon find out that's not true. The blue-skinned alien starts wheezing and gasping in Sickbay, and four hatchlings bust out of him. 

From then on it's a race to kill the hatchings before they pick off the landing party. The landing party works together to use the awakening ship and the Gorn's hatred of cold to their advantage: they lower the temperature in sections of the ship at a time, and use a fast-running Uhura and La'an to lure the hatchlings to one particular section. Much of this is shot from the viewpoint of the Gorn, their eyes seeing a greenish background and a running white bipedal form. The remaining hatchling is lured into the cargo bay (which is open to the planet's surface), and both Hemmer and La'an hide in the hexagonal storage units we've seen in the Enterprise's corridors before, with the hatching shrieking and slobbering its green mouth-ooze on the hatch. Hemmer sprays the hatchling with liquid nitrogen, and once it's immobilized La'an climbs out of the hexagon and smashes it to bits.

That's not the final shoe to drop, however. We've already had our two sacrificial "redshirts," two cadets, set up in the opening scene, where one is made Lieutenant and another is commended on her graduation. And since we know that the several series regulars in this episode aren't going to die just yet, we think everyone else is safe. Only they aren't. When one of the hatchlings came upon Hemmer and Uhura in engineering, it sprayed him across the face with its acid....but as La'an knew and Hemmer realized, that acid also included eggs. And so Hemmer, after dispensing some final words of wisdom to a weeping Uhura, walks out the back of the open cargo bay and plummets to his death. 

Please don't say, "Hemmer, we hardly knew ye," because we did, and it hurt. He was only in, what? Four, five episodes and a handful of scenes? But the writers did such a good job with him, showing first his egotism and arrogance and later his vulnerability through his interactions with Uhura and M'Benga, that this was very much not a "redshirt" death. And even in his final scenes, he continued to gently advise Uhura, telling her that she shouldn't turn away from her gift for creating bonds: "Of course the people you care about are going to cause you pain. It will hurt, but the love it yields will far outweigh the sorrow." And since the last shot is of Uhura going to the bridge and looking and the communications station, we are left with the strong inference that this is what will cause her to decide to stay in Starfleet. 

There are a couple of other important emotional moments in this episode: to lure the hatchling to the trap prepared for it, Spock has to unleash his Vulcan rage, which he does to the point he can't control it afterwards. At Hemmer's funeral, he abruptly leaves and Christine Chapel follows him to see him smashing his fist into the bulkhead. Facing a Vulcan's fury could be a scary thing, but Chapel doesn't flinch: she tells him his anger and pain doesn't make him weak, it makes him human, and hugs him. There will be repercussions from this, or at least I hope so, as it seems too important a character moment to be dropped, even for a more episodic series like this one. La'an also comes to a turning point, as she discovers some hints as to where Oriana's family might be and asks Pike for permission to take extended leave to pursue them. 

With only one episode left, this first season of Strange New Worlds has been, in my opinion, a rip-roaring success. We just need more Una Chin-Riley going forward, as out of all the regulars, she has been the least served. 

June 29, 2022

Review: Flamefall

Flamefall Flamefall by Rosaria Munda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in the Aurelian Cycle trilogy, a young adult fantasy dealing with politics, revolution and a repressive regime (with dragons). In this book, the stakes are heightened and a nasty and compelling antagonist comes into play. I did think the plot was more convoluted in this book, but the author's concentrating on the characters made that bearable for the most part. The two main protagonists, Lee and Annie, are not sure where their allegiances should be and run through quite the gamut of emotions, rage and guilt being the most prominent. A new viewpoint character, Griff, is introduced, which provides a nice counterpart to the main characters. One bonus is that we get more dragon fights, which are exciting and well-written. This book mostly avoids the problems inherent in a middle book and sets things up nicely for the finale.

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June 25, 2022

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1 Ep 8, "The Elysium Kingdom"

 


I don't know if the intention was for this show to separate its first batch of episodes into various shades of heavy drama and lighter character-based comedies, but that is more or less what has happened. The first four episodes were straightforward drama, and then we had the body-swap goofiness of "Spock Amok" and the "YARRRRR PIRATES" satire of "The Serene Squall." ("Please stop," begged Una.) (Of course, in between was the downer of "Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach," with the ghost of Ursula K. Le Guin looking on and raising her eyebrows.) This episode is a combination of kids' fantasy fluff, Anson Mount's pitch-perfect portrayal of a cowardly obsequious snake, and the real heart of a father who, for his daughter's sake, has to let her go. 

It's also Dr. M'Benga's episode, wrapping up the subplot of his terminally ill daughter whom he has been keeping in the emergency medical transporter buffer as he searches for a cure for her condition. This was always going to be a delicate balancing act, as he has to take her out of the buffer at regular intervals for a minimum amount of time (never pinned down, but I got the impression that it had to be at least once every twenty-four hours) to prevent her pattern degrading. This forced exodus from the transporter lets her disease progress despite M'Benga's best efforts, and in this episode he admits she doesn't have much time left. 

The Enterprise is surveying a nebula, and when they're done with the survey and try to leave they can't. On the bridge, Ortegas is thrown to the floor, and Pike summons M'Benga to the bridge. When he gets there the door whoosh open on a transformed bridge, festooned with greenery (I imagine the plant budget for this episode nearly busted the bank--vines, ferns and ivy was everywhere), and the bridge crew were wearing costumes that looked like they were lifted wholesale from a Rennaissance Faire. M'Benga is also wearing a costume and bearing a crown, and the others call him "King Ridley." He realizes that what he is seeing and hearing, and the character he is apparently playing, have been lifted from the book he has been reading to his daughter Rukiya over the months, "The Elysian Kingdom" (written by none other than Deep Space Nine's Benny Russell). The bridge crew members have been drafted into role-playing the characters from the book: Pike is the craven, foppish chamberlain Sir Rauth, La'an is the Princess Thalia, Uhura is the enemy Queen Neve, Spock is the wizard Caster (and Ethan Peck looks damn good in his outfit, wizard staff, and long wig), Ortegas is the swordsperson Sir Adya, Una is Zymera the Huntress, and chief engineer Hemmer (a very welcome return, especially with his line "THE MAGIC OF SCIENCE!") is another wizard, Pollux. 

M'Benga has to see the story through to the end, with the help of Hemmer. The resolution takes an unexpected turn when it's revealed that the entity behind this is one of Star Trek's go-to tropes, the godlike energy being: in this case a Boltzmann brain, a spontaneously generated intelligence in the nebula that sensed Rukiya in the transporter buffer and reached out to her. The entity is also managing to hold Rukiya's illness at bay, at least as long as the ship remains where it is. If the entity releases the ship and the Enterprise leaves the area, the illness will return. Which leads to M'Benga's unexpected, poignant choice: he lets Rukiya go with the entity to give her a chance to live. She returns seconds later as a grown woman (the entity, who she has named Debra after her [presumably dead] mother, can apparently bend time as well), to thank M'Benga for letting her go and to tell him she is happy. 

Well. That was an emotional turn, and uplifted the entire episode, though I'm a little surprised Rukiya's predicament got solved in the first season. But though this episode was generally enjoyable (particularly Anson Mount's brown-nosing snarkiness), I think the comedy well has pretty much run dry. However, since there are only two episodes left, I imagine we'll return to the heavier drama next time. 

Review: Fireborne

Fireborne Fireborne by Rosaria Munda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars



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June 21, 2022

Review: Jade City

Jade City Jade City by Fonda Lee
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a doorstopper of a book set in a world similar to our own (technological levels of autos/phones/etc, although the countries and continents are different), with one large divergence: the most valuable substance in this world is jade, a "biogenetically reactive" mineral. Basically, people who live on the island of Kekon and are trained to handle it can psychically link with the jade to perform all sorts of feats.

This would be fine, and indeed the worldbuilding is fairly complicated and interesting....but unfortunately I have little to no interest in the characters. That's because this story is basically The Godfather/Goodfellas on a secondary world with magic, and I have never been into tales of gangsters or mobsters. There's a lot of kneecapping/assassinations/gore in the story, and while that would necessarily be a prominent part of these characters' lives, I found I really didn't care if they killed each other off. I managed to finish this book (barely) but the next two books in the series are as big or bigger than this 500-page monster, and I have no desire to tackle them.

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June 20, 2022

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1 Ep 7, "The Serene Squall"

 


The thing about this show being (mostly) episodic is that there are different tonal shifts with each episode. "Children of the Comet" was full of the joy of exploration, "Memento Mori" was as serious and suspenseful as a heart attack, and "Spock Amok" was a more lighthearted romp that nevertheless dug into the characters and relationship of Spock and T'Pring. This episode does a bit more of that, with the addition of some character beats for Christine Chapel, all wrapped up in an episode that's halfway serious and halfway a satire of the "space pirates take over the Enterprise" concept. Oh yeah, and the pretty bow on the top is an excellent performance by guest star Jesse James Keitel as Dr. Aspen/Captain Angel. 

The serious part of this episode is the basic setup: the Enterprise is taken on a wild goose chase (unknowingly) at the behest of Dr. Aspen, a counselor-turned-humanitarian who has been running aid missions to non-Federation space. The chasee turns out to be the Orion pirate ship the Serene Squall, who hoodwinks and takes over the Enterprise. Pike and crew implement the "Alpha Braga IV" strategy, fomenting an internal mutiny, while Spock, Christine Chapel and Dr. Aspen commit to the more straightforward method of attempting to fight off the invaders. That is, until the plot twist where Dr. Aspen reveals themself to be Captain Angel, the real leader of the Serene Squall, who has targeted the Enterprise and Spock for a specific purpose.

(The actor, Jesse James Keitel, is transgender. So is the character, but it's not remarked upon except for everyone using "they/them" pronouns. Keitel also turns in a marvelous performance, playing Dr. Aspen as a straightforward, empathetic and competent counselor with some rather useful advice to Spock about accepting both his human and Vulcan halves, and Captain Angel as a bit of a drama king/queen. Of course, when you get to the final scene, all of the Dr's and Captain's advice takes on an entirely new meaning.)

The satire part of the episode falls to Pike, and may I say that Anson Mount obviously had a glorious time making this episode? From his objecting to his Starfleet nickname of "Boy Scout," to his leading an away team to the supposed colonists' ship (and Una remarking on him "flouting the rules") to his immediate manipulation of the pirates by way of cooking them a good meal, persuading them to sell the Enterprise crew to the Klingons, and pitting crewmembers against one another to start the mutiny, to the final scene back on the Enterprise (which almost looked improvised to me) where he starts talking like a pirate, with over-the-top "Yaaarrrrrrs" and "walk the planks" (and Una begs, "Please stop"), Mount was having a hoot. On the Serene Squall's bridge, there was an actual wooden steering wheel--I mean, obviously that was for looks, but Pike stood there twirling the thing as they were bearing down on the Enterprise (and his asking Erica Ortegas to fire phasers to temporarily immobilize his ship, gently, came out sounding so pained). 

Spock and T'Pring also come to a better understanding of each other through these events. At the beginning, T'Pring tells Spock she has been "doing research on human sex" (and Ethan Peck delivers Spock's response to this, the single word "What?" perfectly--he sounds like he's choking on his own spit). At the episode's climax on the bridge, when Spock throws a monkey wrench into Angel's plans by revealing to T'Pring a pretend affair with Christine Chapel (and kissing Chapel quite soundly on the bridge to prove the point) in an attempt to get T'Pring to renounce him and leave him to his fate, T'Pring goes along with it. After everything is over, she meets Spock in his quarters and tells him she knew he could not have feelings for Nurse Chapel. She also notes that his human side is a strength as it provided him with the passion  necessary to pull the ruse off. It's very interesting that the writers are exploring and deepening Spock's and T'Pring's relationship, even though we already know, unfortunately, how it will end. 

But the final stinger in the episode is the reason Dr. Aspen/Captain Angel captured the Enterprise to begin with. They wanted to use Spock's relationship with T'Pring, and her status as head of the Vulcan Criminal Rehabilitation Center, to force her to release a prisoner who is Angel's lover or husband. Angel called him "Xavareous," but as she talks about him (and the fact that this Xavareous told Angel about Spock!) Spock realizes who it is. The final scene in the episode takes us back to T'Pring's rehab center as the camera zooms to the back of a Vulcan prisoner's head. Spock's voiceover tells us it is "a Vulcan I have been instructed to avoid at all costs. My half brother, Sybok." 

Well, hell. I guess the almost universally maligned original series movie Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was good for something after all. 

I certainly hope they're setting things up for both Angel's and Sybok's return, as Jesse James Keitel stole the show out from under pretty much everybody. The actor playing Sybok didn't get any lines or even a head-on shot, but as the casting is generally spot-on this series I would like to see him again. I don't think I would rate this episode as the best of the season, but it was pretty solid. 

June 18, 2022

Review: A Mirror Mended

A Mirror Mended A Mirror Mended by Alix E. Harrow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the second of the Fractured Fables series, continuing the story of Zinnia Gray, the dying young woman who accidentally found her way into the multiverse. Specifically, she found her way into a multiverse of stories and fairy tales, and her fairy tale was Sleeping Beauty. She rescued one beauty, Primrose, from her crappy story and brought her back to Earth, where Primrose fell in love with Zinnia's best friend Charmaine (or Charm for short, heh heh). The act of moving between the universes also apparently sent Zinnia's fatal genetic disease into remission, and at the story's end she was taking it on herself to use the time she had been given to free other Sleeping Beauties from their stories.

This novella takes up Zinnia's story five years later, after she has freed forty-nine other beauties from their stories. This volume is just as beautifully written as the first, but the tone is more melancholy and bittersweet. As in the first volume, a character in a story reaches out and yanks Zinnia into another universe--but instead of another Sleeping Beauty, this is a character in a rather darker fairy tale altogether: it's the Evil Queen from Snow White. She and Zinnia immediately butt heads, but Eva, as Zinnia names her, wants the same thing as the other characters: to be freed from this story and her terrible fate.

"Then tell me how to get out of this damned story." The queen's voice is ragged, pushed far beyond exhaustion but still unwilling to bend. It would be admirable if it weren't extremely annoying. "Tell me, and I swear I'll stop."

"Bite me."

"Now is not the time for your crude fantasies!" She climbs unsteadily to her feet, takes two wavering steps in my direction. "You have no idea what it's like to fight for your own right to exist. To know yourself doomed, yet to keep striving--"

I throw a wad of leaves at her. "Cry me a fucking river, woman. You just found out how your story ends last week. I've spent my whole life under a death sentence."

The queen is clawing wet leaves out of her hair, teeth flashing white in the gloom. "You think I haven't?" Her voice is a strangled hiss. "I may not have known about the iron shoes, but I was always headed for a bad ending. I was an ugly second daughter with uncanny power, and then I was a foreign bride who bore no heirs. Now I am a queen who is feared only slightly more than she is hated, and my time is up. But I have fought tooth and nail to survive, and no pretty little princess is going to stop me."

This little monologue leaves me with two not entirely comforting sensations. The first is the sudden, lurching shame of my worldview being wrenched out of shape, as it occurs to me that Snow White might not be the only victim here.


This is Eva's story, but it is also the continuation of Zinnia's, as she discovers her story-hopping has done damage to the multiverse. I don't think the theme of this story can be reduced to something as simplistic as Zinnia needs to grow up, but she has been using her travels to escape her friends and the ramifications of her own story, and Eva confronting her story makes Zinnia realize she has to do the same. Of course, along the way Zinnia and the evil queen fall in love, and Eva writes out an entirely new story for herself, creating a new universe Zinnia cannot stay in, at least not now. At the end Eva comes up with a bit of a "cheat code" which holds out hope that someday she and Zinnia will be reunited.

I don't know if this is the end of the Fractured Fables series, but it feels like it, which makes me sad. I would have loved to follow Zinnia through all manner of multiversal fairy tales (I can just imagine what the author would do with Little Red Riding Hood, or Cinderella). Still, these two books are lovely reads.

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June 14, 2022

Review: A Snake Falls to Earth

A Snake Falls to Earth A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This author is an enrolled member of the Lipan Apache tribe, and this story draws on Lipan mythology. An animal person (another term for shapeshifter) is one of the main characters, and the settings include the Reflected World, basically an extradimensional echo of this one.

It makes for an interesting background, but it's not without its flaws. The pacing in particular: the first half of the story is pretty slow, and the second half--starting when the titular "snake falls to earth"--kicks into high gear, so fast it makes the reader's head spin a bit. A lot of the first half is taken up with detailing the two settings of the main characters (our Earth and the Reflecting World), which also involves stories and oral histories of the protagonists' families. Now, as a non-Native person, I'm sure I don't appreciate this to the extent that I should. Nevertheless, it makes the story drag in the beginning.

But altogether this is a refreshing change of pace from the usual run of YA. I also appreciate that there is no romance for either of the main characters; it's more of a coming-of-age story for both. In particular Oli, the animal person (cottonmouth), who is separated from his blood family and is continuing to search for them at the book's end, now has a supportive found family to help him in his quest. It's an inventive and original concept for a young-adult book, and I'm so glad we're getting more of these kinds of stories.

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June 12, 2022

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1 Ep 6, "Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach"

 


After the lighthearted tone last time out, this episode takes a decidedly darker turn. It's the darkest episode of the season so far. It's also based on (or inspired by, at the very least) Ursula K. Le Guin's famous short story, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas." This story is almost fifty years old, so I'm sure a sizable portion of the audience hasn't read it. I'm not going to say which is better, the episode or the original story, but I think you should read the story to get a fuller picture of what is happening. 

This is another Pike-centric episode, with Dr. M'Benga as a secondary featured character. Arguably M'Benga gets the greater plot movement, as he receives a theory of a possible treatment for his daughter. We see his daughter Rukiya out of the transporter buffer for a greater length of time than previous, and it's evident that she's getting tired of staying there, even though it is keeping her alive. Christopher Pike reconnects with an old love, and gets an offer to join with her people, the Majalis, to avoid his fate. (Honestly, I wonder why this hasn't been discussed more often. He knows what's going to happen, and he knows when it is going to happen, so it seems to me somebody should be talking about inspecting/repairing the component that fails beforehand and making sure the cadets who are shown to be in danger simply aren't anywhere near the fated spot that day. The multiverse is a thing in Trek, y'know? So the circumstances are different, the timeline branches, and life goes on.)

(Of course, that would also upset fifty-five years of established Star Trek canon, but hey. Anson Mount is doing a good enough job with this character--a track record he continues here--that I wouldn't mind a little retconning.)

Cadet Uhura also has an important role to play in the plot, as does Security Chief La'An Noonien-Singh, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite new characters. One person who is absent for the second episode in a row is the irascible Andorian engineer Hemmer. Maybe they don't quite know what to do with him yet? Although the last time we saw him, in episode 5, "Memento Mori," we found out a bit more about him and got a glimpse of the person underneath the arrogant, egotistical mask. Perhaps the writers are thinking a little Hemmer goes a long way? That may be so, but I think he's an interesting enough character to support a brighter spotlight. 

As for this episode....I think it's arguable whether it 1) stands up to the original Le Guin story; or 2) is a coherent narrative in and of itself. In the end, Alora is right that the Federation has no jurisdiction over what her people do; but on the other hand, Pike could certainly raise enough hell to force the Majalis to reach out to other Federation members to see if their centuries-old technology could be weaned away from demanding "the neural network of a child" to support it. There are other floating cities in the Federation, after all, going back to the original series' "The Cloud Minders." That wouldn't save the kid in this episode, but it would save other children going forward. 

Thinking along that line, this is the first episode where this series' episodic format is not successful. This story and the fallout thereof really deserved another episode or two, I think. Perhaps it could be revisited further along the line? (Not that any of the powers-that-be are listening to me, but I'm going to throw my opinion out there anyway.) Unfortunately, while Anson Mount does his usual excellent job, and Babs Olusanmokum shines as Dr. M'Benga, this episode is not the best of the season (that spot is co-shared with "Memento Mori" and "Children of the Comet"). It's not quite a dud, but....well. I'll stop there, I guess.