Sunday 22 August 2021

The great COVID lockdown DS9 rewatch: The Way of the Warrior Commentary (Season 4 Premiere)

Klingons doing what Klingons do

The Klingons drive up to DS9 soda shop with a massive war fleet. They circle the station like a biker gang, turning on and off their cloaks so you can’t tell how many there are. And Klingons being Klingons, they immediately make trouble on DS9, beating up Garak and giving Odo serious attitude. 

Why are they there? They won’t say. 

So DS9 has a problem… and who do you call when you have a Klingon problem?


Welcome aboard, Big W

Our favourite pithy bon mot dropper, Worf, has joined the DS9 crew. Was there a need for another colourful character on an already crowded station? I’m not so sure, but if they HAD to add someone, good ol’ deadpan Worf is a great choice.

Worf quickly out honours everyone and discovers the crafty Klingons are there to invade... Cardassia, and BAM! They do. 

The status quo of the past 3 seasons is rent asunder.

The whole sector is going to pot! 

Sisko heads out to save the Cardassian government council from the Klingons because why not, only Dukat’s ship is intercepted by the Klingons. They’re merrily pounding it to bits and are all screw you when Sisko asks them to stand down. 

So… Sisko opens fire on the Klingons, targeting their engines at first, as if that won’t start a war. It doesn’t work. 

So they blow a couple Klingon ships apart.

Which is big. 

Really, really big. 

It's WAAAAR, as starship troopers would say.

Picard would have pulled Sisko aside for a serious chat about now.

Does Sisko have the authority to start war on a whim? He's gonna be in big trouble when StarFleet finds out what he went and done did.

Would Picard have? I’m not so sure he would, but then Picard’s wisdom was backed by writer room immunity.

Sisko flies back at the station with two Klingon attack ships hot on his tail. 

Dukat scoffs; they are no match for DS9! No problem, people.

Then a whole FLEET of Klingon vessels uncloaks, probably breaking the whole season’s SFX budget.

Worf: “What are you orders, captain?”

Sisko: “Battle stations!”

The shit has hit the fan, people. 

Gonna need a new fan soon, if this keeps up.

There’s lots of great character moments in the build up to a galaxy shattering battle. It’s well done, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense. 

Sound and fury signifying manufactured conflict for the sake of drama!

As defenses are prepared, civilian Quark uses Root Beer as a lovely metaphor for the Federation in a scene with Garak: Root Beer is bubbly and cloying and happy, and the worst part is that, if you drink enough of the disgusting stuff, you begin to like it. Insidious, responds Garak, just like the Federation. 

And they both lament that the Federation is their only hope.

Oh, how goodie two shoes grow on you.

Of course, I yell at a show that was filmed over 20 years ago, what are you thinking? It’s transparently obvious that any battle between Klingon and DS9 only weakens the military forces of the Alpha Quadrant, and serves the interests of The Dominion. The dastardly Dominion is following British Empire policies in relation to Continental Europe, and/or their divide-and conquer-Colonial approach, if you want to draw a distinction between the two! 

Don’t you read history?

Don’t you remember the previous episode, where the douche Dominion tried to jump start a war in the season three finale between the Federation and the…er... whatsitname space power I’ve never heard of before (and never hear of again)?

Wait! It’s a loss of short term memory episode we’re in, isn’t it?

Sisko bluffs (or is he?), but Gowron calls him on it and unleashes his dogs of war. DS9 then reveals that it is now bristling with weapons. It was no bluff!

Explosions blossom like a very special episode!

Two powers that should be allies are falling into a pointless, self-destructive battle and likely a larger war.

It’s epic scale senselessness. 

Forget Worf! They needed Picard!

I guess my whole theory that Classic Trek avoided conflict and aimed to be reasonable wasn’t so reasonable a theory.

The shields go down and Klingon assault teams beam aboard the DS9 bridge. A phaser and batleth battle breaks out. Klingons are all over the station!

And actors use.. cover! Cover! Amazing. A concept lost to the Star Wars universe. 

Garak and Dukat make a stand, protecting the Cardassian civilian government. An odd couple indeed. Too bad this backdoor pilot for their sitcom didn’t work out.

The odd Cardassian couple

On the bridge, Kira’s wounded. She’s a main cast member, so you know this is serious.

Worf, ever the bad ass, kills Klingon after Klingon in hand to hand combat. But Sisko’s no slouch, and neither is Dax, and both kill plenty.

Finally the entire Klingon assault force is dead & done.

All those completely ineffectual cannon fodder extras could have been uselessly deployed against the Dominion.

It’s sad.

Perhaps this whole conflict was engineered by the Changelings? But nope, no reveals of changelings in Klingon ranks. Would that be too easy?

Gowron demands a surrender, but Federation reinforcements are on the way and Sisko says, no way Jose.

At long last, Sisko elaborates and reminds Gowron that this is what the Dominion wants. They should be fighting the Domion, not each other. 

Well, duh. 

You might have mentioned that earlier, but better late than never.

Gowron stands down. It’s over. The actor playing Gowron is awesome. He can slip from bombast to whispered persusasion in a single sentence. And his bulging eyes are so expressive!

In the post-battle wrap up, Sisko convinces Worf to stay in StarFleet (His intention to resign was the subplot running through all this, echoing Sisko in the show premiere). Hey, it rhymes! 

Sisko admits he wanted to resign to deal with the pain of his wife’s death. Aha: as noted earlier, the cast are all (or almost all) grappling with their own past & personal suffering. Running away only delays the inevitable.

It’s good stuff.

Worf then swaps the gold uniform for red and becomes the station’s chief operations manager. Whatever that entails. Maybe he'll handle trade negotiations?

Overall, an epic introduction for Worf, worthy of a song... so long as I don’t have to listen to it. 

Klingon songs suck.

Just don't.

Can't wait for what's next!

Friday 20 August 2021

The great COVID lockdown DS9 rewatch: Season 3 wrap up

Look out, it's the Season 3 finale!

Season 3 has seen a huge shift in the nature of the show: it's always had a bit of Buffy to it (episodic, seasonal, and show story arcs running all simultaneously), but this is really upping the ante. 

For the first time, there's a truly epic story is being spun out in what will become The Dominion War.

A mighty fine ship you have there, sir

Explorers (Season 3, Episode 22)

So right after the Cardassians and Romulans provoke the Dominion with the fabulous two parter,Improbable CauseandThe Die is Cast, Sisko decides to build a Bajoran solar sail ship and go on a father & son trip into deep space. Gul Dukat rings him up to warn Sisko this is a batshit crazy idea and not to go, and when Sisko asks what kind of hazards he might run into, Dukat does not mention The Dominion! 

Bizarre, given what happened just an episode ago, and what will happen in a few episodes hence.

So there’s long form narrative intermingling with the episodic, making the show a little schizophrenic. Honestly, if war was imminently looming, I’m not so sure Sisko would build his solar sail ship and fly away. 

Seems quixotic. 

The greatest threat to the Alpha Quadrant since The Borg, and people keep forgetting all about them. Like Churchill, during the Blitz, deciding he’s going to build his own yacht and sail to France.

The story is charming anyway, and the interior design of the solar sail ship is fabulous. The CGI work not so much.

I do appreciate is how infrequently they use special effects compared to the newer iterations of Trek. They didn’t have the budget to fill the screen with hundreds of ships and a bajillion laser beams. Hence you can still follow what’s going on. The new shows have so much spectacular shit on screen at any one time it just becomes a great big flashy smear. 

O’Brian admits in this episode that he HATED Bashir at first. And then he says, ‘and now… I don’t.” Talk about tepid endorsements ‘from the heart’. 

It’s hilarious.

DS9 is at it’s funniest when it leverages the characters flaws. There’s one episode where it tries to do farce, and it’s… not that good. Nor is it that funny. The understated humorous moments between Quark, Odo and Garak are a real gas, and they’re based on character. They don’t break the bubble of disbelief or undermine the character (much). 

The episode ends with Gul Dukat welcoming them to Cardassia. They’ve managed to make the trip and prove the ancient Bajorans could have. The Cardassians then put on a fireworks display to welcome them with. It’s a really nice moment; it even makes you like Dukat, if only for a moment. He’s a bad man, no doubt about it, but still believes he’s the hero. Far more nuanced than many villains in Trek, and certainly more so than anyone in Star Wars.

It’s ironic that Obi Wan condemns Anakin for being binary in his thinking: “Only a Sith thinks in absolutes!” Hello? This is a universe that divides itself between Light and Dark sides, and even the people in-between inevitably cut one way or the other (Jabba, Lando, etc). 

Talk to me more about bad absolutes, Obi Wan. Trek owns you on nuance, hands down, every which way to Sunday and beyond, you Basic spewing laser brain.

Curzon-Odo oozing obnoxiousness

Facets (Episode 25)
Dax has the spirits of her former host inhabit her friends on DS9. It gives us a better picture of Curzon, whom we've been hearing about for three seasons. He comes across as a selfish, willful blowhard, and far less appealing than the writers evidently think he is. Charisma matched with lack of care for others. Yikes. Curzon and Odo decide to cohabit in the body of the shape shifter. 

Apparently Odo feels this is an educational and beneficial arrangement for himself, and in the short term, I imagine it would be. The idea of the Trill is pretty interesting, how they merge with their host, rather than having two competing consciousnesses, and yet, once separated they are very much independent. Just what goes on in Jadzia/Dax’s head?

It’s hopefully not as bad as what Sisko experienced with Dax’s murderer host. That was downright creepy. 

But what happened to that short term host dude who abducted and implanted Dax a season ago?

No idea.

Getting up close and too personal

The Adversary (Season Finale)
Sisko is finally promoted to Captain! I kind of thought he was a captain already, but a commander is a rank below captain. I wasn’t sure if that was just the designation for the head of a Starbase. There is much celebrating, during which a Federation ambassador pulls Sisko aside to let him know there’s been a coup on an allied world. 

Time to show the flag and head in with the USS Defiant. Except, there’s been no coup, and that’s not the ambassador. It’s, as one famous space admiral once said, a trap! A changeling has orchestrated it all, in an attempt to start a war between the two powers, thereby weakening the Federation. 

This is Star Trek meets The Thing: a shape shifting alien gets loose aboard the Defiant, impersonating people and objects, and making everyone paranoid. It’s not as horrifying as the alien in The Thing, but it is set on blowing the ship apart and killing everyone aboard. 

The Dominion agent offers to save Odo, but he’s having none of it and, for the first time ever, a changeling kills another changeling. 

Before the dastardly ambassador impersonator flees this mortal coil, he tells Odo that it’s too late, changeling imposters are everywhere.

Queue the fourth season!

Wednesday 18 August 2021

The Great COVID lockdown DS9 rewatch

I’ve not been really enjoying the new Trek. It’s flashy, fast paced and has lots of explosions, and yet... it doesn’t feel like Trek to me. I like the slower paced and (to my mind) more thoughtful TOS, TNG, VOY and DS9. 

I guess this means I'm getting old. And, hey, you kids, get off my lawn!

TOS has wonderfully campy charms, such as theatrical lighting, vaseline lense soft focus on love interests, doomed Red Shirts, Kirk wrestling with his shirt off, Bones blustering about not being an escalator, and over the top melodrama. Yet it also tackled social issues in ways that straight up dramas at the time often could not. 

TNG is cup of cocoa comforting; it follows a nice bunch of people on progressive adventures in space. Picard was written as a thoughtful, reasonable leader. It’s the one show I’ve seen where they’re on the brink of a massive space battle (Kurtzman and JJ would salivate at the prospect!) and God Damn Picard goes and talks them down from the precipice, ending the episode without the required cathartic explosion adorned climax, and we were all better off for it. Peaceful resolution! Who'da thought?!?

Would Discovery ever veer away from pyrotechnical cataclysms? I think not. 

TNG is a gem among sci-fi chaff. The whole set of old Trek shows really hold together well, and feel consistent. Well. Consistent enough!

I’d lump the original Stargate in with this set as some of the best sci-fi series ever done (I'd also add The Expanse, the first couple seasons of BSG, Firefly, and umm... my brain fails but there are others).

I’ve seen TNG intermittently over the years, but haven’t watched a DS9 episode since it was originally on TV. 

So I thought, why not go back and rewatch the whole thing, right from the start?

It’s the one and only long arc show of the original set. Discovery is doing ongoing stories, of course. I watched the first season, which was all about the Mirror Universe. I like the Mirror Universe, just not THAT much of it. 

So buckle in for a journey into nostalgia!

Episode One:

Sisko arrives on DS9 with his son, reluctantly set to take command of the station. He gets all bristly with Picard, who’s dropped by to give him his marching orders. Sisko isn’t too happy with ex-Locutus of Borg, whom he holds responsible for killing his wife at Wolf-359. 

It's actually unusual in classic Trek to show such hostility between Star Fleet members, and it’s a sign of things to come.

Because the whole station is chock filled with people who absolutely can’t stand each other. 

In other ways, it’s an innocuous start: the first two entire seasons are Planet-of-the-Week, self-contained stories that can be run in any order, just the way syndication likes them. The real changes start seeping in during season 3, and just keep coming. 

Sisko’s set on turning down the assignment, when all of a sudden, a wormhole opens up near Bajor, making the assignment significantly more interesting for Sisko (who also discovers he is The Emissary, a representative of The Prophets, who live in the Wormhole), and he decides to take the assignment after all. 

And we’re off and running.

The character collection here is actually really good and designed for conflict. We have (with tonal rating for how compromised they are, with 5 being a perfect grey):

Brusque and no nonsense, he has a softer side that you see only at first with his son. He blusters, but also has a sly side. He’s a steady straight man who has to manage all the looney characters on the station. 

Tone: 1 (He's been in war, fought the borg, and has likely made difficult compromising decisions in the past, although in the first few seasons he doesn't have to get his hands very dirty).

Miles O’Brian
Transported over from Next Generation, Miles is the Chief of Operations for DS9, which is constantly breaking down. We get to see through him the struggle of the Twenty Fifth (?) Century Everyman in his Sisyphean effort to get through the day. He’s temperamental and rather put upon, but with good reason. He’s another station straight man. Can’t stand Bashir at first, whom he’s often paired with.

Tone: 4 (He's a borderline rageaholic who hates Cardassians and was traumatized fighting them; he's been bringing that under control over the first few DS9 seasons, but man is he grumpy).

Hard nosed, aggressive, ornery and always spoiling for a fight, Kira’s the First Officer of DS9, and a former Bajoran terrorist. Now there’s a character background full of dramatic potential. She can be grating, but the actor imbues Kira with enough of a soft side, and heart, that she grows on us. Her bouts of temper (frequently directed at Quark or any convenient Cardassian) are her defining characteristic. Often paired with religious figures from Bajor, Sisko, and Odo. 

Tone: 8 (She's done terrible things fighting the Cardassian occupation that have seared her soul; the only reason I'm not rating her higher is that her 'freedom fighter' arguments hold water).

An earnest blowhard, Bashir’s the station’s genius doctor. He’s full of himself, yet the actor brings nuance in the performance, and disarms us with vulnerability. He can’t help being a bit of a boor,  as he’s oblivious to his off-putting self-centredness. At root, though, he’ll go to the matt for his friends. The show has a lot of fun with his self-centred side, and easily bruised ego.

Tone: 1 (He's a blowhard but a well meaning one, and he doesn't do anything too reprehensible in the first few seasons).

A chill Trill, Dax has multiple lifetimes under her/his/its(?) belt, and acts as a kind of emotional calm point for the station crew. They try to build a lot of interest in her past lives, and while she’s cool, and the idea of Trill is kinda cool, she’s a little too chill to be really interesting. Or, at least, in comparison to some of the other more over the top characters she tends to fade a bit.

Tone: 4 (She's made blood oaths with Klingons and had a host who was a murderer; even if each Trill is a new being, I'm rating her a four because the show strongly hints she's seen her share of serious shit over the years, and had to make difficult compromises). 

Sisko's son, and an entry point for younger viewers. He's a typical kid, not a prodigy, and he gives an endearing performance. He builds an unlikely friendship with Nog, the son of the Ferengi, Rom.

Tone: 0 (He's not seen shit... yet). 

An unscrupulous capitalist who has no moral he won’t compromise for profit. As a stereotypical Ferengi, he veers between grotesque caricature, cunning, and comic relief. The actor, however, performs Quark with gusto and manages to inject enough nuance that he grows on us. He’s thankfully not one note, in the end. A lot of mileage is gained out of his schemes and ongoing conflict with Odo.

Tone: 9 (He's got no qualms about selling defective merchandise that will kill the user, runs guns to anyone who wants them, and worse; I'm leaving a sliver of light because he only hurts others as a side effect). 

Odo’s a ton of fun: a shape shifter and head of security for the station, he’s Quarks foil and arch-nemesis. Beneath their rivalry, there’s a very buried affection. Very buried. They each make the life of the other more interesting, and if Odo didn’t have Quark’s schemes to foil, he’d be bored out of his mind. Gruff and detached, he warms up over the course of the show. 

Tone: 5 (He was head of station security for the Cardassians, who are well known for atrocities, extrajudicial executions and war crimes. Fun! He remarks that he never killed anyone (late in season 3), yet he was security chief for a station filled with Bajoran slave labourers. He often complains Starfleet doesn't allow him police state levels of freedom in cracking down on the station populace. At the same time, he is genuinely concerned with justice. How that really fits with his time working for the Cardassians is an open question...). 

Like Quark, Garak is part comic relief, part cunning. Ostensibly a Cardassian tailor who’s decided to remain on DS9, he’s actually a ruthless spy (hey, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) and former member of the feared Obsidian Order. There are a lot of tailoring jokes, and his dissembling never ceases. Even when it’s obvious he’s a former spy, he never fully admits to it, which is part of the fun. Of course, under all the surface Machiavellianism, there’s a heart buried... somewhere. The actor is obviously having a grand old time, and it shows. Frequently paired with the endlessly earnest egotist, Bashir.

Tone: 10 pitch black (As the former right hand man of Tain, the head of the Space Gestapo, he likely didn't limit all his interrogations to staring contests. Hard to say how much, or what, is true of his past, but odds are it wasn't pretty). 

There are a lot more sparks flying between this set than you'll ever witness with TNG's pleasant character collection. 

I've already plowed through Season 1 & 2 and I'm deep into Season 3.

So far, they've played a lot with Quark as the avatar of capitalist excess, Kira and Sisko with post-traumatic stress (Kira's freedom fighting years, Sisko surviving Wolf-359), and multiple-bodies one consciousness with Dax. 

Many of the characters are decidedly grey. Unlike the well adjusted crew of the USS Enterprise, these are compromised, wounded people: Odo pushes everyone away with gruffness, but secretly he's quietly suffering in a private sea of loneliness. Garak is in agonizing exile, which he hides behind pretzels of evasiveness, never saying anything directly. Quark hides his feelings behind untrammelled greed, hoping you won't see them. Sisko buries the pain of losing his wife deep inside. Bashir shields himself with ego. Kira doesn't defend her vulnerability at all; instead she attacks, attacks, attacks. 

Pursuit was one of my favourite episodes of Season One. It pairs O'Brian with an alien who's been bred to be hunted and killed for sport (we'll see hunters again with the Hirogen of Voyager). The two put upon, expendable worker bees form a bond, and O'Brian helps the genetically engineered target escape to fulfill his purpose (giving a good chase). It turned out to be one of the most heart felt of Season One episodes. The makeup on the alien was excellent, but the costumes of his pursuers was kind of laughable. 

For a Trek show set in one location, they manage to mix things up a decent amount. 

One recurrent theme in the first few seasons is people not being who they seem, or being replaced by Dopplegangers. Either the whole crew is, or someone has been brainwashed, or reality isn't real, or they wake up Cardassian (A ridiculous yet great episode!), or they're stuck in a children's game playing Space Hopscotch. All done in entertaining ways, but makes me wonder what was going on in the writer's room. 

The Mirror Universe makes two appearances in the first couple of seasons, which is just the right amount. Here the grey take of DS9 really comes to the fore: rather than the Terran Empire reforming and becoming a benevolent, inclusive state after Kirk's intervention, Goatee Spock's reforms backfire and the Empire is overrun by an alliance of enemies. Humans are enslaved and treated like disposable fodder. No good deed goes unpunished! Pure virtue rarely endures in DS9 without being besmirched at some point. Everything and everyone has to compromise and get dirty to get by, eventually. We'll see more of that in later seasons.

There is a progressive on it’s sleeve episode where Sisko and Bashir go back in time to a Sanctuary Zone where they save human civilization by bringing attention to the plight of the homeless. It’s set in 2024… eerily close to the discontent of 2020. 

In some ways, the show is the anti-thesis to TNG. Writers felt constricted by Roddenberry's Rules (no fighting among Star Fleet personnel, etc), so here they find work arounds. They may not break the rules directly, but by filling the cast out with aliens and non-Starfleet personnel, conflict ran run amok.

To be fair to Roddenberry, his rules made TNG one of the most unusual dramas on TV. I rather liked that it didn't always take the easy conflict route, and I especially liked how measured Picard could be.

TNG also often veered away from forcing characters to make real choices, choices that would compromise or tarnish the character's ethical lustre. An easy choice is no choice. Choosing between letting Planet A or Planet B blow up isn't a choice if the characters just save both! In DS9, one of them is gonna blow up.

Difficult choices leave their mark on the characters. That's something The 100 was phenomenal at (for the first few seasons, before it blasted off the rails and into orbit around Pluto). 

Mentions of the Dominion get seeded throughout Season 2, but it's still episodic. Group of alien refugees will mention they were displaced by The Dominion, for example. 

Everything heats up with Sisko's father and son family outing in the Season 2 finale, when they get abducted by the Jem H'dar. Season 3 opens with a combat recon mission beyond the wormhole. They run into a swarm of Jem H'dar ships, get a bloody nose, fall back, and as they retreat, the Galaxy Class starship Odyssey is freakin' blown to bits by a Jem H'dar suicide run. 

Whoa! Nothing says these guys mean business than a suicide run taking out your most powerful starship and thousands of skilled crewmen. They've already wiped out all the colonies established on their side of the wormhole by the Bajorans and Federation. 

Soon after, The USS Defiant is introduced. It's a heavily armed warship, unusual for StarFleet, which prefers multi-function vessels. 

Then... it gets weird. 

Several Planet-of-the-week episodes follow, usually presaged by a scene in which a character will toss off a line about the Dominion ('Good thing there are no Dominion ships in this sector' or 'Golly, business is down... thanks to The Dominion!'), and then the show will promptly forget The Dominion exists for the next 45 minutes. It feels like they still had a bunch of episodic scripts lying around they needed to use, so they shoe horned in a toss off line to keep us from forgetting... whatever it was. Dominoes?

What I don't really understand is why they seemingly get chased to the other side of the wormhole, with the Dominion complaining about Federation incursions into their Quadrant... and then they don't post sentries on their side of the wormhole. I mean, they just did a suicide run on a Federation capital ship, and started a war. 

There is one entry point for the Federation into their Quadrant: the wormhole.

I mean, I'm no expert tactician, but the obvious thing to do is post sentries at the wormhole. Or mine the entrance. 

Once Federation ships get through, they can disperse, and it'll be hard to catch them. But if you put a blockade right at the wormhole, they're all bottled up.

There's also an attempt to blow up the wormhole by the Romulans (in a rather clever short term time travel episode centring on the ever put upon O'Brian, who ends up dying to boot. The writers really love kicking O'Brian). 

They're stopped, but it brings up further questions when a combined fleet of Romulan & Cardassians, built by their respective spy agencies, tries to blow up the home world of the Dominion's Founders (who happen to be shape shifters like Odo). Why don't they leave behind a sentry ship at the wormhole, to blow it up in case their mission fails (which it inevitably does)?

The two parter Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast are wild episodes, and the show does a great job of seeding elements leading up to them earlier in the season. It's not always immediately obvious how all the parts fit together, either, which I like even more. It feels like something big and COHERENT is happening in the background. 

Or mostly makes sense. 

There are occasional (seeming?) logic gaps (some of which I posed above). There may be in universe answers to these issues that I'm simply not aware of. Or maybe I wasn't watching closely enough. 

The conflict with the Dominion is getting quite hot by mid-Season 3, and it's only going to get hotter!

If you've never given DS9 a watch, I recommend giving it a chance!

Thursday 29 July 2021

Map of 2020

It's been years and years since I did the Map of Humanity, a madly ambitious attempt to map out the human experience along the lines of superego, ego and id.

That was followed up by the Map of Relationships, which ran in Walrus magazine way back in the day.

Now I've finally had motivation to do another map. 

This time, it's of the year 2020. 

Why a map of 2020? 

Because this was the year our interconnected, global reality contracted to the size of our domiciles, when we became exiles in our own homes, and going to the grocery store became a dangerous expedition for toilet paper. 

Passing within six feet of a stranger was a mortal danger, and 'Here be Dragons' was the end of the block.

Sure, some of that is hyperbole, but the underlying, emotionally discombobulating nature of the COVID-19 pandemic was very real. 

I have been lucky enough to remain employed throughout this bizarre experience, and while life has continued in endlessly bland and unremarkable ways, there's this noise at the edge of perception, of lockdowns and death rates that then percolates in the imagination. 

Anyway, this map is the product of the lockdown. It's intended with tongue planted firmly in cheek. 

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did making it.

The map references numerous favourites, from Pilgrim's Progress to the famed Peutinger Map (look at the figure for home and you will see a resemblance to the icon for that legendary city at the hub of 100,000 KM of ancient roads).

(Note that the map's font is archaic, and uses the letter F where there are two s's.)

I made the map in ProCreate, then brought it into an older version of Adobe Photoshop to add the text. I played around with adding colour, as many maps of this period would have been hand painted (light washes of watercolour over the print), but it seemed like enough work as it was, and I rather like the unity the tint brings to it all. 

The very first Map of Humanity was in this style, as an intaglio print (with acid washes for tone). That one had severely curtailed scope, as my ability to write backward is quite limited. 

This piece is the spirtual successor, executed decades later as lines of light on an iPad. 

Thursday 22 July 2021

Belated Westworld Season II reflections

The most interesting thing to me about season two of Westworld was the way it contrasted the attitudes and goals of Maeve and Dolores. 

Dolores descended from innocence into outright psychopathy, while Maeve grew out of self-absorbed cynicism to pursue altruistic self-sacrifice. 

Their love stories also conclude: Maeve leaves her daughter in the care of Ghost Nation, while Dolores watches Teddy blow his brains out.

Maeve gave to her daughter, asking nothing, while Dolores just used and took from Teddy. Maeve valued love above all else, while Dolores championed revolution and revenge. 

As ye reap, so shall ye sow. 

Last season, William was surrounded by unaware androids who were sleep-walking through life. Now, William has lost his tether to reality and gotten caught up in fantasy and delusion. His competitive nature has driven him to conquer Ford's game, and in so doing he's willingly entered the very sort of dream / nightmare the androids have been so determined to escape.

The show sets up The Forge well. It drops enough clues that we strongly suspect they're already in The Valley Beyond before they get there. That at least some of what we've been watching is a simulation in The Forge. And the finale did not disappoint. 

Bernard has struggled with reality too, this season, being abused by Ford, who treats him like a puppet, forcing him to commit horrible crimes that are against Bernard's nature. He's the Norman Bates of androids, and has been reduced to a plot puppet and exposition delivery system this season, and doesn't really get to shine until the finale when he makes his first really significant choice.

Then he spends the entirety of season three shambling around in a daze, empty and purposeless.

Rather like the show. 

Season one was superb. 

Season two was not as good, but still intriguing. 

Season three? A good time to stop watching. 

Tuesday 20 July 2021

Warlord of Io - Nose Virus!

Found this old strip, which with COVID somehow seems even more relevant. Obviously, sentient viruses are the next step in gain of function research. 

You saw it hear first!

The two page strip was done for an anthology book put together by Fiona Smyth, many years ago, and was built in Adobe Illustrator

The look of the comic was based on both comics and the old serials from the 1930s and 40s, set in a sort of 'ultra cute' mini-reality. 

More can be found in Warlord of Io, the graphic novel.

Also, there's a joke strip collection, Max Zing, which was a really fun challenge for me. Comic strips (between one and four panels) are an art form all their own, akin to poetry. 

If you love pop culture and retro sci-fi, you might find these efforts amusing. 

Friday 16 July 2021

Making illustrations in ProCreate

I've done a few, all for on-screen, nothing for print. I've done a lot of print work, almost all of it using Adobe Illustrator. On-screen works best for ProCreate; you'll need another software package to complete your workflow and prep imagery for print (as ProCreate is exclusively RGB). 

First thing you need to know for a job are the specs: how big and what format. 

For on-screen, it's simple: they give you pixel dimensions (1920 x 1080 say, typical video size, or Zoom background at 1280 x 720) and you set up your file with those dimensions. Boom! Done. 

Or you would be, if ProCreate didn't resize your JPG and PNG output to a smaller dimension than the file you set up. I am not sure why, but might have something to do with screen density. Watch out for that.

Lesson learned!

I now send a flattened PSD file, or export to a desktop computer where you can produce a JPG or PNG without ProCreate undersizing your output. 

For print, you'll need to know what you're printing for. Magazines generally want 300 DPI (dots per inch), while most newspapers print (or printed, times change) 150 DPI. So the pixel dimension of a piece for a magazine that's 5"x7" will actually be double the needed pixel dimension than if it were being printed in a newspaper (1500 x 2100 vs. 750 x 1050). 

Format is usually JPG for online, but you might need to do animated GIFs from time to time (which you can produce in ProCreate). Paintings and photos generally work well as JPGs. Images that have sharp lines, text and lots of flat colour blocks... not so much. The more you compress a JPG, the more artifacting you'll get (unsightly smudging of the image, particularly around areas of high contrast).

PNGs are better for images that have lots of flat colour (as are GIFs), with the added benefit that you can leave areas transparent (unlike JPGs or GIFs). 

For print, you'll need to convert from RGB to CMYK or grayscale. As far as I can tell, ProCreate doesn't allow you to do this. 

Print uses CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) to mix colours, rather than RGB (red, green, blue) used on screens. The gamut is much greater, and more vibrant, for RGB (it's beaming light into your eyeballs, after all). 

If you're converting RGB images into CMYK, keep in mind that the image will be darker, duller, and less vibrant than it appears on screen. Once you convert to CMYK, it'll dim down; once you print it, it'll be a little darker still. How much can be a little hard to determine without actually testing. Some images transfer amazingly well between screen and print, while others are... more problematic. The colour purple I've found is particularly likely to change between screen and page. 

Different presses and printing methods can also affect the output, so whenever possible, request a test print. 

The larger your image, the fewer layers you'll have to play with in ProCreate, so keep that in mind. For screen size imagery (usually much smaller than what you need for print), that's never been a real problem for me. 

A 1500 x 2000 image will give you dozens of layers to putter around with.

Let's take a look at a Zoom background I did. This was a big experiment for me, as I'd not tried painting in this style before, nor had I really painted much on the iPad Pro. So risky, but fun. 

Trial by fire!

The piece had a Canadian theme, so I did a few roughs, playing around with pop Canadiana. I wanted to do something celebratory and fun. Something that would make people smile when they saw it. This is what I came up with:

The intial sketch: I walked up Spadina to find a store that sold Canadiana tchotchkes for reference and inspiration. It's got moose, inukshuk, and totem poles. These were removed to put more focus on Edmonton and Toronto.

I got feedback on the initial sketches, which were then modified to better suit the format (and leave more room for the head of the person sitting in front of the background, a key consideration for Zoom backgrounds). 

I then set about painting, and used a good number of default brushes to put it together:

Textures: Dove Lake, Rectango. Good for laying down areas of colour with personality.

Inking: Gesinki Ink, great for sharp details.

Elements: Cloud, this was such a quick fix, you can lay them down fast and they look good. 

Luminance: Light Pen. I used it for highlights around the edges of figures, to give them a backlit feel, and for sun dappling. It's almost, borderline cheesy, but it also adds atmosphere and helps tie elements together. But so tempting to go overboard! 

Luminance: Light Brush. Fabulous for shafts of light pouring through trees. 

Organic: Rainforest for background mass, Mountain Ash, Snowgum for leaves (and Paper Daisy); for clumps of vegetation: Swordgrass, Wildgrass, Reed, Twig for trees, etcetera. They can really convey a mass quickly, but need to be used judiciously or it starts to look... off. 

Lastly, I played with overlays and filters, which also helped pull the piece together. 

The focal elements were kept on separate layers from the background, so I could edit them without affecting anything else. That made it much easier when I had to do alternate riders, or different background cities.

RI try and keep elements on different layers, for easier editing (foreground elements like the moose, rider and flag were on separate layers from the trees, etc.). That makes it easier to shift and edit them without disrupting other elements.

This is midstream; the floating logo in the sky was removed, and I haven't added lighting filters on top yet. But it's more about refinements at this point.

A final twist was producing versions with different locations (Toronto or Edmonton), different riders, and different shirts on the riders.

I'm happy enough with the result, especially as a first go. It proved ProCreate can be used to produce illustrations on a short timeline, and that it has enough default tools to do a credible job. Thanks to the undo tool, it's pretty forgiving to work in. As I was trying to work this way for the first time, I got rather sloppy in my layer organization, but that'll get better as I become more familiar with the tool. 

As mentioned above, it was necessary to bring it into Photoshop to produce the final background images and avoid the output being shrunk. 

This version has one of the alternate figures and locations, as well as lighting filters applied over top of the rest of the image. That was done by creating an 'effects layer' by setting it to... hard light or something. Very similar to how it's done in Photoshop.

Thursday 15 July 2021

Map of Humanity can now be conquered in Lux!

My Map of Humanity, the most outlandishly ambitious (and completely bonkers) project I've ever undertaken, is a map now in Lux, thanks to Enokrad. 

Lux, for those not in the know, is a Risk style online game. 

I've always wanted my own Risk map. 

The only reason I know Irkutsk and Kamchatka well is thanks to that game. 

The original map

The Lux (and conquerable) version!

The mission statement for the Map of Humanity:

Maps organize information. They pinpoint geographic locations relative to each other. The Map of Humanity also organizes information, but instead of doing it geographically, the map organizes the locations on the basis of moral, emotional, and cultural significance.

From the mythical cradle of human thought in the Garden of Eden, to the farthest reaches of human imagination, the map plots out mankind's achievements, trials, and tribulations throughout history. We have constructed a world made up of our own actions and beliefs, as much as the one formed by the land we live on. The map of humanity is formed by our thought, our feelings, our dreams, and our nightmares.

The continents of this restructuring rest upon the sea of the unconscious, the stormy basis of our thought. The land that emerges from it is broken into three main continents, each related to an aspect of the human mind: superego, ego, and id.

The superego is dominated by our higher aspirations. It is our moral centre, where our sense of compassion, love, and virtue reside. Hope, family, kindness, and beauty dwell here amongst the peaceful fields and tranquil cities. The ego is dominated by reason, rational thought, and order. It is the land of science, where nature is harnessed by the human mind; and order and reason hold sway over emotion and passion. The id is the dark continent, dominated by our primitive, animalistic urges. Here hate, greed, avarice, lust, and bigotry run rampant, and war devolves into atrocity.

This is the world of our making, carved out of our actions, built upon the collective achievements of the human race.

It is an attempt to map the last six thousand years of human history and thought upon a theoretical geography to discover a sense of what kind of civilization humanity has attained. And like the geography of human nations, it is in constant flux, changing and growing as long as mankind walks the face of the earth.

It took 5 months to build and has thousands of locations from both history and fiction.

Of course something of this scale (grandiose) is going to have limitations. Ideally locations would be assembled and evaluated by a team of experts in history, philosophy, literature, and science and then the results plotted out using a computer. Every year it would change, and over time it would grow larger and more complex. Obviously this map is not going to achieve the perfect realization of the idea. In fact, this is the second iteration of the map, which is far more extensive than the first, which was an intaglio print. 

Perhaps one day there will be a third.

Monday 12 July 2021

Life drawing: traditional vs. digital

I thought it might be interesting to contrast life drawings I did on paper with those on the iPad Pro, using ProCreate. 

ProCreate definitely gives you more flexibility and options, but when you're working super fast, you have to know what you're going to do in advance. Even switching between brushes takes time. There is also no texture to the art board.

I use either 8.5" x 11" hard bound sketchbooks, or smaller 5" x 7" versions. The iPad Pro is maybe a little lighter than the larger sketchbook, and not as bulky. I only have to carry the Apple Pencil with the Pro; with the sketchbook, I usually have a slew of pens, markers, pencil crayons and a portable watercolour kit. 

A life drawing watercolour; lots of the paper showing through.

With this drawing, you can see I've used too much water, and the paper is buckling. Some aspects of the drawing I like, but I rather messed up the face. Watercolour is not very forgiving, unlike ProCreate.

Watercolour in the sketchbook can get problematic if you use a lot of water. It crinkles up the page, and if you have to switch to a new page, folding it over, it'll mush up against the earlier pages and make a mess. So you can't work too fast with watercolour. That or you get a watercolour block and slice off each page with an Xacto blade as you go. I only use watercolour blocks for longer poses (half hour or longer), and there's only one class I know of that has poses that long (I generally don't go to it).

The pose

The sketchbook

The drawing. I used a brush pen for this. It's soft tipped, and when it starts to run down, it makes really interesting textured patterns when you scumble with it. Happy accidents like that are not easy to replicate on the iPad. I also combined it with a fineliner for, natch, the line work.

I started embelishing the drawings with quick doodles of ships, seas and rocks.

Straight up line work, overlapping drawings to save paper. That's one thing you won't have to worry about with the iPad.

In addition to almost limitless undos (so long as you haven't closed the file), ProCreate lets you save a video of the drawing process. This can be interesting to review, to study how you go about drawing, and where you might improve. It also allows you to watch how others create their drawings, which is even more educational.

This is a video of a life drawing session. I used a virtual 6B pencil for it, if I recall. You can make the colour whatever you like, but every time you change it costs you precious seconds. The video is pixelated when brought into Blogger. You actually get very good detail, and can post them to Instagram. 

I usually focus on the outline, the shape of the figure, and rarely do any structural work underneath. There's rarely any time to. Poses are 5 or 10 minutes, with a series of 2 minute gesture drawings to warm up. My sweet spot is 15 to 30 minutes. Long enough to get detail, but not long enough to get bored.

For gesture drawings, you do a quick sweeping stroke for the main energy line of the pose, then build out the figure using spheres and cylinder shapes. I just use circles and oblong ovals. 

I use one file for life drawing sessions now, and create new layers for new poses. If it's a long pose, I'll perhaps create a new file. You can make palettes in ProCreate, but quite often I've just done so manually on a layer. 

If I remember, I'll write down the type of brushes I used on a layer in the file, so I know how to achieve that look again, in the future.

Thursday 8 July 2021

First scribbles and life drawing with ProCreate

The first drawing I did on the iPad Pro was at lunch on the workplace patio; a coworker had brought his iPad, and we both did a drawing based on a third party prompt (superheroes). 

A rather distorted looking superhero figure. First drawing on the iPad Pro.

After that, I did a number of doodles, trying various brushes. Messy stuff. I could never remember which brush I used for what. I've since gotten into the habit of creating an extra layer in my ProCreate files where I write down the names of all the brushes I used in the file. Otherwise, I'll forget, and replicating the look/feel has to be done by trial and error. 

Brush play doodles. There's so many approaches and brushes available it's a little daunting at first.

After that, I started hauling out the iPad to life drawing. 

The first time was at a life drawing session at an art show I curated: Monsters & Machines, which also served as a book launch for my Middle Grade novel, Theo Paxstone and the Dragon of Adyron. I actually illustrated that book with a number of pen and ink drawings, and I believe I could do better ones using the iPad (which allows for a lot more correction, a feature I sorely need). 

The drawing session was Steampunk themed, and the model did a fabulous job. 

The brush I picked, however, was a plain one, and if you zoom in close, the line work looks exactly like what it is: scribbles on a glass surface. No texture at all. 

I'm actually very happy with the drawings, and they hold together if you don't zoom in too much. I posted some more pictures from the set here.

The full drawing and a blown up section, showing the plainness of the brush tool I used.

This gets the scribbliness across even better

Monday 5 July 2021

What's the best drawing software for iPad (Pro)?

An Adobe Draw piece I exported as a PNG; all flat shapes, no soft edges. 

Once you've gotten your spiffy new iPad, you have to decide what software you're going to dabble with, and that largely depends upon what you want to create.

Want to create Manga? There's apps specifically tailored to making it. I looked at some, but they seemed more like starter software. If you're new to doing digital art, are specifically focused on Manga, need a little extra support as you're getting into it (templates, etc.), then these programs may be for you. I would imagine, however, that over time you'd want to move on to more versatile programs.

Want to animate? There's apps for that too, including the aptly named Animate. Note that some drawing apps do have limited animation capability (such as Photoshop and ProCreate). 

I wasn't entirely certain what I'd do with the iPad Pro when I got it; I wanted to play around, see what was possible and what I actually liked doing on the device. 

Top activities, off the top of my head:

1) Life draw. I usually do 5-10 minute poses, in pencil, ink, watercolour or pastel. They're very rough, usually line work with washes or ink blotches. Not super sophisticated.

A traditional media life drawing, done in pencil

I think these were both a little longer than usual poses (10-15 minutes?)

2) Paint portraits. For this I wanted a reasonable simulation of paint, particularly oil. I wasn't hoping for much in the way of watercolour. Wet into wet often produces happy accidents and I doubted digital could pull of a reasonable approximation of the process or result. 

3) Illustrate. This is a little different, in that it would have commercial application, and would have to be part of an end-to-end work flow, from creation to (possibly) print. Output would have to be compatible with layout programs. It'd have to support CMYK (for print) as well as RGB (for screen). There'd also need to be a decent number of brushes and support tools (basic shapes, etc) as well. 

4) Create comic books. This one gets even more complicated. It'd need to have type tools (my comics always have text for dialogue, sound effects, narration and commentary), basic shapes and (a nice to have) perspective grids. Anything to help ease the process and eliminate busy work.

I also wanted it to be easy to use, compatible with other software I'm familiar with, economical.

Animation wasn't a top priority for me (I use Adobe After Effects for that).

What'd I try?

WARNING: Subjective review. I don't think I explored several pieces of software enough to really give them a fair shake (Concepts and Graphic).

Adobe Photoshop

This one is a bit of a cheat. It doesn't run on an iPad, but you can hook up your iPad to your laptop/desktop and then use the iPad as a tablet. You get to use Photoshop! Alas, the lag was so bad as to be unworkable. 

If you want to do professional illustration / art, the CINTIQ may be the better option. Everyone I know who's professional level uses the CINTIQ (although the hard core also have an iPad Pro). Most need to be attached to a computer, but some can be used independently (such as the Mobile Studio Pro, which will set you back about a cool $4,300 CDN). 

The great thing about Photoshop is that it allows end to end production: print, web, you name it. It's industry standard for a reason.

You can turn off anti-aliasing of text, for example, which you need to do if you're going to go to print. Certain other programs are not capable of this (as we shall see) and as a result you need to rely on other programs to prepare your work for printing. 

Of course, Photoshop is subscription and a rather pricey proposition at $20.99 per month (plus tax). 

If you're using it for commercial jobs, that's reasonably economical (once you've swallowed the cost of the CINTIQ). If you're an artist, on the other hand, it may be a little pricey. 

Adobe Draw

Adobe rolled out Draw a few years ago as a tablet based alternative to Adobe Illustrator. I've complained before how I don't like the way bezier points are laid down in Illustrator with a stylus. 

Well, they licked that problem with Draw. What you draw with the stylus is what you get. 

The art work is vector based, which means it's all plotted out using points connected by lines that may be curved by pulling anchors on your bezier points. 

Raster images are composed of hundreds or thousands of tiny dots of colour; when you enlarge those, they become fuzzy. 

Vector print files tend to be significantly smaller than their raster equivalents, and they are resolution independent (you can infinitely scale up or down). The down side is that it did not have a wide variety of brushes to select from, or a lot of effects.

An Adobe Draw doodle. Crisp shapes. Handles your brush marks well, and with the ability to export vector format could be powerful. 

Still, it was supposed to export EPS files that could be opened in Illustrator. Since I've done a LOT of work in Illustrator in the past (all of my illustration work and graphic novels to date were done in the program), I thought this one would be a really good bet. 

Unfortunately, I did not realize you need an active Creative Cloud account to vector files out of Draw. You can export a PNG, but that's not what I wanted to do: I wanted to send clients finished vector artwork, or pull the material from Draw and use it as the basis for comic book elements on the desktop. 

I own earlier versions of Adobe Illustrator from before it became subscription based. They fulfill my needs, and I haven't had cause to update yet. I use the modern version of the program at work, but we don't have Creative Cloud, and it made no sense to me to pay a monthly subscription fee just for the right to export the file in vector format. 

I found that restriction off putting. 

After a couple months, Adobe then blocked me from opening the program, demanding that I input a Creative Cloud account. It was not subscription when I bought it, and since I have no such account and was unwilling to pay to export files, I stopped using the program. 

That's just as well: Adobe recently sent me a letter saying they are no longer supporting Draw and that Fresco is replacing it. 

Draw is dead, baby. 

I prefer, when I'm working on the iPad Pro, to just open my programs and work, not have to leap through hoops and demands for additional info or accounts or whatnot.

Draw was good, but not that good.

Fresco is, from what I have heard, very good and has many wonderful features. After my experience with Adobe Draw, however, I'm not really interested at this time. 

I imagine it's a professional level tool though, and worth looking into.


A friend recommended this one, and it's got a ton of features. Too many. I wasn't keen on the interface. I The initial hurdle was too great and I didn't bother to explore it as much as it probably deserved. 

Concepts offers you the basics for free, but if you want more functionality, you have to pay a subscription fee. 

That I wanted to avoid.

I would not recommend this as casual or beginner software.


This is a vector based program, touted as a stripped down version of Adobe Illustrator, so it seemed like a possible fit. Unfortunately, I didn't like the way it laid down the bezier points, and sometimes my lines would just vanish after I drew them. Obviously I was doing something wrong, but... I wasn't compelled to figure it out. 

I did a few sketches in this I didn't like and dropped it.

Others I can't remember

I deleted a few off my drive that I tried and really did not like. I can't even remember them now. 

So much for thorough research! 


This is what I ultimately settled on: it's compatible with both newer and older versions of Photoshop (meaning that layers in your ProCreate file transfer, along with live text, perfectly to Photoshop, without incident), has lots of brushes, is easy to use, inexpensive (no subscription fee), well supported and popular. 

It is not vector based, but raster art has its advantages (especially with textures), and that was appealing. I'd been doing vector based art for so long, I thought it was time for a change.  I didn't like any of the vector based alternatives. 

Of the programs I tried, it felt the closest to traditional media, and the interface is mostly invisible, it doesn't get in my way or (for the most part) frustrate me. I like interfaces that are like picture frames: they enhance the picture but don't distract.

I found myself gravitating to ProCreate when I went life drawing, over Draw, Concepts or Graphic. It was just so much easier to use, and even so it was challenging to move off traditional media and into this digital contraption.

I'm now very comfortable in ProCreate. It's a tool that allows me to do a lot of want I want to do, and doesn't get in my way. 

That doesn't mean I know how to use it well: I struggled with the brushes, especially at first, not being sure how to properly employ them. Then again, I struggle with a lot of traditional media as well.

There are videos and tutorials online, but not the process type stuff I was specifically looking for. 

I wound up mostly learning trial by error. 

I use ProCreate for my own limited, applied purposes: life drawing (with aplomb), painting (I think, I need to get better at painting, period), and even illustration (with major caveat regarding the RGB limitations). 

I admit I am still struggling to find my groove when it comes to illustrating using the iPad Pro and ProCreate.

Comics was the most complicated option. When I first looked into software for doing a graphic novel, ProCreate did not yet have a text tool. A few months later, it was added. By that point I was familiar with it thanks to the life drawing, so I just kept rolling forward with it. 

It does not, however, allow you to turn off anti-aliasing on your type (Anti-aliasing makes type smooth and easy to read on the screen, but if you print it, it'll look fuzzy). It does not have the ability to create CMYK files either (only RGB for screen). 

ProCreate is NOT an end-to-end production tool. 

I had to convert files to bitmap to remove the anti-aliasing on the faux ink line work, which meant I needed to port it over to my desktop and bring it into Photoshop

If I didn't have an old copy of Photoshop, I'd have had to rely on my publisher to do the final print prep work, or buy a subscription just to do print prep.

Next: I'll post some life drawings (and attempted paintings) using ProCreate, then some illustration explorations, and finally some comics pages.