Harry Potter: a personal history

Cover of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's StoneWhen I was 7, a substitute teacher read the class the first two chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I thought it was a bit rubbish and told my mother so when I got home. “I think I’ve heard about it on the radio,” she said. “It’s meant to be quite good.” Oh. I gave it another try, this time borrowing it from the library. I read it so compulsively that I finished it on a family visit to a friend’s for dinner, surfacing at the end to ask if there was a sequel. I was hooked.

That was in 1997. Over the next few years the world caught up in the same kind of madness, and I slowly caught up to Harry in age. By the time Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (the seventh and final volume) was published I was a teenager on a gap year — I still have a photo of myself in a bookshop in France on the day it was released. Like a lot of people, Harry Potter was my first experience of fandom, sharing my fiction affliction with millions of others around the world. There are a thousand stories like mine.

My relationship with the books is a lot more complicated now than it was in the beginning, but they shaped so much of my growing up that I still love them anyway. From making Harry Potter paper dolls with my best friend to writing a fan letter to J. K. Rowling (and getting a reply!), buying my first merch (Hedwig sweatshirt) in Germany in 1998, getting spoiled for who died in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix because for once I didn’t read fast enough, dressing up for a launch event at the local bookshop in 2005…

Somehow, as of today, it has been 20 years since Harry Potter was first published. Time for a re-read and a chocolate frog, I think.

40 years ago in a galaxy not far away…

On a Wednesday in 1977 a phenomenon began. That phenomenon was Star Wars.

Cover of The making of Star WarsReleased in only 32 cinemas in the US on 25 May of that year the sci-fi space opera broke all box-office records and changed the movie making business. Star Wars was one of the first films to generate “round the block queues” for screenings (the literal definition of a “blockbuster”).

George Lucas famously popped out for lunch with his wife on opening day, saw lines of people queuing outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, and only then realised he had a hit on his hands. He’d expected a flop. So much so that he had a bet with friend Steven Spielberg that Close Encounters of the Third Kind would beat Star Wars at the box office. And that’s why Spielberg still receives 2.5% of profits on the film.

At least some of Star Wars’ initial success was as a result of the canny work of marketing director Charles Lippincoat who, ahead of the film’s release, shopped the novelisation (ghost written by sci-fi author Alan Dean Foster) and Marvel tie-in comics at events like San Diego Comic-Con. This generated a buzz amongst sci-fi fans who were already primed by release date. This is now standard practice with genre films and franchises who put a lot of effort into creating hype ahead of release, but back in 1977 it was a “thinking outside the box” strategy.

Cover of The Ultimate Guide to Vintage Star Wars Action Figures 1977-1985Star Wars also invented movie merchandising. As you walk the aisles of your local toy store, the proliferation of movie tie-in toys and action figures is down to the phenomenal success of Star Wars in this area.

Merchandising was such a small part of the movie industry prior to Star Wars that, in 1973, before the film was made George Lucas exchanged $350,000 worth of directing salary for the merchandising rights and the rights to the sequels. Conventional wisdom at the time was that this was a good deal for 20th Century Fox. It eventually cost them billions.

Star Wars display - X-wing fighter
Just some of the sweet merchandising $$$ that Fox never got. Star Wars display at South Library, 15 May 2017. File reference: 2017-05-15-IMG_5174

And of the movie itself? Well, I’m a fan and have been for as long as I can remember. I cannot recall the first time I saw the film. In the late 70s and early 80s you simply absorbed Star Wars from the atmosphere. You fenced with lightsabers of rolled up Christmas gift wrap, you hummed the theme music, you played with your cousin’s X-wing fighter toy.

I love the film, even despite its many flaws – a not exactly diverse cast, sometimes creaky acting, the occasional alien proboscis that looked like it was made out of cardboard, plot holes that you could fly a Corellian freighter through – but to me it’s still a vastly enjoyable tale.

Cover of Flash GordonGeorge Lucas was inspired by the Flash Gordon type serials of his youth, the films of Akira Kurosawa, the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the “heroes journey” mythology of Frazer’s The golden bough. Star Wars is a cinematic melting pot of references and homages that distills them down to a classic “good vs evil” story. The kind that’s timeless in its appeal. Or at least I hope it is… because I’m planning on watching it for another 40 years.

Further information

Still boldly going: Star Trek, 50 years on

I remember it quite clearly. It was 1989*, I was 14, and TV had just got a third channel. My sister and I were watching the box when an ad for a new show came on. There was this guy with what looked like a gold banana clip wrapped round his face. We turned and looked at each other and burst out laughing!

That was the first I ever saw of Star Trek: the Next Generation. Not that I actually watched it.  Oh no! It obviously was a show for total dorks. Not a girl like me trying desperately to be cool.

What would 14 year old me think of 41 year old me? Between then and now, I have to admit, I turned into a Trekkie. I like to think I’m not one of those super crazy Trekkies who wear Starfleet uniforms in public and know how to speak Klingon, but…. When Miss Missy was a baby and said “qapla” (that means “success” in Klingon, you know) I claimed that as an actual factual word, and even said it back to her whenever she did something clever.

I’ve planned family holidays to Wellington and Las Vegas around Star Trek exhibits and experiences. I own every available Trek movie and series from Enterprise to the Kelvin timeline reboot. I’ve even got Star Trek The Animated Series – but not the original series (that could be because I’m not a big fan of Captain Kirk, but actually it’s because I’ve never seen it for sale). And I do wear my Starfleet T-shirt in public.

Star Trek, original series memorabilia
Star Trek, original series memorabilia, Spreydon Library, Flickr File Reference: 2016-07-20-ST_Display_5

See, the thing is, when I actually watched Star Trek a few years later, I discovered a show that is not only exciting sci-fi, but also funny, poignant, and thought provoking. My first exploration of the final frontier was Star Trek IV, The Voyage Home**, otherwise known as “The Whale Movie”. Funnily enough, this is the movie that doesn’t feature the Starship Enterprise, isn’t set in space, or the future, and doesn’t have Spock’s iconic pointy ears (as he spends most of the movie with a bandana round his head). What it is, is a lovable, funny, conservation parable, where the crew of the Enterprise (in a stolen Klingon Bird-of-prey) go back in time — to what was the present, but is now 30 years in the past (that’s as far back as Marty McFly goes in Back to the Future, you know!) — to rescue some whales in order to save the world, and the future.

ICover of The Autobiography of James T. Kirkt’s full of wonderful scenes like Chekov wondering round 1980s San Francisco looking for “nuclear wessels” with his Russian accent; Scotty trying to talk to a (now very old school) computer; Kirk getting the girl (as usual) and excusing Spock’s odd behaviour by mistakenly claiming that he had a bit too much “LDS” back in the ’60s. I recently watched it again, with The Young Lad, and enjoyed it just as much as I had when I first saw it on TV when I was 17.

After seeing the Voyage Home, I started watching The Next Generation now and then — until I became hooked when Jean Luc Picard (aka Patrick Stewart) was captured by the Borg. It turns out that resistance really is futile. Becoming a Trekkie was inevitable. Although I must say, you can call that thing Geordi La Forge wears a Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement (or VISOR) all you like, it still looks just like a banana clip to me!

Cover of Star Trek CostumesOf course, my first contact with Star Trek in 1989 was nowhere near the beginning of the story. Before my generation of Trekkies, there were those who were captivated by The Original Series which first aired 50 years ago today on 8 September 1966.

1966 was the year that The Sound of Music won an Academy Award, the year that John Lennon said The Beatles were bigger than Jesus. The year that US planes began dropping bombs on Hanoi and Haiphong in Vietnam.  It was the year that the Black Panther Party was formed, and the year Martin Luther King was stoned during a civil rights march in Chicago. It was the year that Luna 10 became the first space craft to orbit the moon.

And it was the year that Gene Rodenberry surprised the world with his groundbreaking “Wagon Train to the stars.”

Star Trek: The Original Series featured a mixed race, mixed gender, mixed species crew on a space ship, in an imagined future where planet earth is at peace.

At its core, Star Trek has been about tolerance and understanding, with reason triumphing over prejudice.

~Jay Garmon

The show had a hard time getting on air, with the first pilot being rejected because it was too cerebral, had a female character as second in command, and because Spock looked too demonic with his pointy ears and slanty eyebrows. Roddenberry wrote a new pilot (with a fist fight at the end) and recast Majel Barrett as Nurse Christine Chapel instead of Number One — but he refused to get rid of Spock. And thank goodness! Imagine what Star Trek (and pop-culture) would be like without Spock! No “Live long and prosper,” no Vulcan hand salute, no “The good of the many outweighs the good of the few.” Were those network executives out of their (non-Vulcan) minds?

Well, the show did make it to air, but it struggled to survive. It managed three seasons mainly thanks to a million-letter-strong writing campaign by the ever loyal fans. But then, even though it was cancelled, the world just refused to say goodbye to Star Trek. Because whatever the network execs said, the audience found it inspirational.

When I was nine years old Star Trek came on. I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.

~Whoopi Goldberg

And so here we are, fifty years later, celebrating the anniversary of a franchise that totals (to date) six TV series and 13 movies, and all manner of spinoffs.

Now I can’t bring you anything as exciting as a make-up collection, or a collectors edition Barbie doll. Or something as weird as an inflight Spock bag. But I wanted to do something special to mark the occasion. I made a Star Trek book list not that long ago, so this time I decided to trawl through all our Sci-fi and movie magazines for all the best Trek bits on offer. Well, I’m not usually much of a magazine junkie, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed discovering the wonders of PressReader and Zinio, which can bring you magazines on the go on your smart phone or tablet — the PressReader app will even tell you when the latest issue of your favourite mags are available.  And I’ve realised just how easy it is to place a hold on the right issue of a magazine. And so, without further ado, I present to you:

Missbeecrafty’s Star Trek Magazine Round-up

  • rbz0005427SciFi Now Timewarp Collection, Volume One: A guide to the first six Trek movies, with some interesting ‘did you knows’ and a guide to The Next Generation. Interestingly, only one of my favourite episodes made it onto their Best list (Chain of Command), and another favourite (I, Borg) is on their Worst list. I would definitely add Measure of a Man and The Outcast to the Best list!
  • SFX, Issue 270, March 2016: The anniversary issue, sporting a fetching but anachronistic red cover and command emblem. Interviews with William Shatner (James Kirk), Jonathan Frakes (Will Riker), Robert Picardo (The Doctor), and Brannan Braga (writer and producer). Also a 52 year, logical temporal anomaly of a 50 year timeline.
  • SFX, Issue 275, Summer 2016: An interview with Brent Spiner, which is actually about Independence Day, but I did like his idea of Tilda Swinton playing a Soong-type android.
  • Empire, Issue 326, August 2016: Another anniversary edition. This one is a 58 page mag-within-a mag ram-packed with Trek-ness. Some wonderful photos from the CBS archives; my favourite is Anson Williams (aka Potsie from Happy Days) chatting with Seven of Nine. I never knew he grew up to be a director! Did you know Christian Slater, Famke Janssen and Kirsten Dunst all starred in Star Trek? Check out Before They Were Famous to find out who else! Celebrate Redshirts, and finally, test your knowledge with the 50 years, 50 points quiz.
  • SciFiNow, Issue 105 2015: A touching tribute to Leonard Nimoy
  • SciFiNow, Issue 119 2016: Part 1 of a timeline which includes info about voyages that never made it to the screen. (Sorry, I didn’t manage to track down part 2 in time to include it in this list).
  • Total Film, Issue 248, August 2016: The making of Star Trek Beyond and another timeline. This one is worth mentioning because it includes Galaxy Quest (“the greatest Star Trek film that isn’t”). It’s wonderful to know that Patrick Stewart loved it, and laughed longer and louder than anyone in the cinema!

And there you have it folks. Live long, and prosper!

*The nitpickers among you may know that Star Trek: the Next Generation originally aired in 1987, but that was in America of course, and this was a loooooong time before anyone invented “same week as the US” TV!

**While we don’t have the DVD in the catalogue, we do have the soundtrack for Star Trek IV, The Voyage Home, on LP no less!!

Geek girls unite!

I am something of a fangirl about a variety of things but my main obsessions at this point in time are Star Wars and anything Joss Whedon has ever done, said, or breathed on.

Some people will never understand the levels of devotion and excitement I experience when trawling the action figures aisle at K-Mart, or researching Star Wars cosplay on the Internet…and that’s perfectly okay. I cannot for the life of me understand the appeal of motorsport, and scrapbooking leaves me cold. Each to their own.

Cover of The fangirls' guide to the galaxyThis idea of respecting each others fandoms is a big one in Sam Maggs’ brilliant how-to The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Handbook for Geek Girls. This book is the self-affirming “I’m okay, you’re okay” tome that geek ladies everywhere have been waiting for. I wasn’t very far into the book before I found myself wondering why on earth noone had written it before. It very obviously needed to exist and Sam Maggs’, fangirl extraodinaire (her cosplay game is on point) and associate editor of geek girl culture site The Mary Sue, is just the woman for the job.

The book celebrates the variety of fandoms that we lady-folk enjoy and it’s actually quite educational. There’s some fangirl terminology explained, (I have an additional use for the word “shipping” now), as well as providing the basics on a range of fandoms, some of which I’m not personally that familiar with, like gaming and anime. The book includes short interviews with some successful fangirl actors, writers, and artists, a rundown on the best “cons” aka fan conventions (sadly all North American though SDCC is on my bucket list) and con etiquette, and a really useful primer on feminism. What exactly is “intersectional feminism” and where do I sign up? This book has got you sorted.

Cover of Ms Marvel 3My favourite chapter is “Your new faves: Kick-ass female characters you need to know” as it’s basically a recommended reading (and watching) list. It’s what turned me on to Ms Marvel, has me adding the movie Haywire to my For Later shelf, and casting my gaze towards Tamora Pierce’s Immortal series. Yes sirree, we librarians like a good book recommendation more than most.

Speaking of which, I’d also highly recommend Felicia Day’s You’re never weird on the Internet (almost). Day swims in much the same sea that The Fangirl’s Guide does. She’s well known as an actor in genre shows like Supernatural, Eureka, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and has always been a nerd and fangirl herself, particularly in the area of MMORPG.

Cover of You're never weird on the internet (almost)Just to give you a notion of Felicia Day’s cultural caché – Joss Whedon wrote the foreword to the book and the back cover features a glowing endorsement from… George R. R. Martin.

So yeah, lady is connected.

But it wasn’t always so. The funniest parts in the book are where Day documents her offbeat childhood of being homeschooled and rather isolated from her peers. In such conditions her weirdness was able to fully ripen (to the benefit of us all). As an awkward oddball, she sought out belonging and community via the only means available to her… the Internet. And she’s been hanging out there, making awesome things happen ever since.

The book is heavy on self-deprecating humour and tells the tale of an awkward child who turned into… an awkward woman. But one who has learned to back herself, make stuff she loves and push on through the bad (addiction, anxiety issues, gamer-gate etc) with humour and whatever the dork equivalent of “grace” is.

Do you have any recommendations for great geek girl reads (or viewing for that matter)?

Do you know where your towel is?

Author Douglas Adams, who passed away in 2001, has been responsible for more than a few entries into the English vernacular “babel fish”, “pangalactic gargleblasters”, the facetious use of the number 42 as an answer to incomprehensible questions, the difficulty of Thursdays…the list goes on*.

Amongst this list of sci-fi, hitchiker’s guide references you can surely include the importance of the humble towel, which is perhaps not so humble after all –

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V… you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough… any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Two weeks after Adam’s death in 2001 the inaugural towel day was held. On 25 May every year since Adams fans have clutched their towels to their chests, necks, or waists and worn them throughout the day in the kind of offbeat remembrance that the author would surely have appreciated. If you are brave and/or devoted enough why not wear your towel on Monday? At least then you’ll know where it is, and you never know, it might just come in handy.

For more information check out the official Towel day website.

*If none of this comprehensible to you, well firstly “Shame!”, secondly go read this immediately.