Autographed copies of Resident Evil available

Next month will be the first anniversary of my Resident Evil book’s publication date. About a year ago as I write this, copies were being sent to various outlets and their reviews started going live. It was an exciting time. It still is, to be honest. It feels like forever ago and it feels like yesterday.

One thing I’ve wanted to do for a while and…haven’t gotten around to doing is making some autographed copies available for anyone interested. What better time to do so? Other than a few months ago maybe?

Anyway, I have now set aside 50 copies of Resident Evil. I will sign and number them as they are ordered, and I will remove ordering information from this post once they are all gone. Each one comes with a bookmark that was previously only available to backers of the Boss Fight Books pre-order campaign. I had a few left over, so I figured, what the hell.

The cost is $20, which is about the cost of a new copy plus shipping. If you would prefer to order directly through Boss Fight Books for any reason, by all means do so! But they will not be autographed or include the bookmark.

This offer is only available to U.S. residents, unfortunately. If you live in another country and are interested, email me first and I will figure out the cost.

To purchase:
If you’d like a numbered, autographed copy of Resident Evil with a limited-edition bookmark, send $20 USD via PayPal to reed.philipj [at] gmail.com. In the notes section, include your shipping address and the name you’d like me to make it out to.

And that’s it. Books will be shipped within three days. Probably much quicker, to be honest, but hey, just in case: three days.

That’s all for now. Thank you, all of you, for your support.

Well, okay, one more thing:

Stay tuned!

On the passing of my mentor, Stephen Dunn

I was devastated to learn this morning of the recent passing of Stephen Dunn. To many, he was a name in poetry collections. To others, of course, he was a friend. To me, he was a mentor.

I’ve had the good fortune of being encouraged in my writing for just about my entire life. Teachers and colleagues and friends all encouraged me in my work. I was told that I was good, then I was told that I was very good, and at some point I started to believe it. By the time I enrolled at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey (it’s a university now), 22 years ago, I was already a writer.

Not really, but that’s the answer I would have given you if you’d asked.

Stockton had a top-notch literature faculty. I am confident that that fact has not changed. But Stephen Dunn was its crown jewel. He was a celebrated poet, and he taught writing workshops. I was told many times to take one of them, and I did as soon as I could. They were small courses — around eight students — and they met for single four-hour sessions each week. I made several lifelong friends in that workshop. I am pretty sure I also made the best friend I’ve ever had.

And I found my mentor in Dunn himself.

Previously, I’d been supported in my craft by folks who complimented me, encouraged me, inspired me to continue. There is, obviously, value in that.

Dunn supported me by doing what others should have done sooner: He challenged me.

I say others should have done it sooner because I wasn’t prepared for this. I took challenge as an affront. And, as he was a perceptive human being and an accomplished writer himself, I’m confident in saying he knew I would take it that way.

Dunn would weed out students who didn’t belong in his workshops. That may sound harsh but I don’t believe it was. I remember the class consisting of a certain number of students on day one, and a smaller number on day two. He met with us individually, and some of us didn’t come back. I assume this is because students ended up taking the workshop for no reason other than to earn credit hours, and that’s not what the workshop was for.

The workshop wasn’t for those who dabbled. The workshop was for writers who needed to grow.

He never once suggested that I leave the class, but he also never once let my writing get away with its weaknesses. He would discuss — in front of everybody — what I did wrong. Where my language fell apart. Where I reached for a conclusion without finding one. Where I told without showing. Where a joke fell flat. Where a story started or ended at the wrong point. He wasn’t picking on me. This was the format of the class. We would all “workshop” each other’s stories, with the only real rule being that the authors of those stories could not speak until the workshopping was complete.

I remember seething. I remember being ready to pounce on every criticism. I remember wanting to explain why they were wrong as readers and I was right as an author.

Then it would be my turn to speak, and I’d have nothing to say. Because they weren’t wrong. For the first time, and thanks to Dunn, I was able to see not just that I had failed my readers, but exactly how I had failed them, and to what degree, every single time it happened. That was a gift beyond value.

It was a painful gift, but a necessary one. The encouragement I’d received in the past was nice, but it didn’t help me to grow. People focused on what I did right and made me feel good about it. Dunn, I truly believed, sensed my mindset, understood it, and worked to help me see my own flaws. He didn’t need to do that. We could have read my stories and moved on. But we didn’t.

At times I felt as though I were being unfairly singled out. Stories that were clearly lesser than mine were getting less scrutiny. Writers who slapped something together an hour before the class got a superficial reading and no more. My stories were discussed and dissected and ripped apart before my eyes.

It’s easy now to see that this was an enormous compliment. The fact that he gave my stories the spotlight that he did was not an insult. It was not an excuse to trample them. It was an opportunity for them — and for me — to develop. Other stories got less scrutiny because there was less to scrutinize. They received less effort because the writer had invested less effort.

I gave my stories a tremendous amount of effort. He knew that. I also thought I was a really fucking good writer. He knew that, too.

But if I wanted to think of myself as a really fucking good writer, he was going to correct me. And so he gave me a choice: Either I actually become a really fucking good writer, or I shut my mouth about it.

It was up to me. I could do either. If I wanted to take the easy way out, nobody would have judged me or ever thought about me again. If I wanted to actually become what I thought I already was, he would help me.

And so he did. He did so by stripping my work down to its component pieces — in front of an audience — and showing us everything that misfired. He offered suggestions, yes, but he never dictated solutions. There was no one way to write a story correctly, but there were a handful of ways to write them incorrectly. He painstakingly dismantled everything I did and handed me the pieces and told me to put it back together again…only he wanted it to work this time.

It wasn’t an approach that worked for everybody. A few more students left the class. I have a feeling that happened every semester. They probably thought they were really fucking good writers, too. And though the class ended at about 10 pm and many of us had work in the morning, I think various smaller groups of students congregated after every session to blow off steam.

“Can you believe he said that?” would be more or less the sum of our conversation, repeated dozens of times until we were too tired to stay awake. I think all of us understood that there was value in the experience — we kept coming back, didn’t we? — but it felt good to pretend we didn’t, to embrace the perceived affront, to do our impressions of Dunn and laugh. (Joke’s on you, you soft-spoken, deeply intelligent man.)

That was probably the hardest period of my life as a writer, because I was made to wonder if I should even be a writer. I mean, I knew I should. Of course I fucking knew I should. I’d been writing since I was around 10 years old, and seriously so since I was around 16. I knew what I was doing. I was good at this. This was all I had. If I weren’t good at this…if I were wrong and I actually weren’t a writer…

…what was left for me?

I remember one specific story that I wrote, which was absolutely destroyed in the workshop. It was called “Strength in Numbers,” and I certainly hope nobody still has a copy of it.

It was beyond salvage. Well, maybe not. Maybe an actual writer could have salvaged it. But me? No. It was very clear that I was not the person to restore this thing to life. Better to bury it in the yard and feign ignorance when the police started asking questions about where it was.

But that wasn’t an option, short of dropping the class.

We were responsible for taking one of the stories we’d written and shepherding it through to the end of the semester. We’d share a draft with the group, rewrite it, and then reveal the final product, improved for all of their feedback.

“Strength in Numbers” might be improved (hey, how could it not be, right?) but it certainly wasn’t going to be anything worth showing off. So I gathered up what little was left of my dignity and I sat down and decided not to rework my failure after all.

I wrote a different story under the same name, which itself was about a story called “Strength in Numbers” and the author who, despite his frustrations, couldn’t get it together. He spent more time being frustrated about that fact than he did working on the story, of course. That ended up being my main, unspoken joke. I wasn’t deliberately criticizing myself — this was a character, you know — but I was certainly relieving a lot of stress and anxiety by doing it.

I turned in the new draft as my “final” version of a completely different story. My classmates read it. We talked before Dunn showed up. One of them, I remember well, said Dunn was going to kill me. I felt the same way.

When Dunn did arrive, he sat down in his chair, held my story in front of his face and took a moment, as though his eyes were focusing on something he were seeing for the first time. He cleared his throat. All of this was standard practice as he decided how to open the discussion. I remember specifically seeing a little smirk appear on his face, and then he said, “I really liked this.”

Probably not in the way he expected, I gave him what he wanted: a story that came from somewhere. It wasn’t just a few pages of language I thought was clever. It wasn’t some pointless story I wrote because I was assigned to write one. It wasn’t the bare minimum skeleton of a narrative, which he and I both knew I could scrape together in my sleep.

I’d written a story. I’d written a story because I had an emotion that I needed to exorcise. I’d written something that mattered to me. And that was what I had been missing.

Dunn knew that I was capable of sitting down and pounding out something that read well, was funny, was probably even a little bit interesting.

But none of it mattered. I could play all of the notes of a beloved tune but I wasn’t playing them with feeling.

He pushed me until I realized that. And when I demonstrated that I understood that, he celebrated my work in front of the class. In front of me.

I’d met him halfway. I enrolled in his class expecting my writing abilities to be recognized. Instead, he recognized how much further they could go. That wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but he was right. So I brought them further. I worked to bring them further. I hurt myself bringing them further. And he thanked me.

I remember well one thing he said. He said that I arrived in his class as a talent, and I left as a writer of stories.

I remember it well because he wrote it in the foreword for my first collection of writings. He didn’t need to do that, but he said he was honored to do so. I believe that he meant it.

Years later, when he was clearing out his office, I happened to meet with him. He’d recently dug up some concept art for the cover of his Riffs & Reciprocities collection. I admired them and he asked if I wanted to keep them. Now I was honored. He signed them for me. I still have them. I will always have them.

I’ve seen him many times since. Sometimes live, as during an impassioned reading he gave shortly after 9/11, a reading that stuck with me so vividly that I ended up quoting it in my Resident Evil book last year. He is thanked in the book as well, for reasons even here I cannot overstate. I refer to him as “the great poet,” not only because he was one, but because he was and remains the great poet for me.

I took a second workshop with him shortly after he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. We kept in periodic touch after that. He helped me and he encouraged me and all of those things are wonderful, but I am only where I am — wherever I am — because he pushed me.

Dunn was not an easy man to love as he pulled apart what you thought was talent and revealed it to be mere competence. (At best.) But somewhere, at some point in his own creative life, somebody must have done the some thing for him. Somebody must have said, “Here are your weaknesses, Stephen, and you need to fix them.” And it must have stung. It must have angered. It must have lit a fire in him that kept burning right up until Thursday, June 24, his 82nd birthday.

The fire that Dunn lit within me — lit from his own flame — still burns. It will continue to burn. I feel it burn every time I write something. Every sentence. Every word, if I let myself feel it. I remember Dunn and how he would have pushed me to do better. Not because he wished to feel superior or to make me feel inferior, but because both he and I knew that I was capable of doing better, and because — of the two of us — only one was brave enough to point it out.

He guided me long beyond those writing workshops and he’s guided me probably long after he’d forgotten me. But I’ll never forget him, his demeanor, his unwillingness to let his fondness for his students get in the way of his honesty. I’ll never forget everything he said to me that I needed to hear. I’ll never forget the way he helped me take a knack for writing and turn it into a passion.

More than any one specific person in my life, I owe Stephen Dunn my career. If it weren’t for him, for him showing me not only how to stoke that flame but teaching me the importance of keeping it lit, I’d have moved on from this hobby like I have so many others.

Instead, writing stopped being a hobby. It became a purpose.

Everything I write has the voice of Dunn behind it. If it’s strong, it’s because I listened to him. If it’s weak, it’s because I didn’t. But it’s always there. It always will be there.

The voice of a man who tore me down because he knew I could build myself up better.

And because he cared that I do so.

Stephen Dunn invested himself in me. I hope I haven’t let him down.

Goodbye, Stephen.

Nothing I can say could possibly be enough, but I hope that some day I can leave with someone even a fraction of what you have left with me.

Riffs & Reciprocities

What the hell, I’ll stop watching Star Trek

Well, sort of!

My time with Star Trek has come to an end for now. I’ve made it to the end of The Original Series, but I do intend to watch the films at some point in the near-ish future. After that? I’ll almost certainly get around to The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and maybe some other things as well. I’m open to suggestions, but those are all stories for another time.

Right now, I’m taking a look back at season three of The Original Series. I was interested in this season for extremely selfish and thoroughly disrespectful reasons. Or, reason: “Spock’s Brain.”

For decades I had been hearing about how terrible this episode was. It wasn’t just the worst episode of The Original Series; it was among the worst episodes of television, full stop. How could I not want to watch it? That, as Van once put it, was honey to the bee.

We can learn a lot from the way things fall apart. Sometimes it’s our only real chance to get a peek inside something we love. When a piece of media works — truly, thoroughly works — it’s like watching a magician. We see only what we’re supposed to see; everything else is concealed or (to be more accurate) distracted from. We get caught up in the illusion, with the narrative or characterization or dialogue or filmmaking keeping us so engaged that everything else remains unseen. And, therefore, might as well not exist.

When a piece of media doesn’t work, when you see its guts spilling out all over the place, though, it’s brilliantly fascinating.

Something that is supposed to make us weep is making us laugh. Something that is supposed to move us is amusing us. Something that is supposed to form a coherent whole instead unspools as we watch it.

That’s thrilling to me. I love it. As a writer, I am able to learn from it. As a member of the audience, I am able to revel in it. I don’t hope for movies or television shows to be lousy. Ideally, I’d love everything I watch to be perfect forever. But if something is lousy, I want to see it. I want to know exactly how it went wrong. I want it to educate and entertain me in its failure, because it’s ironically difficult to learn from the things that get everything right.

And so I wanted to watch “Spock’s Brain.” I could have done so easily, at any point. Star Trek isn’t difficult to find legally, and I’m sure if I were willing to do illegal things it would be even easier. All I needed to do, basically, was set aside an hour of my time.

But I didn’t want to do that. Not on its own. I had a feeling that watching “Spock’s Brain” in isolation wouldn’t give me the full scope of just how awful it was. And that’s mainly because I knew Star Trek was beloved for a reason.

Television shows, by and large, are slick productions. There are great episodes and terrible episodes, of course, but terrible episodes don’t usually feature boom mics dipping into frame, sets falling apart, actors forgetting their lines, or other such superficial indications of awfulness as we often get in bad films.

The reason for this is simple: Television shows offer regular employment. The production staff has often been with the show for long periods, and has been working in the industry for even longer. No matter what a particular episode consists of — from brilliance on down to nonsense — they know how to shoot it, how to edit it, how to package it into a tidy little product for the audience to consume.

The writing may stink, the story may be idiotic, and narrative logic may be absent, but in terms of production, these people know what they are doing. A crappy filmmaker will assemble an incompetent crew and give us something that fails by every metric, but in television this simply doesn’t happen. Individual episodes don’t have individual crews. Specific members of that crew come and go, but never all at once and for the duration of a single episode. Production competence is the background hum.

On top of that, Star Trek in itself was a well-made show. People loved it because suspending disbelief was easy. Walls can wobble and makeup can look ridiculous, but it’s not difficult to look past those things and see, at its very sturdy core, that the show was projecting a universe we could understand. I can say that with confidence now, as I just watched most of it for the first time 50 years later, and I had no personal or nostalgic attachment to it at all. If I thought the show worked, it’s because I really did think — as an adult with more or less fully developed critical faculties — the show worked.

Which means “Spock’s Brain” must have been bad for other reasons. Reasons a non-fan probably wouldn’t understand. And so I didn’t think it was fair of me to watch “Spock’s Brain” before having a baseline understanding of what Star Trek offered on a weekly basis. That would only be fair to the show, and it would help me to better appreciate the precise way in which the wheels of “Spock’s Brain” came so fascinatingly off.

Now that I’ve seen it, I can honestly say that…

Okay, yes, it’s bad. It is a bad episode of a show that had been, in large part, quite good.

But it’s not that bad.

We’ll get to this in greater detail but, for now, let me say that I’d heard almost nothing but negative things about season three. In fact, as uniformly as people claimed season two was by far the best, they claimed that season three was by far the worst. As you know from my previous Star Trek post, I didn’t think season two was all that far above season one. Overall, yeah, it was better, but not by enough to matter.

And so I figured that season three might not be as bad as its reputation suggested. Maybe it would indeed be the worst of the three, but — again — not by enough to matter. Perhaps it came in third place only because something had to come in third place. Maybe the disappointment of “Spock’s Brain” — which was a frankly idiotic choice for season premiere — tarnished opinions in a way it wouldn’t have if it had come much later, after a string of better episodes.

I had convinced myself that this must have been the case. Then I actually started watching season three, and became immediately more confident in my assumption.

We’ll come back to “Spock’s Brain,” which indeed sucks on toast, but after that episode, we were in really good hands again.

“The Enterprise Incident” was a fun and engaging heist story, with our heroes infiltrating a Romulan vessel and stealing some dangerous technology. It had an excellent guest star in the form of the Romulan commander, who is toyed with and manipulated emotionally by Spock. She gets her feelings hurt, understandably, and Spock ends up feeling no better, surprisingly. It was a nice, compact little adventure with great twists and a bit of sad characterization as well. I wouldn’t rank it among my favorite Star Trek episodes, but certainly it belongs on the list of good ones.

And the good episodes kept coming.

“The Paradise Syndrome” saw Captain Kirk dreaming openly about settling down one day on a peaceful planet, only for an unfortunate accident to wipe his memory and leave him doing exactly that. “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” was a smart episode about perception and preconception, with another fantastic guest character and some impressive meditations on the nature of love. “Spectre of the Gun” was an amusing, surreal episode about the Enterprise crew being forced to participate in a reenactment of the Showdown at the O.K. Corral.

Have I skipped over anything? Oh, right, “And the Children Shall Lead,” which…wasn’t great. It had a decently haunting premise (the crew arrives at a colony in which all of the adults are dead, and they learn quickly that they were killed by their own children) and an excellent scene with Nurse Chapel interacting with the kids, but it falls apart when it’s revealed that it’s all the work of a glowing evil fat guy.

Just about any other direction this episode could have taken would have been better, but that’s okay. This is just one stumble along a very strong stretch.

Then we had “Day of the Dove,” which is just fantastic. At its heart it’s about a creature that feeds on negative emotions, but the actual story is smarter and more interesting than that. It’s really about the conflict between the Enterprise crew and the Klingons.

While the creature indeed manipulates them into mutual aggression, it’s more of a gentle nudge than an outright push. The crew and the Klingons already think so poorly of each other and are so suspicious of each other that they immediately assume the worst. They punish each other and take action against each other before they know if there’s a reason to do so, because they assume that of course there is a reason to do so.

It’s a graceful evolution of the idea introduced in season one’s excellent “Errand of Mercy,” which established that Kirk and the Klingon commander weren’t all that different. One may ultimately want peace a bit more than the other, but the more indistinguishable their methods turn out to be, the less convincing the “peace” argument becomes. It’s a great episode with some excellent insight.

Then there’s “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” which sees my precious Dr. McCoy finding out that he doesn’t have long to live. On its own that could be a great story, but it’s layered atop another story, about a race that doesn’t realize it’s not on a planet; it’s on a multi-generational spaceship that is on a collision course and will be destroyed if it isn’t diverted.

Two visions of a looming end, explored differently but in ways that overlap thematically as well as narratively. McCoy behaves in ways he would not behave in other episodes, but here it makes sense. We aren’t seeing the Bones we know and love; we’re seeing a desperate Bones trying to come to grips with the fact that he has no future, aside from whatever he chooses to do right here and now. It’s a flawed but wonderful episode.

I assume I’ve made my point by now. The first stretch of season three had a pair of stinkers, but it was otherwise composed of episodes that could stand shoulder to shoulder with the best stuff the show had done prior.

I was vindicated. Season three wasn’t bad; season three got off on an unforgivable foot with “Spock’s Brain” and fans found it difficult to take the season seriously after that. It squandered more good will, fairly or unfairly, than the rest of the season was able to win back. What a relief.

Then, friends…my lovely, wonderful friends…the season really did take a nosedive.

Roughly the first half of season three compares favorably enough to what came before, but the second half of season three is a genuine shambles. Where I could see moments of weakness in the first stretch of episodes, I was celebrating any moments of decency in the final stretch.

My first indication that something was wrong came with the abysmal “Plato’s Stepchildren,” which seems to trip over itself trying to become as stupid as possible as quickly as possible. At one point I was watching a little person ride William Shatner like a pony while the latter neighed with delight. (That little person had by far the most dignified role in the entire mess.)

A couple of episodes later we got the miserable “The Empath,” which saw the crew being slowly tortured within an inch of their lives. What fun we have on this space adventure! There was “That Which Survives,” which was about a computer or something. There was “The Savage Curtain,” during which Kirk meets Abraham Lincoln and a rock monster. The season even ended on an extraordinarily low note with “Turnabout Intruder,” in which Kirk is possessed by — gasp — a woman!

When people tease Star Trek for its writing, for its acting, for its corniness, these must be the episodes they are referring to. Watching the first two seasons — and much of season three, at first — the criticism struck me as overblown. As though people were remembering and responding to an exaggerated echo of Star Trek rather than what Star Trek actually was. As though they were judging the show based on jokes about it and parodies of it, rather than anything it actually did or failed to do on its own.

But shit lord did season three really hit rock bottom.

Which means I should have been in heaven, right? If I love watching the wheels come off, a previously great show now falling apart on a weekly schedule should be one hell of a lucky break for me!

The problem, though, is that the episodes I just listed are not interesting failures. They’re boring. They’re repetitive. They’re superficial.

I’m not watching a show that stretched too far and couldn’t say what it wanted to say; I’m watching a show floundering for anything to say. I’m seeing finally, for the first time, some actors showing up and putting on costumes and saying the lines they need to say before they can cash their paychecks. Star Trek, surprisingly quickly, became a joke, and not an especially good one.

Do you want to know what was an interesting failure, though? “Spock’s Brain.”

I can’t imagine watching all of Star Trek or even all of season three and concluding that “Spock’s Brain” is as bad as it gets, because “Spock’s Brain” is entertaining. It’s so dumb that it becomes riveting.

It’s about a colony that needs a brain to operate its supercomputer, and so they steal Spock’s Brain — right out of Spock’s Head — without anyone noticing. When the crew shows up on the planet to track it down, they bring a literally mindless remote-controlled Leonard Nimoy with them. When they find Spock’s Brain, Dr. McCoy has difficulty putting it back into Spock’s Skull, until Spock’s Mouth talks him through the process.

And these are just the broadest strokes; “Spock’s Brain” is masterfully imbecilic.

The idea of a society needing an organic brain to keep itself operational is fine. There are better premises, certainly, but you could kick off a good story with that one. What we get, though, is almost miraculously terrible, and the episode keeps finding new ways to get stupider.

In the other examples I mentioned, the episodes find only one way to get stupid, and it’s typically the easiest, laziest way. Nothing is interesting about a plot that doesn’t go anywhere.

“Spock’s Brain,” by contrast, goes everywhere.

In many cases, even season three’s disappointing episodes do have something to recommend them. It’s difficult to entirely squash the charm, especially when the charm comes from as many different directions as it does in Star Trek.

“The Tholian Web” didn’t do much for me, but the special effect of the titular web being weaved was fucking incredible, particularly when taking into account the era and the budget of a weekly TV show. (They saved money on the awful Translucent Ghost Kirk floating around the ship, I guess.) “The Mark of Gideon” opened with a hell of a great mystery — Kirk beams down to a planet but never arrives, and we cut to him aboard a completely empty Enterprise — but ended up being about something far less interesting. “The Way to Eden” is about hippies who burn their feet because they don’t wear shoes and Spock sits in for a jam session.

“Requiem for Methuselah” was great until Kirk went mad over wanting to fuck somebody’s robot. “Whom Gods Destroy” had a great scene in which Spock has to figure out which of two Kirks is an imposter, and it had Yvonne Craig, who is hotter than the sun. Actually, we had Julie Newmar last season and Frank Gorshin this season, so the fact that Adam and Burt never showed up is criminal.

Speaking of Gorshin, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” was obvious and heavy handed, but I’ll be damned if I haven’t been thinking about it regularly in the weeks since I’ve watched it. Unlike “A Private Little War” or “The Omega Glory,” I think the message here actually does benefit from being simple and direct. It’s preachy, but deservedly so.

The writing is a bit flat and the episode suffers from an extended foot chase through the ship’s corridors, but the actual substance of the ending — which, like most of the premise, I won’t spoil — was unquestionably the perfect conclusion to this particular story. It stumbles a bit in the execution, but not at all in its intention. Gorshin is fucking marvelous, and the makeup — while also simple and direct — was impressive. It can’t be that easy to get such a perfect division on a human face.

You know, just thinking again about “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” makes it grow in my estimation. I wouldn’t rank it among the best in the series, but it’s guileless and sincere in a way that honestly impresses me more than its flaws disappoint me. And I’ll be fucked if its message didn’t hit home in 2021, after the few years we’ve just had.

So season three, to be clear, wasn’t a total write off. It was just frustrating, and frequently so.

There was an interesting (possibly unintentional) theme that I enjoyed, too. Season one felt like a series of what-if scenarios; The Twilight Zone in space, basically. Season two, as we discussed, felt like a longform examination of Kirk, who he is, how far he can be pushed, and what he could become if he isn’t careful. Season three seemed to focus more on other cultures and how they operate.

That is certainly something we explored in the first two seasons, but it was usually in relation to how the Enterprise crew affected or was affected by those cultures. That made complete sense; we have recurring characters for a reason. Here, though, a lot of what the Enterprise crew does boils down to observing, secretly aiding, or attempting to avoid. They often do interfere — what Prime Directive? — but, even then, the story seems to be more about what these cultures are, what they have been, and what they will continue to be.

“The Paradise Syndrome” is about a largely peaceful group of natives who have no idea how close they’ve come to extinction. We learn about who they are, their history, and their customs through Kirk, who becomes a member of the tribe. “Wink of an Eye” is about a group of aliens who move too quickly to be seen by humans, and we explore both the advantages and drawbacks of that kind of existence. “Elaan of Troyius” is entirely about a political alliance that is about to be sealed by a marriage, with the Enterprise acting as little more than a ferry between nations.

“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” is about a massive civil war that we never see, though we hear about its past and we see what it’s done to two characters caught in its midst. The central conflict in “The Lights of Zetar” revolves around the universe’s invaluable memory banks, records of histories beyond number. (It also, incidentally, features history’s single cutest librarian.) “The Cloud Minders” is about a specific — and quite literal — struggle between a lower and upper class.

So much of season three feels effectively alien, and I love it.

“The Lights of Zetar,” “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” and “The Tholian Web” all feature major appearances from creatures beyond the understanding of our limited human minds. And we get the inverse as well; there’s a genuinely sad, moving moment in “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” during which an alien possesses a willing Spock, only to be overcome with sorrow for how brief and limited a human life is.

All of this stuff is good, and that’s just a small portion of it. Just about every episode explores a problem faced by a culture that’s going to continue dealing with the fallout of its own decisions long after the Enterprise moves along to its next adventure.

Each episode is like a window into a different show entirely, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s one of season three’s most impressive feats, even if the windows are not created equal.

I have a feeling that folks who have seen season three have noticed that I haven’t mentioned one particular episode at all.

So…let’s mention it.

When I started this proper journey through The Original Series, I’d already seen a handful of episodes. Those included “Balance of Terror” from season one and “Mirror, Mirror” from season two, which ended up being my favorites from those seasons. I can’t say that I was disappointed by that outcome (they are fantastic episodes of television), but it would have been nice if some other episode I hadn’t seen managed to surprise me instead.

I hadn’t seen a single episode from season three, though, so I had no idea what to expect, what I liked, or what I didn’t like.

No matter what, some episode would become my favorite of the batch. That could just mean it was the least objectionable one rather than anything that approached the greatness of my favorites from the first two seasons. In fact, I honestly doubted anything would come near those heights, especially as the season wore on and puttered along without steam.

Then, the second-to-last episode of this season (and The Original Series as a whole) hit me like a brick.

“All Our Yesterdays” is one of my favorite episodes and my biggest surprise during my little journey. It’s right up there with my two other favorites. It’s not only the best of the season; it’s one of Star Trek’s most magnificent achievements.

Probably coincidentally, each of our three leads this season is faced at some point with the question of where they will end up. Sure, they’re out there zipping around space and flirting with sexy aliens today, but where will they be tomorrow? Everybody ends up somewhere. Where will it be for our heroes?

Kirk raises this question and then ends up trying an answer on for size in “The Paradise Syndrome.” Bones is forced to confront this question in “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” when he needs to decide if he’s going to spend his final days patching up wounds or enjoying some sort of brief, quiet retirement.

Then we have Spock, who must address the question in “All Our Yesterdays,” and it’s fucking devastating.

The episode sees the Enterprise crew heading over to a planet that is on the brink of destruction. They’re there to help, but nobody is around to be helped. The residents of the planet have all evacuated…into the past. Everybody chose a destination, and they escaped tomorrow by heading into yesterday. It’s a neat little sci-fi idea. Our landing party doesn’t quite understand the situation, however, and they end up popping into the planet’s past themselves. First Kirk into one time period, then Bones and Spock into another.

For Kirk, his problem is straightforward. He needs to figure out how to return to the present and reconnect with the rest of his team before the planet goes kaboom.

For Bones and Spock, stranded much farther into the past, it’s a different story. They’re stuck in frozen tundra without heat or shelter. Kirk has the relative luxury of being able to think about a solution; Bones and Spock are minutes from death.

The whole “people escaping into the past” premise can go a thousand different ways. This is already one very good way.

Then it gets better.

In fact, it gets so good that it hurts.

Bones and Spock are rescued by a woman who never expected to see another person for the rest of her life. She did not evacuate into this time period; she was sent here as punishment for a crime of civil disobedience. It was, essentially, a death sentence.

The more time we spend with her, the easier it is to believe that the punishment was unfair. She’s a good person. She’s a kind soul. She’s caring and friendly. Stranding her in this icy hell was a cruel injustice. She wasn’t sent here to keep her follow citizens safe; she was sent here to silence her.

She’s been stranded here for years with no hope of returning. In fact, everybody who has left for the past has undergone a process that will kill them if they return. For some of them, it’s to keep them from returning to the impending death of their planet. For others, it’s to keep them caged where they are. This is her life; scrounging for food in a world unfit for human habitation, alone, living in misery and dying slowly.

Until she finds Bones and Spock. She rescued them, yes, but their presence has also rescued her. She is no longer alone. She has companions who can help. Friends. Maybe, in Spock, a lover. Someone to care about and to be cared about by.

This actor, Mariette Hartley, is so gentle, and has such kind eyes, and is so clearly stuck here unfairly, that it’s impossible not to feel strongly for her character. For her predicament. For her very real damnation at the hands of a society that has not thought about her since the moment she was banished forever.

And Spock, unable to find any way back to his captain, or even out of the past, begins to consider a life here. With her. Helping her grow crops and stay safe. Speaking with her. Exchanging stories of completely different worlds and histories. The episode gives his Vulcan impulses a reason to regress, but I don’t believe they’re necessary; Spock feels love, he feels fear, he feels happiness, he feels sorrow, as much as he wished he didn’t. Realizing that he’s stuck in a hopeless world, he’s going to experience a lot of emotions, and they are not going to be pleasant. Realizing further that he’s at least stuck with…well…Mariette Hartley, he’s going to experience even more emotions.

The man’s internal conflict ramps up over the course of the hour to the point that it seems like he is losing his mind. It’s real and it’s sad and it’s even a little scary.

When Kirk manages to find a way to reunite the trio, Spock is faced with the very real dilemma of having to choose between two futures. Does he return to his captain and live that life, or does he stay here and live this one? His choice is soon taken from him, in an even sadder swing of the hammer; since he and Bones slipped into the past together, they can only escape it together. If he stays here, he’s robbing the good doctor of his future. As such, he is obligated to return. A choice between two futures has suddenly become one entire future snatched away before his eyes.

And poor Mariette Hartley, who against all possibility found companionship in the wasteland — with intelligent, friendly people — is left alone again. How much more must it sting, to have to adjust a second time to being alone. How much pain must now follow that brief window of relief. How much sorrow must she feel, knowing that she had what she could not keep.

It’s — again — fucking devastating, and the episode plays it perfectly. In “The City on the Edge of Forever” we similarly met a doomed love interest, but that love interest was always doomed. Joan Collins died in the timeline in which she didn’t meet Kirk, and she died in the timeline in which she did. Nothing really changed except for the fact that Kirk (and we) got to know her. That’s why it hurt. She wasn’t a name in the obituaries; she was a person. In all truth, she was no worse off for the experience, however sad and upsetting her end might have been to us.

Mariette Hartley is worse off. She had adjusted, she had her adjustment shattered, and she was left alone to adjust again. Only this time in more pain, more hopeless, with memories of another, more recent loss.

I love “All Our Yesterdays.” And if Star Trek had ended just one episode sooner than it had, this would have been the final chapter of The Original Series. What a perfect way to go out. Instead we got “Turnabout Intruder,” and the nicest thing I can say about that episode is that watching it didn’t make all of my teeth fall out.

And so that’s it for season three, and for The Original Series. Without question, I enjoyed it. But I expected that. I expected highlights and lowlights. I expected to laugh with the show and at the show at different times. I expected that there would be moments and episodes that impressed me.

But it was also a journey full of surprises, and none of those was bigger or more appreciated than “All Our Yesterdays,” which ripped my heart out and stomped on it in a way that impressed the hell out of me.

Season three was rough going much of the time, but there were still moments that reminded me of why Star Trek was adored in the first place. And there was one episode that would have justified an entire season of “Spock’s Brain.”

Speaking of which, here is every “Spock’s Brain” ranked from worst to best. And please, let me know your favorites from this or the previous seasons. Discussing the show here has been great fun, and I thank you for joining me on this long-overdue trip.

24) Plato’s Stepchildren
23) The Empath
22) The Way to Eden
21) The Savage Curtain
20) Spock’s Brain
19) Turnabout Intruder
18) Whom Gods Destroy
17) And the Children Shall Lead
16) The Mark of Gideon
15) Requiem for Methuselah
14) The Cloud Minders
13) That Which Survives
12) Wink of an Eye
11) The Tholian Web
10) Elaan of Troyius
9) Let That Be Your Last Battlefield
8) The Lights of Zetar
7) The Paradise Syndrome
6) Spectre of the Gun
5) The Enterprise Incident
4) For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky
3) Day of the Dove
2) Is There in Truth No Beauty?
1) All Our Yesterdays

Images throughout courtesy of Warp Speed to Nonsense.

Rule of Three: Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

With our other two films this year, the YouTube personalities behind them had clear areas of expertise. For James Rolfe, it was video games. For Red Letter Media, it was films. In each case (in different ways), the films they made used that expertise as their creative focus.

That made sense, however successful or not the end results might have been. Now we have Ashens, and…what is Ashens?

I suppose I could also ask “Who is Ashens?” There’s an easy answer to that, though: Ashens is Stuart Ashen, a Norwich-based…humorist? Technology buff? Author?

Okay, I take it back; that answer is not much easier.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

In my review of Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie, I laid out a hypothetical pitch for a television version of the YouTube show Technology Connections. It was, of course, hilarious. My point was that it would have been impossible to get a show with such a loose format made.

Ashens is even looser.

The most universal description of Ashens videos I can provide is this: They take place in front of his brown sofa. There are exceptions to this rule, and plenty of them, but we’ve got to start somewhere.

What Ashens does in front of his brown sofa will vary. He could talk about films. He could show off old action figures. He could eat expired food that people sent him in the mail. He could discuss old electronics, new electronics, rare electronics, or famous electronics.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

It’s a weird channel, in a sense, as the only constant is Stuart Ashen himself. (“ashens” was a handle born from his surname and his first initial, and it’s since become recognizable as his brand. From here on, I’ll use Ashens to refer to his character in the film and Ashen to refer to…Ashen.)

And so we have a British man whose hands we see more often than his face, talking briefly or at great length about things he already loves or has never seen before. Some episodes are informative. Some are nostalgic. Some are little more than improvised comedy routines. You never know.

People might watch James Rolfe because they like video games. People might watch Red Letter Media because they like film. People only watch Ashens because they like Ashen.

Like many YouTube personalities, Ashen grew an audience that simply wanted more of him. Unlike most YouTube personalities who fall into this category, though, he never seems particularly interested about being in front of the camera. His videos are live narrations, basically, as his hands show off whatever item is being discussed and attempt to get his camera’s auto-focus to cooperate. Ashen is in every video, and yet is mostly physically absent from them.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Again, it’s a weird channel.

Over the years, Ashen has improved his video and audio quality, but never became less content to film nearly every video in front of an increasingly battered brown sofa. What is the appeal?

The appeal is Ashen himself. More specifically, it’s the fact that he is one of the most effortlessly funny human beings alive.

This is another useful point of comparison. James Rolfe is funny, but has the benefit of working from a script; he can write and rewrite every last one of his jokes until he’s satisfied. The Red Letter Media team is funny, but it’s a team; it’s a bunch of guys, often drunk, who sit around and have a conversation, then edit out the dead air and boil each video down to the most entertaining bits.

Ashen is different.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

He may — and I assume he does — come up with a few jokes or observations ahead of time, but he is clearly riffing so frequently that I am astounded at how funny he can be on the spot. It’s difficult to explain, but there are often things he could not have known in advance, and his ability to turn whatever he’s seeing into a quip that nearly always lands is uncanny.

Many people can be funny, in other words; Ashen is funny.

The man himself could read this and know that I’m talking out of my ass. (I make no claim otherwise.) But, as a viewer, that is how it appears; Ashen opens his mouth, and comedy comes out. Perhaps in reality he spends hours rehearsing and endlessly reshoots his videos to get just the right set of reactions from himself. I wouldn’t know. All I know is that it looks like he sits down, switches his camera on, and brilliance ensues.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

That’s a very specific talent, and the fact that his videos are consistently good and there’s never any indication that he’s struggling to keep the jokes coming elevates him above…well, pretty much anyone else who’s ever tried to improvise.

All of which is wonderful, yes, but it leaves precious little room for a movie. Right? If video games and films were the obvious targets for our previous two entries, is Ashen associated closely enough with anything (other than himself) that could serve as the basis for a film?

Actually, yes: Tat.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

While he covers plenty of deserving topics on his channel — things that are either close to his heart or close to the hearts of those in his audience — he tends to gravitate toward tat.

Trash. Pop-culture garbage. Things that don’t matter, never mattered, and can never matter. Commercial detritus. That is his area of expertise.

Several of his series and many one-off videos involve Ashen grabbing a load of junk from Wish, AliExpress, or Poundland (the equivalent of Dollar Tree here in the States) and showcasing it.

Why? Well, why not? Nobody in their right mind would care about any of these cheaply made, poorly thought-out bits of shelf (or cart) filler. They just enjoy hearing Ashen talk, and the universal pointlessness of tat makes his fixation on it all the more amusing.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

In reality, Ashen finds tat easily, either by purchasing it himself or because fans have sent it to him. This film, however, is about his mission (his character asks us not to call it a quest) to find one specific piece of tat that has eluded him since its release in 1991: The Game Child.

The Game Child is (or, I suppose, was) an actual product. It was released with the clear hope of confusing people who wanted to buy a Game Boy. Its branding was similar and it was built to resemble the Game Boy as closely as possible, right down to including a fake game in a fake slot and a “battery compartment” that was actually just empty space.

It had one game loaded into it, and that was it. If you wanted a different game, you’d have to buy a different Game Child, though there were only three games available. These were basic — and terrible — LCD games that made Tiger handhelds look like Symphony of the Night.

Nobody cared, because nobody wanted one. It existed only to trick people into paying for it.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Which is precisely why Ashens wants it.

“I’m a collector,” he explains early in the film. “I collect very rare but absolutely worthless collectibles.”

I have no idea how much of that applies to the real Stuart Ashen and how much of that is only the persona he uses for his videos and this film, but it almost doesn’t matter, because it feels genuine.

Ashen is an enthusiast. You’d have to be one to spend years of your life talking to yourself and uploading the resulting monologues to the internet. The difference between enthusiasts is what triggers that enthusiasm.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Is it tat, in reality? I have no idea. Ashen has a love for the early days of computer games, for classic television shows, for films old and new. Is his enthusiasm for those things more genuine than his enthusiasm for the things so profoundly without value that shops struggle to sell them? Again, no idea.

But tat is believable enough as a source of his enthusiasm. We all have our hobbies and niches. Ashens’ niche just tends to be nicher than most, which makes it at least a little more interesting by default. Whether he occupies it with sincerity or with the sole aim of entertaining others, it doesn’t matter. It is our window into Ashens.

I said when I started this year’s Rule of Three that I was interested in watching the films but hadn’t seen any of them before.

I lied to you, a bit.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Ashen uploaded this entire movie to YouTube for free at one point and encouraged folks to watch it. I think his rationale was that he’d more or less sold as many copies as he would sell, and allowing the rest of his fans to watch for free would still bring him ad revenue. It was a win-win.

I sat down to watch it, excited to see what one of the internet’s funniest people had put together for the world to enjoy.

I made it a few minutes into the film. I enjoyed none of it. I stopped watching with the best of intentions to pick it up again at a later point to see if it got better.

But I never went back. Not until this series. I couldn’t work up enough of my own enthusiasm to even click “play” again.

That was okay, certainly. Not every film has to appeal to me, and Ashen kept uploading regularly enough that I was sure that I still enjoyed his work. Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild would just be one thing that one human being created that didn’t appeal to me.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Now that I’ve watched it in its entirety, though, I think it’s just that the movie gets off to a shakier start than it should. The opening scene isn’t representative of the quality of the film to follow. The movie leads, in other words, with what is almost exclusively its weakest material.

We open with Ashens and a man named Richard showing up at a corner store. They have a lead on a qMutt-17, a bootleg version of what Ashens calls a “dancing digi-dog.” (Probably for rights reasons; it seems to be the iDog.)

About to make the purchase, Ashens notices that it’s not the qMutt-17 at all; it’s the genuine, better-made, and superior in every way iDog. (“Rather than dancing,” Ashens says of the qMutt-17, “it simply emitted a series of loud beeps and then fell over.”)

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

That’s funny. In concept, it’s a perfect opening for the film. It both establishes what interests Ashens as a character and serves as a good joke: He gets angry that someone is not selling him inferior merchandise.
It fails in a few places, though, some of which will run through the entire film.

Firstly, Richard. I have nothing against the actor — Richard Sandling, who seems to have done pretty well for himself — but I have no idea what the purpose of his character is.

He’s…here, certainly. Then he does nothing of value, in terms of helping Ashens. His uselessness does tie into Ashens proclaiming that he prefers working alone, but since the next time we see him “working” at all he’s taken on a new sidekick, this can’t be the reason Richard exists.

As the film unfolds, there’s a running joke / subplot about Richard in Ashens’ kitchen, where he hosts a party, I guess? Then at the end he shows up glowing like a Star Wars force ghost. Ashens assumes he’s dead but instead he just has radiation poisoning. That…actually does make more sense than it probably seems here, but the point I’m making is that, narratively, he serves no purpose, and yet keeps showing up.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

I suspect there might be a kind of in-joke at work here that I’m not privy to. A number of Ashens’ real-world associates show up here (and in the excellent sequel, Ashens and the Polybius Heist); my assumption is that the two men overlap in some real-life orbit and this is a reference to that. The weird thing is that this doesn’t happen anywhere else; every other character serves enough of an in-film purpose that we don’t need to worry that we’re lacking information from outside the film.

Secondly, while Ashens conducts his business in a seedy back room, Richard hangs out in the shop area. This happens a few times throughout the film; Ashens keeps the plot moving in one sequence, and we keep cutting back to one of his hangers-on doing…something in a concurrent sequence. They never really overlap in any kind of thematic way or inform each other; we simply keep cutting from the main action of the film over to whatever a less-important character is getting up to. It’s never anywhere near as funny, interesting, or important as whatever Ashens is doing himself, so it’s a puzzling pattern.

Beyond that, there’s an issue that is (thankfully) exclusive to this scene. Mawaan Rizwan plays both the man Ashens in here to see and that man’s mother. No intended disrespect to Rizwan, but it’s a little uncomfortable to see him in drag with an exaggerated East Indian accent when his other role is…just sort of normally, inoffensively funny.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

I think there’s an element of intended humor behind the mother being an obvious man in woman’s clothing, with the comedy accent meant to heighten our response, but really it feels like a poorly considered scene from a 1970s sketch show that didn’t know any better.

And, okay, fine, as long as I’m complaining at length about a few minutes’ worth of material, Rizwan wears what is obviously a fake mustache in his scene with Ashens, and that’s okay. But later in the film another character wears an obviously fake mustache, and the fact that it’s obviously fake is acknowledged as a joke. So why isn’t it acknowledged here? Am I meant to believe that this obviously fake mustache is real within the world of the film but a different, equally obviously fake mustache later in the same film is not real? IT IS MADNESS

All of this and a few flat jokes put me off watching the rest of Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild for a long time. Imagine my surprise when I finally did see the rest of the film and realized how much of an outlier this opening sequence is.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Last week we covered Space Cop, a film I am told was in various levels of production between 2008 and 2015. If I were so inclined, I could probably watch that movie again, keeping that fact at the front of my mind, and look for all of the little indications of a movie that was assembled over such a long period of time. I could watch for hair length, tweaks to the costumes, facial hair…all stuff that doesn’t matter, but which will be preserved to some degree simply because time passes and things change.

I have no way of knowing if Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild were also filmed over a long period of time, or if perhaps the script were written over the course of years, or anything else, but it certainly does seem like the opening scene came from a different era of intention than the rest of the movie. It looks the part, but it feels and plays like a deleted scene that for some reason we’re being shown before the film starts.

The movie proper kicks off when Ashens reconnects with an old acquaintance at around the same time he mysteriously receives a copy of Obsolete Technology Monthly in the mail, with a sticky note flagging a feature about the Game Child.

It turns out that the Game Child is Ashens’ white whale. He has a place of honor for it in his tat dungeon, but has never been able to get his hands on one, due to the fact that the system’s distributor — The Terrifically Good Company, within the reality of this film — bought the disappointing handheld back for more money than customers paid for it.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

We also learn that upon its release in 1991, Young Ashens attempted to buy the lone unit shipped to Norwich, only to have been beaten out by his nemesis, Nemesis.

It’s a funny setup, and indeed the entire film builds to an absolutely perfect punchline…but we’ll get to that.

For now, this early in the film, it’s mainly amusing to me that Young Ashens already loves tat. It’s one thing to be a grown man reading a copy of Obsolete Technology Monthly and wondering if he could get his hands on some historical consumer oddity, but it’s another that Young Ashens was already anticipating the release of a disappointing knockoff and intended to visit the shop that very morning to buy it. That’s cute.

At the behest of his newest enthusiastic sidekick, Ashens sets out to find and obtain what is likely the last remaining Game Child under public ownership.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

That’s the plot of the film, and it’s basically what I thought Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie would have been: a picaresque. I know I should probably say “road movie” instead, but Ashens never seems to get far beyond Norwich. In terms of scope, then, it has more precedent in literary than cinematic tradition. It’s James Joyce’s Ulysses more than it’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

As with Ulysses, Ashens explores a world that is small and already familiar to him, interacting in large part with people he already knows. The adventure unfolds over a narrow and familiar landscape. Not dear, dirty Dublin, but perhaps near, nerdy Norwich.

Each of the films we covered this year have some degree of on-screen celebrity talent. Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild almost certainly handles it best, but I honestly feel that all three movies at least handled it well.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie had a great, unhinged Eddie Pepitone, as well as a fun appearance from Lloyd Kaufman. If you’d like to count it, Howard Scott Warshaw — the real-life programmer behind E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial — also popped up as himself. He didn’t do or say anything noteworthy, but at least the film’s “look who we found!” moment was brief.

Space Cop had Patton Oswalt as its big get. We discussed last week the issues with that, but its other two winking cameos were far better. Comic artist Freddie Williams appears in the bar scenes, but isn’t treated as a celebrity; he just gets to be understandably baffled by Space Cop, who is exactly as baffled by the concept of solitaire. Then there was B-movie auteur Len Kabasinski, who served as a humorously obvious stunt double for Space Cop. If you recognize him, you get a nice little chuckle of familiarity. If you don’t, the completely different build and dangling ponytail sell the joke perfectly well on their own.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild has two major celebrity cameos, and they both work perfectly because they don’t feel any different from the rest of the actors. You’re likely to recognize them, but they don’t distract. They fit.

First, there’s Red Dwarf’s Robert Llewellyn, playing Ashens’ old professor. Before Llewellyn will share any knowledge of the Game Child’s whereabouts, he requires Ashens to defeat him at “the most intensive game of skill and wits ever devised by the human mind.”

It is, of course, the head-to-head children’s game Space Attack!

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Llewellyn is predictably great, but it never feels as though the movie is reveling in his casting. It’s a role a number of actors could have played brilliantly, and one of those actors is Robert Llewellyn who, fortunately, happens to have gotten the part. It even ends with Ashens giving him a noogie, perhaps the polar opposite of Red Letter Media being unable to bring themselves to interrupt Patton Oswalt’s overlong spotlight.

The bigger celebrity in this film is Warwick Davis, who plays himself. Granted, most people watching the film will already know Davis, but even if they don’t, his scene here is funny enough on its own.

Davis is revealed to be the actor behind the mask of another character, which confuses Ashens, as that other character is much taller.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

“I’m an actor,” Davis tells him flatly. “It’s called acting.”

The scene contains some excellent back and forth between the two, as Ashens fishes for some logical explanation without accidentally coming across as bigoted, and the perfect editing of the scene allows a small man to become a much larger one in the space between a change of camera angles.

It’s a fantastic sight gag paired with Monty Python-worthy dialogue between two people on opposite ends of an unbridgeable absurdity. Davis is perfect here, but I don’t know if the scene is any funnier because we recognize him. The film doesn’t lean on him to make the scene work; the scene works and we get to spend some time with Warwick Davis. (Never a bad thing.)

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Llewellyn and Davis are two of the many characters with whom Ashens crosses paths on his way to find the Game Child. Each new character requires Ashen to come up with a completely new idea and dynamic that will keep the film moving and also be funny. That’s something even accomplished filmmakers could struggle with. Ashen doesn’t; the film stays consistently amusing in a way that feels — like Ashen’s comedy in general — effortless.

It’s worth noting here that Ashen, of the stars of this year’s films, seems to be the most comfortable in front of the camera. That…might be difficult to articulate, as neither Rolfe nor the Red Letter Media crew seem uncomfortable; it’s more that Ashen comes off as much like himself here as he does in his videos.

As odd as it may sound, Ashen feels so at home within the insanity of this film’s world that it’s easy believe that this is his world. That when he finishes reviewing some piece of garbage action figure, he turns off his camera, opens his front door, and finds himself in this precise version of Norwich that registers to us as insane but — necessarily — feels to him like home.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

There’s a kind of innate affability to Ashen, which allows his dry sarcasm to carry him further into our good graces than it would otherwise. Admittedly, Ashen has English blood coursing through his veins, giving him a preternatural fluency in dry sarcasm, but it’s a skill the man has clearly honed over the course of a lifetime.

There’s a reason he keeps getting compared to Simon Pegg — a real-life running joke that, almost inevitably, finds itself a home within the film — and it goes beyond whatever degree of physical similarity the two men have. It’s because Ashen is a gifted comic, whether or not he’d even refer to himself that way. (I’m not playing coy, here; I genuinely have no idea how Ashen would refer to himself.)

The fact that he plays himself — “himself” — in this film also complicates things just a hair when compared to the previous two movies we covered. The AVGN can ogle a woman’s tits in a bar and that doesn’t mean that James Rolfe himself does that. Space Cop was a man who looked like Chris Farley but saw Jean-Claude Van Damme whenever he looked in the mirror, but that doesn’t mean Rich Evans is anywhere near that delusional.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Ashen, though, blurs the line. When his character does something intelligent, doesn’t that mean we’re supposed to see Ashen himself as intelligent? When his character is a dick, aren’t we supposed to see Ashen as a dick?

I’m not totally sure. At the very least, Ashen paints (and plays) his character here as both realistically clever and realistically flawed. He neither comes across as a celebration of himself nor as some exaggerated condemnation of his own (or his character’s) flaws.

He’s smart enough to track down the Game Child, but not smart enough to realize he’s been betrayed, which in itself was a result of his dismissiveness toward the sidekick who looked up to him. Then there’s…

Well, there’s women.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

The film introduces two major female characters in Ashens’ life. One is Ashley, an old flame who had an affair with Llewellyn. Ashens was understandably hurt by this, but never to the point that it becomes a “poor me” situation. He doesn’t revel in his sadness; it’s just, realistically, something that hurt him a long time ago.

It would still be easy to hear about this and feel bad for the character — backstory like this could easily be used to define how the audience should respond to him — but it’s balanced out by Marian.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Marian, a librarian, is another of Ashens’ exes, who quite clearly still carries a torch for him. In their relationship, she is the one who got hurt. What’s more, we know for certain that her grievances are well-founded; Ashens indeed uses her and manipulates her emotions so that he can chase down leads on whatever tat he’s trying to find now. He does it during this film to find the Game Child, lying that she can join them on their mission. The moment her back is turned, he flees without her.

It’s interesting. Ashen could paint himself as some kind of womanizing rogue — humorously or seriously — but he comes across instead as an identifiably damaged person. He’s been hurt emotionally, and while it’s fair to say that he’s gotten over it, he hurts others emotionally along the way to what he wants.

Is that a result of the pain of his previous relationship? Is it coincidental? What matters, I think, is the fact that Ashens doesn’t seem to realize he’s doing it. Ashen the writer and actor surely does, but Ashens the character never seems to have a full understanding of the way in which he treats others, or how he makes them feel.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

He’s not a jerk, or a bully, or a hero, or a saint. He’s just a person. He’s realistically flawed and the movie doesn’t ask you to pity those flaws. In a movie that’s technically a vanity film, that’s an achievement in itself.

Vanity films, by their nature, are meant to showcase their stars. Let’s not pick on anybody, but if you’re even passively interested in film, you’ll be able to name movies that exist only to show off the talents — often theoretical — of the filmmaker. They cast themselves as the handsomest or most beautiful characters in the film. The smartest. The wittiest. The strongest. Other characters speak some variation on “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life,” only without the intent of sending shivers down the audience’s spines, as in The Manchurian Candidate. We’re meant to actually believe it.

And so when Ashens wins a fistfight against Nemesis, it’s neither because Ashen plays the character as being all that strong or all that clever; he just refuses to approach the man who has taken a crane stance.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Ashen is showing off, sure, but he’s showing off in the way I wish all vanity filmmakers would show off: He’s showing off his writing talents. His talent as a humorist. His understanding of pacing and editing and structure. At 90-ish minutes, it’s the shortest of the three films we’ve covered this month, and it’s also the one that feels the least bloated, not coincidentally.

Without question, Ashen had more material than he could fit into 90 minutes. Unlike the other two films, however, this one is edited down to its strongest stuff rather than swollen into weakness. It’s the earliest of the three films, and yet it feels like it could have been made in direct response to them. “Here,” it seems to say. “Let me show you how to take what you did, and turn it into a movie.”

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild also looks and sounds the most like an actual film. Damning with faint praise, I know, but let me say that I’m more than willing to give James Rolfe and Mike Stoklasa and any other amateur filmmaker as much leeway as necessary when it comes to production.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

If I can see what’s happening and hear what characters are saying, I’m on your side. I know you don’t have a Hollywood budget or pricey equipment. I know you’re relying on favors from friends, doing this in whatever free time you can scrape together, using whatever props you have laying around. I know you are doing your best with what you have. I know that and I sincerely admire you for that.

And yet this movie looks great. I don’t know what demon Ashen traded his soul to, but it may have been worth it. It’s the slickest and most professional of the three productions by far, to the point that I don’t even feel the need to make allowances for it being independently produced. I’m sure Ashen himself deserves plenty of the praise for this achievement but, good lord, let me extend that praise to anyone else involved with this film. Its presentation is beyond what any of us should expect from a little YouTube movie like this.

Right, okay, the plot. Forgot about that.

Ashens’ quest — sorry, mission; I keep doing that — leads him from misadventure to misadventure, my favorite of which featured Norwich-based amateur superheroes Knighthood and Decoy.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

If these two are a reference to something (beyond real-world costumed vigilantes in general), I’m not aware of it. And yet it’s one of the funniest sequences in any of these movies.

The two pull up beside Ashens on the street and stuff him into the car on the grounds that it’s a dangerous area. (The fact that they drive a two-door sedan and one of them needs to get out in order to let Ashens in is hilarious, though probably just a result of having to use whatever vehicles they could get when shooting the film.)

“A lot of weirdos around here, my friend,” Decoy cautions/lectures Ashens. Then, “We’ve been beaten up in that alleyway just there.”

“Five times,” Knighthood interjects.

I could basically just transcribe the entire scene, but I’m trying to leave as many good jokes unspoiled as possible. (That applies to all three of these films, by the way; if you think one of them sounds interesting, don’t assume that I’ve spoiled any of their best material.)

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

It stands in strong contrast with Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie. There, Rolfe had some jokes he wanted to make about kaiju films, and twisted his project around until he could (barely) get them to fit. Here, Ashen had some jokes he wanted to make about superheroes, but he rooted them in the reality of his film.

Knighthood and Decoy don’t fly or have laser vision, because those things don’t exist within the world of this movie. Instead they’re a pair of recognizable — if eccentric — boobs. It’s all the funnier for the fact that it has a place within identifiable reality. Stretch too far to make a joke and it’s no longer impressive that you made it; weave that joke into a narrative and you’ve got a reason to be proud.

The characters are great, as they’re clearly trying to present themselves as superheroes but, once they are in that position with someone, they have no clue what to do next. They’ve only thought this through as far as it took to envision themselves in costume. It’s marvelous.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

The movie climaxes at the headquarters of The Terrifically Good Company, where Ashens finds what may be the last Game Child remaining in circulation.

It’s here that he learns the dark secret of the knockoff Game Boy.

“When assembled together correctly, the Game Child makes a nuclear bomb,” Ashley tells him.

It was the result of a deranged factory employee, and the distributor did not notice the plutonium stashed away in every Game Child until the units were already on shelves. The company recalled them, of course, but not all of them came back. And Ashley attempts to force Ashens, at gunpoint, to figure out how to arm to device.

The Game Child, it turns out, is not an easily dismissed hunk of plastic; it actually represents a previously unknown, fascinating, potentially fatal chapter in the annals of history. Which means…well…

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

“You told me that this is special, and of immense value,” Ashen says to her. “Things of worth are worthless to me.”

And then he destroys the Game Child.

It’s the perfect punchline not only to the film, but to Ashens as a character and as a channel.

The more genuinely interesting something is, the less this man cares about it. If it isn’t junk, he’s not going to spend an hour talking about it in front of his sofa. If it has any significance to the world around him at all…well, what’s the point?

It’s brilliant and — impressively — it’s not just a big joke with which to draw the film to a conclusion; it’s the perfect joke.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

What’s more, it works as a conclusion to the character’s arc. “Things of worth are worthless to me” goes one hell of a long way toward explaining his difficulties with relationships, with friendships, with meaningful human interaction. It’s both a conclusion to the Quest for the Game Child and an understanding — and an explanation, and an admission — of why the character was on that Quest to begin with.

Letting go of the Game Child also — and brilliantly — frees up his hands to hold on to something important.

What is that? Or, rather, what will it be? It doesn’t matter, really. What matters is this moment of change, played completely within the bounds of a story about a funny man tracking down a piece of consumer electronics trash.

It’s pretty fucking excellent.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Both of the other films we covered this year have left a bit of a stain on their creators’ legacies. For Rolfe, the accusations of theft and dissatisfaction with his latter-day output have yet to leave him. Space Cop was received so poorly that Red Letter Media jokes about the film’s failures and shortcomings far — far — more often than they promote it.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild, however, didn’t seem to have a negative impact on its creator at all. I’m sure there were those who were disappointed by it — this is the internet, of course — but any disappointment here was easily enough separated from whatever the audience felt about the man behind it.

That might be an unexpected byproduct of this being the one that looks and functions the most as a film in its own right. It’s not an extension of the channel; it’s something with its own merits that can either be celebrated or derided. It’s a complete work of fiction that stands or falls on its own, and isn’t beholden to whatever affection it expects us to have for Ashen himself.

Because he made an actual movie, in other words, that movie gets to absorb the praise or the blame. Ashen himself is still Ashen, himself.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

In real life, Ashen got a hold of a Game Child (likley quite easily) and did indeed review it on his channel after the release of the film. It’s junk. It was perfectly at home in front of that brown sofa, in those hands, being spoken about by that voice.

Those who wanted to see what Ashen could do with a feature-length motion picture got to find out. And those who just wanted Ashen to talk about a forgettable shitty handheld in his standard style got that, too. Everybody won. Or, at the very least, nobody had any reason to be disappointed.

When I started this year’s Rule of Three, I expected all of the movies to be at or around the same quality of Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie. And I was okay with that. I liked — and like — Rolfe as a human being. I have affection for his output and I have no reason to think he’s anything other than an excellent person. His movie wasn’t great, but that was okay. My movie probably wouldn’t be great, either.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Then Space Cop and Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild both turned out to be really good. (In profoundly different ways, mind you.) They were each successful in what they set out to do, and any disappointment would have to come from the fact that they were doing things other than what an audience might have wanted.

My intention this year was to celebrate the histories of three of YouTube’s biggest success stories. I figured that the movies would simply be quirky offshoots that were worth discussing enough to justify the spotlight. That really only ended up being the case with the first film. The other two stood on their own better than I ever could have expected them to.

I’m not sure which of the three is my favorite. Gun to my head, I’d probably go with Space Cop. But Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild is the best of them, certainly. And while I’m absolutely sure it was a pain in the ass to make, it feels effortless, just like everything Ashen does.

Bringing us a 90-minute feature film feels no more difficult than recording some junk in front of an old sofa.

That’s one hell of an impressive illusion.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Rule of Three: Space Cop (2016)

My intention with this year’s Rule of Three, as you might have guessed last week, was to spend some time up front discussing context, discussing the creators, discussing what the YouTube channel behind the film is known for. My reason for this is that the films we’re covering are labors of love first and commercial products second. (Or third. Or fourth…)

I went into this series not knowing if I’d enjoy any of the films. If I did, great. If I didn’t, however, the last thing I wanted to do was launch directly into a tirade against something that someone I respect put a lot of work into. I’d be honest, of course, but the least I could do was celebrate their achievements up front. Their appeal. Their ability to amass an audience in the first place.

But I’m not sure if I can do that with Space Cop, so allow me to put my opinion up front. Ready?

Thanks to Space Cop, I think I finally, truly understand the term “guilty pleasure.”

Space Cop (2016)

I’ve long known that term, of course. I’ve probably even used it, though until this point I never meant it.

The thing is, I like crap. I know that and I’m comfortable with that. The Room isn’t a guilty pleasure for me, because I feel no guilt about the pleasure it brings me. I love the pleasure it brings me. Ditto Miami Connection, Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, and what I truly hope is the ever-growing filmography of Neil Breen.

As little genuine merit as those things contain, I feel no guilt about my love for them. I share them with friends. I excitedly seek out films with even less merit. I set time aside to watch them because I enjoy watching them.

Guilt never enters into it. It can’t. My love is genuine, even if it takes a different shape from the love I have for the truly great films that have moved me, inspired me, defined who I am.

Space Cop (2016)

Then I watched Space Cop, and I think I get it. It still might be a bit much to say that I feel guilt for loving it, but I am at least compelled to couch my love for the movie in apology. With admissions that it isn’t great. With the understanding that I am and will continue to be an outlier.

That may not be fair to Space Cop. It may also be the fairest possible way in which a human being can love Space Cop. To explain that, though, we’ll finally need to arrive where I thought this review would begin: with a discussion of Red Letter Media.

Red Letter Media as a channel is primarily focused on film criticism, with few excursions into other media. The three founders — Mike Stoklasa, Jay Bauman, and Rich Evans — started posting videos in 2007, which were mainly short films and low-budget experiments to keep themselves and their friends entertained. That’s okay.

Space Cop (2016)

Then, in 2008, the channel found a direction. Stoklasa — annoyed at a film that released 13 years earlier — created a longform video essay about Star Trek Generations. Rather than review it, y’know, normally, he assigned it to a character: Mr. Plinkett. Stoklasa affected a low, droning voice and didn’t appear on camera. Giving the review to a character meant that he got to write for a character, which itself led to jokes and ideas that probably wouldn’t have worked if he’d presented himself as nothing more than A Guy With An Opinion on the Internet.

From there, he — as Plinkett — covered the rest of the Star Trek: The Next Generation films. Then, in 2009, he decided to have Plinkett review Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

This is when everything changed for the channel.

With four film reviews under his belt, a better understanding of his Plinkett character, and two friends still itching to produce more short films, he turned his Phantom Menace review into an event. For around 70 minutes, Stoklasa narrated a work of criticism that doubled as a comedy film in its own right, with elements of documentary and horror parody woven throughout.

Space Cop (2016)

The fact that it’s still so difficult to explain is a testament to just how unique that review is. Like Rolfe with his Angry Video Game Nerd character, countless people have attempted to duplicate it superficially, but nobody has really come close to recreating the magic underneath.

The Phantom Menace review was intelligent and insightful enough to earn Stoklasa fans in the film industry who were equally disappointed by how the movie had turned out.

He focused on larger issues in the film’s structure, production, and writing than on the more obvious missteps, such as Jar Jar Binks being a thing that existed in a major motion picture. That alone gave his review an air of legitimacy, elevating it well above the typical level of internet discourse. Combined with genuinely funny jokes, sharp observations, and the bonkers framing device of murderous monster Plinkett ranting about a long-ago-dismissed Star Wars film, Red Letter Media found itself with a worldwide audience overnight.

Space Cop (2016)

With an audience came expectations. Stoklasa, Bauman, and Evans rose to meet them.

The channel’s legions of new subscribers weren’t tuning in to see three friends screwing around with a video camera. A unique work of film criticism drew them to Red Letter Media, and Red Letter Media in turn started providing unique works of film criticism more regularly.

They introduced a number of shows over time. Half in the Bag featured Stoklasa and Bauman as VCR repairmen (and Evans as Mr. Plinkett, their recurring customer) who discuss — usually — recent releases. Best of the Worst sees a rotating panel including those three and a few other friends who watch movies they — usually — have not seen and then discuss them. Re:View stars two people discussing a movie they either already enjoy or have enough to say about that it warrants a dedicated conversation. Plinkett reviews continued, of course, and various other projects came and went.

Space Cop (2016)

The best of these was and remains Best of the Worst, which is probably my favorite show that’s ever come out of YouTube. It captures the giddy thrill of discovering terrible films with like-minded friends, and the resulting panel discussions range from fascinating and insightful to digressive and absurd. It’s a bit of an acquired taste, probably, but if you’ve ever spent a night watching bad movies with close friends and a case of a beer, it will feel familiar.

It also, I think, shows off the best aspects of the channel; the panelists bring a wealth of film knowledge, some degree of film-making experience, and great comic interplay that makes their discussions enriching and entertaining by turns, even if you don’t care about a single thing being discussed.

All of this is to say that — by every possible metric — Space Cop had the most to prove.

Space Cop (2016)

If James Rolfe or Stuart Ashen failed to make entertaining films, those movies would register exclusively as failed experiments.

Stoklasa, Bauman, Evans, and their collaborators, though, built their brand on some degree of expertise in this arena. None of them, I’m sure, would claim to be a master of their craft, but they at least present themselves as being in a position of relative competence. They regularly and consistently dissect films that have gone wrong and propose corrections.

With Space Cop, it was their chance to put theory into practice. It was also their chance to embrace once again their love of film production, this time with years of experience of movie criticism behind them. Surely whatever they made would have to be good.

Surely.

Space Cop (2016)

These film lovers, these movie buffs, these students of the medium, these preeminent voices who redefined the way amateur critics present themselves and their opinions, made a movie about an outer-space policeman who travels through time.

It feels (pardon the pun) like a cop out. There is no doubt in my mind that this particular creative team could put together a film worth taking seriously. It could still be a comedy, of course. It could be anything they wanted it to be. It could be a love letter to the great films that inspired their passion.

Instead, it’s a riff on some of the worst movies ever made. And that feels — correctly or not — like a barrier to criticism. Did you think Space Cop was bad? Well, it was supposed to be bad so, hey, big deal. If Stoklasa and co. could hide behind the pretense that they weren’t taking it seriously, they could also shrug off the criticism of anyone who did take it seriously.

Space Cop (2016)

I — a fucking idiot on the internet — believe that that was the wrong decision, because I think they could have achieved something of decent merit with their combined talent, knowledge, and experience.

But I didn’t get whatever else they could have produced together. I got Space Cop.

And I loved it.

Space Cop (2016)

This is where the guilt comes in. They could have delivered more, and I wanted more, but we ended up with this gleefully stupid pastiche of buddy-cop films, and I adored almost every second of it.

When I reviewed Deathrow Gameshow, I said that it was frequently dumb but never stupid. Space Cop is endlessly, bottomlessly, unapologetically stupid. It relishes its own stupidity, to the point that stupidity becomes a kind of language that it is speaking, a language in which it reveals itself to be fluent.

Space Cop (2016)

I could pull it apart. I could point out all of the things that don’t work, even on the film’s own terms. I could painstakingly detail the ways in which Space Cop holds itself back. Actually, that sounds like a great idea; I will do all of these things. But — and this is important — none of that matters. At all. Because even at its roughest, its shaggiest, and its weakest, Space Cop is brilliant in its stupidity.

The film stars Evans as Space Cop, a futuristic policeman who is accidentally hurled backward in time to present-day Milwaukee. Where he again becomes a cop. He eventually teams up with Stoklasa, who plays Ted Cooper, a cop who was frozen in the past and is unthawed in present-day Milwaukee. Where he again becomes a cop.

It’s impossible to summarize any aspect of the film without it sounding ridiculous, and you can probably guess why that is.

Space Cop (2016)

Evans plays Space Cop as a gruff, grumbling tough guy with absolutely no sense of self-awareness. He’s an imbecile, a slob, and a boob who believes himself to be — against all evidence — an unstoppable force of sheer badassery. And yet even when he does succeed and receive recognition for his achievements, he’s surly and dissatisfied. He’s a completely unlikable person and, debatably, no attempt is made to redeem him in the audience’s eyes.

That sort of character sounds tedious, and usually is tedious. Space Cop may be the only truly unlikable character that I’ve ever actually liked, however. He doesn’t soften as the movie progresses, he is not redeemed, and he ends the film bitching about nobody appreciating him immediately after the city of Milwaukee holds a celebration in his honor. But I love him.

I’m sure some amount of this is down to the writing, but most of the credit belongs to Evans. Within just about every Red Letter Media production, Evans is the funny fat guy. The chubby funster. He’s in on the joke; whenever we’re asked to laugh at him, he’s ahead of us, already laughing at himself.

Space Cop (2016)

He’s a figure of fun who manages to have most of the fun himself. He is innately likeable, and that’s the key to a character like Space Cop. A film has every right to give us a shitheel protagonist, but that film has to either be okay with us hating him or give us, at some point, a reason to reconsider how we feel about him.

Or it could cast Rich Evans.

It’s impossible to hate Evans, because even as he gives Space Cop (and Space Cop) his all, he’s such a fun presence. You don’t catch him smirking and winking his way through the film; he plays Space Cop exactly like the piece of shit that the character is. But there’s a kind of cuddly magnetism to the guy wearing the ridiculous costume that keeps things just detached enough to stay funny, no matter how awful a human being Space Cop is.

Space Cop (2016)

At first I was puzzled as to why Stoklasa wasn’t playing Space Cop, with Evans as the cheerier sidekick. Ultimately, though, as much as I like Stoklasa, I suspect he would have been a bit too believable as a grumpy misanthrope.

Evans is cast against type, basically, which ends up being a joke in itself. And that leaves Stoklasa — Red Letter Media’s resident souse and the endlessly griping voice of Mr. Plinkett — to play the chipper, can-do character of Ted Cooper. He’s no better a fit for his character than Evans is for his, which is exactly why he works just as well.

Stoklasa is a natural sourpuss, so seeing him in the role of the optimist is funny. Evans is naturally jolly, so seeing him as an emotionless hardass is funny. But that’s not quite enough for a film; I think we can all agree on that. And Space Cop sometimes fails to take the joke beyond the inherent comedy of these characters existing.

Space Cop (2016)

Throughout the movie, I kept wanting things to drift into more familiar territory, if only because there was so much potential there. The movie even butts up against that potential a few times.

Both of our main cops are out of their elements. Space Cop has experience of the job that no longer applies and Ted Cooper has experience of the job that no longer applies, and their experience doesn’t overlap. They should be struggling to fit in at the same time that they’re struggling to fit together. That’s what a movie with this premise should do.

Instead, we get little more than token nods to the characters having to adjust their methods. Space Cop’s ultraviolent solutions don’t fly in present-day Milwaukee any more than Ted Cooper’s casual sexism and racism do, but those things rarely surface for anything more than a couple of lines or a scene. It’s the barest of lip service paid to what would be the defining characteristics of these people if they existed in anybody else’s version of the film.

But I think that’s okay. What’s more, I think that’s deliberate.

Space Cop (2016)

I think I’m supposed to want a story like this to unfold according to a predictable formula. I think I’m supposed to anticipate story beats that either don’t arrive or that look quite different when they do arrive. I think, basically, I’m supposed to let the film tell its shaggy dog story, because it’s the loose, meandering style of the comedy that matters.

And when you do let the film take you in its own direction, it’s funny.

What seemed to be one of the movie’s strangest choices ends up being a key to understanding it. After Space Cop is hurled backward in time, we see him awaken. He stands up. He surveys his surroundings. He sees that he is trapped in the past, in a city he both knows and does not know, in a world that does not know him at all.

Space Cop (2016)

We then jump forward eight years and see that Space Cop is exactly as we knew him from the future. He’s a boorish putz, sick of the world around him and the people who occupy it, dissatisfied with his job, and uninterested in improving himself or his situation.

That narrative time jump — occurring immediately after Space Cop makes a literal time jump — baffled me. Couldn’t writers Stoklasa and Bauman have come up with anything for Space Cop to do in those eight years? Couldn’t they have come up with jokes about how he tries to fit in, how he grapples with outdated technology, how he adjusts to life in another time?

Again, that’s what a movie with this premise should do.

Space Cop (2016)

And I’m sure Space Cop went through all of that. I’m sure Space Cop was confused by doors that didn’t open on their own and cars that didn’t fly and a moon that wasn’t colonized…but we didn’t see any of it, because that’s not the story Stoklasa and Bauman wanted to tell. All we need to know is that whatever else Space Cop got up to in the intervening years, he ended up being exactly what he was before: a miserable piece of shit police officer.

Space Cop had a life he hated, then got a chance to start over fresh. Eight years later, his choices put him precisely where he was when we first met him…only displaced in time a bit.

It’s an excellent unspoken joke, and that eight-year time skip that drove me nuts at first now feels to me like a stroke of genius. It might be the only time I’ve seen someone attempt characterization by use of negative space.

Space Cop (2016)

There is a story to Space Cop, and it actually does unfold with some kind of recognizable logic, but the comedy — correctly — comes almost entirely from Stoklasa and Evans interacting. That makes it a bit unfortunate that Stoklasa’s character takes a while to show up, but that may be a symptom of poor pacing early on.

Essentially, the film introduces Space Cop twice. First, we see him in his element, dealing with a hostage crisis that ends in unnecessary violence and collateral damage. Later, we see him in our element, dealing with a hostage crisis that ends in unnecessary violence and collateral damage. The comic doubling is clearly deliberate, but I’m not sure how necessary it is to have both scenes, especially when all they really do is scoot the proper start of the film further and further back.

In between those two introductions, we get a long scene in Space Cop’s apartment that features two distinct stretches of endurance humor.

I like endurance humor, but I have to admit that sitting through two occurrences of it — sandwiched between two introductions to the same character — when you’re still waiting for the movie to get going is a bit much.

Space Cop (2016)

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, endurance humor refers to the comedy of things deliberately dragging on for too long. See Peter Griffin grasping his knee in pain, or Eric Idle monologuing endlessly at Michael Palin’s travel agent. The joke, essentially, is less about what’s happening than the fact that you in the audience are sitting through it.

The better stretch of endurance humor here is Space Cop opening his refrigerator, a process that requires Evans to punch button after button on a keypad long enough that we understand the joke and then just long enough more that it threatens to overstay its welcome. He then opens the refrigerator into his table, which falls over, in a perfectly timed visual punchline that we didn’t even realize was being built toward.

It’s executed well, and it’s a nice bit of ridiculous future technology that is funny for the mere fact that it exists.

Space Cop (2016)

This is followed by another stretch of endurance humor, though, in which Patton Oswalt — as the chief of the Space Police — places a video call to Space Cop, speaks with Space Cop, and then can’t figure out how to end the call to Space Cop. Space Cop stares blankly at him the entire time, and there’s no real punchline.

I understand what happened. Oswalt is a celebrity. Red Letter Media got him to appear in their film, and they were understandably proud of that fact. Oswalt riffed and Red Letter Media was reluctant to cut any of it. Because, hey, it’s Patton Oswalt in their movie, and he’s giving them material. Why not use it?

Well, for a number of reasons, but I’m sure I’d struggle when faced with the same temptation. I’m a nobody making a movie, and a celebrity just handed me an extended joke that’s mine all mine. Whether or not it fits the scene as I’d imagined it, it would be difficult to talk me out of using it.

Space Cop (2016)

Stoklasa and Bauman could have cut most of Oswalt’s shtick and the scene would have been better for it. (Their film would have been tighter as well.) Or they could have cut Space Cop’s refrigerator antics, but I think they realized — correctly — that that was the funnier bit. So they ended up keeping both, causing the already bloated introduction of their film to drag even more.

I’m also not entirely sure of the decision to make Space Cop a dunce and a lout in his native time period. I think the character would work a bit better if the more obvious flaws in his police work — a reliance on technology, a propensity for violence — were commonplace in the future. We should see them as flaws, certainly, but I think his colleagues in the future should have reflected the fact that this is what police work in itself has become.

Instead, Space Cop is demoted to Space Traffic Cop for his carelessness, suggesting that other Space Cops are more competent and reliable than he is. Which, in turn, makes him a poor representative of the future.

But even that, I’m sure, is part of the joke. I’m just not sure if it’s a joke that helps or hinders the film overall.

Space Cop (2016)

Like Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie, Space Cop hurls out idea after idea without always giving them the appropriate time (and, ahem, space) to land. Unlike that movie, though, Space Cop establishes its reality as elastic.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie took place in our reality with our history. Rolfe and his cronies introduced some fictional elements to what he know to be true, and then used those fictional elements to bring to life a conspiracy. In short, it’s like most works of fiction: It takes place in a world we recognize, but with fictional characters having a fictional adventure.

That caused it to unravel whenever Rolfe steered the film into territory that is not recognizably of our world, whether it’s a vehicle exploding because it ran into a pane of glass, the AVGN projectile vomiting, or the strange Super Mario Bros.-inspired home-security sequence that I’m sure only exists because someone involved with the production remembered that the movie was supposed to have something to do with video games.

Space Cop (2016)

Space Cop, wisely, does not take place in our recognizable reality. The title character is from an imagined future, his sidekick is from an unseen past, and the present is presented (forgive that) as an amalgam of buddy-cop (has anyone made a film called Buddy Cop yet?) cliches and expectations. This film’s “reality,” in other words, is one we already recognize as fictional, because we’ve seen it exclusively in other films that we can’t take seriously.

This allows for some of the best stuff in the movie.

One of these things is Dale Jackson as Chief Washington. Modeled on Cameron Mitchell’s performance in Hollywood Cop, the specific recognition gets an extra chuckle. But everyone else has seen precisely this character giving precisely these speeches in precisely this context. It’s such a clear indication of how little we’re supposed to take what passes as reality in this film seriously. It’s also funny that he keeps Space Cop on the force only because Washington has stock in their insurance company. A lesser film wouldn’t have even thought to make that joke.

Space Cop (2016)

Another of these things is the exposition about Space Cop’s wife, who was killed by somebody out for revenge. “In the future, my wife’s dead,” Space Cop tells Cooper. “In the past, she’s not even born yet.”

That in itself is a concept that other films in this vein would treat seriously, but in Space Cop the mere fact that these two characters are having this conversation is hilarious. Simply mentioning backstory like this works as a joke when you’ve structured your absurd movie well enough.

Obviously, Space Cop has an opportunity to rewrite history. And he takes that opportunity during a long sequence that sees him driving drunkenly to the home of his wife’s killer — a nine-year-old boy at this point — and trying to murder him.

Space Cop (2016)

There’s narrative logic at play here — Space Cop is neither the brightest bulb nor the best shot — but really it’s an excuse for Evans to wear a ridiculous costume and shoot at a child who is desperately trying to get away. In the process of attempting to right a future wrong, Space Cop kills the kid’s father and causes the kid to get crushed by a train.

It’s absolutely stupid, but the sheer length of the scene and Space Cop’s inability to see that he is creating the reason for revenge that will get his wife killed is marvelous. (I could do without the scene during the end credits that spells this out for us. We get it. Nobody watching could be nearly as dumb as Space Cop.)

Then there’s Cooper, whose character arc should see him reconnecting with the wife and kids he left behind in the past, or at least attempting to find them and learning what’s happened to his family. And that does happen! Off camera. At some point. And it’s dealt with in the space of a sentence or two during the ending with a great handwave.

“We didn’t forget,” the moment seems to say. “We just don’t care.” And that was one of the biggest laughs in the entire film for me.

Space Cop (2016)

With few exceptions (such as the movie’s lone fart joke), just about every bit of comedy in Space Cop at least gets close to working. Often, to be clear, it works excellently. Other times, you can easily imagine a version of the joke that works just a hair better. Rarely does a joke land with a complete thud, though it stands out when it does.

At one point, Space Cop and Cooper visit a strip club. (You’ve seen these movies. Of course they visit a strip club.) An alien in human form takes the stage, played by Jocelyn Ridgely, who I only later learned appeared as Nadine in Mr. Plinkett’s Star Wars reviews.

She’s dressed inappropriately for a stripper, which is funny enough, and then does a bizarre sort of tremoring dance in front of our heroes. Clearly she thinks this is what human strippers would do, and just as clearly she is wrong. It’s a sequence that feels like it should be much funnier than it is, and I have a hard time figuring out why it isn’t.

Space Cop (2016)

I think, ultimately, it comes down to either the blocking or the editing. The dance is funny, but the presentation of the dance fails to help it feel funny. It does build to a moment in which Space Cop tears her face apart with his fingers so…okay, that checks out.

Space Cop (2016)

But it does feel a bit like Stoklasa isn’t able to give his supporting actors the same spotlight he’s able to give himself and Evans.

Another scene might illustrate this even better. Cooper visits Dr. Snodgrass to try to figure out the aliens’ plans. Both Cooper and Snodgrass are comedy characters, but only Cooper’s lines really feel funny. I don’t think this is down to any weakness in Bo Johnson, who plays Snodgrass. I honestly thought he was one of the better actors in the film, but nothing he says feels as funny as it should.

Cooper, on the other hand, gets almost every line to hit like a punchline. “Doctor, I don’t understand a single thing you’re saying,” Cooper tells him, “and that’s your fault.”

Space Cop (2016)

That hits in a way that you want all of this dialogue to hit, but outside of Stoklasa and Evans, it almost never does.

Perhaps they’re just not sure of how to bring other characters — characters they themselves do not play — to life. This might even be supported by the comic success of the Chief Washington character; they’re familiar enough with that type of role, and so they do know to frame the shots and present it in a way that every bit of business lands correctly.

Bauman shows up in the film as well, playing another one of the aliens, and he’s good with what he gets to do. That’s surprisingly little, though; I expected a much larger role for him, but seeing him briefly is certainly better than seeing him crammed into scenes that didn’t need him.

Space Cop (2016)

The film builds — as all great films do — to an intergalactic showdown, during which Space Cop, Cooper, and Ridgley’s alien try to stop a brain in a jar. The movie gets dangerously close to taking itself seriously…and maybe it actually does. At least in a sense.

Space Cop branches here, with Cooper and Ridgley taking one path and Space Cop himself taking another.

Cooper and Ridgley work together to figure out a way to disable the spaceship, helping Cooper to realize that his understanding of women as inferior creatures is outdated and unfair. There are jokes here, but not many of them. It’s played exactly the way you’d see this played in any other movie.

On the other branch, however, we have Space Cop being Space Cop. (Which allows Space Cop to keep being Space Cop.) While the other two characters put their heads together and attempt to find an intellectual, non-violent solution to the problem, Space Cop roams the ship’s corridors, beating the living shit out of everything he sees.

Space Cop (2016)

In one particularly great moment, he meets Bauman’s alien, who explains to him that all they are trying to do is save their planet. Space Cop, in a rare moment of understanding, tells Bauman that they should have just been clear with that up front, and he wouldn’t have fought them.

“I’m not a monster,” Space Cop says, and he may even believe it right up until he’s finished speaking that sentence, at which point he blasts a hole into space that sucks Bauman to his death.

It’s great because I believe both bits of Space Cop’s personality in that moment. He doesn’t think he’s fucking awful even as he’s demonstrating beyond the shadow of a doubt that he’s fucking awful.

Space Cop (2016)

Eventually he even saves the day by punching a brain to death. (Actually, Cooper and Ridgley saved the day, but then Space Cop un-saved it and saved it again in a much dumber Space Cop way.) I honestly cannot think of a more appropriate climax for the film, and though I sincerely mean that as a compliment you are welcome to see as much backhandedness in it as you like.

I love Space Cop for what it is. I don’t think it shows the extent of the Red Letter Media team’s talents, and I wouldn’t dream of recommending it to someone as their first experience of these guys, but it’s a sincerely funny film that knows exactly how to regulate its stupidity. It drifts near enough to the structure of other films that we know what it’s doing, but stays reliably in its own little realm of absurdity.

Space Cop feels like a trip into somebody else’s mind, where much of the fun is in figuring out just how these thoughts are connected and how everything works. It’s not the movie I would have made, and it’s not the movie I would have hoped Stoklasa, Evans, and Bauman would make, but it’s a fascinating window into the love this little team has for awful, awful movies.

Space Cop (2016)

It doesn’t deconstruct genre tropes intelligently, it isn’t all that sharp in its parody, and it really doesn’t say much at all. But I think that’s kind of the point, and right or wrong, the team bet on the appeal of that point.

Red Letter Media gave us a satire that doesn’t satirize anything. And while it’s far from perfect, once you get over that hump of expectation, you have a comedy that’s successful more often than it’s not, with some of the most genuinely funny stuff I’ve seen in a film in years.

I think they could have made a great movie. Instead, they made Space Cop.

Maybe that’s the film’s best joke.

Space Cop (2016)

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