Monday, November 14, 2011

A Traveller Crew

©1979 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.
For reasons that will become obvious fairly soon, my attention over the last few days has temporarily shifted away from fantasy to science fiction. As I've no doubt stated on this blog ad nauseam, science fiction is actually my preferred genre of literature, cinema, and roleplaying. I write so much about fantasy because I've played so much more of it. Fantasy is the lingua franca of our hobby and always has been. Plus, as a genre, fantasy is so much more expansive than sci-fi, so it can scratch a lot of different itches simultaneously, whereas SF has splintered into dozens of hermetically sealed sub-genres that make it a more difficult sell in the abstract than fantasy.

Whenever I think of science fiction, I inevitably think of Alien, which, despite being a Lovecraftian thriller, is, for me, one of the quintessential science fiction movies of the last quarter of the 20th century. One of the more prosaic reasons I believe this is because I associate the film so strongly with Marc Miller's Traveller RPG. Take a look at that publicity still at the top of this post. I defy anyone to find a group of cinematic characters who look more like they could have been generated using the rules in the 1977 little black books. The bulk of the cast are in their late 30s or older and they all have the looks of people who've been around the block a few times -- and not on heroic adventures in pursuit of a noble cause. Whenever I think of a crew of Traveller PCs, I think of these guys.

62 comments:

  1. Really? You include the halfling on the left in a Traveller campaign?

    (I kid...)

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  2. Man, Sigourney Weaver is tall. (Googles...) Man, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm and Harry Dean Stanton are short.

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  3. It's easy to scare and excite 20 somethings, you see a bunch of 30-50 year-olds excited it's time to worry.

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  4. It's often said that Firefly is the perfect Traveller almost-adaptation, but I tend to agree that Alien is much closer.

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  5. It's often said that Firefly is the perfect Traveller almost-adaptation

    I've never understood that claim. All other problems with that comparison aside, the cast of Firefly is too young and too pretty to be cast of Traveller characters.

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  6. Thanks for that pic. I was just looking at my 15mm civilians from GZG and wondering how to paint the 32 duplicates as a Ship crew (the other 32 have been happily painted as orange-overalled corporate colonists). That colour scheme will do nicely.

    And yes, I agree fully. They have the words "James Cameron plays Traveller" written into every tiny crease and wrinkle on their faces.

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  7. Just as a nitpick, I would actually associate Alien (and the rest of the films in the franchise) with Traveler 2300 rather than the Traveler LBB's. I think there's much more of a direct link between the look and feel of 2300 and the films (right down to the ammunition counters on the sides of the guns).

    Somehow the original Traveler always seemed a bit more high-tech than Alien.

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  8. Somehow the original Traveler always seemed a bit more high-tech than Alien.

    Yes and no. The highest tech levels of Traveller are definitely way beyond anything you see in Alien or Aliens. However, given the way the random generation of worlds works out, most worlds of the Third Imperium aren't all that high tech, which is, in fact, one of the commoner complaints about the game.

    That said, you're right to associate Aliens with 2300 AD. I have little doubt that the movie was a big influence on that game's design. However, Aliens didn't come out till 1986, nearly 10 years after Traveller was released, so I've never associated the two. For me, Alien (like Outland) will always be a Traveller movie -- and that's as much because of its characters as its tech.

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  9. WRT to Firefly being similar to Traveller, young characters exist as well. For instance, the show’s lead character, Mal, really doesn’t display a lot of skills throughout the series. Maybe Pilot-1, Pistol-1, Tactics-1, Brawling-1. That’s effectively a 1 or 2 terms and out sort of guy.

    Successful and rewarding play in Traveller (and OD&D for that matter) is dependent more on player ingenuity, and less on career-generated skill mega-packages. A character with only Medical-1 as a skill can make his/her way through the ‘verse just as well as that Merc with BattleDress-5, PGMP-3, Gcarrier-2, etc.

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  10. @Dangerous Brian said...

    I think you mean Ridley Scott as he directed the first Alien and he pic above is a publicity still for the film.

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  11. Second from the left is even wearing an Imperial Interstellar Scout Service dress uniform!

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  12. Second from the left is even wearing an Imperial Interstellar Scout Service dress uniform!

    Nice catch!

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  13. The second movie - Aliens - was far more influential on gaming. It is essentially the inspiration for every modern Space Marine video game ever made.

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  14. 1) My god, what a terrible publicity still!! Those folks look like IDIOTS posing like that. Making the goddess Sigourney look like an idiot is hard work, too...

    2) "I inevitably think of Alien, which, despite being a Lovecraftian thriller..." This characterization always surprises/confuses me. 'Alien' is a shock/gore horror film with a dose of smart anti-state/anti-corporate (no distinction really!) paranoia; and its robo-horror material doesn't feel like Lovecraft to me at all. Are there specific stories it reminds you of? Google tells me that this characterization is a commonplace, but then Google also tells me that 'American Beauty' is a good movie, so...

    The Awful Thing hunting the crew of the Nostromo is, after all, basically a big spider; if it were a fantasy story set among, say, miners in the Congo or well-funded anthropologists in Haiti (!!) (which it may as well be, for all its SF trappings), I don't imagine anyone would call it 'Lovecraftian.'

    Help!

    3) Actually the characters in Firefly are pretty well split, agewise - the preacher's an old man, Mal and Zoe are grizzled war vets (they've 'TV aged,' i.e. the characters are meant to be older than the actors look - it's clearer in the film that this is the case), even the pilot has been around the block a bit.

    More to the point, it's clear that the crew of the Firefly spans *three generations* - which is a lot more important than numerical age, in terms of building those (or RPG) characters. Kaylee/Simon/River at the low end, Inara/Zoe/Wash/Jayne in the middle, the preacher and many of the supporting characters further on down the line. It's an old universe. The show's cod-western/Chinese patois takes some years off the characters, of course.

    And you must know it's a bit weird to hold the attractiveness of professional TV actors against them...:)

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  15. The second movie - Aliens - was far more influential on gaming. It is essentially the inspiration for every modern Space Marine video game ever made.

    But unlike the first film, you can't imagine it on the page. Pure filmmaking.

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  16. Is the second guy on the left kind of funny and a pilot? Because if so, I think Firefly ripped him off.

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  17. @anarchist -

    The word you're looking for is of course 'homage.' ;v) After all, the sales pitch for 'Firefly' has been variously represented by Whedon as 'Stagecoach' in space, a 'The Killer Angels' sequel with laser guns, and Han and Chewie if they'd never met Luke and Obi-Wan. The whole thing is meant to be a ripoff^H^H^H^H^H^Htribute to its SF inspirations, with a big honking libertarian somersault at the end.

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  18. "I inevitably think of Alien, which, despite being a Lovecraftian thriller..." This characterization always surprises/confuses me. [...] and its robo-horror material doesn't feel like Lovecraft to me at all.

    Time for some deep background.

    The word you're looking for is of course 'homage.'
    The actual words are 'unoffial Alien: Resurrection/Titan A.E. sequel. The Firefly crew has been dredged up for every SF project he's had since '95 or whatever.

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  19. I've never understood that claim. All other problems with that comparison aside, the cast of Firefly is too young and too pretty to be cast of Traveller characters.

    Firefly got me hooked when Mal kicked that guy into the spinning turbine and pulled up the next goon. I went yup that totally what a Traveller PC would do.

    I agree about the crew of Alien. However what appealed to me about Firefly was the situations and circumstances that the crew of the Serenity found themselves in. To me much of that screamed Traveller.

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  20. Is the second guy on the left kind of funny and a pilot? Because if so, I think Firefly ripped him off.

    He's an engineer and a bit of twit.

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  21. Are there specific stories it reminds you of?

    No, it's just the general mood of the thing, though Ash's lines where he describes the alien as "unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality" strikes me as very Lovecraftian in its implications. And Hüth's link above is a very good one to an excellent site that provides more detailed answers to this question.

    And you must know it's a bit weird to hold the attractiveness of professional TV actors against them...:)

    Is it? I don't know: I prefer that, say, a nuclear physicist not be played in a movie by a 20-something underwear model no matter how good of an actor he is. Similarly, if someone is supposed to be a grizzled war veteran, I prefer he physically look the part. Maybe that's very shallow and narrow-minded of me -- shocking, I know -- but I find the crew of Alien far more believable in their roles than I ever found the Firefly crew in theirs.

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  22. Is that Jon Finch on the right?

    Nope. That's John Hurt. There are stills of Finch before he fell ill but I don't think there are any publicity photos.

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  23. However what appealed to me about Firefly was the situations and circumstances that the crew of the Serenity found themselves in. To me much of that screamed Traveller.

    There were too many things that bugged the hell out of me about Firefly that I confess I rarely gave deep thought to its actual plots.

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  24. I’d say Alien has more Lovecraft-like elements than many other things I’ve seen called Lovecraftian.

    Yeah, 2300 might be a better fit, but my impression (I don’t know 2300 that well) is that it is a bit narrower than Traveller. Anything that fits in 2300 could fit in Traveller.

    I played in a number of Traveller campaigns where a PC or two failed an early reënlistment roll and thus started play younger and less experienced than the rest. Considering the size of our groups, the ratio might’ve been close to Firefly. If you can get past the actors playing the vets not looking like vets.

    Then again, this is the far future. Maybe improved medicine and genetic engineering has made people age slower. ^_^

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  25. I was raised on a lot of TV sci-fi (Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, etc.), and my first exposure to sci-fi RPGs (aside from Gamma World) was Star Frontiers, so I had more of a glamorous impression of science fiction when I got into gaming. Since then, I found a wide range of sci-fi sub-genres (hard sci-if, science fantasy, space-western, cyberpunk, steampunk, sociological-themed sci-if, etc.), and I found that some mix well with others, including with non-sci-fi themes and genres. I have seen a lot of great examples in books and moves, but RPGs are a great playground for these concepts to be toyed with.

    Ultimately, I found the "lingua franca" of sci-fi comes in two forms: a hard, human-centralist universe derived from Golden Age sic-fi; and the sort of softcore kitchen-sink sci-fi, one would find with Star Trek and Dr Who. The former generally appeals to a hardcore base, while the later has a more universal appeal, and has as much to offer as typical D&D game.

    As for a "Lovecraftian thriller" in a sci-fi, I think Event Horizon is the best example of this (although, after that watching that marathon of shows about theoretical physics, I would not be surprised they eventually find proof of the existence of Azathoth or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. XP).

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  26. Ian Holm is way scarier than the aliens. I had nightmares about his character as a kid.

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  27. "the cast of Firefly is too young and too pretty to be cast of Traveller characters."

    Anagathics baby!

    Seriously though, The Firefly cast is as realistic as any Player character party in any RPG. Look at all the pictures of beautiful women delving into dungeons and caverns in the fantasy games. And as for sci-fi, the earlier illustrations in the Traveller books looked like real people but anything after Mega-Traveller looked like space-cheesecake/beefcake, just like in any other RPG.

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  28. I bought firefly hook, line, and sinker.

    According to Mal, their physical beauty is directly linked to their survivability. God won't let them die because they're too damn pretty.

    Firefly is what I used to sell my D&D group on Traveller. Though, we are all bigger fans of Star Wars.

    I can see Alien as being Lovecraftian. Plenty of parallels can be drawn to mountains of madness.

    Comparison of the alien to a big spider is frankly, offensive. Try to imagine watching Alien for the first time. You never see it in the same form twice. It goes from facehugger, to death worm, to a giant black penis that chases Ripley around. And the Space Jockey scenes have occupied my imagination since I first saw them.

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  29. Seriously though, The Firefly cast is as realistic as any Player character party in any RPG.

    That's not really a recommendation, though. I think the characters in most RPG are too pretty as well, which is a big part of the reason why I made sure that the art in my own Thousand Suns included plenty of older and plain-looking people alongside the more conventionally attractive ones.

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  30. Speaking of Thousand Suns... ;-)

    I shall have much to say on that score very shortly ...

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  31. "'Alien' is a shock/gore horror film with a dose of smart anti-state/anti-corporate (no distinction really!) paranoia; and its robo-horror material doesn't feel like Lovecraft to me at all."

    Actually, the tone of the film is very Lovecraftian, and was written specifically with Lovecraft in mind.

    Screenwriter Dan O'Bannon was a huge Lovecraft fan. He talks about his love of Lovecraft here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FG2JRNVji-8

    In the amazing Alien Anthology blu ray set (which, if you don't own it, you *really* should buy), he prefaces his first draft of the script with this note:

    "Alien went to where the Old Ones lived, to their very world of origin. That baneful little storm-lashed planetoid halfway across the galaxy was a fragment of the Old Ones' home world, and the Alien a blood relative of Yog-Sothoth."

    A fascinating in-depth look at the script's development is at the alienseries blog:

    http://alienseries.blogspot.com/2010/09/making-alien-part-i-script-i-wrote.html

    ALIEN is, quite simply, the best Lovecraft film ever made. Quite possibly the best horror film as well.

    (Interestingly, director Ridley Scott notes one other key influence on the film: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.")

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  32. Well, I'll agree with the Lovecraftian themes. I didn't know spit about Lovecraft at the time Alien came out, but having read his works since, yeah, it fits the pattern.

    Actually, I could see Firefly AND Alien fitting a Traveller milieu. While the cast of Firefly (or at least, the younger members) is a bit prettier, the feel of the setting screams Traveller.

    Let's face it, the general Firefly theme of a small trading ship's crew trying to ply a living trading and shipping between frontier worlds and staying only half a step ahead of the law is pretty much the theme of about 80% of all Traveller campaigns out there.

    Alien would be the flip side of Traveller. Folks working for one of the megacorps ordered to explore a world for commercial exploitation, discovering something big, bad, and inimical that they aren't remotely prepared to deal with, and getting their asses handed to them one by one. That is also Traveller.

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  33. Traveller was clearly inspired by the SF of the 1970s even as evolved into a Golden Age/Imperial SF game - I think some of that gritty SF movies of that era was permanently enshrined in Traveller.

    It was just Golden Era was easier to write for with the proliferation of SF novels that occurred in Star Wars' wake. For if one has to credit Star Wars with anything was to resurrect a Sense of Wonder even if it had nothing do with any form of Science Fiction save Planetary Romances or Space Fantasy.

    Traveller has been a constant state of evolution since inception but for whatever reason it gets mired in a discussion of what it is not - as opposed to the game that it could be.

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  34. Not only was Lovecraft a big influence on Dan O' Bannon but H.R. Giger as well, as he's mentioned in the past the Old Gent was an early inspiration.Its going to be interesting to see what Ridley Scott and Giger plan to bring to the big screen next year with "Prometheus".

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  35. But, what makes Alien very interesting and very much in tune with Traveller is that these were working class stiffs who normally haul garbage (what is ore) from point a to point b. They are not heroes. Just ordinary folks.

    What is interesting is no film really tried to replicate that. They are usual military or ex-military crews. Pandorium comes close but again it is not a crew.

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  36. ALIEN is, quite simply, the best Lovecraft film ever made. Quite possibly the best horror film as well.

    The only other serious contender for "the best Lovecraft film ever made" is, I think, The Thing.

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  37. "According to Mal, their physical beauty is directly linked to their survivability. God won't let them die because they're too damn pretty."

    Ew. That's horrible.

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  38. "Plus, as a genre, fantasy is so much more expansive than sci-fi, so it can scratch a lot of different itches simultaneously, whereas SF has splintered into dozens of hermetically sealed sub-genres that make it a more difficult sell in the abstract than fantasy."

    I have heard so many Fantasy fans claim this. It doesn't make any bloody sense whatsoever.

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  39. I have heard so many Fantasy fans claim this. It doesn't make any bloody sense whatsoever.

    Why not?

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  40. @anarchist:

    Since the WW2 movies of late 40's (and possibly earlier) the Hawaiian shirt has been the official uniform of the grizzled old but extremely competent naval engineer* who keeps things running through spit, baling wire, and sheer 'ornery cussedness (and who keeps a hip flask of high-proof liquor on him so he can lean out the fuel mixture when that extra little bit of performance is needed).

    Of course in Firefly that was changed to a pretty floral print dress. Not that I'm complaining. <grin>

    And I have always held that Traveller is what you make it. I've always preferred games where characters never muster out (even in the official Marc Miller version), so my games aren't as anarcho-syndicalist as most peoples.

    [* Rumours that there have been naval engineering conferences where the dress code for the cocktail party has been "Hawaiian shirt (the louder the better)" will be strenuously denied. Although I am now colour-blind.]

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  41. "The only other serious contender for "the best Lovecraft film ever made" is, I think, The Thing."

    It hadn't occurred to me but I think you're right, there is something very Lovecraftian about Carpenter's THE THING.

    In that youtube clip I posted above O'Bannon has some interesting thoughts on why it's so hard to make a good Lovecraft film -- he says that you need a visual style that's as atmospheric and eerie as Lovecraft's prose was. And a good Lovecraft story is really all about atmosphere, and more what you don't see than what you do.

    The wonderful thing about ALIEN is that it feels like you've stepped into Lovecraft's universe from the very first few seconds -- that opening image of the planet with the eerie-as-all-hell music gets me good and terrified almost instantly. The sense of a vast, cold, hostile universe hiding a horrible and inevitable doom grabs you by the throat right out the gate.

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  42. This link suggests the person on the right *is* Jon Finch:

    http://aliensandpredators.tumblr.com/post/186397871/cast-publicity-shot-for-alien-note-the-presence

    I dunno. Is that in fact John Hurt?

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  43. I dunno. Is that in fact John Hurt?

    Yes, it is. The link is mistaken. If you poke around the Net, you can find a few stills of Finch as Kane and he looks nothing like Hurt, who is definitely pictured above.

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  44. Re: Finch

    I should have said I think the link is mistaken. I could well be wrong, but the guy on the far right looks like Hurt to me rather than what I've seen of Finch as Kane.

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  45. Ridley Scott claimed that one of his big inspirations for the tone and look of Alien was the used-future concept from Star Wars. Only he decided to take it further and make a "truck drivers in space" film.

    That is from an interview somewhere on the massive Alien Quadrilogy box set

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  46. Just glad to see Outland get mentioned too - that was another of those "realistic" SF films of that same period. Real-looking clothes and gear and shotguns in spaaaace.

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  47. Outland is awesome. The shotguns, the sleazy bar, Doogie Hausers dad, racquetball - this seemed like space colonization as it might have turned out. Think about it.

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  48. There's an interesting thread running in the Traveller forums over at Mongoose Publishing about Grunge SF - the science fiction movies of the late 1970s and early 1980s that combine classic SF tropes with an indistrial visual aesthetic. Alien and its sequels is mentioned a number of times as the film that established the look, but there are a number of other examples (Outland, Saturn 3, The Abyss). There is some argument about whether Blade Runner is part of the subgenre. It's the first time that I've heard anybody try and separate out these films as a distinct form of SF based upon their visual style.

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  49. The second movie - Aliens - was far more influential on gaming. It is essentially the inspiration for every modern Space Marine video game ever made.

    Well, it was one of the inspirations for Doom; everything else just ripped off *that*. :)

    I think the Stallone/Arnie action movies of the 80s are a bigger inspiration, though. After all, the main thing the space marines of Aliens do is get their butts handed to them. The whole "one-man army" thing that defines most first person shooters owes a lot more to Rambo than to Hudson and Hicks.

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  50. Yes, Outland is also quite good, though some facts are totally wrong, e.g. the lack of pressure does not make you explode like in the film; instead your blood starts slowly boiling, and the peripheral blood vessels explode, giving you the aspect of a severely-beaten man (before you die from lack of oxygen, that is.)

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  51. James if you or anyone else is interested I have a scifi blog at businessofthefuture.blogspot.com. It's only sporadically updated but it's accumulated a modest bit of content over the last couple years. feel free to check it out.

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  52. I found The Thing (´81) to be the better Alien.

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  53. The thing in Outland that always bugged me was the idea that placing lighting inside the helmet on your spacesuit was a good idea. For comparison, try driving at night with the lights inside your car on but the headlights off and see how good your visibility is...

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  54. Traveller [...] gets mired in a discussion of what it is not - as opposed to the game that it could be.

    True. People will tell you that you can’t do a Star Wars style game with Traveller, but I’ve seen it done multiple times.

    The thing in Outland that always bugged me was the idea that placing lighting inside the helmet on your spacesuit was a good idea.

    That always bugs me in films, but I try to ignore it. It’s all about making sure the actors’ expressions can be seen. (Or, more cynically, because the producers feel that if they’re paying money for that particular face, the audience should see it whenever possible.) Of course, there are other ways to do that...

    (I’ve never seen Outland, though. Do they actually say that it’s a good idea?)

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  55. "Are there specific stories it reminds you of?

    No, it's just the general mood of the thing, though Ash's lines where he describes the alien as "unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality" strikes me as very Lovecraftian in its implications."

    Hmm...I haven't read any H.G. Wells, but while Lovecraft might be the vector for all that stuff for modern readers...

    (or premodern readers, ahem, like James! ;v)

    ...that characterization always seems, to me, to give HPL credit for something he actually inherited. For heaven's sake, there's nothing in that line that the phrase 'vast, cool, and unsympathetic' doesn't cover...

    Indeed, HPL was 8 years old when that particular story of indifferent interstellar rapacity was published. Early in the Golden Age of Science Fiction, right there!

    Anyhow, I'm not interested in the screenwriter's influences or hobbies, in this case, though normally I'm VERY interested in that stuff. 'Alien' as filmed strikes me as having more in common with 'haunted castle' stories than with 'supposedly indifferent cosmic force that's actually, in HPL's treatment, got a weird hard-on for humanity and is less important to his writing than his perfectly human anxieties ABOUT HUMANNESS, irrupts into otherwise mundane lives' stories.

    The important thing about the alien in 'Alien' is NOT its inscrutability, it's the fact that it bleeds acid and eats faces -- i.e. its monstrosity is quite horror-movie conventional, however those conventions might be complicated by the awe-inspiring OUTER SPAAAAAACE setting and von Daniken background babble.

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  56. Outland, Alien, Total Recall, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Starship Troopers animated, and Cowboy Bebop all remind me of different aspects/flavors of Traveller.

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  57. 'Alien' as filmed strikes me as having more in common with 'haunted castle' stories

    I suppose you're unfamiliar with Hite's assertion that TCoC is a 'haunted universe' story. Or you're missing the whole 'fear of bodily infestation' thing in Lovecraft (what with the cursed bloodlines and fish-man rape and all).

    Frankly, I don't think Lovecraft's cosmic indifferentness is actually all that prominent in his works as a source of actual, present horror, but rather is a post-hoc way of justifying others' Derleth-baiting. Try The House on the Borderland or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch for positive examples of cosmic indifference. Lovecraft is primarily important as a vector for gothic horror tropes to transmit themselves into SF; as such, "Haunted Castle in Space" is a precise and total summation of Alien's Lovecraftian nature.

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  58. For those that weren't around at the time, it's hard (I think) to
    appreciate the 'Alien-ness' of Alien...

    The biomechanical aesthetic was a NEW thing, and at the time, for most
    cinema-goers downright DISTURBING. Now, if used/referrenced it's
    purely background colour, an artistic shorthand.

    Yes, it's ten little indians in SPAAAAAACE, with horror-gore, but the
    terrifying 'Lovecraftian' atmosphere, particularly in the first part
    of the movie, is easily dismissed by a modern audience ... the shapes
    and textures of not only the planet surface, but the derelict evoked a
    palpable sense of uneasiness and fear. These are all things a modern
    audience is familiar with having been exposed to the like in video
    games and film.

    Oh, and IF they had lasers in the movie, you can be they'd be tied to
    a power pack by a cable in true Traveller fasion.

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  59. "Similarly, if someone is supposed to be a grizzled war veteran, I prefer he physically look the part. Maybe that's very shallow and narrow-minded of me -- shocking, I know -- but I find the crew of Alien far more believable in their roles than I ever found the Firefly crew in theirs."

    By and large I agree with James’ sentiment re: the look of Hollywood casts, but every so often reality is stranger than fiction (or stereotype). By the time he was 21 baby-faced soldier-actor Audie Murphy had been wounded three times in combat, suffered repeated bouts of malaria, been promoted from private to first lieutenant in less than two years, and been awarded every US decoration for valour (including the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, and three Purple Hearts) plus a host of foreign awards. All that and he still looked like he should be in high school.

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  60. I have recently rewatched Alien. I agree that the crew oozes Traveller appeal.

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