First Look: Voltron: Legendary Defender Season 3

Copyright © 2017 by DreamWorks Animation

While everyone’s getting hyped for Netflix Originals like The Defenders, I’m a little more interested in what kind of animation we can see (paired with good storytelling, of course). For that, if it’s not some new anime or another season of Bojack Horseman, then it’s getting a look at the newest season of Voltron: Legendary Defender.

As a caveat, some slight spoilers will follow in this review.

With Zarkon out of comission, his son and heir Prince Lotor takes over the Galra Empire, consolidating power with deadly aim. He and his team of elite soldiers move on the worlds liberated by the Paladins, reclaiming them and setting traps aplenty. Meanwhile, the Paladins seek a new leader in Shiro’s absence, putting Keith in command and letting Allura fill in where needed. But as the battle against Lotor’s rise goes on, new twists and turns are added to the mix, hinting at something far larger about the nature of the universe and about the power behind Voltron itself.

One way that I would describe this new season is the emphasis on politics. I don’t mean politics in the way you might see it on a show like House of Cards or Game of Thrones, where everyone’s making deals or betraying each other for power. On Voltron, the politics of the war against the Galra is pretty black-and-white. But there’s intrigue and debate within the ranks on both sides. We see how Lotor and his grand vision for the empire pits him against the druid Haggar and the senior figures in the military. Meanwhile, with Shiro missing in action, Keith has to take over, putting him at odds with Lance as de facto second-in-command and with Allura, who is trying to do more as a fighter than as a diplomat.

Within 7 episodes, at least, we get to see a glimpse of what’s to come and a little more insight into the major players. Midway through, we get a glimpse of alternate realities and histories, and how Allura’s people, the Alteans, might have fared under different circumstances. And the finale goes for a big climax not in the present, but in the past, as Coran reveals what happened with King Alfor, his former friend Zarkon, and the source of the ancient feud with the Galra.

Shiro’s fate, meanwhile, gets revealed in a heartwrenching way this season. We see more of the struggle he faces to escape the Galra, not only physically, but in overcoming his emotional scars, too. As a slight detour, there was a section where we see him braving the wilderness of a remote planet, trying to sort out what’s happened and how to find his team. It’s a sequence that reminds me a lot of my one favorite episodes of the Justice League animated series from 2003, “Hereafter,” where we watch Superman, presumed dead and powerless, survive in the wild of the distant future as a mere mortal with the skills he already has. It’s become something of a favorite subgenre of mine: the De-Powered and Friendless Hero Braving the Wild Story (on that note, I’d also recommend “Ludo in the Wild” from Season 2 of Star Vs. The Forces of Evil).

If I have only one complaint about this season, it’s that instead of 12 or 13 episodes, we only get a 7-episode run. Granted, the finale ends on a spectacular cliffhanger, and maybe there was some behind-the-scenes issue that led to this production schedule, it feels like a bit of a rush if we still have to wait for the wrap-up to this new story arc. I’d have preferred to wait a little longer if it meant getting a longer and more action-packed season to enjoy. As it is, Voltron is still Voltron, and this show has an energy that’ll always leave me coming back for more.

The third season of Voltron: Legendary Defender is available to watch on Netflix.

Bibliography: Voltron: Legendary Defender (Season 3). Based on Beast King GoLion by Toei Animation and Voltron: Defender of the Universe by World Events Productions. Produced by Joaquim Dos Santos, Lauren Montgomery, Yoo Jae Myung, Ted Koplar, Bob Koplar, Choi Goun, Kim Young Hyun, Kim Seul Ki, and Lee Soo Kyung. DreamWorks Animation; World Events Productions; Studio Mir. Netflix (distributor). Original release date: June 10, 2016 – present.


Flash Fiction: “Another Space Manic Monday”

Space is fun to write about when you get the chance. Not always the best place to be, though.

Another Space Manic Monday,

by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 701

Life aboard the space station Aldrin could be fun sometimes. But today was not one of those days. Today was the day where Dr. Trevor Washington stepped out of his quarters, rubbing at his eyes, and entered what he assumed would be a total quagmire.

In other words, it was a typical Monday morning.

“Doc!” Running down the corridor was Nurse Loretta Jones. Her carefully crafted hair bun had fallen into a loose tangle around her shoulders. “Thank goodness you’re here! It’s—”

“Too damn early for this,” Trevor grumbled. He turned and pushed the button for an instant coffee from a nearby vending machine. The machine whirred, and a crude brown liquid trickled down into a Styrofoam cup. With limited access to beans imported from Earth, the steaming hot liquid only vaguely tasted like coffee. Trevor swallowed the concoction without another thought.

“Who is it today?” he asked. “MacGregor or Collins?”

“MacGregor,” the nurse answered, “but he—”

“Ha!” Trevor slapped at his knee. “Called it. Dr. Bannister owes me ten bucks.”

Nurse Loretta didn’t seem at all amused. Trevor thought she’d look better after he’d had more coffee, and he went for a refill.

“Sir,” she added, “he has a hostage this time.”

Trevor paused halfway into his second cup. He lowered his coffee slowly.

“Maybe you’d better show me,” he said.

On board the Aldrin, everyone had their own way of coping with being stuck out on a research venture in the middle of deep space. Some played cards. Others read books. Trevor was a fan of drinking until he fell asleep to old episodes of The X-Files. Not the most glamorous approach, but with no decent partners to sleep with, he had few appealing options.

For Ensign Johnny MacGregor, he took pride in rebuilding a classic GI Joe action figure. Something to keep his focus during the long, dark hours in the station’s depths. Trevor knew this from the boy’s records. He also knew because he was now following broken pieces of the toy down an empty corridor. Trevor tried not to grumble whenever his boot accidentally caught on one. A dose of coffee could only do so much for his balance.

Inside the kitchen, he found MacGregor pressed up against a wall beside the autochef. The young man’s eyes bulged, and he held frantically held a wooden spatula to the throat of a terrified girl in an engineer’s uniform. Denise or Diane—Trevor was sure her name was one of them. He gave her a sad smile, and then he looked at MacGregor with a dismal stare.

“Johnny,” he said, using the patient tone of an exhausted parent, “we’ve been over this. Amphetamines are not the solution to our problems.” He paused. “Sometimes a welcome distraction, but not the solution.”

“Stay back!” MacGregor hissed.

“What happened?” Trevor asked. He folded his arms across his chest. “Come on. Let’s talk it over.”

MacGregor paused. The spatula trembled in his hand. “It’s Mackenzie. She… she chose Brad over me! After everything we’ve been through!”

Trevor sighed and looked away. Again with these insipid love triangles. Somedays, he felt like he was living inside a young adult novel. And not one of the good ones either. It had to be one sitting on a dusty shelf in a discount bookstore, in the same strip mall as a McDonald’s.

“Here,” said Trevor, “put the spatula down and we’ll sort this out. You’ll forget all about Mackenzie soon enough.”

“I’ll never forget her!” shouted MacGregor.

“Sure you will. We’re testing some great memory suppressant drugs back in the lab.”

MacGregor hesitated. Trevor made a show of looking down at the chrono unit on his wrist and tapping his foot. Only a matter of time, he thought. And then, just like that, MacGregor lowered the spatula. His young hostage fled the kitchen, and Trevor guided him out by the arm.

They tried not to step on the broken GI Joe pieces outside. Looking over at his patient, Trevor decided then and there that he’d put in a transfer request before today’s shift was done. He didn’t care if space was one giant leap for mankind.

He’d rather deal with the hardworking loonies back on Earth.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

How to Write a More Effective Villain

Eric Porter as Professor Moriarty, archnemesis to Sherlock Holmes, in “The Final Problem.” Copyright © 1985 by Granada Television.

All villains are antagonists, but not all antagonists are villains.

Sometimes, you have a story where the natural villain is the Evil Overlord who threatens to enslave or wipe out every good person in the world. But other times, you have a guy who, if the hero weren’t around, wouldn’t be evil per se. In fact, he might be the hero of his own story and just have a goal that runs counter to our protagonist’s mission. It’s easy to give your antagonist the qualities of being an absolute, irredeemible bully, if not a monster, but sometimes that’s too much.

The difference between a villain and an antagonist

When you write a villain, you can write someone who exists solely to oppose the hero. They have no life or purpose outside of that original desire. But that’s not always a bad thing. The Joker is still a compelling nemesis for Batman, after all. He’s admitted in multiple stories that his life and his schemes would have no meaning without the Dark Knight to oppose him. But an antagonist could well be the hero of their own story.

Ask yourself: “Who or what does my villain care about, if they care at all?”

We learn, for example, that Darth Vader cares about finding his son in The Empire Strikes Back, but that knowledge doesn’t take away from his menace throughout the movie or its sequel. If anything, it sets up the battle for him, because Luke sees a chance for his redemption, while everyone else (including the audience) sees a man bent on twisting his son into a copy of his dark self, all while serving a tyrannical regime.

We also know, from shows like Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, how a drug kingpin like Gus Fring can be utterly ruthless, but still likable. He truly does care about his employees at Los Pollos Hermanos, and he does mourn his friend Max Arciniega, whose death motivated his whole revenge plot against the cartel and the Salamanca family. We might still be rooting for Walt to overcome Gus, but we still can sympathize with the latter for his positive qualities.

Getting better with villainy

So, how can we advance our idea of a villain in the story we’re writing? Let’s start with a few simple steps.

1. Give your villain an opposing goal to the hero.

Take a film like Guardian of the Galaxy. If Peter Quill wants to make a profit by selling the Orb, then Ronan the Accuser wants to take the Orb and use the dark power contained inside. Or how about The Godfather? Michael Corleone doesn’t want to be involved in his family business, but rival Dons like Barzini and Tattaglia are willing to kill his father and brothers in order to take control of the Underworld.

The better you can define what your villain wants and what he’ll gain by it, the more clearly you can define the stakes for your story.

2. Look for opposing qualities.

If your hero is a rough-and-tumble girl from a bad neighborhood, then your villain can easily be a well-bred gentleman from an aristocratic family. If your hero is too proud to admit their faults, then your villain might well be humble and diligent about correcting every mistake. It’s not enough for these characters to have opposing goals. Their very traits need to distinguish them, even if they belong to the same profession, like two rival cops in a police department or a pair of athletes facing off in the big tournament.

3. Consider what your villain does offscreen.

This is a big factor that some writers don’t take the time to think through. I should know; I’ve done it loads of times.

When you’re writing your story, it’s easy to think, “Okay, so my hero is doing this in Act One, and then this in Act Two, and then he does this…” But if you have an active villain, then what are they doing throughout the story? Sometimes, you’ll see their actions onscreen. Sometimes, you won’t. It’s those offscreen moments that matter.

For example, when we look at the first Star Wars movie, we don’t just follow Luke Skywalker and his attempts to rescue Princess Leia. We also follow Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin, who manage things on the Death Star. They have to convince their allies in the Imperial leadership that they have everything in hand, and that they are on the verge of wiping out the Rebellion. They also face setbacks with their prisoner, Leia, when she resists torture and later lies about the rebel base to save her planet. Small details, perhaps, but they also raise the stakes for our heroes, and they reveal a lot about the character of our villains. They have a story arc that exists outside the heroes’ efforts.

Villains come in all shapes and sizes, and some are more noble or more vile than others. The only question you have worry about is how effective they are for the needs of your story. Because if your story isn’t pulling its weight around the hero’s actions, then your audience might end up rooting for the villain to win out of sheer annoyance.

Doctor Strange and the Troubled Hero in Fiction

Doctor Strange
Copyright © 2016 by Marvel Studios

I finally got around to seeing Doctor Strange, that great addition in the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe. While I admit that my interest in the MCU these days only centers around movies featuring a talking raccoon and a literal-minded alien played by Dave Bautista, it’s still nice to see what other stories this saga has to offer. And I must say, Strange definitely stands on its own as a magic-centered storyline.

But as I was watching this movie (and trying to deal with Benedict Cumberbatch doing an American accent), I noticed a neat little storytelling trick that I’d like to explore in detail. Namely, this: how do you make a hero’s flaw part of the story?

You’d be surprised at how difficult it can be to give a modern hero a serious flaw. Most storytellers settle on a traumatic incident, like the loss of a loved one, or they fall back on a general feeling of inadequacy. But in the MCU, we get heroes with personality flaws right off the bat. In Stephen Strange’s case, it’s his arrogance. He’s a brilliant neurosurgeon and he damn well knows it. He’s also more likely to consider how things affect him than he does consider anyone else.

Rewatch the scene where Strange and his love interest Christina are having their last conversation in Act One, right before he finds the lead that sends him on his mystical journey to Kathmandu. Christina’s trying to impress upon him that he’s more than just a skilled surgeon, that life isn’t just about continued success. But Strange refuses to give up, even when it means outspending himself on experimental, unguaranteed treatments to fix his nerve damage. It’s a tense, well-played scene, and it gives us the starting point of his inner and outer journey.

In Act One, Strange only wants one thing: to be healed and to be a success again. In Act Two, when faced with the Ancient One and the truth of how small he is within the multiverse, Strange wants to still be a success, but now it’s in a different field. He learns to deal with his shaking hands and perform real magic, but he still hasn’t corrected his basic flaw. He’s still, for lack of a better term, an arrogant prick.

It isn’t until Act Three, when the villain has all but claimed victory in Hong Kong sanctum, that our hero actually becomes a hero. He puts himself forward in a single act of self-sacrifice, rather than looking for the shortcut and the ego boost. Even when it means (spoilers) locking himself in a recurring loop with an eldritch being outside of time,  Strange puts all his knowledge and skill to use, but he does so for the larger purpose of saving the earth and all its inhabitants. He also makes a deal with said godlike entity, showing a patience and concern that Stephen Strange from Act One would never demonstrate. It’s in this sequence that he proves himself to be the Sorcerer Supreme.

Now, you might say that we can see the same character arc in films like Iron Man and Thor, where we watch those heroes grow from arrogant, boastful prodigies to slightly more humble, world-oriented people. And you’d be right, of course. In that sense, Doctor Strange fits the same character design as them.

But what I find interesting about Strange is that its hero isn’t a playboy billionaire inventor or a Norse god made human. For all his brilliance, Stephen Strange really is human. He has the same gift to learn magic as anyone else, and it’s only by an accident and the patience of a good teacher that he learns to harness it. That same human starting point also makes his arrogance a little sharper by comparison. He’s a good surgeon, but he’s also more self-destructive and dismissive than, say, Tony Stark or Thor might be at the beginning. It’s a kind of a hubris that we can all relate to, even if we don’t really want to see ourselves that way.

Even in an era where we’re inundated with superhero movies and antiheroes in the vein of Walter White and Don Draper, it’s still good to stop and examine what kind of people we’re rooting for and just how they grow as characters onscreen. We don’t simply go, “He’s a gambler!” or “He’s got pride!” The flaw has to be something our heroes wrestle with in the course of their journey. Ideally, it’s something they overcome by the end of their story, even if their tale has a tragic end. When you look past the fireworks and landscape-bending magic shows, this is what you have at the heart of Doctor Strange and I’m glad it’s there.

Podcasts and Diversity: 3 Points on Fiction’s Future

Photo credit:

Not so long ago, radio was a staple of the entertainment industry. You had your talk radio, your morning DJs, your rock n’ roll stations on FM, and so on. And to be fair, you still have them aplenty. But now, we’re seeing a massive upswing of Internet-based radio. Like podcasting. All of it ranges from NPR-style news programming to comedy shows where 4 people sit on a couch and make jokes for an hour and a half.

And thanks to podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale and The Black Tapes, audio dramas are now a thing. We can tell so many new stories in so many ways, all by using the freedom of the Web. It’s why I think (for the reasons listed below) that what we see in podcasting today is what we’ll see more of in fiction in the future.

More inclusive casting.

When I say that a show or a story is more “inclusive,” I mean that it takes a chance on telling stories from more than a standard or “safe” point of view. When we watch a TV show or a movie, we might find it remarkable that someone in a leading role is non-white, non-straight, or female. But because of the audio-only format, a podcast story can make it so very, very easy to erase those distinctions. I don’t think anything out of the ordinary when I hear Jasika Nicole (an African-American woman) playing a trucker in Alice Isn’t Dead, or when I hear Joshua Ilon voice a detective (who happens to be bisexual) in The Penumbra Podcast.

The more we as an audience grow comfortable with this kind of casting, I think the more likely we’ll see such changes in our visual medium, too.

More audience interaction.

Compared to traditional media, podcasters are a lot more open and acknowledging of what their fans can contribute to their productions. While you might have read about how authors and studios are still hating on fanfiction writers and YouTube uploads that use their content, fans of audio drama have been a major support to their creators. Whether it’s creating artwork or merchandise, running blogs and Tumblr pages to support their shows, or even participating in contests and live shows as part of the act, the audience comes first to every podcaster’s priorities.

More radical ideas for storytelling.

At a certain point, both the film and television industries have come to offer a very standard approach to how they want their stories told. Screenwriters have to abide by a very traditional set of beats, or else they’ll lose a network executive’s interest before they can ever find an audience to engage.

However, that’s not the case for podcasters. As Night Vale Presents has shown, it’s possible to tell a story however you choose, so long as the episode isn’t overly long or boring. Want to tell the story of a dystopian nightmare as a series of cassette tapes promoting relaxation exercises? Done. Want to add some surreal horror as the CB radio broadcasts of a lone trucker? Go for it. Want to resurrect the radio variety show as a genre? Hey, why not.

The point is, as good as many movies and TV shows are today, they do still have a follow a traditional format for delivering their stories, from the Three Act Structure to the Hour-Long Drama. But not podcasts. They can be as wild as they want, and they’ll still get their audience.

So, all of this should give you a pretty good idea of why I love podcasts. Now, it’s your turn. What are some of your favorite things about podcasts and audio dramas? What characters or concepts do you love in shows like The Black Tapes or Welcome to Night Vale, and why?