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Q&A Today: Rich Handley

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It’s not every day that we get to enjoy seeing author Rich Handley chime in on Planet of the Apes: Tales from the Forbidden Zone, Star Trek, Star Wars and more, so let’s do this, with relish.

Q: Which characters from the first two PotA films (1968 and 1970) fascinate you the most, and why do you suppose that is?

RH: Without question, they’d be Zira and Zaius.

Zira is such a strong character, at a time when female characters were not always so well served by science fiction. She stands up for what she believes in, she’s not afraid to risk reprisals—even death—for sticking to those beliefs, and she always does the right thing, even when everyone else around her seems determined to do everything wrong. She and Cornelius have a loving relationship built on mutual respect and admiration, and she’s portrayed so perfectly by Kim Hunter, who turns in some of the best performances in any of the Planet of the Apes films. If I were an ape, I’d marry her any day.

As for Zaius, I find the idea of an individual burdened with the secret knowledge of past dangers immensely fascinating. He’s the villain in the first film, to be sure, yet he’s not out for personal gain—he genuinely wishes to protect society and all of apekind, and he views the real villain as the knowledge that Taylor represents. In a way, his motives are entirely non-selfish. He knows what man’s mistakes have done to the world, and he is determined to make sure his people avoid those same pitfalls, even if it means curtailing personal liberties and burying the truth to do so. He’s fearful and bigoted and dangerous when backed into a corner, yes—but he’s also extremely intelligent and can be downright kind. He’s an intriguing dichotomy.

Q:  If you could ask one question of Zira (and one question of Zaius) what would you ask?

RH:  Zira: What the heck is your problem with bananas? They’re damn delicious and high in potassium. Zaius: How is it that your society has perfected brain surgery and cameras, yet no one has ever even thought of making paper airplanes?

Q: What can you share with us about the creation of the short story anthology Planet of the Apes: Tales from the Forbidden Zone, without giving too much away?

RH: Tales from the Forbidden Zone’s genesis goes back a number of years, when I wrote a pair of Planet of the Apes books for my own independent publishing imprint, Hasslein Books (named, of course, after POTA’s Doctor Hasslein). There were two volumes, Timeline of the Planet of the Apes and From Aldo to Zira: Lexicon of the Planet of the Apes, which led to my co-editing two Apes essay anthologies for Sequart, titled The Sacred Scrolls: Comics on the Planet of the Apes and Bright Eyes, Ape City: Examining the Planet of the Apes Mythos. My friend Jim Beard contributed an essay to the first volume, since, like me, he is also a long-time avid fan of the Apes mythos.

Thanks to the above books, I’ve remained active in online Apes fandom, answering fans’ questions and so forth. So a couple of years ago, Jim and I were involved in a Facebook conversation with a group of fellow fans about Apes fiction, and someone noted that the only licensed prose short fiction based on Planet of the Apes had been in a trio of obscure British annuals based on the TV series, published back in the 1970s. One of us (I no longer recall whether it was me or Jim, and neither does he) joked around that we should change that by pitching a short fiction anthology to Titan ourselves. A pause and a few blinks later, and we realized that, yeah, we really SHOULD do that.

Jim and I approached a few novelists, short story writers, and comic scribes whom we knew, to gauge their interest in taking part, then put together a pitch for Titan’s Steve Saffel. To our surprised excitement, Steve expressed great interest in the book, provided that we could line up a few high-profile authors to ensure strong sales numbers. Short story anthologies don’t traditionally sell as well as novels do, so Steve wanted to be sure that we could overcome that hurdle by having a built-in audience of the writers’ existing fan bases, which would also help us to make a second volume possible. (The jury’s still out on that one—those who’d like to see a second volume are urged to let Titan know.)

Jim and I spent some time approaching big-name writers, until we finally had a lineup that Titan was happy with. We asked the authors to send in a few pitches each for what they’d like to write about, as we were keen on making sure the book represented a great deal of variety in terms of settings, characters, themes, genres, and so forth. As I wrote in the book’s introduction, “We encouraged them to think outside the box, and not to limit themselves to proposing only tales about the most popular characters and settings from the films. After all, while an entire anthology about Zira and Cornelius alternatively bickering and then rubbing their noses together in Ape City could be fun for fans of the chimp couple (titled Zira Loves Cornelius, perhaps), it would provide a rather limited and redundant scope for everyone else.” Ultimately, we chose 16 tales involving the classic films and both TV shows, and the rest is history.

Q:  What do you enjoy most about working together with Jim Beard?

RH:  The best collaborations are those built upon mutual respect. Jim and I have never had a single cross word pass between us. We’ve never had even a single disagreement on anything—not even when we actually do disagree. By that, I mean that our different opinions on some things have never made any of our conversations unpleasant or awkward. This made collaborating with him a dream, as we saw eye to eye on everything and could discuss any aspects of the project that arose without fear of ever offending the other. Plus, we each have a strong work ethic, a love for the franchise, and a quirky sense of humor. Believe me, that makes a huge difference in a collaboration.

Q: In which ways was Star Trek: The Motion Picture superior to Star Wars: A New Hope?

RH: Hey, that’s not a biased question at all. =)

Well, for one thing, The Motion Picture had stronger acting. For another, it had better effects and more substance, and it wasn’t a thinly-disguised redressing of Heart of Darkness, Lord of the Rings, and The Wizard of Oz. On the other hand, it was too slow and ponderous, and it was instead a thinly disguised redressing of the Star Trek episode “The Changeling.”

All jokes aside, I enjoy and have written for both universes, but I am, first and foremost, a Trek fan. While A New Hope will always be near and dear to me, I DO agree with your premise that The Motion Picture is a better movie. I adore it and consider it one of the best Trek films to date. The cast has never looked better, the music is brilliant, the Enterprise, Epsilon IX, Klingon battleship, and V’Ger designs are breathtaking, and there’s such a great human story being told beneath the endless special-effect shots and dialogue-free actor reaction shots. People may consider it The Motionless Picture, but I will always consider it wonderful.

Q: There’s been quite a buzz about the new Star Trek: Discovery. What are your thoughts on it?

RH: I’m very much looking forward to Discovery. Sure, the Klingons look bizarre and, sure, the Starfleet uniforms and technology don’t look like those from “The Cage” despite taking place only a year after that story, but I won’t mind either of those things if the story is there. Keep in mind that the Klingons looked very different from The Original Series to The Motion Picture, from The Motion Picture to The Search for Spock, from The Search for Spock to The Next Generation, from The Next Generation to The Undiscovered Country, and so forth. They have drastically changed repeatedly. At this point, you could paint an actor all in orange, give him six antennae, and replace his hair with pieces of melting cement, and it could be yet another version of a Klingon.

As for the technology, this is not at all a problem for me. Our own technology in the real world varies greatly from one application to another—just because the Enterprise looks one way doesn’t mean every ship has to. The same goes for the crew’s uniforms. I’m ecstatic about the show. Plus… hey, it’s new Star Trek, guys!

So many fans spend all their time complaining and being negative about anything that doesn’t exactly match what they see as Star Trek. It’s as though they have no idea what Trek’s core messages even are, which makes me wonder why they’re fans of the franchise to begin with. Discovery’s cast and writing team stellar, so I expect we’ll see some great things. I mean, seriously, consider some of the names involved in this series: Nicholas Meyer, Michelle Yeoh, Jason Isaacs, Sonequa Martin-Green, Rainn Wilson, James Frain, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp, Joe Menosky—and co-created by Bryan Fuller. That is a LOT of talent, right there. I, for one, am excited about it.

Q: What is the patented Rich Handley cure for writer’s block?

RH: Walking four miles a day outside while listening to music. If that doesn’t work… Sambuca! (It may not cure the writer’s block, but it’ll make you not care about having it.)

Q:  What music are you listening to these days?

RH:  For many years now, the majority of the music I’ve been listening to has comprised orchestral and movie soundtracks. I listen to music while I write and edit, and anything with lyrics is likely to distract me from the words on the screen. Listening to orchestral soundtracks—or to most classical music, really—doesn’t present that problem since there typically are not words. I’ll listen to anything by John Williams, James Horner, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, John Barry, Michael Giacchino, Jerry Goldsmith, Alan Silvestri, Vangelis, you name it.

Q:  Which three Jerry Goldsmith movie soundtracks do you recommend?

RH:  He’s done so many great soundtracks that it’s kind of like asking which three blades of grass from my lawn are my favorites (the three over near my back fence are particularly green). However, I absolutely love the soundtracks to The Omen, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Planet of the Apes. I know that the latter two answers seem a bit obvious, given my writing history, but they’re genuinely fantastic music.

Q: What are you most looking forward to seeing happen in Star Wars: The Last Jedi?

RH: Well, let me preface my answer to this question by noting that I liked The Force Awakens a lot, even though it was basically just A New Hope with different character names. But Kylo Ren is a weakly written character, Captain Phasma is practically a background extra, and Snoke is just a CGI’d Emperor Palpatine replacement. So what I’m most looking forward to seeing happen in The Last Jedi is the writers doing a better job of writing the villains. Make Kylo more interesting. Give Phasma something to do. And give us a reason to care who Snoke is. Adam Driver, Gwendoline Christie, and Andy Serkis are all fantastic actors, so let them be fantastic! I want The Last Jedi to be of the same high quality as Rogue One, with the caliber of villains one would find in a Tim Zahn novel.

The Star Wars prequels did something I never thought possible—they made Samuel L. Jackson boring and stiff, three films in a row. I’m still kind of floored about that. They had their moments, particularly Revenge of the Sith, but by and large, they were a bit disappointing to me. The Force Awakens was great fun, but Christie and Serkis had precious little to do, while Driver had a lot to do but most of it was silly. I want to see three-dimensional villains worthy of the Star Wars brand. These films are replacing the Expanded Universe, so why are the villains so less well developed than those offered by the EU—especially one like Kylo Ren, who is really just Jacen Solo with a new name?

But more than anything, I want to see lots and lots of Daisy Ridley. She blew me away in The Force Awakens. She was the best thing about that movie, hands down. I’d pay good money to watch Episode IX: Rey Speaks Lines and Does Things.

Q:  What would you have done differently with the Mace Windu character?

RH:  I would have given him better dialogue, for one thing. I love Star Wars and I consider George Lucas a master at creating universes, but let’s be honest: he has never had an ear for dialogue.

In Mace‘s case, the lines he speaks make him come off as stiff and mannequin-like. And it’s not just Mace Windu who suffers from this, either—it’s pretty much every character in the prequels, even the enjoyable ones. When the likes of Sam Jackson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Liam Neeson, Frank Oz, Brian Blessed, and Ian McDiarmid all take turns coming off as either dull, bored, or cartoonish, you know a script needs work, because all of them, when given the right material, can really deliver.

I also would have liked to see Mace better defined as a character. The prequels were nearly five hours long in total, yet what do we know about the leader of the Jedi? He sits in a tower. He has a purple lightsaber. He ignores others’ suggestions. He’s bald. And… um… well, that’s it, actually.

Q: What hasn’t really happened yet, in the science fiction genre, that you would love to see happen next?

RH: I don’t honestly know, but I hope it’s something truly original—something none of us would expect. So many science fiction films and TV shows these days are variations on a theme. A team of intrepid explorers/archaeologists/superheroes/scoundrels/whatever must stop an evil/misguided/possessed/whatever villain from stealing/destroying/killing/whatever something or someone, and thereby save the planet/galaxy/government/whatever.

Such stories can be great fun, don’t get me wrong. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was firmly in that mold, and I loved the hell out of it. But we’ve seen enough killer robots, ancient gods, power-hungry space dictators, and so forth trying to increase their hold on ultimate power. Where’s today’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? Where’s today’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (and I don’t mean a crappy remake, which we’ve already had)? Where’s today’s Metropolis? Where’s today’s Starman? Where’s today’s The Lathe of Heaven? Where’s today’s Enemy Mine (Star Trek homages notwithstanding)? We’ve had some great sci-fi stories in recent years—Children of Men, Her, The Martian, and Looper come to mind—but more often than not, the majority of stories these days fall into the “Oh, this is like [insert title here], with a bit of [insert title here] thrown in” category.

What I want to see is something whose ending I can’t predict after the first ten minutes. I want to be pulled in and made to think. I want to walk out of the theater saying, “I absolutely LOVED that. I’ve never seen anything like it before.” I want to see gamma rays, I want to hear X-rays, and I want to smell dark matter.

Q:  What is it about 2001: A Space Odyssey that still continues to impress us, all these years later?

RH:  It’s a compelling look at the nature of evolution, with technology serving as a metaphor and a mechanism for our growth as a species. Three times, mankind encounters an alien monolith, and each time it represents a huge leap forward for humanity: we learn how to use tools, we achieve space travel far into our solar system, and we (through Dave Bowman and HAL 9000) begin to become something more than human. We as an audience are asked to evolve along with mankind.

In the process, the film takes viewers on a hypnotic journey that is funny without being a comedy, intelligent without being preachy, and beautifully filmed without being about the effects. It’s a visual masterpiece, and although some might view it as too slowly paced, I find it exciting as hell. Why? The soundtrack. The calm yet creepy characterization of HAL. The kaleidoscopic insanity that is the ending. The fact that it gets so much right about science and space travel, as opposed to pretty much every other space-based film ever made. The song “Daisy.” It’s such an unusual, unique, and entirely enrapturing experience.

Q:  What do you think of this new Blade Runner film that’s coming in October?

RH:  I’m very much looking forward to Blade Runner 2049. Harrison Ford returning as Rick Deckard! Edward James Olmos returning as Gaff! Ryan Gosling, a superb actor, as his co-star! Plus, Dave Bautista, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Lennie James, Barkhad Abdi—that is an impressively talented lineup right there. The trailer looked fantastic. It was moody, pensive, creepy and inviting—in short, it came off like Blade Runner. I can only hope the full film fares as well, and that it won’t end up being viewed as a disappointing sequel to a classic and beloved movie, like so many others in recent years (Tron Legacy, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Prometheus, and so forth).

Q:  If you could own the Tyrell Corporation or the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, which would you choose and why?

RH:  Tyrell, definitely. Much like fez caps, artificial intelligence is cool.

Q: What are three qualities that a memorable science fiction novel should have?

RH: It should tackle ideas, rather than relying solely on plot or dazzling visuals. It should never underestimate its audience. But above all else, it should have characters I can care about. A plot can be well-written, set pieces can be beautiful, and casting can be spot-on, but if I don’t find myself drawn to the characters’ situations, if I don’t find myself invested in their plights, a story will fail to grab me. I’m sure that’s the same for many viewers and readers. For me, it’s all about the characters.

Q:  What have you read this year that you really enjoyed?

RH:  So far this year, all of my reading has been in the comic book realm, as a lot of my writing has been about comics for Eaglemoss,,, and other websites and publishers. At present, I’m re-reading the entire history of Swamp Thing and Hellblazer comics, going back to the very first issue in The House of Secrets #92, and I’m enjoying the heck out it. I’ve read and re-read these two series so many times over the years, and every time I do, I’m reminded of how much I love (most of) each run. I also re-read all 75 issues of Preacher a few months back, and it’s still one of my all-time favorite stories.

Q:  You mentioned Swamp Thing.  What is it about Alec Holland, that makes him the fascinating protagonist that he is?

RH:   To answer that question, I first have to amend it, as Swamp Thing is not actually Alec Holland. We’re told that he is in the beginning because that’s what the character himself thinks, but during Alan Moore’s run, we learn that this was never the case—Alec died and went to Heaven way back in issue #1, where he remained until eventually being reincarnated as a baby at the end of Mark Millar’s run. (I know he came back during the New 52 run, but I find that storyline far inferior to what came before.) The Swamp Thing was actually an earth elemental modeled on his template. That being said, I understand your meaning. We can call Swamp Thing “Alec” regardless of his true nature. The other characters all do, as does he.

Alec, despite making a few mistakes along the way (cheating on his wife Abby, for instance), is a good and honorable “man.” He cares deeply for those in his family and his circle of friends, and will go to any lengths—even journeying through Hell—to keep them safe. That makes him an admirable and relatable character, as does his determination to protect the planet from the ravages of mankind, demons, beasts, aliens and every other danger it faces.

But more than anything, what I find so fascinating about him is the journey he takes. From scientist in the swamps to depressed muck-encrusted mockery to lonely elemental to devoted family man to heartbroken sap to angry god bent on destroying the planet to enlightened soul to… well, the list goes on and on. Re-reading his adventures from Len Wein to Mark Millar (and, to a lesser extent, the writers who followed), one experiences mythology. Swamp Thing is an epic in the true sense of the word, and the title character is one of the comic world’s greatest creations.

Q: If you were leaving tomorrow, on a cruise to the Azores, and you could bring three books along with you for the voyage, which three books would accompany you?

RH: Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, because I’ve been meaning to re-read it for years but haven’t had the time; the collected works of William Shakespeare, because I’ve only ever read about half of his plays but have never been able to find the time to read the others; and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, because no matter how many times I re-read that, I love it even more. Interestingly, all of my choices are basically books I’ve already read. I wonder what that says about me?

Q: What’s scarier, dungeons or dragons?

RH: Dungeons. I know most people will probably say dragons, but hear me out. Death by dragon is likely to be pretty quick. You’re either chomped down or you’re burned to a crisp—or, if you’re lucky, you’re stepped on and you die before you can feel any pain. Either way, there’s very little suffering. You see the dragon, you defecate in your pants, you scream like Téa Leoni in Jurassic Park III or Newt from Aliens, you feel either intense heat or bone-crunching momentarily, and then it’s all over.

But dungeons? They SUCK. You could rot away slowly in them for years before dying. You’re surrounded by rats and bugs and snakes and who knows what else. You’re in near-darkness most of the time, other than when you’re taken away to be tortured by psychotic sadists. You sleep either on straw or on the ground, without a blanket or pillow. During the winter, you’re very likely to get pneumonia. You slowly starve to death and never shower—and you spend every minute of every day living in terror that someone will come in and either beat you mercilessly or else kill you outright.

Life in a dungeon becomes nothing but complete and utter despair. At least with dragons, there’s always the chance that you’ll get to meet Daenerys Targaryen.

Q:  If you could ask Daenerys Targaryen one question, about anything at all, what would you ask her?

RH:  Hmmm… good question! I’m tempted to say I’d ask her to marry me, but that would be too obvious a joke, not to mention an insult to my wonderful wife. So instead, I’d ask her why she, above all others, is the most qualified to rule Westeros—not just why she’s entitled to do so by virtue of bloodline, but why she’s the most qualified. Daenerys is presented as an intelligent and (mostly) fair-minded individual, so I’d be interested in hearing her justifications for taking the throne, other than “We will take back what was stolen from me and destroy those who wronged me.”

Why should the masses accept her as their ruler? Being gorgeous will get you far in that world, being born a Targaryen will get you power, and having three dragons at your side will scare the crap out of everyone. But why should those qualities be enough for the masses who have suffered under one tyranny after another? Is she fit to rule over everyone? I’d like to hear her answer to that question. I doubt I ever will, though.

Q:  Based on what you know of Daenerys, do you believe that she is fit to rule over Westeros?

RH:  Absolutely. Unlike most of the others vying for the throne, her desire for power is not entirely selfish. Yeah, there’s some selfishness there. She is, after all, a character in Game of Thrones, and almost every single character in that series is selfish to some extent, with very few exceptions. She also has a decidedly cruel and vicious streak—which, again, is because she’s a character in Game of Thrones. But unlike the rest (with the exception of Jon Snow,) she has the good of the many in mind. She wants people to be free. She wants to unite everyone and end the suffering of the masses. She commands respect and has an uncanny ability to get people to join as allies instead of killing each other as enemies, which means she actually has the ability to make it happen. And she has dragons, which makes her cool—because dragons, like fez caps and artificial intelligence, are cool.

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About Rich Handley

Rich Handley is the author or co-author of Watching Time: The Watchmen Chronology, Timeline of the Planet of the Apes, From Aldo to Zira: Lexicon of the Planet of the Apes, Back in Time: The Back to the Future Chronology, and A Matter of Time: The Back to the Future Lexicon. Rich has co-edited Titan Books’ short fiction anthology Planet of the Apes: Tales from the Forbidden Zone, as well as five Sequart essay anthologies about the Planet of the Apes and Star Wars franchises. He has contributed to all five of IDW’s Star Trek and Star Wars comic-strip reprint books; BOOM! Studios’ four-book Planet of the Apes Archive series; Sequart’s New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics and The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe; ATB Publishing’s Outside In Boldly Goes and Outside In Makes It So; and Eaglemoss’s Star Trek: The Graphic Novel Collection. In addition, Rich has penned numerous works for Lucasfilm’s Star Wars universe, and has written for many magazines and websites. Currently, he is the managing editor of RFID Journal magazine, the editor of Hasslein Books, and a frequent writer for and Rich appeared in the Back to the Future film documentary Back in Time, and will soon be featured as an expert on the Blu-ray release of War for the Planet of the Apes. At present, he is co-editing a pair of books for Sequart about the Battlestar Galactica franchise.


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