Star Trek Saturdays #39

It’s time for…Star Trek Saturdays #39!

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This week’s episode is “The Changeling,” which puts Kirk in an interesting position and tests his command, while giving us a much better “menace aboard the story” than, say, “The Man Trap.”

We open with the Enterprise en route to the Malurian star system, responding to a distress signal. Uhura, however, has received no response to her hails on any frequency, even a special wavelength to a transmitter operated by a Federation science team that Kirk reminds her of. Spock’s sensor data reports the unfathomable: although there should be over four million Malurians in the system, there’s no trace of any life whatsoever. Kirk and Spock postulate what could have caused such a genocide, when a large, green bolt of energy comes out of nowhere and abruptly attacks the Enterprise, knocking everyone on the bridge down to the floor.

The ship remains intact thanks to its shields, which Scotty reports are down by 20% and can only survive three more attacks like that. The ship eventually loses its shields to the repeated attacks; they attempt to launch a photon torpedo at the small object emitting the energy, but the torpedo is quickly absorbed. Desperate, Kirk orders Uhura to hail the small object. She does, with Kirk sending a message, and the object responds in an unintelligible pattern that Spock eventually recognizes as very old binary code. The Enterprise‘s science team eventually translates the code, and the object eventually identifies itself as Nomad, saying its mission is non-hostile.

With sensors reporting that Nomad is only a little over a meter tall, Kirk orders it beamed aboard. Scotty protests, but Kirk says it’s better that they can monitor Nomad at close range, rather than have it attack them. He, Spock and McCoy meet it in the transporter room.

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Nomad (voiced by Vic Perrin) addresses Kirk as “Creator” and every other member of the crew as a “biological unit” belonging to the “Creator.” Left to its own devices, Nomad hears Uhura singing on an open channel. Curious, it goes to the bridge and asks Uhura as to what purpose singing serves. When she can’t come up with an answer it deems satisfactory, it extends a probe and emits a weird ray of light around her head, wiping her memory.

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Enraged, Scotty rushes towards Nomad, but it fires a laser at him just as Kirk, Spock and McCoy arrive at the bridge. Scotty is thrown back against a bulkhead and, as McCoy grimly reports, “He’s dead, Jim.”

Furious, Kirk shouts at Nomad, asking it why it would do such a thing, as Uhura and Scotty’s body are carried off to sickbay. Nomad responds that it was only protecting itself, that Uhura was imperfect, and offers to restore Scotty to life, which it does after being fed information on human anatomy and Scotty in particular. Still angry, Kirk and Spock research Nomad in the ship’s historical archives, learning that Nomad is actually an historical Earth probe sent out to discover interstellar life in, according to Memory Alpha, 2002. However, contact was lost when Nomad got caught in a meteor shower, and it was believed to be destroyed. It’s also learned that Nomad was also created by one Dr. Jackson Roykirk; Spock postulates that, with its memory banks damaged as a result of the meteor shower, Nomad believes Kirk to be Roykirk.

Putting Nomad in a holding area guarded by security personnel, Spock, despite the danger, mind melds with Nomad, although the process overwhelms him and Kirk has to force Nomad to disconnect the mind-meld. Spock, exhausted, informs Kirk that after being caught in the meteor shower, Nomad, heavily damaged, came into contact with an alien probe named Tan Ru, which was sent out by an alien civilization to collect and sterilize soil samples from other planets (as prelude to conquest). The two probes repaired and merged with one another, with the memory-impaired Nomad now believing its mission is to seek out new lifeforms and correct all that is imperfect by sterilizing it.

Unfortunately, the mind meld and a slip of the tongue from Kirk makes Nomad realize that its creator is an “imperfect biological unit” and, by its parameters, must be eradicated. It decides to commandeer the ship. Can Kirk and Spock stop it in time…?

This episode is the closest we’ve had to a bottle episode, taking place entirely onboard the ship. Although the notion of a monster stalking the ship is something we’ve seen on Trek before, Nomad is easily the best villain that this sort of story has had yet.

Credit for this goes to John Meredyth Lucas’s script, which gives every spotlighted crew member a bone to pick with Nomad and makes the probe a formidable adversary. In particular, the final gambit Kirk undertakes–which plays out like a Batman Gambit— against Nomad is breathtaking in its audacity and highlights just how heroic the captain is.

Having to work largely with pre-existing sets, Marc Daniels turns in some remarkable work, exploring every facet of the ship and making it feel like a real, breathing space. He also gives what happens to Scotty and Uhura some real heft, rather than just random incidents.

The cast is what sells it, though. In particular, Vic Perrin–returning after having previously voiced the Metron in “Arena”–is a standout as the voice of Nomad. Although this film was a year away when this episode aired, I saw bits of HAL 9000 in his performance, as a being governed by logic going to horrifying extremes to stick by it. William Shatner is dynamite as Kirk, showing the wily captain at the very height of his cunning. Nichelle Nichols actually gets something to do as Uhura, for a change; the naivete with which she has to imbue the memory-wiped Uhura is marvelously done, even if Uhura’s ultimate fate is kinda glossed over. Jim Doohan gives Scotty some great heroic feeling, and it’s not hard to see, watching his selflessness towards Uhura here, why, in the ’80s, it was decided to flesh out the relationship between Scotty and Uhura more.

Despite no alien threats, this is still a great episode because it pits the crew up against something they can’t even begin to understand. Check it out.

Thanks to Memory Alpha, the official Star Trek wiki for the pics and episode information, as well as Amazon Instant for hosting the show. We’ll see you next time and until then, live long and prosper.

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The Boonducks–“Pretty Boy Flizzy” (Review)

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The Boondocks is one of my favorite television series of all time. That might sound odd, since, as you’ll notice from the picture on my about page, I am one of the whitest people you’ll ever see, but I love the show (and I’ve come to appreciate its comic strip parent in a way I couldn’t when I was younger) and I actually legitimately think it’s one of the greatest animated series of all time.

The show–which originally ran for three seasons from 2005-2010 and came back for its fourth and final season this past Monday–not only broke ground, both for Adult Swim and adult animation in general, it also helped me overcome an ignorant dismissal of hip-hop culture (the show’s music use pretty much informed the way my personal taste has shifted since I first discovered it in ’09) and provoked me into being more thoughtful when it comes to issues of race and politics ( as silly as that might seem).

So, as you can imagine, I was excited for the show to come back, although I paused when I learned that show creator Aaron McGruder wouldn’t be coming back due to production conflicts with his upcoming live-action series, Black Jesus. Given that McGruder wrote or co-wrote every single script and the series was undoubtedly his vision, I wondered how such an original show would do with others at the helm.

Well, if the first episode, “Pretty Boy Flizzy,” is any indication, it’s survived the transition pretty damn well and hopefully, we’ll get some great satire out of this that’s just as insightful as anything McGruder produced.

The plot has the Freemans’ neighbor, successful milquetoast lawyer Tom DuBois (Cedric Yarborugh) and his white wife Sarah (Jill Talley) fighting over his complete wimpishness once again, with Sarah yelling that she wants a man who “isn’t afraid to tell me what to do every once in a while.” Bit skeevy, that, but it gets us to our main plot, which involves Pretty Boy Flizzy, voiced by none other than up-and-coming actor and future Human Torch Michael B. Jordan, a Chris Brown-esque…okay, he’s basically Chris Brown, already equally loathed-and-beloved for actions like beating his ex-girlfriend on stage at the Grammys and getting into a fight with Nicki Minaj at a dance club (“In my defense,” he says in a great press conference cutaway, “I thought she was a robot sent from the future to kill me.”), rolling into town and being arrested after robbing a convenience store. Bailed out instantly, he hires Tom to defend him, and along the way, promises to teach him how to man up and win Sarah back.

Phil Dyess-Nugent over at the AV Club talked about how it’s problematic that Adult Swim chose to air this episode first over one that features the Freemans, the show’s main characters, although Granddad (John Witherspoon), and Huey & Riley (both voiced by Regina King) show up and have some good lines here and there–King’s interplay with herself is as great as ever–and the show’s best comic weapon, Uncle Ruckus (Gary Anthony Williams) gets a great scene. But as a nice new adventure for people who have been following the show from the beginning, came in late like me, or discovered the show since its last season in its constant reruns on Adult Swim (the pairing of it and Black Dynamite before the revived Saturday Toonami block was a part of my weekend for a long while), this works fine enough. And yeah, it might be a bit dated to be making fun of Chris Brown at this point, but Jordan aptly acquits himself and seems to relish the absurd extremes he has to go through as Flizzy. And as the alternately annoying yet endearingly sympathetic Tom, Yarbrough is as great as he’s ever been; Tom’s been gone too long from TV and it’s great to have him back. The show’s animation, done here by The Legend of Korra‘s Studio Mir, is crisp and fluid, though not as great as Season 3’s Madhouse-produced visuals.

So while I can see why some people were disappointed, to this longtime fan, it’s good to have the show back. It may not be as sharp as it once was, but if this is to truly be the last of this great show we’ll see, it could be a whole lot worse. Make no mistake; this won’t be a “gas leak” year like the 4th season of Community (which isn’t as bad as everyone says, dangit). The Boondocks is back, and it’s still itself; maybe for now, that’s enough.

The Raid 2 (Review)

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So I’m not terribly familiar with martial arts films. This is mostly because unlike in the ’70s, the genre is largely underground today, and the ’90s glut of Hong Kong action/martial arts films has ended for the most part. Of course, that doesn’t mean these films have stopped being made: Netflix and Amazon Prime both have an excellent selection, and you can find all sorts of stuff on DVDs for pretty cheap. But new stuff largely doesn’t get released in theaters in America, much less multiplexes.

The Raid 2 is, of course, the exception to the rule, as was its predecessor, 2012’s The Raid: Redemption, a heavily violent film set almost entirely in one Jakarta apartment complex involving mostly one lone police officer fighting against hundreds upon hundreds of dudes, all while using the same ancient Indonesian martial art, pencak silat.

Set literally hours after the events of the first film, The Raid 2 opens with that police officer, Rama (Iko Uwais), in a safe house, where Bunawar (Cok Simbara), a fellow cop, invites him to infiltrate the Jakarta mob headed by Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo) in order to weed out corrupt cops. Committed to justice despite how it will involve him being separated from his wife and kid, Rama agrees. Bunawar then promptly arrests him and ships him to prison under the false identity of small-time criminal Yuda in order to build trust with Bangun’s only son, Uco (Arifin Putra), who’s currently locked up himself.

While in prison, Rama/Yuda saves Uco’s life during a huge prison fight in the rain ( the first of the film’s elongated, masterful fight sequences). Grateful, upon his release, Uco arranges for Yuda to become a foot soldier and part of his collecting team in his father’s organization. But as Rama goes deeper and deeper, he finds a whole lot more than the crooked cops he initially thought he was dealing with.

By virtue of being a tale of undercover cops and mob intrigue, The Raid 2 has a rather complicated story; I had to look up the film the next day after I saw it on Friday to make sure I remembered everything correctly. Course, the fact that I had had two beers before going to see a 2 1/2-hour movie at 11:30 at night probably didn’t help me make sense of it.

But regardless, this is definitely the best martial arts film I’ve ever seen, and also hands down, one of the most violent films I’ve seen period. Probably the most violent. Pencak silat is all hand-to-hand combat and that’s what writer/director Gareth Evans gives us here and it is absolutely brutal. I mean, we’re talking legs getting crushed, jaws getting broken and limbs being popped left and right.

And that’s without even mentioning the colorful assassins that pop up in this movie. There’s Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle), a deaf woman so called because she wails on people with two claw hammers that she wields like sais. There’s also her brother, Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yullsman), who uses what you’d expect he would as a weapon–an aluminum baseball bat–and also actual baseballs. There’s a lengthy scene cutting between Hammer Girl taking a train car full of guys out and Baseball Bat Man railing on a couple of dudes that’s so involved and nuts, you won’t believe it.

Of course, credit for all these well-shot, staged and choreographed fight scenes goes to writer/director/co-editor Evans, who is a master. True, there’s probably some discomfort to be found in the fact that Evans, a Welshman, is making these Indonesian movies, but I’m not the one to state it. The point is that Evans is remarkable on all fronts, and this is the first time I can recall seeing action that looked so unique and just…different. Also, everything is clear, visible and perfectly captured and stated. Evans is one for the ages.

His cast is pretty great too. Uwais, a martial arts instructor before Evans cast him in his first film Merantau, gives a natural, soulful performance and he brings heart to the undercover cop in a way no one has since Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs. Putra plays Uco as the power-hungry brat, and he’s excellent; there’s a scene where he nearly beats up a call girl he’s hired and berates her that is just horrifying and mesmerizing at the same time. Pakusadewo is also impressive as the rock-steady Bangun, who acts as a nice, hefty anchor to all the chaos that comes to swirl around him.

If this is playing near you, seek it out. It’s a great time. As for me, I’m going to try and hunt down the first Raid, if I can, then hit up the Martial Arts section on Netflix and see what I can find.

 

Tiger & Bunny Volume 1–Review

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I haven’t talked about it a lot on here, but one of my favorite animes is the 2011 superhero series Tiger & Bunny. Running 25 episodes and 2 movies (the first a recap of the first 2 episodes with a brand-new third act, the second a brand-new story set a few months after the events of the series), it became a HUGE hit in Japan and did pretty well over here, being the first show on Viz Media’s Neon Alley channel and attracting a lot of buzz for its incredibly well-done dub that only helped reinforce the fact that this show is essentially a tribute to, and compression of, the entire history of superhero comics.

Like any big anime series, the show also got a manga adaptation–a couple actually. But Viz, the series’ North American distributor, has only translated and released the 2 Comic Anthologies–a series of one-shot comedy stories written and drawn by a variety of mangaka (manga artists) that are very much worthwhile for fans–and the official ongoing manga adaptation, written by series writer Masafumi Nishida and adapted by Mizuki Sakakibara, one of the series’ key animators.  In a wave of fannish enthusiasm after seeing the recent tie-in movie, The Rising (which I enjoyed, but I’ll say more about when it hits DVD), I ordered the first two volumes and finished the first one, so let’s get to it!

The story, for those of you unaware of the series (which can be found on Hulu for free), is that this is a world where people with superpowers due to gentic mutations, codenamed NEXTs, began appearing 45 years ago. In the coastal metropolis of Stern Bild, some NEXTs use their powers as superheroes to fight crime.  But they take things a little differently, with the heroes themselves being sponsored by a bunch of corporations,  giant megaconglomerate Apollon Media filming their exploits live and broadcasting it as “HERO TV,” awarding points for each capture and arrest and, at the end of the “season,” awarding the victor the title of “King of Heroes.”

This volume–and the first 2 episodes of the anime itself–start with Kotetsu Kaburagi, alias Wild Tiger (the guy up there), a veteran hero who’s seen by and large as past his prime. With his power of increasing all his physical abilities by a hundred for 5 minutes every hour (known as “Hundred Power”), Wild Tiger’s earned a reputation for not only being dedicated to protecting and saving people no matter what but also flagrantly tearing up property to chase down bad guys (his nickname is the “Crusher for Justice”). When a chase of some bank robbers ends with a destroyed monorail and blimp, his sponsor, facing yet another costly damages bill, collapses and gets absorbed into Apollon Media.

Tiger is then reassigned by his new bosses to be a part of the first hero team ever, forcibly teamed up with Barnaby Brooks Jr., a new hero handpicked by Apollon’s owner, Albert Maverick, who has the same power set as Kotetsu’s and, to the company and show’s delight, more focused on catching suspects and looking good for the cameras than directly saving people. Tiger, a pretty stubborn guy, doesn’t get along well with Barnaby’s vaguely vain cockiness, derisively referring to him as Bunny both as a play on his name and as a riff on that’s what his costume kinda looks like.

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The manga is mostly true to the spirit of the original episodes, introducing all the supporting characters and fleshing out the world in economic details befitting a good first issue of an ongoing American comic, but it changes tactics a bit. In the anime, Kotetsu was the main character and the ostensible audience point-of-view; here, it’s Barnaby that gets the spotlight, with scenes from the show shown from his perspective and new scenes added showing what he was up to. It’s an interesting tactic that not only makes the material fresher, but also gives a better glimpse into a character who ultimately came off as underwritten and bland in the original source material.

This feels very much of a piece with the show, and that’s entirely due to the creative team. Sakakibara’s art is on model and very clear the entire time, the translation is nicely done, and the pacing takes into account the considerations of a comics format while not forgoing the way the original series carried itself.

This is a nice little world to get into, and I’d gladly recommend this volume, but you might feel a little short-shrifted if you haven’t watched the show first. Not to say that the manga doesn’t stand on its own–it does–but it does appeal to fans first and foremost and if you’re not familiar with them, the supporting characters, like the other heroes, might seem a little superfluous. That aside, this is a great franchise and this manga is an excellent way to get into it! Check it out.

Gene Luen Yang

Hey everybody, in a matter of hours, as part of the kickoff for my school’s Festival of Faith and Writing, I’m going to co-facilitate an open discussion with legendary graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang! I’m beyond excited and cannot wait.

If you don’t know anything about Mr. Yang and his quite impressive body of work, here is a piece I wrote about him for a class ezine profiling Festival writers. This is easily the most work I ever put into a profile yet and I hope you like it.

Gene Luen Yang.

Star Trek Saturdays #38

It’s time for Star Trek Saturdays #38!

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This week’s episode is “Wolf in the Fold” and it’s an intriguing murder mystery that sweeps these characters up in its grand sense of intrigue.

We open with Kirk, McCoy and Scotty in a cafe on the planet Argelius II, watching a belly dancer perform. We learn through dialogue that they’re there because Scotty is on medically mandated shore leave after a female crew member’s error caused a bulkhead explosion that dealt Scotty a severe blow to the head. McCoy believes that Argelius II, with its hedonistic and extremely sexually permissive culture, will help cure Scotty of his “total resentment towards women.”

The belly dancer, Kara (Tania Lemani), finishes her performance and comes over to their table, per Kirk’s invitation and to Scotty’s enthusiastic delight. Waxing poetic about the rolling fog over the moors of Scotland, Scotty invites Kara for a walk and she accepts.

Kirk and McCoy, feeling like the world’s best wingmen, head over to another club with similarly attractive women, but out in the street, they hear Kara scream. They rush towards the noise, finding her murdered and, a little farther away, Scotty, standing back against a wall in a haze, holding a bloody knife.

Scotty is interrogated by the city’s chief administrator, Mr. Hengist (John Fiedler). Scotty confesses that he can’t remember anything beyond  him and Kara in the fog, with him up ahead trying to lead the way, when suddenly he heard her screaming. Kirk angrily badgers Scott to remember, and McCoy tells him to back off, considering the emotional trauma Scotty’s going through.

However, Kirk testily informs McCoy that he’s facing a diplomatic crisis. The crime, he points out, happened under Argelian jurisdiction. If the Argelians want to place him under arrest, try, and convict him of murder, Kirk, by diplomatic laws, has to go along with it.

Notably, Hengist is not an Argelian. Rather, he’s from Rigel IV. He works here because, as he says to the others, the Argelians are so peaceful and pleasure-focused that they’re not up to the task of bureaucratic administration, hence their hiring of outsiders for these purposes.

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Hengist points out that Scotty’s fingerprints are all over the murder weapon. Kirk counters that there were many other people in the cafe; Hengist replies that they’re looking for these people to try and question them. Kirk asks what the law in this case is, and the Argelian prefect Jaris (Charles Macauley) and his wife Sybo (Pilar Seurat) enter and tell Kirk that the law is love.

What that means, Jaris tells them, is that they can ascertain the truth through conducting an Argelian empathic contact that Sybo can intiate, a sort of seance. Despite Hengist’s objections, as Jaris is the ultimate authority, they defer to him. While Sybo gets things ready for the contact, Kirk orders Spock (who is in command on the ship) to send down a medical technician to conduct a psychotricorder examination on Scotty, which will enable them to see the last 24 hours of Scotty’s memory.

Lieutenant Karen Tracy (Virginia Alridge) beams down, and takes Scotty to a room downstairs to begin the examination. Sybo, having prepared for the ceremony, comes back to ask for the murder weapon, as she can get psychic impressions from inanimate objects. They look around and notice the knife is missing, just as a scream emerges from downstairs. They rush down and find Lt. Tracy dead, having been repeatedly stabbed to death, and Scotty unconscious, holding the bloody knife in his hands.

Once Scotty comes around, he says that all he remembers is Lt. Tracy taking the readings and then nothing else after that. Hengist returns with two men who were in the cafe: Tark (), Kara’s father and the musician who she’d performed with since she was a child, and Morla (), her fiance. Tark accuses Morla of jealous, angry behavior and Morla admits to it, saying he went home out of anger. Kirk points out that jealousy has often been a motive for murder, but Hengist points out that it was Scotty found holding the murder weapon.

Sybo ushers the others in and prepares to begin the empathic contact ceremony, with Kirk ordering the room sealed so no one can get out or in. Scotty is upset about risking his neck over some “spooky mumbo jumbo,” while Spock contacts Kirk and insists that Scott be brought back to the Enterprise so their computers can cross-examine him. Kirk shoots them both down, saying that they have to abide by Argelian law because while they’re on the planet, they are subject to the law.

The ceremony begins and Sybo closes her eyes. Immediately, she begins sensing a sinister presence, stating it is a monstrous terrible evil, hater of all things, hater of women, and repeatedly chants the word Redjac. Suddenly, the room plunges into darkness and Sybo screams in agony. Light is restored and the group sees Scotty and Sybo standing up, with a knife in Sybo’s back and blood on Scotty’s hand.

Is Scotty really guilty of murder? If so, then why? If not, who is framing him? And who, or what, is Redjac?

This is a fantastic little mystery of an episode, and it all comes down to Robert Bloch’s script. It’s  a lean thing, which deftly blends penny-dreadful horror with alien intrigue. On top of that, you have some interesting characters who get shaded out as the story progresses, with some serving as red herrings as to the identity of the true murderer.

Joseph Pevney once again returns to direct, and like every other time, he’s stellar. Using the confined sets to his advantage, he manages to make things seem shadowy and sinister. He also uses suspenseful camera angles to get the most paranoia out of his cast and setting. Stellar stuff.

The cast is great as usual and James Doohan gets some wonderful notes to play Scotty; the fear and desperation is present in him throughout. Of the guest stars, it’s Fiedler that surprises the most. Best known for being the original voice of Piglet in Disney’s Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons as well as the meek 2nd juror in the 1957 Sidney Lumet version of 12 Angry Men, he’s usually a milquetoast, but here, he’s remarkably assertive and straightforward as Hergist, and gets some cool notes to play as the story progresses.

This is a really fun, tense episode that stands right up there with any other crime drama of its era or since. Check it out.

Thanks to Memory Alpha, the official Star Trek wiki for the pics and episode information, as well as Amazon Instant for hosting the show. We’ll see you next time and until then, live long and prosper.

 

Farewell David Letterman

So out of nowhere yesterday, David Letterman announced yesterday that, after over 3 decades as a late night host, he’ll be retiring next year.

Honestly, I wasn’t really too shaken by this announcement. Letterman is nearly 67 after all, and this has probably been on his mind for a while now. Furthermore, he has a young son, and he probably wants to spend more time with him.

And of course, I should mention that I’ve never been a Letterman fan. I just haven’t. I mean, the Top 10 lists tend to be mildly funny, but I think the reason he’s held in such high esteem is that, when he was doing his original crazy stuff on NBC in the ’80s–stuff that no one had ever done, like jump into a giant glass of water containing a suit covered in Alka-Seltzer–people were watching and that’s kept him afloat ever since.

So while I recognize Letterman’s legacy and contributions to TV history, I’m not that sorry to see him go. Naturally, attention has already turned to his replacement and, while the general talk seems to be that Stephen Colbert, no doubt eager to escape his fictional persona after the stupid “#cancelColbert” fiasco from last week, is the top contender. That’d be nice, but personally, I want to see Craig Ferguson keep doing the weird stuff he does on The Late Late Show and bring it to a wider audience, robot skeleton sidekick and all.

So, if you want to know more about Letterman’s legacy, this New York Times write-up by expert late-night reporter Bill Carter is a great piece to do that. Me? Well, I wish Mr. Letterman godspeed and I look forward to 2015!