Sunday, 1 March 2015

He Am Spock

Leonard Nimoy died just a few days ago. His loss is felt keenly by so many of us. Through Star Trek, he reached millions as the wise, complex character of Spock. In what could easily have been, under a less talented actor, a monotone, robotic performance, Nimoy took the wellworn character of the emotionless alien and made him into a charismatic, compassionate and witty character, and, in time, an icon. Half-human, half-Vulcan, Spock spent much of his time in the Star Trek series attempting to better himself as a Vulcan, to live his life by logic and rationality, and to bury his emotions and his human side. Over time, his understanding and acceptance of humanity improved, as his friendship with his shipmates grew. Nimoy's ownership of the role can be evidenced by the fact that he created two of the concepts that everyone recognises as Vulcan: the V-shaped Vulcan salute and the legendary Vulcan nerve pinch. As Spock, Nimoy was part of the triumvirate that made Star Trek the beloved series it remains today, along with DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy and William Shatner as Captain Kirk. Sadly, of these three, only Shatner remains.

He was the only actor to have appeared in every episode of the original Star Trek series and its animated spin-off; Shatner came close, of course, but did not appear in the original pilot episode “The Cage” or the animated episode “The Slaver Weapon.” Early plans for the sequel series, known as both Star Trek II and Star Trek: Phase II, were altered to feature a new Vulcan character named Xon after Nimoy declined to return. However, once these plans advanced to becoming feature film productions, Nimoy signed up again, not only appearing as Spock in the first six Star Trek movies, but assisting with the writing of four of them, and directing both Star Trek III and Star Trek IV. In the course of these films, Spock went from contemplating the complete purging of his emotions, to fully accepting his human side and the strength it gave him. He gave his life for his friends, returned from the dead and continued his adventures in Starfleet. This wasn't the limit of his time in the role, of course; he also appeared in two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, now in the role of ambassador, and in both of the most recent movies, playing the aged “Spock Prime” opposite Zachary Quinto as his alternative, younger counterpart. Plus, there were the interviews, the convention appearances, the audio productions and voiceovers for computer games, including the 2009 launch of Star Trek Online.

His relationship with the character was strained for some years, with the career defining role coming to overshadow much of his other work. Nimoy was an accomplished director, musician and poet, yet was, and always will be, best remembered for his time as Spock. The first volume of his autobiography, published in 1977 during the period in which he was distancing himself from the series, was entitled I am Not Spock, a clear indication of his feelings on the situation. By 1995, after the success of the Star Trek movies, his attitudes had changed, and he wrote I am Spock, in part to undo the damage he felt he had caused with his first book, which many considered made him sound bitter about the character that given him such success. For me, and so many others, Leonard Nimoy will forever be Spock, and while I will always enjoy and admire his roles on series such as The Outer Limits and films including Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, and his late career roles and send-up appearances (such as his wonderful guest slots on The Simpsons and Futurama), it is for his time on Star Trek that I will best remember him for.

What follows is a rundown of my top ten moments for Leonard Nimoy as Spock. There was so much more to the man, of course. Visit iReckon for E.G. Wolverson's top picks for Not Spock.

10) “Return to Tomorrow” - Spock is possessed by Henoch

A rare opportunity for Nimoy to play a different character in Star Trek, as Spock's body is used by the mind one of the last three survivors of a dead planet. Henoch is charming, sexual and manipulative, and Nimoy plays the villain with aplomb.

9) “The Enemy Within” - Spock subdues Kirk

A classic episode, which sees Kirk split into two beings by a transporter malfunction: one timid and weak, one strong but vicious. Faced with the wild Kirk, Spock is forced to disable him. Though the script called for Spock to pistol whip his captain into insensibility, Nimoy objected, considering this too violent for Spock. He came up with an alternative, and the Vulcan nerve pinch was born.

8) Star Trek: The Motion Picture – Spock recovers his emotions

The first Star Trek movie sees Spock on a journey from his coldest ever persona to finally accepting his human side. He begins the film on Vulcan, coming close to fulfilling the ceremony that will finally purge him of all emotion, only to sense the call of V'Ger, the powerful space intelligence, which stirs his human side. Returning to the Enterprise and his friends, he remains utterly passionless – until communion with V'Ger causes him to realise what they both are missing. Cold knowledge and logic are nothing without emotion. As Spock finally come to terms with his own nature, so Nimoy returns to the role he had sought to leave behind, and embraces it.

7) “Mirror, Mirror” - Parallel Spock

An episode that has pervaded into popular consciousness, “Mirror, Mirror” utilises and defines a classic sci-fi trope: the parallel universe. Kirk, Scott,y, Bones and Uhura are cast into an alternative world in which they serve on the Imperial Starship Enterprise, where the counterparts of their crewmates are brutal, selfish and cruel. Then there's the Mirror Spock, complete with goatee beard. Spock always had a touch of the devil in his looks, and never more so than here. The alter ego with an “evil beard” has become a shorthand in sci-fi, fantasy and comedy, but both the script and Nimoy's performance are far subtler than that, for Mirror Spock is not an evil man, but as coldly pragmatic and logical as his counterpart in the regular, more peaceful universe.

6) Star Trek (2009) – The meeting of the Spocks

Nimoy's involvement in the reboot could have been little more than a cameo and some handy exposition, but what we got was the welcome return of an old friend. His earlier scenes, in which he helps his friends-to-be Kirk and Scotty onto the right path work well, but it's his final meeting with his own, younger self that sticks in the mind most. The contrast between the earlier Spock – repressed, superior, yet na├»ve – and his older self – wise, content and comfortable with his human side – is fascinating.

5) “This Side of Paradise” - Spock and Leila

A wonderful exploration of Spock's past and the human side he keeps buried. On the planet Omicron he is reunited with Leila Kolomi, a woman from his past who is very much in love with him. Spores released by plants on Omicron give humans a blissful high, and remove Spock's blocks on his emotions, allowing him to love Leila back. Nimoy plays Spock in a completely different way to normal, yet entirely recognisable as the same character. The final moments between Leila and Spock are tragic; Nimoy plays his recovered state with a deep, suppressed sadness that is hugely affecting to watch.

4) “The Galileo Seven” - Spock learns how to command

This episode is all about Spock. Told largely from his point of view, Spock is dropped into command when his shuttle is downed on an uncharted planetoid. With aggressive natives outside, a frightened and alienated team inside, and a rapidly closing window for rescue, Spock tries every logical course open until he finally acts in desperation. It's a great example of Nimoy's ability to make Spock both entirely alien yet wholly relatable.

3) “The Naked Time” - Spock struggles with his emotions

A very well-remembered episode, which sees the crew of the Enterprise driven into a state of hyper-emotional intoxication by a mysterious infectious agent. While the crew go to pieces around him, Spock struggles to maintain his own control. Nimoy puts in a wonderfully subtle performance, simultaneously portraying Spock's desperate attempt to hold himself together, and his previously unspoken desire to allow his emotions free reign like his crewmates.

2) “Amok Time” - The onset of pon farr

Another episode all about Spock, in which we learn more about Vulcan life and culture than in any other story. His biology driving him to mate, Spock loses his self control, becoming violent and unpredictable. Some of Nimoy's best scenes involve Spock's struggle to maintain his rationality as his emotions threaten to erupt. This episode is the ultimate expression of that side of Spock's character, only this time it isn't his human half that threatens his composure – it's pure Vulcan drive. Nimoy goes through every powerful emotion in this episode: shame, lust, rage, grief and joy.

1) Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – Spock's sacrifice

Arguably the best of the Star Trek films, The Wrath of Khan is very much Kirk's story. However, Kirk story is incomplete without Spock (one of the reasons why Star Trek Generations, the first of the films not to feature Spock, doesn't quite work). While Spock has some fine interplay with McCoy, and an interesting relationship with his Vulcan protege, Kirstie Alley's Saavik. It is, however, the scenes between Kirk and Spock where the film has its emotional heart, and no more so than in those final, heart-wrenching moments. Khan is dead, but he's taken the Enterprise with him. The engine core is about to blow, unless someone goes into the lethally irradiated chamber and shuts it down. The final devastating moments between Kirk and Spock, separated by a transparent panel, as Spock, blinded and dying, gives his final words to his friend. A justifiably beloved scene by Trekkies and cinema goers alike, it was, at one point, intended to be the final death of Spock, and while his popularity meant a return for the character was decided upon before the film was even completed, it would have stood as a perfect send-off for the character. Brave, emotional yet perfectly logical, Spock sacrifices himself for his crew, and his friends. It's going to be a very difficult scene to watch from now on.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Comics Round-Up: February part two

A quick rundown of the rest of this month's purchases.

Ms. Marvel #12 (Marvel)

A genuinely lovely Valentine's issue, a one-off, straightforward story in which Loki crashes Kamala's school dance. It's simply very sweet, funny and beautifully, simply told by G. Willow Wilson, perfectly complimented by Elmo Bondoc's mellow art style. With all these gigantic comic events going on, in particular in Marvel, which will shortly reboot so none of it really matters anyway, it's a pleasure to read a self-contained, low stakes and intimate story like this.

Multiversity: Mastermen (DC)

On the subject of big events, this is dragging a little now. While the conceit of a different comic and a different story each month worked well to begin with, last month's Multiversity Guidebook upped the ante, so to drop back to another (mostly) self-contained story seems retrograde. In a series like this, the odd misfire doesn't matter so much, since we'll be off to another reality next time. However, the Nazi-ruled world of Earth-10 just isn't that inspiring a setting. Uncle Sam battling Overman might seem like a great idea, but there's really only so much you can do with it that isn't crashingly obvious. Mastermen starts with a full page image of Hitler taking a strenuous dump, and that's the height of its wit. Ready for the finale.

The Wicked + The Divine #8 (Image)

It's the Dionysus issue, so of course it's going to be fun. A magic-induced rave in full, glorious technicolor, with the art dream team of Wilson and McKelvie creating eye-popping sequences to a panel-by-panel beat. It's probably really evocative to people less boring than me, who actually go to raves and things. Still, this is a filler issue, dropping a couple of hints to the ongoing mystery and moving the story on by just a fraction. Style over substance - but such style.

The Amazing Spider-Man #15/ Spider-Gwen #1 (Marvel)

And so, Spider-Verse comes to an end, sort of. This issue announces that Secret Wars: Spider-Verse is coming, so it is clearly seguing the two big events together. Presumably, the incursions that Spider-UK is so concerned about are related to the reality damaging event that is set to hit the Marvel universe. Even the next issue of Spider-Man is being touted as "Caught in the Web of Spider-Verse," so the fallout from this will be running on for a while. The issue itself is effective enough, but is mostly concerned with providing a final coda to the Superior Spider-Man arc, which needs to be done and dusted now. Spider-Gwen gets off to a promising start, with an
unremarkable but enjoyable first issue that pits our heroine against the Gwenverse version of the Vulture. Gwen only has her own series because the character was such a surprise hit, and wisely this first issue sticks to her strengths. She's fun, sardonic and quippy, but in a totally different way to Peter Parker. With Silk, Spider-Girl and Spider-Woman all continuing their adventures after this, there's no shortage of female Spider-heroes going forward, but Gwen looks to be the most enjoyable right now.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Monochrome Marvels 1

I've long been a fan of old TV and film, and one of the wonderful things about it is how much more there always is to still discover. Nosing around on the internet can reveal all sorts of gems, free to view.

A Message from Mars (1913)

The poster advertises Hawtrey's involvement but shows Clark.
The first feature length science fiction film made in the UK, A Message from Mars was released by the BFI at the end of last year, restored and returned to its original colour tints. I've only just got round to watching it, but after a hundred years I'm sure a couple of months can't hurt. A silent film, it has only a few text inserts, the story mostly being told through the acting. It's a beautiful work, largely down to its star, Charles Hawtrey (not that one). Hawtrey was born in 1858 and was the leading comic stage actor of his generation. It was towards the very end of his career that he began to perform in silent films, using his expressive physicality to put across his characters' emotions. The cast also includes Hubert Willis, who was most famous as Doctor Watson alongside Eille Norwood's Sherlock Holmes.

A little research tells me that the film was based on an earlier version released in New Zealand in 1903, now lost, and itself based on a play by Richard Ganthony. It's essentially a spacey version of A Christmas Carol, with Hawtrey's character Horace shown the error of his selfish and miserable ways not by a series of ghosts but by Remiel, a Martian sent to Earth to prove his own abilties. I love E. Holman Clark's performance as Remiel; his expression of sheer indignation when he is given his earthly assignment. The Martian setting of his origin scenes might as well be heaven or some fantasy realm, but interplanetary romances were in vogue in that era. You can stream it on the BBC website.

Next : The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Paperback Writer

Iris Wildthyme of Mars is now available in paperback from Obverse Books, priced £12.99 (about $20).

Buy buy buy

Sunday, 22 February 2015

WHO REVIEW: Seasons of War

Since John Hurt's one-off appearance in the 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor, Doctor Who fans have been eager to see more of this mysterious incarnation of their hero. All we've had are the aforementioned special, a brief appearance in the preceding episode, a post-regenerative glimpse in mini-ep The Night of the Doctor, and a single novel, George Mann's Engines of War. Until now.

Declan May, in association with Chinbeard Books, has developed Seasons of War, a grand undertaking bringing together both new and established authors to create a host of new stories featuring Hurt's War Doctor. The unofficial Doctor Who anthology is something of a tradition, from such old favourites as Missing Pieces through Walking in Eternity and up to Shelf Life. Seasons of War follows this grand tradition but takes it further, crafting a multimedia experience to go along with the, frankly exemplary, short fiction anthology. A quick visit to the website will allow you to not only learn more about the background of the project, but also view a specially shot short film, starring one Tom Menary as the man once called Doctor. Plus, you can visit the site of Caudwell Children, the charity May has chosen to benefit from the sales of his book. An organisation dedicated to improving the lives of children with disabilities and life-threatening conditions, Caudwell Children is an established national charity that does remarkable work. I don't think May could have chosen a more deserving cause.

The anthology itself boasts a huge collection of stories, and is sure to be a hefty tome once the physical paperback version of the book is released (as of writing it is available in Kindle and PDF formats). Doctor Who fans will recognise many of the names attached to the project: there are stories by acclaimed novelists including Paul Magrs, Lance Parkin, Kate Orman, George Mann and Jenny Colgan, as well as Who stalwarts such as Gary Russell and John Peel. The excellent Matt Fitton takes a moment out from his Big Finish work to pen the opening story – the Epilogue, of course – while the writer of 1981's Full Circle, Andrew Smith, also provides an adventure. As a Doctor Who fan, however, the most affecting part of this publication is the preface by the great Nick Briggs, speaking about Paul Spragg, to whom this book is dedicated. For those who don't know, Spragg was a vital member of Big Finish's team who was a beloved figure in fan circles, and his sudden death last year was a shock to us all. As Declan May points out, even those of us who never really knew him well were hit by his loss. I'd scarcely even communicated with the man, but he was such a part of Big Finish that his loss is felt any time I listen to one of their regular, much-adored podcasts. One of the last projects Mr Spragg worked on was this very anthology, setting much of it in motion, and so Seasons of War stands as a lasting tribute to him.

And no finer tribute could he have had. Seasons of War is a truly excellent piece of work. As noted, it begins with an epilogue and ends with a prologue, as befits a book concerning war across time, but for the most part, the stories are arranged in chronological order from the Doctor's point of view. Between the main stories lie vignettes, uncredited but presumably written by May, which lend context to the individual tales. Taking the War Doctor's life from his first moments on Karn to his final fateful decision on the eve of the Last Day, there's a definite evolution of the character. While each author has his of her own take on the character, there is certainly a consistency across the collection. For the most part, the War Doctor begins hardened and callous, but gradually his compassion resurfaces as he grows older. Nonetheless, he grows more desperate as the War grinds on, and both suffers and commits terrible cruelties. We see him at his most ruthless, almost unidentifiable as the Doctor, in “Here Comes the Doctor” by Christopher Bryant, but his most questionable actions are always followed by regret. There are companions, from time to time, most notably the Girl with the Purple Hair, whose relationship with the Doctor is just as timey-wimey as anything in Steven Moffat's episodes and just as beautiful and tragic. While some stories take place on the front lines of the War, many of them occur on its fringes, exploring the effects on individuals and cultures that exist in the sphere of conflict.

There's a great mix of material in here. When the harder, uncompromising war stories threaten to become a bit much, a lighter interlude pops up. There's some genuinely funny material amongst all the horrors of war. Often, the quieter moments between battles allow more exploration of the War Doctor's character. It's not all prose, either. Matthew Sweet's “An Historical Curiosity” takes a twisted, Whovian look at Shakespeare and makes some fun pokes at continuity and canon while it's at it. Jenny Colgan provides a sonnet. Jim Mortimore and Simon A. Brett provide a glorious comic strip account of the War, and Paul Hanley provides excellent artwork throughout. While, as with any anthology, some stories are better than others (or simply more to my individual taste), the overall standard of the work is extremely high. I'm not reluctant to say that Seasons of War contains some of the best Who fiction I have read in a very long time. There's also, as one might expect, some exploration of the mythology of the series, including not only terms we've heard in relation to the War such as the Nightmare Child and the Horde of Travesties, but elements from other eras of the series. The Corsair makes and appearance, as does the Land of Fiction. George Mann provides a missing scene from his own War Doctor novel. Strands are connected, but it's never overbearing or to the detriment of the stories. One small quibble is that some elements can become a little repetitive in the early part when the character is still being established. The War Doctor's dislike of being called the Doctor is handled better by some authors than by others, for instance, and it becomes a little gimmicky on occasion. That is a very minor complaint, though, in a collection of such quality.

Many of the best stories are by authors who are new to me. I'm not going to go into detail on every entry in the collection, but certain stories to warrant particular praise. Christopher Bryant's aforementioned “Here Comes the Doctor” is a highlight of the early part of the book. “The Holdover” by Daniel Wealands is a powerful exploration of the lengths to which authorities will go in times of war, and shows us better than any other story how low the Time Lords have sunk. With “Making Endings” Nick Mellish weaves an affecting tale with a genuinely clever twist, while Alan Ronald's “The Ingenious Gentleman” provides a welcome respite from the War with a meeting of two improbable men. Jon Arnold's “Always Face the Curtain With a Bow” is a wickedly funny but ultimately haunting tale that affects the Doctor deeply, something that is not forgotten later in the collection. Matt Barber's story, “The Fall,” seems especially pertinent as I write this on the 22nd of February, the anniversary of the death of Doctor Who' old soldier, Nicholas Courtney.

For me, however, the strongest story in the collection is Paul Driscoll's “The Time Lord Who Came to Tea,” an incredibly moving portrait of the life of one girl in the slums of wartorn Gallifrey. While the details of the horrors she experiences are imaginative and fantastical, it reflects the hard truth of reality; that the people who suffer the most during wartime are often the ones who are not involved in the fighting at all, but ordinary people struggling to survive. A truly affecting, remarkable story. While I pick out these few stories as particular favourites, the whole collection really is excellent. Plans are already afoot for volumes two and three of Seasons of War. There's even a cliffhanger.