Sunday, 18 February 2018

REVIEW: The Greatest Showman

I finally caught the new musical movie The Greatest Showman, a film I've been eager to see since the trailers came out a few months ago. I'm a big fan of P.T Barnum's story - truly one of the greats of fringe culture and a historical legend. Already the subject of a musical (the 80s Barnum, which experienced a recent revival), Phineas Taylor B. was a philanthropist, a conman, an entrepreneur, and a showman. To be honest, there's not much of the real Barnum in Hugh Jackman's character here. He certainly wasn't that good-looking, for a start; his moral code, particularly when he was young, was far dodgier. Although we got a glimpse of the notorious conman who used to trick people into leaving his museum so he could charge them entry again, when he steals worthless deeds to act as collateral at the bank, the focus is squarely on the circus king aspect of his career. He didn't found the Barnum and Bailey Travelling Circus until he was in his sixties, although his Travelling Menagerie (read: freakshow) for which he is most famous, came much earlier. Again, though, this is barely part of the story - most of the story of the freaks is contained within his museum.

I doubt even half of the events shown in The Greatest Showman are true, but, really, isn't that in the spirit of the humbug that Barnum peddled? This isn't a historical drama, although a strict exploration of Barnum's life would make for a fine film. This is a big budget, extravagant, feel-good musical, and on those terms, it succeeds brilliantly. The songs are powerful and have been rattling round my head for days, from the opening "The Greatest Show" to the mighty freaks' anthem "This is Me." The costumes are gorgeous, the dance numbers are spectacular. Critics have called it "faux-inspiring" and "shallow," but hell, I left the cinema feeling amazing.

Hugh Jackman teams up with Zac Efron, who plays Carlyle, a character very loosely based on Barnum's partner, James Bailey, who acts as something of a grounding influence on him. Their boisterous duet is one of the sexiest things I've seen in a long time, and they have some good chemistry with each other. Probably more chemistry than Jackman has with Michelle Williams, who plays Barnum's wife Charity, who, incidentally, was far more adventurous and interesting a character than she's made out to be here. Again, though, this is not a film that's aiming for historical accuracy, as we see Barnum, a strict teetotaller and supporter of the temperance movement, knocking back drink after drink while chatting up Carlyle to become his theatrical partner.

The greatest show itself is made up of a huge gang of photogenic human oddities. Some of whom, like Caoife Coleman and Mishay Petronelli, who play the albino twins, have been cast for their dancing skills, others, like Keala Settle, who plays Lettie Lutz the Bearded Lady, for their singing voices. Then there are a small few who actually have bodies that deviate from the human norm, such as young Australian actor Sam Humphrey, who plays the diminutive Tom Thumb. They all make up the most attractive bunch of "freaks" cinema has ever seen, so the message of tolerance against the different and deformed is kind of lost. Equally, there's an anti-racist message in there, with Carlyle striking up a taboo relationship with the mixed-race trapeze artist Anne Wheeler, in defiance of polite society's expectations of him, but it's fudged pretty badly. Huge respect to Zendaya, though, who learnt impressive acrobatic skills to play Wheeler. A big chunk of the film is given over to Barnum's tour with the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, who in this version of events has an unlikely romantic infatuation with Barnum. Rebecca Ferguson plays the singer, who genuinely was as remarkable and philanthropic as she is portrayed here, but it's Loren Allred who provides her incredible voice.

The Greatest Showman is nonsense, then, but beautiful, exciting, heartfelt nonsense, that I enjoyed hugely, even if it wasn't the deepest or most believable film. 

Red Dwarf: Thirty Years of Inconsistencies

Red Dwarf is thirty years old. Twelve series, seventy-three episodes, four novels and one Can't Cook, Won't Cook special. I've a proper article coming up on Television Heaven in the near future, but for now I'll be popping a couple of silly pieces on here.

One thing that Red Dwarf has become notorious for is the complete lack of internal consistency. They can't even decide if Lister and Rimmer are from the 21st, 22nd or 23rd century. The internal history of the series has been rewritten both deliberately and accidentally, then changed back again, plus there have been multiple alternative universes and more time travel than you can shake a stick at. So here, after discussions with fellow Dwarfers Suz and Ruth, are my attempts to tackle some peculiar questions and inconsistencies, with various unsubstantiated theories and headcanon.

When is Red Dwarf set?

I once tried to piece together a consistent timeline for the series, before giving up because it's completely impossible. One thing we can do, oddly enough, is fairly reliably date the most recent series: AD 2,978,341. The only genuinely consistent date we have in the whole series is 2340 for Kryten's creation, and that this is definitely after the death of the Red Dwarf crew. In 11.4, "Krysis," we learn it's Kryten's 2,976,000th birthday. Series XII is set one year later. This presumably includes the two centuries Kryten spent running Starbug in between Series V and VI, while the others were in deep sleep. There are other elements that might put this out of whack - time dilation etc. - but this is still the most accurate date we have. It also means that Holly was rounding up when he said he kept Lister in stasis for three million years, although even then we have to ignore relativistic effects when the ship accelerated towards the speed of light.

The Kochanski conundrum

One big anomaly is raised in Series IV. Grant and Naylor decided that Lister's unrequited pining over Kochanski, a woman he barely knew, was a bit puerile, so rewrote the backstory to say that they'd had a brief, intense relationship - something that followed their reworked backstory from the novels. This is a better storyline but it causes a big contradiction that has no explanation.

I have a theory, though, that ties in with another oddity, something that once upon a time I planned to write up into a bit of fanfic. In 3.5, "Timeslides," time is rewritten so that Rimmer is alive, until he very quickly blows himself up. Next episode, he's a hologram again. It's a quick gag, but again, it's a huge rewrite of the series' past.

In my head, Rimmer's conversation with his younger self - trying to persuade him to get up early and go patent the Tension Sheet - isn't completely wasted. Seeing "Thicky" Holden get there first inspires him to be a little more daring, take a few more risks. It doesn't make a huge difference to his life, although it might explain some of the inconsistencies with which exams he takes and how often. However, it eventually leads him to do something a little stupid, something illegal or against Space Corps rules. Maybe he helps Lister hide Frankenstein. I don't know, but the important thing is that he ends up in stasis and therefore survives the accident.

Being roommates with the slightly-more-daring Rimmer makes Lister bolder too. He has the guts to go ask Kochanski out. It doesn't last long, he still ends up alone and gets Frankenstein to keep himself company and gets put into stasis, but it's enough to rearrange his entire romantic backstory.

What's Red Dwarf's crew compliment?

Another change to the backstory in Series IV saw the crew of the ship increase tenfold. In the early dasy, Lister was crewman no. 169, bottom of the entire crew, but in 4.3, "Justice," Rimmer is found guilty of the deaths of 1167 people - with him and Lister added on, this puts it at 1169. It's not as big an increase as in the novels (which had the crew at 11,169) but makes more sense considering the sheer size of the vessel. So, a weird mystery? Not to hard to resolve. While Rimmer and Lister work for the Space Corps, Red Dwarf itself is owned and operated by the Jupiter Mining Corporation. Presumably, the JMC engages the Space Corps to run their ships, but also employs numerous civilian crewmen as well. So the extra thousand people is comprised of miners, shop assistants, the barman at Parrot's... although not the chefs, because seemingly you have to take a Space Corps exam to be a chef. The count also doesn't include the prisoners and wardens on Floor 13, because Rimmer wasn't aware of them.

Check the Appendix

In 2.3, "Thanks for the Memory," a big joke is made of Rimmer having his appendix out twice. This is due to him remembering Lister having his appendix out as well. However, in 6.2, "Legion," Lister has his appendix removed again. How is this possible? Well, one fan theory is that in 4.2, "DNA," when Lister is returned to his original human form after becoming "Man Plus," he's rebuilt with his appendix intact. A funnier explanation was put forward by Doug Naylor in the novel Last Human, after he was questioned on it at a convention: Lister had a mutation and was born with two of the world's most useless organ. This raises the intriguing notion that when Lister is rebuilt again by the nanbots in Series VII, he gets both his appendixes (appendices?) back, meaning he might have a total of four appendectomies.

On a side note, it was revealed in the 1996 Logbook tie-in release that the purpose of the appendix was discovered to be mdeium-wave reception.

Ageing mechanicals

It's a bit illogical that both Kryten and Rimmer change physically over the course of the series. Mostly, we should overlook this: it's a consequence of the fact that we're seeing human actors and not actual robots and holograms. Still, Rimmer has clearly aged across the series, but that's not really inconsistent with what we've seen. He does need to exercise in the early series after all, so clearly his holographic form needs maintenance. Behind the scenes info states that Rimmer hasn't undergone the necessary work to maintain his holography, explaining his ageing in the current series. The same would be true of his fat older self in 6.6, "Out of Time." On the other hand, 6.5, "Rimmerworld," has him sitting in a dungeon for 557 years and and not looking a day older. Possibly his light bee was able to conserve energy and maintain his form during this time.

As for Kryten, my theory for why he's so much larger in the later series is that he's neglected to change his hoover bag for several years.

The other Kochanski conundrum

In 7.3, "Oroboros," a new Kochanski arrives from a reality in which she went into stasis for hiding Franekenstein. Lister is a hologram , Kryten is still there and the Cat still evolved. Kochanski never wanted to go into stasis but presumably she couldn't bring herself to let the pet cat be disintegrated and allowed herself to be put into stasis as punishment (something which would probably have severely curtailed her career as well, had the accident not happened). What, though, did this version of Felis sapiens use as the basis of their culture? What did they fight religious wars over before abandoning the ship, if not Lister's shopping list and general slobbiness of outlook? With Kochanski as a role model, I can imagine the great war of the cottage cheese - Pineapple Chunks vs. Plain.

Which Rimmer is Rimmer?

There's a big mystery as to which version of Rimmer appears in the series from Back to Earth onwards. He's a hologram again, but seems to have memories of both the original Rimmer from Series I to VII, and the resurrected version from Series VIII. This ties in to the confusion around the end of Series VIII. There were various endings considered for this, including one where they got back to Earth for good, and another where Ace Rimmer returned and saved the day. One ending was actually filmed, which saw the Kryten develop the antivirus to stop Red Dwarf's corrosion, while the rest of the crew were abandoned in their fleet of Blue Midgets and Starbugs.

In 10.6, "The Beginning," Rimmer almost gets round to explaining what happened at the end of "Only the Good..." but is continually interrupted, leaving it all a mystery. He does claim to have been the one who saved the ship, but the others say it was a fluke. There's a few possible explanations, including Ace coming back and saving them before trading places with live Rimmer, but I don't like that idea because it undoes all the original Rimmer's character development.

The best solution is that Rimmer dies in whatever happens to save Red Dwarf (although he could have died at anytime in the nine years between "Only the Good" and Back to Earth, which might also account for Rimmer's ageing) and the hologram was created with both Rimmers' memory discs incorporated. He does say he always keeps his hologram discs up-to-date, after all. So from Back to Earth onwards, we're watching a composite version of Rimmer. A super Rimmer.

How does Lister get his memories back?

In 12.5, "M-Corp," there's a pretty daft ending where Lister is reset to his original self back at the very beginning of the series, but Kryten plans to recreate his memories from CCTV footage. This sort of nonsense might fly on Star Trek, but you can't restore years of memories and personality development in a few weeks. The next episode, and the last one so far, "Skipper," makes no rerefence to his memories at all, and also has some other strange inconsistencies. The episode revolves around skipping between realities, but the characters make no reference to the various other dimension jumps they've made in the past, and act as if the idea is completely new to them. Still, this potentially provides the solution to the problemas well: "Skipper" is set in an alternative reality to the preceding 72 episodes. In fact, if we don't assume that each episode takes place in the same reality, it would solve a lot of continuity problems...

Saturday, 10 February 2018

A Target for Tommy

In 2016 Obverse Books released A Target for Tommy, a charity Doctor Who anthology to raise money for Tommy Donbavand, the children's author (DW: Shroud of Sorrow, The Beano, the Scream Street series). Tommy has sadly been struggling with cancer, and due to his illness and treatment has had to cease the school visits and classes which formed his main source of income. Obverse has now announced A Second Target for Tommy, a new volume of short stories to further this fine cause now that Tommy's cancer has returned.

A Second Target for Tommy includes stories by Stuart Douglas (Obverse head honcho), Kate Orman (many Doctor Who novels including The Left-Handed Hummingbird, Return of the Living Dad, The YEar of Intelligent Tigers; editor of Liberating Earth) , Paul Magrs (Strange Boy, Marked for Life, Iris Wildthyme, Brenda and Effie, DW: Hornet's Nest), Simon Bucher-Jones (DW: The Death of Art, The Taking of Planet 5, Grimm Reality; The Brakespeare Voyage), Eddie Robson (Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully; numerous Doctor Who audios) and many more, but the really big draw is an extract from the original script for The Day of the Doctor, provided by Steven Moffat and featuring the ninth Doctor.

You can order the book here, and the ebook edition of the first volume is also still available.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Falcon Heavy testflight

Just look at this. The successful test launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocketship, carrying a dummy payload of Elon Musk's 2008 Tesla roadster, followed by a perfect precision landing of both reusable side booster rockets. The central stage booster rocket core was intended to be landed on the droneship Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic, but its touchdown failed and it did not survive. The car was sent initially into terrestrial orbit, and then into an elliptical solar orbit which will cross the orbit of Mars and approach that of Ceres. So, while the objective of returning the core failed, two of the three objectives - to return the reusable side rockets and to prove the Falcon Heavy could send a payload as far as Mars - were successful.

There is, however, a car stuffed with bric-a-brac now lost in space for the next few million years.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Time Shadows: Second Nature - eBook downloads

Unfortunately, we can't legally sell any copies of the new unofficial Doctor Who anthology Time Shadows: Second Nature, featuring dozens of stories from brilliant authors, and my own story "Time-Crossed," featuring the First and Eleventh Doctors.

What we can do, though, is make it available for free. If you wish to make a donation to CODE NGO or any charity of your choice, then please feel free, but do not feel obliged. Please enjoy the stories though and share these links if you do so.

Link to ePub version

Link to mobi (Kindle) version