Wednesday, 28 September 2016

REVIEW: RED DWARF XI - Ep 2 - SAMSARA



Red Dwarf XII continues with another episode full of clever ideas. Doug Naylor seems to have been the more sci-fi-oriented of the Grant Naylor pair, going by his solo work since they split (the oddity of Series VIII notwithstanding). "Samsara" continues to show Naylor's strength as an ideas man, with an ingenious central conceit that leads to some laugh-out-loud moments.

The karma drive is explicitly based on the Justice Field from Series IV's "Justice," but is an original and different enough idea to feel fresh. Indeed I doubt I would have even thought of "Justice" if Kryten hadn't specifically mentioned the technology of that episode. The idea of karmic retribution as a means of maintaining "moral order" on long missions is one that is clearly ripe for abuse, and the episode touches on this, but understandably the script focuses on the humour of the concept.

Although this is an episode with high concept sf at its heart, much of the runtime is taken up with very traditional, straightforward sitcom scenes. The opening scene, in which Rimmer and Lister play a game of "Mine-opoly," is a lengthy, simple and very funny string of bickering between the characters. Equally, aboard the SS Samsara we get a long conversation between Lister and the Cat, two characters who rarely get to interact at length without the others. The Cat's history lesson is hilarious, as much a throwback to the distorted Cat myths of Cloister the Stupid as it is a showcase for the Cat's bizarre idiocy.




"Samsara" is an unusual episode structurally, less linear than is usual for Red Dwarf. Jumping back and forth between the SS Samsara's mission and the series' present, three million years or so later, almost half of the episode features the guest cast with none of the regulars present. Maggie Service and Dan Tetsell are pretty great as the illicit lovers aboard the Samsara, holding their own while the Dwarfers are out of sight. They make believable, if not particularly likeable, characters and hold their own well. In fact, their story is probably more interesting than what's happening to the Dwarfers in the future.

Both "Samsara" and "Twentica" showcase great ideas that lead to memorably funny scenes, but plotwise both have suffered from trying to do too much with too little time. More so than last week, the second episode simply stops, while there is clearly scope for more misadventures within the karmic field. It's enough to make me strongly hope for a fifth Red Dwarf novel, to allow Naylor to expand on, and make the most of, his ideas  and characters.

Good Psycho Guide: Three-and-a-half chainsaws.

Title-Tattle: Samsara is a Sanskrit-derived word referring to the cycle of karmic reincarnation in

Best Line: "Bam! Invents gravy!" (Somehow even better out of context.)

Saturday, 24 September 2016

WHO REVIEW: Time Shadows (ed. Matt Grady with Samual Gibb)

I believe we're on the cusp of a new golden age of fan fiction, at least in the worlds of Doctor Who. After a few years when professional and semi-pro unofficial fiction all but dried up, there has been a resurgence in this area lately, and some of the projects have been excellent. The latest such project, from Pseudoscope Publishing, is perhaps the best in a recent run of impressive publications.

Time Shadows sees an impressive group of new and established writers come together to raise funds for the Enable Community Foundation; a charity dedicated to providing needy communities with access to the latest technology and techniques to provide replacement limbs and prostheses. It's a remarkable organisation, supported by a remarkable book.

Time Shadows gives us a wide variety of story styles and themes, although a number of them revolve around a concept of time becoming twisted or undone. The stories are of a very high standard. It's a cliché to call these collections a mixed bag, but it's true. Inevitably some stories are better than others, or, at least, better suit a particular reader's taste. However, Time Shadows is the most consistently well-written collection I've read in a long time. There's only one story in the book that I didn't particularly enjoy, and even then, I can see that it would likely suit another reader. In terms of quality, this is a huge achievement.

Going through every story, one by one, would make this a very long spoilerish review, so I'll be content to pick out some of my favourite stories. “Time's Shadow,” by Simon Blake, not only sets the overall feel of the book with its tale of time out of joint, but provides an unsettling and entertaining story from the very beginning of Doctor Who's history: that dilapidated junkyard back in '63. Also tied in with the earliest elements of the series is David McLain's story, “Indigo,” a fun diversion for the first Doctor with a fun punchline.

One of my favourite stories of the collection, “The Godfather,” has nothing to do with Mario Puzo. Rather, it's a quiet, rather beautiful story by John Davies, about the difficulties of growing up, that gives us a glimpse into the later life of two of the Doctor's companions. “The Neither,” by Ian Howden, is a very effective little adventure for Mike Yates and Sarah Jane Smith. They make such a fine pair in this story that they could have had their own spin-off series together.

There are two Cyberman stories that are particularly noteworthy for their very different approaches to the fifty-year-old monsters. “Iron Joe,” by Abel Diaz, sees the sixth Doctor and Peri encounter a Cyberman in the old West, an arresting and unlikely combination of images that make for quite an adventure. Andrew Blair's story, “Confirmation Bias,” is an absolutely devastating story that looks at the Cybermen from the opposite angle, focusing on the unbearable reality of becoming a Cyberman.

Christopher Colley manages to create both the funniest story of the collection, and one of the most affecting. “After the Ball Was Over” begins as light-hearted, frothy, almost Hitchhikers-esque romp before veering into an tale of guilt, that goes exists to explain the huge change in the fourth Doctor's demeanour between seasons seventeen and eighteen. “The Redemption of Vequazon,” by Nick Walters, has an outlandish fantasy title but delivers quite a powerful tale of morality and deliverance.


As with many collections of this nature, Time Shadows has a framing story. However, while most such stories are contrived and often quite ineffective, “A Torch in the Darkness” is one of the best Doctor Who stories I've read in a long time. Dale Smith, David N. Smith, Violet Addison, and Christopher Colley work together on this overarching tale, that brings the twelfth Doctor and Clara on a voyage throughout time, from the days of classical myth to the end of the universe itself. As well as capturing the Twelve/Clara relationship down to a tee, this five-part story sees the Doctor's own history explored. The stories throughout the collection are explicitly referenced as newly created events - intrusions into the Doctor's past. Indeed, isn't that what all these missing adventures are? New elements that we've fashioned to make our favourite character's life even more packed full of incident. “A Torch in the Darkness” also riffs on the same ideas as Listen, but takes it further and to a more powerful conclusion. In a collection that features all thirteen Doctors (and more besides), it's the crowning achievement. Exceptional.



Purchase Time Shadows in print or as download here.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

The new Porridge and Goodnight Sweetheart

I finally got round to watching the new episode of Porridge, having watched Goodnight Sweetheart a week or so ago, just after it was aired. The originals are both favourites of mine, and though the trailers didn't do much for me, there's been enough positive talk about the episodes that I decided to give them a go.

The BBC has produced a bunch of comedy pilots, and although there's some brnad new material, it's the remakes and sequels that are getting people talking. It's always controversial when popular series are revived. I try not to listen too hard to what the public say on these things; after all, Mrs Brown's Boys was just voted best sitcom of the 21st century, which just goes to show how terrible popular opinion can be. There are four revivals in the season so far. Young Hyacinth offers little to interest me; even though I enjoyed Keeping Up Appearances as a kid, it's not something I've ever felt the need to go back to. As for the recast Are You Being Served?... well, that wasn't very in the first place, and just seems embarassing now. So, it was Goodnight Sweetheart and Porridge for me.

I think the sequel route is a wise one to take. It's an easy enough thing to do with GS; after all, it finished a relatively recent seventeen years ago, so all the key players are still with us. As for Porridge, updating it for the 21st century might be trickier, but it's still a better idea than trying to remake the style of the seventies original.

Porridge centres, as always, around Fletch, but this is Nigel Norman Fletcher, grandson of Norman Stanley. Played by current comedy darling Kevin Bishop, he's a cyber-criminal, which is something no one could have dreamed of when the original was made. I can buy Bishop as the grandson of old Fletch; he's got some of his mannerisms down to a tee without ever looking like he's trying to copy Ronnie barker's performance. I can accept them as related. The episode was written by the series' original creators, Dick Clement and Ian le Frenais, and it really does feel like a new episode of the original. Admittedly, not the best episode of the original, but still good fun and with some pretty funny moments. I can see it working as a full series if the Beeb decides to go with it. The only thing I'd change would be removing Mr Meaker, who is just too similar to Mackay and comes across of a poor copy. Still, it's definitely better than Going Straight.

Goodnight Sweetheart was a great series back in the 90s. The update really is obvious - just move it forward in real time on both sides of the timewarp, so that it's now the 60s in the past era. It's cleverer than it might at first seem, because the modern day is far stranger and harder to deal with for Gary than the 60s ever could be. Nicholas Lyndhurst steps easily back into his role as Gary Sparrow, adn all the cast return to their main roles. (Well, the second cast. The series was never really the same after Michelle Holmes and Dervla Kirwan left.) I was dubious about Gary having teenage kids, but both Tim Preston (as Michael, in the past) and Esme Coy (as Ellie, in the present) are pretty great in their roles, and very likeable. Stupid Reg isn't funny, but then, he never was, really.

GS became more sci-fi oriented in its last season, focusing on the time travel aspect more than the relationships side of things. It's not surprising that bringing Gary back to the present involves a classic of time travel fiction - meeting his own father, and his infant self. He's thrown back to his native time in a burst of energy when he holds himself as a baby, which also busts open the timewarp. (We call that the Blinovitch Limitation Effect in Doctor Who.) It's not hilarious, but it's still good fun, and also has plenty of scope for more specials or a full revival.

Now, I need to get round to watching the recreations of comedy episodes lost from archives. I still ahevn't seen "A Stripe for Frazer."

REVIEW: RED DWARF XI - Ep. 1 - TWENTICA

Red Dwarf comes back with a bang in "Twentica," the first of twelve episodes that will be broadcast over the next two years. Part of Red Dwarf's appeal and success is its ability to change and embrace different styles of story. Series ten embraced the best elements of the show's various styles, combining outright sci-fi adventures with odd couple sitcom style. When it got it right, it was spot on. The eleventh series begins with an episode that sits on the sci-fi side of the spectrum, as much as anything in the highly regarded fourth and fifth series (which included such contrived environments as the Waxworld of "Meltdown" and the Psi-Moon of "Terrorform"). "Twentica" is perhaps most similar to series seven's "Tikka to Ride" or last series' "Lemons" - a one-off excursion to Earth's history through yet another means of time travel. In fact, "Tikka to Ride" is the best comparison from the series' past, with "Twentica" also taking place in a version of America altered through time travel.


The difference is that the alternative America seen here, while a dystopian setting, is played predominantly for comedy. It's a fantastic idea; a version of the twentieth century where any technology beyond the level of the 1920s is outlawed. A Prohibition Era episode of Red Dwarf is a great idea in itself, but twisting it round to make it an anti-technology setting is an inspired idea. Indeed, it seems wasted on a mere twenty minutes of screentime. This could easily have been the setting for a two-parter, or even a full season of episodes. (Perhaps, if we ever got a fifth Red Dwarf novel, Doug Naylor could explore this world in more depth?) Part of the cleverness of the idea is that it automatically makes Rimmer and Kryten illegal by their very nature, although this isn't explored very much. However, some of the episode's best moments occur in the brilliant "science speakeasy" scenes, where former scientists go to indulge in their proclivities under cover of drinking and dancing. Naylor takes the joke just far enough, and the climactic scene is brilliant.


All the regular cast get a moment to shine, with a strong emsemble feel to the episode. This is a wise choice for a series opener, especially as we seem to have episodes coming up that are more heavily based on one character. I've got to say, all the boys look great in their Prohibition-style gear (but then, what man doesn't look better kitted out like that?) In fact, the episode as a whole looks amazing. Dave, along with new co-producers Baby Cow Productions, are clearly spending more money of the series after the success of series ten.

This extends to hiring a great guest cast. Lucie Pohl stands out as Harmony de Gaulthier, and veteran actor David Sterne as Bob the Bum (aka not Einstein). The best addition to the cast, though, is Kevin Eldon. He's one of those actors it seems odd hasn't been in the series before, but then, the main part of his career has been in the years that Red Dwarf was off air. Here he gives everything as Four of Twenty-Seven, leader of the Exponoids, a new variety of Simulant armed with time travel. As well as an ingenious opening scene that embraces the twisted logic of time travel, the Exponoids turn up throughout the episode to pose a threat and squabble. They're essentially a bitchy version of the Borg and provide laughs and peril in equal measure.

The plot does seem to be cut a little short, but the episode as a whole is a success, with some real laugh-out-loud moments. It does seem, though, that Naylor didn't think the full logic of the premise through. Although the Exponoids are defeated, they've still altered history, and there are potentially a few bits of Starbug left in the twentieth century. Either this is a big oversight, or there will be some repurcussions further ahead. Then again, Red Dwarf's timelines never did make much sense.


Good Psycho Guide: Four-and-a-half chainsaws.

Title-Tattle: "Twentica" is an odd title, to be sure. It's never explained in the episode, and it presumably refers to the Twenties-style alternative America.

Time Travel: In "Twentica," an Exponoid device called "Chronos" which allows time travel, and creates a vortex through which Starbug is drawn back in time. Previously, the Dwarfers have time travelled via a stasis leak rift ("Stasis Leak"), mutated developing fluid that created magical photographs ("Timeslides"), a time hole ("Backwards"), a malfunctional rejuvenation shower ("Lemons") and a 29th century time drive (in "Out of Time," "Tikka to Ride" and "Ouroboros"). Not to mention the time distortions they experienced in "Future Echoes," "White Hole" and "Pete," plus the pseudo-time travel in "Back to Reality," "Gunmen of the Apocalypse" and Back to Earth. That's an awful lot of time travel by many different means.

Best Line: "What happened to your head?"
"...I went bobbing for apples in a cement mixer!"


Sunday, 11 September 2016

Mission to...

Two exciting space travel updates from the 8th of September - nicely timed to coincide with Star Trek's big anniversary.

NASA has successfully launched its latest spacecraft and begun the OSIRIS-REx mission. In a spectacular triumph for contrived acronyms, the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer is now underway. The eponymous spacecraft is an unmanned robotic probe, which was launched via an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, will journey to the near-Earth Apollo asteroid Bennu, with which it is expected to rendezvous in 2018. Once there, it will begin 500 days of surface charting and ultimately will extend a robotic limb to begin sampling the asteroid's material. OSIRIS-REx is programmed to finally return to Earth in 2023.

Bennu is a carbonaceous asteroid that was chosen for its proximity to Earth at present. A primordial object, the materials gathered from the asteroid should shed light on the makeup of the Solar Sytem during its initial formation, almsot five billion years ago. The organic nature of the asteroid should help indicate how the early ingredients of life came to arrive on the primeval Earth. This is the third of NASA's New Frontiers programme, following Juno (currently in Jovian orbit) and New Horizons (speeding towrds the Kuiper Belt).


Artist's interpretation of OSIRIS-REx approaching Bennu


Bennu was named by a young lad named Michael Puzio, who won out over about eight thousands entrants in a "Name That Asteroid!" competition run by the University of Arizona and the Planetary Society. Bennu was a solar deity in early Egyptian mythology, a phoenix-heron that renewed itself in fire. A fine name for an inner-system asteroid. OSIRIS-REx, aside from the excellent acronym, was chosen because Bennu is a potential Earth impactor and Osiris was the Egyptian lord of the dead. So that's cheerful.

Shortly before OSIRIS-REx blasted off, Virgin Galactic completed their first test flight of the VSS Unity. This was the first flight undertaken by VG since the disaster that destroyed the Enterprise two years ago. Unity is the second of VG's SpaceShipTwo-class spaceplanes, launched, as with its predecessor, from the carrier vessel VMS Eve. It was expected that Unity would be named VSS Voyager, however the eventual name was chosen by Prof. Stephen Hawking. Unity was piloted by Mark Stucky and Dave Mackay, and by all accounts, it was a perfect test flight. Hopefully, Unity will do what Enterprise failed to do and make it into sub-orbital flight and become a true spacecraft.


Shot of the VSS Unity taken by the crew of the VMS Eve



Read about OSIRIS-REx
Read about Unity