Thursday, 21 September 2017

REVIEW: Electric Dreams - The Hood Maker

Philip K. Dick - famously troubled, gloriously creative, gifted - or cursed - with a unique way of seeing the world. His novels are well known, and have been adapted many times before. Indeed, it's no doubt the recent success of Amazon's adaptation of The Man in the High Castle and the upcoming release of the sequel to Blade Runner that have spurred the creation of this new series. While I've read a number of Dick's novels, I'm mildly ashamed to say I haven't read any of his short stories. The only ones I could name immediately would be "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," the basis for Total Recall, "The Minority Report," and "The Adjustment Team," adapted as The Adjustment Bureau. A quick check reveals more that have been adapted - I hadn't realised the fairly woeful Paycheck started as PKD short story - but still, it's clear that there's far more of his work out there than I have made time to explore.

Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams seems set to remedy that, putting Dick's various short stories through the adaptation process and turning them into hour-long TV episodes. There will no doubt be some significant changes to be made; Dick wrote the bulk of his material in the fifties and sixties, and things have moved on quite significantly since then, both technologically and socially. However, it looks like the ethos of the work will remain. I certainly intend to look up these originals and see how the new and old compare; hopefully the series will encourage more people to look into the original works. While showing on Channel Four in the UK, the US, and one imagines, eventual world rights, have been taken by Amazon.

Electric Dreams kicks off with a series of generically sci-fi-ish images, the sort of immediately arresting but ultimately nonsensical stuff that was used for the title sequences of The X-Files and the 90s version of The Outer Limits. The sort of thing Rick and Morty parodies. This wasn't particularly promising to me, but thankfully, once that was over, the first episode itself was stylistically brilliant. "The Hood Maker," adapted from the 1955 story of the same name, has a dirty neon, rundown look that isn't a million miles away from Blade Runner's aesthetic, although the city we visit here is distinctly low-tech. This gives the production something of a feel for the '50s origins of the story, although the impression here is very  much a post-electronic society, rather than one in the past. (The actual setting and background for the story are barely even sketched in, which cuts down on exposition and maintains a palpable air of mystery.)

In this distorted version of Britain, society is run by the Union, just as stratified as it is today but now with a new underclass: the Teeps, telepathic mutants who are physically distinguished by facial birthmarks. The Teeps are a feared and downtrodden minority, living in ghettos and used for both official and illegal purposes. It's a disturbingly believable set-up. While the hatred for Teeps is clear, with protests on the streets against their very existence, the police use Teep agents to hunt down and interrogate suspects - in one of the most disturbing scenes in the programme, a supposed terrorist is forced to relive trauma and shameful memories as part of a torturous interrogation. Meanwhile, the elite visit Teep brothels, where seeming psychic sex sessions lead to emotional and physical abuse, all while officially maintaining the segregation.

The stars of the programme are Richard Madden, best known as Robb Stark on Game of Thrones, and Holliday Grainger, who has had various TV roles and is surely destined for greatness based on her performance here. The two have previously appeared together in the 2015 adaptation of Lady Chatterly's Lover, and have strong chemistry. Grainger plays Honor, a Teep who is assigned to work with Madden's Detective Ross in an investigation into rising disruption in the city, both by "Normals" and Teeps. Someone is making hoods that block out the Teep's abilities, and civil unrest - including a possible Teep uprising - is on the cards,

While Madden is excellent and charismatic as Ross, it's Grainger's haunting performance as Honor that is the star call here. She is powerfully sympathetic, from her introduction to the heart-wrenching conclusion. Also impressive is Anneika Rose, who plays Honor's friend Mary, a Teep who is left working in a telepathic brothel and earns abuse for her troubles. In a powerful scene, Mary's emotional and physical pain echo through all the Teeps in the ghetto, linking them together in trauma in a way the "Normals" could never understand. The story raises important and evocative questions, about our rights to privacy, autonomy and freedom, both from the point of view of the Teeps and their frightened targets. There's an undercurrent throughout of abuses of power on all sides, and it's very clear that, one way or another, this society is due for violent change.

I understand the original story is significantly different both in specifics and the general direction, and look forward to investigating it. Here, though, Matthew Graham, creator of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, creates a story that poses many questions, answers few, and makes us think about how people treat each other and how power is shared out. Towards the end there are revelations, including a retelling of an earlier scene with distinct differences, that make us question everything we've seen so far. Not only is this exactly how Dick liked to make his readers question reality, it puts us firmly in the shoes of Honor in her betrayal and confusion. This is an excellent start to a series that promises much, and I look forward to the remaining episodes and will be sure to delve in to the stories that inspired them. (Channel Four are missing a trick if they don't republish them themselves.)

Monday, 18 September 2017

Twenty years of Cassini

On October 15th, 1997, a Titan IV rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, carrying a Flagship-class spacecraft named Cassini. For just under twenty years, Cassini, and its companion probe Huygens, travelled through space and set up home in the Saturnian system, until it was deliberately crashed into Saturn's atmospheric sea on September 15th, 2017.

A collaborative mission between NASA (who created and launched the orbiter, Cassini), the European Space Agency (who developed the probe Huygens and the bulk of its technology) and the Italian Space Agency (who provided Cassini's telemetry and radiocommunication equipment), the Cassini project took fifteen years to move from initial concept to launch. Originally scheduled to end in 2008, the Cassini mission was extended with the Cassini Equinox mission, and again in 2010, with the Cassini Solstice mission, before it was carefully and deliberately destroyed in its final plunge.

In its early years, the spacecraft made a flyby of Venus, looped back round and took some test photos of Earth's Moon, using the gravity of this flyby to boost towards the outer solar system. After three years in space, Cassini made a flyby of the asteroid Masursky, followed by a flyby of Jupiter, collecting the most detailed images ever of the great planet. While between Jupiter and Saturn, tests were made using radio signals to and from the spacecraft, which further proved the effects predicted by Einstein's theory of gravity. In 2004, Cassini reached its destination, entering Saturnian orbit and passing through the planets outermost rings, taking shots of several moons in the journey. Two new moons - named Methone and Pallene - were discovered, while the spacecraft made flybys of the largest moon, Titan.

At the very beginning of 2005, the Huygens probe landed on Titan, sending back telemetry as it did so. It revealed a world of icy "rocks" and marshes of liquid hydrocarbons, a strange, frozen inversion of Earth, the first time we could look beneath the dense, clouded atmosphere. Over the following years, Cassini continued to travel throughout the Saturnian system, making flybys of moons, and sending back new and surprising data, such as the revelation of water systems on Enceladus. It also sent back some of the most detailed, surprising and beautiful images of the great ringed planet itself. Over the two decades of its service, multiple fixes and adjustments were made by the mission control team remotely from Earth.

To that team, the mission's designers, and the spacecraft itself: I salute you.

The Earth, from Saturn.

See some of the most breathtaking images from the mission here at

A monstrous new blog!

Just because I haven't overloaded my plate enough lately, I've gone and started a new blog. Monster Mountain is my new home for all Monster in My Pocket related nonsense, including a planned rundown of all the classic monsters, looking into their background in myth, folklore and popular culture. Click here to go see (my preferred viewing mode is flipcard).

Sunday, 10 September 2017

REVIEW: Ghostbusters 101

Of course, this had to happen eventually. It's a bit of a surprise it happened so soon. We haven't even had a pure 2016 Ghostbusters comic series yet (although one is upcoming from IDW), and here are the ladies, crossing over with the classic team for an interdimensional adventure. Then again, they've already done crossovers with The Real Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and even one-shots with The Lone Gunmen and Mars Attacks! Maybe some day I'll get round to writing my crossovers with Men in Black and Poltergeist. But I digress.

This was a six-part comics series, a little longer then than the previous major crossover events, but still a reasonably concise story. It takes a little while to get going; the first issue is pretty much all set-up, and it's a good while before the two sets of Ghostbusters actually come to meet. This is fine, and the momentum picks up once they do encounter each other, but it suffers from the same problem as a lot of comic series these days, in that it feels as though it's been written for the omnibus release rather than on a monthly schedule. Re-reading it all back in one go, it moves quickly enough and has a good rhythm, but over six months, the first and last installments feel a little damp. I'm sure the trade will work beautifully, especially if they include the extra classroom material that makes the end-piece of each issue.

Aside from the crossover element, Ghostbusters 101 has a great central concept. The original trio of Venkman, Spengler and Stantz were university professors, and alongside their dubious experiments, they would have had to hold lectures and teach students. When a bust goes awry, creating a city-wide clean-up bill the size of Stay Puft's tabard, the 'busters need to generate more cash and Venkman hits on the idea of a ghostbusting experience where students will pay to learn the basic of busting. We don't actually get to see a great deal of the classes, although it sets up a thread that will surely run through any upcoming series, and it does give the gang a whole bunch of extra bodies when things are out of hand in the finale. There are several new characters already included in the set-up, mostly holdovers from the 2017 annual. Cait Banner is Janine's spunky niece, Zoe Zawadzki is her even spunkier, more techie friend, and Evan Torres is their academically-inclined third wheel. Kevin Tanaka is a great new character, the reserved but quietly funny second receptionist, and it's funny that both teams have a receptionist called Kevin, albeit of wildly different abilities. The final new recruit is Garrett Parker, a very bright young man who happens to be on the autistic spectrum, who is dealing with his father's terminal illness (which inevitably comes back to haunt him, literally). A lot of fans though he'd turn out to be the comics version of the Extreme Ghostbusters character Roland, and although he's drawn to look very like him, he's his own character and a welcome addition to the team.

For all that though, it's the crossover we're here for. It's the new kids who create this crisis on infinite Earths, after messing around with the 'buster's interdimensional portal (which was co-constructed by Donatello the Turtle, of course). They cause a ghost to be caught partly between the regular GB dimension and the reality of the 2016 movie, causing an interdimensional bleed which, among other things, leads to two Statues of Liberty standing side-by-side (sadly, neither one walks). The two realities begin to cross over, an anomaly that, in time, will cause both universes to shake themselves apart at a subatomic level. In the words of Egon Spengler, this "would be bad."

It's great fun seeing the classic team and the new team butt heads and eventually work together. Erik Burnham nails the characters' voices just as well as he did with the originals, and Dan Schoening's caricatures of the four are absolutely dead-on perfect. (Delgado's colour work is, as always, gorgeous.) Abby has some fine interplay with Egon and Ray, Abby is the perfect straight-woman as before, and there's a very natural buddy relationship between Patty and Winston - the two normal people. Kevin is a used as a way to throw in as many absurdities as possible, not always with great success, although I did enjoy his aggressive post-it usage, and we even get to meet Mike Hat.

Really, though, there's one thing we're here to see, and probably the main reason the thing got made in the first place. We want to see Holtzmann as a cartoon. Dapper Dan must have been dying to draw her. Cartoon Holtz is perfect, stealing every scene even without Kate McKinnon portraying her. We even get a little info on her prime universe counterpart, who is apparently an FBI agent, and who is undoubtedly going to turn up in future series.

As always, the creative team can't resist chucking in a few nods and winks. Not only does the 2016 movie seem to be set in the same universe as Caddyshack, they sneak a Scrooged reference in there too. The RGB team get a brief appearance through the interdimensional viewer, although here's hoping that one day we get to see the "Answer the Call" team's own "animated" counterparts. There are some fan-pleasing discussions of ghostly physics, questioning why the new 'busters blow up the spooks rather than containing them, why this is a bad idea, and how they got away with it in the 2016 movie. There's a great giant monster moment (something that was missing from the 2016 movie, excepting monstrous balloons), which reuses a monster design from a classic RGB episode. There are few questions unanswered - just whose disembodied voice do we hear speaking to the snarling ghoul that gets lodged between dimensions? - and perhaps these will get followed up in a future series.

Not the greatest series that IDW have done with the Ghostbusters licence, but a fun adventure. I'm looking forward to the 2016 team's own series next year.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The Doctor Who Project Season 41 arrives 23rd September

The latest season of the Doctor Who fanfic series The Doctor Who Project begins with The Throne of Peladon, the first part of a story of adventure and intrigue in the fifth millennium. The story is a sequel to the third Doctor adventures The Curse of Peladon and The Monster of Peladon, and the fifth Doctor audio adventure The Bride of Peladon, and is written by my good friend and occasional collaborator James P. Quick. (The "P" stands for Peladon.)

The upcoming run of adventures in time and space will be downloadable, free of charge, here.