Sunday, 26 July 2015

WHO REVIEW: Temporal Logbook (Furnell, Mammone, Strickley)

Doctor Who fanfic collections - “fanthologies” - have been around for donkey's years, but there's been a lull since the series returned to TV. It seems that we're now getting something of a resurgence in the form, following the War Doctor collection Seasons of War, and with several collections lined up. The latest, Temporal Logbook, comes from Pencil Tip Publishing, and is edited by Bob Furnell, Jez Strickley and Robert Mammone, all of whom have been part of the very long-running and acclaimed fanfic series The Doctor Who Project. It is also one of the best such collections I've read, featuring an exceptionally high standard of work.


Temporal Logbook takes a very simple, but undeniably effective, approach: twelve stories, one for each official incarnation of the Doctor, collected in chronological order. If there's a theme for the collection, it's the effect that the Doctor has on people's lives, but beyond that, this is a broad and varied selection of stories mixing numerous styles.


The stand-out stories for me are the fourth adventure, “The Eternalist,” by Craig Charlesworth, and the eleventh, Michael Itig's “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell.” The former has a fascinating central concept, that of a boy who can perceive all moment in time at once, developed into a gripping but contained story with a strong element of horror, and a pitch perfect representation of the fourth Doctor. It also has perhaps the best description of the nature of time I've ever encountered. In “Heaven and Hell”, the Doctor becomes involved in the life of Pete, an older gay man, whose life is being swallowed by regret. A powerful treatise on depression and hope, it's an exploration of gay life in the UK that comes across as deeply personal. Really quite beautiful.


Relationships and personal demons feature strongly in the collection, with the more modern, emotionally aware approach given to older Doctors. The opening story, Michael Baxter's “A Modest Intervention,” is an unusual tale for the first Doctor, in which the time traveller takes a puckish glee in matchmaking. Not the sort of thing we normally expect the first Doctor to be concerned with, but he does engage it with very good reason. The fifth Doctor encounters an intriguing and controversial figure in the person of Charles Dodgson. With “Impossible Things Before Breakfast” Hannah Parry has a wonderful way with Carrollian whimsy, tying it to a strong character piece, and making unexpected parallels between the author and the Time Lord.


Several of the stories are steeped in continuity, which is fine and dandy; this is a collection for fans, after all. It's not continuity for the sake of a nod and a wink, though; it's all in the service of a good story. J. E. Remy's second Doctor story, “Breathe,” has a very Moffat-ish title, but is actually a full-on dive into the series' mythology. Featuring Time Lords a-plenty, it investigates what happened to Salamander after he was swept away into the Time Vortex. “The Telemacad” is another story that follows up on a television serial. A third Doctor story by Benjamin Pocock, it's set in ancient Greece and written in a pseudo-classical style, something which is hard to pull off without becoming trite or dull. Pocock succeeds in crafting an enjoyable tale, with portrayals of Three and Jo that are completely recognisable, even translated through archaic style. Hamish Crawford's “Mud and Metal” is the missing adventure of the ninth Doctor versus the Cybermen, a fun tale with a touch of horror.


Other tales take what could be well-worn ideas and give them something new. “The Brain Drain” by Ian Larkin has the Sixey and Peri encounter a mind-sapping cyborg, but makes her the central character, and a sympathetic one at that. Sarah Parry's “A Plague on Both Your Houses” has an excellent visual – the creepy, beaked plague doctors of the time of the Black Death – and uses it to create a gripping tale for the seventh Doctor and Ace. Some stories pair the Doctor with new companions, such as Nick Mellish's enjoyable “Changed and Confused.” A story featuring the eighth Doctor and taking place on the edge of the Time War, it's fairly slight, but has strong characterisation for the Doctor and his short-term assistant, Delaylia, a young Time Lady who is coming to terms with her first regeneration. Also, it has Voord in it. I like the Voord. Also featuring a new companion is the tenth Doctor story, “The Creature of Vengeance,” (a proper Doctor Who title there). This takes Ten and his unwitting travelling companion Sophie on a trip to Prague, for an adventure with Nazis and a memorable monster.



The collection ends with a story from the always excellent Meg MacDonald. “Many a Weary Foot” has a subtle nod to series continuity, featuring a lonely, withdrawn twelfth Doctor between the episodes Kill the Moon and Mummy on the Orient Express, who finds solace in an unlikely place. It's a straightforward character piece, no monsters, no threats to history, and beautifully told, with an extra little something for fans of the modern era of Doctor Who. It rounds off the collection perfectly, showing us the effect that an ordinary human being can have on the Doctor. An excellent conclusion to a collection I can heartily recommend.


You can buy the book from Lulu.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

REVIEW: Strangeness in Space

EPISODE ONE: FEATHERHEADS

Well, that was stupid. Rather like the classic work of literature, Trev and Simon's Stupid Book. The latest crowd-funded extravanganza from Clare Eden, previously producer of the Parsec Award-winning The Minister of Chance, only rather less sensible than that and with more shoe puns. Strangeness in Space is a free-to-download audio comedy to kids of all ages, featuring the sort of sophisticated wit you might expect from a moderately talented dry cleaner (who doesn't do duvets, naturally). Written by Trevor Neal and Simon Hickson - better known as Trev and Simon - this is half an hour of joyous absurdity that appeals to the simple fool within all of us.

Trev and Simon play Trev and Simon, each one half of the 80s synth pop duo Pink Custard, while Sophie "Ace" Aldred plays Sophie, previously manager of the NASA Space Centre gift shop (actually a dream job of mine). As a vendor of toy space shuttles and astronaut ice cream, Sophie is by far the most qualified of the three to lead their accidental mission into space. Lost in a distant galaxy and bound for the planet Mirth, their only assistance on their quest a not-so-hyperintelligent robot named LEMON, what hope do these hapless humourists have against the Featherheads?

The cast is rather spectacular, not only the core trio doing what they do best, but also sometime-Dalek Barnaby Edwards as LEMON and the wonderful Doon Mackichan as the easily distracted narrator Bounty Flightingale. This is but the first episode, with episode two hopefully coming soon. Already recorded, episode two requires a little more funding for post-production. The future of the series will feature such luminaries as Rufus Hound, Carol Cleaveland and Peter Guinness. 

It is entirely free, but isn't on general release until the 1st of August. If you want an early listen, spending a few quid in the Space Shop will net you a link to the download, and will help get episode two funded. 

Suitable for children and idiots, Strangeness in Space is a nostalgic and wonderful bit of nonsense.

Try it if you like; Live & Kicking; late 1980s Doctor Who; eggs. 



Friday, 24 July 2015

Peculiar Times: Furthest Tales of the City

Another exciting publication from Mr Philip Purser-Hallard, from Obverse Books.



Peculiar Times: Furthest Tales of the City: You (Yes, you over there! Pay attention!) will be pleased to learn that the fourth anthology of City of the Saved  short stories,  Furthest ...

Sunday, 19 July 2015

REVIEW: ANT-MAN

Ant-Man is a fun, exciting superhero flick, a solid instalment in Marvel's ongoing mega-franchise. While it's never going to set the box office alight like an Avengers film, it's a great experience – better than many would have expected it to be. Indeed, Ant-Man went from being a fascinating new production with real potential to seeming like a sure-fire bomb, simply by losing its original director. That question is going to hang over it forever, of course – just what would Edgar Wright's Ant-Man have been like?


Several critics have pointed out that Ant-Man, as it exists today, would have made more of a splash back in 2008, say, had it been made as Marvel's inaugural release instead of Iron Man. It shares a lot of DNA with that film, being a fairly straightforward origin story for a potential superhero who has a long way to go to learn to be heroic. This could have happened; Edgar Wright started work on the project way back in 2006, but his commitment to other productions, most significantly The World's End, kept him from working on it for long stretches. While Ant-Man sat on the back burner, both the eponymous hero and his partner the Wasp were kept out of Marvel's roster of films; indeed, Janet van Dyne was written into Joss Whedon's earliest scripts for The Avengers before being removed.


That said, there's no guarantee that Ant-Man would have been made a headlining hero back then. The Hank Pym version of the character, along with Janet's Wasp, were founding members of the Avengers in the comics. Now though, they look like the quaint sixties throwbacks that they are. Shrinking superheroes are a harder sell in the 21st century, when there's a temptation to be deathly serious about everything. It's for this reason that Edgar Wright, and his co-writer Joe Cornish, seemed like such a perfect fit for the project. Creators with a background in eccentric comedies and a demonstrated love of the absurdity of comics, they, if anyone, could find a way to make Ant-Man work. When Wright walked after eight years working, on and off, on the production, his cast almost walked with him. Quite what happened we still don't know, although by most accounts it sounds like Wright's vision was too different from the rest of Marvel's stable.






However, that seems a little hard to credit now. While Ant-Man has similarities in content to Iron Man, it's tone and style are distinctly different. The film it's most similar to is Guardians of the Galaxy, both due to its action-comedy style and its loveable crim leading man, but it doesn't really feel quite like any of the Marvel films so far. There's a warmth and real-world familiarity to the movie, amongst all the hyper-technology and ant wrangling. At its heart it's a story about family, about two men who are deeply flawed but will do anything to do right by their daughters, even if their understanding of what's right is skewed at times. Wright's version, I would imagine, would have leant further on the comedy, and have felt more like the aforementioned World's End than GotG. Ant-Man is full of comedic material, but it's not an out-and-out comedy. That's not to say it isn't funny; some scenes, particularly in the final act, are quite hilarious. However, the balance between pathos and humour isn't as deft as in Wright's work.


We'll never know, of course, unless an unexpected director's-remake arrives ten years down the line. Much of the original script is said to survive in the final version, reworked by Adam McKay and leading man Paul Rudd. Peyton Reed directs, and while he lacks the flourish of Wright, he does a fine job and handles some truly complex and spectacular sequences well, both for dramatic and comedic purposes. The effects are, as we have come to expect, excellent throughout; only the de-ageing effects during the opening flashback scene struggle to convince, and then only at certain angles. (This is a field in which effects have truly come forward, as evidenced also by the latest Terminator instalment.) The continual zapping of people and objects between sizes leads to some brilliant sequences, but it's the fight in the child's bedroom in the final act that really triumphs. It's here that the juxtaposition of action and comedy works best, with an effective guest role for Thomas the Tank Engine (Triple-T. E. to his fans).


Shrinking men have a long and illustrious history in genre works, but it's the Ant-Man's ability to control ants using special apparatus that is the hardest sell for the film. There's a suitably just-about-plausible explanation for it, but it's hard to swallow. Thankfully, the script accepts how utterly ridiculous the film's premise is, comments on it and moves on. Again, it's why a comedic approach works best; audiences would laugh at, not with, a straight telling. In spite of an attempt to make us root for one of the ants, who is christened Anthony, the critters are never made into characters in the piece, but they're more than tools. An army of chitinous pets with the best of training. Still, the movie does include the most heart-breaking ant-related moment since Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.


It's a far more focussed, contained affair than Marvel often give us. Their self-styled Phase Two has been all about cross-pollination, with no film standing on its own. While Ant-Man still has links to other films in the franchise, it's the most standalone story for some time, not including Guardians of the Galaxy. Aside from the post-credits scene and some cheeky nods to Spider-Man and the like, the appearance of Anthony Mackie as the Falcon is the only element that truly ties the film to its sister productions, and although it works well, it does seem quite forced in. Nonetheless, this is a far, far tighter production than the exhilarating but flabby Age of Ultron.


What also sets this apart from most of Marvel's films is that Scott Lang is an ordinary guy. OK, he's an exceptional safe-breaker, mechanic and electrical engineer, but he's still just a bloke who's made some mistakes and is trying to sort himself out. Paul Rudd may not be everyone's idea of leading man material but he's perfect for Lang, likeable but believable when it comes to the more heroic side of things. His feeble gang of friends provide suitable comic relief, particularly Michael Peña as the relentlessly positive Luis. Abby Ryder Fortson steals her scenes as Cassie, Lang's young daughter, and gets some of the funniest lines of the film. Michael Douglas is spot-on as Hank Pym, the first Ant-Man, now an old man with a life of regrets. Pym is not the most likeable of Marvel's characters, and making him into a secondary character rather than a lead was a wise move, especially as some of his more egregious character faults are still visible. Douglas manages to portray him both as dignified and a little pathetic. Standing out is Evangeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne, Pym's daughter and reluctant ally in the raid on the laboratory. She starts off as a hard, unlikeable character, but becomes immeasurably more vulnerable and open as the film progresses without losing any of her strength, resolve or toughness, and it's rare that we get to see that of a female character. She's still relegated to sidekick status here, but at least she'll be taking wing as the Wasp in a future film someday.


Ant-Man has a better villain than we've seen in a long time. Darren Cross is no Loki, but he has character and definition that has been sorely lacking in Marvel baddies of late. While he does have the basic supervillain qualifications – sociopathic tendencies and a desire for power – he also has character and motivation beyond that. Resentful of both Pym and Lang as the former's earliest protege, Cross's vindictive behaviour actually has some motivation behind it, however simplistic. He's also given life by a very charismatic Corey Stoll, who brings the villain to life in a way that Ultron, Ronan and Malekith never achieved. The only problem is that, once he dons the impressive Yellowjacket armour, he is rather swallowed up.



In its final act, Ant-Man takes a brief sidetrip that opens up possibilities for the future. Lang falls into the quantum realm (Microverse, Subatomica, whatever you want to call it), an element that I understand was added in the script reworks. Although brief, the sequence is spectacular, and leaves open the potential for other mysterious realms to be explored in future films, something that could work well for Thor or Dr. Strange. There are other directions for the character to take in the almost inevitable sequel, from taking the opposite direction and becoming Giant Man to bringing back Janet van Dyne from her quantum exile (the character being very obviously kept unrecognisable so as not to cause problems with future casting decisions). Maybe a bigger role for Judy Greer, playing an irritating mother in her second blockbuster of the year (after Jurassic World). Just so long as they can sneak an Archer quote in. At the end of the day, though, Ant-Man has potential to take his place as one of the Avengers. We shall have to see how his appearance in Civil War plays out.



Saturday, 18 July 2015

CAPTAIN'S BLOG: TOS 2-18 - 2-19

2.18) The Immunity Syndrome
or
Captain Kirk vs. the Space Amoeba

The Mission: Investigate the loss of communications with the starship Intrepid and solar system Gamma 7a.

Planets visited: None

Space Phenomena: The Enterprise encounters a zone of darkness, a sort of hole in space, a black spot that is not solid, liquid or gas, nor a dust cloud or nebula. It's a region composed of some kind of energy entirely anthithetical to the energy that exists in ordinary life. The Enterprise launches a telemetry probe, which is blasted with noise before ceasing to function. Even at 100,000 km, the zone starts to drain the crew's energy, first making them inordinately tired before causing the more susceptible members to slip into comas. When the ship is swalloed up, all the stars vanish from view. Within the zone, all actions by the ship operate in reverse; to try to reverse away, the Enterprise has to thrust forward.

Alien life forms:

The Space Amoeba: At the centre of the zone is the creature, a gigantic single-celled organism comprised of protoplasm, 11,000 by 3000 miles across. It's a huge, red, gelatinous blob, constantly shifting in form. Emitting a field of negative energy, it drains the life force of everything in its vicinity, including the crew of the Intrepid and the billions of inhabitants of system Gamma 7a. What's worse, it's preparing to reproduce by fission.

Vulcans: The Intrepid is manned solely by Vulcans (so mixed species crews are probably quite unusual in this period). Since the physics of the dark zone operated contrary to logic, the Vulcans were unable to conceive of what was happening to them, and were wholly unprepared to escape. According to Spock, Vulcan memory goes centuries and cannot recall a conqueror.

Captain James T: He sounds absolutely knackered even before all this crap starts. We never find out what mission they've just come from, but it was clearly exhausting. Kirk's looking forward to a nice bit of R&R at Starbase 6. The Starbase instead sends him on this mission, and he's not exactly happy about it. When it comes to investigating the creature, Kirk of course insists he go in, even though he is the least qualified. He's pretty unfair to Spock, bitching when he doesn't have sufficient data to tell him exactly what's going on. He'd be completely lost without him. He's torn up over the decision to send one of his closest friends to their likely death. It's Kirk who eventually conceives of killing the alien using antimatter.

Green-Blooded Hobgoblin: Spock feels the death of the crew of the Intrepid, a psychic episode in which he is overwhelmed by the death of four hundred Vulcans. He's hugely critical of human attitudes to death compared to Vulcans'. Both Spock and Bones volunteer to investigate the amoeba; Spock wins out in the end because of his physiological and emotional strengths. Plus, he has a personal stake, after dealing with the deaths of all those Vulcans. He's ready to sacrifice himself, but in his determination finds a way for the Enterprise to destory it. When he thinks he's going to die, he makes a log leaving everything to the crew.

The Real McCoy: Bones has the medical knowledge to explore the alien, and he's dying to explore this unknown creature. He considers it the greatest experiment ever. He hypothesises that humanity's purpose in the universe is to act as antibodies against these alien infections. There's a ridiculous rivalry between Bones and Spock, but at the end of the day, they have great respect for each other. Spock thinks McCoy has a martyr complex, however.

Space Bilge: Space Amoeba Drinking Game: take a shot every time a character says “penetrate.” This can also be played with most Next Generation episodes. (Yes, we're puerile.)


The Verdict: A classic science fiction story, with a great, tense build up. We don't see the monster until twenty minutes into the episode. The effects for the alien are amazing, especially in the original version. It's also a great episode for the central team of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, their individual strengths and weaknesses coming together to save the ship.