Sunday, 20 October 2019

New magazines - Whotopia #35 and From a Story By #1

Two new issues of fanzines are now out, featuring my very own work.

Issue 35 of Whotopia is an Earth Reptile special, with reviews of the lizard-men's classic serials. I accepted the daunting task of viewing and reviewing 1984's fifth Doctor story Warriors of the Deep. I also provide the latest in my run of "Master Who?" articles, this time taking a side step to the Master's appearances on audio, something which has recently become a rather busy field. There are also articles on the nature of the Silurians and Sea Devils, on the portrayal of dyspraxia in the most recent series, the late, great Terrance Dicks and more, plus an exclusive comic strip.

To download the issue in digital form, simply click on the cover image to the right, or to purchase a physical copy, click on the link here.

Also available is the first issue of From a Story By... the first ever magazine devoted to tie-in fiction books. I take a look back at the four Red Dwarf novels of the 1990s by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, while the issue also includes articles on Star Wars, Dark Shadows, Hammer Horror and much more. To purchase a copy of this paper-and-ink magazine, click here to be taken to the Obverse Books site.


TREK REVIEW: Short Treks 2-1 & 2-2: "Q&A" and "The Trouble With Edward"

Ask a silly question...

The Short Treks format proved successful in its first run, with four short adventures that tied into Discovery. Of these, three were really very good, with only the opener “Runaway” seeming rather throwaway, and even that turned out to be surprisingly important for the resolution of Discovery's second season. The far future setting of “Calypso” laid hints for the finale of the second season and will doubtless tie in to the third, while “The Brightest Star” acted as a prequel to very important developments for Lt. Saru. Only the Harry Mudd episode “The Escape Artist” seem to be a completely standalone adventure, and even that may turn out to be more important later on.

Of course, it's not necessary to watch any of these in order to enjoy Discovery, which is just as well, since CBS has made them as difficult as possible to see for the majority of the world. Now a second run of Short Treks has kicked off, with two episodes released within a week of each other, the beginning of a very incoherent release schedule that will end with a sixth episode in January '20. Once again, it's impossible for anyone outside the US to watch any of these through legal means if they want to catch them before the next run of full Star Trek seasons begin.

So, gripe over. Yes, I've watched “Q&A” and “The Trouble With Edward.” No, it wasn't done legally. If you want to get upset about that, CBS, perhaps these positive reviews will help pay my debt.

The second run of Short Treks is going to be even more varied than the first, kicking off with two silly stories that link in with what we might call the greater Discovery universe. The third, out in November, is also set to feature Anson Mount as Captain Pike, who makes brief appearances in the first two. The fourth and fifth are said to be tied to Discovery in “interesting and unexpected ways” according to showrunner Alex Kurtzman. The final episode is to be a prequel to Picard, taking the Short Treks away from Discovery for the first time. We've also been told that some Short Treks are going to be animated, although whether this refers to some of the second run's instalments or planned episodes for a third series isn't certain.

So, nice mixed bag there. Starting with two fun, throwaway stories that tie in to the popular reimagined version of Pike's Enterprise would seem to be a great idea. Both “Q&A” and “The Trouble With Edward” are a lot of fun, with the first episode rather light-hearted and the second an all-out comedy. “Edward,” in particular, is an absurd episode that wouldn't stand up in an ongoing Trek adventure series, but might give us an idea of how the upcoming Lower Decks animated series will play.

Predictably, the more serious Trek fans hate them.

OK, let's look at “Q&A” first. This was a straightforward side story about the fresh-faced young Spock coming aboard the Enterprise and getting stuck in a turbolift with Number One. In there, he bombards his commanding officer with questions so as to pass the time until they decide to sort things out. It ends up with them singing the “Modern Major General” song by Gilbert and Sullivan, Which is exactly the sort of hilarity that two stuck-up Starfleet officers would think was ridiculous and should be kept between themselves. (Seriously, these are people who think opera is a good time and that jazz is risqué.) Some of the more, shall we say, devoted Trekkies have branded this a betrayal of Spock's character.

I mean, talk about missing the point. Back when he first appeared in “The Cage,” Spock's character was completely different. He was a laughing, smiling science officer who couldn't help shouting his head off on the bridge (“THE WOMEN!”). Writer Michael Chabon explicitly wrote this episode to explore Spock's character at this time, to see his more emotional younger self and explain why he later worked harder to suppress his feelings. In reality, it was because Roddenberry was able to keep one character, so ditched Number One and retooled Spock to take on her emotionless demeanour. In the fiction, we discover it was Number One's fault after all, telling Spock to keep “his freaky” hidden after their bonding session. For all the fans saying that this episode violates canon (and so what if it does?), you're missing the point. The episode is about explaining a contradiction that's already part of canon.

“Q&A” gives us Ethan Peck the chance to play a different side of Spock, but it's Rebecca Romijn who benefits most from this episode. She only had a few scenes who distinguish her version of Number One on Discovery, and here we get a chance to learn more about Una: a passionate character who, like Spock, has learnt to hide her feelings in order to be the sort of officer she believes she needs to be.

It's a light-hearted episode with a more serious message, and it's a refreshing change to have something this small scale in modern Trek. Also, Spock's barrage of questions contains some interesting moments, such as a suggestion that he believes in intelligent design. Still, it's his attack on the Prime Directive that hits hardest. “Not ethical but also illogical?” I find myself agreeing with Spock.

“The Trouble With Edward,” is, as the title suggests, a spin on the classic “The Trouble With Tribbles.” It provides us with, essentially, an origin story for the tribbles, not that that was ever a missing landmark of Trek continuity. What it really is, though, is Archer Trek. Finally! H. Jon Benjamin's voice is unmistakable, and it's great to have him in front of the camera for a change. Close your eyes and it's Sterling Archer or Bob Belcher half-heartedly justifying himself in the ready room.

Edward Larkin is an idiot, yes, albeit a brilliant one, and not the sort of person you expect to see on a Starfleet starship. The same story could be told more seriously, of a man who is brilliant in his field but hampered by poor social ability, rather like good old Reg Barclay on The Next Generation and Voyager. But that's not what this story is; no, this is a pure comedy, something rarely attempted in Trek and never as outrageously as this. Benjamin is pitch perfect in his role, awkward and petulant but pretty sympathetic. Rosa Salazar is equally good as the young Captain Lucero, infectiously optimistic until she has to deal with what it can really be like leading people you haven't chosen to work with.

So here we learn that the tribbles' rapid breeding is due not to natural evolution, but to genetic tinkering by Edward, who added some of his own DNA into the mix. It's ludicrous, yes, and flies in the face of what the franchise has already established about the tribbles – they were said to be prodigious breeders by Dr. Phlox in Enterprise, a hundred years earlier – but it's in keeping with the tone of the episode. As a one-off bit of nonsense, this works, and brilliantly. If you don't want to accept this as part of Trek canon, then fine, but that doesn't mean it's not a great little bit of entertainment. We're clearly not meant to take this seriously; there are shots of tribbles springing out of the fur of their parents, Gremlins-style. Just enjoy it and don't get het up about the “damage to canon” or anything else that simply isn't important.

But do you know what is important? Edward was right. Tribbles would be the perfect food source for a planet facing famine, especially his enhanced ones which seem to reproduce without any obvious food source of their own. Well done Lucero. If you'd just listened, the people of Pragine 63 could be enjoying tribble sandwiches right now, and delicious furry tribble cereal wouldn’t be confined to a post-credits gag.

“Q&A” and “The Trouble With Edward” give us the best idea of what a comedy Star Trek series would be like. I fully expect just as much fan ire when Lower Decks finally materialises.

You want tribbles? Because that's how you get tribbles!

Thursday, 17 October 2019

The Divine Comedy - Office Politics Tour

It's been a good few years since I last saw Neil Hannon perform. Uninterested in going along to the Foreverland Tour in 2016 - the last album being, let's be honest, rather boring - I was excited to see the Divine Comedy again. It had been too long, and the new album was said to be something of a return to form. Office Politics sees Neil embrace the sillier side of his music again, crafting a concept album about work, life and technology, and indulging in a passion for synth pop; a genre he's always played with, but lately and suddenly pushed to the fore. Office Politcs, then, sees a bunch of styles thrown together in a way that shouldn't really work, but somehow does, united by a tongue-in-cheek pretentiousness. Which is exactly what the best DC albums always were.

The best album tours throw in a bunch of old favourites, of course, and so the Brighton Dome performance could only really start one way. It had to be "Europop," one of the band's first singles in its earliest iteration but here performed in its reworked electro version from 1993's Liberation. Sporting a pink suit which fit the atmosphere of Brighton better than it fit him, Neil performed in an office set with talented support. Playing with the set is a new approach based on the performances I've seen before, with Neil using the setting to tell a story of a working life from joining the company to the ritual discomfort of the office party.

Both singles from the album were of course featured: the catchy, privilege-poking "Queuejumper" and the adorable "Norman and Norma," the hit of the album for me. However, the songs that worked best live were the less celebrated ones from the album, particularly the tragicomic "Life and Soul of the Party," and its follow-up, the gorgeously 80s ballad "Feather in Your Cap." It was probably a mistake to perform the two pretentious hard-synth pieces in succession; after dragging through the sub-Kraftwerk "Synthesiser Service Centre Summer Super Sale," the audience weren't particularly in the mood for the more upbeat but still synth-heavy "Infernal Machines." However, the wistful "You'' Never Work in the This Town Again" and "I'm a Stranger Here" regain a lot of DC's classic charm and worked beautifully live.

Neil Hannon's other calling, of course, has been writing theme tunes for sitcoms, and his theme for the non-existent comedy series "Philip and Steve's Furniture Removal Company" is even more of a standout oddity live than on the album. It was the old favourites, though, that kept the atmosphere buoyant, with the obligatory but always beloved "National Express," "Something for the Weekend" and "Generation Sex" getting rousing renditions. I was pleased to hear several favourites from Absent Friends, including a heartfelt performance of the title song, probably the best single piece of the evening. "Commuter Love" and "Come Home, Billy Bird," fit so perfectly with Office Politics' themes that it would have been foolish not to include them.

Switching between new and classic material kept everyone happy, and we were crying out for the second encore.
Bowing out to "Songs of Love" and "Tonight We Fly," Neil steadfastly refused to sing "My Lovely Horse" from Father Ted. Well, it was worth requesting, that man in the audience. He has sung it before at gigs, after all - when I asked him.

All photos sneakily papped by my sister Rebecca Tessier.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Ghostbusters at 35

Although it was officially released in June 1984 in the United States, Ghostbusters didn't see the light of the cinema screen in most of the world until later in the year. In the UK, it wasn't out until December. So, Columbia can be forgiven for staging their anniversary re-release for the Hallowe'en market - well, near enough, anyway.

It's always a treat to see a classic film on the big screen, particularly when it's one that you never had a chance to see the first time round, due to unfortunately missing its release, a lack of showings in your area, or unluckily being nine months old when it was originally released. I have actually seen the film on the big screen before, for Hallowe'en about five years ago, but Ghostbusters is one film I will take the opportunity to see every time I get the chance.

So, thank you Odeon Brighton for hosting this special showing. There weren't very many of us there - how many people go to catch a movie on a wet Monday night? - and there weren't any staff on the door (which raises the question of why I bother paying for this stuff, when I could blatantly just walk in). But still. There was a good atmosphere. Everyone there loves the film, or they wouldn't be there.

So, was it worth making the trek to see a film I've already seen god-knows-how-many times? Well, there wasn't all that much extra in this special anniversary presentation. There were some new interviews with Murray, Aykroyd, Hudson, Weaver, Potts and Reitman, but none of them really told us anything new. Did we learn anything? Only that Sigourney Weaver has aged incredibly well.

However, there were, as promised, several alternative takes of favourite scenes. This was the best part of the showing. So much of the film was ad-libbed that the alternative takes have some seriously different dialogue, and where the dialogue is the same the inference is often very different too. It's not much different to watching a new Blu-Ray release - and there'll doubtless be one to tie in with the new movie next year - but it still added something special to a brilliant film, seen the way it was intended.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Coming Soon...

I have two exciting announcements to make about forthcoming projects!

Firstly, Obverse Books have revealed the cover for issue one of From a Story By... This is a print magazine that has been gestating for some time, and will feature authors such as Paul Magrs, Kara Dennison and John Peel. From a Story By... is all about TV and film tie-in books, celebrating our love of the many weird and wonderful guides, novelisations and cash-ins that accompanied our favourite screen properties. There will be articles on everything from Star Wars to Dark Shadows, and I have written a piece on the four Red Dwarf novels by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. It's not on the site just yet but with a November release date it is sure to be listed soon

Secondly, Altrix Books have revealed the cover for Master Pieces, the upcoming Doctor Who charity anthology starring multiple versions of the nefarious Time Lord, the Master. Ginger Hoesly has created this cover for the collection and it is a thing of absolute beauty. The anthology should be up for pre-order on the Altrix Books site very soon, and will feature stories by authors such as Chris McKeon, Scott Claringbold and myself.