Sunday 28 July 2013

Movie Review: The World's End

 Life's a long old game, and we all move on, to new places, new careers and new people. It's hard to believe that Shawn of the Dead was released almost a decade ago, and that its sitcom precursor Spaced began in 1999. With Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright moving on to bigger and better things, some of us wondered if the legendary 'Cornetto Trilogy' would ever be completed. Now, six years after Hot Fuzz, the trilogy is finally complete, and it's fitting that The World's End centres on a group of friends whose lives have drifted apart, returning to the site of their former glories.

Like the five former schoolboys who return to their hometown of Newton Haven, The World's End sees many familiar faces together again. Every actor who appeared in both Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz appears here, either in a major role or a cameo, and there are more favourite actors besides. Even the opening montage, in which we meet our five heroes during their raucous school years, the film shows off its impressive cast, practically shouting "Look - we've got Pierce Brosnan!" Michael 'Tires' Smiley has a decent role at last, with Mark Heap and Julia Deakin showing up in due course. Only Katie Carmichael and Jessica Hines missing from the old Spaced line-up.

Simon Pegg, as expected, takes centre stage, but unusually in an anti-heroic role. While Shawn and Nicholas Angel were likeable, if flawed characters, sympathetic from the outset, Gary 'The King' King is an utter dickhead. A barely recovering alcoholic clinging to the glory days of his youth, Gary is the sort of kid everyone both loved and hated at school, the guy who always got away with whatever shit he played and pulled all the girls. Perhaps there's a little cheeky vengeance from our geeky creators here, as the popular pack-leader returns as a washed-up drunk. Pegg is, as usual, excellent, totally inhabiting his character and slowly gaining our fondness and sympathy.

The remaining four friends occupy different facets of the 'sensible one' character, but it takes four well-balanced men to keep Gary under even a semblance of control. Nick Frost is predictably brilliant as teetotal Andy, with Paddy Consadine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan all creating likeable, if terribly sensible, characters. With his charm and inability to take no for an answer, Gary manages to persuade each of them to return to Newton Haven to recreate, and finally complete, the 'Golden Mile' - a mighty twelve-venue pub crawl, ending at the legendary inn, The World's End. As they return to their home town - filmed primarily in amusingly bland Welwyn Garden City - they find a town that has moved on only in its increased corporate conformity.

It's a joy watching these five men together - friends in real life as much as in the film - swapping stories and gradually growing back into their friendship, even if Gary is as much of a prick as he ever was. These are faces I grew up with, with Spaced in particular offering my fifteen-year-old self a taste of almost tangible young adulthood. The central tragedy of the film is that Hollywood superstardom is a distant fantasy for most of us. Simon Pegg may have gone on to become the king of the geeks and the toast of ComicCon, but the rest of us moved on to regular jobs and general disappointment. As Gary's unhappiness becomes clearer, we can probably feel for him more than Pegg can.

As the night roles on and the group become gradually drunker, the fantasy element finally makes itself apparent. In a scything satire on corporate buyouts and the 'Starbucksing' of our culture, the conformity of the pubs is revealed to extend beyond their identical menus and furnishings. Riffing on such classics as Quatermass II, The Midwich Cuckoos and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the town is revealed to be in the thrall of an alien intelligence, with anyone who refuses to conform being replaced by a blue-blooded 'blank.'

Edgar Wright stated at ComicCon that he considered The World's End to be a sort of drunken Doctor Who, and there's definitely an element of that. The mix of the extraterrestrial and the quintessentially British brings to mind Doctor Who's contemporary-set episodes (where's UNIT when you need them? They turned up in Shawn of the Dead). Gary King, with his poncy coat and swagger, certainly has an air of the cocky modern Doctors. You could imagine David Tennant rocking up hammered for a fight in a pub with a shout of "It's a fucking Auton!"

After taking on the zombie horror and buddy cop genres, Wright and Pegg simply had to end with an alien invasion. Once the truth is out, the tone shifts into one of stealthy intelligence gathering, interspersed with bouts of shocking violence (although the inky blue blood of the blanks softens the impact greatly). Wright's fight direction is better than ever, having had the involvement of Jackie Chan's fight coordinators, and the drunken brawling is a definite step-up from the Winchester pub battle of Shawn of the Dead. Throughout all this, however, the characters remain centre stage, with each of the five friends getting their moment to shine. Pegg and Wright excel in creating characters that we come to care about, and Gary, Andy, Peter, Steve and Oliver the O-Man are no different.

There are some missed opportunities. Rosamund Pike, as Oliver's sister Sam, does what she can with quite a shallow role, and her presence as a love interest seems unnecessary. She drops out of the plot when not needed, popping up again when required. The same can be said of David Bradley's UFO-nut character Basil (except the love interest part). The final act changes gear once again, upping the pace to a frenetic charge before settling back for the finale, at which the sci-fi trappings take over completely.

While possibly better than Shawn of the Dead, The World's End is a weaker film than Hot Fuzz, less focussed in its parodying of a genre. The humour is broader than in the previous two films, and there are fewer laugh-out-loud moments. The central cast holds it together though, creating five characters we care about throughout the film, and Gary and Andy's reconciliation over past mistakes provide a greater emotional payoff than in either Shawn or Fuzz. Whatever happens, Pegg and Frost's characters always end their films as best friends. Any other result would not sit right.

Through a medley of nineties hits on the jukebox, The World's End takes us on a crawl we'll never forget. That it doesn't quite measure up to Hot Fuzz is a minor criticism; this is still a contender for the finest film of the year. Sit back, grab a pint and unwrap a Cornetto for this trilogy's marvellous finale. Here's hoping that Pegg and Wright work together again in the future. Maybe they should be the ones to bring Doctor Who to the big screen...

Friday 26 July 2013

I wish Bernard were here...

Who was Quatermass? A genius? A scientist, qualified in half a dozen disciplines? An explorer, on a quest to know the unknown? A pacifist, ruing the inevitability of war? A family man, trying to protect his own? A broken man, burdened by guilt? An idealist? An iconoclast? Or was he simply the avatar of Nigel Kneale, the man who created him? He was all these things.

Andrew Keir, as Prof. Quatermass, examines a Martian

On the 18th of July, 1953, episode one of The Quatermass Experiment aired on BBC television. Sixty years later, its influence on television drama in general, and science fiction in particular, is still being felt. These were the early days of television; previous forays into the still niche genre of science fiction has been adaptations of respected novels and short stories, or frothy adventures intended for children. With its horrific, scientifically-minded tone, Quatermass changed all this. This was serious science fiction for adults, written as thought-provoking, disturbing drama.

Nigel Kneale wrote The Quatermass Experiment as part of a long and hugely influential screenwriting career. He is known for his seminal 1954 adaptation of Orwell’s 1984, his early work adapting classic texts and his later career creating original science fiction and horror material for both the big and small screens. Quatermass cemented his reputation as a screenwriter and will forever be his greatest legacy. With his longtime collaborator Rudolph Cartier directing, Kneale created a unique piece of television history.

Bring Something Back

Reginald Tate as Prof. Quatermass

These were the days when space travel remained a theoretical possibility only, the forefront of rocket technology that had been the product of the arms race of WWII. Experiment exists in a lost future; an unspecified time at some point after 1953 in which the fear of the bomb is still with the British public but the march of progress is firmly going forward. The Experiment itself is the vision of Professor Bernard Quatermass: the first manned mission to space. Britain, on the forefront of science, although in cooperation with Australia. The three man crew includes a Briton, and Australian, and a German, quite forward thinking in those postwar years when international tensions were still high. A manned space mission offered a dream of inexorable progress in the face of postwar austerity. Yet it also reflected Kneale’s fears of the future. The possibility that science would yet do humanity great harm was clearly an element in the story of Experiment, as the mission loses control, the spacecraft drifting off course and finally crashing down to Earth with an unexpected content.

Three men went up in the spacecraft, yet only one returned: Victor Caroon. Shocked, unable to communicate, and somehow changed. He does not recognise his wife, Judith, a member of Quatermass’s team of specialists. Caroon’s tissue has been somehow altered. Shreds of information escape from his lips, but not in his own tongue. Slowly, Quatermass and his team realise the truth: the three astronauts have been altered merged, into one being, by some unknown force. A new life form has been born. Following an encounter with a cactus, Caroon absorbs plant matter into his system, mutating and escaping into the outside world, threatening England and all life on Earth with his relentless absorption. For 1950s audiences this was groundbreaking, frightening stuff, an astonishing glimpse of the unknown. Who could know what exists in the depths of space? Not Quatermass, who, driven by his own part in this catastrophe, risks his life to end the abomination.

The Quatermass Experiment starred Reginald Tate as Professor Quatermass, in my opinion a performance that has not been bettered. Although not Kneale’s first choice for the role – that was Andre Morell, who would play the character later – Tate was a veteran actor who brought a steely resolve to the part, couple with a troubled, human element that made Quatermass such a powerful character. Sadly, Tate died before production could begin on a sequel serial. What’s more, only the first two of the six episodes of Experiment exist; television in this period was still transmitted live, and only the first two instalments were even committed to film.

The Destroyers

John Robinson as Quatermass

Quatermass II featured John Robinson as the eponymous Professor. Robinson was a last minute replacement for Tate, and lacks the charisma that made Quatermass such an arresting character. His austere, almost callous performance is nonetheless powerful. The harder edge to his version of Quatermass is in character; we meet Quatermass here as a failure, his new rocket design having exploded catastrophically upon launch at Woomera, Australia. Robinson’s best scene comes early on, as he admits defeat to his colleagues and Paula, his daughter, aware that he shall never get funding to try his experiment again after such a tragedy.

Where the first Quatermass serial was an exploration of the hopes and fears of the new scientific age, Quatermass II is about the prospect of invasion and war. A mere ten years after the conclusion of WWII, the fear of invasion was not far from the minds of the British public. Both Cartier and Kneale’s wife, the author Judith Kerr, had fled the Nazis’ appalling treatment of the Jews in Germanic Europe. Fear of the unlike features prominently throughout the Quatermass serials, as does the fear of invasion, and conquest. Combine this with the increasing fear of Communist infiltration in the mid-fifties, the increasing industrialisation of Britain and the ongoing militarisation, and the origins of Quatermass II become clear.

When Quatermass is called on by his prospective son-in-law to investigate a secret base, seemingly linked, somehow, to a shower of meteorites that have landed in southern England, he is drawn into a conspiracy that reaches to the highest echelons of government. The meteorites are nothing but vessels for an invading force of ammonia-based life forms, a collective intelligence that can infiltrate the bodies and minds of their victims and turn them to the invaders’ cause. As the terrifying scale of the infiltration becomes apparent, Quatermass and his few remaining allies are forced to fight the ‘ammonids’ themselves, taking the offensive in Quatermass II – the Professor’s own rocket design.

Mars, the Bringer of War

Andre Morell as Quatermass

The third serial, Quatermass and the Pit, is commonly considered the finest of Quatermass’s tales. It’s a far more sophisticated piece of television, with the cautious steps towards a more filmic process in Quatermass II having come to a head in 1958 with this gripping, atmospheric piece. Andre Morell finally gets his turn as Quatermass. His version of the Professor is a somewhat posh, but with little arrogance. He’s a touch eccentric, less straight-laced than earlier versions, but unmistakeably intelligent, forthright, creative and highly moral. Quatermass and the Pit is outright criticism of war, with the British Experimental Rocket Group being wrenched from the Professor’s hands and into those of his military counterpart, Colonel Breen. Space technology is being corrupted into weaponry, the growing nuclear threat hanging over the viewers’ heads making its way onto screen.

Kneale’s misanthropic streak begins to rear its ugly head in Pit. When proto-human remains are discovered beneath the earth during the building works in process at Hobb’s Lane, in London. The unprecedented finds threaten to rock science’s understanding of humanity’s evolution, but no one is prepared for just how much. For buried with those fossils is the remains of an alien spacecraft. Quatermass becomes involved in the investigation, and slowly pieces together the truth of the matter. The truth behind the centuries of hauntings at Hobb’s Lane. The truth behind all things supernatural. The truth of the influence of alien life on our own development.

Uncovering the remains of the craft’s occupants – insectoid creatures with devilish horned faces – Quatermass comes to the astonishing conclusion that, millions of years previously, alien life came to Earth. The Martians arrived, and moulded us in their image. Their intelligence, their power, their capacity to advance… and also their hatred, their fear of the unlike, their capacity for war and monstrous cruelty. Quatermass and the Pit is a frightening mix of science fiction and the supernatural, building to a terrifying climax that rips open the secrets of the human soul. Kneale uses these Martian devils as a fictional exploration for what he saw in the heart of humanity: a deep, disturbing darkness.
Richard Wordsworth as Victor Carroon

Enemy from Space

Quatermass didn’t only change the face of television; he influenced the course of cinema as well. Hammer Films bought the rights to create a movie adaptation of Experiment. With an eye on the American market, they cast Brian Donlevy, an actor known for tough guy and noir roles. Disliked greatly by Kneale, he does bring a certain steely authority to the part, but his bullish arrogance is miles from any of the television Professors. Nonetheless, 1955’s The Quatermass Xperiment – respelled to emphasises its mature ‘X’ certificate – was Hammer’s greatest success to date, and spurred the studio’s production of further sci-fi and horror films. The Quatermass Xperiment – marketed in the US as The Creeping Unknown – is the very first Hammer Horror.

Hammer planned to follow Xperiment with a wholly original Quatermass movie, but were denied the character rights by Kneale. They released X the Unknown, starring Dean Jagger as Doctor Adam Royston, a sort of simplified version of Quatermass. An atomic physicist, Dr Royston is given good character by Jagger’s performance, and he would have made a better Quatermass than Donlevy. Unlike the extraterrestrial threats faced by Quatermass, the ‘X’ is a molten being from the magma beneath the Earth’s crust. A product of our own world, still as full of mysteries as the depths of space. Hammer then acquired the rights to adapt the second Quatermass serial, and released Quatermass 2 in 1957. Titled Enemy from Space in the US, it again starred Brian Donlevy, making him the first actor to play Quatermass twice.

For reasons unclear, Hammer chose not to exercise their right to produce a film version of Quatermass and the Pit until 1967. The movie version, retaining its original title in the UK but going by the evocative Five Million Years to Earth in the US, made some tweaks to the storyline and streamlined it, but it was essentially the same. For the first time in colour, Quatermass returned to critical acclaim and this remains one of Hammer’s most popular films. Although Andre Morell was approached to reprise his role, Quatermass was played in the event by Andrew Keir. Keir’s Quatermass is gruff and no nonsense, but with a keen intelligence and a powerful screen presence, a vast improvement on Donlevy.

An Endangered Species

John Mills as Prof. Quatermass

In spite of numerous attempts by the BBC to coax a new Quatermass serial out of Kneale during the 1960s, the Hammer version of Pit remained the only outing for the character during this decade. However, Kneale's career in television soared, and included such notable science fiction productions as The Year of the Sex Olympics and Beasts. By the 1970s, Kneale had a new Quatermass story to tell, and the success of his BBC-produced ghost story, The Stone Tape, led to the commissioning of a new, four-part serial. Goodwill of the part of the BBC faltered, however, and in the event, the final serial was produced by Verity Lambert and Ted Childs for Thames Television and Euston Films, for broadcast on ITV.

The 1979 serial was entitled simply Quatermass, although fans often refer to it as Quatermass 4 to distinguish it from its predecessors. Euston Films also released a cinematic cut of the production under the title The Quatermass Conclusion, another title sometimes attributed to the serial. For his final outing, Quatermass was played by respected actor John Mills. Now an old man, Quatermass has lost much of his spark and vitality, but none of his intelligence and keen observation. While he comes across fairly weak during the opening scenes of the story, his involvement in the latest astronautical mission galvanises him. Mills's Quatermass is a weary old man, lacking in faith in humanity and its endeavours, but one who is revitalised by intellectual curiosity and causes he believes in. While the threat in Quatermass 4 comes in the nebulous form of an unknowable intelligence, harvested the youth of mankind through pagan rites, the driving force for the Professor himself is simply a need to find his missing granddaughter - Paula's daughter.

Quatermass 4 is the most pessimistic of all the serials, blatantly displaying Kneale's contempt for the direction in which culture developed through the twentieth century. Quatermass is a moutpiece for Kneale, horrified by the violent, anarchic society around him. While Quatermass struggles to survive in the dystopian final years of the twentieth century, Kneale's issue was with the sixties and seventies, in which he saw a violent descent of humanity. While the final Quatermass serial is a chilling, evocative and lavishly produced piece of science fiction-horror, it is also a deeply cynical work that betrays an author terrified of youth and vitality. Kneale's own novelisation of the serial adds a great deal of depth to both plot and character, but fails to save the story.

An Uncertain Future

The remains of a Martian

Due to the far-reaching reputation of Kneale and the original Quatermass serials, interest in the Quatermass character remained strong through to the 1990s. Numerous attempts to produce a new cinematic version of Experiment faltered due to complex rights issues, while Kneale's pitch of a prequel serial, privisionally entitled Quatermass and the Third Reich, was met with little interest at the BBC. The ongoing story of Professor Quatermass ended in 1996, with a BBC radio production. The Quatermass Memoirs was a mix of archive material, interviews with Kneale and a new fiction strand in which we caught up with Quatermass, played once again by Andrew Keir, just prior to the events of Quatermass 4. This was Keir's last acting role; he died just a year later.

Nigel Kneale died in 2006, but he lived long enough to see his first, seminal script reach the screens once more. In 2005, digital channel BBC4 produced a low-budget remake of The Quatermass Experiment starring Jason Flemyng as the eponymous Professor. The one-off production was broadcast live, and featured a number of actors who were, or would become, well-recognised faces for genre television fans, including Mark Gatiss, Indira Varma and David Tennant. Richard Fell adapted the script, with Kneale acting as consultant. The production was generally quite effective, yet seemed slow, despite the greatly curtailed running time that seriously underran. Perhaps the fault was with not sufficiently updating the scripts; indeed, this version of the story exists in an even more vaguely defined time period than any of the original serials. While the live broadcast was seen as daringly experimental, the production came across as considerably less ambitious than the original serial, which went out live as necessity.

While the rights situation surrounding Quatermass remains complex, efforts continue to revive the character in some format. The latest such attempt is by the old stalwarts Hammer, recently returned from beyond the grave and producing movies once more. A year ago, a forthcoming cinematic remake of The Quatermass Experiment was announced. There has been no news since. Nonetheless, it can only be a matter of time before Professor Bernard Quatermass returns, in an updated production. For while times have changed and society has moved on, there is still a vast universe out there, full of unknown dangers. We need someone with intellect, curiosity, unshakable faith in science and a dogged bloody-mindedness to see us through. When the unknowable forces arrive from beyond, we need Quatermass.

Reviews are available at Television Heaven for The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit. A review for Quatermass 4 is forthcoming.

Sunday 21 July 2013

Who Book-Quest #6: Grave Matter by Justin Richards

“You may not like me. You may not like what I do, what I shall have to do. But I’m here to help you, and it may be that I’m the only help you have.”

So says the sixth Doctor in Grave Matter, perhaps the perfect rejoinder to this incarnation’s detractors and a fine moment for his fans. Grave Matter is a 2000 entry in BBC Books’ Past Doctors range, written by Justin Richard, then range consultant. He remains the creative director for Doctor Who novels, and has over twenty such works under his belt, plus more for spin-off characters such as Bernice Summerfield, and series of his own creation. Richards is certainly prolific, but his work rarely gets heaped with praise by fans. He’s a solid sort of writer, the Terrance Dicks of the modern era, producing decent, meat-and-potatoes stories rather than ground-breaking works.

Grave Matter is a case in point. It’s solidly traditional, going for the Hammer Horror styled spooky atmosphere of the Hinchcliffe era of the TV series rather than the bombast of the sixth Doctor’s period. There’s an air of mystery throughout the early part of the book, as the Doctor and Peri arrive on the island of Dorsill, unaware of their location in time or space and confused by the anachronistic elements in this Victorian community. This is a red herring on the author’s part, but a genuine mystery unfolds as the travellers explore the isolated settlement, and it becomes apparent that an alien influence has entered into the islanders’ lives.

While there are moments that may have translated better to screen - the action-packed climactic scenes, particularly – Richards has a way with the chills, creating an unsettling atmosphere from the Doctor and Peri’s early encounter with a raving, bedraggled figure, through the increasingly unearthly goings on in Dorsill. As the punning title suggests, Grave Matter deals with the unrestful dead, and although it never becomes an all-out zombie thriller, it has its share of shambling corpses. An ad hoc exhumation turns into a deadly encounter, while later, masses of unfeeling human slaves – not dead, but certainly zombified – form an unstoppable force for the Doctor to try to overcome.

At the heart of the goings on is a thoroughly old-fashioned alien infection plot, in the mould of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers or Quatermass 2, but brought up to date with some interesting speculation on the possibilities of the computational powers of DNA. This gets mangled into an ordinary tale of scientific zeal leading to a nefarious end, as the regenerative properties of the infectious Denarian material lead a group of geneticists on a misjudged quest for immortality for the human race. While it stops short of the sort of horror that Torchwood later explored in its Miracle Day series, the impossibility of death for the infected leads to some horrific scenes that outstrip the traditionalist era it’s based on, including the repeated attempts by one character to commit suicide by increasingly violent means.

There are some fine horror moments, from the clichéd walking dead to the more inventive, such as an alarming sequence in which Peri finds herself face to face with a flock of possessed seagulls – a scene which made me shiver, as I hate the vicious things. Despite a storyline and atmosphere that suggest an update of Tom Baker’s gothic horror era, Richards makes it work perfectly for the sixth Doctor and Peri, both being accurately reproduced without ever falling into the trap of becoming insufferable, as they occasionally did on TV. The Doctor, in particular, is very well characterised: arrogant, impatient and short-tempered when the stakes are high, yet charming and sweetly tolerant when in more relaxed company. Particularly effective is a sweet scene in which he takes time to walk the elderly local gossip home and provide her with some much-needed conversation, remembering what it was like to be old and faced with impatient younger people.

There’s nothing spectacular on offer here, nothing that will make the reader rethink Doctor Who or the characters within. Instead, it’s a straightforward, if reasonably complex tale of paranoia told in a classic horror background. A good, old-fashioned sort of read.

Thursday 18 July 2013


TOS 1.29: Operation - Annihilate!
Captain Kirk vs the Splats

The Mission: Isolate the cause of a wave of insanity spreading through the Galaxy.

Planets visited: Deneva: a class-M planet, the location of the Deneva Colony and Deneva Base. It is considered one of the most beautiful worlds in the Galaxy. It acts as a freighter line base for asteroidal mining in the region. The amazing location work was done at the TRW aerospace centre, where the space probes Pioneer 1 and 10 were built.

Future History: Deneva has been colonised for over a century by this point, i.e at least as far back as the 2160s. Enterprise will later establish that Earth cargo runs have been visiting the planet since as early as 2153. A wave of insanity and death has been travelling across this section of space for centuries, wiping out the civilisations on Beta Portolan, Ingraham B, Levinius 5 and Theta Cygni 12.

Alien life Forms: The alien parasites that plague Deneva don’t get a name. Some materials call them ‘blastoneurons,’ but we like to think of them as the Splats. They’re not the most successful of Trek’s many aliens. Even Yeoman Zahra says “They don’t look real,” and you can’t argue with her when you see the fried-egg monsters. Maybe they could have got away with them visually if they hadn’t added the squeaky, parpy sound effects. And then they start flying about!
Conceptually, they’re interesting. Each Splat is akin to a single gigantic brain cell, linked to its brethren telepathically. Individually, they’re simple, but together they form a single collective intelligence. They attach themselves to a host and use a stinger to inject a web of neural material that spreads through the victim’s body and takes ahold of their nervous system. It issues commands to the host; this, and the excruciating pain they cause, drives the unfortunate host insane. The Splats, apparently extragalactic, seem intent of travelling from planet to planet, using their humanoid hosts to construct and fly spacecraft. Luckily, despite their resilience, they have a single weakness: ultraviolet light.

Captain James T: We discover his brother Sam (aka George Samual Kirk) is living on Deneva with his wife Aurelan and son Peter. Kirk is understandably distressed by the news that Deneva is under threat, and torn up by the deaths of his brother and sister-in-law. He can handle the pressure of being responsible for the fate of a million lives, but is clearly under incredible strain in this episode.

Green-Blooded Hobgoblin: Becomes the latest victim of the aliens. At first, he is taken over and attempts to take the ship, but his incredible willpower allows him to work through the pain. Hard as fricking nails. He volunteers for the experimental procedure to rid himself of the parasite, and considers blindness an “equitable trade-off” for life and sanity. Luckily, Vulcans have an inner eyelid, evolved to cope with the bright Vulcanian sun, which protects his eyes enough that they recover and his sight is restored.

The Real McCoy: Is torn-up by his role in blinding Spock, but he did try to argue for more time for tests when Kirk pushed him forward. His first repsonse to the crisis is to preserve life, and he balks at Kirk’s plan to kill the million colonists to protect the rest of the Galaxy. He considers Spock the best first officer in the Fleet, but would never say so to his face.

Sexy Trek: This week’s sexy yeoman, Zahra, is played by the very beautiful model Maurishka. She gets plenty of screentime, and quite right too.

Future Fashion: Aurelan’s stripy jumpsuit-type thing is kinda Seventies, which makes it pretty much the only genuinely futuristic outfit on offer in the series.

The Alternative Factor: James Blish’s novelisation of the episode in Star Trek 2, working from an earlier version of the script, has a completely different ending.
This episode is another that has been reworked for IDW’s new comic series set in the universe of the 2009 movie. Rather than dying (and being played by Shatner in a ‘tache), Sam Kirk lives and is revealed to have an antagonistic relationship with his brother.

Space Bilge: Why does it take so long for Kirk, Spock and McCoy to realise that light is the Splats’ weakness? They wonder what property of the sun might have freed the pilot who died in the opening moments, going through heat, radiation, gravity… um, what else does a sun do? Then McCoy goes ahead with a full-spectrum exposure, never stopping to consider if only part of the spectrum will do. Kirk is worse, pushing him to test it on Spock before he’s even had ten minutes to get the results in. Spock just walks in to the test without worrying about it, but he is under incredible stress from his infection. Once they finally realise UV will do, they use satellites to bombard the planet; all well and good, but we’ve already learned that the colonists are mainly hiding indoors. UV will kill the aliens outside, but it won’t even get through the windows. Assuming they did manage to blast all the colonists with enough UV to kill the monsters, does this mean they’ll all get sunburnt? It would be pretty miserable if they all died of skin cancer a few years later.

Verdict: Good fun, if clichéd; a pretty straightforward end to the season. Kirk, Spock and Bones all get their moment of focus, but the script relies on them being stupid far too much. It rattles along nicely though, never being anything less than enjoyable, and the three leads impress throughout.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Mythmakers presents: Golden Years

Just to let you all know that 'Golden Years,' the latest edition of Mythmakers, the fiction magazine of the Doctor Who Information Network, is printing now and will be available for order very, very soon.

I'm very pleased to announce that I have provided a story for this special anniversary publication, which includes all eleven official Doctors and a host of talented authors. My story, 'The Sleeping Ones,' features the seventh Doctor and Ace, and will no doubt appear crushingly amateurish next to the works of such talents as Kelly Hale and Blair Bidmead.

You can order 'Golden Years' right here.


I guess the Pacific isn’t so deep after all. While it’s refreshing to see a blockbuster movie that isn’t a direct remake, sequel or adaptation of an existing property, Pacific Rim remains a hugely derivative film. Drawing on the Japanese cinematic traditions of daikaiju and mecha films, Pacific Rim takes as much as it can from these old school genres and dusts them off for a modern audience raised on Michael Bay explosion porn.

The movie is relentless in its pace, dispensing with much of its setup in a brief intro sequence in which we learn that mighty Kaiju have been ravaging the cities of the world since emerging from an interdimensional rift on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. Despite the opening info panel’s claims, kaiju most definitely does not mean ‘giant beast,’ – the best translation is ‘strange creature,’ or maybe ‘monster,’ – but the daikaiju genre of giant monsters battling and wrecking cities has become the primary source for the word in the West. Pacific Rim owes clear debts to the Godzilla series, mecha anime such as Evangelion and kiddie fare like Ultraman and his copycats. As the Kaiju rise to wreck the Earth and orthodox weaponry proves useless, mankind fights back with Jaegers, equally gigantic humanoid fighting machines.

One intriguing element that Pacific Rim adds into the mix is the need for two pilots to operate each Jaeger, sharing a neural link in a technique known as drifting. It’s a clever element that adds a little depth to the otherwise shallow characters, allowing us to explore their memories and see what made these lunatics want to strap themselves into giant droids and go fight monsters. The characters are, however, strewn from purest cliché: there’s the cocky jock who loses someone and has to prove himself fit for the job, the respected commander with a firm demeanour but a heart of gold, the delicate Asian woman with hidden strength, the salt-of-the-earth Ozzie and his bellend son, the overexcitable nerd… the scriptwriting leaves a lot to be desired.

Thankfully, the movie boasts a fine cast who do their best with the thin material. Idris Elba is, of course, excellent, bringing a real dignity to his role as the commanding officer, Pentecost. The lead male, Charlie Hunnam as Raleigh, does great work with what could have been a very shallow role, while his female costar, Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori, also does well, and the two share a good chemistry, which allows their scenes of drifting to really work. Of the supporting characters, Charlie Day does his best with the annoying science nerd Newt, and actually gets a decent sized chunk of the plot, as he develops a strange obsession with drifting with a fragment of Kaiju brain. Torchwood’s Burn Gorman does surprisingly well with a terrible part, Dr. Hermann Gottlieb, who, despite the German name, is a painfully clichéd English twit who says things like ‘By Jove!’ a lot. His comedy double act with Day gets wearing, but it is an effective way of getting the sciencey exposition over without it becoming tedious.

The star turn, however, comes from Ron Perlman, who plays black marketer Hannibal Chau, a lowdown crook who’s made it big selling Kaiju organs. The Hong Kong scenes involving Chau are among the film’s most effective, letting us see the effect of the Kaiju on the world at ground level, from buildings constructed around skeletons to the Kaiju attack shelter. While the HK scenes were probably included to add appeal to the lucrative Chinese market, but they are the only part of the film that really feels like the work of director-producer Guillermo del Toro.

The Kaiju battles are undeniably effective, hi-octane action scenes, but their relentless nature and the decision to add swathes of rain and ocean combat makes it very difficult to actually follow what is happening. The Kaiju themselves are impressive creatures, but they are frequently so difficult to see clearly that there’s no real chance to appreciate them. Wayne Barlow’s excellent creature designs are lost amid a haze of foam and rubble. The Jaegers are just as impressive, each construction echoing the styles of its nationality and wearing their dirt and dents with pride. Within the cockpits, the cast are frequently reduced to macho posing which, when filtered through the display units, makes whole sequences look like they’ve been lifted from an early Playstation game. Thankfully, some of these scenes are used well, bridging the drifting sequences that explore the characters.

The film’s not really about anything, though – the original Gojira personified the nuclear bombs that hit Japan in WWII, while the more recent American effort Cloverfield traded on the atmosphere of terrorist attacks. So, no, this is not a film with great depth. But it is great fun, a fine popcorn movie for monster fans and anyone who likes a decent actioner. It’s certainly extremely well made, and does what it sets out to do brilliantly – only in the final, climactic battle does the film overreach itself. It’s shallow, it’s clichéd, but it’s easy watching and there’s plenty of room for that in today’s cinema. It’s basically a big-budget Power Rangers, but it’s as fun as that sounds, and if nothing else it’ll sure sell a lot of toys.