Thursday 28 May 2015

Hammerama: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

There have been over twenty screen adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Hound of the Baskervilles made since 1914. Of all these, Hammer's 1959 version remains one of the most popular and well-regarded. It marks several firsts for Holmes on film: it is the first of the many Baskervilles adaptations to be made in colour, and also marks the first time that the great Peter Cushing played the sleuth. He would go on to play Holmes for the BBC nine years later, in which time he would get another attempt to adapt the story. Cushing's love of the source material is well known, and he brought much of his knowledge of Sherlock Holmes to the production, from his performance to advice on the set dressing. Famously, he suggested Holmes should affix his correspondence to the mantlepiece with a jackknife, as in the original stories.

As a gothic mystery, The Hound of the Baskervilles was eminently suited to the Hammer treatment. It's a perfect marriage of studio, director and material, Terence Fisher's gothic horror stylings bringing out the spookier aspects of the story, while the rationalist nature of the story keeps him from indulging too much in his excesses. That said, plenty of Hammer's excesses are on display here, right from the extended prologue, taking a macabre glee in Hugo Baskerville's (David Oxley) deplorable actions. What little blood we see is glowing crimson, there's a ritual sacrifice, an underground mine sequence, and a gratuitous tarantula thrown in for good measure. For all this, and sundry little tweaks to the story, it remains mostly faithful to the plot. The strangest change is to Miss Stapleton, Mr. Stapleton's vicitmised wife in the novel, transformed into his vengeful lunatic daughter (Marla Landi) for the Hammer translation.

The real draw, though, is the cast. As well as Cushing giving perhaps a career great performance as Sherlock Holmes, his great friend as co-star Christopher Lee plays Sir Henry Baskerville with brooding class. The chemistry between Lee and Cushing is as strong as ever, even if this does have the consequence of making it appear that Holmes and Sir Henry are more familiar than they should be (excepting the classic scene of their misunderstood first encounter). Then there is Andre Morell, in my opinion, one of the great Watsons, erudite and resourceful, exactly what is needed for a story in which he shoulders so much of the action. It's a fantastic central trio, raising the production above its challengers. Plus, Cushing and Morell together make it almost like the Doctor and Quatermass working as consulting detectives. There are some excellent turns by other cast members, particularly mighty Francis de Wolff as Dr. Mortimer and John le Mesurier as the servant Barrymore. Still, they're just support for that classy core group.

The only thing that lets this film down is the rushed and anticlimactic ending, but that's true of every version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. A classic.

Happy birthday to Mssrs. Cushing and Lee!

2015 in Palaeontology (so far)

Yi qi

This is the most fantastic discovery this year. Yi qi is a frankly bizarre flying dinosaur that displays features of both birds and bats, an entirely new method of flight adaptation to anything seen before. A member of the scansoriopterygidae, or epidendrosauria, Yi's relatives are extremely birdlike, with complex feathers, but with extended fingers that suggested, at first, that they were arboreal animals, adapted for climbing. Yi is so well preserved, however, that the fossil has revealed skin impressions, including webs of thin skin between the fingers. At first glance, illustrations of Yi look like archaic illustrations of pterosaurs, but this is a genuinely new form of dinosaurian flight - a combination of batlike wings with birdlike feathers. It's unknown if fellow epidendrosaurs shared this feature, but it seems quite likely. It's a fascinating sideline on the evolution of the flight of modern birds.

Microscopic analysis of the Yi fossil has revealed the presence of melanosomes - pigmentation organelles. The dinosaur was mostly coloured black, with yellow or brown feathering to its head. Yi is thought to have inhabited a subtropical environment, and shared it with pterosaurs such as ChangchengopterusArboroharmiya, a tree-dwelling mammal, and archaic salamanders. Yi also has the distinction of having the very shortest generic name of any dinosaur; indeed, its full specific name, Yi qi (meaning "strange wing"), is as short as is permitted by taxonomic rules.


This is an odd one. Supposedly, Chilesaurus is a basal tetanuran, roughly ancestral to the group that led to carnosaurs, coelurosaurs and megalosaurs. And yet, it has features from all sorts of different dinosaurian groups. While its features are mostly theropodal, its teeth clearly indicate herbivory. Its pelvis points backwards, as in the Ornithischia, another adaptation for herbivory - more room for a big, fermentory gut. Several theropod families adapted to that lifestyle and developed the bird-like pelvis, including therizinosaurs and, of course, birds themselves. Chilesaurus had strong arms with a large, sharp primary claw, which is found in many "prosauropods." In fact, just looking at it, I'd guess it was a basal sauropodomorph, which are very similar to basal theropods, but the timing is wrong. It's a Tithonian species, late Jurassic... all most odd.


An ancient bird, Archaeornithura existed 130 million years ago in the early Cretaceous, and is the earliest example of the Ornithura, the clade of "true birds" that includes all modern birds and many extinct lineages. Although it retained many archaic features, such as clawed fingers, it also displayed several modern characteristics including fan-shaped tail feathers, a familiar wishbone, and an alula - the highly adapted thumb that aids in avian flight. Indeed, it seems to have been an adept flyer, while its long legs and foot structure suggest it also lived as a wader. The discovery of the beautifully preserved fossils of Archaeornithura has necessitated another rethink of bird evolution, since such advanced characteristics were not thought to have arisen so early.


A rather lovely name for a dinosaur, Nebulasaurus. A basal eusauropod, albeit only represented by a partial skull, there's not a great deal it can tell us about early sauropod development. However, it does increase the diversity of sauropod findings in China, the Yunnan region being a particularly fossil-rich part of Asia. Nebulasaurus lived around 170 million years ago in mid-Jurassic.


With a cracking name (meaning "butcher"), Carnufex was a beast of a croc, ten feet long and five feet tall (and not even fully mature at that size). An near-complete skeleton was found in North Carolina, in the Carnian stage of late Triassic rock. An early crocodylomorph, Carnufex is more advanced than the brutish rauisuchians that ruled the early Triassic, but still basal to true crocodilians. It had a long, narrow snout full of serrated teeth, with a skull covered in bumps and grooves that may indicate some kind of horns or other adornment.


An early marine reptile, ancestral to the icthyosaurs, that lived in shallow waters in the early Triassic. Unlike later, true icthyosaurs, Catorhynchus was a small, probably amphibious animal with legs adapted into flippers not unlike those of seals. It had dense bones, that would have helped weigh it down and allowed it to feed on the bottom of shallow coastal waters. It is surmised that it was a suction feeder, hoovering up soft-bodied prey from the seabed. The most primitive animal that can confidently be called an icthyosaurimorph, it helps shed light on the development of the Icthyosauria, which otherwise appear out of nowhere in the fossil record following the catastrophic Permian extinction event.

Yoshi garevskii

In spite of the name, this is not a dinosaur. It's not even a reptile. They used the name Yoshi for a fossil and they didn't keep it for a dino? There should be a rule against that. Yoshi garveskii was a big cat, a Metalurine felid, one of the "false sabretooths" like the more famous Dinofelis. Previusly included in the genus Metalurus, Yoshi was a mid-sized animal, larger than a lynx but not as big as a cheetah, so fairly diminutive for the family. Unlike true sabretooths, which had oversized, blade-like teeth, Metalurines had what might be called medium-sized fangs, conical like modern cats' but significantly larger. The best thing to imagine would be a particularly toothy clouded leopard.


I love anomolocarids. Half a billion years ago, the lands were empty but the seas were full of bizarre creatures which have left no descendants. The anomalocarids might have been related to arthropods, like insects and crustaceans, but have so many weird features that no one is really sure what they are. One thing we do know is that they dominated the oceans of the Ordovician period, gigantic predators for their time. Aegirocassis lived 480 million years ago, descended from earlier hunters like Anomalocaris itself and had adapted itself to filter feeding. At over two metres long, it may not sound like a particularly huge beast (although I wouldn't want to meet one on the beach), but it was probably the biggest animal in the world at the time. It was essentially the Ordovician equivalent of the blue whale, only with a shell and tentacles. What a wonderful creature.

Tuesday 19 May 2015


Season One, Episode Six - The War of the Undies and Vests, Baby

Dandy and co. are drawn into a eternal war on the planet Eden.

We're Alien Hunters, Baby: Eden is home to two related alien races, the Undies/Undians and the Vestians, both unregistered. They're not very pretty, and look like they developed from sea creatures. The Undians have crab-like heads, red and white flesh and long, flexible arms, while the Vestians are purplish-blue, with hammerheads and bulbous forearms. Both species have a chest cavity in which they can store weapons. The biggest difference between the races is their polarised cultural mores. While the Undians cover only their nether regions and consider it obscene to go bottomless, the Vestians let it all hang loose and think the topless Undians are disgusting. They've been warring over this intractable schism for the last ten thousand years. The Undie and the Vestie we meet in this episode are the last of their kind, and by the time the episode is over, they're extinct.

I Know This Planet, Baby: Eden was a real garden spot ten millennia ago, but blown to smithereens in the war between the two factions. Now little more than a debris field with a single moon, it is still a war zone. Each survivor has made a base on a fragment of the planet, and are fighting over the dominance of the moon, protected by automated missile systems. The moon also erupts with dangerous geysers.

He's Dandy, Baby: Dandy spends much of this episode making wild claims that he was a surfer ace before he became an alien hunter. QT and Meow are pretty taken in, before he reveals that he pulled the whole thing out of his ass. That said, when the desperate space surf to safety happens at the climax of the episode, he holds his own. Captured by the sole surviving Undian, he happily parades around in his tight underpants and rapidly takes against his former friend Meow, on the opposing side. He reads Playbay (sic).

He's Not a Space Cat, Baby: Meow is recruited by the suriving Vestian, due to his dressing in nothing but a loose top (although he thought it was some kind of sarong). While he is just as easily radicalised as Dandy, even he can agree that getting the two aliens to be registered is a good moneymaking idea, and will require them to make peace. Also, there's promise of BooBies at the end of it.

He's Just a Little Obsolete, Baby: QT is revealed to be a very resourceful robot. Not only is he capable of repairing the Aloha Oe after it takes heavy damage in the missile attack, he also proves to be an adept diplomat. Sadly, he takes it all a little too far, and his strict adherence to protocol leads to the Undian and Vestian once again fighting. No better than his crewmates, he is quite willing to leave Meow and Dandy to die in the conflagration until he comes up with an idea to surf to safety.

Don't Quote Me, Baby: "I'd be dead if I'd gone commando!"

The Bottom Line, Baby: Classic sci-fi, really, a tale of the stupidity of war in the vein of Jonathan Swift, although to my mind, it is reminiscent most of the classic Star Trek episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield." The joke wears thin after a while, but it makes its point. The game Spore has an influence on the visual and sound design of this episode, although the English dub makes the aliens sound a little like Yoda. The ending is very Dark Star.

The Occasional Diary of Miss Iris Wildthyme

If you like Doctor Who, silliness, time travel stories and campery, try out the adventures of Ms. Iris Wildthyme. You can get a little taster here, featuring four stories, for only 49p!

Thursday 14 May 2015


"These are the spectacular adventures of Space Dandy and his brave space crew... in space!"

Series One, Episode Four - “Sometimes You Can't Live With Dying, Baby”

It's the zombie episode! Everyone dies. Everyone in the universe.

We're Alien Hunters, Baby: The Stiltonians are a species of greenish alien slugs with manipulating tentacles. They are characterised by fast movements and quick reflexes, but are gentle and friendly. Unlike the one that Dandy and crew capture, because it is a zombie Stiltonian, that starts the whole zombie pandemic by biting Meow. There are many, many different species in the Galaxy Hospital, from the green, beaked doctor, the elfin nurses and what looks like some kind of horrific walking anus.

He's Not a Space Cat, Baby: Meow falls deathly ill, although only QT notices. He's strangely more content to follow Dandy's orders when undead.

He's Just a Little Obsolete, Baby: At least QT is observant enough to see that something is wrong with Meow. It's pretty unlikely Dandy would have survived any time at all without QT to keep an eye on him. Dandy repays him by stuffing him into a marauding zombie beast's mouth. In fairness, Dandy reasonably believes that robots can't be zombified; he is, however, mistaken, and QT joins the ranks of the undead.

He's Dandy, Baby: Basically brushes off any concern for Meow until QT manages to convince him to take a trip to the Galaxy Hospital, whereupon Dandy is very happily surrounded by numerous nubile space nurses. None of them have any interest in him, not that this discourages him in any way. Neither illness nor imminent zombification are enough to quite put Dandy off the quest for space nurses. At least he likes chicks who are “both hot and smart,” so it's not like he doesn't have standards. It really does take a lot to phase Dandy, but a hoard of zombies does freak him out.

Dandy displays some pretty ninja moves when battling the twin threats of bounty hunters and zombies, and is able to escape from Galaxy Hospital via helicopter. Unfortunately, the pilot is a zombie. After zombification, Dandy and crew's un-lives carry on much as they did before, only more dead. They still go to BooBies, after all. After a few months, Dandy remembers a life insurance policy he took out when he was trying to bang a saleswoman, and cashes in.

There's Bad Guys Too, Baby: Dr. Gel is still on Dandy's trail on the behest of Admiral Perry, who has employed some bounty hunters to help track him down. The mercenaries are a mixed bunch of aliens, led by pink arachnid with a Scottish accent. As ruthless as they are, they're not prepared for the zombies. Later, Dandy and co have to contend with hired assassins employed by the insurance companies to take out the zombies, which are bankrupting them.

Being Dead is Hard, Baby: Zombification leads to an emotional cycle of despair and the urge for raw meat. It is, however, preferable for a zombie to eat yoghurt, which is full of helpful bacteria. Zombies can communicate using a series of surprisingly subtle moans and grunts. Bright sunshine is also helpful in maintaining freshness. Many zombies have an inexplicable desire to spend time in the mall. Eventually, all life in the cosmos is zombified, and finally, universal peace is achieved.

The Bottom Line, Baby: Romero references abound in this episode, from the mall gag to the trio sitting down to watch one of his movies at the very end. Ridiculous fun, full of bizarre aliens, zombie cheerleaders, zombie babies, zombie fridges... Even the Narrator, who has a much larger role to play once the episode becomes otherwise dialogue-free, ends up zombified (a pretty odd turn of events, considering later revelations). I have been watching all these episodes with the English dub, rather than in Japanese with subtitles; whatever purists might say, the English script is fantastic and the performances, especially by Ian Sinclair as Dandy, are worth it. This is, however, one of those episodes when subs are needed as well, since much of it is in Zombie-ese and this isn't dubbed for some reason.

The Plutonian System

NASA have released a cleaned-up composite of the latest images taken by spacecraft New Horizons. These images show all four of Pluto's faint, small moons, Stix, Nyx, Kerberos and Hydra. If you click here you can see the four moons' orbits around the central duo of Pluto and Charon.

Less than eighty days to Pluto!

Monday 11 May 2015

One Last Round-Up and a Moan

Haven't blogged much lately, due to being extremely busy, and even more exhausted, having recently started a new job which I am finding very difficult to adjust to. After long days with early starts I've mostly been coming home and just crashing out, and am behind on reading, watching, writing and everything. Now I seem to have been hit by some loathsome bug, and probably should not have gone out after work on Saturday to catch up with old friends and colleagues. I didn't last very long, by all accounts. Now I feel deathly and in dire need of some proper rest.

During these tough few weeks, there was, of course, the general election, the results of which are so utterly depressing that I'm feeling truly knocked back. There doesn't seem to be much to hope for over the next five years, or indeed for the future, in a country where the wealthy vote to protect their own interests, the young and poor are so worn down by continual attacks on their livelihood that they see little point in voting at all, and those in the middle vote out of fear of alternatives. Where we can go from here, with a government that has a vested interest in vetoing proportional representation, I don't know. I feel strongly for those demonised protesters in London, people who must feel that their vote means nothing and that there's no other way to be heard.

It was Free Comicbook Day two Saturdays ago, but I decided not to venture into town during the beginnings of the Brighton Fringe Festival and fight my way through crowds in order to queue up for a grab-bag. Mostly because I was utterly exhausted after seven days of work at two jobs. I'll probably download a batch once they are made available to do so, but for now I have a handful of issues from my pull list that were just released, a couple of freebies, some UK reprints and the odd extra. That's going to be it for now; I need to save some money and comics are becoming a major expense. Plus both the big publishers are in the midst of their over-the-top, multiversal crossover events, which I can't really be bothered with. So it seems like a good time to take a little break.

So here's the last comics round-up for a while, until the universes settle down. There are a number of projects I've started on, that hopefully I'll make some headway with once I'm settled in. I also really want to head back into fiction; I've let a couple of potential opportunities go lately, due to enormous busy weariness.

FCBD: Doctor Who (Titan)

A nice selection of mini-adventures for Doctors 10, 11 and 12. This is a fine way to do a free comic, giving a little hint of each series' style (no ninth Doctor, sadly, but his series has only just kicked off). The best is George Mann's twelfth Doctor story, "The Body Electric," which is Clara-focused but not syrupy or indulgent. "Give Free or Die," Eleven's story, parodies the concept of Free Comicbook Day, and is really quite funny, while Ten's story, "Laundro-Room of Doom," is amusing, if very slight. There's a sneak peak at what's to come with Paul Cornell's three Doctors event, but given that it's set for five weekly issues, I'll wait for the trade. Although I'm eager to see how Twelve interacts with Eleven.

FCBD: 2000 AD (Rebellion)

Will the Tories still be around in 2137? I can really believe they will. Mega-City One is ultra right wing, after all, even if it is a shithole. "In Through the Out Door" is the lead strip in this free magazine, Judge Dredd at his satirical best. By all accounts, 2000 AD do some of the best free publications out there, producing a bumper issue mixing new material with reprints. This gets by mostly on the appeal of nostalgia, with Dan Dare, Nemesis the Warlock and Dr. Sin all returning (the latter with a new strip). Even this is secondhand nostalgia for me, mostly having met these characters through old handmedown issues. Death Rock is drawn by Ben Willsher, who is an absolute favourite of mine, but the story of Ajax Bloodthirsty is pretty broad even for a parody. There's a cute retro short with 3000 AD, and Slaine rounds it off for those who like blood and muscles.

Essential X-Men #10-11 (Marvel/Panini)

This is what, a year behind the Marvel line? Eighteen months? In any case, it's good fun, a better way of approaching divergent timelines and alter-egos. This is the period after the original teenaged X-men have been brought to the present, an event which has had tumultous repercussions for the timeline. Now the future X-Men/Bortherhood have travelled back to the present, so there are three, or even four, versions of certain characters. It's actually very well done, and there's some intriguing character work, which is so well supported by the comics medium. You have the young, hopeful humanoid Beast, his hubristic, blue-furred current self, and his horned future self, who has lost all hope of mutant integration. Then there's the snowy teen Iceman, his more assured adult self, and his final, sage-like Ice Master form. It works very well, and sets this beyond the basic punch-up it is at the core. Also, evil future Professor X Jr. get his back broken, which is just hilarious.

The Amazing Spider-Man #18 (Marvel)

Perfectly serviceable Spidey from Slott and Gage. I'm actually really enjoying the professional Peter Parker, especially the idea of reformed, or reforming, villains being brought on staff. Having the Living Brain on hand is a lovely touch. There's a different dynamic at play that could be developed into something genuinely interesting. The Black Cat's descent is another source of potential. However, it's too little too late, since this is basically just a holding exercise to get the series from the Spider-Verse crossover to its end to make way for Secret Wars.

Spider-Woman #7, Spider-Gwen #4 (Marvel)

Both very enjoyable titles, but not ones I feel I'm going to be hurt by missing the odd issue. Might end up grabbing some further titles after the dust settles, but for now, this is a good spot to jump off. Spider-Woman is covering some of the same ground as TASM, dealing with villains from their point of view, not a bad follow-up to The Superior Foes series. Working with Ben Urich and often out of her depth, Jess Drew is more akin to the early Spidey than Parker is. Spider-Gwen remains the best retelling of the Spidey origin story I've seen, a genuinely modern take on the storyline rather than a rehash, allowing unique relationships with classic core characters such as May and Ben Parker, Frank Castle and Hobie Brown.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #4-5 (Marvel)

I've only just realised that I've been missing a joke with Squirrel Girl. I've missed the point of some rhyming fun, because we don't say squirrel the same way in England. In America, Squirrel Girl rhymes. (I also just won her for my Marvel Puzzle Quest team, so it's not a total waste of a day). Issue four is simply one of the best comics I've read this year, Doreen facing Galactus in her inimitable style. Turns out he's not such a bad guy if you take the time to chat with him. Issue Five isn't as good, simply because after that there's no way to go but down after Squirrel Girl vs. Galactus on the Moon. It's still great fun though, a selection of daffy vignettes that are more fun than whole runs of other superhero titles.

The Wicked + The Divine #10 (Image)

A bit of filler, this one, really only there to bridge the major game change last month with the showdown that's due next. Essential, but inevitably a weak link when reading issue by issue, rather than in the trades. So I might drop this after the current run finishes and read it when the book arrives. Still utterly spellbinding in its design though, so it's never a waste of time.

The Multiversity #2 (DC)

Bought primarily out of a need for completeness, this is in fact the ninth release in the Multiversity crossover but the only one to continue from the original set-up. It's an OTT punch-up, the sort of thing that usually leaves me cold due to its excess of spectacle over story. Morrison manages to create a reasonably coherent event, though, with some fine moments, even if they are rather lost in all the heady spectacle. The infinite mass punch of a phalanx of Flashes, the cartoon physics of Captain Carrot, the Lovecraftian nightmares invading reality... all fantastic elements, but never given room to breathe. The whole is less than the sum of its parts; however, it is tied up in a satisfying manner.