Saturday 25 November 2017

TREK REVIEW: Discovery - Desperate Hours by David Mack

Desperate Hours is the first novel under the Star Trek: Discovery imprint, and sees the reliable Trek author David Mack with the unenviable task of tying the backstory of Discovery with the elaborate Star Trek novel continuity. From the get go, this was going to be a difficult task, and to his credit, Mack, under direction from Bryan Fuller, goes straight in there by setting this story at the exact intersection of the origins of Trek and its newest iteration.

Desperate Hours (perhaps the most generic title an adventure story could have) is set in 2255, one year before the fateful events of “The Vulcan Hello,” and one year after the very events written for Star Trek, those of the first pilot episode, “The Cage.” In spite of being set only two years apart, “The Cage” and “The Vulcan Hello” are worlds apart in content, style and tone, the franchise having developed in such ways that the two episodes are scarcely recognisable as being part of the same universe. Nonetheless, if any medium can make this work, it's prose, as the very distinct visual styles of these two eras of Star Trek can be glossed over, and the business of story focussed on.

There's a clear opportunity to combine and contrast characters here, with Starfleet crews from different ends of the franchise coming into collision. A crisis on the breakaway colony of Sirsa III brings both the starships Shenzhou and Enterprise into orbit to deal with the problem. An ancient alien Juggernaut is discovered beneath the surface of the planet, bristling with weaponry and capable of wiping out not only Sirsa but any planet it local space. While Captain Georgiou seeks a solution to both the alien threat and the political ramifications of Starfleet intervention on the planet, Captain Pike is called in to make carry out Starfleet's orders. With the Juggernaut potentially posing a gigantic and uncontainable danger to the Federation, Starfleet order's Pike to lay waste to the planet should no other way of stopping it become apparent.

While it's fascinating to see two captains of very different stripes at loggerheads – Georgiou is methodical and restrained, Pike more bullish and masculine – I struggle to believe that Pike, who was so memorably weighed down with the lives lost under his command in “The Cage,” would so readily accept genocidal orders from Starfleet. It's a major failing of characterisation in my opinion, and makes for a significant flaw in the novel.

More successful is the clash between Burnham and Spock. At present there seems to be no plan to bring Spock to the screen in Discovery, in spite of Burnham's relationship with Sarek and her presumed presence during Spock's childhood. Desperate Hours explores Burnham's background, clarifying some confusing elements, including the two traumatic attacks she experienced on Doctari Alpha and Vulcan, and also explores something of her upbringing, with Burnham describing herself as “culturally Vulcan.” The similarities between a human, brought up as Vulcan, and a Vulcan-human hybrid, both from the same family, would suggest that Burnham and Spock have a great deal in common and a special bond. So why do Burnham and Spock have so little to do with each other?

To put it bluntly, they can't stand each other. Their ongoing rivalry, competing in youth for the respect of Sarek and the love of Amanda, both trying to prove themselves in a stoic society, has only been exacerbated by Spock's decision to join Starfleet and his resulting schism with his father. Nonetheless, as much as they have a personal dislike for each other, there's a clear and mutual respect between Burnham and Spock, one which sees the upcoming first officer of the Shenzhou call on the junior science officer of the Enterprise for help in this extremely difficult situation. A large chunk of the book is taken up with Spock and Burnham working within the Juggernaut itself, facing a series of deadly tasks. While this leads to some fascinating interaction and sees the two learn more about each other, and so themselves, I have limited patience for narrative that takes the form of a series of puzzles, however life-threatening. Nonetheless, the exploration of both Burnham and Spock brings new depth to both their backgrounds.

The less expected interaction is between Lt. Saru and Pike's Number One, here, in line with other recent novels, given the rather obvious Una. There is further exploration of Saru's background on Kelpia, which explores his nature as a prey animal with less bluntness than the TV episodes, but the surprising part is the deep respect, and indeed attraction, to Number One. The two make an unusual but effective pairing, and their scenes together are some of the most successful in the book.

There is some exploration of the rest of the Shenzhou's bridge crew, giving a richness and realness that was missing in Discovery's pilot story. On the whole, the storyline is an enjoyable adventure, as much about human conflict as alien threat. It's quite a straightforward tale, but one with plenty of action and excitement, and in spite of the supposed danger of the Juggernaut, provides a surprisingly low-key series of events for the first Discovery novel. Then again, not every Starfleet intervention leads to interstellar war, thankfully. This time, Shenzhou and Enterprise come together and chalk this one up as a win for Starfleet. They should probably make the most of it.

Friday 24 November 2017

Visiting Shada on Doctor Who Day

The 23rd of November is the anniversary of Doctor Who's first broadcast, and outside of Christmas it's as close as I get to a religious holiday. Most years I settle down to watch An Unearthly Child, but this year I was lucky enough to attend the press launch for the new animated reconstruction of the unfinished 1979 story Shada. Thank you very much to Laurence Marcus of Television Heaven for organising this. I got to speak to proper newspaper people and everything.

It was a rather wonderful experience, even if, rather appropriately considering the history of the serial, it almost wasn't shown due to technical difficulties.

My full write-up is here.

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Oooh, Oumuamua

Now this really is a fascinating discovery. If you've been following the NASA website or other space-related outlets, you'll have seen the news that we have the first confirmed sighting of an object from beyond our solar system. And it is most peculiar.

Spotted by the PANSTARRS, the first interstellar asteroid received the initial designation C/2017 U1, under the understanding it was a comet, and is now named 1I/'Oumuamua, with the initial part designating its unique nature as the first object of its type, and the formal name 'Oumuamua being Hawaiian for "messenger from afar, arriving first." It's utterly unlike any asteroid seen before, being distinctly elongated in a sort-of cigar shape, almost ten times as long as it is wide. In fact, it's a quarter of a mile long, and it travelling 87,000 miles per hour, coming at us from the direction of Vega in Lyra, although it is unlikely it originates there. It has probably been travelling through space for billions of years without coming into contact with another star system. Alternatively, it has been proposed that it was ejected from the stellar nursery in the Carina-Columba Association which would put its origin about 45 million years ago.

'Oumuamua will zip past Saturn in early 2019, but will take about 20,000 years to make it beyond the edges of the solar system. NASA scientists are debating the likelihood of success for a mission to send a probe to analyse the asteroid, but catching it will prove a challenge, as it may move beyond reasonable range before a mission can be developed. It's a tempting target, though, potentially telling us all sorts about the conditions possible in other star systems.

The fact that 'Oumuamua became visible during one of the various times that the catastrophic planet Nibiru is supposed to appear and end all life on Earth has not gone unnoticed, although a quarter of a mile of rock heading away from us is unlikely to cause any problems. It does look like it would make an excellent long-haul spaceship though. Is anyone else thinking Rama would have been a good name?

Sunday 19 November 2017

TREK REVIEW: Star Trek Continues 10/11 - "To Boldly Go" Parts 1 & 2

The premier Trek fanfilm series comes to an end with this exciting two-parter. While I have said that I sometimes would have preferred a few more stand-alone episodes that hung less off established canon, it only seems right that this grand finale should seek to tie-up the series in every way it can. When Vic Mignona set out to make Continues, it was with the intention of completing the Enterprise's five-year mission with a final season of Star Trek. Now that CBS have come down on fan projects like this, it seems that “To Boldly Go” will act as a finale for a whole era of fan Trek.

What makes this story work so very well is that it combines a riveting storyline with actors who have come to grips with these classic roles, and a genuine desire to round off this period of Star Trek. It follows up on the mysterious effects of the Galactic Barrier from the pilot episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” with a group of rebel ESPers (plus one villainous Vulcan) attempt to take the Enterprise as part of a bid to usurp humanity's place in the Galaxy. It is these miscreants who are responsible for the destruction and vanishing of various Constitution-class starships throughout the Continues series. During the transgalactic game of cat-and-mouse, Spock seeks out his one-time paramour, the Romulan commander from “The Enterprise Incident,” now repatriated and once again commanding a Bird-of-Prey, the Hawk's Talon, beautifully rendered here.

Making this story a sequel to the pilot is a brilliant decision, but it also bookends the series by seguing directly into the set-up for The Motion Picture. Not only do the creators of the story make this work in spite of the huge tonal differences between the original series and the film, but it works perfectly as a character piece, giving solid, believable reasons for Kirk, Spock and McCoy going their separate ways once the mission is completed. Indeed, we find Kirk in much the same place here as we found Pike in “The Cage,” weighed under by years of responsibility and the guilt of so many deaths under his command. Spock is torn between his burgeoning emotions and the logic he believes in and the responsibility of impending command, while McCoy is simple sick of watching people die.

We know, of course, that most of the crew are going to make it through to the end of the episode, what with them carrying on through The Motion Picture and subsequent movies. However, that doesn't mean there aren't major losses throughout the adventure, not least of which is a good chunk of the Enterprise itself. The ship really earns its refit on this mission. We also get to see the long-imagined saucer separation of the original Enterprise, one of many exceptionally well-produced visual effects sequences.

The regular cast all get moments to shine, with particular praise due to Todd Haberkorn as Spock, who I think has really nailed the part over the last few episodes. I was pleased to see Kim Stinger's Uhura get a meatier role than in most previous episodes. The multi-talented Kipleigh Brown, as the recurring character Lt. Smith, gets a very strong episode in part two, becoming an essential member of the cast for this finale, and there is some strong material for Michele Specht as ship's councillor Dr. McKennah. The guest cast is also very good throughout, with special praise needed for the wonderful Nicola Bryant. As a Doctor Who aficionado (in case you hadn't noticed), it's a treat to see her here, with her natural accent rather than an affected American one, and she's clearly having a great time playing the villain of the piece. Another star turn is Amy Rydell as Romulan Commander Charvanek, who is not only very impressive in the role, but is the daughter of the original holder of the role, Joanne Linville.

While the two-parter was full of excitement and adventure, it's actually the final few scenes that really made an impact for me. Moving into the slower, more thoughtful territory of The Motion Picture, it sees Kirk accept his deskjob promotion from Admiral Nogura. (As a little visual treat, we see the now-traditional selection of model starships, including the Phoenix, Enterprise NX-01, USS Kelvin and USS Discovery, further tying different eras of Star Trek together.) Vic Mignona gives a speech to his erstwhile crew and one final log entry, and it's as much him speaking to the viewers as it is Kirk addressing Starfleet. As the prime mover and star of Star Trek Continues, it's only right that he gets to make this send-off, and as far as I'm concerned, he and his crew are very much a part of the Star Trek family. Mission accomplished.

Watch all the episodes of Star Trek Continues here.


Well, it's been a pretty hectic and intense few days.

On the fiction front, I completed a story for the upcoming anthology Master Pieces, a Doctor Who fanthology by Red Ted Books which will revolve around different incarnations of the Master. My submission is called "The Devil You Know," and while it isn't absolutely guaranteed for submission as yet, I'm hopeful it will be included in the final publication. Up now is the cover artwork for the second Time Shadows anthology, Second Nature, which will be available on print-on-demand from Pseudoscope Publishing in the next few weeks. The first Time Shadows was excellent, and I'm very proud to be included in this volume with my story "Time-Crossed," which involves the first and eleventh Doctors. All proceeds from Master Pieces go to the Stroke Association, while proceeds from the sale of Time Shadows: Second Nature will go to LimbForge.

Wednesday night was a chance for a much-overdue catch up with my good friend Sophie, and there was much merriment and fine food. Thursday was another night out to the Latest Music Bar in Kemp Town, Brighton, for Cackle and Twang, a mixed bag comedy and music event in aid of Rise, a local domestic abuse charity which does exceptional work. It was a very female-centred night, with some amazing performances, although my favourite part was of course my friend Fanny Dent's comedy burlesque piece. This would have been my favourite part in any case, because it was brilliant and hilarious, but it rose even higher on my list of amazing things because my lovely lady Suz had a critical role as a giant tampon monster. This is not something you see every day, and I'm pleased for the opportunity to say, "Yeah, I'm going out with the tampon."

Close behind though was Kate Shortt, the comedy cellist, which is another thing I'd never encountered before and turns out to be quite an brilliant way to perform. I am pleased to have now experienced the Doctor Who theme tune on cello and vocals. Julie Jepson was supposed to be comparing, but instead her mysterious Spanish uncle and an Irish mermaid took her place.

Friday Suz and I were out yet again and I'm definitely getting to old for this. This time was a Dystopian-themed club night in Kemp Town for which we attempted a vaguely Blade Runner inspired look. My attempt at Roy Batty was a very limited success but Suz's faux fur-coated Pris was amazing. I met LeeLoo and Tank Girl, and also Girl-Tank. We had an incredible night and made some new friends, but basically broke ourselves and were unable to function much on Saturday, leading to curtailment of plans and much apologising.

So on Saturday we had a curry and watched The Land Before Time, and frankly, if you don't believe we know how to have a good time, that will surely prove you wrong.

Saturday 11 November 2017


SPOILERS for the finale, folks!

Number Thirteen gets her togs

I have to say, this isn't at all what I was expecting. There were two options for the creative team, one of which was to just put her in a traditionally Doctorish gent's outfit to hammer home that it was the same character, and the other was to give her a more feminine costume that no previous Doctor would have worn. I'm glad they've gone with the latter, but even so, I kind of expected something that was more like one of the old Doctor's costumes, in a feminine cut.

This, though, I like very much. It's feminine, quirky, and fairly practical. There's a certain Doctorishness to it, but quite unlike any of the outfits before, which is just how it should be. There are bits of old Doctor influence in there, though. Most obviously, the braces call back to Matt Smith, but moreso to Patrick Troughton. (I was a bit intrigued when someone said the new Doctor would be wearing suspenders, but that was just a bit of Americanism/Britishism confusion.) The long coat calls back to David Tennant. The stripes across the top might be a nod to Tom Baker's scarf, and the boots could recall Smith or Eccleston. I'm not sure what's going on with the top of that coat - is that a hood swung back? - but it does have a somewhat Time Lordly quality to it.

Some people don't like it, which is fair enough, although attacking it by saying it's too silly or doesn't have enough gravitas seems to ignore how ridiculous some of the earlier Doctor's outfits were. I've seen it said that it looks like something out of Rainbow, which isn't totally unfair, but compared to the sixth Doctor's costume, it's very sedate. Someone else has said it makes her look like a circus performer, and a friend pointed out that Sylvester McCoy not only acted like a circus performer in some of his episodes, he basically was one before he started acting. Again, fair enough if that's not something you like in your Doctors, but it's hardly without precedent.

Various commentators have been pointing out similarities with other characters' costumes. Mork is the most common comparison:

but I'm seeing more than a hint of Wesley Crusher:

Either way, there's a definite eighties style to the costume, which actually fits quite well with the out-of-time vibe we get from various Doctors. Capaldi wore a costume which hinted at styles from both the 50s and 70s, while Hartnell's turn-of-the-century style was similarly 50-60 years out of date. Something that has a suggestion of 1987 is forty years out, the same sort of dislocation. In any case, I like it. It's different but still says "Doctor" to me.

Sunday 5 November 2017

REVIEW: Thor: Ragnarok

By rights, marvel should be slowing down and flagging a bit by now. Thor: Ragnarok is the seventeenth movie in the MCU, which has been going for a good nine years. No one would be surprised if things were becoming stale by now. Yet somehow, this year has seen a run of films that have just gotten better and better. After the excellence of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, Taika Waititi has created what may be my comicbook movie of the year.

Waititi is a real left-wing choice to direct a Marvel movie. Only Edgar Wright seemed more of an odd fit, and we saw how well that partnership ended. Nothing in Waititi's previous work, least of all his celebrated What We Do in the Shadows, makes you think “this guy needs to do a superhero movie.” In a weird way, though, he's a perfect choice, and what he does here with Norse mythology and operatic superheroics is much like his deconstruction of vampire lore and gothic romantic literature in Shadows. Hats off, too, to the writing trio of Yost, Kyle and Pearson, who put together a script that, for the most part, manages a fine balance of the grandly dramatic and the overtly comedic.

It's obvious that Marvel wanted to grab some of the success of Guardians of the Galaxy in restyling the Thor movies, which haven't generally been the most popular of the ongoing MCU series (although I've loved both previous instalments). Ragnarok explores the cosmic side of the Thor comics, something that the previous films have largely overlooked, as well as accepting just how ridiculous a character he is. Thor is at his best when simultaneously an amazing hero and a figure of fun, as he is in the best moments of 2011's Thor and in Avengers Assemble, and it seems film-makers have finally realised what excellent comic instincts Chris Hemsworth has. (Say what you like about Ghostbusters, Hemsworth made a one-joke character work far better than he should have there.) Ragnarok combines Thor's mythical side with the galactic comedy of Guardians, and also jumps on the same retro bandwagon to great effect. After all, the eighties are the decade right now, and the Masters of the Universe, synth-rock, Led Zeppelin mix just work perfectly. The other obvious comparison is the 1980 Flash Gordon movie, and Waititi has said that really Queen should have provided the songs for this film, were it not impossible for obvious reasons.

As with all the best superhero films, Ragnarok benefits from an exceptional cast who give their all in playing these absurdly over-the-top characters. Tom Hiddleston grins that grin to maximum effect throughout, although his usurping of the Asgardian throne is dealt with far more quickly than we might have expected, and he's so perfect as Loki that he can nail the character both as out-and-out villain and shifty ally. After a fair few ineffective and underwhelming villains (in spite of some excellent actors) Marvel has come out on top this year with its baddies, and Cate Blanchett as Hela, Goddess of Death is the best of the lot. Not only does Blanchett look incredible in the costume (damn, now my goth thing is back), she drips with menace and contempt. As secondary villain the Grandmaster, Jeff Goldblum basically plays Jeff Goldblum, but frankly, would you want it any other way? Then there's Karl Urban as Skurge the Executioner, somehow looking exactly like the comics character, clearly having a whale of a time as the scurvy thug.

On the heroic side of things, we have Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, who is just stunningly good as the tough, beautiful, drunken warrior woman. She's a perfect foil for Hemsworth's Thor, a far better match as a potential love interest than either Jane or Sif (both of whom hero worship him too much), and I'm so glad we'll be seeing more of her in Infinity War. A fun cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange makes the brief terrestrial scenes feel as wonderfully odd as the scenes in other realms, while Anthony Hopkins makes his surprisingly brief appearance as Odin his best in the role yet.

And then there's the Hulk. The idea of a Planet Hulk film never really appealed to me, no matter how much fans clamoured for it. I mean, I love monsters, I really do, but the idea of two hours of green CGI musclemen pummelling each other seems tiresome in the extreme. Making it part of a larger storyline, though, is a brilliant move, and dumping Thor in the middle of it is a stroke of minor genius. Cutting him and his pomposity down to size by leaving him reduced and defeated is, of course, part of the reason that initial Thor storyline worked so well, and he needed a dose of that again. Thor is at his best when he doesn't have his hammer. His weirdly tender interplay with the Hulk is a winning factor for the film, and Mark Ruffalo is as perfectly cast as ever as the uncomfortable Banner, having to rediscover his balance all over again after two years in Hulk mode. The Hulk's chattier than we're used to on film, but his intelligence has always fluctuated in the comics, and it's reasonable that he would have developed somewhat given longer to learn and explore his existence.

Sakaar is an incredible location, a cesspit of a planet in an unstable region of space/time, where the passage of time is unreliable and wormholes dump miscreants without hope or warning. It's exactly the sort of place you'd expect the Guardians to turn up, and they probably will at some point when they want to link the series together. (In fact, the time dilation on Sakaar would be a good way of syncing up Star-Lord's timeline to the Avengers movies, if need be.) The planet features a colurful bunch of monsters, although the standout is, of course, is the rock-man Korg, played by the director himself (although at first we thought it might be Rhys “Murray” Darby, such is the intense Kiwi-ness).

Bookending the cosmic hijinks is Ragnarok itself, the end and rebirth of Asgard and the ultimate battle of Norse mythology. As a huge mythology buff I adore this aspect of the film, and the storyline, via the comics, sticks surprisingly closely to the legendary sources. Naturally, there are some differences even before you chuck all the spaceships in – Hela is Loki's daughter, rather than Odin's, an aspect that might stem more from the character Angela than Hela herself – but the bulk of the material is linked quite strongly to Norse mythology. And in any case, any movie that not only brings Surtur and Fenris to the big screen, but has the Hulk punch them both in the face, is a winner in my book.


This episode was a particularly interesting one for me, as I attended its filming at Pinewood back in February of last year. Not only is it fascinating to see how the episode finally turned out, it's been long enough since the recording that much of it felt fresh again, although not without a certain sense of deja vu. (Well, it probably is deja vu, it sounds like it.) One observation I must make is that most of the scenes recorded in front of us were done with at least two takes, which means that the audience response is a little false in the finished episode. You know you need to laugh at the funny bits, but the laugh is never as big, or as genuine, as it was on the first time round. Equally, the funniest scenes aren't necessarily the ones that stick in your mind from the recording; it's the ones that the cast enjoy performing the most, that involve the most ad-libbing and retaking, that you remember. If you're interested, the biggest laugh was for the Windows sound effect that twanged when the ship was rebooted.

The finished product is a fine episode, although nowhere near a classic. Like a lot of episodes, it starts off about one thing and ends up being about quite another. In this case, it begins as a rumination on ageing, with Lister hitting his fiftieth birthday (thus a little younger than Craig Charles), and then moves onto a dissection on corporatism and monetisation, and the ever-desperate need for the newest upgrade or app. Still, it comes back to the original theme as Lister is aged to decrepitude after his money runs out and he's forced to pay in time.

It's a nicely paced and structured episode, but again, there's the sense that there are too many ideas fighting for attention here. Lister's declining health, the talking medical probe Chippy, and the idea of predicting the time of someone's death with accuracy are all strong elements. Then it veers onto the plotline of M-Corp, their takeover of Earth in the 26th century, and their rapacious need to monetise everything from water to air to thought. Again, I'm reminded of the future history that Grant and Haylor described in the Red Dwarf novels, and I'd love to see this material expanded on the page.

M-Corp's buying out of the JMC has some brilliantly visual consequences any product or person not provided or employed by the company rendered invisible to Lister, M-Corp's sole employee and customer on the ship. The Cat spraying Lister with lager from an invisible can, before he too becomes invisible and steals his beans on toast, are great visual gags and really feel like classic Red Dwarf moments. Lister's teleporting to M-Corp's own little world, with downloadable "friends" and water that costs four hundred dollarpounds, works well too, all clinical white and corporatised. Helen George has a strong turn as the main guest star, the creepy M-Corp avatar Aniter. (Incidentally, she was not present at the filming. All the M-Corp universe material was prerecorded and played back to us.)

The resolution is clever, with M-Corp's desperate need to sell and sell some more proving its undoing. Lister's old age make-up is very impressive considering the TV budget, but it's great to have him reverted to his correct self. The final joke, having to reboot Lister to his original 23-year-old self self is a winner, but again, there's a ton of material that could be mined from the idea of backing up people's identities. Plus, the idea that Kryten could recreate the 50-year-old Lister's knowledge and personality from CCTV records is ludicrous, although admittedly Star Trek did something similar but even more idiotic back with "The Changeling" in the sixties (in which Uhura had her mind wiped, and was apparently able to be completely reeducated to Starfleet standard with her personality unaffected in a mere two weeks).

That final scene though, recreating the very first scene from "The End" back in 1988, is wonderful. Still, I wonder why this episode wasn't chosen to close out the season. With any final episode of a recording block potentially standing as the last episode of Red Dwarf ever, rounding it out with a recreation of the very first moments would have been lovely.

Good Psycho Guide: Three-and-a-half chainsaws

Best line: "Sir, you've got nothing. No life, no future, no partner - you're so easy to buy for!"