Saturday 30 June 2018

REVIEW: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Finally got round to catching the fifth Jurassic Park film, and it was very good fun. I can't pretend that it brings much to the franchise that Jurassic World didn't, although the final scenes hint at a possible game change for the Jurassic universe. So, spoilers within, pretty much straight away.

Colin Trevorrow said that he couldn't keep the series confined to theme parks, and this is exactly the right decision. Jurassic World revamped the concept of the original Jurassic Park by going back to the theme park, only bigger and better, making it a success so that it would come crashing down all the louder. While nothing beats the original film and novel, Jurassic World was a brilliant update. The Lost World followed Jurassic Park by both letting the dinosaurs have the run of their island environment, and then dragging them back to civilisation (although the novel which is superior, remains confined to the island). Fallen Kingdom follows this development closely, albeit with new twists.

Left to their own devices at the end of the previous film, the dinosaurs are now threatened as Isla Nublar is about to erupt in a volcanic cataclysm. The complete re-extinction of the Dinosauria is imminent (someone may have to remind me what happened to the B-site, Isla Sorna, and why there are no dinosaurs left there). Revealed is Sir Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell - always god value), the little known partner behind John Hammond's genetic experimentation. He now plans a rescue operation for the dinosaurs. Naturally, it's up to Claire and Owen, that plucky pair from Jurassic World, to go bring in Blue the last Velociraptor and the other dinosaurs to safety. Lo and behold, there are others who want the dinosaurs for less noble reasons: the trade in dinosaur soldiers is a potential goldmine.

Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt retain the fun chemistry they had in the previous film. They fit the classic pattern of couples from action movies: obviously into each other, plenty of sexual chemistry, but blatantly incompatible. They need life-or-death situations to make a relationship work. Claire has developed between the films, now part of a dinosaur rights group. Owen, on the other hand, is building a house and not spending much time with anyone. It's their mutual concern for the dinosaurs that they bred, trained and displayed that takes them back to the island, and the script isn't afraid to point out the hypocrisy.

There's a solid cast at work here. Owen and Claire get a new pair of sidekicks, Zia the palaeoveterinarian (Daniella Pineda, exceedingly cool, very sexy) and Franlyn Webb, IT guy and hacker (Justice Smith, geeky, nervous and relatable). Kind of disappointed they didn't bring Lex back from the first film to be their computer person and get some retro 90s graphics in there, but still, I liked these two. Rafe Spall is excellent as Eli Mills, Lockwood's right hand man and a happily ruthless and ambitious bastard. Toby Jones does his usual sterling work of playing a slimy creep, appearing as a sort of arms dealer who sells the dinosaurs Mills has secured. Ted "Buffalo Bill" Levine fulfils the tough commando role, and we have a cute spunky kid in the form of Lockwood's granddaughter Maisie, played by Isabella Sermon. 

Linking back to the original trilogy are B.D. Wong as Henry Wu, still designing dinosaurs for profit and falling on the wrong side of scientific ethics, and Jeff Goldblum back as Ian Malcolm in much publicised appearance which ends up being little more than a cameo. It's completely in character that he should be calling for the dinosaurs to be left to die, given that he was vocally against their creation to begin with. Nonetheless, he's essentially wasted in his appearance here.

It all works very nicely, and marches along much as you'd expect until the dinosaur auction. Taking place in Lockwood's mansion and estate late at night, there's a gothic vibe not present in the previous films. The franchise's newest monster, the Indoraptor, stalks the corridors in a way that's far more evocative of horror films than the usual action adventure style of the Jurassic films. On the subject of the newest mega-dinosaur, I rather prefer it the over-the-top I. rex, although given that she was meant to be part raptor anyway I'm not sure this new one stands out conceptually. Still, a maddened raptor monster trained to kill with maximum efficiency makes for a potent threat, and is kept under wraps long enough to maintain interest. 

Still, I was more excited to see the proper dinosaurs, especially as my two favourites finally make an appearance on the screen. First a Baryonyx emerges from a tunnel within the disintegrating island, and then a Carnotaurus comes barrelling along mere moments later. No match for the T. rex, of course, but I love Carnotaurus, the ugly bastard. Blue, the last raptor, is a fully fledged character here, gaining as much sympathy as any of the human characters, and the T. rex, still the very same old girl from the first film, owns all her scenes. I'm pleased that the sixth film is said to have no more mutant dinosaurs, and that it will be focusing on dinosaurs living in the wild as they escape and spread across America. No doubt humanity's time as the dominant life form is meant to be the fallen kingdom of the title, but I'm not quite sure how long term and drastic this change will be, given that the dinosaurs are all female (although they've circumvented that before), and most species are represented by a single individual. Nonetheless, it's a change in direction that should make for an interesting (final?) installment. 

Saturday 23 June 2018

FANS WHO: "The Wooden Planet" and "Everything Stops for Tea"

CP Studios are Scott D. Harris and James P. Quick, two fans extraordinaire who produce fan audios for Doctor Who and, premiering very soon, their own Batman series, World's Greatest Detective. There are many fan series, both in the UK and US, but this is CP Studios straddle the Atlantic, with Scott living in Britain and James in the States, which gives their audios a bit of international flavour. I've already looked at the first release of their main DW series, Las Pinturas Negras, and given that was two years ago I realise I haven't really these "Fans Who" often enough.

Las Pinturas Negaras is followed by two very different stories, both of which use ridiculous ideas to take on some heavy targets for satire. The Wooden Planet is a four parter, originally conceived by one Arco Chambers, very much in the format of the classic series or Big Finish's plays, but the content and pace varies considerably along the four episodes. As the title suggests, it's set on a planetoid constructed from wood, one that is inhabited by devout monks and nuns, perhaps drawing inspiration from one of the infamous proposed outlines for Alien 3. Of course, a wooden planet is an utterly ludicrous idea, one that Scott and James poke fun at in their script. Only people who are blinded by religious conviction into distrusting technology would possibly think that it's a sensible idea to live in a space habitat constructed from wood. There's more than one threat to the colony, but the major on is as devastating as it is prosaic: a fire, which the religious leaders refuse to confront.

It's a very strong script, with no little criticism of the way the religious right, in the classic words of the Doctor, "change the facts to fit the views." The monks even believe that the Earth has been utterly destroyed, something the Doctor knows to be absolutely untrue in this timeframe, since he's been there both then and after. Scott plays the Doctor as well as being one half of the writing/producing team. He's at what we might call peak McCoy here, rolling his r's like nobody's business and generally giving it his all as a slightly flamboyant, rather verbose incarnation of the Doctor. His sense of mounting frustration as the story progresses is tangible.

As with all fan productions, the acting skill varies, but it's generally very good, and I particularly liked Katie Parker as Sister Lianne, who becomes a sort of extra companion for the story, as well as Monica Ballard as the insanely close-minded leader the Abbess. As the episodes continue, the story takes unexpected turns, with a seemingly metaphorical beast in the colony's bowels turning out to be very real (and very familiar), leading to some effective horror as the Doctor and his team attempt to escape from the mounting threats. The final episode slows the pace down considerably, acting as a sort of epilogue for the frenetic adventure. My only real nitpick for the production is that, as with Las Pinturas Negras, the use of music from throughout the history of Doctor Who makes it sound very disjointed.

This is completely resolved in the funny little follow up Everything Stops for Tea, a curious one-episode adventure which sees Scott's Doctor now acting solo. The story boasts an excellent new theme tune by Hardwire, and altogether improved sound design. Anne Lawrence joins the team as assistant producer, credited as both having originated the story idea (then written by Scott and edited by James), and also plays the Doctor's defense attorney Clover. Yes, the Doctor's on trial again, in a skewed version of England which plays out like a Victorian version of Planet of the Apes. After taking on religion in The Wooden Planet, CP Studios turns its attention to inflexible justice systems and close-minded bigotry. It's a very silly but very effective one-off. Scott plays his Doctor a little calmer, albeit unable (for reasons that become clear) to keep his trap shut for more than a moment. The only little problem is that the recording of Anne's part is of a different quality to the rest, with a noticeable background hiss, which unfortunately marrs the otherwise excellent sound.

So a big shout-out to Scott and James (who, btw, has small roles in both productions AND does the cover art AND directs both stories) for some very fine Doctor Who adventures.

Best lines: The Wooden Planet: "I thought the sonic screwdriver didn't do wood?"
"Who on Earth told you that rubbish?"

Best credit: Everything Stops for Tea: Simian Noises Linda Leete

Sunday 17 June 2018

TREK REVIEW: "Drastic Measures" by Dayton Ward

“The Conscience of the King” has long been a fan favourite episode, one that revealed a dark chapter in Star Trek's future history. Back in the first season of Star Trek, when the characters and setting were still being developed, it wasn't so incongruous. A famine followed by a massacre, on a colony planet, witnessed by a young James Kirk, stands out more now as a bizarre and unimaginable event in Federation history.

After Desperate Hours, a second Discovery novel exploring familiar elements of the Trek universe is an unsurprising move. This book, though, explores a major, known event in future history, rather than dropping the Enterprise crew into a prequel adventure. Desperate Hours takes place in 2246, before even the events on the Shenzou seen in the flashback scenes in Discovery. Philippa Georgiou is serving as first officer on the support vessel the USS Narbonne, while Lt. Cmdr Gabriel Lorca is stationed on Tarsus IV itself.

The setting of the series allows to us explore this event through the eyes of now familiar characters. Interestingly, Kodos's massacre occurs early in the book, in a sequence that is chilling for just how matter-of-fact its telling is. Georgiou only hears about events second-hand, the Narbonne already en route to Tarsus, the very ship that makes the massacre entirely unnecessary. Lorca, however, is in the thick of it. He is in a relationship with a colonist, deeply involved with life on the planet, and witnesses the broadcast of the terrible “solution.” While Georgiou's horror is humanitarian, Lorca's is personal, and this affects how they deal with the aftermath of the incident.

Nonetheless, focusing on Lorca is potentially a mistake. After all, this is not the character we've been following on Discovery, for that was the Lorca of the Mirror Universe. This is the “Prime” Lorca, therefore a character new to us, and the exploration into his character is less significant because of that. For what it's worth, Lorca seems to be an aggressive hothead in this universe too, so his Mirror counterpart can't have had too much difficulty taking his place. (It's also very much a Discovery novel in that there's a lot more swearing than we're used to from Trek lit.)

The more interesting scenes are those involving Kodos (who, to maintain continuity, keeps to the shadows throughout and is not seen by any of the major characters. He also has his records thoroughly wiped). Initially troubled by self doubt, his resolve that he made the right decision only grows stronger as he and his followers go into hiding. He's a fascinating character, and his position, at least to begin with, is purely logical. This isn't the first Trek novel to delve into the background of the Tarsus IV Massacre, but it goes into a depth not really seen before. It's easy to see Kodos here become the tired old man of the original episode. Satisfyingly, there are clear causes for the famine, something that should be unthinkable in the Federation; a chain of events leading to catastrophe.

There are some interesting supporting characters, including the governor of Tarsus, Gisella Ribeiro, who is briefly usurped by the more charismatic Kodos, and Captain Korrapati, a dignified older Indian gent (well, Martian-Indian), who commands the Narbonne. Naturally, there are familiar characters as well, including Thomas Leighton, and inevitably, a spunky young man named James Tiberius Kirk. Less expected is an appearance towards the end of the book of the first captain of the Enterprise, Robert April. Appropriately, this is a very human-centred book, in a way Star Trek has rarely been since the first season of TOS, with very few alien characters.

Dayton Ward's prose is as easy to read as ever, but the story sadly failed to carry me along this time. By featuring the massacre early on and focusing on its aftermath, it peaks to early, and what remains is an awful lot of running around, fighting and sabotage, as Lorca and Starfleet attempt to track down Kodos, a mission we know is domed to failure. The action sequences are perfectly competent, but they're just not as interesting as the psychological and historical elements of the book. Still, this is a worthwhile exploration of a critical moment in Star Trek's mythology.

This review is also available at Ex Astris Scientia

TREK REVIEW: "The Face of the Unknown" by Christopher L. Bennett

Of all the alien civilisations introduced in TOS, the First Federation is perhaps the most intriguing. The gigantic starship Fesarius, commanded by Balok, seemingly by a ghoulish alien creature, before being revealed as a tiny, childlike being, all alone on his huge ship. Was the first Federation as powerful as it appeared? Or was it all smoke and mirrors, like the puppet Balok used to strike fear into the Enterprise crew?

It seems strange that we never saw the First Federation again. Part of this might be down to the word Federation becoming the name of the primary setting some episodes later, and a simple desire to avoid confusion. On the other hand, perhaps the writers simply never wanted to bring them back, in TOS or any of the sequel series. Even the novel range has barely featured Balok and his people, and the nature of the First Federation remains a mystery.

In The Face of the Unknown, Christopher Bennett rectifies that by taking us into the heart of the First Federation. Taking place between TOS and TAS, at the opposite end of the Five Year Mission to first contact between the two Federations, the novel presents a vision of an ancient, secretive civilisation hidden within the Alpha Quadrant. Bennet has form with this sort of thing; his Trek novels are full of archaic societies, exotic environments and non-humanoid species. So it is with the First Federation. A collective of alien races, of which Balok's people, the Linnik, are the most human-like, who hid from their enemies 12,000 years ago. They now exist in the Web of Worlds, a gigantic construct of various environments deep within the atmosphere of a jovian planet. It's a breathtaking visual, one that is screaming out to be visualised onscreen, and a far cry from the usual Class-M planets we see in Star Trek.

The sudden reestablishment of contact with the First Federation comes about due to sudden attacks on ships in a disputed sector, perpetrated by a malicious alien race. It turns out that the Linnik have secrets even from the rest of the First Federation. The puppet used by Balok to frighten outsiders supposedly represents a sort of bogeyman from his culture, but it turns out that there is more to the creatures than mere myth. The presence of the Enterprise acts as the catalyst that reveals the nature of the marauders and their relationship to the Linnik, but also sets off a cataclysmic crisis on the Web of Worlds.

Bennett has a fine grasp of the characters of TOS, in particular Kirk and Spock. He enjoys adding, at the very least, a hint of romance to the story, with both Spock and Kirk getting some attention – par for the course for Kirk, but this time with a far less humanoid lady than usual. Sulu and Chekov also get some very heroic moments on the Web of Worlds. Outside the regular characters, it's a pleasure to get to know both Balok and young ambassador to the First Federation, Mr. Bailey, both of whom achieve more depth here than in their screen appearance. An enjoyable adventure that provides much needed exploration of a forgotten corner of the Star Trek galaxy.

This review is also available at Ex Astris Scientia

Tuesday 12 June 2018

A Story

There was a Polish frog who came to Britain and had babies with a British frog.

That frog grew up, half-Polish, and had its own babies with another British frog. This pattern continued for several generations.

Eventually, the great-great-great-great-grandchild of that Polish frog was born, and while it was proud of its heritage, it was only a tad Pole.

Sunday 3 June 2018

Brighton Fringe Comedy 2018

Alasdair Beckett-King: Full Velvet Jacket

One of the great things about the Fringe is the amount of free events, and the comedy circuit is no exception. These events give comedians a chance to test out new material on receptive audiences. I love these work-in-progress events, even if they are, by their nature, very hit-and-miss. Full Velvet Jacket, though, is definitely strong on the hit. Alasdair Beckett-King, or ABK to his faithful followers, is a strangely philosophical comedian from a version of Durham in an alternative timeline, but don't let that phase you. He still loves toast and mocks the French. With a set that takes in the nature of entropy, grammatically correct movie taglines and what promises to be an incredible animated title sequence (once he gets round to finishing it), ABK lets us glimpse his unique viewpoint on the universe.

Pete Strong: Shame

Described as "not exactly comedy," this is an odd but effective mixture of jokes, anecdotes and poetry. Pete Strong reflects on face-burning, head-smacking shame, along with depression, anxiety and other such entertaining titbits. Taking place upstairs at the Duke of Wellington, in a tiny room on the hottest days of the year, "Shame" starts off with an uncomfortable auditory experience only exacerbated by the close confines, and that's before Pete starts talking about his mental health issues. Genuinely funny, affecting and cathartic, this is a powerfully honest one man show. Still a WIP, this looks like it will only get better with time.

Off the Cuff: Crime and Funishment

Improvisation is a very difficult form of comedy to make work, but when it does it's magic. Ask the audience for some random words, create an entire world around them, ba-dalla-dallah, the prestige. Off the Cuff have been running for several years now with a fluctuating line-up, and "Crime and Funishment" is their strongest format. Each show sees one of the team take on the role of Inspector Funishment in a murder mystery live TV show. Previous shows have seen Funishment solve the mysteries of the Elephant in the Zoo and the Cabbage Patch Murders (and solve Brexit at the same time). This time, the words "bouncy" and "cheese" led to a complex web of intrigue and sorcery in the deadly competitive world of dairy produce. Off the Cuff are the very best at the improv game, making stream of consciousness invention seem like a coherent story.

Do the Thing

Two of the five Cuffers are also improvising this fantastic show. Tim Meredith (also of improv troupe Blanket Fort) and Simon Plotkin (last year's excellent "Gerald Galbraith: Troubadour") perform two completely improvised musicals per show, taking the improv comedy challenge to the next level. Just like Cuff, they work off audience suggestions to create an entire story, only this time, through the medium of song. It's not the only improv musical show around in Brighton, but it's the best. Considering they're two big blokes they are gifted at portraying virtually any type of character - you will believe a bearded Scotsman is the ghost of the protagonist's ex-girlfriend. Tim and Simon manage to portray a full cast of characters between them, often taking on four or five characters in the same scene, all of them singing! See it if only for the spectacle of a group hug somehow created by two people. The Mysterious Iain Scott provides the musical accompaniment, while Tim provides the moves. Very funny, with great creativity and a touch of the style of Flight of the Conchords.

The Fannytasticals

For my money, the funniest of the five shows I caught this year. The Fannys are a changing roster of female comedians, although the core group stays the same, including Sarah Charsley (also of "Sex and Pugs and Rocks and LOLs," which I sadly failed to catch this Fringe). The Fannys provide a rapid-fire mix of sketches and ingenious parody songs that take on exclusively female life concerns such as periods, pregnancy and eating a banana in public. Absolutely hilarious and thoroughly disgusting, but with a strong feminist message amongst the silliness and smut, this is an absolute must - especially if you're a man. I want more than 2% of the audience to be male in future. You'll never be able to listen to "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" the same way again. Highly recommended.