Saturday, 24 September 2016

WHO REVIEW: Time Shadows (ed. Matt Grady with Samual Gibb)

I believe we're on the cusp of a new golden age of fan fiction, at least in the worlds of Doctor Who. After a few years when professional and semi-pro unofficial fiction all but dried up, there has been a resurgence in this area lately, and some of the projects have been excellent. The latest such project, from Pseudoscope Publishing, is perhaps the best in a recent run of impressive publications.

Time Shadows sees an impressive group of new and established writers come together to raise funds for the Enable Community Foundation; a charity dedicated to providing needy communities with access to the latest technology and techniques to provide replacement limbs and prostheses. It's a remarkable organisation, supported by a remarkable book.

Time Shadows gives us a wide variety of story styles and themes, although a number of them revolve around a concept of time becoming twisted or undone. The stories are of a very high standard. It's a cliché to call these collections a mixed bag, but it's true. Inevitably some stories are better than others, or, at least, better suit a particular reader's taste. However, Time Shadows is the most consistently well-written collection I've read in a long time. There's only one story in the book that I didn't particularly enjoy, and even then, I can see that it would likely suit another reader. In terms of quality, this is a huge achievement.

Going through every story, one by one, would make this a very long spoilerish review, so I'll be content to pick out some of my favourite stories. “Time's Shadow,” by Simon Blake, not only sets the overall feel of the book with its tale of time out of joint, but provides an unsettling and entertaining story from the very beginning of Doctor Who's history: that dilapidated junkyard back in '63. Also tied in with the earliest elements of the series is David McLain's story, “Indigo,” a fun diversion for the first Doctor with a fun punchline.

One of my favourite stories of the collection, “The Godfather,” has nothing to do with Mario Puzo. Rather, it's a quiet, rather beautiful story by John Davies, about the difficulties of growing up, that gives us a glimpse into the later life of two of the Doctor's companions. “The Neither,” by Ian Howden, is a very effective little adventure for Mike Yates and Sarah Jane Smith. They make such a fine pair in this story that they could have had their own spin-off series together.

There are two Cyberman stories that are particularly noteworthy for their very different approaches to the fifty-year-old monsters. “Iron Joe,” by Abel Diaz, sees the sixth Doctor and Peri encounter a Cyberman in the old West, an arresting and unlikely combination of images that make for quite an adventure. Andrew Blair's story, “Confirmation Bias,” is an absolutely devastating story that looks at the Cybermen from the opposite angle, focusing on the unbearable reality of becoming a Cyberman.

Christopher Colley manages to create both the funniest story of the collection, and one of the most affecting. “After the Ball Was Over” begins as light-hearted, frothy, almost Hitchhikers-esque romp before veering into an tale of guilt, that goes exists to explain the huge change in the fourth Doctor's demeanour between seasons seventeen and eighteen. “The Redemption of Vequazon,” by Nick Walters, has an outlandish fantasy title but delivers quite a powerful tale of morality and deliverance.


As with many collections of this nature, Time Shadows has a framing story. However, while most such stories are contrived and often quite ineffective, “A Torch in the Darkness” is one of the best Doctor Who stories I've read in a long time. Dale Smith, David N. Smith, Violet Addison, and Christopher Colley work together on this overarching tale, that brings the twelfth Doctor and Clara on a voyage throughout time, from the days of classical myth to the end of the universe itself. As well as capturing the Twelve/Clara relationship down to a tee, this five-part story sees the Doctor's own history explored. The stories throughout the collection are explicitly referenced as newly created events - intrusions into the Doctor's past. Indeed, isn't that what all these missing adventures are? New elements that we've fashioned to make our favourite character's life even more packed full of incident. “A Torch in the Darkness” also riffs on the same ideas as Listen, but takes it further and to a more powerful conclusion. In a collection that features all thirteen Doctors (and more besides), it's the crowning achievement. Exceptional.



Purchase Time Shadows in print or as download here.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

The new Porridge and Goodnight Sweetheart

I finally got round to watching the new episode of Porridge, having watched Goodnight Sweetheart a week or so ago, just after it was aired. The originals are both favourites of mine, and though the trailers didn't do much for me, there's been enough positive talk about the episodes that I decided to give them a go.

The BBC has produced a bunch of comedy pilots, and although there's some brnad new material, it's the remakes and sequels that are getting people talking. It's always controversial when popular series are revived. I try not to listen too hard to what the public say on these things; after all, Mrs Brown's Boys was just voted best sitcom of the 21st century, which just goes to show how terrible popular opinion can be. There are four revivals in the season so far. Young Hyacinth offers little to interest me; even though I enjoyed Keeping Up Appearances as a kid, it's not something I've ever felt the need to go back to. As for the recast Are You Being Served?... well, that wasn't very in the first place, and just seems embarassing now. So, it was Goodnight Sweetheart and Porridge for me.

I think the sequel route is a wise one to take. It's an easy enough thing to do with GS; after all, it finished a relatively recent seventeen years ago, so all the key players are still with us. As for Porridge, updating it for the 21st century might be trickier, but it's still a better idea than trying to remake the style of the seventies original.

Porridge centres, as always, around Fletch, but this is Nigel Norman Fletcher, grandson of Norman Stanley. Played by current comedy darling Kevin Bishop, he's a cyber-criminal, which is something no one could have dreamed of when the original was made. I can buy Bishop as the grandson of old Fletch; he's got some of his mannerisms down to a tee without ever looking like he's trying to copy Ronnie barker's performance. I can accept them as related. The episode was written by the series' original creators, Dick Clement and Ian le Frenais, and it really does feel like a new episode of the original. Admittedly, not the best episode of the original, but still good fun and with some pretty funny moments. I can see it working as a full series if the Beeb decides to go with it. The only thing I'd change would be removing Mr Meaker, who is just too similar to Mackay and comes across of a poor copy. Still, it's definitely better than Going Straight.

Goodnight Sweetheart was a great series back in the 90s. The update really is obvious - just move it forward in real time on both sides of the timewarp, so that it's now the 60s in the past era. It's cleverer than it might at first seem, because the modern day is far stranger and harder to deal with for Gary than the 60s ever could be. Nicholas Lyndhurst steps easily back into his role as Gary Sparrow, adn all the cast return to their main roles. (Well, the second cast. The series was never really the same after Michelle Holmes and Dervla Kirwan left.) I was dubious about Gary having teenage kids, but both Tim Preston (as Michael, in the past) and Esme Coy (as Ellie, in the present) are pretty great in their roles, and very likeable. Stupid Reg isn't funny, but then, he never was, really.

GS became more sci-fi oriented in its last season, focusing on the time travel aspect more than the relationships side of things. It's not surprising that bringing Gary back to the present involves a classic of time travel fiction - meeting his own father, and his infant self. He's thrown back to his native time in a burst of energy when he holds himself as a baby, which also busts open the timewarp. (We call that the Blinovitch Limitation Effect in Doctor Who.) It's not hilarious, but it's still good fun, and also has plenty of scope for more specials or a full revival.

Now, I need to get round to watching the recreations of comedy episodes lost from archives. I still ahevn't seen "A Stripe for Frazer."

REVIEW: RED DWARF XI - Ep. 1 - TWENTICA

Red Dwarf comes back with a bang in "Twentica," the first of twelve episodes that will be broadcast over the next two years. Part of Red Dwarf's appeal and success is its ability to change and embrace different styles of story. Series ten embraced the best elements of the show's various styles, combining outright sci-fi adventures with odd couple sitcom style. When it got it right, it was spot on. The eleventh series begins with an episode that sits on the sci-fi side of the spectrum, as much as anything in the highly regarded fourth and fifth series (which included such contrived environments as the Waxworld of "Meltdown" and the Psi-Moon of "Terrorform"). "Twentica" is perhaps most similar to series seven's "Tikka to Ride" or last series' "Lemons" - a one-off excursion to Earth's history through yet another means of time travel. In fact, "Tikka to Ride" is the best comparison from the series' past, with "Twentica" also taking place in a version of America altered through time travel.


The difference is that the alternative America seen here, while a dystopian setting, is played predominantly for comedy. It's a fantastic idea; a version of the twentieth century where any technology beyond the level of the 1920s is outlawed. A Prohibition Era episode of Red Dwarf is a great idea in itself, but twisting it round to make it an anti-technology setting is an inspired idea. Indeed, it seems wasted on a mere twenty minutes of screentime. This could easily have been the setting for a two-parter, or even a full season of episodes. (Perhaps, if we ever got a fifth Red Dwarf novel, Doug Naylor could explore this world in more depth?) Part of the cleverness of the idea is that it automatically makes Rimmer and Kryten illegal by their very nature, although this isn't explored very much. However, some of the episode's best moments occur in the brilliant "science speakeasy" scenes, where former scientists go to indulge in their proclivities under cover of drinking and dancing. Naylor takes the joke just far enough, and the climactic scene is brilliant.


All the regular cast get a moment to shine, with a strong emsemble feel to the episode. This is a wise choice for a series opener, especially as we seem to have episodes coming up that are more heavily based on one character. I've got to say, all the boys look great in their Prohibition-style gear (but then, what man doesn't look better kitted out like that?) In fact, the episode as a whole looks amazing. Dave, along with new co-producers Baby Cow Productions, are clearly spending more money of the series after the success of series ten.

This extends to hiring a great guest cast. Lucie Pohl stands out as Harmony de Gaulthier, and veteran actor David Sterne as Bob the Bum (aka not Einstein). The best addition to the cast, though, is Kevin Eldon. He's one of those actors it seems odd hasn't been in the series before, but then, the main part of his career has been in the years that Red Dwarf was off air. Here he gives everything as Four of Twenty-Seven, leader of the Exponoids, a new variety of Simulant armed with time travel. As well as an ingenious opening scene that embraces the twisted logic of time travel, the Exponoids turn up throughout the episode to pose a threat and squabble. They're essentially a bitchy version of the Borg and provide laughs and peril in equal measure.

The plot does seem to be cut a little short, but the episode as a whole is a success, with some real laugh-out-loud moments. It does seem, though, that Naylor didn't think the full logic of the premise through. Although the Exponoids are defeated, they've still altered history, and there are potentially a few bits of Starbug left in the twentieth century. Either this is a big oversight, or there will be some repurcussions further ahead. Then again, Red Dwarf's timelines never did make much sense.


Good Psycho Guide: Four-and-a-half chainsaws.

Title-Tattle: "Twentica" is an odd title, to be sure. It's never explained in the episode, and it presumably refers to the Twenties-style alternative America.

Time Travel: In "Twentica," an Exponoid device called "Chronos" which allows time travel, and creates a vortex through which Starbug is drawn back in time. Previously, the Dwarfers have time travelled via a stasis leak rift ("Stasis Leak"), mutated developing fluid that created magical photographs ("Timeslides"), a time hole ("Backwards"), a malfunctional rejuvenation shower ("Lemons") and a 29th century time drive (in "Out of Time," "Tikka to Ride" and "Ouroboros"). Not to mention the time distortions they experienced in "Future Echoes," "White Hole" and "Pete," plus the pseudo-time travel in "Back to Reality," "Gunmen of the Apocalypse" and Back to Earth. That's an awful lot of time travel by many different means.

Best Line: "What happened to your head?"
"...I went bobbing for apples in a cement mixer!"


Sunday, 11 September 2016

Mission to...

Two exciting space travel updates from the 8th of September - nicely timed to coincide with Star Trek's big anniversary.

NASA has successfully launched its latest spacecraft and begun the OSIRIS-REx mission. In a spectacular triumph for contrived acronyms, the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer is now underway. The eponymous spacecraft is an unmanned robotic probe, which was launched via an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, will journey to the near-Earth Apollo asteroid Bennu, with which it is expected to rendezvous in 2018. Once there, it will begin 500 days of surface charting and ultimately will extend a robotic limb to begin sampling the asteroid's material. OSIRIS-REx is programmed to finally return to Earth in 2023.

Bennu is a carbonaceous asteroid that was chosen for its proximity to Earth at present. A primordial object, the materials gathered from the asteroid should shed light on the makeup of the Solar Sytem during its initial formation, almsot five billion years ago. The organic nature of the asteroid should help indicate how the early ingredients of life came to arrive on the primeval Earth. This is the third of NASA's New Frontiers programme, following Juno (currently in Jovian orbit) and New Horizons (speeding towrds the Kuiper Belt).


Artist's interpretation of OSIRIS-REx approaching Bennu


Bennu was named by a young lad named Michael Puzio, who won out over about eight thousands entrants in a "Name That Asteroid!" competition run by the University of Arizona and the Planetary Society. Bennu was a solar deity in early Egyptian mythology, a phoenix-heron that renewed itself in fire. A fine name for an inner-system asteroid. OSIRIS-REx, aside from the excellent acronym, was chosen because Bennu is a potential Earth impactor and Osiris was the Egyptian lord of the dead. So that's cheerful.

Shortly before OSIRIS-REx blasted off, Virgin Galactic completed their first test flight of the VSS Unity. This was the first flight undertaken by VG since the disaster that destroyed the Enterprise two years ago. Unity is the second of VG's SpaceShipTwo-class spaceplanes, launched, as with its predecessor, from the carrier vessel VMS Eve. It was expected that Unity would be named VSS Voyager, however the eventual name was chosen by Prof. Stephen Hawking. Unity was piloted by Mark Stucky and Dave Mackay, and by all accounts, it was a perfect test flight. Hopefully, Unity will do what Enterprise failed to do and make it into sub-orbital flight and become a true spacecraft.


Shot of the VSS Unity taken by the crew of the VMS Eve



Read about OSIRIS-REx
Read about Unity

Saturday, 10 September 2016

TREK REVIEW: Star Trek Continues: Episode 7 - Embracing the Winds

It's good to see that Star Trek Continues is continuing to continue. With Paramount coming down hard on fan productions, I expected this series to come to a halt. However, the guys behind Continues have confirmed that they plan to carry the series on to its conclusion, which is expected to bring it right up to the end of the five year mission, and the lead up to The Motion Picture. Given that, of all the fan series, Continues is the one that is designed to reproduce the original Star Trek the most closely, I can't imagine that Paramount will leave it alone for long.

The latest episode, "Embracing the Winds," shies away from hard sci-fi and and gives us some good, old-fashioned social commentary. It's very much in the style of the courthouse episodes of the original series, such as "The Menagerie" and "Court Martial." Much of the episode takes place at a Starfleet hearing, overseen by Captain Kirk (series overseer Vic Mignogna), Commodore Gray (Buck Rogers' Erin Gray, amking a return appearance to the series) and the Vulcan Vice Admiral Stomm (the classy Beau Billingsley, who previously appeared in Star Trek Into Darkness). The episode revolves around the fate of the USS Hood, a starship whose crew has been mysteriously killed. Looking to recrew the ship, Commodore Gray has to decide which of two commanders to promote to captain.

The choice comes down to Spock, (series regular Todd Haberkorn), who is torn between career progression and stayig aboard the Enterprise, and Commander Garrett (Clare Kramer, best known as Glory in Buffy), an officer with a turbulent career who believes she has been held down because of her gender. The story is preoccupied with the many kinds of discrimination and prejudgment that people (or at least, non-white, non-straight, non-male people) face in their lives. Spock is judged by both humans and Vulcans because of his mixed heritage, while Garrett faces questions due to her nature as an ambitious woman.

It's depressing to think that there might still be sexual discrimination in the 23rd century. I suspect that the starting point for the episode was an attempt to explain the sexist attitude of the final original series episode, "Turnabout Intruder," which notoriously implied that women couldn't be starship captains. Since Enterprise has since shown that female captains have been part of Starfleet since its beginnings (as noted in this episode), the script suggests that it is throwback Tellarite attitudes, and Starfleet attempts to appease the race, that have led to women being kept out of the captain's chair. It's contrived, but it works, and perhaps could be taken as a parallel for how traditionally conservative nations are struggling to fit into the global community. Primarily, though, this episode is concerned with America's ongoing problems with misogyny and sexism, something that is in discussion more and more.

Clare Kramer is particularly good in the episode, making Garrett into a remarkable, if difficult to like, character. It's a testament to the strength of the script that we sympathise with Garrett and agree with her ideals, even while her personal flaws are apaprent. Meanwhile, the regular Enterprise crew engage in a mission to investigate the Hood, given the episode a more perilous B-story. It works well enough to keep things going, but the more interesting stuff is happening at the starbase, and the events on the Hood rather shut the story down and give Starfleet an easy way out of its dilemma. Nonetheless, this is a strong, thoughtful episode, with an important message. This is exactly what Star Trek should be doing; looking at today's issues through a futurist perspective.