Sunday, 24 September 2017

Now available - The Throne of Peladon

Season 41 of The Doctor Who Project is now begun. The first story, The Throne of Peladon by James P. Quick, is now available to read for free. Part two, The Secret of Peladon, is available next Saturday.

Give it a read if you enjoy classic era Doctor Who stories, political intrigue, mediaeval adventures or hermaphrodite hexapods. Click the cover and go read!


http://www.thedoctorwhoproject.com/files/seasons/season_41/The%20Throne%20of%20Peladon.pdf

Saturday, 23 September 2017

TREK REVIEW: Star Trek Boldly Go - Vol. 1

Star Trek: Boldly Go volume 1 collects the first six issues of IDW's new Kelvin timeline series. Although there's no particular reason this series couldn't have simply carried on from the previous ongoing series, Boldly Go specifically continues the story of Kirk and crew after the main events of Star Trek Beyond, leading up to the launch of the new USS Enterprise NCC-1701-A seen at the very end of that movie. In this respect, it's similar to how DC published strips in the 1980s that showed events between The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home, where Kirk took command of the Excelsior. Like this, Boldly Go may find itself contradicted and rendered irrevocably apocryphal if, and when, a fourth Abramsverse movie is released.

Issues 1 - 4

Issue 1 sees Kirk taking temporary command of the USS Endeavour on a year-long mission of exploration. Bones is there too, having taken a role reduction to assistant chief medical officer so that he can continue to serve under his friend, and Chekov is manning engineering and the transporter bay. The remaining core crew have gone in separate directions, which is entirely plausible. Sulu has been promoted to commander and is first officer aboard the USS Concord, while Scotty is lecturing at Starfleet Academy. Meanwhile, Spock and Uhura have taken a sabbatical, in order to assist Sarek with the founding of the new Vulcan Science Academy on New Vulcan.

The first four issues comprise a single story, which sees the Concord encounter an alien threat that Starfleet is unprepared to meet. Although it's delivered as a big shocking cliffhanger, it's no big surprise who the aliens are, but if you have managed to avoid this reveal and want to remain unspoiled, stop reading now. Needless to say, the Concord is carved up by the aggressor, the bulk of its crew captured, including Sulu's husband and daughter, giving him a particularly personal stake in the story. Also captured is the commanding officer of the Concord, Captain Terrell, who, twenty years later in another reality, commands the Reliant on The Wrath of Khan. Terrell, it seems, is not a lucky captain in any timeline.

So, without beating about the bush any further, the aggressors are the Borg, somewhat beefed up but immediately recognisable and reliably insisting that resistance really is rather futile. If anything, it's a surprise that the Borg took so long to turn up in the Kelvin timeline comics; indeed, I wondered if they were being held back for a movie appearance. While it's another example of recycling older ideas for the new timeline, seeing Kirk and crew take on the Borg is irresistible. Spock and Uhura are brought back in in order to analyse the Borg and their language, something that's slightly contrived considering the Borg have never had any trouble making themselves understood before. However, it works, and the story builds in intensity with each chapter, as the Borg make way to Romulus, putting Kirk in a very dangerous position politically. For those wondering why Romulus is high on the Borg's agenda, it has to do with the Narada, and the revelations about its nature that IDW previously established in the Countdown and Nero miniseries.

Although this is a story that relies heavily on established elements, it also introduces one fascinating new character. Commander Valas, first officer of the Endeavour, is a Romulan, raised on Earth by dissidents who fled the Empire. She's an intriguing character, coming across as a more impulsive yet still emotionally restrained officer than Spock, and her presence adds another complication to the interactions with the Star Empire.

Mike Johnson provides a strong, gripping story that promises repurcussions in future issues, and Tony Shasteen's artwork is excellent, with some fine likeness of the actors and dynamic space action. The Borg Sphere looks especially imposing as it carves up ships and outposts in pursuit of its mission. There are some nice character touches – the head of the Vulcan Academy appears to be played by Judi Dench! - although there's one notable slip-up by the colourists that make it appear, at one point, that Spock has red blood. The story also displays the same flaw as the Enterprise episode “Regeneration,” in that, even in this more advanced timeline, it's hard to credit how rapidly an earlier ship is able to take down a Borg vessel.

Issues 5 & 6

Issue 5 continues with the same creative team, but tells a much slighter, although effective story. The issue is given over entirely to the character of Jaylah, currently studying at Starfleet Academy. It's a very dialogue-light story, but uses an unusual storytelling style, playing events in reverse as we explore the alien woman's backstory, on Altamid and before. The story seems a little detached in this volume, but sets up further appearances of Jaylah in future comics.

Issue 6 follows on from the Borg story, with Sulu recovering from the near loss of his family and ready to take on another posting. The Kelvin timeline's version of the Babel Conference is in its planning stages, here involving the Romulans and held in response to the Borg incursion. However, the storyline is mostly a standalone adventure in which the Endeavour encounters a white hole, a previously unverified phenomenon with unknown and unpredictable effects. What follows sees two junior crewmembers acting against the ship for reasons that become clear. It's a brief but effective story that relies on that old Star Trek staple, the godlike alien race who decide to observe a primitive human crew. This issue is written by Ryan Parrott, and has artwork by Chris Mooneyham, who provides a fairly old-fashioned, perhaps classic style of comics art that makes the crew look especially dashing. It's a strong closing story that gives hints to future events in a series that has some considerable promise.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

REVIEW: Electric Dreams - The Hood Maker

Philip K. Dick - famously troubled, gloriously creative, gifted - or cursed - with a unique way of seeing the world. His novels are well known, and have been adapted many times before. Indeed, it's no doubt the recent success of Amazon's adaptation of The Man in the High Castle and the upcoming release of the sequel to Blade Runner that have spurred the creation of this new series. While I've read a number of Dick's novels, I'm mildly ashamed to say I haven't read any of his short stories. The only ones I could name immediately would be "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," the basis for Total Recall, "The Minority Report," and "The Adjustment Team," adapted as The Adjustment Bureau. A quick check reveals more that have been adapted - I hadn't realised the fairly woeful Paycheck started as PKD short story - but still, it's clear that there's far more of his work out there than I have made time to explore.

Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams seems set to remedy that, putting Dick's various short stories through the adaptation process and turning them into hour-long TV episodes. There will no doubt be some significant changes to be made; Dick wrote the bulk of his material in the fifties and sixties, and things have moved on quite significantly since then, both technologically and socially. However, it looks like the ethos of the work will remain. I certainly intend to look up these originals and see how the new and old compare; hopefully the series will encourage more people to look into the original works. While showing on Channel Four in the UK, the US, and one imagines, eventual world rights, have been taken by Amazon.

Electric Dreams kicks off with a series of generically sci-fi-ish images, the sort of immediately arresting but ultimately nonsensical stuff that was used for the title sequences of The X-Files and the 90s version of The Outer Limits. The sort of thing Rick and Morty parodies. This wasn't particularly promising to me, but thankfully, once that was over, the first episode itself was stylistically brilliant. "The Hood Maker," adapted from the 1955 story of the same name, has a dirty neon, rundown look that isn't a million miles away from Blade Runner's aesthetic, although the city we visit here is distinctly low-tech. This gives the production something of a feel for the '50s origins of the story, although the impression here is very  much a post-electronic society, rather than one in the past. (The actual setting and background for the story are barely even sketched in, which cuts down on exposition and maintains a palpable air of mystery.)

In this distorted version of Britain, society is run by the Union, just as stratified as it is today but now with a new underclass: the Teeps, telepathic mutants who are physically distinguished by facial birthmarks. The Teeps are a feared and downtrodden minority, living in ghettos and used for both official and illegal purposes. It's a disturbingly believable set-up. While the hatred for Teeps is clear, with protests on the streets against their very existence, the police use Teep agents to hunt down and interrogate suspects - in one of the most disturbing scenes in the programme, a supposed terrorist is forced to relive trauma and shameful memories as part of a torturous interrogation. Meanwhile, the elite visit Teep brothels, where seeming psychic sex sessions lead to emotional and physical abuse, all while officially maintaining the segregation.

The stars of the programme are Richard Madden, best known as Robb Stark on Game of Thrones, and Holliday Grainger, who has had various TV roles and is surely destined for greatness based on her performance here. The two have previously appeared together in the 2015 adaptation of Lady Chatterly's Lover, and have strong chemistry. Grainger plays Honor, a Teep who is assigned to work with Madden's Detective Ross in an investigation into rising disruption in the city, both by "Normals" and Teeps. Someone is making hoods that block out the Teep's abilities, and civil unrest - including a possible Teep uprising - is on the cards,

While Madden is excellent and charismatic as Ross, it's Grainger's haunting performance as Honor that is the star call here. She is powerfully sympathetic, from her introduction to the heart-wrenching conclusion. Also impressive is Anneika Rose, who plays Honor's friend Mary, a Teep who is left working in a telepathic brothel and earns abuse for her troubles. In a powerful scene, Mary's emotional and physical pain echo through all the Teeps in the ghetto, linking them together in trauma in a way the "Normals" could never understand. The story raises important and evocative questions, about our rights to privacy, autonomy and freedom, both from the point of view of the Teeps and their frightened targets. There's an undercurrent throughout of abuses of power on all sides, and it's very clear that, one way or another, this society is due for violent change.

I understand the original story is significantly different both in specifics and the general direction, and look forward to investigating it. Here, though, Matthew Graham, creator of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, creates a story that poses many questions, answers few, and makes us think about how people treat each other and how power is shared out. Towards the end there are revelations, including a retelling of an earlier scene with distinct differences, that make us question everything we've seen so far. Not only is this exactly how Dick liked to make his readers question reality, it puts us firmly in the shoes of Honor in her betrayal and confusion. This is an excellent start to a series that promises much, and I look forward to the remaining episodes and will be sure to delve in to the stories that inspired them. (Channel Four are missing a trick if they don't republish them themselves.)

Monday, 18 September 2017

Twenty years of Cassini

On October 15th, 1997, a Titan IV rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, carrying a Flagship-class spacecraft named Cassini. For just under twenty years, Cassini, and its companion probe Huygens, travelled through space and set up home in the Saturnian system, until it was deliberately crashed into Saturn's atmospheric sea on September 15th, 2017.

A collaborative mission between NASA (who created and launched the orbiter, Cassini), the European Space Agency (who developed the probe Huygens and the bulk of its technology) and the Italian Space Agency (who provided Cassini's telemetry and radiocommunication equipment), the Cassini project took fifteen years to move from initial concept to launch. Originally scheduled to end in 2008, the Cassini mission was extended with the Cassini Equinox mission, and again in 2010, with the Cassini Solstice mission, before it was carefully and deliberately destroyed in its final plunge.

In its early years, the spacecraft made a flyby of Venus, looped back round and took some test photos of Earth's Moon, using the gravity of this flyby to boost towards the outer solar system. After three years in space, Cassini made a flyby of the asteroid Masursky, followed by a flyby of Jupiter, collecting the most detailed images ever of the great planet. While between Jupiter and Saturn, tests were made using radio signals to and from the spacecraft, which further proved the effects predicted by Einstein's theory of gravity. In 2004, Cassini reached its destination, entering Saturnian orbit and passing through the planets outermost rings, taking shots of several moons in the journey. Two new moons - named Methone and Pallene - were discovered, while the spacecraft made flybys of the largest moon, Titan.

At the very beginning of 2005, the Huygens probe landed on Titan, sending back telemetry as it did so. It revealed a world of icy "rocks" and marshes of liquid hydrocarbons, a strange, frozen inversion of Earth, the first time we could look beneath the dense, clouded atmosphere. Over the following years, Cassini continued to travel throughout the Saturnian system, making flybys of moons, and sending back new and surprising data, such as the revelation of water systems on Enceladus. It also sent back some of the most detailed, surprising and beautiful images of the great ringed planet itself. Over the two decades of its service, multiple fixes and adjustments were made by the mission control team remotely from Earth.

To that team, the mission's designers, and the spacecraft itself: I salute you.


The Earth, from Saturn.



See some of the most breathtaking images from the mission here at Vox.com


A monstrous new blog!

Just because I haven't overloaded my plate enough lately, I've gone and started a new blog. Monster Mountain is my new home for all Monster in My Pocket related nonsense, including a planned rundown of all the classic monsters, looking into their background in myth, folklore and popular culture. Click here to go see (my preferred viewing mode is flipcard).