Monday, 31 March 2014



This is currently the wallpaper on my phone's lock screen. It's by Rachael Stott, a freelance illustrator who is both extremely talented and uber-geeky. You should check out her blog.

(Also thanks to my friends Tanya and Mlle de la Mort, who both searched the interwebs for me to find out drew this.)

Saturday, 29 March 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is shaping up to be even better than Phase One. The MCU has become a deep, complex world, and The Winter Soldier makes the most of this, exploring and reacting to the status quo and then shattering it. It's a back-to-basics action film, a Bourne-like political thriller where Cap becomes an enemy of the state. It's a faster, more violent, less kid-friendly take on the character and his world than either The First Avenger or Avengers Assemble.


As wonderful as it was to see a period superhero film with The First Avenger, Captain America works best as a man out of time. The original comics brought Cap only twenty years or so into his future, the rolling present of the comics universe eventually forcing him to confront the morally questionable United States of the twenty-first century. The MCU, however, has dropped the Captain straight into the murky world of modern geopolitics and the War on Terror (TM), a world to which his straightforward and noble morality is spectacularly unsuited. This is the stark truth of the modern world. It's not that the military and governments of the past didn't compromise their morals in order to hold onto power or to fight for the greater good. It's that now, we are under no illusions that this is the truth of things. While I don't buy into the concept of a vast conspiracy steering global history, it's no secret that those in power do not always have our best interests at heart; or that, when they do, they may take some appalling actions in order to protect them.


Steve Rogers isn't a man to compromise his morals, something that is both his strength and his weakness in this story. In a world where no one can be trusted, he is the one man who can be. Chris Evans is still utterly perfect as Rogers, convincing as the unstoppable pinnacle of the human form at the same time as he portrays a vulnerable naivety. Pairing him with the Black Widow is a clever decision. She represents the exact opposite of Cap; someone morally compromised who learned how to be a better person, while Rogers is having to learn that sometimes, he needs to be worse. Some of the work is already done; from the outset, this is a more violent version of the Captain than we've previously seen.


While this is a thoroughly modern, up-to-date actioner, it wears its influences on its sleeve. Retro elements abound, from the forties flashbacks to the seventies-style vibe of the politics and espionage. Samuel L. Jackson brings his usual Shaft­-like cool to all his scenes, even when he's violently incapacitated. The Winter Soldier himself, the crucial element of the movie, may be a 21st century character but is screamingly nineties in his design. Cap himself looks better than ever, sporting a stealth version of his uniform for the initial night operation, before going plain clothes and finally reverting to his forties outfit from The First Avenger. Each look is a hell of a lot better than his Avengers outfit. (What will he wear for Age of Ultron? Will he have a new Avengers Ensemble?)



The Winter Soldier stands above all the preceding MCU films in terms of action. While it's saddening to realise that the most spectacular sequences will have been primarily created in the computer suite, the genuine live-action setpieces are still breathtaking. However, this is no Michael Bay gratuitous explosion-fest; everything pushes the story forward and allows further insights into the characters, and how each of them approaches a war situation. And, because this is a treatise on 21st century American warfare, there is plenty of collateral damage. Indeed, this is the entire point of the film. While it is revealed that SHIELD has been compromised, that revelation is almost unnecessary. It's entirely feasible that a US-based military organisation would see defending the world's freedom and using horrifying weapons of mass destruction as somehow compatible.



Sebastian Stan makes a great impression as Bucky Barnes, in spite of spending more than half his screentime silently dealing out punishment. His chemistry with Evans sells their scenes together; you can still see Bucky somewhere under the Winter Soldier mask. Stan is signed up for a nine picture contract; with Evans only signed up for six, with three down already (surely his cameo in Thor 2 can't count?) I think it's reasonable to assume that the movies will follow the comics and rehabilitate Bucky as the replacement Captain America. That, however, is in the future. For know, there's the still the battle to recover Bucky from his enslavement as the Winter Soldier.



The remaining cast all impress; there really isn't a bad performance in the film. Anthony Mackie's Falcon has a great rapport with Cap, giving the film some of the bromance that Bucky and Cap had in The First Avenger. They've even managed to make the Falcon's flying gear look feasible and not completely ridiculous, always a challenge when translating comic visuals to the screen. Robert Redford oozes old American class as the duplicitous SHIELD supremo Alexander Pierce. There's a beautiful cameo by Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, and Emily VanCamp makes an impression in her debut as Sharon Carter, surely set to become a more significant character in the MCU. Cobie Smulders gets the screentime she deserves at last; Agent Hill absolutely rocks in this film. In fact, for such a boys' film, this is strong on powerful female characters. Scarlett Johansson sometimes seems a little uncomfortable as Romanov, but then again, this could be a deliberate character choice. In any case, we know she is capable of more than she shows in this film; if anything, The Winter Soldier is a great argument for a non-superpowered, Black Widow spy thriller. It's just a shame the poster designers decreed it was necessary to take such bizarre liberties with her appearance and photoshop the hell out of her.



There are other unexpected apperances. Jenny Agutter has her sexiest screen moment since her dip in Walkabout. Toby Jones reappears as Arnim Zola, in drastically altered circumstances reflecting his peculiar evolution in the comics, in a scene that adds an eighties techno-feel to the movie's retro mash-up. Frank Grillo makes the most of his role as Brock 'Crossbones' Rumlow, a thoroughly nasty piece of work.



In the end, this is a film about lies, compromised morals and the problem of trust. Today's corporate, surveillance-controlled America (and by extension, Britain and much of the west) threatens to become more of a danger to freedom than the regimes it pits itself against. While this movie will do nothing to combat that (it belongs to Disney, for Christ's sake, so it's not exactly innocent in the corporate evil stakes), it reflects the populace's growing disquiet with the nature of of our civilisation. It raises the question of whether the only way forward is to tear everything down and start again. There will be, at the very least, massive repercussions for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Agents of SHIELD (with which I am lagging behind, being in the UK) will certainly be affected, and the set-up for Age of Ultron will be somewhat different than in Avengers Assemble.




Oh, and make sure you sit through the credits. Not only are they a minor masterpiece in themselves, but both the mid-credits and post-credits scenes are worth waiting for.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Minor Planet Discoveries



Two particularly interesting discoveries made in the outer regions of the solar system have been reported in the press.

The centaur Chariklo - an icy body in a solar orbit between Saturn and Uranus - has been shown to have two thin rings, akin to the rings that surround the giant planets, most notably Saturn, but also Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune. It's the first rocky body found to have rings, and by far the smallest. Edit: I've since been informed that the Saturnian moon Rhea might have a ring system, although this is far from certain. It is considerably larger than Chariklo, however.

ESO link to article on Chariklo.

Secondly, a 2012 discovery of a small planetoid in the Scattered Disc region of the solar system, of a type similar to 2003's discovery Sedna. Like Sedna, 2012 VP113 has raised questions about the structure of the solar system and the number of planets. While Sedna was, briefly, in vogue as a potential tenth planet - it is really more like a large, long-period comet - VP113 is thought by some to indicate that a larger, planet-sized body may be lurking in the outer reaches of the solar system, disrupting the comets and other small bodies that form the Oort Cloud.

New York Times article on VP113


Monday, 24 March 2014

CAPTAIN'S BLOG: TNG 2.7-2.8

2.7) Unnatural Selection
or
An Old-Age Tale


The Mission: Investigate the deaths of the crew of the USS Langtree, who all died of old age.


Planets visited: Gagarin 4, location of the Darwin Genetic Research Centre. Nice job – memorialising both Yuri Gagarin and Charles Darwin in one fell swoop.


The Picard Manoeuvre: He doesn't like being interrupted, although he admits he's being a bit of a hypocrite. He butts heads with Pulaski a good deal, thinking she's too obsessed with her work (and she thinks exactly the same of him). He makes getting Data and Pulaski back the ship's top priority. When it's revealed that the transport rescue of the doctor is kill-or-cure, Picard volunteers to operate the transporter himself.


Lady Bones: She's incredibly confident in her diagnosis. She believes that beaming a potentially infected child onto the Enterprise, albeit with major safeguards, is worth it if it can solve the mystery of the illness that killed the Langtree crew. (This, on a ship of over a thousand people, bear in mind.) She's willing to risk her own health by treating the children. She's famous among medical circles for her early viral papers. She's introducing herself as Kate now, rather than Katherine.


Elementary, Dear Data: He's the perfect choice to pilot a shuttlecraft with the doctor and her patient aboard, since he is naturally unaffected by diseases, although he does say that this is “by now means certain. (He did catch the virus in “The Naked Now,” so he's right to be concerned.)


GM People: The children engineered by the Darwin Station scientists are highly advanced, designed to be the future of humanity. They mature rapidly, have powerful minds are telepathic and telekinetic. They are designed to be disease resistant, but their aggressive immune system was stimulated by a Langtree officer's flu virus. It created an infectious airborne antibody that attacks the genetic material and causes accelerated ageing.


Future History: Later episodes, particularly in Deep Space Nine, would suggest that this kind of genetic research is illegal in the Federation.


Future Treknology: The Enterprise can patch into the Langtree's security systems, displaying the bridge on the display screen and zooming in on details, which is pretty swish. Styrolite is a plasticky substance that keeps a human being in stasis.


With a sample of unadulterated DNA, the transporters (with some special modifications by O'Brien) can remove an genetic infection and restore a patient to health. It even sorts her hair out.


The Verdict: Pulaski is brilliant throughout this episode, as is Picard. The moment when Picard learns that she has been following his career is cute – but not as cute as when they hug. She's saved by a hair follicle and a spot of genius from O'Brien (it's good to see the chief getting a bigger piece of the action for once, and finally getting named). You have to wonder why, now that they've discovered this method, they don't use it to cure pretty much everything. It's pretty harsh that the kids have to live forever in isolation. The final log entry by Dr. Pulaski sounds like the sign-off to an episode of The Outer Limits.



Thursday, 20 March 2014

PAPYRUSAURUS

Yes, you're probably pronouncing it wrong. Don't worry about it.

If you're following my blog, you're probably into either Doctor Who, or dinosaurs, or some other bit of geekery. In which case, you could do worse than checking out the crafting genius of Papyrusaurus, if you have failed to do so already.

Ashley, the Chief Executive Dinosaur of Papyrusaurus, reclaims old books and transforms their pages into works of nerdy art.

She does Doctor Who tributes

and Monsters Inc. stuff for kids 

and Firefly stuff 

and she does pretty amazingly cute things with dinosaurs.


Check out the whole store. There's a lot more - not just prints, but Christmas decorations, wreaths and rosettes. She designs tributes for Supernatural, Harry Potter, Ghostbusters... all the geeking best.

You can check out her store at CraftStar through the link above, or on Etsy here. Papyrusaurus is US based, but ships worldwide.

And seriously, check this out. It's the Bakersaurus Rex.

Do we really want Ghostbusters 3?

Deadline has a short bit of news on the possibility of a third Ghostbusters movie, helpfully reblogged here by The Radio Times. Apparently, GB3 is go, but without Ivan Reitman. From the man himself:

"It’s a version of Ghostbusters that has the originals in a very minor role… When I came back from Harold’s funeral, it was really moving and it made me think about a lot of things."

So the film will be needing a new director. With Harold Ramis no longer with us, and Bill Murray almost certainly not taking part (this has been going back and forth for a while, but latest news is that he's a no show), there will be very little of the original creative team left. A script is said to be ready, after numerous rejigs concerning cast availability, although the loss of Ramis will surely have necessitated yet another redraft. However, if Sony are aiming to begin filming in 2015, the script must be just about ready (although it wouldn't be the first production to go before the cameras with an unfinished script).

The big question is, do we really want a Ghostbusters movie without Ramis, Reitman and Murray? I'm of two minds. The possibility of a third movie actually working as well as the originals (yes, I include GB2, which was great), is slim, even with the full squad back. Even earlier drafts are known to have recognised that the four 'busters are too old for the physical stuff, and were likely to be reduced to minor roles, while a new team of Ghostbusters took over. We don't know much about the new team, save that it is said to comprise "three young men and a young woman," in the words of Dan Aykroyd. (Yes, that does bring to mind Extreme Ghostbusters, but hell, XGB worked.)

We know that Aykroyd has been working on a script with other writers, so there's plenty of new blood involved. I really wonder if taking a whole new tack is a better plan than trying to emulate the classics. We need a new director: Guillermo del Toro is, for me, the perfect choice. He has a unique aesthetic that will set it apart from the originals, and he knows how to handle giant supernatural monsters. If we need a new writer, J. Michael Straczynski has industry clout, movie experience and was fantastic as head writer of The Real Ghostbusters. Even Erik Burnham, whose work on the IDW comic series, shows he really gets Ghostbusters, could be worth trying. There are other options open.

However, I still feel a movie might be too hard a sell. It will be unfairly compared to the original, struggling to impress even if it is a fine film in its own right. I wonder if a wholly new direction might be in order. Reboot is a dirty word, but a live action TV series could pave its own way as a Ghostbusters for the 21st century. I'd love to see the boys in grey back... but only if it's done right.




Monday, 17 March 2014

REVIEW: Nemo: Roses of Berlin by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill

This is the second volume following Janni, the second Captain Nemo, a sequel to the (superior) first volume, Heart of Ice. Moore introduced the character in a particularly brutal storyline in the first chapter of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen's third chapter, Century. I am a huge admirer of Moore's work, and Janni Nemo is one of his finest characters; a powerfully strong woman who has overcome great cruelty and patriarchy to become her own agent in the world, freer than almost any other character in the book. Century: 1910 and Heart of Ice were both excellent. So it's disappointing that Roses of Berlin is merely fairly good.


After the denser, more complex previous volumes, Roses of Berlin comes across as lightweight in Metropolis. In this version of history, it is Adenoid Hynkel, The Great Dictator himself, who rules a unified Germany-Pomerania, with assistance from such minds as Karl Rotwang, Dr. Caligari and Dr. Mabuse, but the reveal of the true power behind all this is still hugely effective.
comparison. The story is very linear; not in itself a bad thing, but one that leaves it making less of an impression than others. It's a straightforward vendetta story, rather more interesting than most for being between two powerful female characters, one of whom is gloriously flawed yet majestic, the other, so far gone as to be basically inhuman. Yet, it is still straightforward. As always, Moore provides an entertaining mishmash of various fictional properties to create an alarming alternative history. Nemo and her husband, Broad Arrow Jack, enter the Berlin of Fritz Lang's



Yet there's not a great deal more to this than an adventure peppered with amusing references. That, in itself, is enough to make a fine comic book, particularly when supported by Kevin O'Niell's remarkable artwork. Yet it's less than what I've come to expect from Moore, and this series. It's a short read for those who don't read German. Moore has used foreign, and sometimes wholly fictional, languages to great effect in the past, adding verisimilitude to the work, but here it simply makes several pages impenetrable. As always, Jess Nevins is on hand to provide annotations, but such helpful supplementary material should not be essential to enjoy the work. As was the case with the earlier League volumes, the prose segment at the end provides some of the most enjoyable material, but it does not add much to the proceedings. By industry standards, this is a fine comic book, but by Moore's, it's less than expected. Moore states that there is one more standalone volume to come, followed by the fourth volume of League proper. However, I wonder if he really has much more to say with the series.

Friday, 14 March 2014

CAPTAIN'S BLOG: TOS 2.7-2.8

2.7) Cat's Paw
or
The Star Trek Hallowe'en Special

The Mission: There's a curse on the Enterprise, or something.

Planet's visited: Pyris 7, a gloomy, mist-shrouded planet. It's a spooky blue-grey in the original version, and grey and clouded in the remastered. Korob and Sylvia hae set up their base there, in the form of a huanted castle.

Alien life forms: Korob and Sylvia appear to be human, but are, in fact, two aliens from a distant galaxy, who have been sent to the Milky Way on some sort of mission for “the Old Ones.” They come from “a world without sensation,” and the human form, with its touch and emotion, is alien to them. Korob seems out of his depth, but Sylvia has gone completely nuts. She also likes to turn into a cat, for some reason.

Their natural form is revealed to be small, almost birdlike chirping creatures covered with blue fluff, with tentacled heads. They appear to be mostly pipe-cleaner based. Unable to survive in our galaxy, they rapidly die and dissolve once returned to their own forms.

Alien Treknology: Korob and Sylvia use a device called a transmuter to control matter, create illusions, control their victims' thoughts and maintain their human forms.

Captain James T: Has no qualms with using Sylvia to get to his abducted crew. He similarly has no time for Korob's illusions. Kirk is unusually grim and humourless this episode (given all the death he's seen in recent episodes, this isn't surprising).

Green-Blooded Hobgoblin: He's never heard of Trick of Treat, and dislikes bad poetry. He spouts some arse about the illusory world being taken from “the twilgiht of consciousness” or something. (Sounds rather like the time the Doctor thought he was in the dark recesses of the human mind, when it was actually just a funfair, in the 1965 Doctor Who episode, “Journey Into Terror.”

The Real McCoy: Is easily the most rattled of the trio when it comes to the spooky surroundings. He has the misfortune of being zombified by Sylvia, as do Scott and Sulu.

Tsar of all the Russias: Clearly, this one was recorded early, judging by the state of Walter Koenig's wig. He doesn't like being thought of as green. He copes pretty well, all considered.

The Rank and File: While major characters often go AWOL for a week or two, James Doohan and George Takei appear here, but without any dialogue until Scott gets a line in the last scene. Even Crewman Jackson gets a line before he is unceremoniously killed by Sylvia. With the five highest ranking officers on the planet, Lt. DeSalle has the conn. What he doesn't have, as far as I can tell, is a personality. Uhura is on the bridge, though, so the full core crew is present for once.

Author, Author: You can tell this is a Robert Bloch episode when the baddies mention the Old Ones. There's often a shade of Lovecraft in Bloch's work.

Trek Stars: Theo Marcuse does his best with the filmsy character of Korob. The random close-ups of his boggling face do liven the episode up. Sadly, Marcuse was killed in a car crash only a month or so after this episode was first aired.

The Verdict: I had to watch this one twice, because I fell asleep the first time round. Basically a crap version of “The Squire of Gothos,” this is naff filler material. A Hallowe'en episode of Star Trek should really be a lot more fun that this. I liked the pipe-cleaner aliens though.

HAMMERAMA: Fear in the Night (1972)

This is the first in an occasional series of reviews as I go through my Hammer Horror collection in no particular order. New 'I Was Raised by Spacemen' on the way too!

Fear in the Night (1972)


Fear in the Night is one of the later films of Hammer's great movie period. It's one of those lesser known films that most people have never heard of, fewer still have seen. I had never seen it before, so I picked it out of the box set to begin my Hammerama. It's easy to see why it's less well-known; it lacks the gothic horror trappings that Hammer are most famous for, and it's terribly slow and light on action for the vast majority of its runtime. It takes an absolute age to get going. The opening titles run over completely incident-free establishing footage. I can't imagine a film starting like this today. Audiences would get up and leave before the characters were even introduced.


It's a slow burn psychological horror, the sort of thing Hammer did less often and to less acclaim, but were nonetheless very good at. Although posters billed Joan Collins as the big star – and very good she is too, a real vicious bitch – the main protagonist is Judy Geeson as Peggy. Geeson is gorgeous, boyish and wide-eyed, convincing perfectly as a na├»ve young woman in over her head in a situation she doesn't understand. There's an uncomfortable atmosphere throughout the film, a sense that nothing is under Peggy's control. It's revealed early on that Peggy has recently been institutionalised due to a nervous breakdown, and while she is cared for, nobody lends her claims of assault any credence. Of course, the fact that her new husband Robert, played by a marvellously sinister Ralph Bates, is clearly up to something adds to the unsettling feel.


Stealing every scene he's in is Peter Cushing, always the man to turn to if your horror film needed a boost and a touch of class. He plays the wonderfully named Michael Carmichael, a one-armed, psychologically damaged headmaster, and is horribly creepy throughout. He's far, far too tactile and overly friendly, in a disquietingly false way. He just makes your skin crawl. He comes out with lines like, “Do you like tying knots in things?” Wisely, director and writer Jimmy Sangster follows the edict that, if you reveal a noose in the first act, you must use it in the third.



The setting of a seemingly empty boys' school adds a touch of Hammer's gothic ethos to the proceedings, and the exact nature of the plot remains a mystery until the final act, when the pace rapidly increases. For a short time, it looks like this might be a ghost story, but it's far more mundane and cruel than that. It's a slow, strange film, but worth giving time.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

WHO REVIEW: Tales of Trenzalore

Nine hundred years, four enemies, and apparently, only one leg. That's the summary of the Doctor's time on the planet Trenzalore, recounted in this ebook-only release. It's a slim affair, enjoyable but a little unambitious. Undoubtedly designed to be a fan-pleaser, the book contains four short stories, each of which involves the Doctor defending the town of Christmas against an enemy from the classic series. The first story, 'Let it Snow,' features the Ice Warriors, the most recognisable of the aliens to Matt Smith fans, while the remaining three bring back the Krynoids, Autons and Mara. While the Autons were the very first monsters to appear in the revived series, fighting Christopher Eccleston back in 2005, the vegetable Krynoids and the evil-incarnate that is the Mara are likely to be a mystery to many new series fans. Oh, and these aren't spoilers: all four enemies are included on the front cover, robbing readers of any fun to be had trying to work out which villain has been chosen for each story.


The stories are all good fun, straightforward adventure stories in which the Doctor fights off an alien incursion. There's a great deal of similarity between the four tales, though, particularly the first three. Justin Richards, George Mann and Paul Finch each come with a similar answer to the problem of getting an invasion force past the no-technology barrier surrounding Christmas. The final story, 'The Dreaming,' is the best of the four, with author Mark Morris devising an creative and unique take on the Mara and it's need to manifest. Equally, it's the only story in which there is a plausible reason for the villain to want to release the Time War: the sheer desire for chaos.


Each story is enjoyable, though, with George Mann having particular fun describing the horrible transformation of a victim of the Krynoid. All four authors capture the mannerisms of the eleventh Doctor well, with his gradual ageing and waning faculties becoming clear as the stories progress through his exile. However, they all fall foul of similar problems. It's clear that no one has really outlined the extent or nature of the truth field that surrounds the town, and within each story, the pseudo-companion character gets only a short time to make an impact, so they are inevitably unmemorable.



Most of all, though, this feels like a missed opportunity. With each story being a fairly simple beat-the-baddies affair, there's little room for any exploration of life on Trenzalore. The society of Christmas still feels as sketched in and unreal as it did in The Time of the Doctor. There's no real indication what life under the Doctor's aegis is like. Where are the dissenting voices, the people who resent the Doctor for bringing the siege upon them? The only one who ever questions his presence is the Doctor himself. A single, full-length novel, giving room to explore the world and its protector, would have been more interesting and made more of an impression.

Friday, 7 March 2014

CAPTAIN'S BLOG: TOS 2.5-2.6



2.05) The Apple
or
Captain Kirk vs. Another Computer

The Mission: Investigate the unusual readings on an inhabited planet (there's a definite undertone suggesting that the Federation is looking at colonising it).


Planets visited: Gamma Trianguli 6, an incredibly lush planet with an impossibly steady temperature throughout. It has exploding rocks and flowers that short deadly poison darts with a funny 'boing!' noise.

Stellar Cartography: Gamma Trianguli is a young, hot star 112 light years from Earth, and is very unlikely to have any inhabitable planets. Maybe whoever built Vaal built the whole planet?

Captain James T: He tells Chekov off for flirting, the hypocrite. He is more upset than usual by Mallory's death, having known his father. We see an unusually self-recriminatory Kirk, balming himself for taking risks on the planet. Kirk destroys Vaal in order to let the Enterprise escape, returning the aliens to a natural way of life, and decides to take his chances with Starfleet after he breaks the Prime Directive. Then again, it's certainly an argument that four hundred crewmen outweigh a dozen natives.

Green-Blooded Hobgoblin: He steps in front of a killer plant to save Kirk, but fortunately, his blood is less affected by the poison. He walks slap-bang into Vaal's forcefield, and later gets zapped by lightning.. He is far more accepting of an alien way of life than Kirk or McCoy, pointing out that they are healthy and happy. He gets embarrassed talking about sex, which isn't very logical.

The Real McCoy: Naturally, he is opposed to Spock's view, and takes offense at a humanoid society being held as slaves, as he sees them, without any social progress.

Alien life forms: The Vaalians/People of Vaal: Standard superstitious savages, played by white guys blacked-up (well, oranged-up) in skimpy clothes and face paint. They worship Vaal as a god, which is pretty reasonable, as he controls their entire world. Sex is forbidden and their are no children, since Vaal keeps the people alive and young indefinitely.


Killer Computer: Vaal, a super-powerful machine housed beneath the surface, accessed via a dragon's head carved into the rock. It has access to formidable planetary defences, controlling the weather and affecting the Enterprise in orbit. It needs to eat, for some reason. Vaal is able to drain the antimatter pods of the Enterprise, and inhibits the transporters. (“We can't beam up a fly!” Probably a good thing, that, we know what happens when you teleport flies.)

Sexy Trek: Yeoman Landon is there purely to be Chekov's girl for the week, introducing sex back into the world of Vaal. Onlooking Vaalians are immediatley moved to start trying out the Earth thing called kissing.

Cliche Count: “He's dead, Jim!” All four male redshirts get killed. Akuta actually says “What is love?” Chekov comes out with another bit of pro-Russian absurdity, claiming that the Garden of Eden was located just outside of Moscow. (Nonsense, it was in Brentford.)

The Alternative Factor: Cupcake, the burly guard in the new Star Trek movies, is apparently the alternative universe version of Hendorff, the redshirt who gets killed by the killer flower at the beginning of the episode. 'The Redshirt's Tale' comic story is the alternative version of this story.

Space Bilge: DeForest Kelley can't pronounce Hendorff.

The Vedict: Passable fluff for the first fifteen minutes, but once Akuta shows up, it dips into dreary, mildly offensive “white man's burden” stuff. I'm with Spock on this one: these people were pefectly happy and weren't hurting anyone until Starfleet interfered. If the dozen or so of them are the only population on the planet, as it looks, they're not going to last long before inbreeding takes its toll.

2.06) The Doomsday Machine
or
Captain Kirk vs. Commodore Decker

The Mission: Stop a machine that is threatening all life in the galaxy.

Planets visited: None, for good reason: all but two planets in the sector have been destroyed by the Doomsday Machine.

Stellar Cartography: The Machine's path has taken it through star system's L-370 and L-374, and into the most populous region of the galaxy. Rigel, with a population in the many millions, is next in line.

Alien Treknology: The Doomsday Machine, or Planet Killer, is an ancient device of unknown origin, possibly from another galaxy. It's a gigantic robotic weapon, miles long, with an impenetrable hull of solid neutronium, and a huge, burning maw. It carves up planets with a beam of pure antiprotons, draws the rubble into its mouth and uses it for fuel; essentially, it eats planets.


Captain James T: Torn between his friendship and respect for Commodore Decker, and his realisation that the Commodore is clearly disturbed. He's practical enough to join in the repairs on the Constellation. He's also willing to take full authority for any insubordination against Decker in order to get his own ship out of harm's way.

Crazy Commodore: A respected officer of the fleet, Commodore Matthew Decker is the commander of the USS Constellation and Kirk's direct superior. He's never lost a ship before now. Faced with no way to fight the Planet Killer, he beamed his crew down to the third planet of L-374, ready to go down with his ship, only to listen helplessly as the planet was destroyed with his people on it. His guilt over this decision has broken him, leaving him with a suicidal vendetta against the Machine.

Green-Blooded Hobgoblin: He claims that Vulcans never bluff (a bit like they supposedly never lie). He's far more bound by regulations than either Kirk or Bones, but his loyalty to his captain – and Decker's evident psychological problems – convince him to take command.

The Real McCoy: Unsurprisingly, the least regulation-bound of the three core crew, but anable to support his claim that Decker should be removed from command on medical grounds since he has been unable to formally examine him. By now, it's looking clear that his sparring with Spock is a useful way for them both to let off some steam in stressful situations.

Cliche Count: “I'm a doctor, not a mechanic!” This is Trek's first go at a Moby Dick story, but far from its last. It's the second episode in a row involving an ancient alien robot of unknown origin (for all we know, the same people built both Vaal and the Planet Killer; after all, they're both destructive alien machines that need to eat).

Links: Matt Decker is the father of Will Decker, Kirk's scheduled replacement as captain of the Enterprise in The Motion Picture.

Remastery: This is one of the episodes that benefits the most from the remastering proess, making the devastation reaped by the Planet Killer all the more frightening and immediate.

The Alternative Factor: Other Doomsday Machines have turned up in the expanded universe media. Peter David's rather excellent TNG novel Vendetta suggests that they were created to fight the Borg. His follow-up, Before Dishonor, had the original machine taken out of mothballs to fight a Borg super-cube. A Star Trek: Voyager comic named 'Planet Killer' saw the ship fight another such machine in the Delta Quadrant, and Star Trek Online includes a storyline in which the Klingons attempt to use one against the Federation.


The Verdict: One of the very best episodes of Star Trek. While the franchise will do the Moby Dick thing several times again, this is one of the best uses of the vendetta storyline, and the most understandable. Both Shatner and William Windom, as Kirk and Decker, are excellent as increasingly desperate men in a hopeless situation. The fac tthat this is basically a bottle episode means that there is more beudget for a larger cast, making the Enteprise seem like a busy ship, throwig the ghost ship of the Constellation into sharper contrast. Decker's inevitable sacrifice is well-played and affecting, with only the padding of the transporter malfunction knocking the climax from perfection.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

A Hundred Years of Paperbacks

Authors Paul Magrs and Stuart Douglas have tasked themselves with reading one hundred fiction paperbacks, one for each year of the twentieth century. At the rate of one per month, that should keep them busy for quite a while. They're mixing in various genres, throwaway pulps, fondly remembered classics, and forgotten gems. Their choice for 1900 was Jules Verne's Castaways of the Flag, so for 1901 they're going to follow it up with a work by the other father of science fiction, H.G. Wells: The First Men in the Moon.

So, if you fancy reading the classic novel of lunar exploration, dig out your copy, or download the handy Kindle file from the site itself. I agree with the boys, the 1964 movie version, with Ray Harryhausen's monsters and Lionel Jeffries as Professor Cavor is hard to beat, but the original novel will always be definitive.


Monday, 3 March 2014

CAPTAIN'S BLOG: TNG 2.4-2.6

2.4) The Outrageous Okona
or
Marky Sue


The Mission: Intervene in an interplanetary treaty that is rapidly deterioriating.


Planets visited: The two planets of Atlec and Straleb were colonised some centuries ago by a humanoid species, and now exist in a precarious peace as the Coalition of Madena.


Stellar Cartography: Atlec and Straleb exist in the Omega Sagitta system. There is a constellation called Sagitta – representing the arrow – but the stars do not go as far as Omega. Presumably, the constellation gets expanded in between now and the 24th century (although it should really be Omega Sagittae).


Trek Stars: William O. Campbell, aka Billy Campbell, plays Thadiun Okona. He also auditioned to play Riker, coming second to Jonathan Frakes. Okona is a painfully Mary-Sue character, marching onto the ship and charming everyone in sight. He dresses like Han Solo, chats up every woman he meets, Riker admires him, Wesley fancies him and is the focus of the whole episode. Just in case we didn't realise that he is a “rogue,” Troi explains it to us laboriously.


The Picard Manoeuvre: Clearly finds Okona as irritating as I do. He seems incredibly frustrated by the political situation that Okona has created between the leaders of the two planets (one lot thinks he's nicked a precious jewel, the other thinks he's knocked up his daughter). He has no authority to arbitrate, the leaders won't listen, and they're so hopelessly outgunned that getting into a firefight would be horribly unethical.


Number One: Clearly impressed with Okona's lifestyle and sexy skills.


Elementary, Dear Data: He's an android, not a robot. There's a protracted and painful B-plot in which Okona inspires Data to try to develop a sense of humour. This involves Data trying to learn jokes and watching a shite stand-up routine in the holodeck. “What is funny?” he asks. Not this.


Sexy Trek: Okona bangs three female crewmembers, including the first woman he sees, a transporter operator played by a pre-fame Teri Hatcher, who doesn't even get credited. The leader of Atlec thinks he's got his daughter pregnant and demands that he marries her, but it's really down to the son of the governor of Straleb.


Double Entendres: “May I at least watch?”


Future Treknology: The alien ships are armed with lasers. They can't even touch the Enterprise.


The Verdict: Awful. Aside from a couple of amusing moments (Picard muting the aliens is quite good), this is bog standard Trek barely enlivened by a naff central character. The actors playing the heirs to Atlec and Straleb are awful. The whole thing is painfully sexist and not nearly as funny as it's desperately trying to be.