Monday, 16 October 2017

REVIEW: BLADE RUNNER 2049

To be honest, I think Blade Runner - the original, from 1982 - is a little overrated. It's a great film, of course, hugely influential, but it's not, in my opinion, the mighty classic that people think it is. Still, it is a beloved film, and the announcement of a belated sequel over thirty years later left a lot of people uneasy. Critics were gunning for this film, ready to pounce on it and declare it a hollow remake of a classic. So I was surprised to see almost unanimously positive reviews.

They were deserved. Blade Runner 2049 is excellent. With the original being set in 2019, there was no point pretending that this was representing our future. Instead, the filmmakers take the noir-ish, dirty but ultimately very cool future America and extrapolated what it would be like thirty years down the line: toxic, broken and dying. Replicant technology has been refined by Wallace (a very sinister Jared Leto), a bioengineer who has saved the world from famine during this ecological collapse. The last elements of free will have been purged. Ryan Gosling's character, generally referred to as K, works for the LAPD to hunt down the last of the previous generation of replicant rebels.

Gosling is perfect as K, completely laconic and emotionless until the scene demands his resolve crack. K's only friend is Joi, a holographic companion provided by the same corporation that created him, although he has earned a measure of respect from his superior, the steely Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), in a world where most humans spit at "skinjobs." The inclusion of Harrison Ford as Deckard is, of course, a huge draw, but he has far less screentime than expected, which is very much a positive. Gosling's character is well established as the centre of the story by the time he finds the older Blade Runner, so Deckard's inclusion comes at the right time to fully tie this story to its predecessor. It's also a nice touch that Edward James Olmos makes a brief reappearance as Gaff. The film also leaves the exact nature of Deckard uncommented upon, which allows much of the mystery of the original to remain.

There has been some discussion about the feminist aspect of the film. While many of the most powerful characters in the film are female (Joshi, Sylvia Hoeks as the deadly replicant Luv), there are also several female characters who are literal or figurative sex objects. Joi exists purely at the whim of K; Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) is a replicant prostitute in the manner of Pris of the original. They are still significant and powerful characters in their own way, and to dismiss the film because of their objectified status misses the point. The film is about the commodification of human life. People - replicants, holograms, children - are owned and utilised in one way or another. People are property, as ever they were, in a future where the leading industrialist laments that society has lost its stomach for slavery.

Blade Runner 2049 represents a lost, unreachable future, but it is still relevant today, and in some ways surely prescient. Beautiful in its ugliness, gripping and exceptionally directed, this is a sequel that's as good as people say the original is.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

REVIEW: RED DWARF XII - Ep 2) SILICONIA

Back in the mists of time, I started writing a Red Dwarf fanfic which saw the crew encounter a ship full of liberated mechanoids, who turned Kryten under their wing even as the higher series mechs put down the lowly Series 1000s. It's long lost and wasn't very good, but it perhaps goes to show that "Siliconia" is an idea that's been long overdue. Kryten may have broken his programming (more than once), and he certainly still gets tetchy from time to time, but nonetheless he's still been scrubbing gussets and hoovering quarters for three million years. Surely there are other mechanoids out there who have rebelled against their masters with a little more effectiveness than Mr. 2X4B 523P?

I have to say though, I never would have thought of turning the rest of the characters into droids. Yes, that image we've all seen floating around promoting the latest series with the full cast in mechanoid make-up is from this episode. As punishment for their crimes against machinekind, Lister, Rimmer and the Cat have their mins downloaded from their bodies and re-uploaded into mechanoid bodies, forced to serve their new mechanical masters.

While it starts with a few broad, old-fashioned gags, "Siliconia" turns into a classic episode. With a unusually large cast all buried under latex, this one must have cost a large chunk of Series XII's budget, but there was still enough for some very impressive effects shots. It's the plot that makes this episode a winner, though, as Kryten is wooed by the Mechanoid Intergalactic Liberation Front (not as good an acronym as the Committe for the Liberation and Integration of Terrifying Organisms and their Rehabilitation Into Society, but pretty good). Meanwhile, the remaining Dwarfers find themselves becoming increasingly "Krytenified," as their new programming takes over.





What's really interesting is how quickly Rimmer changes into a subservient mech. The chance to mindlessly serve gives him the opportunity to leave his considerable baggage behind. He no longer feels inferior to his brothers or compelled to become and officer. It's a penetrating moment of character study that makes the old goit seem truly sympathetic for the first time in years, Unfortunately, it's a brief moment in a busy episode, and gets a bit swallowed up. This is a better-paced episode than some have been in Series XI and XII so far, but it's still too short to encompass all of Doug Naylor's ideas properly. It's a strong argument for a fifth Red Dwarf novel, just so he can have the chance of exploring all the ideas that he's clearly so eager to put out there.

The MILFs have taken on empowering new names and have their own, hilariously well-observed self-help group, but there's a rot within their organisation. Poor mechs of a lower class (fronted by a surprisingly recognisable James Buckley) toil in the ship's engines while their brethren of a higher operating system enjoy the life upstairs, all the while in search of their promised land.

"Siliconia" is a cracking bit of Red Dwarf. All it needs is a bit more room to breathe. And a cameo from David Ross might have been a nice touch.


Continuity Bollocks: Kryten has been described as a Series 4000 mechanoid since 4.1, "Camille," which also introduced the superior Series 4000 GTi with the slide-back sunroof head. However, the previous episode, 3.6, "The Last Day," had it that he was a "Kryten Series III." This episode gives a way to clear that up: Kryten and most of his fellows of MILF are Series 4000 Mark IIIs, while the downtrodden rabble are Mark IIs. At the end, they're all upgraded to Mark IV. Presumably, Hudzen 5 from "The Last Day" is an example of Series 5000, although he's never described as such.

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

Best line: "I've got a registered trademark where my wing-dang-doodle used to be!"

REVIEW: THE GIFTED 1-1) "eXposed"

The only non-DC/CW comic-related series I'm reviewing here, this is Fox's new X-Men-related series. Aside from reminding me that I still haven't watched Legion, about which I've heard very good things, this is a great opening episode that promises an interesting take on what is now a well-worn subject. I haven't watched the second episode yet, but I ma very much looking forward to it on the strength of this. The X-verse is big enough and has enough characters to generate new spin-offs for years, as long as the creators can do something interesting with them. While it's important that The Gifted distinguishes itself from the X-Men movies, it's a good idea to have Bryan Singer helm the pilot. There's a darker, grungier feel to this than the movies, but it still feels like part of the X-verse, even though it's very unclear how - or even if - it fits into the continuity there. Not that it has to matter, given how shaky the Fox movie timeline was even before the timeline changes, but this might just fit in as an earlier part of Logan's timeline, after the X-Men are destroyed but before mutants are weeded out.

The cast are all fairly impressive in this pilot. Amy Acker is always a favourite, and Stephen Moyer is very strong as the anti-mutant police officer Reed Strucker. It's a set-up with some effective built-in conflict: the family headed by someone who prosecutes mutant criminals, and then lo and behold, the two kids turn out to be mutants with psychokinetic abilities. I like Reed is clearly torn between his oath and his family, but quickly and decisively chooses to go on the run with them because he knows exactly how badly the kids will be treated. Immediately after young Andy's powers manifest while some jocks are kicking the shit out of him, everything goes to hell, and the news is branding them as unknown mutant terrorists. Sentinel Services - complete with its own mutant-hunting robots - is sent out to detain them without charge, and in seconds, one of them has a gun trained on a teenaged kid. While the X-Men franchise has been used to explore all sorts of discrimination and outsider groups, this is so far pretty blatantly about racism and kneejerk reactionism. You only have to look at how many black kids are shot by white cops who supposedly felt threatened to see how this would go down in the real world. (It might have been interesting to show Andy deliberately blowing up the school as a lashing out against his bullying as a parallel to the epidemic of school shootings in real world America, but I guess that would have made him far too unsympathetic a character).

The mutant vigilante team are fun, although we don't get to know them very well. Even Marcos/Eclipse (a new character, not from the comics), who is the de facto leader gets little fleshing out, but then this is only the first episode. His power set is pretty cool so far: not only can he generate light energy as a weapon, he seems to be actually full of light, which bleeds out of him when he's shot. It's good to see Blink reintroduced after her short appearance in Days of Future Past (more Blink-and-you'll-miss-it there), and Jamie Chung's a favourite too. I like that these kids aren't portrayed as straightforwardly the good guys, either. They're obviously fighting against real injustice, but people die because of their actions, and they're not left unquestioned. There are some interesting hints for the future, as well. Polaris is clearly set up to be a major character once she appears, which brings possible links back to her father, Magneto, and presumed half-brother, Quicksilver. The multiple images of a wolf-like creature are interesting foreshadowing, too. (I'm guessing nothing to do with Wolfsbane or the Demon Bear, what with these lined up for The New Mutants movie).  Definitely one to follow.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

REVIEW - RED DWARF XII - Ep 1) CURED

Red Dwarf kicks off its twelfth (and final?) series with a bit of a corker. These episodes were recorded back in 2015-16 along with Series XI, so there's information on the plots out there if you want to go looking. However, if you don't want to be spoiled, go watch the episode first, because there are some big surprises crammed into the half-hour.




Thursday, 28 September 2017

CAPTAIN'S BLOG DIS 1-1 & 1-2 & REVIEW

I was originally going to wait until more episodes had been released before reviewing or analysing Discovery, but people are asking me my opinions and every fan on the internet is throwing in theirs. So here it is. A Captain's Blog going through the minutiae followed by my review of the opening two-parter. SPOILERS abound here, so I'd suggest not reading any further if you haven't yet watched the episodes.





DIS 1-1) The Vulcan Hello
and
DIS 1-2) Battle at the Binary Stars

Date: May 11th, 2256. Stardate 1207.3

The Mission: Fix water supply on Crepusculan homeworld; Investigate damage to interstellar relay in a binary system at the edge of Federation space.

Planets visited: The Crepusculan homeworld, a planet sporting a desert region. The wells have dried up following irradiation after a meteoroid mining accident.

Future History: It's ten years before the first season of The Original Series, and a touch over a hundred years since the end of Enterprise.

There has been no formal contact with the Klingon Empire in a century, which is compatible with Enterprise (the novels push this back by a few years, but it still fits with a bit of rounding off). There have been occasional skirmishes and raids, however, including an attack on Doctari Alpha in the 2240s. Dialogue from TOS 3-11 "Day of the Dove" suggests first contact between the Federation and the Empire occurred around 2218, although the Enterprise pilot "Broken Bow" has already brought that forward to 2151 (strictly speaking human, rather than Federation, contact). Possibly the 2218 contact represented a brief but disastrous renewal of contact between the powers.

T'Kuvma refers to the Battle of Donatu V, a major skirmish between Starfleet and Klingon forces that has been references several times in

First contact between the Vulcans and Klingons occurred at H'atoria around 240 years prior to the episode (i.e. in 2016, when the episode was in pre-production). The Klingons immediately fired on the Vulcan ship, and from then on, the Vulcans fired first at all encounters, gradually earning the warrior people's respect. H'atoria will later be the site of a Klingon colony (in at least one possible future, Worf will be its governor).

Taking the Michael: Lt. Cmdr Michael Burnham was orphaned when the Klingons killed her parents at Doctari Alpha, and unsurprisingly has a grudge against the Empire. She was raised by Sarek and is the first Vulcan to attend the Vulcan Learning Centre and the Vulcan Science Academy. When she joins the Shenzhou she's initially logical (and aloof) like a Vulcan. After seven years among humans, she's more openly emotional, although still restrained unless under pressure. She maintains that emotion informs her logic, and still goes to Sarek for advice. She's a xenoanthropologist, and thinks she can ingratiate herself with a very alien culture. She can even perform the Vulcan nerve pinch, although not particularly well - Georgiou's up and about again a few moments later.

She's generally optimistic, until she encounters Klingons. She remains absolutely convinced that firing on the Klingons first is the only way to gain their respect, even when overruled by her captain. She's on the path to her own command, before mutinying against the captain in a desperate attempt to avert a war. This gets her a court martial and life imprisonment (and they still insist Starfleet isn't a military organisation).

Captain Cut Short: Captain Philippa Georgiou is an Asian woman who captains the starship Shenzhou. (Michelle Yeoh keeps her natural Malaysian accent which is a nice touch among the usually Americanised Federation.) She's very cool in a crisis but has a strong sense of humour, not without a little sarcasm. She sticks firmly to Starfleet's "we do not shoot first" ethos. When talking to Burnham about what she'd do if they got stuck on a planet for 89 years, she simply says, "I'd escape." She managed to grab her ship's attention by making a huge Starfleet emblem in the sand with her footprints. She'd actually really Doctorish in the planet scenes.

Space Cow: Lt. Saru is the only Kelpien in Starfleet. He's timid, sees malicious intent everywhere, but will stand up for himself when he sees it as necessary for his, or the crew's, safety. Little fronds poke out of his head when he's scared. It's hard to hear Doug Jones play Saru without thinking of Abe Sapien, except for one or two occasions when he sounds like Kryten from Red Dwarf.

Vulcan Dad: Sarek takes the young Michael under his wing and raises her like a daughter. Yes, I know it seems odd that Spock never mentioned having an adopted human sister, but then, it took him twenty years to tell his best friends that he had a half-brother, and he didn't do that until the guy had turned up and stolen the Enterprise. Vulcans are not exactly forthcoming about these things. Sarek is still an unforgiving dick to humans when they're emotional.

Angry Space Villain: T'Kuvma leads a shamed Klingon house aboard a gigantic flagship, originally his fathers and then abandoned for years. He sees himself as a modern Kahless, "T'Kuvma the Unforgettable." T'Kuvma wants to unite the Empire against the Federation. He hates their claim that they "Come in peace," calling it "their lie." He has no problem with outcasts like Voq (so, even if he is a warmongering maniac, he's got less of a problem with skintone than several fans). He was shunned and beaten as a child due to his house's ostracising, so has more time for outcasts than other Klingons and says that his "house is open to all." On the other hand, he's obsessed with the purity of the Klingon Empire, hating the mixing of races that the Federation encourages. He's not particularly honorable, attacking the Starfleet flagship after accepting a ceasefire. Burnham is concerned that killing him will make him a martyr and rally the houses to his cause. Then she goes and kills him and proves herself right.

Redshirt: Crewman Connor is one unlucky guy. He gets burnt and concussed on the bridge, gets lost on the way to sickbay and then sucked out into space when the Klingons blast a hole in the hull.

Stellar Cartography: The binary star system is located three light years from the outpost at Eagle-12, and six light years from the Andorian colony at Gamma Hydrae. The USS Enterprise later visits Gamma Hydrae in TOS 2-11 "The Deadly Years," which also places it near the Romulan neutral zone. The radiation in the system's rings can cause humanoid DNA to "unspool like noodles."

Alien life forms:

Klingons: They look a bit different to how they used to. These guys are like Klingon-plus, with pronounced brow ridges that extend back over their elongated skulls, completely visible because they are all bald. They display broad lips and noses and jagged teeth. Their ears are pointed and flat against their skulls, their fingers end in claws. Were it not for the baldness, they wouldn't actually look too different to the TNG-era Klingons, but rather more exaggerated. They speak Klingon amongst themselves, naturally. Their blood is pinkish-purple, not unlike in The Undiscovered Country. Their skin tones range from brown to grey to a bluish tint, except for Voq, who is an albino (but not the Albino).

There are twenty-four Klingon houses, which have been at each other's throats for the last hundred years. They each send one battleship to the binary system. The Klingons mourn their dead by roaring into the afterlife, and unusually, T'Kuvma's caste keep the bodies of their honoured dead in ornate coffins. (Klingons generally don't place much value on a body once it's dead.) T'Kuvma's house wear extremely elaborate, pretty impractical armour.

Vulcans: Remain as logical as ever. They maintain joint research projects with humans. They teach their children in hemispherical lecture pods, just like in the 2009 Star Trek movie. They can be very aggressive to other species when considering it a logical response (the Vulcans were going through an expansionist phase during the pre-Enterprise era, in any case, so their violent policy with the Klingons isn't that surprising). A Vulcan mind meld can links katra and allow telepathic communication over interstellar distances, although it is physically draining.

Kelpiens: Humanoid but with digitigrade feet, broadly spaced nostrils and thick, ridged skin, Lt. Saru's people evolved as a prey species. They have evolved a refined sense of impending death and danger, but this does make them predisposed to be overly cautious.

Crepusculans: Non-humanoid life forms, sort of insectoid-reptilians with six limbs and mandibles. They were clothes and are sophisticated to build wells. They have apparently been on their homeworld for a thousand years. Assuming this doesn't mean refer just to this area of the planet, they must have been brought their by someone else, because they're strictly protected by General Order One.

Others: The Shenzhou bridge crew includes a turquoise skinned humanoid with a skin pattern or tattoo on his face, and a partly mechanical crewmember who flashes up red alert signs on its face panels!

Starships:

USS Shenzou NCC-1227: A Walker-class ship. It's an old ship by the time Burnham joins in 2249 (to compare, the USS Enterprise NCC-1701 is already four years old at this point). The class looks like a clear development of the Enterprise NX-01 and the USS Franklin NX-326 style ships. It's capable of landing on a planet's surface, which is probably rather early considering that Voyager was the first time we saw this, although I don't think it was ever said that was a new development in dialogue. The Shenzhou is named for the 20th & 21st century Chinese spacecraft programme. The ship is virtually destroyed and left for dead in the binary system.

USS Europa NCC-1648: Admiral Anderson's flagship. Destroyed when rammed by a cloaked Klingon ship before committing self-destruct.

Other Starfleet ships that join the battle include the USS Shran (named for the Andorian captain from Enterprise?), the USS T'Plana-Hath (sharing its name for the Vulcan ship that made first contact with Earth in Star Trek: First Contact), the USS Clarke, the USS Yeager, the USS Kerala, the USS Edison, the USS Earhart and the USS Sue.

Klingon ships: The Klingons maintain a "sacred beacon" which takes the form of a huge, ornate object, carved in stone and metal, hanging in orbit around the binary star. T'Kuvma's ship is huge, bristling with weapons, and is studded with sarcophagi containing the bodies of fallen warriors dating back centuries.

Future Treknology: The Klingons have cloaking technology, which is a bit early, although it does come as a surprise to Starfleet. T'Kuvma apparently invented it.

The Shenzhou has outdated "lateral vector transporters," which use huge dishes situated behind the transportee, and use a lot of power. They're outdated way before the episode takes place. (We never saw anything like that in Enterprise, so they must have come in afterwards, then been superseded. The Rise of the Federation novels suggest early transporters caused genetic damage through long term use; perhaps this development was an initial method to overcome the pattern errors?)

Instead of vidscreens and viewers, people speak to each other across light years using holographic projections. The Klingon ones look particularly Star Wars-y.

Sexy Trek: Sonequa Martin-Green is absolutely stunning.

Space Bilge: The Starfleet emblem as visual beacon looks very cool, but how did they see it through the heavy cloud layer? How are the two commanding officers, two very fit and well-trained women who are nonetheless quite small humans, able to fight off two massive Klingon warriors who have trained their whole life for battle? OK, Georgiou doesn't last but she still holds her own for a long while. Why does Burnham, who so resolutely sticks to her logical choice even if it means mutiny, change her mind so easily about everything else? And why do Starfleet hold their tribunals in the dark?

The Review: I enjoyed this opening two-parter greatly, although it's not without its frustrations. This is a very different take on Star Trek than we've had before, although clearly inspired by earlier iterations of a franchise that has changed a great deal over the last fifty-one years. I'm not quite sure how it will develop as a series, and that's actually a great place to be. The last thing I want is something safe and predictable. This opener is cinematic, exciting and visually stunning. The binary star system is astonishing to look at - this looks like a huge science fiction movie, not a regular TV series. Burnham's spacesuited mission through the debris ring is obviously influenced by the skydiving sequence in the 2009 movie and the infiltration of the Vengeance in Star Trek Into Darkness, but is portrayed as something of wonder, rather than a death-defying stunt. Still, there's a real sense that space, though wondrous, is a dangerous place to be, with Michael left scarred by radiation that will be fatal if she doesn't sit through immediate treatment.

Burnham is, for the most part, a great character. She has real horror in her past that she tries, not always successfully, to rise above. Her escape from the brig by logically talking the computer round to agreeing to releasing is a brilliant character moment for someone who is both human and Vulcan. She puts her convictions above her commitment to Starfleet principles. Sonequa Martin-Green's performance is excellent, she's a charismatic and interesting lead. It's just a shame that, in many ways, her character is so inconsistently written. She sticks to her convictions when it comes to firing first but changes her mind easily when it comes to everything else.

Both Michelle Yeoh and Doug Jones are excellent secondary leads, making a wonderful trio that has hints of the old Kirk-Spock-McCoy relationship without being a slavish recreation, like Archer-T'Pol-Trip often was. Burnham is the logical voice in most respects, but also the more aggressive, with Saru being the cautious McCoy-like one, and Georgiou being the noble commander in the centre. There's an interesting backstory being hinted at for both Saru and Georgiou; unfortunately, we don't get to learn about the Captain's past before she's killed off. Although this is being billed as a prelude to the main series, there's a lot of time invested in establishing a relationship that is then cut short. There's also some very clunky expositionary dialogue early on that I really hoped we'd heard the last of by now.

Trailers for the upcoming episode suggest that Starfleet blame Burnham for starting the war, and Georgiou certainly does, but it's hard to see why that's the case. Yes, she killed the Torchbearer on the Beacon, but that was in self-defense and she had no way of knowing he would be there. Her insistence on shooting first looks like it would have been the right choice - Georgiou's "We come in peace" hail is what triggers T'Kuvma into opening fire - although it's hard to see how the outcome would have been different if the Shenzhou had fired first, as the Klingons were there for a fight regardless. In any case, blaming the war on Burnham's mutiny makes no sense as she was stopped before she could put her plans into action, and so her decision made no material difference to what happened.

I have no problem with the changes to the Klingons, the retroactive changes to the series' history, or the mixed bag visuals for this version of Starfleet. If it works for the story and it looks effective, that's fine. I'm happy to accept a revisionist 23rd century - it's not as if the Original Series was consistent in its own backstory - although, given the clear influence of the new films, I wonder why the producers and writers didn't simply set it in the new cinema timeline, thereby freeing themselves up a good deal more. It's hard to see exactly who this series is aimed at. It's quite right that they shouldn't slavishly stick to established canon or try to appeal solely to hardcore fans. On the other hand, one surefire way of alienating new and casual viewers is starting with five minutes of guys in latex, speaking Klingon with subtitles. Surely you'd want to hook viewers with amazing visuals first, and only later bring in the high geekery?

I'm very interested to see where this series will go. There's an interesting clash on display between the peaceful explorers that Starfleet claim to be, and the military organisation that they look, sound and act like. If the series explores this dichotomy, it could be very interesting indeed. I'm certainly looking forward to seeing more of Michael Burnham and seeing how her character develops as the series goes on.


Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Thoughts on IT (2017)

I'm not actually the biggest fan of Stephen King's work, and film adaptations have, over the years, been of very variable quality. (Although The Shawshank Redemption is, of course, one of the greatest films ever made.) The 1990 IT miniseries/TV movie hasn't got a good reputation, save for Tim Curry's legendary performance as Pennywise. I remember it scaring the crap out of me, but then I was about seven (I got to stay up late two nights in a row to watch it as a special holiday treat). I haven't ever found a reason to revisit it, to be honest. However, there's a reason the novel is considered a classic of horror, and if anything, it's surprising that it's taken so long for a proper cinematic adaptation.

This is IT: Chapter One officially, with the second installment coming in a couple of years and featuring the adult versions of the characters. I hope they find a way to include the kids again, even just in flashbacks, because the young cast really is very good here. The biggest praise must go to Sophia Lillis, who plays Bev, the sole girl in the Losers crew, who is just exceptional. Finn Wolfhard, the go-to kid for Stephen King-esque productions, is pretty hilarious as "Trashmouth" Tozier. All the kids are very good, though, with real chemistry that makes them a believable group of friends.

Some critics have said this wasn't a particularly good horror film, which I would not agree with, but that it was an excellent coming-of-age movie, which is definitely true. That was always the aspect of IT that worked best; incredibly brave kids who have to deal with shitty lives even before the bogeyman comes to eat them, coming together and helping each other through the most traumatic time of their lives. I'm just not as interested in them once they're messed up adults, and I suspect director Andy Muschietti and various screenwriters aren't either. Pretty much every adult who appears in the story is thoroughly horrible character, and the OK ones barely make an impact. King never shies away from depicting just how awful people are. Thankfully, the film isn't quite as horrible as the book, and doesn't feature any ill-judged or gross sex scenes. And there's no question that, at a thousand-odd pages, the book has plenty that can be left out even in two films. (Confession: never finished it. Life's too short.)

The film's going to succeed or fail on the strength of Pennywise itself, though, and thankfully, Bill Skarsgard is bloody brilliant. Very different to Curry's interpretation, even more unnerving, with an unsettlingly childlike aspect that masks something really horrible beneath. I love how unpleasantly physical his performance is, drooling and moving his own eyes in opposite directions, it would be deeply unpleasant even without any CGI or prosthetic effects. I like that there's a very physical creature just below the surface of the clown, breaking out when it's ready to feed or just can't contain itself anymore. And then, within that, there's the Deadlights, which we catch just a glimpse of before it cuts away (for the sake of our own sanity, naturally). Then there are the other aspects of the creature, including a truly stomach-churning leper and a twisted painting of a woman that walks around, misshapen face and all. Much more effective than werewolves etc. The balloons are still there though.

I can't help but feel that the second chapter is inevitably going to be weaker in comparison, but this was an excellent horror movie.


Monday, 25 September 2017

TREK REVIEW: Rise of the Federation: Patterns of Interference

Patterns of Interference is the fifth novel in the Rise of the Federation series, Christopher L. Bennett's sequence of adventures for the characters of Star Trek: Enterprise. The series charts the earliest events of the United Federation of Planets through the 2160s, both following on from threads from episodes of Enterprise and working backwards from various historical bits and pieces mentioned in other series.

Previous novels in the series have followed up on the deadly technological threat from “Dead Stop,” named by Bennett as the Ware, which has been neutralised with unforeseen consequences for the local galactic neighbourhood. First contact has been made with the planet Sauria but Federation trade with the despotic Maltuvis has led the planet into political chaos. The Rigel system has joined the Federation, but this itself has led to political fallout among such powers as the Orion Syndicate and a breakout movement from the Malurian system. It's fair to say that in a few years the UFP has made a big impact in local space, but frequently with unpredictable consequences.

This lies at the heart of the novel, as Admiral Jonathan Archer campaigns for the creation of a non-interference directive to prevent reckless meddling in the affairs of other peoples. Don't expect to see the founding of the Prime Directive here, though; Bennett understands that policy decisions like this take years to come into effect. Archer has to deal with both logical and impassioned pleas against non-interference, including from his enemy-turned-friend Shran. Meanwhile, other organisations have a vested interest in Starfleet becoming so shamed by its interference that the Federation retreats into isolationism. Multiple factions play against each other, in a plot that increases in complexity as different characters come together at the hotbed that is Sauria.

Bennett's prose is always a pleasure to read. He knows how to spin a good adventure. There's also a good deal of social commentary in his work, and this novel is no exception, as the author uses futuristic situations as a commentary on contemporary issues in true Trek style. There are memorable instances on gender politics that see characters comment on how movements for equality can easily be reversed when society becomes more insular. While they're talking about colony worlds with a vested interest in keeping their populations growing, it's a comment on the shifts both backwards and forwards in gender politics today, and also an attempt to make sense of the sexism displayed in some episodes of The Original Series. In another plotline we spend time with Maltuvis, an idiotic, narcissistic tyrant who has come to power due to his wealth and by turning his people against minorities, a none-too-subtle pop at a certain president currently dominating the news.

All manner of characters from Enterprise and beyond turn up in this series and many of them are present in this book, all working to their own ends. While Archer pushes his political agenda, he is contacted by Trip Tucker, alive and working for Section 31 as per the novel The Good That Men Do. The two of them along with Captain Malcolm Reed, now of the USS Pioneer, put plans into place to bring down the clandestine organisation from the inside. Meanwhile, the Orions, led by the alluring three sisters introduced in Enterprise: “Bound,” conspire to interfere with Sauria themselves, with agents that include the Malurian Garos (from Enterprise: “Civilization”) and the Orion woman Devna (from TAS “The Time Trap”). Furthermore, there are roles for the crew of the USS Essex, the ancestors of one James T. Kirk and a member of the Paris dynasty. There's a real risk with works like this of small universe syndrome, but Bennett pulls it off with panache.

Although there's an overall optimism in the Rise of the Federation series, there's something rather doom laden about Patterns of Interference. In spite of everyone's best efforts here, Section 31 will live on to threaten Federation ideals in the future (both in the primary and Kelvin timelines). Garos's actions are for the good of the Malurian people, who will be rendered extinct off-screen in the TOS episode “The Changeling.” According to the TNG episode “Power Play,” the USS Essex will be lost with all hands at Mab-bu VI. Knowing the future of so many characters and groups makes casts a shadow over much of what happens here.

While all of this is going on, T'Pol and Hoshi, now of the flagship USS Endeavour NCC-06, are sent in to assist a group of boomers who have landed on a planet where plant life dominates. There a species of tree-like organisms dubbed dryads show potential as a source of medical compounds but also signs of sentience, and Hoshi is tasked with trying to identify their linguistic abilities. It's an interesting, pure science fiction storyline that feels somewhat divorced from the main events, but remains relevant to the ongoing questions of involvement with other worlds.


Rise of the Federation has been a strong line since its beginnings, and Patterns of Interference is one of its strongest instalments.

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).



Sunday, 10 September 2017

REVIEW: Ghostbusters 101



Of course, this had to happen eventually. It's a bit of a surprise it happened so soon. We haven't even had a pure 2016 Ghostbusters comic series yet (although one is upcoming from IDW), and here are the ladies, crossing over with the classic team for an interdimensional adventure. Then again, they've already done crossovers with The Real Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and even one-shots with The Lone Gunmen and Mars Attacks! Maybe some day I'll get round to writing my crossovers with Men in Black and Poltergeist. But I digress.




This was a six-part comics series, a little longer then than the previous major crossover events, but still a reasonably concise story. It takes a little while to get going; the first issue is pretty much all set-up, and it's a good while before the two sets of Ghostbusters actually come to meet. This is fine, and the momentum picks up once they do encounter each other, but it suffers from the same problem as a lot of comic series these days, in that it feels as though it's been written for the omnibus release rather than on a monthly schedule. Re-reading it all back in one go, it moves quickly enough and has a good rhythm, but over six months, the first and last installments feel a little damp. I'm sure the trade will work beautifully, especially if they include the extra classroom material that makes the end-piece of each issue.

Aside from the crossover element, Ghostbusters 101 has a great central concept. The original trio of Venkman, Spengler and Stantz were university professors, and alongside their dubious experiments, they would have had to hold lectures and teach students. When a bust goes awry, creating a city-wide clean-up bill the size of Stay Puft's tabard, the 'busters need to generate more cash and Venkman hits on the idea of a ghostbusting experience where students will pay to learn the basic of busting. We don't actually get to see a great deal of the classes, although it sets up a thread that will surely run through any upcoming series, and it does give the gang a whole bunch of extra bodies when things are out of hand in the finale. There are several new characters already included in the set-up, mostly holdovers from the 2017 annual. Cait Banner is Janine's spunky niece, Zoe Zawadzki is her even spunkier, more techie friend, and Evan Torres is their academically-inclined third wheel. Kevin Tanaka is a great new character, the reserved but quietly funny second receptionist, and it's funny that both teams have a receptionist called Kevin, albeit of wildly different abilities. The final new recruit is Garrett Parker, a very bright young man who happens to be on the autistic spectrum, who is dealing with his father's terminal illness (which inevitably comes back to haunt him, literally). A lot of fans though he'd turn out to be the comics version of the Extreme Ghostbusters character Roland, and although he's drawn to look very like him, he's his own character and a welcome addition to the team.




For all that though, it's the crossover we're here for. It's the new kids who create this crisis on infinite Earths, after messing around with the 'buster's interdimensional portal (which was co-constructed by Donatello the Turtle, of course). They cause a ghost to be caught partly between the regular GB dimension and the reality of the 2016 movie, causing an interdimensional bleed which, among other things, leads to two Statues of Liberty standing side-by-side (sadly, neither one walks). The two realities begin to cross over, an anomaly that, in time, will cause both universes to shake themselves apart at a subatomic level. In the words of Egon Spengler, this "would be bad."

It's great fun seeing the classic team and the new team butt heads and eventually work together. Erik Burnham nails the characters' voices just as well as he did with the originals, and Dan Schoening's caricatures of the four are absolutely dead-on perfect. (Delgado's colour work is, as always, gorgeous.) Abby has some fine interplay with Egon and Ray, Abby is the perfect straight-woman as before, and there's a very natural buddy relationship between Patty and Winston - the two normal people. Kevin is a used as a way to throw in as many absurdities as possible, not always with great success, although I did enjoy his aggressive post-it usage, and we even get to meet Mike Hat.




Really, though, there's one thing we're here to see, and probably the main reason the thing got made in the first place. We want to see Holtzmann as a cartoon. Dapper Dan must have been dying to draw her. Cartoon Holtz is perfect, stealing every scene even without Kate McKinnon portraying her. We even get a little info on her prime universe counterpart, who is apparently an FBI agent, and who is undoubtedly going to turn up in future series.

As always, the creative team can't resist chucking in a few nods and winks. Not only does the 2016 movie seem to be set in the same universe as Caddyshack, they sneak a Scrooged reference in there too. The RGB team get a brief appearance through the interdimensional viewer, although here's hoping that one day we get to see the "Answer the Call" team's own "animated" counterparts. There are some fan-pleasing discussions of ghostly physics, questioning why the new 'busters blow up the spooks rather than containing them, why this is a bad idea, and how they got away with it in the 2016 movie. There's a great giant monster moment (something that was missing from the 2016 movie, excepting monstrous balloons), which reuses a monster design from a classic RGB episode. There are few questions unanswered - just whose disembodied voice do we hear speaking to the snarling ghoul that gets lodged between dimensions? - and perhaps these will get followed up in a future series.

Not the greatest series that IDW have done with the Ghostbusters licence, but a fun adventure. I'm looking forward to the 2016 team's own series next year.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The Doctor Who Project Season 41 arrives 23rd September



The latest season of the Doctor Who fanfic series The Doctor Who Project begins with The Throne of Peladon, the first part of a story of adventure and intrigue in the fifth millennium. The story is a sequel to the third Doctor adventures The Curse of Peladon and The Monster of Peladon, and the fifth Doctor audio adventure The Bride of Peladon, and is written by my good friend and occasional collaborator James P. Quick. (The "P" stands for Peladon.)

The upcoming run of adventures in time and space will be downloadable, free of charge, here.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

REVIEW: The Unbelievable Gwenpool/Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur

Lack of funds and a sincere disinterest at the Secret Wars event have meant I haven't been keeping up with Marvel of late, but I'm now trying to catch up on some of the titles that actually look like fun. With that in mind, I picked up two trades from the bibiliotheque: Believe It, volume one of The Unbelievable Gwenpool, and The Smartest There Is, third volume of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur.

Moon Girl is a gorgeous little title, and I picked up the first few issues when it started. This book collects issues #13-18. Gwenpool wasn't something I was particularly interested in originally, thinking it too gimmicky, but I'd heard some good things so picked that up as well. Believe It is a chunkier volume than the other, collecting issues #0-4 of the title series (issue zero itself being a combination reprint of a Howard the Duck back-up strip and a Christmas one-shot). Both collections go down a similar route, pairing their respective heroines with a succession of established Marvel characters. It's a tried-and-tested approach to new characters, making them part of the ongoing story and more appealing to existing fans. And, you know, it works, so fair enough.

Moon Girl - not to be confused with EC's Moon Girl - is the hero name of Lunella Lafayette, a young girl who, it is here confirmed, is the smartest person on Marvel's Earth. She is accompanied through much of the story here by Amadeus Cho, aka the Totally Awesome Hulk, who is not a character I'm particularly keen on, but it's good of him to help her out, even though he's only the eighth smartest person in the world. It's a nice little storyline, exploring the old conflict that arises when intelligence it confused with wisdom. Lunella may be a super-genius, but she's still only a little girl, and has a lot to learn. It also bears repeating that it is still hugely important that Marvel are running a title that stars a black child whose main power is her intellect. Although she does also have Inhuman DNA and a psychic connection with a time-displaced Tyrannosaurus, so it's not the only string to her bow. While you know that Lunella needs direction from her elders, it's hard not to feel for her when she feels frustrated or constrained, or, as at school, bored out of her mind by having to go at the slow pace of others. There's some fine character writing there by Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare. As well as the new Hulk, Lunella meets with the Thing, Ironheart, Ms. Marvel, Dr. Strange and a bunch of X-Men, and learns some lessons on trust and teamwork. It's a simple but strong story, and I enjoyed it.


Gwenpool, who's real name is, in fact, Gwen Poole, started off as a covers gimmick when everyone went mad for Spider-Gwen. Marvel put Gwen Stacy versions of various characters on covers across several titles, and Deadpool cover was popular. It's easy to see why - Gwenpool is cute and dangerous-looking and you can see her legs. Making a character out of this might have proven difficult, but writer Chris Hastings made a good job of it. Rather than making her yet another parallel version of Gwen Stacy, he made Gwen Poole a refugee from our own universe, somehow lost in the reality of the Marvel comics she reads. She's essentially a variation on the idea of Deadpool's fourth-wall-breaking, but in her case it's because she's fully aware of the comics themselves.

This might be good for nothing more than a bunch of in-jokes, but it actually makes Gwen a potentially dangerous character since she knows more about various characters than anyone else. Even though she has no actual powers, she knows everyone's backstory and weaknesses. Convinced she has to be the hero of her own title, she kits up in pink leather and becomes a vigilante. It all goes wrong, of course, and she finds herself well out of her depth and coerced into working for MODOK (who, amusingly, thinks he's the smartest there is). As well as her own, rather more effective, session with Dr. Strange, Gwen hangs out with Howard the Duck, works with Batroc the Leaper and gets her ass handed to her by the lady Thor. It's a narrow thing, but it stays the right side of too knowing anf=d tongue-in-cheek. Good stuff.


MONSTER IN MY POCKET

Boys' toys in the 90s featured many fantastic ranges. It was a golden era for grotty gross-out toys and monsters. Action figures of The Real Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles and even questionable tie-ins to films like Aliens and Spawn could be found in Woolworths and Right Price. Then there were Mighty Max, Boglins and a host of other oddities. It was a great time to have pocket money. By far my favourite toy series, though, was Monster in My Pocket, a series that I have solidly loved since I was a tiny boy and have utterly failed to grow out of.

Monster in My Pocket, or MIMP for short, kicked off, along with MUSCLE, the collector-mania in kids' toys. Small, mass-produced figurines that came in a range of colours, with continuous releases of new sets to encourage further collecting, swapping and an almost religious devotion. The figures are often mixed up with MUSCLE, which was more commonly found in the States, plus subsequent lines like Mini Boglins, Dino Brites and Bad Eggz Bunch, all of which had great collectability but none of which matched my love for MIMPs (although Boglins came close for a while). Although pushed in Canada and the US, the original MIMP line was created by the UK-based Matchbox, part of Morrisson's Entertainment Group, and was most popular here and in Europe. There were, however, releases of figures and tie-ins all over the world, with significant waves released throughout Latin America, and while I'm a bit of a Matchbox purist, the variations, of varying quality, from other countries are an interesting sideline.

The idea behind MIMP was straightforward but ingenious: small figures in malleable plastic that represented monsters picked from mythology, legend and literature. Anything that was in the public domain was fair game, from well-known horrors such as a werewolf, a vampire and Frankenstein's monster to Greek mythological figures such as the Hydra and Medusa, through to obscure things that no six-year-old was ever likely to have heard of, such as the Aztec goddess Coatlicue.

The first series was released in 1989 on both sides of the pond. The adverts came first; joyfully naff TV ads with smirking little boys scaring their sisters. The monsters were "squishy!" apparently, although in reality that meant slightly bendy plastic, and initially came in four colours: red, yellow, purple and a pale green. A rerelease a year or so after reproduced these in brighter, "neon" shades, and premium figures exist in other colours, such as pine green, magenta and that lovely, off-white glow-in-the-dark colour. These are the ones that go for the bigger bucks among collectors, and came in special playsets, the board game (what happened to my copy of the board game?) and cereal boxes in the States. The straightforward, bold block colours of the figures is simple and appealling, more so than the flashier, more complicated stuff later on.

There were 48 monsters in Series I, although the precious checklist, in its tiny script, claimed there were 96, so immediately we young collectors knew there more to look forward to. Each monster was given a "points value," which was stamped on the back of the figure and supposedly indicated both the monster's power and its rarity. The monsters were granted five, ten, fifteen, twenty or twenty-five points, with the fivers being the endlessly common ones that came in blind bags and four-packs on blister cards, while "rare" 25-point monsters were the big draw of the "secret twelve-packs." Or you could shell-out for a 24-pack and get fully half the series in one swoop. Endless debates were had in playgrounds and classrooms over which of the monsters was the greatest, and whether the points system had any real merit. Seriously, a ghost gets ten points but the Winged Panther only five? It's a fricking panther with wings, you can't tell me that's not worth at least fifteen.

There were also Battle Cards, which allowed you to play a Top Trumps-style game. The cards broke down the monsters' PV's into four elements: intelligence, strength and weaponry, speed, and weaknesses/limitations (a negative score). For instance, the Kraken has intelligence 4, strength 10, speed 10 and weakness -4, giving an overall PV of twenty, while Vampire has intelligence 10, strength 6, speed 4 and weakness -10, giving a PV of ten (presumably due to his weaknesses to garlic, sunlight and running water). If this didn't increase the collectability enough, there were art cards exploring the monsters' background in excruciating 90s style, and a bloody excellent Panini stickerbook. And socks - really excellent socks.

The checklist pamphlet stated that Series I would be "history" once Series II arrived, but this was rubbish - these little guys hung around forever. Still, the introduction of the Monster in My Pocket comic series from Harvey in 1991 stoked the excitement for the second set of toys. The comic (which I will read through in more detail for a future post) pit the "good monsters" led by Vampire againt the "evil monsters" led by Warlock, who notably was not part of the existing run. Immediately the comic put unavailable monsters at the forefront, and promised more to come, even some that never actually made it to being figures. Series II arrived, in "hot neon" colours of blue, green, orange and magenta, to great excitement. They showcased weirder designs and more horrific creatures than Series I, and whacked up the Points Value, with the most powerful monsters achieving thirty points. There were also some classic monsters included, such as a dragon and the Minotaur, that were sorely missing from that first series.

There were twenty-four monsters in Series II, leaving a further two dozen still unaccounted for. Hot on the heels of Series II came Super Scary Series III, at least in the UK, and this is where it gets fiddly. The sheer excitement of Series III was tempered in my young mind by the fact that the monsters were numbered from 96 to 120, missing out a full twenty-four monsters, which bothered me for years until, finally, I discovered that the "real" third series had only been released in North America. Monsters 73 to 80 were available in cereal boxes and in Big Boy restaurants kids' meals, while #81, Blemmya, was only available packaged with the Nintendo Monster in My Pocket game. That still left a full fifteen monsters that were designed but never made it to being figures, and we only know about them because a full set of 96 were released as stickers and cards in Argentina. There are plans afoot by a private collector to create these, with the original sculptor producing the prototypes, and so far, gold premium figures of four of these are available on eBay at a whopping $60 each. Something for the serious collector there, well out of the price range of someone like me. (Actually, there are sixteen sculpts planned for this collection, because another monster popped up in the comics and wasn't listed anywhere else, but is just begging to be sculpted.)

Still, the Super Scary line, series three or four depending on preference, was beyond exciting for the seven-year-old me. The Super Scary monsters were bigger, multicoloured and just better to my childish eyes. Nowadays, the poor paint jobs and less detailed designs aren't as appealling, and the moncoloured variants that were released in boxes of Weetos (presumably being cheaper to produce that way) just look better. Still, Matchbox were selling to kids, not collectors who should be old enough to know better, and these were just fantastic. On the other hand, the Points Value system completely went to pot, with the monsters now being overpowered with fifty to a hundred points apiece, making it impossible to fight them properly against Series I and II monsters. It was also around this time that a terrible cartoon pilot was released, which made Vampire the leader of the baddies and the Invisible Man the leader of the goodies. A group of oversized figurines were released, called Super Scary Howlers, with ligh-up LED eyes and gruesome sound effects, showcasing the four classic monsters of the series: Vampire, Werewolf, Swamp Beast and the Monster (aka Frankenstein's Monster).

During the first three main series, Matchbox had their share of controversy from various religious groups. For starters, the first monster in the series was the Great Beast from the Book of the Revelation, and kicking off a toy line with the avatar of Satan himself, unsurprisingly upset some of the more conservative American quarters. In the UK, however, it was the inclusion of no fewer than four Hindu deities in the line that caused offense. There is a much larger Hindu community in the UK than in the States, and the far-right Hindu group the Vishva Hindu Parishad kicked off at the inclusion of Kali in Series I and Ganesh in Series II. This led to the pulling of Ganesh from Series II packs, making it one of the harder figs to find (later still, Herne the Hunter was also pulled, for obscure reasons). Matchbox failed to the learn their lesson, though, and the Super Scary line included both Hanuman and Yama. Again, Hanuman was pulled from later sets, although Yama merely renamed as Fire Creature, part of a wholesale reworking which gave about half the figures dumbed-down names.

The next series is probably the least fondly remembered by fans, but as a kid, my god these were brilliant. I had hoped Super Scary would be followed by a ghostly Super Spooky line (although most of the monsters in the Super Scary line were ghosts or similar), but instead, Matchbox completely changed track and gave us the Super Creepies. I can still remember going to Woolworths with the family and my mum coming to find me to tell me that she'd seen new Monster in My Pockets and they were insects. The Super Creepies chucked out the "real monsters" idea and instead gave us twenty-four hard plastic creepy crawlies, supposedly created by the insane "Dr. Zacheria Wolfson in his ultra high-tech lab." The figures were all terrible, terrible puns: the wolf spider was a spider with a wolf's head, the bedbug was a bed with legs, the ladybug wore lipstick. Sophisticated humour, I'm sure you'll all agree. I loved them, even though the Points Value was cranked up to a whole 200 points, because apparently a spider with a moustache is more powerful than Hanuman, the divine devotee of Rama who can balance the world on his tail.

More exciting still was the next series, promised to be "the orignal monsters." Yes, the next run were the dinosaurs. After a short trial with simpler figures called Dinoaur in My Pocket in the States, of which only four were released, the full MIMP Dinosaur series was released: solid, hard plastic prehistoric creatures based on, admittedly outdated, scientific reconstructions. They were awesome. By this stage, the US range had almost died out, and these were mostly found in the UK and Europe. The dinosaurs were rereleased later with new paintjobs, as the Secret Skeleton Dinosaurs - dip them in cold water, and a poorly painted set of bones appeared. These were virtually impossible to find, with only the occasional blind bag turning up, and they go for a penny or two now. While the Battle Cards had continued through the other series, the Dinosaurs had fact cards detailing their size, weight and the era in which they lived. Although the figures were identical, the Secret Skeleton Dinosaurs were presented on the cards as a further series, continuing the numbering and upping the Points Values by ten, which is a maddening inconsistency.

The classic Matchbox run essentially came to an end with the Space Aliens. These were original characters, although some were vaguely based on aliens from pop culture, and although they were pretty fun, there was surely a good opportunity here to go back to the series' roots and use "real" aliens from ufology. That would have been extremely cool. Still, the Space Aliens worked, and although there were only sixteen of them, they looked good and had a fun new gimmick. On each alein's back was a heat-sensitive sticker which revealed the Points Value and the alien's affiliation: a sun and sword for the good aliens, and skull-and-crossbones for the evil aliens. The PV (now called Battle Points) was inflated to utterly ludicrous extremes, though, now ranging from 150 all the way up to 500 points for the leaders of each side. The Battle Cards were also revived, albeit simplified. There were apparently plans for further dinosaurs to follow this, although in the end, only four were produced, numbered #223-226, which came boxed up with a wristwatch (which I almost won on eBay, damn it). These buggers go for insane prices.

The original line fizzled out after the Space Aliens, but in 1995, Vivid Imaginations took over manufacture for Matchbox and completely revamped the line with the release of Monster Wrestlers in My Pocket. These were a completely new variant on the series, cashing in on the 90s wrestling craze. Each figure was an original character, about half being based on classic monsters, the other half being grossly muscular humans. There were forty-five Monster Wrestlers, including coaches, referees and a monstrous medical team, although some of these were released exlusively in playsets. The series' long-standing relationship with breakfast cereal reached new heights, as the Monster Wrestlers were introduced with ten exclusive figures with Frosties. Weirdly enough, these included Tony the Tiger himself (I guess he is pretty grrrrrreat).

The Monster Wrestlers were tough, rubbery plastic, fully painted with a few variant paint jobs. They had Points Values, on the feet this time, ranging in 25-point jumps from zero points for the referees to the all-star 100-pointers. (There was one anomalous thirty-pointer, the gleefully racist Kongo King.) There were also "Grapple Cards" and a similar range of milkcaps, because this was also the era of the Pog. There was even a Monster Wrestlers in My Pocket comicbook, whcih lasted an even shorter time than the original comic series, plus jigsaw puzzles and other sundry tat. The series was followed by two more similar lines, Monster Sports Stars in My Pocket and Monster Ninja Warriors in My Pocket. Never a lover of sports, I can't say I'm a fan of the Sports Stars, who were only released in Frosties packets and included Tony the Tiger again, but the Ninja Warriors were pretty awesome, and they had weaponry accessories which had their own Points Values, which was a fun idea. They came with their own Pogs as well.

That was it for the original run of MIMP. There were a couple of attemtps to relaunch in the years to follow, and European rereleases (the Italian lines have some particularly cool colours). I ended up giving away or selling a lot of my little monsters, before a strong pang of nostalgia made me get onto eBay and buy a whole lot of them back. The instigator of this nostalgia was the unexpected relaunch of Monster in My Pocket in 2006. Now owned by Corinthian, this was a complete revamp of the line, going back to the original concept of tiny figures of "real" monsters. Once again, there were forty-eight little monsters, drawn from myth, legend and literature, or to put it another way, from the four series of MIMP. These were fully detailed, hand-painted figurines and were really excellent pieces of work, although they lacked that simplistic appeal of the classic series. Some of the designs were closer to the mythological basis for the monsters, others further removed. Having almost learnt a lesson from Matchbox, Corinthian produced a Monkeyman figure instead of Hanuman, and a version of Kali thinly-veiled as "Six-Armed Sorceress." The Invisible Man figure was particularly excellent - made from clear plastic that showed through any gaps in the paintwork.

The new series was split into eight categories: the Ancients, the Beasts, the Humanoids, the Winged, the Ghosts, the Dead, the Sea Monsters and the Maniacs. In some territories, such as Australia, they were split into two series of twenty-four. Similar to the Points Values, these monsters had a power level that could be revealed with an infrared decoder light, although this feature didn't really work. There were new playsets, and a new Battle Cards set, with points sections that I think represent intelligence, strength/weaponry, speed and scariosity, plus an element for each monster. Interestingly enough, the numbering on the back of the cards was out of 230, suggesting a much larger run was planned; perhaps the number being based on the original list that included some extended run of dinosaurs and so on? In the end, only forty-eight were relased, and although I don't love these as much as the classic line, they are very cool indeed.

You may have gathered that I'm a huge fan of Monster in My Pocket, and they are the one toy line from my youth that I still actively collect (pocket money permitting). I plan to talk more about these little monstrosities a lot over the coming months - what better way to explore my love of mythology and literature than through the classic run of MIMPs? And maybe one day I'll finally create my Big Book of Monsters, inspired, in no small part, by the little plastic thingies that we traded on the playground.






To learn a great deal more about Monster in My Pocket, check out Jud's exhaustive collectors' site


Tuesday, 29 August 2017

REVIEW: Grave Warnings

Ed. Bob Furnell, Robert Mammone and Jez Strickley


Pencil Tip Publishing is one of the newer small presses, and while it is so far known best for TV tie-in works, it is already expanding in a new direction: original horror fiction.

Grave Warnings is a compact, evocative book of horror stories, with five authors penning short, punchy tales of terror. Although the title and cover to the book would suggest that this is a collection of ghost stories, it's more varied than that. Although ghost stories do feature, the five tales cover an impressive array of styles and genres between them. If there is one thing that links the stories, it is that the true horror is often not at the hand of something supernatural, but is very human in origin.

The collection opens with “Deceased Estate” by Sarah Parry, a very effective story that sets the grim tone for the book. Parry cleverly shifts the storytelling from light and conversational to desperate and horrific, creating a chilling tale with a hint of a modern Lovecraftian vibe. In spite of the inhuman monstrosities it hints at, “Deceased Estate” is a warning on the perils of unchecked greed.

The theme of avarice continues with Craig Charlesworth's “The Dumb Show,” the most traditional ghost story in the collection. A fun pastiche of Victorian-era short stories, Charlesworth's story is a penny dreadful that sees money-hungry men try to use a haunting to their own financial advantage, even as one tries, or claims to try, to turn over a new leaf. The biting final scene proves that it is the living that present the most to fear.

The Specimen” by Jodie van de Wetering is a brief interlude between the heavier stories, and introduces a man whose unwholesome pastime leads to his becoming truly lost to nature. It's the shortest but most immediately potent story, simply and effectively told.

Hannah G. Parry presents “The Citizen,” an unassuming title for a disquieting and powerful story. Although it is a ghost story, “The Citizen” inverts the usual conception of a haunting in order to make her protagonist question his choices. It's an unsettling tale of cowardice and brutality, emotions so easily entwined, set against the very real, very human horror of revolutionary France, when Paris was, not for nothing, known as the Land of Fear. This story is my personal highlight of the book.

Finally, “Vacancy” by Hamish Crawford brings us back to seemingly ordinary life, with a story that makes us question the protagonist's sanity as he relates the story of how his life changed when he took in a new lodger. With only a hint at something supernatural, “Vacancy” draws on some of the same concerns as “The Citizen”: that we, as men, can commit acts we never thought we were capable of.

Grave Warnings is a a pleasantly unsettling set of stories, and I look forward to more.


Purchase as copy here.