Oxygen thieves

“Space, the final frontier…”

Spoken over a starscape of a sun, planet, and two bodies floating towards us, thus begins the latest episode of that classic 60’s sci-fi series, Doctor Who. Expanding on it’s Star Trek allusion however, it goes on to explain that space is “Final, because it wants to kill us.”

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Space is disease and danger, wrapped in darkness and silence.

Also echoing 2001: A Space Odyssey and Wallace & Gromit’s The Wrong Trousers, “Oxygen” sees the Doctor taking new companion Bill on her first trip to outerspace as opposed to another planet, answering a distress call coming from a mining station owned by Ganymede Systems. With Nardole in tow, they find themselves in yet another life or death situation – only her fifth episode and yet Bill has already learned all she needs to know about the Doctor’s reactions to imminent death – and one which is broadcast at time which couldn’t be more apt.

For me, season 10 has come as a pleasant surprise. After what I considered to be a dreadful Superman rehash in “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”, “The Pilot” offered a glimmer of hope that maybe all wasn’t lost before Steven Moffat’s overdue handing over of the showrunner reins. Despite news of his own decision to leave the show which prompted speculation of his replacement, for the first time Peter Capaldi felt like the established Doctor rather than just the new Doctor who had only recently taken over from his predecessor.

As much as I have admired his performance as the 12th Doctor, I feel as though he has been let down by too many episodes which didn’t give him enough to make the most of his time in the role. Yes there have been some stand out moments, the Doctor’s “sit down and talk” speech is an absolute highlight of Doctor Who as a whole, but these have by far been the exception rather than the rule.

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Bill’s baptism of fire.

Bill’s questioning of everything from the Doctor’s Tardis to his morality is a welcome addition from a more than worthy new companion and has lead to some of the season’s most comical, and also most dramatic moments. The inclusion of Nardole as the Doctor’s very own Jiminy Cricket also adds to the show, albeit at the expense of Matt Lucas who – like Catherine Tate before him – plays a character with a great concept almost exactly the same as every other character throughout his career.

Although I must admit I have been iplayering them rather than making a Saturday night appointment like previous years, even Lucas and the small blip that was the second half of “Knock Knock” haven’t stopped season 10 from being a collection of great episodes.

“Oxygen” is no different, and perhaps the best to date. Far from the only time Doctor Who has placed emphasis on compassion, respect, and the value of a human (or alien) life, it is perhaps the most pertinent. In the run up to the UK’s general election, it is also perhaps the most widely reaching anti-Conservative party political broadcast of all time.

The episode is written as an unashamed morality play against the excesses of capitalism, depicting a futuristic dystopian vision where even the air we breathe is considered a commodity to be marketed: making the whole metric/imperial argument somewhat redundant, units of distance on a map are shown in average breaths.

While most dystopian futures are written as an allegory for contemporary societies, “Oxygen” has the unfortunate honour of being broadcast at a time when the targets of its metaphors are in fact already reality. The inevitable point of the episode when the Doctor realises the true nature of the threat comes when, faced with imminent death quite literally by the trappings of capitalism, Bill comments on the absurdity of being “fined for dying”.

Rather than the fully automated space suits killing their occupants due to being hacked as initially believed (another remarkable quirk of timing in regards to the recent cyber attacks on the NHS), it readily becomes apparent that their current threat, not to mention the previous cause of death for 36 miners, is in fact a conscious decision made by the corporation that considers workers who aren’t meeting work quotas as a waste of resources.

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One of many protests against austerity.

More than just “Companies with links to Tories ‘have won £1.5bn worth of NHS contracts’“, ideas such as there being no middle ground between being either a diligent worker or six feet under also evoke headlines such as “Thousands have died after being found fit for work, DWP figures show“, which attempt to highlight the full extent of the Tory policies which even the UN has declared as being a breach of international human rights.

It would seem that the present here and now is as much an ideal setting for “the endpoint of capitalism, a bottom line where human life has no value at all” as any imagined far future.

Even were this not the case over here, the fact that “Oxygen” was written before businessman Donald Trump’s US election victory but broadcast after his repeal of Obamacare is equally as alarming. Something which considers pregnancy and even domestic violence as pre-existing conditions which insurers all to often refuse to cover, surely even writer Jamie Mathieson cannot deny that the future always comes upon us quicker than we realise.

Having saved the lives of two survivors however, the Doctor drops them off at their “Head Office”, afterwards informing Bill that “six months later, corporate dominance in space is history, and that about wraps it for capitalists … then the human race finds a whole new mistake”: with the benefit of hindsight, something which could also be taken as an analogy for Labour’s constant infighting hardly making them a perfect choice for government either.

But whether it’s from space miners facing the ultimate redundancy, or an impassioned plea based on real life experience entitled “This is how the Tory disability assessments are killing people“, if we take one thing from “Oxygen” regardless of when it is set or even when it was written then it’s surely the Doctor’s thoughts on answering a distress call:

“The universe shows its true face when it asks for help, we show ours by how we respond.”

Something for the UK to think about on the 8th June….

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Taking back Control?

The latest Star Trek novel to be released is the much antcipated Control, by David Mack. It continues Dr. Julian Bashir’s arc of taking down the United Federation of Planet’s ruthless, self appointed, and self professed “protection” service, Section 31, which began back in Deep Space Nine‘s sixth season.

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Control is Mack’s fourth novel to focus on Bashir

As with the best of Trek, Control is a story that is as much about our present as it is the future, and is highly influenced by today’s ever pervasive atmosphere of surveillance, hacking, and Snooper’s Charters. At Section 31’s centre is the titular Control; no doubt a nod to Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but the enigmatic leader of 31’s name also comes as a prophetic warning.

Here is an artificial intelligence that is as much a calculating dictator as it is the basic operating system of the entire Federation: making decisions on behalf of the ‘inferior’ citizens it protects, it does so by crunching the astronomical numbers gleaned from starship sensors, to an individual’s replicator habits. As any half decent Vulcan would applaud, it deems that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but it is doubtful there are any who would consider the few as completely expendable in a fashion as merciless as Control.

Through frequent flashbacks to the 22nd Century we are given the backstory of a relatively simple computer code designed to recognise potential threats (via the means of the unchecked surveillance which we in the 21st are becoming alarmingly aware) and inform law enforcement as appropriate. On one hand it is certainly an interesting concept, and the fact that it spans every single piece of technology of an entire interstellar superpower is fully warranted in order to fully grasp the analogy of interlinked handheld and camera/microphone equipped computers that are literally lining the pockets of our own civilisation.

As an independent piece of science fiction (it’s not like something so accurate can be described as speculative fiction) it would have been a fascinating thriller. In fact for all it’s derivation from its source material, 2004’s i, Robot was at least a blockbuster with some similarly interesting philosophy behind it.  But Control isn’t an independent piece of science fiction.

It’s an official piece of Star Trek fiction. And that’s where the problem lies…

Author David Mack has been writing Star Trek prose for well over fifteen years, having  previously co-written the screenplay and story for the DS9 episodes Starship Down and It’s Only A Paper Moon respectively. Novel-wise he is perhaps best known for Star Trek: Destiny, a centuries spanning epic in which the Borg learns that resistence is far from futile and their reign of terror is finally brought to end, albeit not without a fight.

On a more personal note, Mack has also written some of my favourite Trek novels, including the previous Bashir/Section 31 adventure Zero Sum Game, and the destruction of the USS Bombay within the pages of Star Trek: Vanguard‘s Harbinger is one of the most touching events I’ve read in any book, Star Trek or otherwise.

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Destiny featured characters from TNG, DS9, and Enterprise

Thanks to its far reaching consequences, Destiny heralded a new era for Star Trek novels and showed that the post televisual relaunch had well and truly set its own course in the stories it would tell, and praise was rightfully lauded everywhere in its general direction.

His next trilogy, the Next Generation specific Cold Equations also ended on a high after the Enterprise crew had literally saved the entire galaxy. Despite so much hanging in the balance, the tale wove together established Trek lore from both screen and page to ensure that it remained entirely believable throughout.

Other novels have increasingly extended his reach in terms of the interstellar stakes, and as impressive as his writing is however, the riskier road leads not just to greater profit, but also greater losses when things don’t pan out.

Mack’s 2011 novel Rise Like Lions follows on from his previous novella-turned-novel The Sorrows of Empire (which I will admit I haven’t read because there are SO MANY Star Trek novels it’s impossible to read them all), and sees the races of Star Trek‘s mirror universe unite into the Galactic Commonwealth. Something perhaps not so surprising, given that it effectively mirrors the way in which Destiny sees the standard alpha and beta quadrant powers suffer unheard of misfortunes. That said, it is a change which is so sweeping that the mirror universe becomes all but unrecognisable from it’s onscreen adventures; humanity has gone from a plucky rebellion to being handed technology the Federation would almost deem all but impossible to the point where it strains credibility, and breaks all suspension of disbelief, in the process.

As I mentioned, I haven’t read its predecessor which no doubt fills in many gaps, but surely any novel should be able to work solely on its own merits? It does have to be said that Mack’s Disavowed, of which Control is an immediate sequel and which also combines his mirror universe narrative with those of Bashir/Section 31, makes great use of the changes that had been introduced, but without suffering the consequences of the almost Deus ex Machina transformation itself.

Somewhere between The Body Electric and Rise Like Lions then, Mack has shown that he is more than capable of handling such extreme narratives, just not with a 100% success rate. With Control however, Mack has managed to combine making such high stakes and revelations believable and entertaining, whilst simultaneously extolling the most jarring feature of any Star Trek novel (that I have read) in that it comes completely at odds with what Star Trek is, and undermines the entire basis of arguably entertainment’s most loved, enduring, and optimistic mythology.

50-something years ago, Gene Roddenberry dreamed of a future where humankind had put its petty differences aside. Poverty, racism, and sexism, (and had paramount not intervened, homophobia) were a thing of the past, and Earth’s only adversaries came from outside it’s orbit rather than within. In fact Roddenberry’s vision was so utopian that his insistence that conflicts between crew members simply wouldn’t happen often lead to accusations that his series were too boring, and lacked significant dramatic tension.

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Section 31 was first introduced in Inquisition

Although Star Trek‘s longevity owes much to the outside influence of a host of other writers and producers, each merely put their own spin on the core optimism that is at Star Trek‘s heart. DS9 was only concieved after Roddenberry’s death, and despite making humanity a little less perfect – in part by throwing Section 31 into the mix – than he had initially intended, it showed that the light still shines the brightest in the dark.

In fact some of the best stories can be defined by Picard’s quote that “we work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity” by placing the emphasis on the actual work that is needed to achieve humanity’s potential, rather than merely presenting it as a done deal.

Flying right in the face of this established notion however, Control retcons the forming of the entire Federation, even that of a united Earth government, by uncovering the “truth” that humanity’s destiny was in fact shaped by Bashir’s ultimate nemesis and Section 31 founder: an all seeing and all watching computer code. In this version of the future, humanity was steered towards a better world rather than having the strength, willpower, and compassion to build it themselves.

It certainly raises some interesting questions about the nature of democracy and free will, but in a way which just doesn’t fit with its surroundings. I’ll admit that it would be a stretch to say that (narratively at least) the entirety of Star Trek is therefore built on a lie, but not by much.

Control isn’t the first Trek story of any medium to question the cooperative/assimilation expansive nature of the Federation, and Control’s belief that the Borg would have eventually ruled over Earth and its allies if it had introduced itself via means of seduction rather than conquering is one of the book’s most thought provoking notions. But others who take part in that debate, such as last year’s Star Trek Beyond, at least do so in terms of a humanity that overcame its own problems before finding different ones amongst the stars.

Gene Roddenberry once described Star Trek as “an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. […] If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.”

We can always wonder how much better off (in the short term) we ourselves could have been with a sentient computer safeguarding our best interests during Brexit and Trump’s comparable elections, but that would have been taking the easy way out.

And that’s not how Star Trek works.

Learning and having scones

Think of a weekend away to celebrate and examine the works of Joss Whedon, the genius who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and who wrote & directed Marvel’s Avengers (Assemble) and Age of Ultron, and you’d be forgiven for thinking about a convention. That was the reaction I had from several people when telling them I would be attending EuroSlayage, but it instead was something rather different (and I would argue a whole lot more) than this.

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Poster courtesy of the WSA, and designed by Michael Starr. T-shirts were also available.

Organised by the Whedon Studies Association, the seventh biennial Slayage was an academic conference; an oppurtunity for teachers, scholars, and researchers to come together to present and discuss ideas from across a wide range of the Whedonverses, or to utilise ideas and characters present in them as an example of wider arguments.

Although primarily a gathering of those active within academia itself, there were also a number of passionate fans of Whedon’s work who had attended essentially for their own enjoyment. Having studied for both a Bachelor and Master of Arts in the realm of Film and Television Studies, although having finished the latter four years ago, I was somewhere between the two.

Regardless of background however, it seems as though talking with friends, family, and colleagues, was met with the same kind of misunderstanding. “You’re studying Buffy?” is a question often posed to academics by those from other disciplines, whereas “you’re studying Buffy?” is one posed by those outside of academia. Thus EuroSlayage was made up of fans and academics (although I argue that both labels would apply to all at the conference, regardless) who not only recognise the value of studying such topics, but who were also delighted to be in the company of those who understand the struggle of dealing with others who consider it ‘just’ a TV show. There was even one presentation which dealt specifically with this issue.

As this was my first Slayage (primarily as it was the first to be held outside of North America, and as such much attention was paid to Whedon’s use of Englishisms), and my first academic conference at all, I was told on several occasions that it was not to be taken as an example of academic conferences in general. My first thought upon hearing this was to feel sorry for the rest of academia…

Having booked my train to the wrong station (I was so excited about securing my place at the event in Kingston that I failed to notice I was actually staying in the neighbouring London borough of Surbiton), my Slayage began by turning up to register at the Knight’s Park Campus, followed by taking my travelling backpack to the Seething Wells halls on what can only be described as an urban hike (it is a rather big backpack), and then the journey back again.

I arrived at the wine reception shindig to see a room full of people all chatting away as if they had known each other for years, and at this point realised that many of them indeed had, and that I had no idea as to how I would join in. Luckily I arrived just before the welcome by WSA President Stacey Abbot, and Associate Professor at Kingston University Simon Brown. As much as I enjoyed their introduction, I have to say nothing was as welcome as the whole sea of hands raised at the question of “who here is attending their first Slayage”. I was far from alone.

And far less alone that I originally thought, as people soon came up to me to introduce themselves, thankfully negating the fact doing this for myself is not one of my strong points. Although I didn’t recognise any faces, I have to admit that there was a great thrill at having Rhonda Wilcox, the author of Why Buffy Matters, a seminal Buffy textbook, say hello and that she recognised my name. Admittedly just from the list of those registered to attend, but still.

This was matched by having a short but sweet conversation with a lovely lady taking photos, about whether she wanted us to pose or if she would prefer us to act natural. She then introduced herself as Mary Alice Money, someone who Wilcox often quotes and defers to in her book, essentially becoming analogous to a grand sire of mine in terms of Buffy studies. Whoever came up with the idea of never meeting your idols because you’ll only be disappointed obviously never attended a Slayage.

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I’m not saying Kingston is far from the centre of London, but this is the Thames..

This was also another situation in which geeky T-shirts should never be underestimated, as they made a great ice breaker for many more than just myself. After the formal event ended, this lead to going to dinner with two women I had never met before, from entirely different countries to my own, but who I was chatting with as though I had known for years.

The next morning the conference began in earnest, with three full days (9am – 7pm) of talks, presentations, and four flights of stairs to get to them. I personally couldn’t have asked for a better start, with a keynote speech about fan reactions to the endings of TV series, and the ways in which those series continue, something which I find particularly interesting. After this came something completely different, but which I was equally looking forward to.

Although Joss Whedon is undoubtedly the current writer/producer/director whose work has the most analytical scholarship about his works, the first talk of the day (or at least my first, the nature of parallel sessions meaning I couldn’t attend them all) was entitled “Images of Tea in the Whedonverse“, something I had never begun to consider before, and was curious as to what I would learn.

In fact it turns out that tea is a perfect example of how even something that a first seems like the most inconsequential element will have many layers of meaning that you only realise after they have been explained to you, but which you can’t unsee afterwards. As well as conforming to English stereotypes, tea – of the British/European variety – was used to highlight the idea of the friendship group; both Wesley’s tea set and Fred’s mug being the first and most obvious possessions seen to be packed away after their respective leavings of the core group in Angel.

Chinese tea meanwhile, and the rituals surrounding it, is also often used as a representation of invitations, particularly those of an intimate or sexual nature. Upon watching Firefly when I returned home I noticed that the introduction of companion (read: courtesan) Inara saw her entertaining a client – both in the physical and ‘smile and nod’ sense – only to be insulted by an insinuation of cheating him of both time and money. With the mood obviously ruined, her reaction is to discard the tea set she had been carrying for seemingly no other reason that to discard it. As I said, cannot be unseen.

Other talks throughout the conference ranged from such a wide variety of approaches and disciplines that it is impossible to list them all here, although the full schedule can be found on the conference’s website. Whilst some may be fairly obvious in terms of tracing the links to classical literature (comparing Serenity‘s Operative to Les Misérables‘ Javert), or looking at the influences and contrasts of ancient mythology (the reversal of the Greek Orpheus myth, with heroine rescuing the male from hell), others took more outside the box approaches to Whedon’s work. There were also those which looked at Whedon himself, with one such talk examining at how fans (and indeed anti-fans) react to his own politics and charity work.

There was so much on offer to take in, and as much as I can only congratulate the organisers for the entire weekend, I cannot blame those who chose not to attend every session, particularly those directly before or after their own presentations. While it was impossible to attend every single panel due to them running parallel with each other, all those I did attend were fascinating, although perhaps last thing on a second full day wasn’t the best time slot for an examination of Buddhist philosophical concepts about self/no self regardless of any relation to Dollhouse? It’s fair to say that wasn’t when my mind was at its sharpest, but then I highly doubt I would have understood it all anyway. Perhaps at least this way I have a reasonable excuse?

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Dinner and a show…

Luckily the first day was followed by an evening meal which, presumably like other conferences, allowed the attendees to continue meeting new people and continue many discussions. There was also a raffle in which a number of text books were given away as prizes, of which I myself was a lucky winner, and now that my brain has been given a rest I can actually sit down and read. There was also a handing out of lyric sheets for the Buffy Sing-a-long, although I have been lead to believe this is not a standard occurrence at other conferences. As I mentioned before, the rest of academia has my sympathies.

In fact the only downside to such an evening was following a group who were walking back to what myself and one of many newly made friends originally thought was where we were staying, but who turn into the car park of a B&B and say good night. I can only thank them for not minding us tagging along in the first place, add London to the list of cities in which I’ve gotten lost, and figure that hey, part of the reason I attended Slayage was to learn, right? And what better way to learn than from your mistakes?

But whilst I wholeheartedly endorse this type of behaviour (by which I mean the merriment, although getting lost can have its merits), it is important to note that the conference wasn’t one to shy away from the more serious topics either.

Several presenters at Slayage raised many valid points which often came to the same conclusion about how Buffy, and pop-culture in general, help frame society’s values. One talk focused on how ideas of/reactions to abortion and sterility have been represented in the Whedon’s works, and the now infamous attempted rape scene in “Seeing Red” was mentioned several times in relation to notions of ‘masculinity’, as well as actual audience reactions to the very real world concepts of consent and abusive relationships. These also lead to discussions as to why other attempted rapes (as seen in “The Pack”), and telefantastical rape analogies (“Tabula Rasa”) were often overlooked. Ideas which were summed up expertly at one of the last talks of the entire conference, in which “The Wish” in particular was examined in terms of upholding and continuing the trend of victim blaming.

Likewise, two other talks as part of the same panel were the start of an audience debate in terms of attitudes towards of the deaths of women of colour. Although each talk was looking at the death of a particular slayer as examinations of the vampires who kill them rather than the slayers themselves, the point was rightly raised that at the very least in terms of how arguments are phrased, more awareness needs to be highlighted in terms of both gender (slayers are always female), and race (Kendra and Nikki are both black).

Discussions such as these raised the quality of Slayage as not only are they those which have to be had, but despite the obvious passion with which people were making their argument, they were also done so professionally and in a constructive manner. “Xander’s a dick!” is another point which was brought up with regards to a central male character who is often considered to be the heart of Buffy‘s Scooby Gang (see “Primeval”/”Restless” in particular), but whose other actions throughout the series also include slut-shaming the female lead.

That’s not to say that the entire conference was dominated by such seriousness, as analysis of the varying ways post-coital “morning after” scenes depict specific relationships elicited the giggles you can’t help but expect from such a topic. This is to say nothing of the way in which a room of fully grown academics reacted to the image of Anya eating chocolate whilst unashamedly staring at Spike’s masculine (à la Bruce Lee) body. More than this though, the friendly nature of the conference as a whole meant that presentations were given in a relaxed and even jovial atmosphere.

All of which added up to something one of the earliest professors of my BA once said; subjects like Film and TV aren’t easier than any other, we just have more fun while we’re studying them. Something I can attest to personally as I thoroughly enjoyed my own studies, and attended Slayage having still followed the work of the WSA throughout the four years since I was last within academia. Going back to study for a PhD is also something I have always considered as a possibility for the future.

Despite being hectic at times, and with far more to take in (not to mention write down by hand) than anything else I’ve experienced in such a long time, Slayage has left me with that bittersweet feeling of being sad that it is now over and I have to go on living in the real world once more (apparently it’s the hardest thing), but also glad at having experienced something which, either despite or because of current events, chose to “live as though the world is as it should be, to show it what it can be”.

So.

What am I gonna do now?

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Gerry And-A-Son Have A Great Weekend

Rather appropriately for a weekend which celebrated new life and resurrection, with the release of not one but three new series, this Easter saw something of a comeback for Gerry Anderson. Unlike his resurgence in the early nineties which came courtesy of his classics being given repeat broadcasts (Space Precinct notwithstanding), this years is more impressive for the fact that the series being released are all original(ish) productions, and that this is all happening posthumously.

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Gerry Anderson, with son Jamie

Having been diagnosed with dementia in the form of Alzheimer’s disease, Anderson sadly passed away on Boxing Day 2012. Never one for retirement however, he continued to create and develop new ideas for as long as he was physically and mentally able, even dictating them to others after the ability to read and write had left him.

The last project he was working on was also the first to have been released, when last Thursday saw Black Horizon become available to the general public. With plenty of notes and outlines left behind, Gerry’s younger son Jamie Anderson recruited the services of author M.G. Harris and brought Gemini Force One to the attention of crowdfunding site Kickstarter; the result of which was raising over £33,000 to bring this this new idea to life.

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From the co-creator of Thunderbirds….

Looking at the fantastical concept of Thunderbirds, Anderson delved deeper into the idea of how such a rescue organisation could conceivably be created and operate. These range from basic ideas that include bland uniforms specifically designed to blend in to any situation, to their secret underwater base (Gemini Force One itself) being hidden from view by revolutionary lightbending technology.

The release of Black Horizon, the first in a planned trilogy of novels, is also something that I personally have a number of connections with. Firstly, as one of the 614 backers, I can say that I helped GF1 became the reality it is today; something confirmed by the fact that my name is printed in black and white in the book itself.

Having received my kickstarter copy of the book last year, I was also able to write a review for it at WhatCulture before its general release. As I guess is often the case when you write a favourable piece about something people have spent so much time and energy on, both Jamie and M.G. shared my review on social media. Gratifying enough on its own, but the fact that this review is also being quoted on the book’s page at Amazon is something that I have to admit I’m also rather chuffed with. (The review itself, along with a more in-depth description of GF1 can be found here.)

In the week since its release, extra deleted chapters have also been made available, and can be downloaded from the official website, geminiforce1.com.

The second, and much more anticipated release, was Thunderbirds Are Go, a new TV series which combines traditional model making techniques with computer generated characters. Although obviously based on the most famous series created by Anderson (alongside his then wife Sylvia), this incarnation is a joint production between ITV Studios, Pukeko Pictures, and Weta Workshops. Officially announced by Gerry Anderson himself back in 2011, just how much he was involved in the production of the series is hard to say; presumably very little but, unlike the 2004 Hollywood effort, we can be assured that Thunderbirds Are Go at least had his blessing.

Thunderbirds are still going!

Thunderbirds are still going!

Jamie has also been involved of sorts, acting again as Anderson’s successor/figurehead when doing interviews to promote the series. These have included The One Show, but perhaps the most interesting was on Sky News where the interviewer that seemed to imply the series was created solely to make use of tax loopholes.

Rather than sing its praises indiscriminately however, he has been promoting it in terms of celebrating its classic origins, allowing the new footage to speak for itself. One way in which he did make his opinions about the new series well-known however, was by writing a piece published by the Telegraph, about how CGI can never replace strings.

Although Jamie may be siding with those of earlier generations, it has to be said that Anderson Sr. himself wasn’t dismissive of the CGI revolution’s ability to update his series’ visuals, as the last to be produced before his death, 2005’s New Captain Scarlet, was produced in full CGI “Hypermarionation”.

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How I summed up my trepidation

Eagerly scouring pictures and information that was released in the run up to the show’s broadcast, it was with great curiosity that I watched Reggie Yates’ preview documentary Thunderbirds Are Go: No Strings Attached. Despite the reassurance of not just the names of those involved (from actor David Graham returning to the role of Parker, and a script by David Baddiel), but the passion of those involved, my fears about CGI and modernisation weren’t quenched.

So it was that not having been convinced by the clips of what I had seen, but still with an open mind, I sat down and watched the pilot episode, “Ring Of Fire.” CGI aside, the main changes have come from the show’s narrative, the most obvious being the fact that dad Jeff Tracy is now missing. Several allusions are made to a mysterious crash in which he disappeared, explaining his absence but also adding a sense of mystery that will presumably be a recurring arc over the run of the series. ‘Tin Tin’ has also been given a more prominent role, as well as the new name of Kayo, presumably so as not to upset anyone associated with the latest adventures of Herge’s finest, given her now more involved and adventurous role.

And in the end, I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. It is hardly perfect as the CGI and practical models don’t always mesh well, particularly during the heavy action sequences, and it is not something that will ever replace (although I highly doubt this was the intention) or surpass (you’d have to ask them) the original series. That said, it was something which appealed to me as both someone who cannot help but pick apart and analyse TV, and as a fan of Anderson’s previous work. Of all the things that they did get right, luckily the iconic Thunderbird lauch sequences, complete with bending trees, was one of them, and brought the biggest smile to my face.

TERRA0102_deadlydeparted_1417Following on from these was also the release of a new Terrahawks box set from Big Finish, a series of 8 audio episodes, one of which can be downloaded for free. Admittedly a series of which I initially knew less than Big Finish itself (a company established to continue Doctor Who after the original TV was cancelled, and which has since expanded to produce material for other sci-fi series including Stargate and Blake’s 7).

Something obviously aimed at an existing audience rather than a new one, the medium of audio adventures seems something at odds with the rest of Anderson’s back catalogue, given that his name has become synonymous with brightly coloured vehicles and giant explosions. Whilst even the written word of Gemini Force One can describe the detailed visuals, audio Terrahawks doesn’t actually seem that out-of-place, and is probably the most suited to this new (for Anderson) medium. Populated by characters with caricatured accents, these new adventures make the most of what audio has to offer; the sound of spring like motions rather than footsteps is a great way to establish the robotic nature of the series, and never has the idea of a room being so silent been so cleverly (and funnily) portrayed). The fact that Jamie was involved in terms of both writing and directing episodes also adds the desired amount of authenticity.

Despite the vastly different media, and varying degrees of publicity, all three of the latest Gerry Anderson projects may not have been met with universal praise (I guess you can’t please everybody), but at least with a favourable response that bodes well for the fact this is still just the beginning.

Black Horizon is the first in a trilogy, Thunderbirds Are Go has already been confirmed for a second season, and the current Terrahawks box set is merely volume 1. Add to this that there is even more on the way (Jamie’s latest kickstarter project, Firestorm, was funded back in November), stand by for action indeed!!!

Review: Star Trek – Live In Concert

wpid-181055a.jpgMelbourne Symphony Orchestra,
Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre,
31st January 2015

Although it has constantly been changing throughout its numerous television and cinematic instalments, J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reimagining of Gene Roddenberry’s classic Star Trek brought with it the biggest reinvention of all. Having cast fresh faces as the well-loved characters helming the U.S.S. Enterprise, the film and its sequel Star Trek Into Darkness are currently reinvigorating the cinematic experience with fully orchestral screenings.

With two performances over one weekend, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra are the latest, and first Australian musicians to bring this international concert tour to their home city. Saying it’s more than a normal screening may sound obvious, and at the same time it was less than a normal orchestral performance. Halfway between the two, it wasn’t entirely either.

A valuble asset in creating the desired reaction from the audience, music is too often overlooked but would be conspicuous by its absence. Highlighting the moments of action, drama, and tension in Star Trek, it is also highly emotional in places; never more so than the pre-credits destruction of the U.S.S. Kelvin. Despite the intensity of George Kirk’s sacrifice being unmatched throughout the rest of the film, Michael Giacchino’s accompaniment score serves as a great introduction, and the opening title was ushered in with well-earned rapturous applause.

Being played in front you the music was naturally given more prominence than in a standard cinema, but the fact that more emphasis, or even lighting, wasn’t placed on the orchestra themselves was a missed opportunity. As much as it was a film screening rather than regular concert it was still disappointing that so much of your attention was drawn to the screen by design in the first place.

A lack of programme was also highly noticeable. Not only did this deny the fans a souvenir of such an infrequent event, but it also hinders the individual orchestra members from gaining the recognition they deserve (although information on the performers can be found on the MSO’s website).

Not that the orchestra weren’t given their time in the spotlight by the end, as the lights were raised once the action had finished and the end credits were overseen by their rendition of Alexander Courage’s iconic TV theme, and Giacchino’s finishing suite. An encore of the Star Trek: The Motion Picture/Next Generation theme was also a welcome surprise for the audience.

An audience which, not surprisingly, was largely made up of avid Trek fans, several clad in Starfleet uniforms of varying eras, but it was also rather mixed. There were those who dressed smartly and presumably came to see the Orchestra’s latest concert, but as a bastion of geek culture in general, Star Trek also attracted those wearing T-shirts from Alien to Game of Thrones. Even a Captain Jack Harkness was in attendance.

As an award-winning Hollywood composer Giacchino has worked frequently with Abrams, and has also composed the score the for several Pixar features and shorts, including The Incredibles, and Up. It is not surprising a film with his score was chosen for Live In Concert screenings, and the film itself was treated well; even the intermission was well placed within the film’s narrative, allowing breathing room for the impact of Vulcan’s destruction to sink in.

Orchestral performances of well-loved films is something that should occur more often, and will do if the ‘coming soon’ teaser is anything to go by. Just the dates of a future performance might not be much to go on, but being given in the style of a certain DeLorean’s dashboard display garnered a huge cheer.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Three Films

When it was first announced, there was a strong sense that the adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic children’s novel into three films rather than two was for the sake of increased ticket sales. However the decision was made though, the decision has long since been made, and third and final chapter of The HobbitThe Battle of the Five Armies has now been released.

Depends on your definition of "defining".

Depends on your definition of “defining”.

And regardless of why it came about, it is not a bad film. It’s well made, the battle itself is often spectacular, and it highlights just how far CGI has come since Gollum ushered in a new era. That said, as the third part of the trilogy, it did seem a bit out-of-place. The main problem being that it just doesn’t feel like the third part in a trilogy.

With the dwarves completing their quest and taking back the Lonely Mountain, The Desolation of Smaug seemed to end mostly on a substantial ending. In addition to this, Gandalf’s cliffhanger and the added on Sauron subplot are resolved far too quickly at the beginning of Five Armies, that they may as well have just been wrapped up by the end of Smaug instead. In fact this cliffhanger seems to only serve the purpose of bringing people back to watch the third film.

As much as the main events of Five Armies are a part of the original novel, the way they have been presented in the film makes it feel as though it is an entirely new entity, and one which has been hijacked to bridge the gap between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. There certainly is logic to this, and it does justify the executive decision to produce three films from the single novel source material (even over the increased ticket sales argument), but the trouble is that there just isn’t enough to fill a complete film. Especially one that tries to fit in with, and will inevitably be compared to, its epic predecessors.

Because of this, many of the links between Hobbit and Rings just seem arbitrary. Unlike Dath Vader joining Grand Moff Tarkin’s side at the end of Revenge of the Sith, Thranduil’s parting words to Legolas don’t so much tie the last entry in one trilogy to the first in the next, as potentially change the entire character relationship between the two: is Legolas now Aragorn’s stalker and/or guardian angel rather than brother in arms?

A younger immortal elf. Ten years later.

A younger immortal elf. Ten years later.

That said, some of the links were nicely crafted. It’s fair to say the addition of Legolas is the biggest manufactured link of all, and generally he is well used in both of the Hobbit films in which he appears. His presence has been made to gel nicely with the other elves and their interaction with the dwarves, and his jealousy towards Tauriel and Kili even adds an extra layer to his relationship with Gimli in the later films.

But more than just these connections, the film includes the expansion and addition of new characters, such as Alfrid. Where a single counselor to the Master of Lake-Town was referred to in the book, this subplot was not only taken too far but also given an unsatisfactory conclusion. Again it is easy to see the reason for this being included, at times Five Armies can be both dark and emotional, and comic relief is often needed to alleviate some of the tension; as highly respected storyteller Joss Whedon explains, “make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.” This was done well in Rings with the aforementioned rivalry between Legolas and Gimli, but for all his tales of epic heroes and bravery, is the most cowardly person escaping with all the gold he could carry a message Tolkien ever wanted to get across?

And the reason these just feel like padding is that in a similar fashion to war films such as Black Hawk Down, the single battle is pretty much the only narrative of the whole film; something which in this context just doesn’t seem to work. The film may have shown the burning of Lake-Town, but a climactic battle such as the one shown here is an event which needs to be lead up to properly. Despite it being the culmination of two previous films, this anticipation is something that gets lost in the 12 month wait between theatrical releases.

I’m aware this may be painting the film in a negative light, but when watching it I couldn’t help but notice that these things took me out of Middle Earth and back to the cinema I was watching it in. And once this started happening, it didn’t stop.

One of the biggest problems overall was one of those small things which, for me, also caught my attention within the first two films. Whilst I admit it comes from a limited perspective in terms of worldwide distribution, the amount of British television actors used in the cast can at times be distracting. Not that I am begrudging them their talents and achievements, it’s just that it seems as though they have been specifically chosen to stand out in their roles, and therefore somewhat annoyingly, stand out.

Ok, so it is an unusual hat.

Ok, so it is an unusual hat.

Take the dwarves for example: in An Unexpected Journey we are introduced to them as they come knocking on Bilbo’s door in ever-increasing amounts. There’s a dwarf, another dwarf, and then another. Complete with bushy beards, big hair, large frames, and personalities to match, next comes two dwarves, three dwarves, and then there’s James Nesbitt in a hat. It’s almost as if he arrived in the Shire on one of his Thomas Cook package holidays.

Yes, The Lord of the Rings had its share with the likes of Sean Bean and Bernard Hill, but at no point do we expect Boromir to tell the council of Elrond to “be more dog” when dealing with ring of power. Billy Connelly’s voice alone on the other hand, whilst perfect for Pixar’s Brave, coming from the mouth of a rough and ready dwarf is too close to his own flamboyant Glaswegian stand up persona to be taken seriously.

The Battle of the Five Armies is in a many ways a fine example of film making, but for all of its accomplishments it falls at the first hurdle. What use are great acting, meticulous production design, and state of the art special effects if the story they are serving isn’t up to scratch.

J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t just write novels, he crafted an entire world and populated it with different races, histories, mythologies, and even complete languages. I can’t say how much of it was by design and how much was interference from New Line Cinema and Warner Bros., but in their attempts to do Tolkien’s novel and his world justice, Peter Jackson and co. just didn’t have enough focus on crafting the story.

And isn’t that the whole point of a film in the first place?

Where’s My Minority Sports Report?

Whilst watching the wheelchair rugby final of the Invictus Games, it occurred to me that in this current media climate dominated by violent headlines of war and beheadings, it is the sport also known as “Murderball” that can be the most uplifting thing shown on TV. Allow me to explain:

Mention the 2014 World Cup, and for most it would be the men’s football championship that springs to mind. This is despite the fact that England spectacularly fulfilled everyone’s expectations of mediocrity, whereas the women’s national rugby team romped to glory in a 21-9 victory in the final. World Champions, and yet the media decided that the men who could only achieve one draw deserved more screen time. Consider that it is also the second time England have won the women’s rugby world cup, and 1966 somehow seems even more distant than it did before.

Waterman and the IRB women's World Cup © West Somerset Free Press

Nolli Waterman and the WRWC trophy.    © West Somerset Free Press

In fact I have to admit that this is something that I myself would have remained largely unaware of, were it not for the fact that we both grew up in the same town and shared several classes at school with England international Danielle “Nolli” Waterman.

Considering she and her team-mates were representing the entire nation, it is nothing but a shame that their accomplishments received more space on the front page of our local broadsheet, The West Somerset Free Press, than from a large portion, if not all, of the national newspapers.

Print media aside, coverage of the women’s rugby team fared much better on television. Not only has Nolli featured on the Clare Balding Show, but earlier today she also appeared with team-mates Maggie Alphonsi and Heather Fisher on Sky Sports’ Game Changers, a sporty Saturday morning kids show.

Great coverage they no doubt deserved, but that which again, I was only made aware of through Nolli’s own advertising on twitter. In addition these were also both on dedicated pay to view sports channels, of which BT Sport is still up and coming, and seems to advertise to non-subscribers predominantly through their coverage of, you guessed it, men’s football.

To be fair, it has to be said that sport isn’t my main passion, and not something I would normally seek out in terms of media coverage. Obviously there are those who do, and will no doubt have been made aware of the Rugby world cup long before myself and those others who rely only on more general media coverage. Whilst it can certainly be argued that the media is only a reflection of what the mainstream audience want to see, I would instead argue that it is in fact a vicious cycle: the mainstream audience often cannot want to see what it has not been made aware of by the media.

Just as London 2012 and the Women’s Rugby world cup has shown, there is nothing like getting behind athletes representing your nation at international events to get the adrenaline pumping, and interest growing.

Something which can also be said of disability sport. The BBC’s coverage of the 2008 Paralympics was limited to the red button, and four years later it was outbid by another broadcaster. Whilst it cannot be said that Channel 4’s coverage of the games at both London and Sochi were severely lacking in any way, it also cannot be said that their legacy goes much further than The Last Leg.

A Glasgow 2014 opening ceremony tent getting more air time than disability sport.

A Glasgow 2014 opening ceremony tent getting more air time than the games themselves.

A satirical news programme which, despite originating from the 2012 Paralympic Games, still concerns itself more with whether its twitter followers considered the 2014 Commonwealth Games to be either #notshit or #abitshit, than the fact that it is the only major competition in which able-bodied and disabled sports are competed side by side.

Whilst this fact was mentioned, even a show in which three presenters have only four legs between them still seems to cater to, rather than educate, a largely unaware audience. Meanwhile disability sport has continued to be played throughout the past two years as it always has done, even if it is still doing so in the background.

Not to say that male footballers aren’t skilled athletes, but the amount of coverage they receive also gives them an unfair advantage off, as well as on the pitch. Whilst players for the England women’s rugby team are only just now becoming paid professional athletes, sportsmen who have been receiving large paycheques for their entire careers somehow still feel the need to supplement these with advertising deals. Not to begrudge them these opportunities, but it makes you wonder if their World Cup experience would have turned out differently had the England goalkeeper, Joe Hart, not spent his run up to the competition appearing in no less than three separate television commercials.

The broadcasting of women’s and disability sport is far from adequate, and I would say that it is Wheelchair Rugby that can help bridge the gap that needs to be crossed.

GB's Kylie Grimes in action

GB’s Kylie Grimes in action.

Wheelchair Rugby is perhaps the only sport that has something for everyone. It is a full contact sport in terms of wheelchairs crashing into each other, and the fact that these chairs/battering rams act as a barrier between player contact means that the contact can often be more aggressive than its grass pitch counterpart.

Not only are there rules and classifications ensuring that those on the pitch are of mixed (dis)abilities, but while predominantly played by men, it is also a mixed sport in which both male and female players compete with and against each other, side by side.

In addition, like any disability sport, the athletes have already achieved so much before even entering the pitch. To me, sport is all about personal achievement; I enjoy archery because it is one of those sports where it doesn’t matter how many others are on the shooting line with me, I am always competing against myself. By overcoming obstacles many of us would have trouble imagining, pushing themselves to higher and higher standards is nothing new to those who participate in Murderball.

More than any this though, wheelchair rugby is generally just as thrilling as team sports get. Take a look for yourself, and see what even €100million can’t buy:

It’s now the 21st Century, and surely it’s time for decent coverage of sports that don’t deserve their description of “minority”. The advent of Sky Sports’ Sportswomen show last year was a great step forward, as is Game Changers introducing the younger generation to sports in all it forms, but one in which other broadcasters and newspapers need to not only follow, but also expand upon.

Thankfully things are also changing for the better in terms of disabled athletes. Last year at the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year awards, Hannah Cockroft became the first wheelchair athlete to be nominated outside of the Paralympics, a far cry from 2000 when Tanni Grey-Thompson was unable to accept her trophy due to the stage not having the most basic of disable access.

Surely it’s only deserving that the women’s England Rugby team be given the Team Of The Year award at this years ceremony in December, something which could, and indeed should, be the latest chapter of greater coverage of even greater sports.