Monday, July 30, 2007

Good News Is No News

Those of you with memories that stretch back to December of last year may recall me dropping hints about a ghost writing project, which basically involved me being commissioned to write the first volume in a series of children's books, about which I could reveal very little at the time. Well, a full announcement lingers on the horizon, but for the present, there have been further developments - and I can at least reveal that I've now been commissioned to write the second volume as well! Since I'll be doing my best to complete a couple of other projects alongside, it should make for a 'challenging' deadline, but I get the feeling it's also going to be fun. It will probably mean a couple of lean news months here on my blog, but rest assured that, once I'm given the green light to say more, I'll be plastering it all over here. In neon.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


Yes, 40. The birthday when, if you get the bumps you'd better go have them checked out immediately. But despite a degree of dread leading up to the occasion, it actually feels pretty good. Good things are happening, there are presents, I'm awarding myself a few days off before getting really really busy, and it's bright and sunny (with intermittent showers). What more could anyone ask for.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Babylon 2.5

As a Christmas present, I bought my wife a complete set of Babylon 5 DVDs, the whole five season arc. I mention this not to boast about my generosity, but only because one of the many advantages of married bliss is that I get to watch these things too - and now that we've reached the halfway point, I thought I should mark the occasion.

Rather like me, it's surprising how old it is now, and there's no denying it has dated, but I'm still enjoying it this time around. It's the CGI, a key part of what helped it stand out in its day, that prohibits it from aging entirely gracefully. Now, it's not glaringly awful or anything, it's just that there's an arcade - or early console - game feel to much of it and now it seems more like an interesting stylistic choice than a limitation of technology. Luckily, the visuals are backed up by some gorgeous design work, with a tremendous amount of inventiveness and creativity on display, and the angel-fish Minbari warships are as beautiful as ever, no matter how much better they might be rendered today. To say nothing of the success of the Shadow vessels that, despite only a relatively few appearances thus far, are already a haunting presence and more than just enemy ships, they make for one of TV sci-fi's more memorable monsters. The thought that has gone into the cultures that built the various ships is all there on the screen.

Storywise, one surprising aspect is how often some crucial arc element has been introduced much earlier than I remembered. Of course, I'm much more conscious of and on the lookout for it all, but it's always nice to encounter some minor detail I'd forgotten. On the other hand, it does reinforce the sense that the show is due to largely run out of story by Season 4. I am hoping though that Season 5 will prove me wrong when we get there - I missed chunks of the final season the last time around, and I'm definitely looking forward to discovering what extras it has in store for me there.

Like Doctor Who, it's ham-strung somewhat by irregulars - and the occasional regular - more wooden than the sets, but the majority of the regular cast range from dependable to outstanding. Commander Sinclair is not as bad as I recalled, but Sheridan is a significantly greater presence on screen and his predecessor is all too easily forgotten - again. Claudia Christian really improves from, I think, TKO (truly awful episode unfortunately not sufficiently redeemed by a very emotional thread for Ivanova) onwards, although much more so when she's serious - she doesn't do goofy well, and I'm fairly sure even the alien for whom she faked an orgasm in Acts Of Sacrifice remained privately unconvinced. Surely the most painful scene in Babylon 5 until Michael York turns up? But Andreas Katsulas, Peter Jurasik and Mira Furlan (and even Bill Mumy and Stephen Furst) bring their respective aliens alive with very human performances. Garibaldi is just a cut-price Bruce Willis, but he has his moments.

At the lowest end of the character spectrum you do get non-personalities like the pilot, Keffer - B5's Alan Carter, I guess - whose appearances are thankfully few and whose entire point of existence is his death at the 'hands' of a Shadow ship. And sadly I find it hard to be at all interested in anything to do with Dr Stephen Franklin. I think they needed a medical officer with a bit of spark and, I don't know, va-va-voom - more of an ER doc, and maybe they would have done if the series hadn't predated ER.

At the time, I also recollect thinking it was a fair depiction of an sf military, but in these days of Battlestar Galactica, that side does lack edge - although to be fair, the show's obvious Lord Of The Rings roots as well as the visuals confirm that what we're being served is a more colourful fantasy treatment. Which is not to say it is all light and fluffy. Far from it. There's the (apparently obligatory) sprinkling of standard Star Trek fare (A Day In The Strife), but even those are usually mitigated to some degree by some strong character thread and a stab at giving the story a fresh twist, and when it gets to the big stuff it delivers in spades. And if individual episodes fail, it's as often down to overambition (GROPOS) as just being plain poor (Comes The Inquisitor). And then you have offerings like Passing Through Gethsemane which, as a sci-fi examination of capital punishment, has two-and-a-half-million tons more to say than New Who's Boom Town. At least.

For me though, the highlight so far has to have been the three-episode sequence, at this the halfway point in the third season, where the station breaks away from Earth. It's as dramatic and loaded with punch the air moments as I remember, and when Delenn comes riding to the rescue, ready to kick ass and send those Earth cruisers packing, that - I'm pretty certain - is when Sheridan finally realises he has the hots for her.

Overall it's the ambition that impresses most. That and the mythology, because no matter how much of it is actually borrowed, it has been moulded here into something new and there's a great sense of a full universe having been created here, with plenty of scope for other adventures and events we haven't seen. A real playground for the imagination - and I like those. It's a singular achievement and for the most part retains that sense of an epic novel - one I've definitely enjoyed 're-reading' so far. But I'll be sure and tell you what I think when I get to the end for a second time.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Sonn Tag

Well, apparently it was back on Tuesday that I was tagged by Stuart - but in my defence, I only found out on Wednesday, and my excuse for the intervening four days is that I've been very busy. Still, the main thing is, I'm making the effort now, when I could be shooting aliens or blogging on topics such as Babylon 5 or my rapidly approaching birthday. Anyway, being as old and out of touch with the younger generations as I am, I'd not heard of tagging before, but this is how it works:

1. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
2. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
3. People who are tagged need to write in their own blog about their eight things and include these rules in the post.
4. At the end of your post, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
5. Don't forget to leave them a comment telling them they're tagged, and to read your blog.

So, here are the best facts I have to offer on a Sunday night:

1. I have a dream of being a stand-up comic, but am far too shy and retiring to ever a) be any good or b) attempt such a thing.

2. Today I went to the local reservoir at Drift (nothing to do with my Doctor Who book of the same name) to feed the swans. There are about eighty of them, along with a couple of dozen geese and a handful of ducks. No matter how often I've seen them, I always find them an amazing sight.

3. I think I'm a mintaholic. I'm very partial to chocolate too, so combinations of the two are a surefire hit: After Eights, Mint Matchmakers, Mint Aeros etc. Mint Wispa was probably the best chocolate bar ever made and I'd like to know a) why they're no longer available and b) why they never made a dark chocolate version.

4. I'm very much a regular at the local harbourside cafe. I like to take some work along there and do some writing of a morning, even though we have just as spectacular a view from our window at home.

5. I'm a vegetarian, but after giving in to a craving for a bacon sandwich last Christmas, I've decided to make that an annual tradition as a concession to the carnivore in me. I'm not kidding, it was the best bacon sandwich in the world ever.

6. I've only ever given up on four books. Generally, I feel this compulsion to finish a book once I've started and will struggle on through many a duff read, no matter how much my senses scream at me to save time and move on to something better. I'm trying to break this habit though. Bad books be warned!

7. I have a compulsion to watch anything starring Jennifer Aniston or Jennifer Love Hewitt. This is not a habit I am making any efforts to break.

8. I'm going to be 40 on Thursday.

Now, I'm in a pickle as to the tagging eight other people's blogs, since Stuart went and tagged most of the folks I know who have blogs, so my best bet is to a) pinch some from his list and b) see if I can add a couple. I'll also follow Stuart's example and not leave a comment on their blogs, because most of the people I know are probably at least as busy as me.

Mark C
Mark M
Simon BJ

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Master Of Disaster

Whotopia. That's what I talked about last time I was on the subject of Doctor Who. After a clutch of brilliant episodes, the future looked bright for the remainder of the series. But, like Utopia, it turned out to be an empty promise, designed to lure us with false hope into the Master's trap. What awaited us at the end of the series was depressingly similar to what awaited humanity at the end of time. In a word, disaster.
The episode Utopia itself was rather, um, magisterial. A somewhat mundane vision of the future, on a world borrowed from the Blake's Seven archives, it was nevertheless elevated to far greater heights by the august presence of Derek Jacobi and his ultimate emergence as the Master. The reveal is deftly handled, with some rare sleight of hand from the pen of Russell T, culminating with the gentle Professor Yana producing a fob watch very like the Doctor's from Human Nature. Everything clicks at that point and Jacobi's transformation into the Master is a bona fide Doctor Who 'moment'. There are other little sprinklings of magic along the way - I especially liked Yana's alien companion, with her constant 'Chan!' and 'Tho!' lending her a touch of almost Farscape-ish alien charm. There were a few 'Huh?' moments: why doesn't the Doctor think anything of the fact that Yana is dressed, well, like a Time Lord? how does Jack's immortality work exactly - he gets shot, falls down dead then recovers, but when it comes to disintegrating radiation, he just bears it like a real trooper and soldiers on regardless? (And hey, it might have been fun to see him repeatedly piecing his atoms back together.) There were absurdities: the 'big' You Are Not Alone = YANA revelation. But none of these marks against managed to define the episode and the impression left at the end is of a bit of a rollercoaster ride, with Jacobi's Master regenerated into a more manic, Energiser-Bunny John Simm and the theft of the Doctor's TARDIS. And even though we know how the Doctor and Co are going to get out of there, the right dramatic buttons have been hit and it's the television equivalent of a Snickers bar. This product may contain nuts, but ultimately it satisfies.
Unfortunately, if we view the episode as the first part of a trilogy, then the law of diminishing returns definitely applies. The rollercoaster is all downhill from there.
The sad truth is that part of the problem lies with John Simm. As I understand it, he is simply following the script, and that sounds credible: I can think of few other showrunners who would cast a class actor like Simm in a killer role like the Master and insist on him playing it up and acting like a pratt, with all the sinister depth of a saucer of milk. And I appreciate that anyone suffering from a lactose intolerance won't quite get the extent of what I'm saying there. Bring back Jacobi, I found myself thinking at more than one point through The Sound Of Drums - and he only got to be the Master for all of five minutes. Credit to John Simm, he had his moments - even if, ironically, I find the specific highlights have been effectively erased from memory by the absurd excesses of Last Of The Time Lords - but they were few and far between and the overall impression is of a wasted opportunity. The phone conversation between the two Time Lords, most notably, was lacking. What we should have had was something of real moment, like the DeNiro/Pacino coffee house scene in Heat, but whatever dialogue skills RTD undoubtedly possesses they were oddly wanting here.
And this, unsurprisingly, plays a key factor in how things regress from there. Naturally, much of this three-parter hangs on the Master. On the up side, the titular sound of drums serves as an effective tension-builder throughout, Alexandra Moen gives us a sympathetic Lucy Saxon, and there is a sense at least that the snapshot of Gallifreyan history is there to serve a vital, intriguing purpose. But in the absence of a central performance that inspires more than disappoints - and with my inability to take giggly spheres seriously, no matter how much they butcher the guest stars - The Sound Of Drums comes across as fairly standard New Who fare - and more particularly, fairly standard penultimate episode of the season New Who fare. Aside from the customary slapdash plotting, there are emerging patterns that set off various alarm bells and warn us to expect the expected. E.g. it all feels a bit like Army Of Ghosts, so expect something like Doomsday. The Paradox Machine, combined with a mass invasion, the 'decimation' of Earth's population and a Doctor subjected to accelerated decrepitude screams of an impending reset switch. Scale and spectacle, cheap and lazy get-out at the end.
But no, I didn't want to believe that. This year, New Who was going to surprise me and do something different.
Hopes were dashed on that score as soon as the series finale kicked off with the caption declaring One Year Later. With that dramatic damp squib looming, I admit I was somewhat disengaged from the action early on, and the sight of the Master dancing in what appeared to be a daily ritual for him only served to further remove me from proceedings. Whereupon all we're left with is purposeless spectacle that struggles to produce anything emotional beyond a dismayed shake of the head or a burst of laughter. And no, not the laugh out loud comedic exchanges between Daleks and Cybermen that helped brighten Doomsday. No, I'm talking laughter at the wrong moments. The desperation in the Master's plan is reflected in the desperation of both the Doctor's failed escape attempt and the Doctor's ultimate plan, and it's further reflected in the show's battle for those precious ratings.
It's a mess. The escape attempt prompted by the Doctor risks the lives of his friends (those that aren't blessed with a Captain Scarlet-level of immortality) to no good purpose - he has no guarantee that the Master won't have one of them killed. Captain Jack Scarlet's immortality is handled as inconsistently as ever. Martha's plan for getting herself taken on board Skybase - beg your pardon, HMS Valiant - is needlessly elaborate. The Toclafane are rubbish and for some reason after they have gone to the trouble of enslaving the population of Earth to build them a mighty fleet of rockets (rockets, on the ground, no less - not the most efficient way of launching an interstellar fleet, I might add) they are seen shooting off into space entirely independent of said rockets. And in the only real surprise this had to throw my way, the Doctor is super-aged into (and apologies, I'm borrowing from someone else here) the bastard offspring of Gollum (Lord Of The Rings) and Dobby (Harry Potter) and kept in a cage like Tweety Pie. But don't worry, he's then transformed into a floaty god by the power of global thought to bring us a message of forgiveness.
Jesus. Well, that's what I thought at that point.
But wait, there's more.
In place of a lever to drag the invaders back from whence they came, Captain Jack triggers this year's reset by pumping lots of lead into the Paradox Machine - but be kind to him, he didn't have a lot else to do this episode. In place of a climactic duel between the Doctor and the Master, we are treated to an unconvincing blubfest. In the face of the Doctor's forgiveness, the Master folds like a wet blanket and, shot by Lucy, dies in the Doctor's arms rather than face an eternity of imprisonment in the Doctor's TARDIS. (And who can blame him - nobody wants a repeat of that aspect of Scream Of The Shalka.) And my mind goes back to the staggeringly superior Human Nature/Family Of Blood, in which the Doctor hands out those cruel and unusual punishments to each and every member of the Family. And in place of any repercussions for the Doctor's God-like arrogance, we're treated to more of the same here - with no-one to echo my thoughts and raise an objection.
Who the hell is this guy to forgive the Master his crimes? No matter that they've by and large been wiped out by a temporal rewind, he's still committed the act of mass mass murder and the people present have borne witness to much during their year in his service. Not to mention that the President of the United States has been disintegrated, the Cabinet eliminated (both of which are brushed aside far too casually for my liking) and the Jones family pressed into servitude. Personally, if I was Francine, I might have aimed my gun at the Doctor.
By this time, I'm in a hurry for the thing to wrap up, but the episode seems determined to drag its heels on its way out. Martha's departure is fair enough and played well for what it's worth, but it lacks the emotional weight of Rose's fate in Doomsday, and before we get there we are forced to endure a really lame scene where Jack drops vital arc information into the conversation as casually as he can manage, to the effect that he used to be known as the Face of Boe and the ultimate effect of his immortality will be that he ends up as a large head in a tank.
High comedy or tragedy, you decide.
Shame he couldn't have let something slip about Utopia or the nature of the 'drums', as neither is adequately explained - although, if we've any optimism left at that stage, we could allow that this is being reserved for the future. When all was done, I struggled to recall some positives, anything I could salvage from this wreck. In the end, I had to settle for Lucy Saxon and her quietly understated presence in the background here - the bruises that spoke volumes and helped mark her out as the most sympathetic character in the whole thing for me. That, and the possibly quite clever last-resort escape for the Master: having her shoot him and later recover his ring from the (for me, unfortunately Xena-esque) funeral pyre. But even the latter has its less than entirely satisfactory side, in that - unlike the reset switch - we were offered no hints that I can recall as to the significance of the Master's ring - and I'm not sure how that fits with Lucy's behaviour. Although it has been pointed out that she could have been hypnotically primed to act in the event of his ultimate defeat. I'll go with that. If only to scrape back whatever I can from the experience. And it will help counter the heavy Flash Gordon vibe I got when the woman reaches in to collect the Master's ring from the ashes.
Sadly, after three years, I begin to get the impression that scale and spectacle are all RTD has to offer for his season finales. And the greater the scale and spectacle, the cheaper and lazier the get-out clause at the end. That, and a surprise intrusion into the TARDIS as a teaser for the Christmas special. This year, in place of Catherine Tate, we get a ship ramming through the TARDIS wall. Some would argue that this was a significant improvement and they might have a case. But to be honest, as soon as I saw the ship, the word Titanic surfaced automatically and needed no confirmation from the Doctor turning over the life belt. So even that came with its element of predictability.
Still, clinging to optimism in the face of a general sinking feeling, all is not lost. This year's season finale has at least helped lower my expectations from their Whotopian high and lower expectations may well be key to enjoyment of whatever New Who comes up with next.