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What the World Needs Now

‘Star Trek lures you into a false sense of positivity that the world can be a utopia and recent events have proven it cannot.’ – Adam Savage

So, here we go, finally: Star Trek: Discovery is with us at last, not exactly preceded by the positive buzz its makers might have hoped for, but accompanied by the kind of media attention you might expect from the stirring of a genuine pop culture colossus. I don’t agree with the quote above this paragraph, by the way: I disagree with it rather strongly. What the world needs now may indeed be a new series of Star Trek at its best. What I’m pretty sure the world doesn’t need is a tidal wave of reviews of the beginning of the new series by rather excitable Trekkies and other interested parties, but hey – can’t have one without the other, I guess.

It feels a bit odd to be writing about an episode of Star Trek without doing the traditional capsule synopsis of the plot, but I rather suspect that would constitute a spoiler given the episode in question is less than 24 hours old as I write. Let us try to be usefully non-specific, for the time being – I cannot guarantee that a few spoilers won’t slip through the net later on, especially if I find myself getting exercised, which may well happen.

Anyway, here we are in the mid-2250s, supposedly about ten years before the start of the original series (yes, yes: we will inevitably come to Discovery’s exact location in the space-time multiverse), all aboard the good ship Shenzhou (er, what?). Oh well – after a spot of teaserage allowing some high production-value location filming, and an insight into the new show’s take on the Prime Directive (apparently, it’s no longer the case that you should never interfere in the affairs of less-advanced species, only that you should never get caught interfering – hmm).

Well, from here we move to a CGI starscape where a Federation comms relay has been mysteriously nobbled, and a strange alien object is discovered nearby. The ship’s adventurous first officer Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) rockets off to investigate, only to discover it is some kind of Klingon cultural artefact, and the bumpy-headed ones (yes, yes, we’ll come to that, too) are close by in force, and spoiling for a fight…

I have to say that, following the last few movies and all I’d heard about Discovery over the last few months, my expectations for it were dialled down to almost-subterranean levels, and so it was rather a surprise to discover (no pun intended) that there were many things about The Vulcan Hello which were genuinely rather delightful – it has the look and feel of Trek much more than I had anticipated, to begin with at least, and Doug Jones’ alien science officer, whose culture’s response to any situation appears to be to run away as fast as possible, promises much. The – oh, dear, here we go – virtue signalling inherent in the casting and characterisation which drew so much scrutiny during early publicity was handled with a much lighter touch than I was expecting, too.

Still, there are a couple of things which make me rather uneasy about Star Trek: Discovery, partly because I’m such an utterly ossified old-school Star Trek fan, partly because I’m fully aware Star Trek is not the be-all and end-all of life, but only a significant reflection of where we are as a culture.

While I was watching and enjoying the bulk of the episode, I found myself repeatedly thinking ‘If only… if only…’ If only they hadn’t made such a big deal about the fact that this was a show set in the main Star Trek universe, ten years prior to the original series. Based on what we see on screen, this is a frankly unsupportable assertion, which seems to me to be calculated merely to shift merchandise and avoid the unpopularity with fans that the Kelvin movies suffer. Do I even have to list some of the ways in which Discovery jibes with the established history of the Trek universe? The uniforms don’t match, the level of technology doesn’t match (the use of long-range holography to communicate doesn’t start showing up in other Trek shows until over a century later, and is hardly common even then), and this is before we even get onto Discovery’s take on the Klingons – props to the writers for the shout-out to the mythology created in The Final Reflection, but if it wasn’t for this and the use of Okrandian Klingon, they would be almost unrecognisable as members of the same species – pretty much the only thing to pass my lips while watching the episode was a cry of ‘That’s not a bat’leth!’

I expect there are perfectly sound commercial reasons for attempting to crowbar Discovery into the main timeline (toys and suchlike ain’t gonna sell themselves), but the decision to set the show in the 2250s is rather baffling one. If they’d simply moved the prime timeline on a hundred years or so and set the new series in the 2490s or whenever, it would have been considerably easier to rationalise all of the incongruities – for instance, the Klingons have shown a certain genetic mutability in the past, so another radical shift in their appearance would have had some kind of precedent. They’d have had to parachute in another classic character instead of Sarek, but no big deal there, surely.

As it is, the only way to make sense of Discovery is to assume we’re off in another alternate timeline (maybe the Kelvin universe, but most likely not). Does this really matter? Well, maybe only if you’re a die-hard Trekkie or fellow traveller, but I still think all this constitutes a misjudgement on the part of the makers of the show – grumpy reactions from the fanbase have apparently already imperilled the production/distribution deal between Netflix and CBS, and created a rather negative buzz around the new show, which I still think could have been avoided fairly easily.

Onto more serious issues, and here we do face the prospect of genuine spoilers, so caveat lector. The thing about The Vulcan Hello is that it builds to a climax about a genuine point of moral principle – that of whether, as a person of good conscience, it is ever permissible to shoot first, starting a fight. The episode’s argument seems to be that yes, this is possible (let us skip over the slightly febrile handling of this in the actual narrative of the episode).

Hmmm. I turn off Star Trek and I turn on the news, where I see an old man and a young man, both of them ridiculous and frightening in equal measure, both of them acting like babies, waving their nuclear devices at each other and indulging in the most ludicrous rhetoric. Is this really a good time for Star Trek, famous for its optimistic vision of the future, to be suggesting that sometimes the wisest thing is for the good guy to shoot first? I would argue not; I would argue very strongly not.

Of course, I write this as someone who has published an essay discussing the fact that the original series came out in support of American involvement in the Vietnam War, so a touch of realpolitik in Star Trek is not without precedent. But even so. This is a frankly slightly disturbing sentiment to find at the heart of a 2017 episode of Star Trek. Who knows, maybe this ideology will be discredited and rejected as the series continues; there are still many episodes to come. But for now, it’s enough to make me slightly concerned. I think the world needs Star Trek, but it needs a Star Trek that shows us how the world could be better, not one that reflects how messed up it currently is. And I hope that’s what this show ultimately turns out to be.

(Yeah, I know there’s a second episode currently available. All in good time, I expect.)

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Masters of the Game

Well, let’s boldly launch ourselves into a new occasional feature which I have decided to entitle Flaunt Your Ignorance, in which I go rather off the beaten track of new films of all kinds and old (mostly) genre movies, and plunge into areas of cinema with which I am not nearly as familiar as I occasionally affect to be. I can speak at quite nauseating length about the defining characteristics and charms of the British portmanteau horror movie, as we saw just the other day, but there are great swathes of the cinematic landscape with which I am only very vaguely familiar. Continental European cinema, for instance, is a bit of a closed book to me; as are most Asian films not concerned with martial arts, samurai, or towering monsters. The best I can do is drop the names of directors like Fellini, Yasujiro Ozu, and Satyajit Ray in an attempt to obscure my own lack of knowledge.

I am pretty sure this is just not acceptable. However, with the Phoenix in Oxford being closed for renovation yet again (fingers crossed they finally get the rake in Screen Two right), I have been looking slightly further afield than usual for movies to watch on a weekend afternoon, and it turned out the rather-optimistically-named Ultimate Picture Palace was showing a revival of Ray’s The Chess Players (original title: Shatranj Ke Khilari), from 1977. Now, all I could definitely have told you about Ray’s work prior to this is that he made some films about someone called Apu (perhaps buried somewhere in my subconscious was the fact he claimed E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was ripped-off from one of his unmade scripts), but I did know he is acclaimed as one of the world masters of cinema. So along I went.

The film is set in India in 1856. The Muslim state of Oudh (also known as Awadh) has managed to hang onto its independence, despite the dominance in sub-continental affairs of the British East India Company (at this point in history the British government were effectively sub-contracting the running of much of their empire). However, this is about to change, with the local Resident, General Outram (Richard Attenborough), affecting to be so unimpressed by the devout yet hedonistic king of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan), that he concludes the only responsible thing to do is for the Company to take over the running of the state. Cue much power-politics and many barely-disguised threats of the might of the British army.

Running parallel to all this, on the other hand, is the story of Mir (Saeed Jaffrey) and Mirza (Sanjeev Kumar), two well-off gents who have allowed themselves to become obsessed with playing each other at chess (strictly speaking, shatranj, an ancestral form of the game native to India). The two men play each other all day long, oblivious to everything else around them – Mirza’s wife feels so neglected she hides his chess pieces, while Mir’s spouse encourages his fixation, as it allows her to play about with another man. Neither of them notices the looming political crisis until it is much too late…

Well, here’s the thing: Anglo-Indian relations have left a profound mark on British culture, which is reflected in the fact that we can’t seem to stop making films about the country. Even now, multiplex cinemas are clogged up with Victoria and Abdul, a heartwarming tale of something-or-other which looks from the trailer to be rather like Downton Abbey with added turbans, while earlier this year there was Viceroy’s House, an equally soft-centred take on the partition of India. In recent years there have also been the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films, and of course Slumdog Millionaire. I would suggest that only the last of these offers anything resembling a genuinely Indian perspective, and it’s obviously a very contemporary film. So it’s interesting, to say the least, to see a film from an Indian director about the British occupation of his country.

The first thing to say about watching The Chess Players on the big screen is that allowances had to be made: the film is forty years old, it seemed rather like the print we were watching hailed from the late 1970s, too: it was grainy and scratched, with weirdly tinted sections and a slightly crackly soundtrack. It was rather curious to watch a film made in the old Academy aspect ratio, too. The danger, of course, is that all this stuff just gets in the way of the film.

However, this does not quite happen. This is quite a leisurely and thoughtful film, by modern standards anyway, but never too dry or heavy to be watchable. Ray balances the two elements of the storyline well, so that any contrasts of tone are minimal – the story of Mir and Mirza is often played as a gentle comedy, to begin with at least, while the storyline about Oudram and the King is much more serious, and even somewhat tragic. Richard Attenborough, who you might expect to be at least a little out of his comfort zone, is quite as good as you might expect as one of the British imperialists who seems to genuinely believe in the morality of taking over other countries for their own good. Some of the king’s scenes, in which he bewails his lot and (almost literally) beats his breast about his misfortunes, go on a bit, but there is also some singing and dancing here, and no-one does a musical interlude quite like Indian film-makers do.

It’s also notable that the political storyline features a British officer who has learned to speak fluent Urdu and is clearly well-versed in local arts and poetry – it’s also implied he is considered a little suspect for being rather too fond of the local culture, and not loyal enough to the Company. The Chess Players is not soft on the British, being quite clear about the unprincipled avarice which led to imperial dominance in India, but it reserves most of its criticism for the local nobility who sat back and let it happen. This is the central metaphor and irony of the film – Mir and Mirza aspire to be great generals and tacticians, but are so consumed by this that they end up being worse than useless in the actual political struggle going on around them. British control of India, the film seems to suggest, was to at least some extent a shameful self-inflicted wound. (The film concludes symbolically, with Mir and Mirza abandoning shatranj in favour of traditional European chess, in which – of course – the queen is dominant.)

It’s hard to imagine a film by a British director based around such a message, but then it’s almost impossible to imagine a British director making a film about the circumstances in which we ended up running India: it’s one of those things that mainstream culture in the UK is almost too ashamed to talk about. This is an interesting and quietly entertaining take on the topic, and one I’m glad I saw, even if it isn’t your stereotypical Bollywood movie. Hmm: I should think about seeing one of those as well, I suppose…

So, just recently I was writing about the vital contribution to my education which was made by the main commercial channel’s tendency to show endless old genre movies in the middle of the night, back when I was a teenager. Doesn’t happen these days, of course: even old movies are now too expensive, given there are a dozen other channels in the market for content, so the wee small hours are the domain of rip-off phone-in competitions and ultra-cheap home-grown repeats. And, as it happens, just the other day I was writing about the fractured dream-logic of a certain kind of horror movie. There is something oddly satisfying about the way these two themes combine in Freddie Francis’ 1972 film Tales from the Crypt.

Or should that be Milton Subotsky’s Tales from the Crypt? Subotsky is one of the (largely) unsung heroes of low-budget British genre movie-making of the 1960s and 1970s, most frequently through his company Amicus. Amongst other things, Subotsky oversaw the two 1960s movie adaptations of a famous BBC fantasy series the name of which I will not utter here, and the first few Trampas movies (the last one, Warlords of Atlantis, was the work of other hands). But if Subotsky left an indelible mark on the fabric of cinema, it is in the form of the portmanteau horror movies which he oversaw both at Amicus and elsewhere. He was not the first to make this kind of movie – I suspect that credit goes to Dead of Night, made in 1945, and widely credited as the best of the subgenre – but if you stumble across one of these, the chances are it’s one of Milton’s.

Subotsky was not the kind of man to mess with a successful formula, and it must be said that most of these films are rather samey, to the point where they all start to merge together in one’s head after a while. When an Amicus portmanteau comes on the TV, I have to take a moment to work out if this is the one with Fluff Freeman fighting the carnivorous vine, or Tom Baker misusing his voodoo paintbrush, or David Warner contending with a haunted mirror.

Tales from the Crypt is not any of these, in case you were wondering (oh, what delights remain as yet unconsidered by this blog). This one opens in classy style with a bit of Bach’s toccata and fugue on the organ and some shots of a cemetery. Geoffrey Bayldon, soon to appear as a homicidal psychiatrist in the next Amicus portmanteau, Asylum, plays a guide showing a group round the cemetery catacombs. Five of them get separated from the rest, and find themselves in, well, a crypt, with a robed and hooded figure (Ralph Richardson).

One thing about the moribund state of the British film industry in the 1970s, you got some heavyweight actors appearing in slightly suspect material. This is, as the title would indicate to the in-the-know, a fairly low-budget movie based on some disreputable American horror comics – a proper slab of schlock, not to put too fine a point on it. And yet it has Ralph Richardson, an actor from the same bracket as Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, and John Gielgud, and apparently taking it quite seriously. And he is not the only big name to appear.

Well, anyway, each of the five characters appears in their own short tale, revealed to them by the enigmatic Crypt Keeper. But is he showing them their future or their past?

First up is And All Through the House, featuring Joan Collins as an avaricious housewife who is unkind enough as to bash in her husband’s head on Christmas Eve, solely for his life insurance. (Best not to worry too much about finer details of character and motivation, to be perfectly honest.) However, no sooner is the deed done than the news is reporting that a homicidal lunatic has escaped from the local asylum and is on the loose, dressed in a Santa Claus outfit (well, of course). Sure enough, the psycho Santa is soon lurking in Joan’s garden, leaving her with the awkward problem of what to do – she can hardly call the police with her husband’s corpse still on the lounge floor…

Some effective jump scares in this one, I suppose, and it’s an especially camp segment of what’s a rather camp overall. The contrived plotting and particularly fake-looking fake blood (all the Kensington gore in this film is completely the wrong shade of red) just add to the fun, but it’s just as well this is the hors d’oeuvre in this particular collection.

Along next is Reflection of Death, an unusually short segment starring Ian Hendry as a man leaving his wife and children to be with his mistress (this is a sufficiently heinous crime to make you a marked man, and put you in line for spectacularly cruel and unusual punishment, in the odd cosmology of the Amicus portmanteaus). Well, they are driving off to their new life together when there is a car crash, and…

Well, the thing is that this one is so short and so insubstantial that it barely stands up to even a cursory review. If it were any longer it probably wouldn’t work at all – as it is, some slightly gimmicky direction and the re-employment of the ‘endless nightmare’ idea from Dead of Night just about keeps it afloat. You might wish for Ian Hendry to get some more substantial material, but you take what you’re given in this particular genre.

On next is Poetic Justice, in which a grasping, good-for-nothing, rich Tory bastard (Robin Phillips) schemes to ruin the life of a sweet old widowed bin-man (the legend that is Peter Cushing), having his numerous pet dogs taken away by court order, and spreading malicious rumours that, um, he’s a paedophile. What can I say, it was the 1970s, tastes were a bit different back then. Cushing is finally driven to suicide by a load of vindictive Valentine’s cards (the Tory bastard seems to have put an awful lot of effort into writing all the insulting doggerel involved), but his tormentors have failed to realise he has mystical connections beyond the grave. Or something. This is not really made very clear, but suffice to say, one year later, Cushing comes back…

Another textbook example of Peter Cushing deploying his powers to their full extent to lift some rather dubious material. There’s also the added poignancy of the recently-widowed Cushing taking on this role – I couldn’t help noticing that his character’s dead wife has the same name as Cushing’s own partner, and I’d be prepared to bet this wasn’t a coincidence. Sometimes you think you understand just how much this loss defined the last two decades of Peter Cushing’s life, and then sometimes you suspect it’s impossible to fully appreciate that.

Oh well. Onto Wish You Were Here, in which another ruthless Tory type (Richard Greene) finds himself financially embarrassed and on the verge of serious debt, at which point his wife discovers that a mysterious statuette they bought in the Far East has the power to grant three wishes. Any self-respecting viewer will at this point groan ‘Oh, no, not The Monkey’s Paw AGAIN,’ but the movie earns a degree of respect for having the characters also be aware of WW Jacobs’ famous cautionary tale and actively try to avoid making the same mistakes as their counterparts in the story. It doesn’t help them, of course, and the film earns bonus points to go with the respect, for finding inventive ways for their ill-considered wishes to screw them over.

And finally, Blind Alleys, in which yet another callous and greedy Tory type (I’ll say one thing for Tales from the Crypt, it may be campy schlock, but ideologically it’s completely sound) takes on the job of superintendent of an institution for the blind. As our man (played by Nigel Patrick) does not run the place in the most compassionate manner, resentment builds up amongst his charges, led by Patrick Magee (someone else who appears in Asylum). Suffice to say the assembled blind men prove unexpectedly good at DIY and a sticky end is on the cards for someone…

So, the guilty all get punished in suitably outlandish style, and all that remains is for the twist of the frame story to be revealed. I say ‘twist’, because another of the defining features of the Amicus portmanteaus is that the final twist is almost always the same, and hardly difficult to guess if you pay any attention whatsoever to what’s been going on in the film.

I really don’t know about Tales from the Crypt: by any objective standard, it’s really quite a bad movie, with silly stories, obvious twists, and unconvincing fake blood, lifted only a bit by the presence of some properly talented actors. The same could really be said for most of the other, similar films produced by Milton Subotsky. And yet it also manages to be quite marvellously entertaining. If 1970s British horror movies are not your thing, you should probably give it a very wide berth, but if they are – well, you probably already know what to expect. Hardly a great film, but – for some of us – great fun.

 

Wickerwatch: The Movie

And now for a little unfinished business. As frequent visitors may have noticed, I spent a few weeks earlier this year watching and writing about the BBC TV show Doomwatch, which ran on BBC1 from 1970 to 1972. It has never been repeated, despite its enormous success and popularity at the time, and received only a very limited VHS release in the 1990s. As someone interested in TV science fiction and fantasy, though, I was always vaguely aware of the Doomwatch name, enough to make a point of taping and watching the movie based on the show when it turned up on TV – I’m not sure when this actually happened, at some time in the late 1980s I suppose – the main UK commercial network had just gone 24-hour, turning the wee small hours of the night into a treasure trove of obscure genre movies rolled out just to fill holes in the schedule. (What bliss it was, etc.) In any case, the big-screen version of Doomwatch was my first point of contact with the series.

Peter Sasdy’s film was released in March 1972, during the gap between the second and third series of the TV show – it features the second-series line-up of characters (Ridge is still a member of Doomwatch at this point, as is Trend), although features is the operative word – the main actors of the TV show are billed as ‘also starring’, with the lead roles taken by Ian Bannen (a very capable character actor) and Judy Geeson (a quietly prolific actress whose most memorable big-screen role was perhaps her gob-smacking appearance in Inseminoid).

Bannen plays Dr Del Shaw, a member of Doomwatch’s big-screen-only division, who at the start of the film is packed off by Quist to the remote island of Balfe. The exact location of Balfe is left obscure, but, as we shall see, the temptation to assume it is somewhere off the Scottish coast becomes almost irresistible given how the film plays out. There has been an oil-tanker spill in the region and Doomwatch is checking out what effect this has had on the local ecology (the opening credits indicate that Doomwatch exists mainly as an anti-pollution agency, which is a bit of a simplification of the rationale given on TV, but I suppose it would work to bring new audiences up to speed).

Arriving on Balfe, Shaw sets about obtaining his biological samples, but soon comes to suspect that not all is well on the island – most outsiders are unwelcome and resented, almost violently (although, for plot reasons, this does not extend to their schoolteacher, who is played by Geeson). Shaw finds himself shadowed by a gun-toting islander throughout his sample-collecting excursions. Many of the islanders have a short fuse, to say the least, if not an actual tendency towards savage brutality. Shaw comes across a body in a shallow grave, but when he returns it has mysteriously vanished. What is going on on Balfe, and has it got anything to do with the oil spill he has been sent to investigate?

Peter Sasdy is probably best known as a director of genre and especially horror films – he did a couple of rather good movies for Hammer, Taste the Blood of Dracula and Countess Dracula – although his career effectively ended when he won a Razzie for a more conventional drama, The Lonely Lady. In a similar vein, the big-screen Doomwatch was made by Tigon, a production company best-known these days for making two classic folk-horror films, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw. So perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that, in some ways, Doomwatch’s big-screen incarnation feels like more of a horror movie than the TV version usually did (the US title of this movie was Island of the Ghouls, which is punchy if not especially accurate).

What is perhaps a bit unexpected is the way in which Doomwatch anticipates or mirrors another classic folk-horror film. Look at it this way – an outsider arrives on a remote island, intent on investigating. The locals clearly have a secret which they are very reluctant to share with him. The local schoolteacher provides some intriguing clues. The body of a child disappears in mysterious circumstances. Now, all this happens in the early part of the film, and it’s not as if Ian Bannen is seized by the locals in order to be sacrificed as a way of lifting the curse on the community, but there is a sense in which Doomwatch feels like a weird pre-echo of many elements of The Wicker Man (I should mention that this film was released six months before The Wicker Man went into production, not that I’ve ever seen any suggestion it was an influence on Robin Hardy or Anthony Shaffer). And you could equally well argue that the premise of the movie – something in the sea near a remote coastal community is causing deformities which lead to many members of the community being hidden from outsiders – has something of the atmosphere and tone of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

Sasdy conjures up a reasonably effective atmosphere of mystery and menace during this opening movement of the film, culminating in an attack on Shaw by one of the island’s more brutish and deformed inhabitants. However, at this point the story turns into a science-procedural thriller of a kind which would be quite familiar to viewers of the Doomwatch TV show. There’s a rational scientific explanation for everything Shaw and the others encounter, and the only evil involved is that of greedy people trying to cut corners and disregard the danger to the environment. At least Quist and Ridge get more to do in this part of the film, including some scenes with George Sanders (listed, as was common in low-budget British films of this period, as a ‘guest star’).

(I do wonder what 1972 audiences would have made of a movie based on TV’s Doomwatch in which the actual stars of the TV show play such very peripheral roles. I imagine I would have felt a bit cheated. It is a slightly odd creative choice, and an unexpected one given the storyline for the film came from Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, creators of the TV show. Perhaps it was simply the case that the stars of the TV show were busy actually making the TV show when the movie was in production; I don’t know.)

In the end, the least you can say is that big-screen Doomwatch is recognisably the same beast as small-screen Doomwatch, with all the positives and negatives that this implies. It’s a fairly intelligent film that clearly cares about the issues with which it is dealing (primarily, damage to the environment from big business) – one might expect no less from a script by Clive Exton, a very capable screen-writer. And many of the themes of the movie are reminiscent of ones touched on in the TV show – the effects of pollution on communities being the main one. On the other hand, there is a problem when what starts off looking like a certain type of horror movie ends up as something rather different – you’re braced for a particular kind of climax, which never really comes. Ultimately, this is more of a drama than anything else – and a somewhat peculiar one, if you’re unaware of the conventions of the TV show which spawned it. But the Doomwatch film stands up well as an adjunct to the TV show, even if not as a movie in its own right.

I’m the last person to say that dollar value should be the sole measure of something’s worth, but at the same time it is always interesting to learn something new about this sort of thing. I’ve been knocking out this sort of cobblers on the internet for over fifteen years now, on and off, and yet it had never really occurred to me to find out if my opinion is really of any significance. Then along came along news of Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle, a sequel to Kingsman: The Secret Service, from a couple of years ago. Now, after the first one, I would probably have said, if asked, ‘That was okay, but no more, please.’ The hefty box office return of the movie clearly said something different. And so they made the sequel. So there you go: my considered opinion about a movie’s quality is obviously worth less than $414 million. Hey, you know, chin up; life goes on.

And so, clearly, does the Kingsman franchise, based on a comic book by Mark Millar (who once read my palm in a London nightclub and got it spectacularly wrong in every detail), directed by Vaughn, and co-written by the director and Jane Goldman. This time there is added swagger, a rather bigger budget, and a longer running time – two hours twenty minutes?! Well, you do kind of feel every minute while you’re watching it, to be perfectly honest.

The representatives of the actors involved have clearly had some fun with this one, for supposed leading man and protagonist Taron Egerton is actually third billed. Nevertheless, it’s all about his character Eggsy (I think I heard other characters calling him ‘Eggy’ in a couple of places), and as the film gets underway he is balancing the thrilling life of an agent of Kingsman (an ‘independent intelligence agency’, whatever one of those is), with hanging out with his mates from the housing estate and his girlfriend (Hanna Alstrom, two dots over the O), who is the daughter of the King of Sweden. As you do.

All this changes when the Kingsman organisation comes under attack from forces in the employ of deranged international criminal mastermind Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore, second-billed), and Eggsy and his tech-support chap Merlin (Mark Strong) are forced to go on the run as the rest of the organisation is destroyed. Emergency procedures lead them to Kentucky in the USA, where they join forces with (sigh) another ‘independent intelligence agency’, Statesman, who seem to be a bunch of slightly boozed-up cowboys.

It is all to do with Poppy’s plan to get some serious respect for her international criminal activities, the details of which would probably constitute a spoiler. The safety of millions hangs in the balance, so it’s just as well that the Statesman people have got Eggsy’s old mentor Harry (Colin Firth, still top-billed) in their cellar, despite the fact he was shot through the face in the last film. As a result he has an eye-patch, Movie Amnesia, and a slight tendency to hallucinate, but is otherwise okay. Can Kingsman and Statesman come together to save the day?

I know a lot of people who really, really liked the first Kingsman film; liked it considerably more than me. I suspect the same will probably be true when it comes to Golden Circle. Maybe it’s just an age or an outlook thing. It’s not that I think these films are actively bad – Vaughn is an inventive and capable director, and the new one is stuffed with cameos from very capable and charismatic actors – Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Keith Allen, Emily Watson, Michael Gambon, and many others. And the frequent action sequences are imaginative and lavish – the film plays the Bond-pastiche card extremely well. It’s almost a bit unfair to call it a Bond pastiche, to be honest, as – at its best – Golden Circle has a scale and a sense of light-hearted fun that the actual Bond films have been missing for many years now.

The thing is that the Bond-pastiche element is only a small part of the Kingsman concoction. What this film is really about is a combination of absurdly OTT spy-fi action with equally absurdly knowing comedy. No-one could take this film seriously as a thriller, which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing – you could say the same about, yes, any James Bond film. It’s okay to make a movie which is just a slightly cheesy bit of fluff.

Yet there’s more than this going on – a weird tonal inconsistency, coupled to a fixation with appearing to be cool and transgressive. Near the start, there is a comedic sequence in which Eggsy is taken for dinner with the King of Sweden, but also a scene in which Polly serves up a burger made from human flesh. Elton John (pretty much playing himself), wearing a costume seemingly entirely made of ostrich feathers, drop-kicks a goon in the head with his platform shoes while grinning at the camera, while a few minutes later there’s a moment where Eggsy makes a mawkish speech about honour and justice before cold-bloodedly executing a defenceless enemy. Egerton has said that some elements of the film are mainly intended to shock – he was specifically referring to a sex scene in which he plants a tracker on a woman in a manner surely unprecedented in the annals of cinema, but there are many others conceived with the same purpose, I’m sure. The whole thing just doesn’t gel.

For me, one of the most telling things about the film is its energetic amorality – all the speeches about ‘justice’ and so on strike a rather sentimental note, rather than having any force to them. The implication of the film is not just that millions of people are using illegal recreational drugs, but that this is no big deal and nothing to get particularly exercised about. The only character who takes any kind of explicit moral position about this is the US President (played by Bruce Greenwood), and he is depicted as a self-serving, callous hypocrite.

But, hey, maybe total amorality, bad-taste humour and F-bombs by the dozen are where the kids are at these days. I enjoyed the action sequences in Golden Circle a lot, and there are some admittedly very funny moments (many of them courtesy of a game, vanity-free turn from Elton John). Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling like I was watching a film that wasn’t just aimed at teenagers with questionable judgement, but made by them too. Then again, I’m just an old git whose opinion doesn’t count for much anyway. No doubt this will be a big hit and another one will be along in a couple of years to discomfit me all over again.

And Baby Makes Four

‘I’ve decided to put that novel idea on ice, I don’t think the maths underpinning the concept work,’ is something you only really hear while hanging around science fiction writers (or people with delusions of being science fiction writers). My writing coach, to whom I said this quite recently, was a bit startled and perhaps a little disappointed, but then they are a literary author and unfamiliar with the peculiar requirements of SF. I wasn’t delighted myself, as it was an idea I really liked, but I couldn’t imagine being able to sell it to a reader if I wasn’t completely convinced of its plausibility myself.

The idea in question was about an encounter between human beings and a very similar alien civilisation, whose main point of difference biologically is that they have three sexes. Many opportunities there for interesting alien world-building, also to see ourselves from a different perspective (I know it sounds a bit like an Ursula le Guin pastiche, but what can I say, if you’re going to rip someone off, make sure it’s someone really good). The problem is that, from a real-world perspective, a three-sex system of reproduction is incredibly inefficient and would almost certainly be out-competed by two-sex or one-sex organisms in the same environment.

(My research into this – still ongoing, Coach, if you’re reading this, so don’t abandon all hope – turned up some curious facts, such as the fact that even a two-sex system is fairly inefficient, but this is offset by the advantages it brings in terms of genetic diversity. Some scientists are still trying to discover why mono-sexual reproduction is not more common on our own planet.)

Well, anyway, having been kicking this idea around for quite a number of years, I have inevitably taken an interest in how other people have handled a similar notion. When multi-gendered aliens do turn up, it’s mainly as ‘colour’ – casual mentions of a particular species having five genders or whatever is basically a flag to indicate just how weird and non-human they are. The instance I’m most familiar with is the Azadian species from Iain Banks’ The Player of Games, who have a male, female, and ‘apex’ gender – this is a marvellous book, but for all that it is about the nature of Azadian society (as compared to the liberal utopia of the Culture), the biology of the inhabitants seems curiously secondary. I’m inclined to conclude the triple-gender arrangement is just a device to obscure (initially, at least) the fact that the Empire of Azad is an allegory for contemporary western civilisation, but I digress.

Speaking of liberal utopias brings us to a take on the triple-gendered aliens idea that actually made it onto TV – Cogenitor, an episode of Enterprise from 2003, written by Brannon Braga and Rick Berman. Some thought seems to have gone into the biological arrangements here, but as usual the focus of the story lies elsewhere.

The Enterprise is surveying a ‘hypergiant’ star when it encounters an exploratory vessel from the planet Vissia. Neither side have any knowledge of the other, but the Vissians are friendly and the two ships link up so they can learn more about each other. It turns out the Vissians are rather more advanced than the Humans (they have had warp drive for a thousand years), but the cultural exchange goes swimmingly, with Captain Archer forming an immediate rapport with his opposite number (the great Andreas Katsulas, in one of his last roles).

However, chief engineer Trip discovers that the Vissians have a third gender – their species is made up of males, females, and ‘cogenitors’. Only about 3% of Vissians are cogenitors, but they are vital to the process of reproduction. There is only one cogenitor on the Vissian ship (their own engineer and his wife are hoping to have a child), but Trip is disturbed by the indifference with which they are treated. The cogenitor (Becky Wahlstrom) doesn’t have a job beyond their role in facilitating procreation, doesn’t have their own property, doesn’t even have a name – it seems to Trip that they are treated worse than Captain Archer’s pet dog. Dr Phlox confirms that the cogenitor is every bit as capable, intellectually, as the other Vissians, which just makes Trip more certain he is witnessing a grave injustice.

This being Star Trek, Trip decides to help the cogenitor actualise themself as a person by teaching them to read and showing them old Earth movies (he starts with The Day the Earth Stood Still, which is not a movie I would personally show an alien only newly-acquainted with human beings, but whatever). And this being Star Trek, within a day the cogenitor has transformed into a bright and charming individual with a real passion for life and a desire to go beyond their traditional cultural role. But the other Vissians are appalled and outraged when they find out what Trip has been up to, leading to the cogenitor requesting asylum on the Enterprise

Enterprise has something of a bad rep as the show that killed off Star Trek’s second TV phase, and to be honest if you choose an episode at random you’ve a good chance of finding one which supports that idea. But some of its stories are strong and interesting, such as this one. This is not to say it is perfect – the dramatic meat of the tale is left to the third act, and in the meantime there is a lot of filler material which could easily have been snipped. This includes (I am somewhat pained to say) most of Andreas Katsulas’ scenes with Scott Bakula, and a very odd moment in which we get to see Lieutenant Reed’s approach to the fine art of courtly love, as he flirts with one of the Vissians – first he gets out his cheeseboard, then he invites her down to look at his phase cannon. One should perhaps not mock, as the not-uncomely alien in question still comes on to him like a rocket.

Seriously, though, if you’ve got Andreas Katsulas in your cast, why not give him more to do? I suppose you could argue that he is playing an important role, which is to demonstrate the potential for a positive relationship between Earth and Vissia, which in the end is (we presume) badly compromised by Trip’s interference in Vissian society and its consequences.

The episode isn’t in any real sense about the unusual biological arrangements of the Vissians, but about Trip and his decision. Here we find two of the great drivers of Berman-era Trek set in opposition to each other, to useful dramatic effect. There is the liberal humanistic idea that all sentient creatures have the same right to live a fulfilling, self-determined life, a right which is denied to the Vissian cogenitors – it’s made clear that the other Vissians are not actively cruel or callous, they just treat the cogenitors as non-people (quite how plausible this is, is another question, but that’s beyond the scope of this episode). And on the other hand there is cultural relativism, raised to the level of a moral imperative.

Another Starfleet officer might have known better than Trip, but the thing that enables this story to happen is the fact it is set before the adoption of the Prime Directive, which forbids interference in the internal affairs of other societies. This story has, by Trek standards, a very downbeat, even tragic conclusion, and you could certainly argue that if Trip had minded his own business and left well alone, things would have gone much better. Everyone else in the story – Archer, Phlox, T’Pol (at her least endearing this week) – encourages Trip not to sit in judgement on the whole of Vissian culture, or at least not to get personally involved.

And yet there’s a sense in which the episode isn’t quite playing fair here – we learn virtually nothing about the Vissians in the course of the episode, beyond their curious reproductive arrangements and the fact their hot young women are suckers for cheese and phase cannon. But we do see that, by human standards, they treat their cogenitors extremely poorly. There may be sound social and biological reasons for this, but if so they are left unrevealed. What is revealed (courtesy of an endearing performance from Wahlstrom) is the potential for the cogenitors to lead much more satisfying and fulfilling lives than they currently do.

By any normal, humane standard, then, Trip’s decision to help the cogenitor seems absolutely morally justifiable. And yet his sole eventual reward is, one imagines, immense guilt, even if we disregard a severe rollicking from Captain Archer. Either the episode is suggesting the appropriate perspective is one of almost superhuman detachment and absolute moral relativism (somewhat at odds with Trek’s standard liberal humanism), or the message of the story is that sometimes, there is no correct option, and whatever you do, bad things will be the consequence. The former is unrealistic and hard to swallow, the latter all-too-believable but unusually pessimistic for Trek. Either way, this is an impressive, thought-provoking episode.

Fruit of the Bloom

Never let it be said that this blog is unafraid to tackle the heavyweight questions of the day: for instance, is Orlando Bloom really an actor? Now, wait just a cotton-picking minute there if you think I am in any way casting aspersions on Landy’s abilities when it comes to the thespian department. No, the reason for my question is the simple fact that, for a major global celebrity, our man Bloom doesn’t really seem to turn up in many movies these days. I mean, there was his (I am tempted to say thankfully) brief cameo in the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but outside of his appearances in the Hobbit movies I can’t think of much I’ve seen him in in the last ten years or so.

Well, I believe the answer may partly lie in the fact that, in addition to his other activities, Landy has taken up being a film producer (why do I suddenly suspect that becoming a film producer is not as difficult as I always thought?). As any fule kno, being a film producer involves lots of meetings and calls and discussions about movies which most of the time end up not being made at all, despite hefty development fees changing hands. So you might say that Landy has hit upon a wheeze where people are paying him not to make movies (I wish he had come up with that idea about fifteen years ago).

The flaw in this arrangement, unfortunately, is that one of Landy’s films occasionally slips through the net and ends up going into production, but I guess that’s a possibility we have to live with. Even then, it does look like not all of these films actually make it into cinemas, as in the case of Michael Apted’s movie from this year, Unlocked. If this film got more than the most limited UK cinema release, I didn’t notice it at the time, and was totally unaware of its existence until someone gave me it on DVD (presumably on the grounds that they think I don’t watch nearly enough movies these days).

Unlocked is a not especially sexy title for what aspires to be a taut and exciting contemporary thriller. Indeed, it’s not really a particularly pertinent title, given what goes on in the plot, but on the other hand it is amongst the least of this movie’s problems.

Noomi Rapace brings clinical intensity, memorable cheekbones, and a suspiciously Swedish accent to the role of Alice Racine, a CIA agent who has spent the last couple of years working undercover as a Citizen’s Advice bod at a London community centre. Pyoiiinnggg! (That would be the sound of my disbelief being stretched beyond its natural limits, and we’re only in the first line of the plot synopsis. Let’s press on.) Alice used to be a top CIA interrogator but after a traumatic incident she has taken a step back, hence the community centre gig.

However, when another top CIA interrogator unexpectedly carks it in London just before beginning a vital job, Alice finds herself dragged out of semi-retirement. An Islamic terrorist has laid his hands on one of those them-there doomsday viruses, and is awaiting instructions on what to do with it. The CIA have nabbed the courier due to give him said instructions, and want him breaking down so they can send the terrorist false information and stop the virus being disseminated. How much more straightforward can things get?

Well, quite a bit, it turns out, as events prove the CIA has been compromised, and when the courier and a bunch of other agents end up getting killed, Alice is the chief person of interest. Inevitably she ends up going on the run from her own superiors, in search of the traitors, with her main ally being Jack, an ex-marine turned burglar who she caught breaking into her flat. Could it look any bleaker? Well, Jack is played by Landy himself.

Yup, that’s Landy Bloom as a lovably roguish ex-marine hard man. Pyoiiinnggg! (Sorry – it might be a good idea to wear protective goggles, or something.) To be honest, the main thing to be said about Landy’s contribution to Unlocked is how superfluous it feels – you almost get the sense that the script came across Landy’s desk, and he liked it so much he not only decided to make it, but also insisted it was rewritten so he could be in it (shades of that story about the millionaire buying the American football team and then insisting on playing quarterback). He comes into it quite a long way in. He doesn’t do a great deal while he’s there. And then, well before the climax, he vanishes out of the film in very peculiar circumstances indeed, with the fate of his character obscure, to say the least. Still, his face is nice and big on the DVD cover, anyway.

(Hmm – my usual slapdash research suggests Landy didn’t actually produce this film, despite the fact that one of the production entities is named ‘Bloom’. Curiouser and curiouser. Well, sort of.)

Landy’s contribution aside, Unlocked is basically a fairly typical modern thriller, very morally neutral and crissy-crossy, wanting to be one of the Bourne movies so badly it probably physically hurts – in a couple of places the music is so obviously ripped-off from that franchise that I’m surprised writs didn’t change hands. In addition to aping the style of a major blockbuster, it also looks like the movie has managed to land a major blockbuster cast – quite apart from Rapace and Landy, it features Michael Douglas, Toni Collette, and John Malkovich.

Nevertheless, this is really quite a dull movie – it’s competently written and assembled, I suppose, and when Rapace is actually doing her interrogating there are some interesting nuggets of tradecraft in the script. But once it all gets going and she has to go on the run, well, it all becomes at best predictable and at worst rather preposterous. There’s a major plot twist, for instance, that I spotted the instant it was introduced. And the motivation of the bad guy, when it’s revealed, is really and truly absurd – he’s orchestrating a major biochemical weapons attack on US citizens basically as a way of whistle-blowing the dangers of viral terrorism. I would suggest a strongly-worded memo might a somewhat saner method of achieving the same results.

As I say, most of the performances and so on are fine (although Noomi Rapace is perhaps a bit too much of a Proper Serious Actress to be entirely comfortable in the role of ass-kicking babe, which is basically what’s required of her here), but I strongly suspect that in a couple of days’ time I will have forgotten almost everything about the plot of the movie. It’s not actively bad, most of the time, but it doesn’t really do anything to distinguish itself from the dozens of other recent movies made with a similar style and ethos. If you haven’t seen another thriller this century, then Unlocked may prove to be a pleasant surprise, but even then, I wouldn’t bet the house on it.