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Posts Tagged ‘SF’

I don’t want to appear to be misjudging the situation, because I suspect that at least one friend of mine already believes that I am biased when it comes to the great opposition of our day – but I have to say that all the omens for Justice League do not lead me to be optimistic. Even a friend and colleague, who is one of the very, very few people I know who actually enjoyed Batman Vs Superman, declared ‘That looks awful’ when we saw the trailer for the new movie on our last cinema trip.

What comfort can one offer to DC at moments like this, except to say that the great wheel turns, even if it sometimes turns slowly. Back in the 70s and 80s it was DC who made successful movies and TV shows, while Marvel languished in the netherworld of trash TV, for the most part. (As recently as the mid-2000s, Marvel were still turning out the likes of the Thomas Jane version of The Punisher and the big-screen Man-Thing.) So you never know.

American trash TV from the 1980s is not normally in my wheelhouse, but I will make an exception for the 1988 TV movie The Incredible Hulk Returns. This is partly because this movie is a curious addendum to the Kenneth Johnson-produced Hulk TV show, which is very much not trash TV and a classy piece of work, but also because of the curious way it prefigures exactly the sort of thing with which Marvel Studios have scored such a massive success over the last decade or so. (Kenneth Johnson was not invited back for the Hulk TV movies, towards which he has a rather dismissive attitude.)

To start off with The Incredible Hulk Returns works very hard not to disappoint fans of the original TV show, reusing elements of the original title sequence (although the lettering and so on is now a lurid gamma-green shade). Presumably this is because retained as the writer and director of this opus was Nicholas Corea, a prolific contributor to the series.

Anyway: years have passed since the end of the show. It has been two full years since Banner (Bill Bixby, of course) even turned into the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno, of course). Adopting a typically impenetrable false identity (currently David Banner is living under the name of David Bannion), our man is working as a technician at an LA-based research institute, where in return for using his scientific genius to build the ‘Gamma Transponder’, a potential source of cheap, clean energy (I really should pen a paper on the history of this trope in superhero movies), he is allowed unfettered access to the labs in the evening, no questions asked. The Gamma Transponder has a second function, of course, which is to dehulkify Banner and let him move in with his lovely and predictably understanding lady friend.

All is set, but Banner’s dehulkification is delayed by the appearance of a figure from Banner’s pre-irradiated days, an old acquaintance named Don Blake (Steve Levitt). Blake is a medical doctor and a somewhat hapless, disreputable figure, and he has a strange tale to tell (perhaps even one of a journey into mystery, but let’s not overdo it). As a life-long fan of all things Viking, Blake jumped at the chance to be expedition doctor on an archaeological trip into the wilds of Scandinavia (was Scandinavia really that wild, even in 1988?), where he discovered an ancient Viking tomb. As any archaeologist would, Blake relates, he broke into the tomb and found a pile of bones and a mysterious war-hammer. No sooner did he pick up the hammer than a mighty Norse warrior appeared out of thin air, calling himself the mighty Thor…

Yeah, we should probably just clarify what’s going on here. ‘Don Blake’ was Thor’s Clark Kent-ish alter ego in the early years of the comic, a doctor with a gammy leg who turned into Thor by bashing things with his magic walking stick (initially it seemed like Blake was a random guy whom fate gifted with the power of Thor, but… well, they retconned this quite a lot as time went by). But in this movie, Blake and Thor (played by Eric Kramer) are entirely separate individuals, though linked in some usefully vague manner. If anything, they kind of resemble Johnny Thunder and his Thunderbolt from DC’s Justice Society comics, in that Blake is kind of a useless wimp who is obliged to whistle up Thor whenever the plot kicks in.

As it does here. Blake is not happy about the burden of being saddled with this responsibility, given that Thor will only exert his powers in a good cause. ‘It’s the eighties, I don’t even know what a good cause is,’ complains Blake, probably the best line in the movie. Banner assumes Blake is delusional, and so to prove his tale Blake summons up Thor, the shock of which does not do Banner’s blood pressure any good. Thor assumes that Banner’s lab is a bar, for some reason, and starts trashing the place in search of a drink. Banner strenuously objects, the inevitable happens, and we’re all set for the first ever live-action Hulk-Thor barney in media history…

Well, manage your expectations, pilgrim: it was 1988, after all, and once Lou Ferrigno’s body-paint and Thor’s rubber Viking armour had been paid for, there was only a bit left for electrical sparkles on Thor’s hammer and a few broken windows. Even so, everyone throws themselves into the fight enthusiastically enough, and it has a definite goofy charm if you’re prepared to be charitable.

What it doesn’t have is any tonal similarity to the original TV show, and the rest of the movie continues the decline into thick-headed cops-and-robbers nonsense. Someone decides to steal the Gamma Transponder, hiring a tough-talking squash-playing Cajun mercenary (Tim Thomerson, a prolific actor with a dizzying diverse, if somewhat variable CV) to do so. Thomerson decides to kidnap Banner’s girlfriend and hold her to ransom in the hope this will get them to hand the thing over. Could it possibly be down to Thor and the Hulk to save the day…?

Apparently The Incredible Hulk Returns was a smash hit on its initial broadcast, which I suppose we can only attribute to the enduring popularity of the original TV show, and the fact that the general standard of genre TV shows at the time was subterraneanly low. Even so, there’s something a bit dispiriting about watching a generally classy act like The Incredible Hulk TV show get quite so comprehensively dumbed-down and sillied-up. Possibly the most depressing thing about the whole extravaganza is the fact that Jack Colvin is dragged back as McGee the reporter – he gets nothing much of significance to do, and rather than the nuanced and rather sympathetic character McGee had become by the end of the original run, here he is largely played for laughs.

Oh well. At least Bill Bixby, who produced the movie through his own company, is as reliable and warm a presence as ever, very recognisably the same character as in the TV show. Banner just can’t resist helping those around him, even Blake and Thor, who spend most of the movie squabbling like a stereotypical married couple. (While we’re touching on – presumably unintended – grace notes of homo-eroticism, there’s also a bizarre scene in which McGee interviews a towel-clad Thor, who’s passing himself off as Banner for somewhat contrived reasons.)

The thing about some of these Hulk TV movies is that they also functioned as back-door pilots for other potential series featuring famous Marvel properties. You can kind of envisage the Thor series that might have spun off from this, basically a version of Automan with more shouting and chain-mail. There’s a scene in which Blake decides to ask Thor important questions about the reason they’ve been manacled together, so to speak, and Thor insists he won’t talk until he has eaten, and drunk, and fought, and generally caroused like a man! So Blake takes him to a biker bar.

Really, though, Thor as he is presented here is a slightly ridiculous man-baby with zero grasp of subtlety, very poor impulse control, and a wholly ridiculous pile of absurdly blond hair atop his bonce. What kind of hero would he really make for the American people? At least they didn’t have Twitter in 1988.

Oh, this is a silly, silly, predictable film, but it’s often very funny (not usually on purpose, I should say), and the sheer enthusiasm of it, plus the positive elements inherited from the Hulk TV show, keep it watchable. You can see why Kenneth Johnson refuses to acknowledge its existence. But look at Marvel now! Try to stay hopeful, DC: sometimes all it takes is the passage of nearly thirty years, a complete change of creative personnel, and the injection of obscene amounts of money. So you never can tell.

 

 

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In all my years of going to the cinema, I have seen an enormous variety of Dicks. I have seen disturbingly malformed Dicks. I have seen insignificant and forgettable Dicks. I have seen the occasional moderately impressive Dick. But, I feel it must be said, currently showing on a screen near you is what’s almost certainly the biggest Dick in the history of cinema, Denis Villeneuve’s very expensive and equally lengthy Blade Runner 2049. (I use ‘Dick’ in this case to mean a film derived from a novel or short story by the SF writer Philip K Dick, and also to facilitate some very cheap double entendres.)

It is doubtless time for gasps and glares as I once again reveal that I’m lukewarm at best about the original 1982 Blade Runner. What can I say, maybe it was the circumstances in which I first saw it, which was split in two at either end of a school day when I was 14, after it showed in the graveyard slot on TV. Subsequent viewings didn’t do much to make me reassess the movie, either, not least because in the meantime I read the source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which has that atmosphere of quotidian weirdness which for me is quintessentially Phildickian, and which is nearly always the first thing that disappears when Hollywood gets their hands on one of the master’s works.

At least this means I have not spent the last couple of weeks having kittens about the prospect of having one of my very favourite films smeared by an incompetent reimagining (sometimes it feels like all my favourite things have already been screwed up over the last few years, anyway; hey ho) – I know several people who have been in this unenviable position. Given the way the last couple of Alien prequels worked out, I suppose they had a point, but then I was never much of an Alien fan either.

Anyway, off we went to the cinema on the first day of release for Blade Runner 2049 (yes, I missed the first 2047 sequels too, ha ha). The obligatory (and rather dauntingly detailed) prefatory captions fill in the somewhat complicated goings on which have occurred since the first film, which was set (somewhat quaintly, these days) in 2019, but basically things are much the same: the environment and society are going to hell in a handbasket, and everyone has become somewhat reliant on synthetic people known as replicants. The Wallace Corporation, which manufactures the replicants, has naturally become immensely wealthy as a result, but their use is controlled and unauthorised models are hunted down and ‘retired’ (i.e. violently terminated) by specialist cops known as blade runners.

Our hero is KD/3:6-7 (Ryan Goosey-Goosey Gosling), a blade runner who is himself a replicant (presumably from a production run where the eyes didn’t quite turn out symmetrical, but I digress). During a routine case, K stumbles upon evidence of something almost unbelievable – the remains of a replicant who died in childbirth. The supposed inability of replicants to reproduce themselves is one of the things that enables the uneasy settlement between the synthetics and natural people, and K’s boss (Robin Wright) is very clear that K is to make very certain the now-grown replicant offspring is found and made to disappear, even as the head of the Wallace Corporation (Jared Leto) and his factotum (Sylvia Hoeks) take an interest of their own in the investigation. One of the few leads that K has is a connection between the mother and another, long-since-vanished blade runner, named Rick Deckard…

Yes, as you’re doubtless already aware, Harrison Ford does indeed reprise his role from the original movie (he’s not the only one to do so, but he gets most screen-time). That said, he doesn’t show up until quite late on, and when he does it is as a fragile, largely passive figure, only ever waiting to be found, or interviewed, or rescued. The focus is only ever on Gosling as K (even so, this is possibly not the vehicle for the star that some of his fans may be hoping for – a couple of vocally keen Gosling devotees were sitting in the row behind us, but left halfway through the film), and the actor is customarily good in the role.

That said, this is a notably accomplished movie in most departments, with Villeneuve handling a reasonably complex SF narrative with same kind of skill he showed with Arrival last year, and a hugely impressive piece of scoring and sound design from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. The combination of striking images and music is quite immersive, and (I suspect) will not disappoint fans of the original film.

And it faithfully continues the themes and ideas of the original film. The most recent trailer doing the rounds makes Blade Runner 2049 look rather like a non-stop action blockbuster, but this is not really the impression given by the actual movie. Instead, it is a combination of thriller and dystopian SF, handling some very Phildickian ideas to do with the nature of what it means to be human, the whole concept of authenticity, and the ethics of treating people as property. One expression of this comes in the form of K’s girlfriend (Ana de Armas), who is a self-aware hologram, and the film’s treatment of their slightly unusual relationship. (We agreed this element of the film clearly owed a huge debt to Spike Jonze’s Her.) Again, the SF content is handled deftly and reasonably subtly.

I can really find very few grounds on which to criticise Blade Runner 2049: it may even impel me to go back and give the original movie yet another chance. And yet I still find this film easier to admire than to genuinely like, and I’m wondering why – it doesn’t seem to be quite as in love with its own stylish prettiness as the typical Ridley Scott film, certainly. I think in the end it is because the new film, while extremely clever in the way it manipulates story threads from the original and also audience expectations, doesn’t really apply the same degree of intelligence to the ideas at the heart of the story. The plot has various twists and turns, some of them properly startling, but the film itself has no genuinely surprising new ideas to offer.

But, hey, Blade Runner 2049 is a big-budget Hollywood SF movie, so you have to manage your expectations accordingly. This is an extremely good-looking and well-made film which develops its inheritance of ideas and characters ingeniously and convincingly, even if it never quite finds the spark it would need to become something really special. Denis Villeneuve made the most impressive SF film of 2016; it looks like he’s in with a very good chance of repeating that feat this year, too.

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Let us set the dials on the Films of Yesteryear Time Machine to a point in history slightly closer to home than is usually our wont and head back to the strange days of 1999. So long ago! And yet still somehow so recent! It is slightly discombobulating to watch what looks like a contemporary film, but one in which nobody has a mobile phone and they still watch movies on VHS tape. Perhaps the strangest disconnect between Then and Now is the fact that Johnny Depp was not yet the box office darling he has since become, but a jobbing movie star whose ability to open a movie was still a bit questionable. Especially when the movie in question is one like Rand Ravich’s The Astronaut’s Wife.

Depp is playing the astronaut, natch. Playing Mrs Astronaut is Charlize Theron, and I suppose at this point it is incumbent upon us to reflect on what a movie business veteran – or perhaps hardy perennial – she has also turned out to be, although not without a few missteps along the way. Here she is at the age of 24, arguably carrying what was a fairly major movie (the budget of The Astronaut’s Wife was $75m, though I’m blowed if I can work out where all the money went). It is, admittedly, not a very good major movie, but nobody knew that when they were casting it.

Things get underway with Depp and Theron bunked up together and enjoying a last moment of whoa-ho-ho before his latest space mission. For the role Depp has adopted a somewhat questionable blond dye-job and a verywhat questionable Deep South accent. (His character is name Spencer Armacost, which apparently is theoretically possible, it just doesn’t sound like it.)

Well, Depp goes up into space with another astronaut, but there is trouble in orbit and contact is lost with the mission for a little while. When the astronauts return to Earth, Depp’s colleague (Nick Cassavetes) seems to make a full recovery, but starts behaving oddly at a party and then collapses and dies. The generally cheery tone of the movie continues when Cassavetes’ pregnant wife (Donna Murphy) commits suicide during the funeral. (I should have mentioned – this is ostensibly a horror movie.)

Not long after this, Depp announces he is quitting his job as an astronaut and joining a New York-based aviation company, despite his previous love of flying and oft-stated hatred of big cities (for a film about an astronaut there’s a definite lack of actual space hardware in it). Theron is a bit baffled by this strange behaviour but goes along with it, mainly because this is that sort of film. When she asks him about what happened during the mysterious interlude when he was cut off from Earth, he seems to take this as an invitation to start interfering with her intimate person, resulting in some public rumpy-pumpy which is not really as pulsating erotic as the film would like to think it is.

Soon enough, Theron finds out she is pregnant with her husband’s child – well, it’s twins, apparently. But is she? Coming out of the woodwork is Joe Morton from NASA’s Department of Paranoid Bafflegab, who reveals that Murphy’s character was likewise carrying twins when she died, and that Cassavetes died as a result of the strain placed on his body by some alien influence. He suggests that some malign force from deep space has taken possession of Depp and is using him to carry out a nefarious scheme here on Earth – which incorporates, somehow, the unborn children Theron is carrying…

Yeah, well, as I said, this is basically another entry into the obstetric horror subgenre (never a particular favourite of mine, it must be said), with strong elements of paranoia and cobblers SF to it as well. In fact it is, if you’ll indulge me, something of a cross between The Quatermass Experiment and Rosemary’s Baby, only not nearly as good as either. I expect this was one of those ideas which looked good on paper, but the problem is that the story runs out of places to go quite rapidly, settling on a final destination which seems not especially well thought-through – there is vaguely sinister talk of Depp helping to build a robot plane which will eventually be piloted by the twins, but this is only really a cigarette paper’s thickness away from being total gibberish. You would have expected a malevolent alien mind parasite to have come all this way with a better scheme than that.

So in the end the film just opts for an atmosphere of stately menace, with the occasional moment hoping for erotic tension – none of which really hides the fact that this is a movie in which not very much happens for long stretches, unless you include a baffling number of close-ups of people’s mouths, ears, feet, and so on (you can see why Charlize Theron was such a successful model – her toes are gorgeous). There’s a subplot about Theron’s past history of psychological trouble, but for me this just added to the vaguely dubious tone of much of the movie – you can tell this is one of those movies about the female experience which has been written and directed by a man.

The fact that the studio figured out they had a troubled production on their hands is fairly obvious, given that the DVD of The Astronaut’s Wife comes with not one but two endings. Now, the theatrical ending has lashings of CGI in it and concludes on a note of menacing incoherence. I have to say I am somewhat more impressed by the original ending which they ended up not using: it may be more ambiguous, but this seems to have been the intention.

Hey ho. We could speculate about a parallel world in which all those bloody pirate films never got made, and wonder about what kind of career Johnny Depp would have enjoyed there – I can well imagine the actor sitting down with a pile of his late 90s and early 2000s movies and thanking his lucky stars at great length, because it’s easy to envision him still trapped in the cult fave ghetto as Tim Burton’s slightly ageing muse. Theron does a decent enough job in a not especially rewarding part, I suppose – though I suspect no-one at the time would have pegged her as a future Oscar winner and latterday ass-kicker.

It’s fairly easy to see why Rand Ravich has not been allowed near the helm of another movie since this The Astronaut’s Wife. The look of the thing is competent, but its tone is more dismal than actually frightening. It’s one of those movies that freely helps itself to elements of a number of other films, but in the process somehow manages to make them rather less interesting and effective. Probably one for obstetric horror completists only.

 

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‘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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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.

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‘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.

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Received wisdom, even amongst some of the people who actually worked on the show, is that a voyage into the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation is likely to be painful and unrewarding: almost a textbook case of time not well spent. ‘Almost unwatchable’ is one of the kinder comments concerning the first season or so, and the consensus seems to be that if the show had been running on a network, rather than in first-run syndication, it would not have been given the time to find its feet in the very impressive way that it ultimately did.

But, hey, I like to live dangerously – and there is something about these early shows, a slightly goofy sense of adventure reminiscent of the original series that gets lost as the programme becomes more stately and cerebral. And while you are really on a hiding to nothing trying to argue that any of these shows are truly outstanding TV, you do come across the odd episode which is interesting enough to be cut some slack.

So, then: Symbiosis, from the back end of season 1, story by Robert Lewin, script by (as was usual at this point) a whole mob of people. Still quite early days on the Enterprise-D – Geordi is still flying the ship, they’re not quite sure what to do with Worf, Riker’s chin is still exposed to the elements, and Tasha’s life expectancy can be measured in days (this was actually the last episode to be filmed featuring her as a regular character, which is why Denise Crosby waves goodbye to the camera at the end of Tasha’s final scene). The Enterprise is doing something important and astronomical when it picks up a distress call from a small freighter in danger of crashing into one of the two inhabited planets of the local system. The peculiar uselessness of the freighter’s crew means the vessel is lost, but four survivors and the cargo (a mysterious barrel) are saved.

A reunion of the supporting cast of Star Trek II appears to have been in progress on the stricken ship, as materialising on the pad are Judson Scott, as one of a pair of smug aliens in shiny clothes, and Merritt Butrick, as one of a pair of sweaty aliens in shabby clothes. What’s going on is this: the smug aliens come from the planet Brekkia (much more Brekky than most planets), where their whole society is dedicated to producing the drug felicium (which is what’s in the barrel). The sweaty aliens come from the planet Ornara, where everyone carries a terrible incurable disease and needs regular doses of felicium in order to function at all. In return for medical supplies, the Ornarans supply the Brekkians with all their material requirements – an arrangement which allows one side to live, and the other to live well, to paraphrase an unexpectedly elegant line of dialogue. The question is now one of who the felicium belongs to, given that the payment was destroyed along with the freighter – one side says it is desperately needed, but the other refuses to just give it away.

However, the olfactory rodent detection sensor on Dr Crusher’s tricorder starts to register, mainly because she can’t find any trace of disease in the Ornaran visitors, despite their clear physical discomfort and claims that they are infected. The penny (or the Federation equivalent) drops when the Ornarans are allowed a dose of the medicine as a goodwill gesture, and instantly subside into a doped-up stupor. There is no plague – not any more, anyway. The Ornaran dependency on felicium – and thus the entire basis of both societies and their relationship – is simply because it is a massively addictive narcotic. Picard and the others have stumbled into a case of drug-dealing on an interplanetary scale…

(Before we get onto the rest of it, many people stick the boot into this episode for a number of different reasons, but no-one seems to have noticed the strangeness of the set-up which the plot demands – the Ornarans are heading home with their load of felicium, which is fair enough. But why are they bringing two Brekkians back with them, along with – apparently – whatever they paid for the drugs with? The fact that the payment is destroyed with the freighter is a plot point.)

As I say, the thing about many of these early TNG episodes is that it’s relatively easy to imagine them, or a close version of them, appearing in a fourth or fifth season of the original series. This one is no exception – although the lumberingly heavy-handed allegory (hell, it’s not even an allegory, it’s an episode which is explicitly about narcotic addiction and drug dealing) and a few incidental plot details (both the Brekkians and  Ornarans can generate shocks like an electric eel) inevitably mean the 60s episode you’re reminded of most is Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, not exactly 60s Trek‘s finest hour or so. People say the Federation is a post-scarcity economy; well, not as far as subtlety is concerned, much of the time.

(Possibly the most egregious element of the episode is a scene in which Wesley wonders aloud how anyone could let themselves get addicted to drugs, and receives a kind but stern lecture from Tasha on the subject, rather in the style of a Very Special Episode of a kids’ cartoon. This was apparently crowbarred in by writer and executive producer Maurice Hurley – the other writers didn’t want it there, the director didn’t want it, the actors were begging not to have to perform it. It is a bit like a lead weight that drags the rest of the episode down. If I were the kind of person who gave star ratings, I would knock a star off just for this one scene.)

On the other hand, Symbiosis is also very much influenced by how the Roddenberry vision had developed over the years since the 1960s. The drug-dealing situation is the backdrop to the episode, but the central conflict is all about the lofty moral principles of the Federation, specifically (of course) the Prime Directive not to interfere in the internal workings of other societies. What’s going on is clearly a case of parasitic exploitation – the Brekkians are fully aware of what they’re doing – and you would imagine that were Kirk in the captain’s seat they would have found a way for him to resolve the situation with a fist-fight and quite probably a ripped shirt.

But, of course, it’s not Kirk in command but Picard, and first-season Picard at that. The writers simply haven’t figured out how to make best use of Patrick Stewart at this point, and Picard is not the thoughtful and subtle figure of immense moral authority he would eventually become, but more a starchy apparatchik whose remarkable qualities we’re told about more often than shown. You wait and wait for the moment where Picard will unleash a scathing condemnation on the Brekkians, making it quite clear how morally bankrupt and reprehensible their civilisation is, but it never comes. If Kirk’s motto could have been ‘Risk is our business’, then Picard’s – this week, at least – is ‘my hands are tied’. He can’t tell the Ornarans they’re being duped (and doped). He can’t stop the Brekkians from selling them the drug. He can’t allow Dr Crusher’s plan to give the planet of the junkies a synthetic drug to help wean them off the felicium. It really sucks to be Picard on a week like this one.

Some people watching this episode come away with the impression that its central theme is simply ‘drugs are bad and drug dealers are horrible’. The episode certainly does express this sentiment – grindingly – but it’s also got a strange message about how doing the right thing can often leave a bad taste in your mouth. Picard comes up with a kind-of solution to the situation – he withdraws an offer to help maintain the Ornaran space fleet, meaning their ships will soon break down, ending the drug trade, and guaranteeing agonising Cold Turkey for the entire population of Ornara – but the implication is that, even if he hadn’t done this, the Federation would have won some kind of moral victory simply by resisting the urge to intervene. Is it really the case that preserving the Federation’s lofty principles is worth condemning an entire planet’s population to excruciating withdrawal symptoms, and the possible collapse of their society? Picard seems quite sure that it is, even though he admits that they may never learn the consequences of their actions (another ship may not be in this sector for decades).

Star Trek, in all its incarnations, is generally a show with a degree of moral sophistication to it, but this is one of those occasions which makes you wonder quite where Gene Roddenberry’s head was at. The Prime Directive is a dandy plot device for ramping up the conflict quotient in a story and complicating the lives of people with, after all, vast resources backing them up. But does it really stand up as an absolute moral imperative? This is the kind of episode which gives you pause, as far as that goes. Unfortunately the sheer crushing obviousness of the drug addiction plot largely eclipses the moral aspect of this particular story. You could never call Symbiosis a great episode, but digging into it at least provides food for thought.

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