Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Doctor's Wife (2011)

The eleventh Doctor in the previous Tennant's control room (squee!)

Written by: Neil Gaiman
Directed by: Richard Clark

Or is it?

The general consensus all over the interwebs seems to be that this episode was a triumph, and one of the best episodes of Who ever. As a Doctor Who fan of *mumbles* years standing, I naturally find this tremendous, and the fact that, to some extent, I wonder what on earth they were all watching is my partly my own fault of course. I avoid spoilers, as a rule, but am enough of fan to notice the level of secrecy surrounding an episode, so while I watched this without knowing what would happen, I was aware of the build-up, and thus perhaps primed for "oh..."-ishness, which is a horse of very dangerous kidney. (In my own very particular case -- obviously Doctor Who isn't made for just me, that would clearly be disastrous.)

Anyway, the thing about Doctor Who I like best is the Tardis. But, having been told by Doctor Who Magazine that this episode would "change the way we see a key part of the series mythology"1 and yet also being familiar with the the works of Lawrence Miles, these revelations weren't gosh-wow surprising to me, even without spoilers. (To be fair, "normal" people who switched over to Doctor Who Confidential after this episode would have found that programme helpfully re-playing clips like the famous "Does he still stroke bits of the Tardis?" conversation between Rose and Sarah Jane from School Reunion, so is it really quite that mythology changing anyway?)

Of course, none of this would have mattered if the characters of Uncle, Auntie, and the original Idris had been as interesting as they first seemed, but they were all offed in short order. And even this wouldn't have mattered (for absurd Tardis fanboys like me, at any rate), if the "more of the Tardis than we've seen since the show's return" had been more than corridors with Star Trek style doors that went "scchwwissssh!" (even though, uniquely amongst anything Star Trek, I love that.) This mention of Star Trek is apt, I think. A fan of Trek told me this week that they liked this episode because the Doctor's affection for The Ship reminded them of Kirk's love of The Enterprise. But Doctor Who isn't (or shouldn't be) Star Trek, or even an sf or cult series at all; it's not when it's been at its best, I'd aver.

Aho! I've still watched this twice, and may yet do again. But an episode where the highlights (to be clear: for me; I'm odd) were "I like biting, it's like kissing, but there's a winner!" and "Did you wish really hard?" --- "I'm sexy!", is not even the best episode of the Moffat era. (That's Amy's Choice, which is one the best ever.)

1 Issue 434.

[Credits: The "Previous Tennant" gag appears thanks to the vigorously witheld permission of Mark Blackmore]

Monday, 14 March 2011

Solomon Kane (2009)

Written and Directed by: Michael J. Bassett.

Solomon Kane, that's a good name, isn't it?

Anyway, before we see, later this year, whether the latest cinematic attempt at Conan manages to properly capture Robert. E. Howard1, or whether the best "Howard" film will remain, in fact, Rambo, there is this film version of Howard's second most famous character, starring James Purefoy as the titular dour puritan.

To be honest, I was a bit trepidatious about this despite my love for a] Kane; b] Howard; and c] Purefoy2. I can't stand origin stories you see. They're worst in superhero films of course; endless stuff the audience either already knows or doesn't care about before anything interesting happens. And then, if there's been a few years between films and a change of director, they have to "reboot" the bloody concept and start all over again. For heaven's sake, isn't it?. In recent years I've adopted the brilliant plan of not watching the first film of superhero franchises at all, and starting instead from Part II, but even this isn't foolproof: watching The Dark Knight, having carefully avoided Batman Begins, what do you find but that a large chunk of the three-day running time is an origin story for Two-Face...

Anyway, Solomon Kane. While we watch it, let's also consider Howard's own first tale of Solomon Kane, "Red Shadows", from the August 1928 issue of Weird Tales.

I liked it. It's easily the best cast Howard-based film yet, Purefoy is excellent as Kane, Bassett treats everything with a proper seriousness, and there are moments that brilliantly capture the spirit of Howard. (Though, perhaps unfortunately, the best of these is right at the start, a splendid evocation of Howard's proficiency, as H. P. Lovecraft put it, with "the description of vast megalithic cities of the elder world, around whose dark towers and labyrinthine nether vaults linger and aura of pre-human fear and necromancy...")

And yet...In "Red Shadows", Kane, after evil is done to an innocent girl, declares "Men shall die for this" on the second page of 26 (in the recent Gollancz
Conan's Brethen edition of Howard's tales), and the story climaxes in the dark jungles of Africa. Here, we have a brilliant pre-credits sequence in Africa, then it's back to England for an origin tale, and Kane swears his oath to avenge evil done to an innocent girl after 40-odd minutes (of 100 or so).

Perhaps I'm being unfair. In one of the interviews on the DVD extras, Michael Bassett says:
I wanted to have an origins tale, which is not something that Robert Howard did in his original works. His short stories are Soloman Kane as a fully formed character and there are only hints of who he was prior to this kind of puritan avenger.
and judged by his intentions he succeeded completely, and made a fine film, with the sort of lean and efficient running time that the Dark Knight's of the world can only dream of. Is it just me though that thinks it would have been better to have started with the 'fully-formed' Kane, and had only hints of his dark past? This goes back to Rambo being an elemental force of nature rather than a "character", and something Faction Paradox creator Lawrence Miles said about how adventure fiction runs on iconography rather than characterisation, and how "the lead characters [in adventure stories] are great symbols. If you tried dissecting their psyches, they'd fall to bits in a second."

I think he's right, and that characters like Soloman Kane aren't ultimately best served by knowing their origins and the details of their (as here) traumatic childhood family experiences. A Heroic Fantasy, I think (and especially Howard's) works best not as a character piece, but as an unstoppable frenzy of action. (Which is perhaps why the best examples remain short stories from nearly a century ago, rather than modern two-hour films). Even so, I'd definately watch a sequel to this, and I
really want one of those hats...

1 The early signs aren't good, at least for me, as the bloody thing's apparently going to be in 3D, and 3D really, really makes me sustain a fury of the most vitriolic kidney.

2 Whatever one thinks of Rome3, Purefoy's performance as Mark Antony was a thing of shining excellence.

I really liked it, to be fair...

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Stieg Larsson, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2005)

OK, I know the original Man Som Hatar Kvinnor1, was published in 2005, but this English translation (by Reg Keeland) is copyright 2008. Though yes, I'm colossally late either way, but this isn't a proper review, because, try as I did over the year just past, I just couldn't face ploughing down the downhill slopes after getting half-way. Indeed, seeing as the back cover and first couple of pages contain a million2 laudatory quotes from people who have forgotten more about writing in general and crime fiction in particular than I'll ever know, I wonder a bit whether somehow my copy was full of different words to theirs or something....

[Though reassuringly, I see, over at his splendid blog, the writer and man Mark Blackmore has posted some notes on the books he's currently reading, where he says this about TGwtDT:
I have no problem with dumping books that become a chore. There are too many things to read to waste time on something you aren’t enjoying. I’m late to Larsson, since I assumed, correctly as it turned out, that this wouldn’t be for me, but I gave up halfway. I found the prose leaden and the mystery uninvolving, there simply as a structure on which Larsson could hang his crusading anger over sexual violence against women. I’ll still watch the film.

Which mostly, though not quite entirely, was my reaction.]

Of course, as Larsson died tragically young before his trilogy was published, he may well have written some different words himself had he lived long enough to see them into print himself, and I've only read (some) of it in translation anyway, but, you know, we can only read what we have...

Unlike Mr Blackmore, I was, in fact, rather taken with the mystery (essentially a locked room affair but with an island instead of a room) but I agree about the prose. Let us leave aside the early financial infodumping and fast forward to an early mention of Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo herself. On pp34-35 we learn that:

"when she was working at the computer her fingers flew over the keys";

that she was prone to

"wandering the corridors [...] like a stray cat";

and was considered

"a hopeless case" and "nothing but trouble".

(And also, rather oddly, that "Her extreme slenderness would have made a career in modelling impossible.") This mixture of cliche and "eh, what?" is, alas, not uncommon.

This wasn't what made me stop reading, though, especially as we (or I, at any rate) don't now how finished Larsson considered these books: it was passages like this ludicrous outbreak of computer-porn. At one point, about a third of the way through or so, Salander needs a new computer:

...she had an older desktop Mac G3 at home, as well as a five-year-old Toshiba P.C. laptop that she could use. But she needed a fast, modern machine.

Unsurprisingly, she set her sights on the best available alternative: the new Apple PowerBook G4/1.0 GHz in an aluminium case with a powerP.C. 7451 processor with an AltiVec Velocity Engine, 960 megs of R.A.M. and sixty-gig hard drive. It had BlueTooth and built-in C.D. and D.V.D. burners.

Best of all, it had the first forty-three centimetre screen in the laptop world with N.V.I.D.I.A. graphics and a resolution of 1440 x 900 pixels, which shook the P.C. advocates and outranked everything else on the market. [194]

Arrgh. Dropping a real or imaginary brand name (as Ian Fleming or William Gibson do, for example) can add flavour of course, but this is madness (whatever the merry blazes any of it means....)

I also agree that the "crusading anger" Mr B mentions (however much the reader may share it) doesn't sit well with the classic mystery plot. It's possible, of course, to make brilliant fiction out of righteous anger (Andrew Vachss is the best example, I think) but this is just too bloated....

Heigh ho, to each their own, umpteen million readers and so on. And I do still want to know what the answer to the mystery was, so will be watching the DVD this weekend...

1 Men Who Hate Women.

2 Exaggeration.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001)

What follows was prompted by this review of Christophe Gans's film Le Pacte des Loups1 by the writer and man Mark Blackmore. Though it's kind of a response to that, it's certainly not an attempt to disagree with anything he says there (indeed, as I said in the comments to his review, in all conscience I think most of his points are entirely valid ones), but as the inexplicable enjoyer mentioned in that piece, I'd thought I'd try (after briefly pausing to shout "Spoilers!") to explain what I liked about it...

Firstly it's because I think bits of this are best serious Sword and Sorcery film, ever. Though bits of the opening feel rather like a western, and despite my fondness for John Milius, the opening narration and initial scenes of violence are better done than in, say, Conan the Barbarian. Equally, the scenes of Fronsac's despair and violent rage after the death of Mani are many times more emotionally affecting than anything following the death of Valeria in Conan. Of course, these sorts of things aren't specific to Sword and Sorcery, but the 'mythical beast', outsider hero with exotic sidekick etc. are all present here. (Parenthetically, the other best serious Sword and Sorcery film of recent times, I think, is the fourth Rambo film. Why is it that "actual" S&S films aren't usually as good as those that are ostensibly something else? Let's leave that aside for another time...)

And secondly it's because I think bits of this are the best 18th century intrigue and swashbuckler film ever (and you have to (well you don't, in fact, but I do) admire the demented panache of Monica Bellucci's prostitute character turning out to be a Vatican spy...)

I'll certainly grant m'colleague that it's a tad long, though. (And would be even if Gans had calmed down with the slow motion. His action scenes can be followed, for heaven's sake (rare enough, in today's ludicrous nano-second-edit world to be worth remarking on) so it's not even that this is necessary....)

Finally, and brilliantly, the guy playing the Duke of Moncan is actually called Jean-Loup Wolff.

1 Literally, "The Pate of Lupus", a subplot happily missing from the finished film. 2

2 Haha! Not really, of course...

Monday, 28 June 2010

David Langford, Different Kinds of Darkness (2004)


Seeing as Dave Langford has won about a million Hugo Awards1, it may be stretching it a bit to say he's underappreciated. However, most of those Hugos have been for his (excellent) fan writing and his (excellent) newsletter Ansible: only one (for the title story of this collection) is for fiction, and, it seems to me, if this ratio was reversed that would be entirely justified, since Langford is, I think, One Of The The Three Best SF Short Story Writers Ever, Along With J. G. Ballard and John Sladek.

Despite the colossally cumbersome formulation above, that still might be thought a bold statement, but, to nick a title from John Clute, "look at the evidence": in this case, the book above, which collects much of Langford's serious sf from 1975 to 2003.

That word "serious" is possibly relevant. Langford is (rightly) highly regarded for his comic writing, and the wit of his remarkably long-running (and free) newsletter Ansible; and although there is (at least) one laugh out loud moment2 in the volume currently under advisement (in my case, his contribution to The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discretited Diseases, "Logrolling Ephesus", the contributor's biography to which begins, "Dr. David Langford had the good fortune to commit his researches at a period when relevant legislation had yet to be urgently passed"), he is also, I'd aver, a more or less peerless exponent of the straight sf story.

I can feel the words "examples abound" creeping up on me, but they do, you know...

The most famous examples here are the tales that make up the influential BLIT sequence ("BLIT", "What Happened and Cambridge IV", "comp.basilisk FAQ", and the Hugo winning "Different Kinds of Darkness"), which, via maths, terrorism, genuinely haunting and disturbing images, and pertinent points about information and childhood, detail the implications of a scary sf idea in a combined length of (think on this, fatnasty fans!) 28 pages...

Equally, "Waiting for the Iron Age", in just 4 pages (think on this fatnasty fans! -- you've done this -- Ed) sorts out the Wandering Jew legend in double quick time, whilst, as Langford says in his afterword, giving, "our man a longer run for his money than anyone else..."

Another thing with reviewing Langford, of course, touched on above, is his encyclopaedic knowledge of the sf world: if one were to, as one might, try to comment on the "The Motivation", by 'cleverly' mentioning the Christopher Priest-like nature of the title, and then try and draw a parallel with Priest's (very different) story "The Watched", one would find, on reaching the end of Langford's (excellent) story, that he's already there in his (as is typical in this collection) informative and splendid afterword. Heigh ho...

And what great titles, though! ("In A Land of Sand and Ruin and Gold"; "Blossoms That Coil and Decay"; "The Lions in the Desert" etc.)

Seriously, everyone should have this....

1 An exageration. Just!

2 I mean here the genuine laugh-out-loud moments that render you actually unable to speak even when reading alone, rather than as a shorthand for "quite funny". For more of these, see He Do The Time Police In Different Voices.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Tully Zetford, Hook: Star City (1974)


I have an unquenchable fondness for the sort of unpretentious (and short!) adventure sf and fantasy that used to be published, to coin that ghastly phrase, "back in the day." This means I also have an unquenchable fondness for the works of the late Kenneth Bulmer, who wrote more or less a million such yarns, most famously of course the Burroughs-influenced Kregen/Dray Prescott sword-and-planet series.1

For the Hook series2, of which Star City is volume three, Bulmer is hidden behind the "Tully Zetford" pseudonym. The hero of these books, the splendidly sweary ("By Dirty Bertie Bashti!" [100]) Ryder Hook3, is not a fellow to be messed with:

If a man tried to kill Ryder Hook, that man went in peril of his own life. [7]

Although he's not without his nicer qualities:
Like any civilised man, Hook drank tea whenever he could. [12]
It would be terribly ill-advised of us to let this fondness for tea fool us into thinking Hook is basically a gentleman, though; in many other ways he is a cad of the most unscrupulous kidney:
Apart from her legs, which Hook - being the ungraceful galactic adventurer he was would call short and fat if called upon to describe them - the lady Terifa was seemingly a most nicely fitted-together representative of the female section of Homo sapiens. [34]
Most importantly, though, the proximity of a Boosted Man confers on Ryder Hook special powers, which, for example, mean that when a homicidal maniac smashes him over the head with a giant steel bar, this happens:

The steel bar bounced. For any normal man that steel bar powered by all the dark ferocity of a homicidal maniac would have shattered his skull into bloody fragments. Blood and brains would have spurted past the splintered bones. But, then, Ryder Hook was not a normal man. [16]

Bet he still had a headache, mind.

My favourite bit in this book, though, is when Hook realises what spending time on Star City, which, as the blurb puts it, is a "mighty complex housing many thousands of humanoids devoted entirely to the pursuit of pleasure", has done to his ungraceful, hard-man space-adventurer demeanor:
Hook knew he'd been growing spineless and weak and a great ninny in star city. [100]
Great ninny! Ah, they don't write them like this any more, alas....

1 I was once surprised and delighted to come across a positive notice of this sequence ("this jewel of a series") in, of all things, a set of wargames rules. The Wargames Research Group's 1991 set Hordes of the Things, by legendary Phil Barker, Sue Laflin Barker, and Richard Bodley Scott, also, marvellously, includes relevant Army Lists ["IMPERIAL VALLIA: Hero General (Dray Prescott - typically in red loin cloth and loaded down with assorted swords and longbow, mounted on a nickvove or zorca.) @ 4 A.P"] I love it that I live in a world where that sentence exists.

2 For more Hookery, not to mention Lynan Synkery, see Dave Langford's sfx magazine column on Bulmer and Robert Sheckley here.

3 For more of Hook swearing, see Dave Langford, again. (Scroll down to "God's Hooks")

Monday, 21 June 2010

The Ship of a Billion Years (2006)


Well, this what we know....

That I really should stop saying I'm going to do stuff "next" or "soon", as I always forget: galactic cycles ago, in February, I said some things about Coming to Dust, the first part of Lawrence Miles's The True History of Faction Paradox audio series, as released by the stout fellows at Magic Bullet, and said that "soon" I would say things about this. Oh well.

Ship of a Billion Years picks up the story, straight from where Coming to Dust left off. Cousin Justine of the Faction Paradox has passed through the space-time tunnel to the titular Ship, while Cousin Eliza and the Society of Sigismondo try to find out more from their captives Jala and Merytra. Meanwhile, Sutekh is planning a coup....

There are many great things about this.

First, the dialogue, an aspect which is perhaps even more important than usual in a non-visual medium. Examples, as the cliche goes, abound, but to pick a few: when asked if Jala, their captive great ape is dangerous, Eliza replies, "Not now I've broken its legs." (This is actually a prelude to a genuinely rather harrowing torture scene [which in typical Miles fashion, begins nevertheless with John Pemberton feebly saying to the captive Merytra, "Believe me, we can be quite firm when we want to be!"] The switching from dark humour to genuine emotion in brief brush-strokes is splendidly done throughout.)

Julian Glover as the Osiran Lord Upuat gets the best lines, however. Justine has become his chamber slave, and at one point Upuat points out various other Osirans to her: "That's Bast. She's worshipped as a goddess of not following orders on some worlds. You'd probably like her. I think I had sex with her once. Left scratches on my pelt for days..." Later, after Sutekh, arch-villain that he is, has told him he must "submit or be destroyed", Upuat replies, "Hmm. I'm not keen on either, to be honest. Couldn't I just sit back and not interfere?"

One of the things that it's hard not to do with the Faction Paradox audios, which generally pre-date the current return of Doctor Who, is to list ideas that first appeared here and are done rather better than they were in the more famous TV behemoth that followed. To pick a trivial example, the formal tongue of the Osiran Court is like a more spooky version of Judoon-speak, and, much more importantly, there is the idea of a Time War. In the RTD-era Doctor Who, it seemed to me, there was no real sense that the Time War actually happened in four dimesions: often the images made it just seem like a space battle between the Daleks and the Time Lords. Here, after Justine has travelled through the tunnel to the Ship, her companions back on Earth try and find out what's happening to her now by reading ancient texts and legends -- one of the non "history-proofed" members of the Society reads a line from an ancient Greek text, then reads it again and doesn't notice that he reads something completely different on the second occasion. (Yes, I know that there is more sense of Time being a factor in the current series of Who, in the arc about Amy's crack [if you'll pardon the expression] but even so...)

Which leads to the other great thing about this -- the characterisation. In an interview he did years before these plays appeared, Miles said that (admittedly in the context of TV drama rather than audio plays) that the idea of "character-driven" TV was overrated, and that "great television runs on iconography, not on giving characters stock emotional problems and letting them drone on about them for hours on end." Certainly the Egyptian Gods of the Osiran Court are icons, here, but the other characters generate genuine emotion in the listener in a series of completely non-droney, excellently written touches, the prime example of which is the story of Corwyn and Astarte (a great performance from Patricia Merrick) Marne's eight-month old daughter. Rescued from the poisoned Faction Paradox race bank discovered in Coming to Dust, her adoptive parents find that she slips out of their memories, that her room sometimes briefly appears unfurnished and empty when they enter, and that, when they remember things they have done, their daughter is not present....

This is genuinely emotional and affecting, and so much more effective for being sketched in brief moments rather than dolloped about like (as it seemed to this ageing cynical fellow on his first viewing anyway) the rather over-done and shallow cry-now-dammitry of, say, that Van Gogh episode of the new Doctor Who....

Anyway, marvellous stuff, and we haven't even considered the hints and reversals in the latter stages. Not soon or next, but when I remember, then: Part 3: Body Politic...