Friday, 27 September 2013

The Old One-Two

The new Doctor is actually anything but...


As much as I sometimes moan about my job, it does occasionally put me in a very privileged position.  My reputation, if not outright infamy for the interests highlighted in this blog mean that I sometimes get to interview stars and writers of genre TV.  These interviews are often drastically cut for space reasons, so fascinating, if more ‘arcane’ information is left undisclosed. I hope to remedy this and reproduce some of these fuller transcripts in future postings, but what I’m posting here is the result one of the rare occurrences when editors actually cared about my opinion.

Peter Capaldi was revealed to the world as Doctor Number 12 on August 4, and it was decided that a short piece from a life-long Doctor Who fan might be interesting.  Whether it was or not, I was only too happy to oblige, because I was more excited about this new Doctor casting than… well, probably ever.

Every new Doctor announcement through the decades was usually met by anxiety, resignation or utter confusion from me, but this time I wanted to punch the air – or at least the overhead luggage rack as I was commuting when I found out.
I’d been a fan of Capaldi’s since the exquisite 1983 film Local Hero.  Although the world now seems to know him as the majestically profane Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of it (despite a CV as long as a Who fan’s scarf) to me he will always be the awkward, besotted but determined young Danny Olsen, clambering over the rocks of a Scottish beach in his business suit and vainly pursuing Jenny Seagrove.

The fact that Capaldi acquitted himself so well facing the perhaps misguided BBC live announcement special in August, emerging from reality TV-tinged spectacle with dignity intact and some wonderful quotes to sustain us until his debut, speaks volumes.  This is an experienced and highly-regarded actor who’s going straight to the top of the favourite Doctors list, just you wait and see.
Here is the unedited piece which I submitted:

I was hiding behind the sofa from Doctor Who before I had even learned to walk and it quickly became love at first fright. 
Over the years I’ve managed to develop some awareness of when beginning a conversation with “So, who’s your favourite Doctor Who?” might not be appropriate, (answer: probably never), but yesterday it seemed that everyone wanted to talk about it.  Certainly there were more important issues in the news, but the item which had me searching online during my morning commute into Wellington was the announcement of the twelfth Doctor Who: 55-year-old Scot Peter Capaldi.

My reaction and it seems that I’m not alone, is that it feels as if the universe has finally come back into kilter.  Similarly-aged fan friends are happily posting that they are now younger than the actor playing the Doctor for the first time in eight years.  And perhaps for the first time since Peter Davison took the title role in 1981, (hot property at the time for All Creatures Great and Small), everyone seems to know who the ‘new guy’ is.  Many have seen his work (Local Hero, The Thick of It) and are excited about what he can bring to Doctor Who.
On the other hand, in the direct opposition to Davison’s casting (who at the time was the youngest Doctor ever); nay-sayers are now responding with: “But Capaldi’s too old!”

The programme is fifty this year, and has certainly been around longer than I have, but recently it has been making me feel like the old-timer.  Young floppy-haired poster-boy Doctors, adored by their female companions and famous women throughout history, have taken the programme to new heights of popularity and broken into that elusive female viewership market at last.  I’m delighted that there are now legions of teenage girls with Doctor Who posters on their walls; it was utterly unthinkable ‘in my day’.  But to be honest, I find it a little difficult to relate to the modern series sometimes.  My yearning for the days of a more patrician Doctor probably only makes me look outdated to contemporary fans.  And that’s OK, I was happy to turn the programme over to them, it didn’t really feel like mine anymore.  Screenings of Doctor Who episodes at the Embassy Theatre attended by young fans of both sexes dressed to the hilt as their favourite characters have taken place this year.  I didn’t go - somehow I think I’d feel like the embarrassing dad at a teenage party who doesn’t have the sense to stay off the dance floor.

But the programme has always been about change, and suddenly its makers have made an incredibly brave, but to me eminently sensible decision – the Doctor will be outwardly a man of experience once again.  I believe a versatile, seasoned actor can once again steer the programme in a new direction, but still take the younger audience it has worked so hard to capture along for the ride.  A tall order perhaps, but with Capaldi, I’m confident the TARDIS will be in good hands. 

Thursday, 26 September 2013


It's good to pick up a book now and again...

 “We all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get it the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God's sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they'd allowed to wither in themselves.”
Robert McCammon, Boys Life

Boy’s Life isn’t just one of the ten books I’d chose to be stuck on a desert Island with, it’s probably THE book. 
It can be rather tiresome when even our closest friends fly at us, fired up with evangelical zeal and extolling the virtues of a book they’ve just read like a fire and brimstone Preacher, urging, nay insisting, we read it.  Now. 
But I also completely understand. If I could I’d give Boy’s Life to everyone I know for Christmas, I would.  And it’s understandable how this “gorgeous book”, as Peter Straub has called it, could have this effect on you.  Imagine It’s a wonderful Life crossed with the most engrossing murder mystery you’ve ever read, then liberally spiced with the supernatural and fantastic.  Every year, I pick this book up and rejoin an adventure told through a 12-year-old’s eyes which features an ancient river monster, ghosts, a dinosaur and equally astonishing and unimaginable to young Cory Matheson: even a naked girl. And it’s all wrapped up into a moving, funny, tragic, suspenseful and joyous coming of age story set in a town and time which makes me wish I could climb through the pages and visit.
The spirit of Ray Bradbury courses through the pages of Boy’s Life, a fact which author Robert McCammon makes no bones about acknowledging in his wonderful afterword. I wouldn’t say the student has surpassed the master, but this distillation of Bradbury, then set to a tempo all of McCammon’s own, makes for an irresistible combination. In this story time is measured by school terms and seasons (remember what that was like – when a year seemed like an impossibly long time?), and, as the quote I started with suggests, magic is still very much alive for our young heroes. Not the wand-waving sorcery of a certain endless film franchise, but the unselfconscious way of seeing and interacting with the world which we all used to have.
The list of acknowledgements at the end of Boy’s Life reads like a mission statement for this blog, although written by someone a little older, and more American than I am.  In summing up his own intention with this book McCammon writes:
“This is part of what Boy's Life is about: the rediscovery of magic, of wonders that lie drowning and half-forgotten in our souls. Boy's Life is about the dreams and terrors in the life of a Southern boy in 1964, but I hope it is more than that, too; I hope it is a universal key to yesterday, and by the opening of that door for a backward look we may all see today tomorrow in a much clearer, brighter light.”
How do you follow a prĂ©cis by a real writer? Well, you quote him again.  Here’s the poem which begins Boy’s Life.  But first, just one final urging from me - as Newsweek says on the cover: “devour this beautiful book”
 “We ran like young wild furies,
where angels feared to tread.
The woods were dark and deep.
Before us demons fled.
We checked Coke bottle bottoms
to see how far was far.
Our worlds of magic wonder
were never reached by car.
We loved our dogs like brothers,
our bikes like rocket ships.
We were going to the stars,
to Mars we'd make round trips.
We swung on vines like Tarzan,
and flashed Zorro's keen blade.
We were James Bond in his Aston,
we were Hercules unchained.
We looked upon the future
and we saw a distant land,
where our folks were always ageless,
and time was shifting sand.
We filled up life with living,
with grins, scabbed knees, and noise.
In glass I see an older man,
but this book's for the boys.”
Robert R. McCammon

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Where Noonian has gone before

Was it just me, or did the latest Trek film seem strangely familiar?

 I touched on Star Trek in my last post, and although I’m by no means a Trekkie/Trekker, the recent release of Into Darkness on disc prompts a look at this most recent reincarnation of what is commonly referred to as ‘Classic Trek’. That is, with a male, Caucasian Captain, sporting hair, in stories where the only character not displaying a full range of emotion is doing so on purpose.

A discussion of the various other programmes with Star Trek in their titles probably won’t occur on this blog.  Although The Next Generation had some great episodes, and one very good film, I just didn’t invest in anything which came afterwards. For my money, in the nineties the criminally under-rated Babylon 5 was where US science fiction TV was at, doing it all with so much more freshness and verve. (And there will be more about this show in later posts).

Having said this, the original television adventures of Kirk and Spock often don’t hold up terribly well these days either. It’s glaringly obvious that they were produced at a time when two-fisted westerns ruled the networks, and even if women were witches or genies, they had to be housewives first and foremost.
Of course, a handful of original Trek episodes do still truly deserve the label classic, transcending the limitations of their time to still entertain and challenge today.  You’ll have your own picks, and one of mine is Space Seed, a season 1 story famous for the thawing out of GM Indian Despot: Khan Noonian Singh.  This character had two things going for him to ensure his place in the pantheon of great science fiction villains –not evil simply for the sake of it, to him he was the betrayed hero of his own story, willing to make any sacrifice for his exiled followers.  And secondly, he is magnetically portrayed by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban, casting which made as much sense as Sean Connery playing a Russian U Boat captain in Hunt for the Red October, but with an equally iconic result.
And referencing a submarine film is not as random as it might seem, because when all the Space Seed players returned for the cinematic sequel in 1982: Star Trek 2- the Wrath of Khan, we got exactly that – a tense, seek and destroy, U-boat drama in space.

The bloated and self-important first Star Trek film was a major disappointment to me (and apparently the studio).  Wrath of Khan paid for the ‘sins of the Father’ and was given a fraction of the budget - but impossibly turned this to its advantage.  With no location work and essentially the same set serving as the bridge of both duelling vessels, an already taut script was actually enhanced by the claustrophobic, and money-saving, settings.  The emphasis shifted from ponderous effects sequences to character interplay, delivering themes of retribution, responsibility, sacrifice and even love.
It’s a long-running point of difference between a couple of close friends and I, but I maintain this film knocked it so far out of the ball park that it not only still remains the best pre-2009 Trek film, but amply deserves it’s place in modern pop-culture.

At the risk of seeming smug, the fact that JJ Abrams, facing his Star Trek equivalent of the difficult second album, pulled out the biggest guns he could and brought back Khan seems further testimony to my conviction.  Indeed, not only does he bring back the franchise’s best ‘big bad’, but within this ingeniously skewed version of the classic universe, where previously-established continuity no longer applies, Abrams  also replays many of the beats, lines of dialogue and entire sequences from the first Star Trek 2.  This is an audacious move, not entirely dissimilar to Bryan Singer’s slavish 2008 Superman re-make/sequel, but unlike that film, Into Darkness also manages to give us an entirely new story.  A new Khan too: Benedict Cumberbatch’s icily-controlled human weapon has none of Montalban’s charm, perhaps showing more in common with the character’s original television debut than the deliciously unhinged, affably Leer-esque figure who helped steer big screen Trek in the right direction over 30 years ago.

There are many reviews of Star Trek: Into Darkness available on line, written by far more clever people than me.  What really fascinates me is that we live in very privileged times. Enormously talented new directors and writers are taking characters and stories which they loved as much as we did when they were young, and are dusting them off, polishing them with the very best contemporary technology and casting can offer, and launching them across the screen once again.  Myths and legends have always reinvented themselves for new generations and that is a good thing.  Even if the results sometimes fall a little short of our own expectations, seeing newer generations discover and enthuse about our childhood heroes is a pure delight and an unexpected bonus to no longer being that young ourselves. And if we occasionally tire of the frenetic pace and exhausting scale of contemporary interpretations, we can always wait till everyone else has gone to bed, put on the gloriously restored ‘originals’ and sit back to be transported to simpler times when the Kirby wire, matte painting and miniature model were king.


Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Mummy's Curse

A long overdue tribute to someone I could never get by without

Stick insects are cool, but I’m very happy to admit that I never have been, or will be.  But like all of us, there have been rare, fleeting moments when circumstances have conspired to allow me to be the one to say or do something which, if you squinted, could have been cool.  These brief flickers of mana have usually involved that elusive quality known as courage; something which I’ve learned is different for everyone and often as elusive as catching moonbeams.  But sometimes we might find that this abstract notion magically solidifies just when it’s really needed. Or not.
Keeping a blog like this won’t ever get me a ‘cool kids’ membership, and I’m now going to make that a further impossibility by talking about my mother.  Not only was she the bravest person I’ve ever known, in a Glaswegian terrier ‘take-no-crap-from-anyone’ kind of way, but she also first ignited my interest in fantasy films and television.
This startling fact occurred to me when I saw JJ Abrams' first Star Trek film back in 2009 - a perfect example of how to throw out decades of accumulated murky bath water and not only keep the baby, but also make it (here comes that word again) cool.  Hearing that glorious reprise of the classic theme over the closing credits, warm childhood memories came flooding back. And I realised just how much my mother, who had passed away after a long battle with medical incompetence only a few months earlier (possibly the only fight she ever lost), would have loved this film.
This pragmatic woman, who endured a childhood infinitely less privileged than the one she and my Father worked hard to give me, loved Star Trek and would have heartily approved of these sexy new iterations of the Enterprise crew.

‘Watch with mother’ for me included content quite different to the fare most kids grew up viewing in early ‘70s Britain.  Doctor Who was watched and enjoyed exactly in the way that the BBC had intended, with my whole extended family crowded into the living room.  Mum told me about prehistoric monsters (her name for dinosaurs which I still prefer), and later on more imaginary creatures.  She described seeing the beloved back- catalogue of the Universal and Hammer stalwarts, Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman and others.  It would be a long time before I’d finally see them for myself, but I felt as if the introductions had been made years ago - they were already familiar family friends.  She bought me horror and superhero comics when I had to stay at home from school ill, and on another occasion I remember us both gurgling with glee the first time I ever saw the legendary skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts.  We cowered together with Doctor Morbius as the howling, invisible Monster from the Id burned through the final metal door, and she and Dad even let me stay up late (if not actually encouraged me) so that I could meet the mighty Kong for the first time.

The last fantasy programme we enjoyed together was the final of Life on Mars: watching Sam Tyler choose the life he wanted and taking the final plunge from reality to the strains Bowie’s haunting titular classic.  By this time mum’s concentration was severely tested, but she still enjoyed well-written escapism.  She made her own final escape from reality a few months later, her waking moments becoming less and less frequent.  Perhaps like me, the time she spent dreaming was occasionally coloured by some of the fantastic visions and characters she’d seen on screen through her life. I like to think so.  And if there’s a TV lounge in heaven, I know damn well who’ll have the remote.

Jean Raymond McLean Hughes Oct 3, 1936 – Jan 7, 2009

Walk this way...

Welcome to Phasmatodea, a new blog which, true to form, I’ve been talking about doing for almost two years now.  As the avid entomologists among you will know, the title means ‘stick insect’.  It’s  a creature I’ve been likened to for most of my life, despite amusing forays into gym memberships, martial arts and possessing the appetite of a whole children’s library full of ‘Hungry little caterpillar’s.  So, I’ve ‘embraced it’, as anyone in front of a microphone in New Zealand likes to say.

The word also vaguely chimes with ‘phantasmagorical’ (at least to my ear) and this is very appropriate, as I’ll be writing about the things in this world, and others, which interest me.  Politely known as ‘genre’, I’ll mostly, (but not exclusively), be sharing science fiction, horror, fantasy and adventure films, TV, books and other media which have fired my imagination throughout my life.  If there’s anyone still reading at this point, I sincerely hope that generally autobiographical ramblings on everything from the genius of the sadly-missed two Rays (Harryhausen and Bradbury) to the recent reinvigoration of certain well-loved franchises beginning with the word ‘Star’ might resonate with you too.

I'll say from the outset that I don't consider myself to be any kind of authority or expert on the subjects I'll discuss, I'll merely be presenting my own impressions and opinions, and hope to hear some of yours, too.

So, if you’re still there, and have ever wondered what might have shaped your own love for all things fantastic, this is the subject of my first entry.  And I hope you’ll forgive me for self-indulgently paying long-overdue tribute to the person who probably did more than anyone to make me the massive ‘geek’ I am today, and for which I’ll always be grateful.