Sunday, 29 March 2015

High Five

Twenty years ago, the future was refreshingly not like Star Trek at all 

A beacon of diplomacy and commerce, and half a decade of the best telly around.
For five years in the mid-nineties I got drawn into a TV series which, at the height of my devotion to it, became the only thing close to ever rivaling Doctor Who in my sad fan life.  Like Who, it was not like anything else on TV, could fluctuate wildly in quality, but when it was good it utterly obliterated anything else around.

This was not a good time for TV science fiction with Doctor Who seemingly gone forever after the false dawn of the 1996 TV Movie, and Paramount's increasingly dreadful, po-faced Star Trek spin-offs clogging the schedules.  And then, with very little fan-fare came the last best hope: Babylon 5.

Not taking itself too seriously was always one of Babylon 5's strengths
I was living in Britain when this show, inevitably announced as 'Star Trek with knobs on' got a couple of paragraphs in the Radio Times.  I missed the first few episodes but switched on one day out of curiosity, finding myself in the middle of a space battle of a scale previously only achievable in big screen extravaganzas.

Television effects had never been like this before
B5's revolutionary, pioneering computer generated effects hooked me first because I'm shallow, but very quickly the format and characters drew me in.  I don't want to keep knocking Trek as I will always be a fan of the original series and most of the movies, but it's inevitable as Babylon 5 could only be described as 'the antidote' to Star Trek.  Where the Paramount output became increasingly, self-consciously politically correct, (to say nothing of 'appropriating' the entire Babylon 5 concept for their charmless Deep Space Nine series), B5 presented earthy characters and gritty situations where the quality of humanity in any gender, sexuality or species was more important than the influence of self-appointed moral guardians.

Life imitated art when a small delegation of B5's actors and actresses presented themselves to Warner Bros heads when the studio tried to force them all to sign an excessively prohibitive agreement banning any behaviour deemed as  'sexual harassment'.  The cast stood idly pawing one another and explained that they didn't feel the document was 'really them'.  The ploy succeeded and filming the show became reportedly the most fun any of them had in their working lives.  In an industry infamous for it's turnaround of employees, a colossal 80% of the cast and crew stayed on for the entire run of the series.

The stories more often not parceled-up neatly in a single episode, but instead plot threads (this was the dawn of the now-common  'story arc') could span entire years.  Babylon 5 itself was created by screenwriter Joe Straczynski as a five-year novel broadcast on TV, and despite constantly fighting for survival and recognition, the series eventually achieved this goal (if not quite as intended - the five year story was condensed into four when a final series wasn't taken up, only to then have the fifth year green-lit after all, forcing Straczynski to fill that last season with largely left-over storylines). Emmy and Hugo awards, and a Bafta nomination, followed.

Working on two distinct levels the Babylon 5 concerned itself with the microcosm of fascinating characters and their ever-shifting alliances onboard a Galactic 'united nations' Space station; and secondly: the vast cosmic events gradually unfolding around them.
The first level was the show's undoubted strength, illustrated most clearly when I tried to watch an episode with my mother.  When she was trying to understand a programme she hadn't seen before, her method would be to ask, every time a character appeared, whether he was a 'goodie' or a 'baddie'. That might work for other programmes, but with this one my answer would be more along the lines of:
"Well, he was a goodie, but then became a baddie, but is possibly going to become a goodie again, depending upon what this other character, who was a baddie but is now a goodie, might do..."

The scary 'Shadow ships': Babylon 5's design aesthetic for alien hardware was often ingeniously organic.
The 'cosmic horror and biblically-proportioned conflict between good and evil' aspect worked best when hinted at and glimpsed, but the level of meticulously-built anticipation became so vast that any attempt at a pay-off could only ever fall short.  But even this wasn't always the case: the spectacular resolution of the rebellion against the corrupt Earth Government plot-line was a tense masterclass in story telling.

And here was the crux of what made this series different.  This was no cosy 'Star fleet' family where authority and command was unquestioned  - this was a dangerous future where the administration was not to be blindly trusted, but instead the individual was forced to make difficult choices for the future of humanity. Straczynski was a firm believer that history is changed by individuals - that you can fight City Hall. Babylon 5 was, if you like, the British model of science fiction television: where rebels and non-conformists like the Doctor, Roj Blake and Number Six (The Prisoner was abundantly referenced) strove to bring down the establishment, rather than being complacently part of it. Perhaps for this reason it was an enormous hit in the UK, while struggling for survival on a year-to-year basis in its own country. (Incidentally, ahead of it's time again, the single most common work referenced throughout Babylon 5 was actually The Lord of the Rings.)

Babylon 5 reached its appointed end in an episode held over for a year (filmed when the fifth season wasn't optioned), and remains an intensely emotional experience for anyone who had spent time in Straczynski's universe.  The 'Great Maker' himself (as fans referred to the show's creator) appears on-screen as an anonymous technician pulling the switch on the obsolete Babylon 5 station's lighting for the final time, before this now-designated 'hazard to shipping' is demolished in an almost balletically graceful and utterly heart-rending pyrotechnic sequence.

You will believe a special effect can make you cry
(or Christopher Franke's music, at least)

When Babylon 5 disappeared, this programme that so many people haven't even heard of left an indelible mark on television.  Shows like Lost and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica eagerly adopted Straczynski's years-long plot arc approach to their storytelling, while Paramount's Star Trek spin-offs quickly employed B5's CGI approach (and vendor) to visual effects (after initially swearing that they'd never abandon traditional model-work). Babylon 5 was the first to use the widescreen format in its production, and cinema quality audio engineering in its soundtrack. Straczynski's writing could be merciless if he decided a character, no matter how major, was to be killed off in service of the wider story - another approach which braver shows have since emulated.

There was a briefly-lived B5 'sequel' series, various stand-alone TV movies and every few years rumours of a cinematic feature re-surface.  But the reality is that two decades have passed, irreplaceable cast members have passed away and Straczynski himself has become a very busy producer and writer (working with Marvel studios and the Wachowskis among others). Babylon 5 was always conceived as a five year story, echoing the literary novel structure of 'introduction, rising action, complication, climax and denouement' - and that was exactly what we got.  As experienced lead actor Bruce Boxleitner was apparently fond of telling cast and crew when he realised his own luck: "Enjoy it while you can: this is like nothing else I've ever worked on..."

Ambassadors Londo and G'kar: Their destiny to die by one another's hand
was revealed early on - but the journey to get there was ever-changing and never predictable...

Friday, 20 March 2015

Seal of Disapproval

Prepare yourself for a close encounter of the furred kind
- we certainly weren't.

The Abel Tasman National Park is a breathtakingly beautiful part of the country, world-renowned for stretches of golden sand and sparkling turquoise water.  But as is so often the case with nature, beauty and danger can be a combined package.
One of the very first things explained as you enter this magical land is that the tides can be swift and unpredictable, transforming inviting sweeps of beach into rapidly shrinking islets in no time at all.  Do not lose track of time, obey the signs (they are there for your safety) and keep to established tracks - easy.

In keeping with the unspoiled nature of this idyll, we were staying at Awaroa Lodge - a luxurious conclave proud of its Eco credentials, and justifiably not an inexpensive destination. We booked three nights and thoroughly enjoyed all that the Lodge and surrounds had to offer. So why, on that final afternoon, could I not just succumb to the enveloping sense of peace and relaxation and just pick up a book? Instead, restlessness took hold and I proposed a walk.  My wife would have been quite justified in throwing the book I should have been reading at me and telling me to pour a drink instead, but being a trooper, agreed to come with me.

A half hour bush track took us to a nearby beach, but both being long-legged, it didn't even take us that long.  Emboldened, I eyed the rocky shoreline and uttered the words which could have killed us: "Why don't we walk back along the coast?"

We set off, clambering over the first of what was to be countless rocky outcrops framing the first of countless small coves.  Every one of these coves contained a family of seals headed by a large mother, maniacally territorial and protective of her small cubs. The beaches were strewn with concealing boulders and the inevitable attack could come from anywhere. A sudden, overpowering fishy stench, furious grunting and barking, and a large, terrifyingly swift shape whose front end seemed to be composed solely of bulging eyes and jagged rows of teeth would chase us to the next ‘corner’  We might even have thought the first time was funny, but each repetition forced us further past the point of no return.

A glance at a map would have shown that the track we walked crossed the narrow neck of a peninsula, which then fanned out into the endless zig-zagging coastline we were now trying to navigate.  We didn't know this - but knew we were in trouble.

The constant close encounters of the furred kind were taking their toll - we were becoming ‘seal-shocked’.  We tried to leave the water's edge and beat a track into the thick bush, but abandoned this desperate gambit when we almost pitched into a hidden gully.  Gradually, the sun began to sink and the air temperature dropped (neither of us were dressed for this). The tide came in fast, eating the shore until we had literally nowhere left to go but up.
Pulling ourselves up a steep slope by grasping hold of flax bushes, we pushed into the bush until finding a clearing.  Back at the Lodge, where-ever it might be, we had a sumptuous meal and expensive bed waiting - here we had a few squares of melted chocolate and prickly bracken to collapse onto. The relentless clambering and adrenaline overdose in our systems from constant escapes had wiped us out – and so we lay for what felt like hours, unable to do anything except watch the few visible patches of sky darken fully into night.
Gradually we revived and tried to build a fern mattress in the dark.  That endless night was measured in brief periods of dozing, followed by huddling against the cold and even sit-ups to try and keep warm. The first faint glow of dawn was a blessed relief and we set off again as soon as we could see our watches. The sound of a distant boat made trying to return to the beach an attractive proposition, but somehow we were now at the top of a cliff, and had no option but to continue upwards instead.  Cresting a hill we almost wept to discover that a couple of small valleys away lay the unbelievable sight of Awaroa Lodge.
We literally threw ourselves up and down those thickly wooded gullies - crashing along wild pig trails with no regard for thorns and branches. Finally staggering into our room at 7.30am, we were ridiculously anxious that someone had seen us and desperate to freshen up and appear for breakfast as if nothing had happened.  It was probably a combination of shame and a frantic need to return to some kind of normality.
A few hours later we were speeding away on our water taxi, considerably less sad than usual to come to the end of a holiday.  The sun shone, the waves foamed and sparkled - and then the Pilot leaned over and shouted above the sound of the motor: "We've got a bit of extra time, do you want to see some seals?"

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Count Down - Part nine: Asian Fusion

Hammer's final Dracula film wisely eschewed gimicky settings and returned to the familiar trappings of the nineteenth century, in China(?)

One of the alternative titles for this Hammer-Shaw Bros co-production.

It's the one hundredth entry on Phasmatodea, so I'm marking it with an ending.  Here is the final instalment of 'Count Down' - the very last Hammer Dracula film.
Famously this is the one which Christopher Lee took a rain-check on, but I'd have to conclude that he missed out on a lot of fun.  The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires is a frenetic farewell party to mark the end of this decades-spanning film series, throwing everything into the mix including a drag act! (John Forbes-Robertson's rouged, dubbed and woefully inadequate substitution as the Count is frequently compared to a Queen, rather than King, of vampires whose makeup has run.)

Mascara of Dracula

Hong Kong martial arts cinema was huge in the early 70's - everybody really was Kung Fu fighting, so why not Peter Cushing in his final performance as Van Helsing?  Well, perhaps not quite, but the ageing star doesn't stint on the surprising physicality which he's always brought to the role, and whirls a flaming torch around as if he really means it.

A brilliant comic adaptation appeared in House of Hammer magazine.
This spread shows Cushing's exposition scene at the beginning of the film.

Tying in with the continuity of the previous two films, this is the same Lawrence Van Helsing who later dies in a mutually assured destructive struggle with Dracula on a runaway coach in Hyde Park. That makes his son Leyland from this film the father of Lorimer Van Helsing, the hero of those preceding features.  Exactly how 'J' Van Helsing (his first name is never given, but I'd go with 'Jasper', 'Julio' or 'Jehosaphat') of the original Hammer Dracula fits in has never been ascertained.

For once, Michael Carreras's attempts to inject something new into the Hammer formula seems to
have worked - despite the much-missed absence of Lee this film is rickshaw-load more fun than the previous stodgy effort.  The plot is never anything more than a coat-hanger for a series of genuinely exciting martial arts set pieces, strung between the trek of a surprisingly coherent party of Hammer and Hong Kong action stars to the cursed village where the undead hold sway. En route, Cushing naturally sports a pith helmet while Scandinavian starlet Julie Ege uses a bodice ripping-attack by one of the vampires as an excuse to strip down to a more practical vest top.

British colonialism, the Western genre and Hong Kong cinema collide in a single still
- and not even any sign of vampires yet

Lets not forget that amidst all the genre mashing this is supposed to be a horror film and thankfully we do get some genuinely effective scenes as the zombie-like victims of the vampire cult claw out of their graves to pursue our heroes. In an authentic Chinese touch which might have perplexed director Roy Ward Baker, many of these skull-headed extras hop up and down when massed as an army, weirdly enhanced by the jittery music accompanying these scenes.

Here they are - but don't let their tatty appearance fool you: these cats are 'fast as lightning'. 

From Buffy to Blade and Underworld all modern vampires seem to pop out of their coffins with a comprehensive knowledge of martial arts, so the Seven Golden Vampires was actually very prescient in it's own way.  Alas, like their excellent Captain Kronos film, this blending of traditional horror and swashbuckling action failed to save Hammer, but would have been right at home in today's cinemas.
And so the saga which began 26 years ago with a young actor deemed too tall for leading roles and an already experienced television star draws to a close once more with a pile of dust and a signet ring scattered on the floor of a remote mountain castle.

We've moved from Transylvania in the 1880's, to Victorian London, the swinging '70s and finally 19th Century China.  Starlets have been discovered, careers launched, reputations cemented and a studio which provided immeasurable income and employment for the British film industry has risen and fallen.
But most of all, an indelible, instantly recognisable icon was created - with all considerable due respect to Messers Lugosi, Carradine, Palance, Langela and Oldman - Sir Christopher Lee, pale of face and red in tooth and eye will always be the definitive Dracula. Regardless of sparse and sometimes even non-existent dialogue, and despite Lee's own later disdain for the role, any future interpretation will forever strain to escape his exceedingly long shadow.
During the filming of Francis Ford Coppola's magnificently-overwrought 1993 version of Dracula, Gary Oldman insisted on an elaborate 'man-bat' costume for the scene in which the heroes confront the Count at Carfax Abbey, because he insisted he wasn't credibly able to frighten them without it.
Christopher Lee would have had no such difficulty.


Although we've finally come to the end of the Hammer Dracula series, Lee played the Count in at least two other films.  Dracula pere et fils (father and Son) - a 1976 French comedy; and Spanish-Italian-German production Count Dracula (1970) directed by Jess Franco.
The latter was the very first time I ever saw Lee as Dracula, playing the role in a whiskery and verbose fashion more in keeping with Bram Stoker's novel. As such, It has a special place in my heart, so I will also be covering this film at some point - if and when I can track it down.

Christopher Lee's two non-Hammer appearances as the Count.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Tideland - Part Two: Going Out

The Takaka hill is already a challenge to an inexperienced cyclist - so why not attempt it during a severe national weather warning?

Beyond Farewell Spit, the West Coast weather finally begins to advance...

As much as I tried hard not to obsess about the weather on this much-looked-forward-to holiday, from the moment I looked at the very unpromising long-term forecast the weekend prior, I just couldn't help it.

It's no news that New Zealand has enjoyed a spectacular summer.  Clouds seem to migrate elsewhere at Christmas-time and have remained almost unglimpsed for over two months.  Although this makes me very happy it's tempered by the fact that that my neighbours are farmers, and drought is a very serious matter for them.  To a much-lesser extent for us also, as keeping our many trees alive has proved a challenge in these conditions.
But being intrinsically selfish, the promise of almost the first rain all year for our week in Collingwood did result in some pouting.  The region badly needs it, I tried to tell myself, while really not relishing days spent inside gloomily observing my favourite place on earth rendered in sad, soggy shades of grey.

The weather differed from what we'd been led to expect.

However, as the photographs I've published show, this was not to be the case.  By a massive stroke of luck which my whining hardly deserved, the wet weather seemed to keep moving back a day, until finally bottle-necking on Saturday, 7 March. This was the day that I was to leave and cycle the 85km to Motueka, so I reasoned that if I left early enough I could avoid the storm, Golden Bay would finally get its much-needed water, and everyone would be happy.

The time had arrived for these spindly legs to do some work...

On the road around 6.20 am, I was enjoying the dark quiet and smug in the fact that there wasn't a rain drop to be felt.  I stopped for a light breakfast in Takaka, keen continue not repeating my mistakes of the last time I did this cycle trip (too late a start on too hot a day - and too big a breakfast). While I sipped my coffee the first wave of rain lashed the street outside, but was gone by the time I pedalled out of town.

The weather system was coming from the north-west, which meant that I actually had a tail wind and was making great time, almost reaching the base of the hill before the storm finally caught me.  I could see the horizontal rain sleeting across the paddocks on my left side as if rushing to cut me off, before hitting me like the wall of water it was.
Bike, panniers and rider were instantly saturated.  I put on another layer but already the water had seeped through to my skin.  There was suddenly no sensation of distinction between my body, clothes and the air - I was an insignificant drop in the airborne ocean. My only saving grace was that this was a warm front, and the drenched air which pushed me along was in the cosy mid-to-late twenties degree range.

My legs protested as the road began to slant upwards, but I think the weather actually took my mind off the ascent.  In fact, if it weren't for the wind and stinging rain on a couple of upper corners blowing me out into the middle of the road, I might have made the climb without a single stop (unlike last time when the hot sun was relentless and energy-sapping).
All too soon I was whizzing down the other side of 791m summit, cheated of a final view back across my beloved Golden Bay - actually, cheated of a view of anything beyond a few metres.

Looking back from the start of the hill - Golden Bay is full of
much-needed rain.

I say 'whizzing' but I actually had to ride the brakes all the way down the hill.  I was so completely waterlogged that the cold rushing air of a full-speed descent would have turned me into a popsicle by the time I reached the bottom.

Wrenching off my all my clothes and trying to find something dry to put on in a MacDonalds toilet cubicle brought my adventure to a distinctly unglamorous close, but the simple pleasures of dry underwear are never to be underestimated.
Leaving Motueka I tried to dry out my cellphone, and couldn't help but notice with some amusement that the rain had stopped and the sun was starting to come out.

The rainfall at the end of the first week of March saw flooding around central New Zealand,
and people kayaking down the streets of Greymouth on the South Island west coast.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Tideland - Part One: Coming In

Heaven is an expanse of tide-sculpted sand, a forever ebbing and flowing estuary, and a primordially-jagged range of hills.

Good moon rising

I was about to pull the curtains in my tiny cabin when I glanced up to see that a perfect full moon has just cleared the tree tops, directly in my line of sight.  I snatching up the camera I trotted down to the beach to see it hanging in a salmon and turquoise evening sky, casting a glow on the still waters of Golden Bay beneath.  This place never loses it's ability to surprise me with its abundance of natural beauty.

Last time I stayed in Collingwood on my own coincided with the arrival of Comet McNaught, in late January 2007, the only comet in my lifetime which not only failed to disappoint, but actually exceeded expectations.  So much so that its refection, and even those of the surrounding stars, were also visible on the mirror smooth waters of  Collingwood's estuary.

The Aorere Estuary, with 'primordial' Mount Burnett on the far right

Collingwood is a very special place - rich with history which still permeates the  Western movie-backlot main street, apart from the fact that it has been rebuilt five times over its many years due to fire. The first distant glimpse of the town as you reach the estuary and turn seaward is a view straight into the past, with wooden wharves and the towns surprisingly grand Post Office building framing the tidal channel. In unkinder moments I feel it would be the ideal location for an adaptation of H P Lovecraft's The Shadow over Innsmouth - but Collingwood certainly has none of the sense of decay and menace, no shadow, of that titular coastal village.

The Tasman Sea makes its way into Whanganui Inlet
It is the last substantial settlement before access from the east, and the main routes spanning the rest of the South Island, runs out - Cape Farewell at the North and the Whanganui Inlet to the west are the end of the line.  Collingwood is a frontier town -  not a mere passing through point, and so has a unique, unchanging character.

In early 1976 my parents took us on a family holiday to the end of the Earth - or the South island at least.  For me, it was the beginning of a love affair with the coast, and particularly  Collingwood where I'm once again overjoyed to be staying.

Shack away from home: our first-ever accommodation
 in Collingwood Motorcamp

I know my memories of that holiday are somewhat romanticised, because it rained one entire week out of the two we were here, but I only remember the perfect sunny days.
The motorcamp is right at the end of a blunt apostrophe of land surrounded by the sea on three sides, and the sound  of the waves is ever-present. When I was first here a huge piece of driftwood had been somehow stood up on one end, out beyond the tidal flats where the breakers crashed. The older boys from the family we holidayed with told me it was 'King Neptune'; and indeed it required no effort at all to anthropomorphise this massive, ever-swaying visitor from the depths. A seaweed beard and something resembling a trident were surely unmistakable, and the distant waves were his roaring as he guarded the outmost perimeter of land and sea. Perhaps Neptune eventually made it to the shore, and I pass the long-fallen colossus every day on my many walks up and down the beach.

This is why I like to walk along the beach at first light

I also read Jaws on this holiday.  I was too young, and this nasty novel tempered my love of the sea forever more. We caught cockabullies and built little walls of sand to try and hold back the tide.  "You'll never stop the sea", my Mother told me kindly, "It will always win." One of her many simple pieces of wisdom which has always remained with me.

We travelled inland and explored historic goldfields, this area was one of the very first boom towns. And we turned North, visiting Wharariki Beach for the first time.  This vast natural amphitheatre made an instant and lasting impact on me. Paradoxically it is a vast stretch of shoreline open to sea and sky, but to me has always had the sense of an enormous cathedral. It is a renowned place of natural beauty, perenially popular with photographers and tourists but I sensed it was much more than that, even before we were literally chased out by a violent squall which appeared from nowhere - not once but on both of our first visits.

The Archway Rocks, Wharariki Beach

Wharariki Beach seems to have made it's peace with me since then.  I spent all of yesterday afternoon there, pacing its golden expanse and gazing reverently up at the stunning rock structures and many caves. On an earlier visit, not long after first light before the tourists had arrived, I had a sense that this was a place of spiritual significance. I recalled the Maori belief that spirits of the dead travel the length of Aotearoa, departing from the Northern-most tip for the ancestral homeland of Hawaiki.  Could this be the southern equivalent, I wondered, perhaps the terminal of a supernatural crossing between the two islands? Unsurprisingly to me , some reading I've done since seems to imply this is true.

I hope life eventually brings me back here for good.  I can think of nothing better than sharing poor 'King Neptune's  possible fate, and becoming another beached relic washed up on these endless golden sands.