Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Star Guide

Sometimes it can take an awfully long time to catch up with a programme you originally missed...

The dawn of the 1970s was a time of scientific optimism, the Apollo missions were still new and inspiring - Moon bases and manned journeys to Mars were surely just around the corner. Personal jet-packs and household robots would be in the shops by Christmas.

But my own recollection of this time is that the gaze of our collective consciousness faltered and dropped from the stars to our own uncomfortably shuffling feet, pretty quickly.  Further moon landings were mothballed, Vietnam and Watergate filled the news and replaced a generation's optimism with cynicism, the energy crisis, Cold War and economic instability quickly made the future seem a lot less shiny and exciting.
As it always has, cinema served as the barometer of the public mindset.  Disaster movies, gritty crime dramas with morally ambiguous anti-heroes and grim post apocalyptic science fiction became the order of the day.

Science was no longer a gleaming rocket ship poised to soar skywards, but the dull glint of missiles aimed earthwards. Our friend the atom had become a symbol for mistrust and all-encompassing oblivion.

I'm reticent to credit Star Wars with too much, but the influence of this film's unfashionable brand of simple excitement and derring-do in space can't be underestimated.  This adventure in a far-away galaxy a long time ago helped many to feel curious and excited once again about our own place in the universe.

Scientist Carl Sagan had never lost that wonderment, and at last the lay of the entertainment and technological landscape enabled him to share his knowledge and enthusiasm on a scale never dreamt of before. 
I was hoping to be able to describe Sagan in a sentence, but a quick look at his vast wikipedia page shows how difficult this would be.  They do have a good go at it though:

Carl Edward Sagan (1934-1996): American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, science populariser, and science communicator in astronomy and other natural sciences."

The man who assembled the pioneer probe plaque and Voyager golden record:
to describe our world to any potential extraterrestrial intelligence which these messages might reach had his sights not only on the stars but was equally passionate about our home among them.
At last those stars aligned to also enable him to transmit information to Earth - and the resulting 1980 television series, Cosmos: A personal Voyage, has been seen by 500 million people across 60 countries. It remains the most-widely watched series in American public broadcasting history. 

Documentaries using state-of the art visual effects techniques are now run of the mill, if not mandatory, but Cosmos broke new ground in employing the computer motion-controlled camera technology developed for Star Wars, as well as state-of-the-art animation and miniature work.

Carl Sagan discusses where he will eventually appear inside this painstaking model
 of the Great Library of Alexandria with the visual effects team
Within the vast scope of its 13 episodes, Sagan didn't just talk about history: lavish recreations of feudal Japan and post-renaissance Europe brought the past into our living rooms as vividly as the effects conjured sub-atomic, microbiological and macro-cosmological spectacle.

I caught glimpses of Cosmos in the early 1980s, I think it was shown on a Sunday afternoon, and although exactly the kind of thing I was interested in, I was rarely home to see it.

And in a nerd's vinyl collection, we have...

It stuck with me though.  I actually bought the soundtrack album, mainly for Vangelis' Heaven and Hell: the haunting main theme of Cosmos, but loved it for the plethora of music from different eras and cultures.
The 'companion to the series' book, also written by Sagan, was devoured by me more than once and now I really wished I'd stayed in on those Sunday afternoons.

Seeing Cosmos became something of a minor obsession for a while... I remember coming across the VHS box set and seriously contemplating parting with just under $100 for it.

Time passed. Cosmos became a distant curio from the dawn of a pink and grey era, surely obsolete in our cyber-age. The Wellington public library clearly thought so when they sold the series for three dollars at a recent book sale.  For less than the price of a cup of coffee I finally had a DVD box set of a programme I'd wanted to see for over 30 years.

Carl in his conversation pit
So has it dated?  Of course it has.  Hair, fashions and typography jangle horribly in some segments, as does the sainted Sagan's tendency to hog the camera, lingering on his own silent wonderment of the celestial vistas we'd rather be looking at instead. Rose was quick to christen his extremely beige spaceship of the mind set the 'conversation pit', while Sagan's utterly unique pronunciation of the word 'human' (Ooman) is a quirk which is impossible to 'un-notice' once heard.

One the standout special effects from Cosmos - travelling along the medial
 longitudinal fissure between the two hemisphere of the human brain.
But despite all this Cosmos is still a fascinating, visually impressive and staggeringly ambitious piece of television which amply succeeds in it's aim of communicating the wonders around and above us.  Carl Sagan is an engaging guide who seems to find the balance between a passion for science and humanity in every point he makes.

Most surprising of all is that the science itself appears (from my limited perspective) to have dated little in the many years since.
Sagan passed away a year before he was able to see the excellent film adaptation of his novel Contact, but his impact remains (literally, in the case of the Martian crater named after him).

Sagan took ribbing from people like Johnny Carson in good humour.

Another of his catchphrases from Cosmos: 'billions and billions' (lampooned by everyone from Johnny Carson to Frank Zappa because of Sagan's heavy emphasis on the 'b') has actually become a unit of measurement.  At least four Billion equals one Sagan. The joke's now on us, fellow Oomans.

Friday, 17 July 2015

What a wonderful world

What do Spider-Man, the Loch Ness Monster and German Opera have in common?

I have a large collection of hardback books which, when we finally have our much-discussed living room shelf unit built, will never be allowed to abide there.  And this isn't an issue of age-restricted material (unless you count the barely fettered decolletages of the Hammer ladies) but more one of minor embarrassment to my wonderful wife.  Yes, she'll watch any old tosh with me if I pick my moment, but to have shelves full of books devoted to horror, science fiction  and fantasy films and television in full view of visitors who might have otherwise thought we're normal, seems to be a bridge too far.

So solid, respectable tomes about gardening, travel, history, handicrafts and, if I'm lucky, astronomy will make the living room bookshelves creak instead, while my extensive but slightly worrying collection will remain fittingly hidden away from sunlight.

Like the creatures within their pages, these books might be sometimes shunned and misunderstood, but my Mum actually started this collection, buying me my first 'coffee table book' about monsters when I was still having single digit birthdays.
And what a book it was, becoming a treasured possession all through my life. Despite being a clumsy and often absent minded person I somehow manage to take incredibly good care of my books, and my copy of this particular volume: The Horrific World of Monsters, still looks as if it could have been bought yesterday.

I've been to Bran Castle, alleged by this book to be the birthplace of
Vlad Tepes, and it really is as pretty as it looks in this inset.
I've amassed many books on the same subject since but this one remains a curiosity, in the best possible way.  First of all, the creatures within are arranged alphabetically, an unusual move which you think might spell disaster when you reach less fertile letters.  But not this book. Not only did it cover the expected Universal and Hammer monsters but also creatures born of every old world mythology - from the British Isles, through Scandinavia, Europe and the ancient Mediterranean, Egypt and the Middle East, Asia and then into Russia. As an introduction to classical and medieval myth and legend alone (illustrated with art from the likes of Goya, Tibaldi and Bosch), this book was worth its weight in golden Fleece.

But this was just the beginning, true believers.  In my last post I 'came out' as someone who prefers to 'make mine Marvel', and that might stretch all the way back to this book.  Because also within its pages were Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and numerous Stan Lee spawned super-villains. It seems insane, but page 86 for example gives us this bewildering spectrum of subjects: Redcap and the Roc from British and Islamic folklore respectively, The Reptile from Hammer, Spider-Man's minor nemesis the Rhino and Tolkien's Ringwraiths. How wonderfully bonkers is that?

The 'Horrific' Four (coming to a cinema near you soon), sharing a page with the Fly,
Frankenstein, a Wagnerian Opera and an Irish feathered cyclops.
Still want more? Well, dinosaurs obviously, all photographs of 'life-like' models, as many of the books from the mid-seventies liked to use. But possibly the best was still to come: Television wasn't to be neglected, with Quatermass and Star Trek touched upon, but Doctor Who's big three: the Daleks, Cybermen and Ice Warriors were  each given lavish picture spreads. This officially made The Horrific World of Monsters The Best Book Ever.

Good luck spotting this scene from the  Doctor Who story the caption says it's from. 
I think it might actually be a publicity shot from a BBC exhibition - but it's still brilliant.
From it's atmospheric cover painting, with 'likenesses' of Lee, Karloff and Chaney just the right side of copyright infringement and a devil tail on the bright yellow title lettering, to the distinctly '70s typography throughout, this book was patient zero of my life-long disorder regarding books, monsters and books about monsters.

I'll be disinterring many other volumes never to be seen in our Living Room in posts to come.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Melee à trois

A particular few minutes of footage from the current Comic Con has left us Black and Blue.

After months and months of very little there is a lot to take in with the recent Comic Con Batman v Superman trailer. These are some thoughts on it from a life-long Superman fan: the Phasmatodea of Tomorrow.  From the perspective of someone who prefers his cape black - read Bat Simian's synced views here: http://jetsimian.blogspot.co.nz/2015/07/cape-expectations.html

And here's the trailer itself:

Jeremy Irons as our third Alfred in as many years instantly impresses with his RADA gravitas.
Alfred wisely councils putting Pearl Harbour behind them
Fascinating that he appears to be the voice of reason in the Wayne household, echoing  the wisdom of a particular solo-mother in rural Kansas. I always assumed that a certain Amazon princess would break up the sadly inevitable stoush between the title characters, but maybe Alfred Pennyworth and Martha Kent send them to their rooms (caves/fortresses) instead?

Now the world is ready for you, and the wonders you can do,
Make a hawk a dove, stop a war with love,
make a liar tell it true...
And speaking of Wonder Woman, despite the negative on-line response to Gal Gadot's lack of physicality, she certainly looks the part in the very brief glimpses we're afforded here (wearing, as a workmate has quipped: her "Wondie-Onesie"). Ben Affleck also looks great with convincing smouldering rage. I decided from the start to be a supporter of his casting and I'm already smugly glad that I did.

Mention Jersey Girl one more time, I dare you...
I'm less certain about Jesse Eisenberg's Luthor, perhaps he's meant to be instantly slap-able? I'd have preferred Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston: surely perfect casting? Elsewhere Holly Hunter continues to sound more and more like a mid-western Sean Connery, while Cavill IS Superman, having made the role his own before he even put the costume on in the first film.

Meanwhile, someone else does the heavy lifting, as usual
This is going to be a crowded tale for sure, with more and more characters from the DC universe crammed in with every new announcement. And I really don't need to see yet another enactment of the murder of young Bruce Wayne's parents - oh please no.

I wanted, (quite reasonably, I thought), a Man of Steel sequel about Superman, but instead am not only getting a potentially rushed introduction to the Justice League, but an interpretation of a highly-regarded, but thoroughly nasty, Batman story from the end of the 1980s.

Despite all this I'm very much looking forward to this film. With my interest in the Arrow and Flash TV series wavering around zero, with great surprise I have to come out as more of a Marvel man after all, but also Superman fan first and foremost (so conflicted - maybe I'm MC-DC?) But most of all, I really want to see DC's big three on screen together, and I hope Gal Gadot is as successful at inheriting her mantle from a definitive 1970's interpretation as Cavill was.

Speaking of whom: poor Kal-El looks as if he's really being put through the wringer in this. From carrying the catastrophic consequences of the first film (just remember that he saved the world, everyone!) to a persistent rodent problem and the emergence of his perennial, but usually follically-challenged, arch nemesis.

So I won't blame him if for once he doesn't hold back all the time. Frank Miller's original storyline for The Dark Knight Returns comic concluded with a more thoughtful and realistic confrontation - which I hope Zack Snyder veers more towards in this film.
After all, although this latest hulking Batman drips with menace, as Superman reminds him in The Dark Knight Returns: "Bruce... you're just meat and bone - like all the rest".

On the other hand, as my 'Wondie-Onesie workmate' also reminded me, Superman always has to endure so much suffering because only he can bear it. To extend the already abundant religious analogy: he suffers for our sins, while the other guy in this film title wants us to suffer for them.

Monday, 6 July 2015

State of Decade

It's been a decade today since 'Nu Who' debuted in in New Zealand.
I'm celebrating by nicking an idea from the latest DWM and picking a favourite moment from each of the years since the TARDIS returned.

"The first episode of the new Doctor Who was smashing, with strong characters, great and gimmicky special effects and a plot so wildly ridiculous it drew me in completely. The steely Christopher Eccleston plays the doctor as a cross between the saviour of the universe and a stand-up comedian, but this doctor really knows his Tardis from a plastic life force.

Former pop singer Billie Piper is a sparkling actress, although her character, Rose, is a little impetuous. She left her boyfriend... and confidently strolled into an eerie time machine to join an alien on a trip through the galaxies. Still without knowing his last name.

The scripts are witty. Rose asks the doctor, "If you're an alien, how come you sound like you come from the north?" The doctor replies, "Lots of planets have a north." 
(Doctor Who, Prime, Thursday, 7.30pm)

This abridged review from the Sunday Star Times, June 10, 2005, is typical of the New Zealand media's positive reaction to the return of Doctor Who. Prime, bless them, promoted the premier to the hilt, and sure enough ended up with a hit on their hands.

(photograph by Shane Palmer)
A lot happens in ten years, we've weathered a global financial crisis, seen a major New Zealand city devastated by an earthquake, and on a personal level my own Rose and I have changed jobs, built a house,  become published writers (I've even been fortunate enough to interview many people from the show itself).  We've also had to say goodbye to people dear to us, My Mum didn't see out Tennant's era but would always watch the new show and was very happy to see Bille Piper return in series 4. But through good and bad a certain sturdy blue box has been a constant reassuring presence, at least for a few months each year - and, oh so fittingly - at Christmas.

So here are some of my favourite moments from the years since Christopher Eccleston's Doctor first asked "D'you wanna come with me?"

2005: "Have a good life - do that for me, Rose - have a fantastic life."
There's so much to love in Eccleston's final episode, but the Doctor's holographic recording turning to farewell Rose as if he knows exactly where she's standing, and delivering that line, raises goosebumps every time.

(from 1:07)

2006: "Did I do something wrong? Because you never came back for me. You just dumped me."
The old and new series are officially linked, and one of the very best of former friends addresses an awkward issue.


2007: "You... Are... Not... Alone"
Sir Derek Jacobi is the Master- how spoilt were we?  The fact that it was only for ten minutes is indicative of the many things this season didn't get quite so right.

 (from 3.30)

2008: The Opening credits of The Stolen Earth
Actually the guest list of a huge 45th Anniversary party - what a shame so few people seemed to realise at the time.


2009: "Captain, they're back. It's the bus, ma'am, it's come back and it's flying."
A double-decker bus emerges from a time-space wormhole into the London night sky, to the gleeful adulation of UNITs current scientific adviser.
The most joyous and silly of a handful of slightly gloomy 'specials'.  Was fun largely forgotten because it was Tennant's last year?


2010: "Hello, I'm the Doctor. Basically... run."
On a hospital rooftop, Matt Smith walks out from behind a compilation of nostalgic clips, fixing his bow-tie, and himself, firmly in place.


2011: "Did you wish really, really hard?"
The TARDIS becomes a woman who introduces herself as 'sexy', to Amy's arch consternation. Neil Gaiman delivers his love letter to the series.


2012: The Parliament of the Daleks
Beat that Phantom Menace - but let's hope there's never a fire drill.


2013: "No Sir, all thirteen!" and:
 "I'm a Doctor, but probably not the one you were expecting."
It was the 50th Anniversary, so I'm allowed two - neither of which were in the actual 2013 season. The next Doctor almost steals an already wondrous scene with his glare alone:

and elsewhere we get the present everyone wanted, but no-one was expecting:


2014:  "You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara... goodness had nothing to do with it."
At the end of Flatline, a hugely inventive and beautifully realised story, the Doctor reminds Clara, and the rest of us, that we still don't really know him. He remains 'Doctor Who'.

So what has stood out for you in the last ten years of 'Nu Who'?

Saturday, 4 July 2015


One of those catchy songs with a nonsensical chorus (see also Radio Ga-ga and The Police's De-do-do-do) has got us hooked on a new series recently

Music has no nationality?
These eight people all appear to like the same song... at the same time.
We've embarked on yet another promising netflix production - the Wachowski TV epic Sense8. (Our Kiwi predilection to leave the last syllable off words and many years of attempting martial arts always makes me hear the title as 'Sensei' and flinch in anticipation of a beating, or at least a silly amount of press-ups .

A couple of like-minded friends at work raved about this series, and although I find the Wachowski's very hit and miss, we decided to give it a go. Sense8 is a slow burn which doesn't go out of its way to provide quick and easy answers, and certainly challenges sexual stereotyping, but it wasn't really until the third episode that we started to really care about the characters.  The fact that it is co-created and co-written by a certain Joe Straczynski (http://fasmatodea.blogspot.co.nz/2015/03/high-five.html) certainly helped me to persevere.

And then in episode 4 we got this scene; which illustrates the unexplained and unpredictable psychic bond between the eight leads in a joyous and humorous way which might just leave a grin on your face.

Surprisingly not titled "What's going on" (to avoid confusion with the 1971 Marvin Gaye hit), What's Up is the 1993 'one hit wonder' by American group 4 Non-blondes. It did well across the English speaking world, but also ranked highly in singles charts in South America and various European  countries, which makes it very appropriate given the disparate nationalities of the Sense8 characters.

I'm assured the programme continues to get better, but I'll be interested to see how they top this. And if we eventually even discover "what's going on".