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Friday 26 March 2010

Evolution of an Idea

I've been organising my files and came across this short piece that I wrote about Eleventh Hour for some purpose or other.

With Chimera's impending DVD appearance (news on those features soon, I promise) I thought I'd put it out here. It offers a kind of join-the-dots demonstration of how my thinking went over the sixteen years that separated the two projects.
At the beginning of my career I wrote a miniseries called Chimera, a variant on the Frankenstein story with a cold-hearted scientist as its villain. It made some waves, and through various debates and public events brought me into contact with a lot of real-world science professionals.

I found that these scientists were, almost without exception, sharp, cultured, funny, and great late-night company. They were well-read, they listened to opera, they played musical instruments. Future Nobel prizewinner Paul Nurse was a motorbike nut (and was the guy who first encouraged me to dream up a real-science drama). Biologist Jack Cohen advised sf writers on alien-building and had a daughter who was a dancer. All were genuinely excited to be doing the work they did.

As much as these real scientists shaped my picture of Hood, they also shaped my attitude to science villains. The ruthless, 'playing God' stereotype, arguing that harm can be justified in the name of progress, is a cartoon.

Science's villains are the same recognisably human people as those regular scientists. But they become villains through regular human flaws, not by Nazi logic. They sell out, or screw up. They can bend the truth to suit their paymasters or the policymakers, and call it 'being realistic'. They can be reckless, they can underestimate danger, they can lie to cover their mistakes, they can take desperate measures to cover their lies. But science's villains are characterised by their human failings, not by single-minded immoral intent.

And often they won't even be scientists, but people who co-opt science to their own purposes. CEOs, charlatans, toxic waste dumpers, politicians, lobbyists, thieves, counterfeiters, scammers, conspiracy theorists, drug lords, mobsters.

People like the international hustler and would-be breakthrough human cloner who provided the model for the bad guy in my very first story.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Bootleg Corner

One of the bootleg Eleventh Hour boxed sets has come my way. I won’t say how – it’s not a trade I’m here to encourage – but it wasn’t difficult to get hold of. At first glance the Chinese DVD packaging is way more attractive than the 'official' version, though on closer inspection it's hilarious. There are logos for CBS, Paramount Studios and the Showtime cable network, a long rambling blurb than conflates the stories from three different episodes, small print in Engrish, and a copyright notice that reads DEXTER (TM). They just cut and paste this stuff so it looks right from a distance, the way that the aliens put together Dave Bowman’s apartment in Arthur C Clarke’s 2001 novel.

(In the novel, Bowman takes down a book from the shelf and the pages are all slightly out of focus. Brilliant detail.)

When I put any one of the discs in my player, it rattles like a saucepan lid. Still works, though. After two separate copyright theft warnings, from Interpol and the FBI (nice touch!), up comes... the Twentieth Century Fox movie logo and fanfare.

Which means that one way or another they seem to name-check almost every random studio except for Warner Bros, the studio that actually made the show.

The box, which has a nice matt finish with classy part-laminated images, also promises Dolby sound (no) and a Spanish language track (there isn’t). The menus on the discs have a home-made look, but they’re kind of pleasing.

And what of the episodes? I assumed that they’d be ripped and stolen from the Warner Archive release, but they aren’t. All the shows are recorded straight from TV.

In fact they’re probably the torrented versions that appeared online within hours of the original broadcasts. They’re widescreen but they’re heavily compressed and nowhere near Hi Def. When you play an episode, it has the CBS ‘eye’ logo in the corner of the screen – the ad breaks have been cut out but midway through you get flashed-up promos for other shows. Someone’s added switchable subtitle tracks in English and two forms of Chinese.

Worth having? Nah. Keep your money and stay legal. It’s barely a step up from a movie stolen by camcorder and if you’re stupid enough to sit through one of those, consider yourself banned from the blog. You probably think that date-expired seafood is a great bargain. I inadvertently bought something like this once before, when I bid on the first season of Carnivale on eBay, thinking it was the real thing. All it did was persuade me to go to Amazon and pay all over again.

But that box, though – love that box.

Friday 19 March 2010

The Simpsons and Me

If you read my 'back in LA' post a couple of weeks ago you'll know that while walking in one of the city's State Parks I was met by two Golden Retrievers, dripping wet and happy to share, closely followed by anxious family.

And if you read on into the comments section you'll know that's how I met Michael Price, Co-Executive Producer on The Simpsons.

Last Thursday found me back on the Fox lot, attending a Simpsons table read at Mike's invitation.

Table reads are becoming less common in drama, but in comedy they're a useful tool. The cast and production team sit around a big conference table and there are chairs around the outside of the room for about 30 invited guests who serve as a kind of tryout audience for the jokes. Immediately afterwards in the writers' room, the writing staff dive onto the script like seagulls on fresh roadkill and make it funnier.

It was over in less than an hour and great fun, though a little strange because the voices were all Homer and Bart & co but the people were the people. Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer phoned their parts in - literally, because both were off making movies and participated by speakerphone.

Matt Groening was there, too. If I was Matt Groening, I'd be in the Bahamas having delegated all the heavy lifting to a horde of carefully-selected Oompah Loompahs. But the fact that he wasn't is probably one of the reasons the show has lasted so long.

Bart signed my copy of the script. I wasn't certain if I should ask, but Nancy Cartwright came working the room. I won't give away anything about the story we heard, though it was cool to find out afterwards that my favourite joke was contributed by my host.

At least, that's what he said when I told him.

And there's a funny circularity about this whole thing that only struck me when it was over. One of the reasons I was so happy to see the Retrievers in the park was that our own is so far away, and anyone who's used to walking with a dog can't help finding a walk incomplete without one. It's like going to the Mall without your pants.

(I can tell you, next time I'll be sure and read the label on the cold medicine.)

The thing is, the dog I was missing used to be my dad's dog. We inherited her. Her name is Maggie because he was a big Simpsons fan.

This being California, a temporary resident can rent a dog - though when you add up membership and rental and induction costs, it would be cheaper to buy a puppy and a gun.

Sunday 14 March 2010

Pretty Good, Show Us Your Bum

When we went on Splash Mountain in Disneyland last year, that's what my kid told me to listen out for in the ride music's lyrics. Hear it for yourself...

You can look up the actual words online, but where's the fun in that?

Bryan Talbot, Fantasycon GoH

It's thanks to my old friend Bryan Talbot that I could legitimately put 'model' on my CV, if I were so inclined... back when he was living in Preston and creating The Tale of One Bad Rat, Bryan pressed my entire family into service to help with the photoreference for some of the frames. That's me, the dodgy salesman who tries it on with Helen Potter and succeeds only in wrecking his car, the red 480 that I was driving at the time. My wife sat in for the adult Helen and my daughter posed as Helen-in-childhood. I'm the only one out of the three of us who's recognisable... which makes it rather a shame that these were my moustache-and-mullet days.

Not a bad souvenir of that time in our lives, though.

Now a mailout from the British Fantasy Society tells me that Bryan will be joining Garry Kilworth and Lisa Tuttle as a guest of honour at this year's Fantasycon in September. Here's what they say:
Bryan Talbot has produced underground and alternative comics, notably Brainstorm!, science fiction and superhero stories such as Judge Dredd, Nemesis the Warlock, Teknophage, The Nazz and Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight.

He’s worked on DC Vertigo titles including Hellblazer, Sandman, The Dreaming and Fables and has written and drawn the graphic novels for which he is best known: The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, Heart of Empire, The Tale of One Bad Rat, Alice in Sunderland and Grandville.
For more on all of that, Bryan's site is here.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

Still on that Real/Fake Experience Theme

Remember the big fire at Universal Studios in 2008? They lost some backlot structures and library material, all replaceable, and King Kong.

The 'Kongfrontation' attraction, in case you didn’t know it, involved a giant robot that picked up the bridge that your tour tram was crossing, and shook it. Life sized. A giant robot! King Kong! Thirty-seven feet tall! Only slightly less awesome than his Florida counterpart, but only because in Florida you were up in the air in a cable car when the helicopter attack came.

Dwell on that for a moment. Giant robot. Cable car. Helicopter attack.

They're replacing it with something that they believe will be better - a '4D experience', which involves 3D movie projection combined with physical effects. Yes, you'll have to wear glasses.

I went to the theme park last week and used my year pass - from where I am it's not much more than a fifteen minute drive down Ventura Boulevard and I needed a change of scene. I’d sprung for the year pass so that I could drop by and see the Waterworld show whenever the urge took me; it's a live-action stunt spectacular with high falls and explosions that ends with a full-sized seaplane coming in over the back of the set and crashing a few feet in front of the audience. I wasn't going to blow the surprise for you until I saw how heavily they feature the moment in their promotional video.

I thought I'd just do a couple of hours and catch the show but when I got there, it was 'closed for refurbishment'. So I saw the Blues Brothers show (OK) and Terminator 3D (as underwhelming as I remember it - a dimly-projected 3D mini-movie bookended by live action sequences) and then went on the Jurassic Park ride with its sub-Disney animatronics and awesome water plunge, even more awesome when you sit in the front row.

When I came out they announced that there'd be a Waterworld show after all, at 3pm. It’s a slow time of year for the park, with no lines anywhere, but the outdoor auditorium filled up quickly. I reckon it might have been a dress rehearsal for a new cast... it was badly-paced, had missed cues, and two of the boats broke down.

But at least the seaplane did its stuff. And instead of being drawn into the show, I found myself reflecting on what made the rest of it work. When I told my daughter – as big a theme park freak as you’ll ever meet – she wrote back, I actually think it's pretty cool to see a flawed production as long as you've already seen a perfect version - it's interesting to see and highlights the complexity of what they're trying to achieve.

While I was in the park I learned that they're closing the Backdraft fire-effects exhibit (OK, so no big loss - the buildup to the payoff leans heavily on a movie that few people now remember) and replacing it with a Transformers ride. The way they describe it, the Transformers ride is going to be another '4D experience', the same kind of thing as the Spiderman ride in Florida. The feature they're most proud of is the way they've programmed the 3D screens so that the perspective convergence lines shift in sync with the moving carriage to maintain the point of view.

Which, let's be honest, is an impressive feat. But to my mind we're looking at the difference between a museum with amazing authentic stuff in it and one of those 'interactive experience' exhibits full of kids hammering buttons and ignoring the lame snippets of information that come up on screens. Stuff, versus pictures of stuff.

Me, I'd rather see a giant robot or a live seaplane crash any day. But maybe I'm just out of step.

You can read about the new attraction in the LA Times. Apparently the cost of virtual Kong is more than six times than that of rebuilding the animatronic. This is what you'll be missing:

And here's what you'll get.

Sunday 7 March 2010

Oscars, Before and After

I was going to drive down to Hollywood Boulevard last night to take a look at the Oscar preparations, but it was raining fairly steadily ('a storm', in local parlance) and I was frankly not that arsed. At the moment, everything's locked up around there - when I last looked they appeared to be tenting over several blocks because the forecast was for the rain to continue. I didn't even try to get through to Amoeba for a mooch around the world's most amazing DVD section.

I don't think I've ever watched an Oscar TV show before but I suppose I'll watch this one because I'm here. I'm rooting for Bigelow and The Hurt Locker. Despite what I said in an earlier post, I managed to see Avatar (and Sherlock Holmes) before BAFTA voting closed. I think Avatar's okay; a very high level of okay, but best picture? Seriously, no. At the bottom line it's a technically spectacular presentation of a routine fantasy.

Which has no bearing on how the Academy might vote, at all. These are the people who voted Ghandi the Best Costume Design award.

I have a bet on the Oscars. Well, it's not really a bet. I filled out a form at Trader Joe's where you get a $75 voucher if you pick all the winners and yours comes out of the hat.

So, I'm invested.


F*** me! Do they always draw it out this much? Since this show started I've been able to drive into town, shop, cook dinner, eat and wash up, and it's still going on! It's like having your bone marrow sucked out.


But... Yay! Bigelow and The Hurt Locker!

With those and the other categories my picks all came in, 100%.

Do you see that, Trader Joe?

For Virtual, read 'Nothing There'

Back when I was working on BUGS we grappled with several 'virtual reality' story ideas and none of them ever worked out. We finally concluded that they never would; an action show is about real perils, not perils that you know are merely perceived. When you send your characters into a virtual reality you're essentially asking your audience to empathise with someone watching a movie.

I know there are some people for whom it's all just movement on the screen and it amounts to the same thing, but let's leave those happy morons to their simple pleasures and continue.

If the dangers aren't real for the characters, they aren't real on any level at all. The only time I've ever seen it work is where a disparity or tension between the dream-world and reality is the point of the exercise, and not an inconvenient truth. For example, there's The Thirteenth Floor, based on Daniel Galouye's novel Counterfeit World; Avatar isn't part of this argument, as the characters project into a (to them) physical world, not a virtual one.

The usual element invoked to give weight to a virtual reality story is that creaky old trope of "If you die when you're in there, you die for real out here." There's no point asking why. The answer's only ever going to be some technobabble.

Friday 5 March 2010

Tarzan's Greatest Adventure

My first movie Tarzan was stuntman and former Range Rider Jock Mahoney in Tarzan Goes to India, so maybe it was TV that introduced me to Gordon Scott's take on the ape man. All due respect to Mahoney, but he didn't look right and he was on the wrong frickin' continent. He looked like he'd slipped out of a sports bar and into the loincloth.

By contrast Scott - a walking brick sh*thouse of a hero - showed just enough culture to evoke the character as Burroughs wrote him, while retaining a sense of the primitive under the skin. And Tarzan's Greatest Adventure wasn't just set in Africa, it was shot there as well.

This was the movie that had always lingered in my mind as a Tarzan for grownups, and once I was grown up I waited in vain for it to come around again. Meanwhile there was Greystoke - a Tarzan movie with barely any Tarzanning in it, and not much of anything else to compensate. Disney's animated Tarzan was surprisingly faithful to the source but... well, two words. Phil Collins. I genuinely can't enjoy the movie with all that weary whiny stuff going on. Casper Van Dien's Tarzan and the Lost City featured a return to African locations and handsome production design, but was let down by story, script, and performances.

When Tarzan's Greatest Adventure finally made it to DVD, it sneaked out so quietly that it had been around for quite a while before I even got to know about it. Like the Eleventh Hour boxed set it's sold on DVD-R as part of the Warner Archive Collection - a home-burn, basically, at the price of an undiscounted commercial release.

You can only get it from the WBShop website, nowhere else. As you can probably tell, I have mixed feelings about this marketing approach. While it's great to have the titles available, this method of marketing and production is almost a guarantee against wide circulation. They won't even let Amazon offer the titles; you can find them on there, but only from dealers who've added their own hefty markup.

Here's the site's plot summary:
The mighty Lord of the Apes (Gordon Scott) is on a deadly trail. He’s determined to find the diamond hunters (including Anthony Quayle and Sean Connery) who brought terror and death to a peaceful village. But as much as Tarzan is a tracker and avenger, he’s also a protector. An irresponsible gadfly from the so-called civilized world intrudes on his quest and Tarzan knows he cannot leave her to fend for herself. Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure is widely applauded as one of the best and most grownup films in the entire film annals of the jungle lord’s exploits.
The disc arrived today and I ran it tonight. Pressed play, and nothing happened. Bit of a panic and I thought I had a dud copy, but I'd inadvertently hit something that changed the setup on the DVD player. When I worked out which button I'd mis-pressed, I was away.

'Tis great. Not digital restoration quality, just a good transfer of a relatively decent print, nice and bright and sharp. The stock footage sticks out and the matte shots look a bit poo, but then my recall is that they always did. Something about the grain and the colour values says, "British film of the 50s". Somewhere between Genevieve and Zulu.

The screenplay is credited to director John Guillermin and Berne Giler, whose solid background in classic TV Westerns shows in the clean lines of the narrative and the mythic sense behind the central good guy/bad guy conflict. I marvelled again at how pure and spare the storytelling is. All deft strokes and no scene dragged out one word longer than it needs to be. Sara Shane's 'irresponsible gadfly' is actually a capable female bush pilot, neither love interest nor rescue-object but (for its time) a rounded and properly-written character.

I'd heard that the movie exists in more than one version, the original and one trimmed for violence; I wasn't aware of any cuts but then I wouldn't be sure what to look for - the various scenes of mortality seem to get full value, as does the brutal clifftop fight to the death between Scott and Quayle at the end. Even the business with the Quayle's deadly wire snare doesn't look to have been trimmed.

Thursday 4 March 2010

Shutter Island

I'm not trying for spoilers, here, but if you want to keep yourself pure, don't read on. Read this instead. It's probably my most popular post.

I set out to see The Wolfman at the weekend, but got there an hour before showtime so bought a ticket for Shutter Island instead.

(I saw The Wolfman on Sunday, but that experience is a whole nother story.)

Shutter Island is a Scorsese film based on a Denis Lehane novel, two factors in its favour. But I'd seen a trailer last year in which the whole thing had looked like a bit of a mess. At his best, Scorsese is a disciplined, visceral filmmaker; but when he tries to give the studios something commercial, he can be like bad opera. But what the hell. I gave it a go.

The movie started badly, with a long and lumpy exposition scene on the deck of a boat. I spent the first hour - more than the first hour, actually - thinking, This is terrible. Sinking into my seat, wincing at the lines and the crudity of the mise-en-scene, unable to buy into any of the characters.

I spent the last twenty minutes thinking, This is brilliant.

It wasn't because the last twenty minutes was in some way separable from what had gone before. It was more like watching a drunken orchestra pull itself together and show where it had been going all along. You had to endure erratic and irrational behaviour and a long, slow sobering-up to get the payoff.

This isn't a good thing. I'm reminded of a friend in publishing who rejected a novel only to have the author argue that "The boredom of the early chapters is essential in order to fully experience the horror later on." It doesn't wash. If I'd been watching Shutter Island on DVD, I'd have baled early and my impression would have been totally negative.

The story is set in the 1950s but it has the feel and ethos of a 1940s psychological mystery. TV ads are talking about 'the twist', but ignore all that. Don't sit there guessing. There's no twist, just an outcome. To my mind it's a well-wrought outcome, but not entirely an earned one.

If you buy a ticket or pick it up on disc, do yourself a favour. Stick with it and be forgiving. If you're like me you'll think it was worth it in the end. But along the way, you might wonder.

Tuesday 2 March 2010

I'm the Axeman, Baby

Let me get one thing straight. I'm no musician. I don't play, I don't perform. But I've owned a guitar since I was a teenager and, when no one's listening, I get pleasure from stumbling my way through the dozen or two chords that I learned back then. I could probably manage a tolerable Kumbayah at a campfire, but Hendrix I ain't.

I've toyed with the idea of picking up a second instrument to keep out here. So after a couple of days of unrelieved typing at the end of last week, for a diversion I went down to one of the big music stores in LA to mooch around and try some out. Not the best idea because it was a Saturday night and the place was full of guys showing off.

Some were encouragingly bad, but one or two were quite good. I found a quietish corner but, being used to the wider classical fretboard and nylon strings, I could barely hold down a chord on some of the models. I'm not really in the market yet because I don't know how long I'll be here for, but the looking's half the fun.

I overheard this woman talking to one of the staff about an instrument for her daughter. I left them to it while I gravitated to a little side-room where they keep their small selection of classical and flamenco guitars. After a few minutes she came over and started asking me stuff!

Seems the staff guy hadn't been too helpful because she'd wanted to know more about the classical models but he'd steered her away to the dreadnoughts and acoustic-electrics, saying that the narrow necks made them easier for small hands to play and no one really plays classical anyway.

So I explained what little I knew - the classical fretboard's wider but you hold the neck differently, the nylon strings are at a lower tension and are easier to fret, that the kind of guitar you choose should depend on the style you want to play and the kind of sound you want to make - and after a bit she went and got the sales guy again and made him show her a classical Ibanez.

She didn't seem to take my best piece of advice, though, which was to bring her daughter in and let her choose for herself. Because the guitar you choose is tied up with your image of the player you want to be.

Or maybe she did in the end... I snuck out before I could get dragged back into the conversation!