Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Kirk Drift

If you have a little time on your hands I commend this excellent Strange Horizons article by Erin Horakova on our changing (and inaccurate) perception of the character of Captain Kirk:

It struck a chord with me because I had a related, if parallel, set of thoughts after watching the entire run of the original series. The popular culture cliche is that William Shatner is/was a somewhat crude and mediocre actor with a peculiar sense of ... timing ... in the delivery of his dialogue, and I went into the re-watch to some extent pre-conditioned by this notion. Regardless of the quality of the individual episodes, though, I quickly found myself wondering when this legendary bad Shatner was going to turn up, because all I was seeing - right from the outset - was an efficient and convincing portrayal of a man in a complex, demanding position of authority. Shatner isn't just much better at playing Kirk than the popular myth would have it, but the character itself is also much more plausibly drawn than the supposed brash womaniser of the insidious meme.

Erin Horakova dismantles this false Kirk in expert fashion, while lobbing a few well-earned potshots at the reboot films.

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Power of the Daleks (1966)

I'm only four episodes into this six parter, one of the stories thought lost to time, but which has now been restored with animated visuals and the original soundtrack.

Although the visual reconstruction is cheap and cheerful, it's still remarkably effective at taking you into the story, and while I wouldn't say you ever forget you're watching an animation, it certainly doesn't impede one's enjoyment of this compelling, intelligent and surprisingly adult adventure.

I have no recollection of the Troughton years, and would only have been less than a year old at the time of this transmission, his first story after regeneration. Unfortunately the Troughton era suffered particularly badly from deleted tapes, and I've still not seen enough of his stories to have a clear sense of his personality as the Doctor. In this adventure, the Doctor's persona is even more unstable than usual and Troughton was evidently trying on a variety of tones as he settled into the role.

What's striking about the story, especially in regard to some of the later plots, is the low-key realism of the political machinations going on inside the Vulcan colony, with the Doctor arriving just as a brooding power struggle threatens to erupt. The character exchanges are terse and restrained, the atmosphere one of controlled bureaucratic paranoia and veiled threats, more in keeping with Le Carre than something supposedly aimed at children and aired during a cosy tea-time transmission slot.

The Daleks are excellent - always at their best when they are at their slyest, as in this story, pretending to be helpful robot servants. And the scenes in the Dalek production line, as raw Dalek organisms are ladled - none too gently - into the open receptacles of new machines - are chilling. I didn't realise that we'd seen the "insides" of a Dalek this early in the series. It's accurate to the original filmed sequences, too, as the animations are based around production stills that were shot during the filming of each episode.

Recommended for all fans of Daleks and Doctor Who.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Star Trek: The Next Generation rewatch - Encounter at Farpoint

Having recently finished watching the complete run of the remastered episodes of the original series of Star Trek, I felt like diving into one of the later series. The release of the Next Generation in fully remastered format on Blu-Ray seemed a good place to start, so I bought the complete set with the intention of watching from the start.

I've loved Star Trek since I was tiny. As a child, watching a black and white television set in Cornwall, there were two series that particularly fascinated me. One was Star Trek, and the other The Virginian. Whether this accounted for a lifelong affection for space and Westerns/cowboys/horses, I'll leave to the psychologists, but there's no doubting the vivid mark that Star Trek left on me. A few years later, after we had moved from Truro but were still living in Cornwall, two further pivotal events helped cement my feelings for Star Trek.

The first was getting the Aurora kit of the Enterprise:

I think it lasted about three weeks before the nacelles snapped off, but what a glorious three weeks they were. Surely this is the weirdest spaceship design to ever attain iconic status? From an engineering/physics point of view it makes no sense whatsoever, but it just looks right and for my money few of the later designs have quite hit the same marks.

The second pivotal event was watching Star Trek in colour for the first time, at my grandmother's house in Barry. Even now, the original series looks very colourful, from the uniforms to the set designs to the use of lighting filters in many of the shots. In the early seventies, having been conditioned by exposure to the episodes in black and white, it was a real jolt to the eyeballs. The remastered episodes look very good, incidentally, with some sympathetic use of CGI to update some of the effects and sets.

Star Trek was often on television in the early seventies. During school vacations, the episodes were broadcast in the morning in a format called "Holiday Star Trek", which I've taken to mean episodes which were deemed not to contain any overtly adult or upsetting themes, although whether that was actually the case I don't know, as it just seemed like a random grab-bag of stories to me.

My admiration for the series was further reinforced by an article which appeared in Speed & Power magazine around 1974, consisting of a two-page feature which brought us exciting facts like exactly how big and fast was the Enterprise. Given that the Enterprise was deemed to be a bit less than a thousand feet long, I then became obsessed with relating this dimension to real world objects, such as the television masts near our home. I'd been told they were a thousand feet tall so I tried to imagine the Enterprise standing on its end, next to one of these masts. But that didn't seem anywhere near big enough to me. I had a similar problem with Captain Nemo's submarine -*.

Anyway, that's enough rose-tinted nostalgia. Fast forward to 1988. Star Trek was coming back onto television and by some means that I don't quite recall, the pilot episode was available to be shown in one of the common rooms at Newcastle University. Thus, those of us who cared gathered round on plastic chairs to watch "Encounter at Farpoint". At that point, there had been a few hints about what to expect. We knew that the main captain was to be played by a bald British actor, that there would be an android, a Klingon, and so on. But in those pre-internet days there was far less in the way of "spoilers", so I remember going into the screening with very little expectation of what to expect.

The prevailing view, as far as I'm aware, is that the pilot was an underwhelming opener to what would prove to be a weak couple of seasons, before The Next Generation really found its strengths. That certainly chimes with my recollections of that screening, in that the early appearance of "Q" - the recurring alien trickster figure - seemed to harken back to some of the hoariest episodes of the original run, in which super-powerful alien demigods were forever popping up on the Enterprise's bridge, usually in some sort of period costume.

Rewatching "Encounter..." now, though, after a gap of nearly thirty years, brings a more balanced view. It's not actually that terrible. The pace is slow, and the stakes are never more than vague, but perhaps it needed that narrative space to allow scope for the characters to establish themselves. And, allowing for some stiffness in their interactions, there are welcome moments when the pilot takes time to allow the characters to present themselves, which perhaps wouldn't be the case if there was a lot more running around and shouting.

Significantly, if you've splashed out on the Blu-Rays, it looks magnificent. They did an amazing, and by all accounts expensive and painstaking job, in restoring this series. The effort is worthwhile, because - allowing for the inevitable production economies of indoor sets masquerading as planetary locations - it holds up very, very well for a show made thirty years ago.

Above all else, it's a reminder that there was a time when Star Trek was actually forward-looking, not afraid to move beyond its past.

*- Verne describes the Nautilus as being seventy metres long. I think it some point I must have encountered a mistranslation which put the length at seventy feet, because I remember being convinced that this was nowhere near big enough.

Monday, 27 March 2017

I'm in Love with a German Film Star

Because I can't ever get enough of this.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

New one in

So I've delivered a new novel. We have a possible title, but it's still subject to discussion and may well change, so I won't mention it just yet. What I can say is that the new book is the first novel-length work to be set in the Revelation Space universe since 2007, and is also a sequel to The Prefect. Despite the decade-long gap beween these books, this one is set only two years after the last and features a large number of recurring characters. Nonetheless I hope that it will be capable of being read independently of the first.

As far as I am aware publication is not likely to happen until early 2018.

Monday, 20 March 2017


I was in Strasbourg the week before last, delivering a lecture to the International Space University. Opportunities such as this, which offer the chance to meet with friends old and new, as well as visiting previously unfamiliar parts of the world, are one of the great blessings of being a professional writer. I also have the benefit of having had what is considered to be an interesting career trajectory, having gone from full-time scientist to full-time author. Time and again, opportunities have come my way that would perhaps be rarer were I not to have had this supposedly unusual dual citizenship in the worlds of the arts and sciences. I am extremely grateful.

I had not visited Strasbourg before, so my wife and I made a short stay of it after I had delivered my lecture. Strasbourg was enchanting, a beautiful, compact city with wonderful winding streets and canals, its architecture betraying a long and turbulent history complicated by Strasbourg's close proximity to the German border. Indeed, Strasbourg has been both German and French in its time, as the border shifted one way or the other.

Inevitably, it was impossible to visit the official seat of the European Parliament and not be reminded sharply of the imminent reality of Brexit, now seemingly likely to be driven through in the hardest of all possible terms. I wrote about Brexit before the referendum, articulating - to the best of my abilities - my reasons for thinking that Britain would be better off remaining within the EU. My position was admittedly based as much on emotion as logic, but I see no need to apologise for that. Emotions have been running high for as long as the referendum has been on the table, on all sides of the debate. Why not? It's an emotive topic, cutting across real lives and real experiences. I lived and worked in the EU, I benefited strongly from the free movement of workers across its borders; I even claimed unemployment benefit from the Dutch government when I was without work. I see myself as European in outlook and temperament. My wife is an EU national. We now live in the UK, and for at least half a decade considered our future settled. We were content to make our future in a country we both regarded as open, tolerant and forward-looking. All of that has changed since June.

And yet, with a certain fatalism, I now accept the reality of Brexit. Barring some terrorist or military incident completely shifting the political landscape, there seems no way that it is not going to happen. Reasonable voices have been raised against it, and their positions summarily dismissed in the most insulting of terms - enemies of the people, remoaners, and so on.

But acceptance need not mean an abdication of feeling. I "accept" Brexit in the same spirit that, if you are strapped to a table and someone is sawing your leg off, you "accept" that it will continue. Indeed, once started, the process - however damaging - had better be seen through to its dispiriting conclusion. I am convinced now that our leaders have already poisoned the discourse so thoroughly that it would be difficult for the UK to settle back into its former position within Europe, even if Brexit were immediately abandoned.

It won't be, though. Like Basil Fawlty, bashing his head against the desk, it seems this is the reality we're stuck with.