Saturday, March 23, 2013

Stainless Steel Reviews - Part Two

The much-anticipated sequel to Part One of our journey through the biblioverse with a certain well-known intergalactic rodent. (Reproduced from Goodreads.)

The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge


Harry Harrison, 'the Monty Python of the spaceways' declares the Daily Telegraph on the back cover of this Stainless Steel Rat sequel. Well, that's somewhat wide of the mark, but they are ripping yarns.

This one's a particularly strong episode in the series, I think, with our hero pitted against a genuinely formidable and sinister foe. And I don't mean his new wife, Angelina.

Harrison walks a fine tightrope, managing to grant Jim wedded bliss while avoiding fully domesticating his Rat. In a similar way, he has his cake and eats it with Angelina's rehabilitation - she's no longer a murderess, but somehow retains much of her murderous edge. They make a good team, enjoying a crime-spree honeymoon at the outset, but luckily Jim DiGriz still gets to operate as a lone agent as he's sent after some militaristic powermongers who are conquering planet after planet against the odds.

The action zips along as niftily as ever and this time the seasoning has a little bit of grit to it, with some interesting reflection on how mortality and the absence of an afterlife affects Jim's morality, as well as the general impossibility of interplanetary conquest. (Not something the likes of Independence Day would ever pause to consider, but it is right at the core of the central mystery here - although once again it throws up continuity questions from the prequels, but - again - not this book's fault.) As DiGriz comes face to face with the real enemy, the 'Gray Men' who are using another planet's invasion force as their puppets, there's also a surprisingly brutal moment that almost seems to belong in a much darker thriller.

But it wakes us up to the seriousness of the threat and ramps up the stakes very effectively.

It's let down a little at the end, with everything a touch too easily resolved by a gadget and there's an odd hokey-cokey segment in the middle where Jim breaks into a military base, breaks back out the same day only to then break back in almost immediately. And, of course, when Angelina does turn up on the scene, Jim has someone who can conveniently bail him out when all other plans fail.

But never mind. It's the usual entertaining mix with a sprinkling of some actual bona fide thought-provoking ideas and that chilling slap in the face that confirms the Gray Men as more than your average menace. And their origins are left intriguingly unrevealed, so the story ends with the promise for their possible return.

Whether they do or don't, all in all it's a cracking sequel, with every indication that Slippery Jim has the potential to run and run.

The Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World

By this stage in our journey, we should have a clear understanding that the Stainless Steel Rat is actually a little on the fluffy side, with only the rare and occasional glint of a harder edge cutting in here and there. This, adverstised with the words TIME-JUMPING RAT emblazoned on the back cover, is perhaps like the giant rat in Doctor Who’s Talons Of Weng-Chiang: a touch too cute for its own good.

Weighing in at what feels like the length of a Target Doctor Who novelisation, it’s as fast and light as a MacDonald’s salad – which is, I understand, the bit that a lot of people remove from the burger before consuming. As a read, it’s better than that makes it sound, being seasoned with goodness and Harrison’s customary ability to entertain but it misses a trick or two along the way and uses one familiar trick once too often.

The latter amounts to having Mrs Rat, Angelina, show up out of the space-time blue and rescue our hero when all seems lost. Has to be done, since the author left Jim no way out, but it strikes as particularly weak and unfortunate here. Maybe though that’s only because by this point in the story I wasn’t feeling engaged by the usual twists and turns and instead it’s just been a simple game of temporal hopscotch.

Harrison has great fun with the Stainless Steel Rat encountering the world of the good old US of A, circa 1975, and then with a Napoleonic French-occupied England and it’s all wittily and breezily delivered, but it’s all just a circular chase, with the ending much the same in each time zone. A promising mystery surrounding the deranged enemy known only as He is scuppered by the reveal that it’s all part of a closed temporal loop, similarish to what we were served up in Technicolor Time Machine but somehow less satisfying.

It’s the sort of thing that’s been done many times before (and after), possibly too many, and Back To The Future, Bill & Ted and Craig P Kelly’s Time Gentlemen have all done it better.

Not a waste of time and, as I say, generally entertaining, but feels more like an intermission in the series. So the next time I read about a time-jumping rat, let it be Rizzo as a companion to Gonzo in Muppets Doctor Who.


Monday, March 18, 2013

Ex-Terminator: Judgment Day

You know how it goes: soldier travels back through time to ensure the future of humanity, relentless killer cyborg travels back to stop him and make certain the war goes according to plan. Mayhem ensues, the temporal tampering becomes part of history and it all turns out to be one big loop.

Hollywood attempts to bolt sequels onto the loop. Well, if anyone ever feels like doing a sequel to Doctor Who’s Day Of The Daleks, they could do worse than Night Of The Daleks for a title. But it’s hard to suggest what they might improve on for the follow-up because, frankly, there’s a little too much to list.

At its core there’s a solid story. We know that because it works well in Terminator (and progressively less well in its sequels). But the road to a decent temporal paradox is paved with good intentions and what was well-meant doesn’t necessarily become well-realised. Like dear old Blinovitch, this has its limitations.

It begins quietly as an intriguing time-ghost story, like a not too distant relative of (the later) TheTime Warrior and might have benefited from sustaining that mystery for a while longer. (Louis Marks’ original script was titled The Ghost Hunters and didn’t feature the Daleks at all.) But it seems to take the attitude of, well, we’ve blown the whole Dalek reveal in the title so we may as well wheel them onto the set as soon as possible. Which is fair enough, except the first episode ending serves up their presence - with a rousing chorus of Ex-Term-In-Ate! – as if it’s something more than old news.
We’ve been shown the future, we’ve been shown the time guerrillas, we’ve been shown the Daleks as the Controller steps behind the scenes to converse with his masters. We’ve pretty much been armed with everything we need to know what’s going on.

The only real WTH (what-the-heck) moment is an early shot of an Ogron which must have had audiences at the time sitting up and paying attention. And the Ogrons, I have to say at this point, are great. John Friedlander’s masks are simple but effective and the costumes combine to create the image of the perfect alien jackbooted thug shock troops for the Daleks. Of course, all that fine work is undone when they speak – especially as one actor delivers his line as though through a mouthful of primordial gravy, then another actor decides not to bother.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s comical. But I’m reasonably sure that’s not the effect the director was going for. While the actor clearly wasn't going for any effect whatsoever.

Anyway, these time gorillas are more convincing than their guerrilla counterparts. On paper, the story would like to shine a glaring spotlight on the idea that the difference between terrorist and freedom fighter is merely a question of perspective. All fine and worthy, except it loses impact when it’s the middle classes who have risen up. At best everyone’s an officer, at worst they’re drama-school students playing at soldiers. A bunch of people in guerrilla costumes. None of these people seem like they have lived through any of the hard times to which the Controller refers in his speech to the Doctor.

Of course, watching it in the cold light of the 21st century you can’t help but wonder at the different spin this story could be given by casting Arabs in the guerrilla role. But regardless of the minefield that would tread, I would have settled for a few grittier Ray Winstone types. As it is, none of the actors are dreadful, they’re just not right.

Over on the other side of the fence, in some ways AubreyWoods is more authentic as the Controller. Yes, he’s as theatrical as a painted canvas backdrop and wooden as the boards he’s treading but he has the air of privilege (and shiny complexion) you’d expect from a collaborator living what passes for the high life under Dalek occupation. And that starched delivery could be attributed to rich food and an emotionless inherited from too much time with the Daleks. His staff of female underlings are robotic in the extreme and to be honest their delivery gets tiresome, but you can see the intention – it’s the way SHADO in Gerry Anderson’s UFO would have turned out if the Daleks had taken charge.

Other than that and a few token labourers seen shifting buckets of rubble we’re not really shown how bad things are under the new regime from Skaro. Imagination can fill in the gaps well enough, since we know from past appearances what the Daleks are like, but this is a tale that leans more towards tell than show.

Worst offender in this regard is a scene – okay, it’s intercut with other stuff to try to give the illusion of movement but essentially it’s one long scene – in episode four where the Doctor, Jo and the people in guerrilla costumes gather around for a friendly recap and Q&A. Some allowance can be made for the fact that these were originally meant to be viewed at the rate of one episode a week so audiences may have lost a thread or two, but it’s sloppy plotting that drags. Out. The. Action. At. A Crucial. Climactic. Point.

The action is then so ham-fistedly directed that we’re back to the bunch of people playing at soldiers and the Daleks pedalling in for the big finish. You can forgive the Daleks for just rolling in across the open field and marching their Ogron troops head-on into the enemy gunfire – what do they care? They’re impervious to bullets and they have a whole army – at least five or six – expendable Ogrons to waste. But what’s the rationale for the UNIT troops standing around in the line of fire? It’s rubbish and one of those sequences in Who that you have to watch through your fingers not because it’s scary but because it’s painful.

To cap it off, Shura’s desperate act of self-sacrifice is weakly argued and the Doctor and Jo leave him to his fate a bit too readily, then fail to properly acknowledge his contribution in the post script.

Obviously, the writer didn’t want any loose ends on his neat little time loop but the end results of all his tidying up is a bit of a scrappy mess. The rest of the guerrillas, for example, are entirely too trusting, leaving the Doctor and Jo to return and – ostensibly – resolve the situation on their behalf. But if they’d tagged along to make sure of things – which sensible ‘fanatics’ surely would have done – they would have been another element that needed clearing away afterwards.

The news report on site at Auderley House with the delegates arriving for the conference is a nice touch, but it’s not followed up on when all hell breaks loose. And there’s an absolute vacuum of reaction to the gunfire and explosions as the delegates are conveyed unhurriedly away in their limos. That, for me, sums up this story for me – a collection of good intentions and missed opportunities.

Day Of The Daleks is not altogether woeful but it’s nowhere near as auspicious as it should have been.

Doctored Video

As it happens, the DVD release features a Special Edition which attempts to redress some of the adventure’s shortcomings. These are not the sort of CGI effects you can just switch on or off, as has been the case with other Doctor Who DVD titles, so the entire story is reproduced on a second disc.

As with the original version, you can appreciate the intent behind the project, but I’m not sure the end results save the day.

It’s new and improved in a number of respects. Most effective of all are the redubbed Dalek voices. For some reason the original Daleks all sound sluggish, possibly drunk with success after their successful conquest of Earth. Nicholas Briggs invests them with a bit of life and hate and all the things Daleks are made of.

The souped-up disintegrator guns and Dalek weapon effects are nicely done but feel a little overcooked at times, too obviously at odds with the rest of the production.

Most impressive are the way in which extra Daleks are dropped into the action, intercut with newly shot scenes to ramp up the battle scenes and multiply the invaders’ numbers. The illusion succeeds for the most part, although there are a handful of shots remaining where it’s clear they only had three Daleks.

A lot of times, I’m not a fan of re-vamped fx on these DW classics: as well-meaning as they are, imagination ought to be enough to make up the production-value deficit. In this case, the original production doesn’t do enough to help that along – at least not once the viewer has reached adulthood. And ultimately, this slicker, flashier edition is little more than a (laudable) gesture in the right direction.

In my childhood mind the Daleks were at least as formidable as they were portrayed in Rob Shearman’s Dalek. So three should have been a serious threat in any case.

But the truth is the trio here, like most elements in this promising temporal tale, don’t do quite what they say on the Dalekanium tin.


Monday, March 11, 2013

Air Time

The absence of any Doctor Who DVD review or other article of interest on this blog yesterday can be readily explained by my own absence. I was away from my computer, with an important media appointment to keep.

Yes, friend, gentleman and fellow pub-quizmeister Retro Robnoxious Spooner invited me in for a guest spot on his Sunday afternoon radio show at Source FM, based in Falmouth.

Unaccustomed as I am to media exposure, a fun time was had by all and I have to thank Rob for being such a great host and creating such a terrific relaxed atmosphere.

Rob has also very kindly sent me a link to the full recording of the event - so I'm posting it here, for your listening pleasure.

The Rob Noxious Retro Radio Show 10.03.13

(Approx 28 mins in is where you'll first hear me and William Shatner does a great version of Pulp's Common People at around the 44 min mark.)

Of course, the day also happened to be Mother's Day and amid all the fun we had chatting about books, Evil, Doctor Who and sci-fi in general, there was a serious point at the heart of the proceedings.

We were spreading the word about our Evil vs. Cancer campaign (see our Evil UnLtd blog for details or here on Prefect Slog). Hope the listeners had as good a time as we did and fingers crossed we'll have won a few more sales in aid of Cancer Research UK.

This one goes out to you, Mum.


Sunday, March 03, 2013

Stainless Steel Reviews - Part One

Part One of our recent return journey through the biblioverse with a certain well-known intergalactic rodent. (Reproduced from Goodreads.)

A Stainless Steel Rat Is Born

I'm not generally a fan of prequels and I don't remember feeling any differently when I first read this the first time round. But this time I get to read it as though it was an actual beginning of a series and it'll be interesting to see if it holds up as such.

As an individual book, it's a cracking read as we're introduced to young Jim DiGriz and follow his exploits after a less than spectacular plan to get himself incarcerated in one of Bit O'Heaven's penal institutions in hopes of learning from master criminals. The twist being that if there are any master criminals to be found they are all on the outside. Seems a bit obvious when you think about it but Jim is meant to be a bit green around the gills. Indeed he varies between being smart as a whip and a bit slow, with wits as flexible as his fortunes it seems as we run from a brief stay in jail into a series of mishaps and lucky escapes, seasoned with a few ingenious and elaborate schemes.

But while it's a bit of a rambling affair, it's a brisk and entertaining romp. Ideally, I'd have liked more on the starting premise with Jim doing stir, but the book is not about to hang around for any length of time on one situation when it has so many to throw at you with each short chapter.

The planet and circumstances where Jim and master-criminal mentor The Bishop ultimately find themselves embroiled struck me as more likely fare for Jason DinAlt in Harrison's Deathworld series and an odd setting for a young Rat to cut his criminal teeth, but it does establish some precedent for Jim's later switch to life as a secret agent.

But there I'm getting ahead of myself and showing it's impossible to read this entirely free of 'foreknowledge'. All in all, a winning combination of light and smart and quick. It won't tax the brain, but Harrison's love for his most famous character shines through - and Jim DiGriz is very much opposed to taxes of any kind.

The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted

While in the previous prequel, the opening premise (young Jim DiGriz getting himself arrested as a means of enrolling in some hypothetical academy of crime) is just that – an opening, breezed through pretty quickly before moving on to other things – here our freshly graduated Stainless Steel Rat doesn’t get pressed into military service until page 60.

The book isn’t War & Peace, but with this slightly stretched route to the crux of the plot it begins to feel overlong for a Rat caper. That’s not to say the journey isn’t fun – the spirit and tone are there, but the first few chapters are more like a pleasant diversion before we get to the nitty gritty. Not that a Rat book is ever going to be gritty. From there on the story comes alive a bit more though and the author warms to his subject matter, ripping into the bureaucratic and blinkered mentality of the military machine.

And no sooner has Private Rat enlisted, he’s moving up the ranks in a nice twist on self-promotion. Then he’s Oscar Mike on an interplanetary invasion. And just as Harrison enjoys playing with the military, he rolls out another different society model (building the impression of a wonderfully colourful variety of worlds making up his League universe) and has fun with that, pitting the invading force against a thoroughly pacifistic and altogether genial populace who embrace a philosophy known as Individual Mutualism. I’m not sure how it would ever work in practice, but it’s a nice idea and incidentally strikes a nice satirical note against our current system of rampant-monetarism-gone-horribly-wrong.

The usual combination of ingenuity, incident and accident drive the plot forward and there’s no lack of momentum as you’d expect, with Jim occasionally dropping himself in the cagal with a rash and ill-considered move, reminding us that the young rodent is still a bit wet behind the ears. And you expect a generous helping of serendipity to bail him out from time to time, although it’s a tad disappointing here that the conclusion relies too heavily on one of these fortuitous rescues.

Taken together, it’s also something of a shame that both see Jim working for the League Navy as between the prequels and his actual debut it paints him as having spent way more time as an agent than as a crook.

All in all, perhaps not Grade A Stainless Steel, but good (and mostly clean) fun. And with names like Zennor and Praze-an-Beeble cropping up in a sci-fi book, you have to wonder if Harry Harrison holidayed in Cornwall around the time of writing. Which would explain some of the lazier aspects of the plot – I get that too from time to time.

The Stainless Steel Rat


James Bond in space.

The tagline could easily be as simple as that. The fact that this James is recruited from the criminal world is almost incidental, but it does throw an additional cherry bomb into the basic ‘martinis, girls and guns’ cocktail.

One thing you learn after reading three Rat books on the trot is that while the mazes they run in aren’t complex, they are pretty free-wheeling. Harrison drops his anti-hero into a given situation and sees where it takes us, tossing in extra ingredients and events along the way to keep the sauce bubbling.

So when Slippery Jim’s caught and recruited by the Special Corps, you’ve no idea where it’s all going to lead. Having previous notorious master crook, Harold Inskipp, as head of the Corps is inspired, painting the impression of a sort of MI6 staffed by a whole host of ne’erdowells. Of course, one slight wrinkle thrown up by the prequels is that none of Jim’s past service for the League is mentioned at all, but that’s just a problem with prequels and not a failing here.

One thing we do know is that Jim, for all his crooked ways, is no killer. And there’s a nice bit o’ character conflict as his first case pits him against a ruthless murderess, Angelina, who also happens to be a worthy intellectual rival – or better, since she’s steps ahead of him most of the time. That he falls for her is perhaps the only predictable element, but it would be churlish to dismiss any given Bond movie on the basis of knowing which women the Commander is going to end up in bed with.

Harrison does seem to love applying the retro touch to his sci fi worlds and the final action here takes place on a backward, feudal planet, just emergent after the galaxy-wide ‘Breakdown’ which is part of the make-up of the Steel Rat universe. But it’s fair enough, since they’re the sort of society that allows for internecine activities within the otherwise very orderly and controlled League.

Fast, fun, skims along like a powerboat with almost no depth, but you can readily see how the book – and the series that followed – made waves.

How this has not been made into a movie is beyond me.


(More Rat reviews in a couple of weeks!)