Sunday, February 24, 2013

Lights! Cameras! Autons!

At the risk of spoiling the ending, two main things of note stand out at the close of Terror Of The Autons.

One, the Nestenes, enigmatic controllers of the Autons and masters of all things plastic, almost but not quite entirely fail to materialise. Two, the Doctor admits to rather looking forward to his next encounter with the Master.

The first is fairly familiar territory if you’ve seen Spearhead From Space, debut for both Pertwee and the Autons. The Nestenes are among the most fearsome of Doctor Who creatures never to have properly appeared. (And no, I’m not counting the shapeless but doubtless expensive CGI doggie-doo that seethed and glooped a bit at the end of Rose.) We want the giant octopus-spider-crab-brain-monster as seen on the cover of the Doctor Who And The Terror Of The Autons Target novelisation! A bit more exciting than the rubber tentacle mass that wrestled Perwee from within its fish tank (Spearhead). To say nothing of what we see in this, which amounts to an energistic Rorschach test in the sky which, when asked, perhaps three out of a hundred people would tell you looks vaguely like an octopus.

Still, 70s Who obliges forgiveness for budget limitations and we must be grateful that they didn’t attempt a full-on giant octopus-spider-crab-brain-monster as I suspect the finished result would have fallen a tad short.

The production is further hamstrung by overuse of CSO. It’s fine (as fine as it can be) for shots of hovering Time Lords and ugly demon dolls coming to life on car seats and radiators. But here it’s providing backgrounds that render some pretty ordinary settings wholly unconvincing. There are oddly framed reaction shots, such as the Brigadier against a plain brick wall, turning on hearing the Doctor’s call for help. And there’s obvious use of a studio set for shots of the Brigadier and UNIT troops taking up an overwatch position in a quarry, when you’d think it’d be just as cheap to have filmed them  lying on their the grassy knoll when they had the actors together for the location sequences in the quarry.

When all that is said and done, however, what you’ve got is one hundred-carat (plastic) gem of a story. One of the most surprising aspects, I found, was the pacey way in which it is all chopped together. There’s barely a pause or closing note to the majority of scenes before we’re onto the next. And yet we’re furnished with all the essentials to follow what’s going on and there’s plenty of all that vibrant SF action adventure which so characterises the Pertwee-era tales.

It also dishes out the Terror at frequent intervals, with writer Holmes playing more freely with the idea of the Nestenes’ affinity for plastic, delivering a colourful riot of murder and mayhem with an inflatable chair, aforesaid demon doll, telephone flex (anyone remember those?) and killer daffodils. (The basis for a cult classic B-movie if ever I saw one.) The asphyxiating yellow flowers are handed out up and down the country by Autons with big carnival heads and these brightly clad figures strike a brilliantly creepy image, while possessing that weird and wacky offbeat quality you might find in episodes of The Avengers.

Does it matter that their bus of about twelve seems a limited means of paving the way for a full-scale invasion? Not really. Does it matter that their distribution of 450,000 deadly daffs would seem to have required many a trip back to the factory for a resupply? Ultimately, no. Because the effect is what counts and their perma-cheerful grins and Maplins outfits subscribe to Richard III’s philosophy of murdering while they smile.

And they’re given free rein to kill. Wholesale slaughter of hapless UNIT troops is a given, but it’s not afraid to show a deadly enemy being deadly. The horror is often bizarre, but nevertheless doesn’t pull punches. Terror Of The Autons earns its title.

The infamous sequence where the mask is pulled from the policeman to reveal a blank Auton face must have been genuinely shocking at the time. (Albeit none of this traumatised me as a kid – if anything it excited me and was an integral part of what got me hooked on Who. What good’s a hero if he doesn’t have any actual menace to overcome?) The edit, to be fair, could be sharper where masks are pulled off as, in contrast to all the other quick cuts going on, the camera tends to linger just long enough to undermine the effect every time.

Which is something of a shame, because it’s a favourite trick of the Master.

And as much as this story is about the Autons, it’s even more about the Master. A Moriarty for the Doctor – an inspired creation that proves the simplest ideas are often the best. And Delgado brings him to life with subtlety, sophistication, panache and menace. His introduction is superb and, from the materialisation of that horsebox to his mesmeric control over circus-master Rossini this single scene must have been a real hallmark moment in Who history. You get a sense of the occasion even viewing it from an informed perspective.

Yes, his change of hearts at the end is all too easy but Delgado does his best to convey the self-preservation thought process in the short time he’s given and the Master’s callous final use of Rex Farrell (the excellent Michael Wisher) is an appropriately cold signing off until next time.

Well the Doctor should look forward to it. While it’s true that Letts and Dicks overused the character for the season, choosing to feature him in every story, I can’y say I blame them. I’d have been tempted as well and, as a fan, I’m glad we have as much Delgado Master as we do.

Flawed and dated then, but wickedly creative and not a bad turn of speed for one of those old adventures. Terror and plastic and plenty that’s fantastic, these are the things that great Doctor Who is made of.

Flash, bang, wallop, what a picture!


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Time Gentleman

The Next Big Thing was the title of a chain of blog posts in which I was tagged a little while ago, which amounted to a self-interview on the topic of my current main writing project (Evil UnLtd Vol 3, folks!). Alas, we missed out on that occasion the opportunity to tag a certain writer, gentleman and scholar of our acquaintance.

The good news is that the gentleman in question, by the miracle of internet technology and some complex temporal science, can now be brought to you direct.

So without further ado, ladies and gentle-Morlocks, I give you not the Next Big Thing but the Previous-Next-Big-Thing, Craig P Kelly, man of many talents and author of Time Gentlemen, which I read and enjoyed not so very long ago.

What's the elevator pitch for Time Gentlemen?
Good question! To answer that I'll have to quickly check what an elevator pitch actually is. Just give me a second to google it...
Oh, I see. Let me think about that and I'll get back to you, okay?
What genre does your book fall under?
Humorous fiction. It's actually a science fiction adventure, but really I'm just trying to write something funny and the subject matter isn't all that important. I wonder if I'll sell more copies if I label it as erotica?
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I don't really know. I guess someone decided that it would be a good idea to bind sheets of paper in such a way so as the individual sheets wouldn't fly away, but I've not really looked into the history.
How long did it take from inspiration striking to completion?
Ten years, although I had middle 8 years off for good behaviour.
With all the time shenanigans going on, did you find it easy to keep track of all the temporal threads or did you have to resort to a flowchart?
I started with a hand drawn flowchart. To be honest the flowchart criss-crossed so much that it got a little bit messy, so I used a spreadsheet to try and help me nail things down. Actually, the chapter headings themselves helped me a lot, as I used these as a device to help me (and the reader!) follow the chronological thread. I was quite tempted to put all the chapters in reverse order just to see if anyone noticed. Maybe I could do that when I release the 'director's cut' or something.
What other books would you compare this to, if any?
My influences are Douglas Adams, Robert Rankin, Terry Pratchett and, of course Simon A Forward (you might not have heard of him). But I find it hard to directly compare my work with any of the above greats (or Simon A Forward) as I'm far too modest. So I'll say Tom Holt.
What actors, if any, would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie adaptation?
Jack - David Threlfall off of Shameless crossed with Johnny Vegas.
Joe - Hugo Weaving (halfway between Elrond and Agent Smith, with the brains of neither).
Alyssa - Karen Gillan, maybe with a bit of Tilda Swinton in her (not literally).
The Instructor - Robbie the Robot (with a cloak and after he'd lost a bit of weight).
Drager - me with hair.
Have you called Time on your titular Gentlemen or can we expect more from them?
No way! I'm well under way with a sequel and with a good wind behind me I'll finish this summer. The story starts with our time travelling anti-heroes stealing a historical artifact for an archaeologist who has decided to cut some corners. But can Jack and Joe travel through history without causing an almighty cock-up in the space-time continuum? Do they even know what a continuum is? The archaeologist thinks not, and decides to cut out the middle men (that's Jack and Joe in case you weren't paying attention). Meanwhile former friends become enemies, and enemies become friends. Or have they? The story features a stolen time machine or two, a famous sword, zombies-that-shouldn't-be, a nuclear meltdown, a mighty battle in an inappropriate location and at least one old man. The working title is "Swordplay" or "My Other Clock Is Also A Time Machine", I can't settle on which (so will probably pick neither).
Anything else you'd like to mention about the book might pique the reader's interest?
Yes. It's only £1.99. It has jokes in it (not real ones). I guarantee you will laugh out loud at some point if you read this book (although some laughs may be delayed and you might not realise what you are actually laughing at. I get that a lot, ask my lawyers).
Oh, wait, you wanted an elevator pitch. Here goes! Time Gentlemen is story about what happens when two clueless deadbeats accidentally stumble on a time machine and decide to steal it. They travel as far into the future as is possible and inadvertently free the enslaved remains of the human race from a crazed robotic overlord. They top this off by finding a missing cat, losing a missing cat and then stealing a missing cat. And, even better, the story finishes with a- oh wait, this is my floor. See you!

Thank you, Mr Kelly.

And by Next Big Thing I didn't mean to imply he was a Thing or indeed Big in anything other than a complimentary way. But I recommend you check out his book and you can discover more of his writings and other pursuits he, er, pursues, whether in or outside of elevators, on his site.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Rise And Fall Of Veggie Peril

Eleven minutes late. Carnivorous plant the size of a cathedral on the line at Athelhampton.

The plant is none other than the Krynoid, what you get when you propagate one of The Seeds Of Doom. It’s also what you get when you cross an earlier Avengers  script (The Man-Eater Of Surrey Green) with Doctor Who and a smidgen of John Carpenter’s The Thing.

By Avengers, of course, I mean the one with the lady in the black catsuit – who does martial arts. The one without the scientist who turns into a big green monster. Wait, we’re back on The Seeds Of Doom.

Anyway, there are no karate-kicking catsuited heroines in this six-parter from 1976, but after the opening two episodes in Antarctica the adventure does emulate The Avengers (a show writer Banks Stewart worked on) in tone to a degree. No bad thing and it’s something that the Pertwee era might have carried off even better – Mr Smith and Miss Grant, we’re needed! (Jo was trained as a special agent, don’t you know.) As it is, Tom Baker and Lis Sladen are in fine form, thrown into the action duo role and making a good meal of the vegetable matter on offer. Baker’s mood swings seem especially pronounced as he veers from ultra-flippant grinmeister to Fang Rock-style doom-and-gloom-Doc – compare that to the unflappable John Steed! While Sarah Jane is given some good plucky feminist material to go with the screaming and a Penelope Pitstop moment in the compost grinder.

And take note, I’m not averse to the screaming companion. A good hearty scream is as essential as all the pluck. Horror doesn’t have a hope of being scary if our favourite protagonists aren’t ever scared. Heck, the Doctor should scream once in a while.

Never mind that modern monsters have the benefit of more realistic digital rendering, it’s the conviction that sells Doctor Who’s various terrors and there’s a healthy measure of that from the cast here, regulars and guests alike.

Harrison Chase is right at home, a villain clearly rooted in Avengers soil, with his big country estate, private guards and a typical English obsession (gardening) taken to extremes. Cold chlorophyll flowing through his veins, he’s a vegetarian the way Mother Theresa was a humanitarian and Tony Beckley takes it all wonderfully seriously (even the ludicrous ‘plantain of the opera’ moment when he’s playing his excruciating atonal symphony to a full greenhouse) while obviously enjoying every minute.

John Challis is brilliant as Scorby. No thug with a heart of gold here, but a brutal mercenary with personality nonetheless. He essentially begins as part of a great double act with Keeler, then we sit back and watch self-motivation (and preservation) oblige him to ally with the Doctor and Sarah as the situation goes to pot. We can take him seriously as a killer and as the butt of the Doctor’s jokes at the same time – and the look Sarah gives him at his remark about women is priceless. It’s only a shame that he’s reduced to so much self-pity in the end and a rather pointless demise in a weedy pond. I always wished he'd survived to make a return appearance in Who.

But if that’s an unfortunate end, consider Keeler. A reluctant accomplice in everything, he has nervousness down to a fine art and is green about the gills when it comes to crime. Mark Jones does a superb job of portraying him as pathetic, while still being sympathetic. Once the Krynoid takes hold, it’s fairly obvious this isn’t going to be one of those cases where a last vestige of the man survives to resist the alien domination.

Hargreaves is an odd character, the sort of gentleman’s gentleman who takes his master’s eccentricities in his stride even as his activities spiral into lunacy. The butler didn’t do it, but he’s very much an accessory after the fact – and Seymour Green performs his duties admirably. If Poison Ivy ever felt in need of her own Alfred, she should seek out a man like Hargreaves.

Not Hargreaves himself, since he’s pushing up the daisies. But (almost) everyone is doomed in this – the clue is in the title.

Spared any nasty demise is Amelia Ducat, an ‘old lady from AUNTIE’ who is perhaps an even bigger nod to the story’s Avengers roots than Chase. Expect her to be the subject of a Big Finish spin-off any time soon.

For a six-parter, it cracks along at a pretty pace. It’s main problem lies in the fact that it starts as a fairly taut two-part thriller which ends with the monster destroyed by a bomb and ends as a more padded four-part thriller which ends with the monster destroyed by bombs. And the Doctor has the gall to lecture Scorby on how ‘Bombs and bullets don’t solve everything.’ It’s weak.

The writer has worked well to craft a formidable threat – no accident surely that the Krynoid grows to a creature ‘the size of St Paul’s’, calling to mind The Quatermass Experiment as it looms over the Chase mansion. And the creature is generally effective in its different forms, from seed through to green-painted Axon through to shambling cabbage mountain.

Superimposed snowflakes help in the opening segments (and are better at contributing to the atmosphere than they are at disguising a quarry as an Antarctic landscape), night-shooting further enhances the menace later on in the estate grounds and model work on the house is on a par with the exploding church in The Daemons. Only relatively few shots are let down by the usual limitations of budget and technology. But in the end it’s too formidable and the writer has left the Doctor no cleverer option than calling in the RAF in the form of a full squadron of stock-footage Phantoms. (To a poorly misjudged piece of soundtrack, I might add – weird pseudo-patriotic ditty removes any last vestige of tension from the moment.)

A lesser but still significant letdown is that this is blatantly a UNIT story – even down to the civil servants (Michael Barrington is highly typical of the period, albeit Thackeray is more congenial and less of a buffoon; and Kenneth Gilbert does a decent job as the duplicitous and corruptible Dunbar who tries to redeem himself). But UNIT are missing. Which is to say, they’re present – with something like a full complement of half a dozen troops – but not as we know and love them. No Brigadier, no Benton and no Harry Sullivan.

So this particular blend of vegetable soup comes with an aftertaste of missed opportunity.
Episode Three has more than its share of running around, which I don’t object to in principle – it’s all part and parcel of an adventure yarn and it shows off the spectacular grounds (and it is a great location). But it all feels a bit circular, with the one object of leading to that cliffhanger with Sarah and the pod. There’s an extra sense of contrivance to the cliffhangers as though the writer had all of them sorted in his mind and wrote the rest of the tale to fit. There’s further too-obvious contrivance at work later to bring about Chase’s ultimate end in the crusher. Poetic justice, maybe, but a defter touch in the plotting might not have gone amiss. Again, it’s as though the writer was so fond of that conclusion for his prize villain he was determined to make it happen, no matter what.

Can’t say I blame him too much, as in the end I’m quite fond of the story in spite of these few misgivings. Which, let’s face it, is a common or garden response to many a Doctor Who story.

The grass may often be greener in the imagination, but a tale like this sows a great many seeds.


Sunday, February 03, 2013

Throne Of Games

After my uninspiring playthrough of Dishonored post-Christmas, I got all nostalgic and misty-eyed for Assassin's Creed. It’s okay, I didn’t break out the whole series for a second go – that would’ve involved a lot of hours. But it’s nice to reminisce, once in a while, about a game that got it right.

Mostly. Eventually.

See, I’m not saying there aren’t flaws. From the original Assassin's Creed through ACs II, Brotherhood, Revelations and III there were mistakes and they each came with their own set of gripes. But they grew and evolved and ultimately delivered on their promise. And more besides.

My affair with these games began with AC II – I then hopped back to the beginning when I picked up the first game at bargain basement price. An odd way to approach a series, but no different to how I got into Babylon 5. With Straczynski’s TV opus, I was drawn into the developing Shadow War in Season 2 and was prompted to go back and give the first season a second chance (I’d initially dismissed it as pretty mediocre fare after a couple of episodes). With good old 20/20 hindsight, this was probably a better guarantor of my being hooked. AC, the first, was riddled with flaws and shortcomings compared to the second and I’m not sure I would have been so enamoured with the experience. But I think I could appreciate its strengths more in light of how it was destined to grow.

Now, (SPOILER ALERT), I should say from the outset I was never really taken with the series’ central premise; the sci-fi element of the Matrix-like Animus detracted from the gorgeously realised and thoroughly immersive historical settings (SPOILER AHOY!), all those intervening DaVinci Code-style contemporary sequences were at best a distraction, at worst an irritation (SPOILER COMING UP ANY MOMENT NOW), the modern reluctant assassin, Desmond, was a wet blanket and (SPOILER) I was glad that he croaked in the end. Any future instalments in the series will benefit from his absence.

Heartless, I know, but there it is. But when you’ve gone to all the trouble of lovingly crafting those historical settings (as Ubisoft so clearly have) it’s small wonder I would rather have spent all my time in those rich playgrounds. The Animus also had an annoying habit of erecting all these white barriers everywhere, declaring certain areas off-limits until certain points in the story – and those were a huge eyesore, scarring the otherwise beautiful illusion the developers had worked so hard to create. The only thing you could do was turn about, ride on and try to forget you had seen such a dreadful thing plastered across the landscape.

Even with those fences erected everywhere, the games managed to be more free-roaming than most. I just tended to figure they could have dispensed with them altogether, let you wander where you pleased and simply introduced the story elements in those locations as and when the plot called for them. For example, if you weren’t meant to meet Machiavelli yet you could have been allowed to explore his neighbourhood, collect all those interminable feathers, Templar flags and what have you, trespass on the rooftops, take down a few unsuspecting guards, pick a pocket or two etc and generally have fun, just don’t have old Niccolo present.

Frankly, even a barred city gate is preferable to a giant wall of white nothingness like something out of Doctor Who’s The Mind Robber. We don’t want to be reminded we’re only in the Animus and could be pulled back to the role of Dismal, I mean Desmond, at any time.

To be fair, of the historical characters, the original Altair is a bit one-dimensional, but has that advantage of a touch of mystique by remaining a hooded avatar on which you can project a range of personality traits of your choice. The later characters in the series, Ezzio, Connor and Hatham are more well-rounded and fleshed out, to the extent that – I found – it was nice to reflect their personalities in your play style. I was less-inclined by far to engage in wholesale slaughter as Ezzio, the charmer, for example, while a pragmatic ruthlessness crept into my play as Hatham, followed by a rather reckless thirst for revenge after Connor’s village is torched. The twist with Hatham (if you’re lucky enough, like I was, not to have had it spoiled) comes as a genuine shock and yet the revelation did nothing to undermine my liking for the character. Nicely handled.

The way in which the series threads historical characters and detail into its events is masterful. I’m not saying it should be employed as an educational tool (there’s plenty to learn from the databases and just by playing the series I often found myself fascinated with many aspects of the featured period, but let’s be honest students would never get any work done). But it all serves to bring the game world to life in a way that very few fantasy settings are ever going to achieve.

Differences in architecture and terrain also oblige the gameplay to adapt, particularly in AC III, with its generally lower rooftops and extensive woodlands. All that movement through the tree branches brought a whole new skill set to be mastered and was tricky at first, with fingers and thumbs trained on previous AC games, but it wasn’t too long before it was just as fluid and second-nature as all the rooftop activity of before. The combat system went through a number of changes with each instalment too and while not perfect I rate it as one of the best, facilitating some great swash-buckling free-flowing action – lightly peppered with cinematic flourishes.

And, speaking of buckled swashes, I especially enjoyed the historical naval action that brought another added dimension to the Assassin's world.

Of course, it being software, it’s all at least as well-seasoned with glitches and failings. AC III, for instance, featured a lovely peaceful little side project of just observing various workers toiling cheerfully away on the homestead – but a project, courtesy of a bug, I never did complete. They say they issued a fix but if I wanted to waste more hours watching farm labourers I daresay I could do that locally. And some of the challenges, if you wanted that 100% completion, were excessively fraught with difficulty. Most notably a climactic chase where you had to keep up with the main villain without brushing the shoulders of any innocent bystanders on a crowded dock with your passage barred at frequent intervals by armed guards and a return to the starting line in the event of any fail – and fail you would, lots. Not only can I attest to the toughness of this one, but a couple of days after I’d finally succeeded against all the odds, Ubisoft apparently issued a ‘fix’ to make it a little easier. Thanks.

But I mention that by way of an amused grumble in honour of their impeccable timing. Because none of these gripes were serious enough to damage my impression of the games overall. As I say, the biggest detractions lay in the Animus and the dull Von Daniken story arc that linked the different period pieces together. Give me a standalone setting as richly realised as these, let me loose in them and I’ll be just as happy if not more so. I’m reminded in many respects of Rock Star’s superb Red Dead Redemption, where I was perfectly content between missions and quests to ride around, explore and enjoy the scenery. Anything, really, to postpone the end of the story and spend a little more time in the world presented.

It’s the model they should have used for a Game Of Thrones game (instead of this less than stellar effort), with its ideal balance of (mostly) free-roaming sandbox play in a sumptuously detailed - and populated – world, interwoven with a tale of conspiracy and political intrigues. Of course, the Game Of Thrones 'version' would necessarily be grittier, darker and dirtier but the essential building blocks are all there. (Taking things in a brighter direction, it would also be the best model for an Asterix The Gaul game, with plenty of scope for bashing Romans and biffing wild boar in the course of an entertaining tale.)

Which is why, ultimately, I say the series delivers on its promise and more. On top of providing a rewarding journey and many hours of engaging (and more than just your average no-brainer) entertainment, it establishes a standard and a model that other games could do well to look up to and perhaps emulate.

Ubisoft, I hope, will continue to learn from their mistakes while they – and other developers – build on everything they got right.