Monday, April 29, 2013

We Come In Peace, Shoot To Kill!

When Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks inherited Doctor Who from their predecessors they weren’t overly keen on the setup they’d been handed. The Doctor’s exile to Earth must have seemed like a sentence imposed on them, with inherent limitations on the kinds of story they would be able to tell. Mad professors and alien invasions, that’s your lot. All credit to them then for everything they achieved with Season 7, Pertwee’s debut and the show’s first year in colour.

And if you’re detecting traces of bias in that opening paragraph, you’re not wrong. Doctor Who has through much of its history been a prime example of succeeding in the face of budgetary and technological shortcomings, but only very rarely has it had to challenge the restrictions of its own format.

The Ambassadors Of Death faced even more difficulties as credited writer, David Whitaker, was struggling with the scripts and replaced at a late hour by Malcolm Hulke. So it’s a minor miracle that anything coherent emerged, let alone a story that stands up as one of my personal favourites.

For one thing, it features my earliest Who memory - that of two creepy space-suited figures striding in slow-motion – and I don’t doubt that deeply embedded childhood experience has done as good a job of colouring my perspective as the restoration team did on the black-and-white print. So you’ll pardon me for stating, before we go any further, that I love it.

I even kind of love the quirky episode openings, sandwiched between two bursts of title music. Pyow! as a friend of mine so ably expressed it on Twitter.

It goes without saying, there are problems. But I’d best say it anyway, as a nod to objectivity if nothing else. But overcoming flaws is not such an issue when there’s such a great premise at the story’s core.

Silurians asked, what if the aliens were here first? And Ambassadors goes for another alternative twist on the alien invasion. Namely, what if the alien invaders aren’t invaders at all, they’ve come in peace and are only being used by nefarious humans? Brilliant.

Sometimes even the simplest of ideas requires a degree of contrivance to make it work and that’s certainly the case here. Circumstances are carefully managed and inevitably situations have to be further contrived to sustain the tale for its seven parts. The story length might be daunting for some, but I rewatched it one episode at a time and each is quite a neat little parcel of action, mystery, suspense and all the essential ingredients for nudging along the narrative.

It’s also big-budget stuff for Doctor Who and for the most part that’s right there on the screen.
The cash does disappear at times – like in the rocket launch, for example – but the model shots of the mating space capsules are pretty decent. Where the overspend is most apparent is in the big action set-pieces where stunt group Havoc get to play soldiers. When it comes to the transporter hijack, director Michael Ferguson seems to believe he’s helming a Hollywood blockbuster.

Some of the blockbuster action is a bit stagey – and even hammy when the Brigadier gets involved in a spot of fisticuffs in the latter phase – but in the context of early 70s BBC television drama it’s bona fide James Bond stuff, providing spectacle and pepping up the pace in what amounts to a thinking man’s Moonraker.

Or Marsraker, perhaps.

Because this tale revolves around a series of (British!) Mars missions. It shows its age in the best possible way, in that it lovingly reflects the fascination with the Apollo missions of the era. An age when a manoeuvring capsule or a spacewalk were clearly celebrated as something amazing and captivating, no matter that they didn’t make for the fastest TV. The pedestrian pace of those sequences and the subdued, functional mood in mission control do much to root this sci-fi caper in a passable impression of reality. A realism further enhanced by the consistently lax security you’d expect at a British Space Centre.

And somehow it succeeds as a tale of first contact despite occurring late in an already rich history of alien invasions.

The martians, not to be confused with the Ice Warriors, are being used as puppets by the human villains of the piece. There’s only one out-and-out bad guy, however, in the form of mercenary and crook, Reegan, who has ambitions of putting the aliens to work in a string of bank robberies. With these guys you could knock off Fort Knox, he says.

His boss, General Carrington, is a different matter. He’s no Hugo Drax. He’s insane, but in a sympathetic way. His motivations are given credible enough basis by a backstory comparable to that of General Williams in Hulke’s later Frontier In Space – in essence, a fatal – and fateful – misunderstanding. At the end, he appeals to the Doctor and when the Doctor tells him he understands, you know it’s sincerely meant. It’s his actual aims – how he intends to use the aliens – that seem vague and ill-formed. Reegan’s agenda is abundantly clear. While Carrington spends most of the time juggling and manipulating and basically striving to keep his not altogether pinned-down plans afloat.

Probably a product of the script’s patchy development, but it works in terms of the men’s respective mental states. Questions remain: like, if Carrington’s crewmate, Jim, died on a previous Mars Probe mission, why didn’t he report the details? Then again, many an officer might resist talking of UFOs for fear they might appear mad. And even the mad ones probably wouldn’t wish to seem mad.

The martians themselves are haunting, enigmatic figures. Faceless space-suited figures, impervious to bullets and with a lethal brand of Midas touch. Their death grip manifests as a highly visible – and colourful – form of radiation which may be unscientific but it’s a nice effect which spells it out for the viewer.

It’s a shame they don’t appear until quite far into the story, but on the other hand the mystery surrounding them is largely preserved. All to the benefit of what rates – for me – as one of the best endings in Doctor Who.

Crisis resolved, the Doctor walks off, leaving humans to handle this first contact situation on their own.

Knowing next to nothing about them places us in the same boat as the humans. Whatever is transacted between the two races, whatever there is to be learned about these aliens, is an undiscovered country, another story for another time. That excites the imagination far more than the (frankly unnecessary) glimpse we’re given of one martian’s face, sans helmet. This isn’t a story about these aliens, it’s about how humanity responds when confronted with the unknown. So it exercises great control by keeping them an unknown.

The humans involved are a mixed bag. John Abineri gives us a nicely understated insane General. Ronald Allen as Ralph Cornish seems to have taken his role as Controller a shade too literally, with almost every line delivered as though his volume control has been turned down, but he’s convincing enough and provides a calm centre to the spiralling events. Taltalian (Robert Cawdron) strikes as a comical creation with his Pythonesque French accent. The always brilliant Michael Wisher provides excellent soft-spoken BBC commentary to some key events worthy of the great David Attenborough himself. Cyril Shaps (one of those semi-regulars you’ll see popping up as different characters in Who) is terrific as the doomed, weaselly Lennox and it’s a nice touch to have him and Liz Shaw recognise each other from their Cambridge days.

Caroline John, needless to say, is fab, fulfilling her role as the Doctor’s assistant with her customary sparkle and she seems to relish all that she’s handed in this adventure. A stuntman takes over for certain scenes but the script gives her plenty to do and rounds out the character of Liz Shaw as the most capable pre-Leela companion, with her grasp of sciences, technical know-how, language skills and heaps of pluck to give enemies a run for their money. Her line to one of the heavies as he grabs her – “It’s all right. I won’t hurt you.” – is priceless.

The Doctor, likewise, gets a healthy variety of stuff to do and Pertwee is in fine form, at home and enjoying himself in the role, able to demonstrate all his natural flair as an action hero, scientist, comedian and (ironically, given that he steps out ahead of actual negotiations), the ultimate diplomat.

It’s a great showpiece for his Doctor as well as for the new era which Letts and Dicks inherited. It’s also, like Recovery Seven, a successful rescue mission, managing to salvage something of a classic from a project fraught with difficulties.

And it delivers an important lesson for us all:

If you ever find yourself in attendance at one of these Ambassadors’ parties, don’t touch the Ferrero Rocher.


Monday, April 22, 2013

Stainless Steel Reviews - Part Three

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

The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You!

My version of this book doesn’t include an exclamation mark after the title, but it feels like it should have one. It’s maybe the daftest adventure in the series but it’s also the boldest.

To date the League universe has been devoid of aliens, so Harrison kicks off by remedying that – and then some. He could have settled for introducing one alien species as the sworn enemy of the human race, but no, he pushes every boat out and makes sure the galaxy is suitably swamped by an invasion force of countless different slimy, blobby, be-tentacled beasts, all improbably banded together against us, united in their hatred and disgust for just how ugly we look. It’s like B-movie scifi monsterdom meets Cecil B DeMille with its cast of a thousand creatures.

Then to top off the silliness, Harrison has Slippery Jim become Slimy Jim, infiltrating the enemy disguised as the ultimate man-in-a-suit monster. Accompanied by one of his sons, secreted inside a fake robot. It almost feels like a merciless mick-take of Doctor Who and is all the better for it.

It also benefits from having Angelina and the other of the diGriz twins kidnapped by the alien nasties, neatly removing the danger of having Jim bailed out by the missus another time too many.

And when you have fully embraced the absurdity of it all – which Harrison makes it all too easy to do – and you’re sitting back and enjoying the ride, that’s when it hits you with the big twist and we’re suddenly dealing with a darker (let’s say greyer) foe. An old enemy, if that’s not giving too much away – which it is really. Harrison makes the transition from daft romp to dumping Jim in more serious jeopardy with aplomb and it all fits together surprisingly well. We’re spared the brutal torture scene that was such a sharp kick in Revenge and maybe that would’ve been a step too far, tough to stomach in such a full-on happy meal.

The resolution’s a little convenient and idealised, but it’s reasonably neat and in keeping with the tone. And overall it leaves you with a sense that when the Stainless Steel Rat points and says he Wants You (with or without an exclamation mark) you did yourself a favour by stepping up and volunteering your time.

The Stainless Steel Rat For President

So we come to the end of our travels with the Stainless Steel Rat. And Harry Harrison makes sure Slippery Jim goes out in grand style.

The Peter Ellison cover of my copy portrays an older Rat, bewhiskered and bemedalled, amid a shower of bunting and ticker-tape as some hig-tech fighters perform a celebratory fly-past overhead. It's fitting as the whole thing feels like a party. Perhaps more of a retirement party than a political parade as there seems to be a stated intent to send the Rat off to rest as the book concludes.

All good things do come to an end and it's best if they go out on a high. Like The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You this is bold and daft and at least as enjoyable as all those bottles of 'ron' that Jim puts away during the course of this adventure. It also pulls off that trick of retaining a slightly nastier edge in the midst of all the comedy, managing to paint a vivid - and even vibrant - picture of a brutal totalitarian state in a tropical paradise. When hasn't a corrupt South/Central American dictatorship been ripe for a humorous poke or two? But it's quite nifty to be able to build them up as a convincing enemy while knocking them down like coconuts in a carney.

Paraiso-Aqui is nicely realised, allowing Harrison to sugar the mix with his linguistic skills, and further shows the author's taste for a blend of futuristic and retro. The mechanical semaphore towers that are a feature of every noble estate are an especially nice touch. There's all the usual twists and turns and bumps on the road, all the reliance on gadgetry and wit - along with less reliance on the miraculous eleventh-hour rescues that perhaps got used one too many times in other books in the series.

Jim, Angelina and sons, James and Bolivar, operate well as a family unit without tarnishing the Rat's status as the Stainless Steel hero. It's hard to see Bond settling down and bringing his loved ones along on a mission or two with anything like the successful results seen here. But then, it's too easy to stretch that Jim DiGriz/James Bond comparison as once again plenty of light is shone on the Rat's moral stance on the use of guns, violence and killing. DiGriz has a reticence in these areas that Bond doesn't share and it makes life that little bit harder as he goes up against murderous foes like dictator Zapilote and his chief henchman Oliveira. It also makes things more interesting.

Good zip-along action, the humour at Harrison's sharpest and definitely a fond farewell to the series. Obviously I can't condone crime, but there's a something refreshingly honest and optimistic about having a thief run for political office. And not just in a corrupt South/Central American totalitarian state.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Fantastic Visage

Almost as key as the introduction of a new Doctor in Doctor Who is the debut story of a new companion. Like the Doctors they accompany, they often have to grow into their roles over the course of a few adventures.

Louise Jameson arrives on the scene as a fully-fledged Leela and puts her stamp on The Face Of Evil even more than Tom Baker – and he has the advantage of being backed up by a big floating head, a mad computer created in his image and an effigy carved in an alien Mount Rushmore.

She strikes the perfect balance of technological naivety and worldly wisdom. Simple and sharp as a knife. Fierce feminist icon and leather-clad sex symbol rolled into one, she’s the ultimate pre-Xena Warrior Princess. The original intention was to tread a Pygmalion path, with the Doctor civilising this savage and it’s only a shame they didn’t properly pursue this angle. Even more of a shame that they subjected her to the ultimate domestication by marrying her off in Invasion Of Time. Although while Andred might have worn the trousers in that relationship we knew who was going to be boss.

It strikes me as odd whenever I’ve encountered comments that ‘they could never get away with a character like her these days’. Yes, she commits acts of violence but they’re no worse than I’ve seen in Xena or Buffy and her motivations and morality are clearer and more consistent than the Doctor’s. (One decade it’s no more Janis Thorns, next it’s let’s plant this bomb on this bad person’s ship and blow him to smithereens.) The truth is they could never realise such a character so perfectly as Louise Jameson crafts Chris Boucher’s creation into very much one of a kind.

Indeed, I was genuinely staggered when I spotted a woman striding past the camera as the Sevateem march off to battle. Memory cheats and I didn’t recall there being any other female in the tribe, least of all another warrior. Go girl power! Although I think she only appears in the one shot so Leela is still highly conspicuous in a male-dominated world.

Fair play to the other actors involved, the tribe of the Sevateem are portrayed with conviction. The tribal politics between Tomas (BrendanPrice), Calib (Leslie Schofield) and Andor (Victor Lucas) might be token and incidental to the main plot but they flesh out proceedings with some nice interplay. David Garfield as Neeva even maintains the intensity and seriousness with a big space-suit glove on his head. No mean feat.

It’s their rivals, the Tesh, who seem faintly ridiculous. They have all the advanced tech (obviously), all the best weapons etc so if anything we’re meant to take them more seriously. But between their costumes and the affected manner, the actors’ convictions don’t carry the same weight as with the Sevateem.

There is, in any case, only one real character (other than the iGod with mental health issues) on the Tesh side of the barrier – namely Jabel (Leon Eagles). It’s a whimsical performance that leaves the rubbery Horda as the more convincing menace.

It is a very minor letdown in an otherwise well-realised story.

A jungle stalked by invisible monsters. Two factions divided by their differences despite a shared history. It’s another spin on familiar elements from DW’s own back catalogue as well as other SF sources, but it feels fresh and new. And bright. There’s an almost glaring brightness to the jungle, but instead of feeling like a problem with overlighting it helps paint an aura of strangeness and alienness to rival the one achieved with darkness and shadow on Planet Of Evil.

The invisible creatures here turn out to be telekinetic phantoms, the projections of schizoid supercomputer Xoanon (nee Hal 2000) who has been imprinted with the Doctor’s psyche – along with his face.

That Face provides for one of the all-time classic episode endings, of course. That fantastic defining moment of the story where the Doctor is confronted by the sight of his own physiognomy, writ large on the side of a mountain. And feeds Leela the deliciously Douglas Adamsian line about going up the nose. Sadly it’s a more disappointing over the teeth climb that turns out to be the means of entry, but the image remains. The fx fall short at around this point, with the ship supposedly in the distance looking a little too like a model and some CSO ‘trickery’, ‘nifty’ editing and a dash of throwaway voice-over exposition to cover the journey from the mountain Face to the Tesh HQ.

The Face also raises a continuity question or two and doubtless many a fan and/or Big Finish production has pondered exactly when on his solo travels Tom Baker’s Doctor managed to squeeze in a bit of tampering with an impressionable infant AI. Because as far as the TV show is concerned, all we know is he left straight for Gallifrey at the end of Hand Of Fear then came directly here after The Deadly Assassin. And yet the suggestion is this all arose from events that occurred a fair while ago. Ultimately, it’s just a teeny spanner thrown in by regeneration, because with the face of an old Doctor this story just wouldn’t work the same.

Baker here is his special blend of warm, friendly, gloomy and serious with an extra measure of batty as he talks to himself and rambles a bit more than usual. The phantom projections of his face make for a creepy image and I kind of wish they’d made more use of them than they do. The scenes in the heart of the computer room where Xoanon has his/her/their breakdown are genuinely freaky and played out against a suitably psychedelic backdrop. And we get served up another cliffhanger with impact as Baker’s face looms large and cries “Who am I?” with the voice of a child.

There’s a shade too much to-ing and fro-ing in the early stages (to the village, to the jungle, back to the village) and a bit too much sneaking around samey white corridors towards the end. And maybe Neeva’s timely intervention is a little too fortuitous, albeit only on a par with the Dalek trundling over the detonator wires in Genesis.

All in all though, it’s a story of clashes between primitive and advanced, the rational versus irrational and in that respect it’s not so unreasonable to have a measure of pure chance play its part. It’s also a tale of consequences, one of the few to examine a potential negative impact the Doctor can have on a society or culture – and possibly a stronger influence on my Big Finish audio, The Sandman, than I realised until, well, now really.

It plays on that well-known Arthur C Clarke riff, ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ and plays it well. This being a 70s BBC production it also serves as a good example of that familiar DW principle, ‘any sufficiently creative tale can, despite insufficient technology (and/or budget), seem like magic.’

A flawed gem then, like so many and yet unlike any other, and possibly one of the best introductions of a companion in the series.

Andred better realise how damned lucky he is and do the washing-up whenever his wife asks.


Friday, April 05, 2013

Croft Original

Women face many a tough challenge in the modern world, not least the age-old difficulty of getting men to quit staring at their chest and begin to see them as a real person. Spare a thought for poor Lara Croft whose boobs were so enormous they tended to divert attention from her incredible feats.

In previous games she has evolved to a degree in line with graphics capabilities, developing from her cartoonish origins into more of an animé (basically a higher form of cartoon) creation. The latest Tomb Raider endeavours to flesh her out, if you’ll pardon the expression, as a three-dimensional character in the more important sense and invites us to look at her anew with more grown-up eyes.

Outlandishness, absurdity and exaggeration remain a feature of the action and the world she inhabits, but her physique at least is one thing that hasn’t been pushed to the limits of credibility. As part of a new motif of gritty realism, she spends much of this adventure battered and bruised, wounded, caked in blood and dirt. For all that, she’s a looker. But you’re no longer looking at her like some comic-book heroine, which is quite an achievement on the part of the designers, given some of the stunts she is required to pull in the course of the adventure.

This being a reboot of sorts, a fresh beginning, Lara’s youth mixes an empathetic level of vulnerability with the strength and independence. It works and leaves you more invested in the story. Complete with all those familiar feelings of vertigo and the stone hitting the pit of your stomach when she plunges to her death.

I’m afraid of heights. Why do I play games like these?

This is more or less the Tomb Raider you know and love. Which is to say, it’s both more – and less.

While Lara’s younger, the content is more mature. Grim and gory, with a pretty effective command of suspense and, at times, fear born of more than mere vertigo. Lara’s stranded and, most of the time, alone and with skilfully orchestrated repertoire of mood and meteorology the game captures and conveys that sense of isolation well. Crucially there are also moments of respite and reprieve, which serve to heighten the moments of tension when they spike.

Gritty reality veers way out into Hollywood blockbuster action – and then some – but it wouldn’t have felt at all like Tomb Raider if it didn’t. The developers push that envelope and walk as fine a tightrope on that edge as they dare. And I think they just about get away with it. We are confronted with a story that has its share of the supernatural, after all, so what does it matter if some of the white-knuckle stunt sequences ask that you suspend your disbelief by the fingertips?

It’s fun, fast and exciting, but doesn’t forget to afford a bit of breathing space for some roaming and exploration.

Aspects of the menu interface reminded me of Assassins Creed – and Lara’s ‘instincts’ feature seems to be borrowed from AC’s Eagle Vision. The use of camp sites as bases for assigning skills, upgrading weapons and fast travel points makes sense, as does the acquisition of spare parts from abandoned supply crates dotted about the island. It’s not totally free-roaming, but the facility to return to previously visited sections of the map and hunt for those collectibles is welcome. The combat is fairly straightforward and intuitive, pacey and challenging, although it doesn’t have the swash and buckle flow of the AC games. And while there’s no particular provision for stealth skills as such, the game does at least reward the stealthy approach where it’s an option. Plenty of times, shootouts are your only choice, so be prepared to duck and weave and don’t be conservative with your ammo. Luckily there’s always more to be had from supply crates or looting fallen enemies.

Most of Lara’s unfortunate deaths, I suspect, will come from mini-action sequences which are dependent on very unforgiving QTEs (Quick Time Events), where a too-slow (or even too-fast) button press will be her doom. I might have preferred a bit more margin for error and a wider range of outcomes than failure equals death, but thankfully these are reasonably well dispersed and they do ramp up the tension stakes when they occur. Some even ramp up other kinds of stakes.

Where it principally falls short is in the Tombs Department. Tombs can be found along the course of Lara’s journey, but you’ll discover they involve very little actual puzzle-solving – which was always a prominent feature (not surprisingly) of the Tomb Raider brand. Sure there’s an element of working out routes to the treasure, but each essentially boils down to a single (simple) puzzle and the main challenge in one or two of those (where, for example, the timing of your jumps is everything) lies in the execution. They’re even referred to in the interface as ‘Optional Tombs’.

Which is almost like having Mortal Kombat with optional kombat.

But never mind. The island is, in a sense, one big tomb, where Lara has to negotiate her way over, around and through a number of death-defying and often dizzying obstacles with a nice variety of tools and tricks that she picks up en route.

And the developers have included at least one major puzzle. Namely, the mystery as to why on earth they felt the need to incorporate a deathmatch-style multiplayer feature into a quintessential solo adventure game. More than that, they’ve given it undue prominence, with a third of the game’s achievements and all future DLC dedicated to this multiplayer angle. (No plans for any solo play DLC, folks.) Now, it must be said, I can’t speak as to how good, bad or indifferent it might be, because the truth is it interested me about as much as the multiplayer runaround Ubisoft thought to bolt on to the later Assassin’s Creeds.

Not only does it strike me as a bit pointless and a poor fit, on a purely superficial level gamers don’t turn to Tomb Raider for the chance to play some grizzled sea dog or a tattooed shotgun-wielding cultist. They play it for Lara Croft. And those tombs.

Ultimately, giving the multiplayer a miss didn’t feel like missing out. Quite the opposite. Albeit, the developers might, I suppose, have been free to make their tombs and puzzles a little more elaborate. As it is, it’s an immersive, involving and generally rewarding game.

The franchise has evolved along with its heroine and feels like a worthy 21st-century remodelling of a classic. Similar, in some respects, to the makeover administered to James Bond for the Daniel Craig era, this manages to have its far-fetched action-setpiece cake while eating its gritty ‘realism’, so is more Skyfall than Casino Royale. It feels new and different, but at the same time passably familiar.

And at least it always offers more than a Quantum Of Solace.