Monday, April 24, 2017

I Saw Elvis In A Potato Chip Once 11 - The X-Files 1.11 - Eve

A few weeks off to recharge my paranormal batteries (and paint the outside of the house) and I'm back in the groove with season one of the adventures of Mulder and Scully. This time around it's probably the most disturbing episode since "Squeeze". Time for a quick look at:

The X-Files 1.11 - Eve

I'll admit that when the first dead body was found with two puncture wounds in his neck and drained of blood, I immediately thought "Vampires. It was only a matter of time until the series went there". Thankfully the real cause, despite Mulder's attempts to link it to UFOs, was more interesting.

In of itself, the idea of identical girls with psychotic homicidal tendencies might not seem that original. There have been lots of fictional instances of twins who commit horrific acts or are harbingers of evil things to come or are just there to be damn creepy. The first time I saw the movie version of Stephen King's "The Shining", the Grady girls really freaked me out. But add that horror trope to the more science fictional concept of cloning - especially when conducted by the traditional X-Files shadowy government agency - and it's just enough of a twist to update things for the 90s.

I particularly liked the fact that the writers took it once stage further with different generations of the clones in the shape of the various Eve's that were either locked up or on the run. This aspect allowed them to indulge in another classic horror trope - the visit to the insane asylum. I'm still not sure why all these places have to be so damn dark - it felt more like a version of 'Bedlam', with all the locks, dank corridors and wailing in the background, than a modern hospital three to look after and treat patients with mental illnesses. It helps that Eve 6 in her cell is downright crazy, gnashing her teeth like some demented Hannibal Lecter.

The episode really hinges though around separated twins Teeny and Cindy (Eves 9 and  10). Although they didn't exhibit any particular mental powers (beyond somehow "knowing" certain things were going to happen) their coldness and lack of conscience reminded me of the unnatural kids at the centre of the classic "Village of the Damned" (based on John Whyndam's "The Midwich Cuckoos"). Because children are seen to be these innocent bundles of joy, untouched by the evils of the world, it's more disturbing when they turn out to be so calculating and manipulative. The conceit could have fallen with the wrong actresses, but Sabrina and Erika Krievins really pull it off .

Other thoughts and facts:
  • Scully seems to be getting a tad fed up with Mulder's attempts to link every case to some kind of extra-terrestrial phenomenon. She even appears to be mocking him somewhat. What can't be disputed is that Mulder's references to "cattle mutilations" are genuine. There have been dozens of such cases possibly dating right back to the 1600s. The strange states that these poor animals have been left in have been explained away as being due to natural causes (dehydration after death, parasites or insects, other predatory animals, human cruelty, etc). However there are still those who believe that the mutilations are the work of cults, government or military experimentation, abduction by UFOs or even the work of mythical creatures such as the chupacabras.
  • There are also comments in the episode about the "Litchfield Experiments". My own research leads me to conclude that the writers are alluding to the story of 'Sabrina Sidney', an abandoned child who lived in the late 18th century. She was taken in by author Thomas Day, who through a series of  eccentric techniques and forms of physical and mental abuse tried to mold her into his perfect wife -  based on his personal interpretation of the educational text by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It's a fascinating if horrifying story.
  • Equally the aside about "Jonestown" - especially in light of the twins attempting to murder Mulder and Sclly with poison - must be in reference to the event in Guyana on 18th November 1978 when 909 members of the "Peoples Temple Agricultural Project" cult (including over 300 children) were killed by cyanide poison in their drinks.  It's where the phrase "Drinking the Kool-Aid" comes from
There is nothing even remotely paranormal about this episode in the end, which actually works in its favour. It's about the dangers of science gone wrong. Refreshingly it's also Scully who is on the right track and Mulder's theories which are wrong. It's probably my second favourite of the whole season so far. At face value it doesn't appear to have anything to do with the larger series mythology that is slowly being built, but the appearance of Deep Throat may prove that it is connected in ways that are yet to be revealed...

One final question - if the girls were the ones who exsanguinated their foster fathers, what *did* happen to all that blood...?

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Golden Sunsets - 50 Years Of Memories - Part 16 - 1982

"Know you now of days long past. The time when the world was young. When sorcery thrived and wild adventure was forever in the offering..."

The Trivia:
  • For one scene in his film "Dragon Lord" which required him to kick a shuttlecock, director / star Jackie Chan apparently did over 1,000 takes.
  • The CGI pioneering film "Tron" was not nominated for an Oscar for visual effects because using computers was considered "cheating".
  • Hollywood writer Chuck Ross redrafted the script to "Casablanca" and submitted it to over 200 agencies under the title "Everybody Comes To Rick's". Dozens rejected it as not being good enough.

The Memory:

The Sword and the Sorcerer

All kids of a certain age will remember their local "video shop". Much like comic book stores full of back issues, video rental shops had their own particular smell, their own ambience. Cheap carpet tiles, an ancient looking television set, the 'adult' section shoved ungainly in a rack in the corner. If films were your drug of choice, the guy behind the counter was your dealer.  I'm not talking the glossy, brightly lit branches of a "Blockbusters" - these were the places that some village entrepreneur decided to open up to provide surrounding residents with VHS copies of the latest Hollywood movies (along with a tiny sample of Betamax format films before that format died an unloved death).

You have to understand that in the 1980s (in the UK at least) it could take up to five years for a film to make it's way from the cinema to the three terrestrial channels (Channel 4 didn't start until November of 1982). If you didn't get to the two screen Odeon or single screen ABC cinemas in the nearest town, that was it in terms of seeing the film until BBC 1 showed it at Christmas or Easter. Sure home taping had begun to take off as the price of video cassettes tumbled - by this point I was regularly recording "Doctor Who" and a whole host of other things off of the television - but *new* films? -  the video shop was really your only option (unless you had access to "pirate" recordings, often from a man driving around honking his car horn and then opening his boot to show the few meagre cassettes he had available. I vaguely recall getting to see an appalling copy of "E.T." this way).

The thing is, local shops didn't have the cash to buy many copies of the same film. If you were very lucky they would have two or three of a brand new title, but more often than not there would just be a single solitary plastic box on the shelf in the "new releases" section - and that would obviously be missing too if someone had already rented the cassette. You could hang around in the vain hope that someone might return the film while you were there, or be told by the proprietor to pop back in a couple of hours on the off chance that the current renter returned it on time. Either that or choose a different film to watch.

(My local video shop after it had closed. That parish office used to be a betting shop!)

My local video emporium was where I first got to see teen sex comedies such as "Porky's" and "Screwballs", classics like "The Blues Brothers", action films like "First Blood" and horror fare such as"Alien" (naturally I had to get my dad to rent those ones!). This was before the infamous Video Recordings Act of 1984 which saw a whole host of titles classed as "video nasties" and banned. Softcore porn sat side by side with titles like "Driller Killer" and "I Spit On Your Grave". There would always be a copy of "The Warriors" or something starring Chuck Norris - plus a plethora of weird and wonderful titles that you had never heard of but whose cover illustrations and blurb on the back enticed you in. "Rent me" they pleaded. "I'm not crap, honest".

The early 80s was when "sword and sorcery" movies hit it big. We'd had the wonderfully cheesy "Hawk The Slayer" at the start of the decade followed by "Dragonslayer" and "Excalibur". 1982 was dominated by the Arnold Schwarzenegger starring "Conan The Barbarian", but that wasn't my favourite. Not even Marc Singers "The Beastmaster" came close. No, the 80s best S&S movie  by a country mile was aptly named "The Sword and the Sorcerer".

Okay, so anyone seeing the film for the first time will clearly realise that it's a *bit* of a rip off of Conan. The young child protagonist who sees his family killed by an tyrannical invader and vows revenge - growing up in exile to be a muscly rogue mercenary. The evil wizard with his own agenda. The scantily clad beautiful women. The rampant violence. Even that poster above could have been ripped from a Frank Frazetta book cover. So far, so cliché.

But the thing that sets "The Sword and the Sorcerer" above many of it's contemporaries it that much like the Dino De Laurentis "Flash Gordon", it never takes itself too seriously. The hero Talon is witty and intelligent (if rather boorish) and more in the mold of the swashbucklers of the early days of cinema, rather than the hulking brute who just uses his strength. He's also refreshingly honest - agreeing to help the rebellion against nasty Titus Cromwell not for gold or power, but because it will gain him a night of passion with the lovely Alana. The company of "heroes" bicker amongst each other, and it's this kind of knowing, wink-at-the-audience "yeah we know it's a bit cheap but it's a hell of a lot of fun" attitude that makes the film so entertaining. It also had a lot of influence on later entries in the genre. You can probably trace a (wobbly, meandering) line from here to the "The Princess Bride" five years later.

I can't talk about Talon without mentioning his sword - after all it get's top billing in the film's title. This is not just any normal broadsword. It has three blades, two of which can be fired at the opponent via some sort of compressed air technical doohickery. Plus it has another knife hidden in the hilt. Back in the day I thought this was one of the cleverest things ever. Utterly impractical and you never see Talon having to go and retrieve his blades by yanking them out of someone's skull, but hey, it's still mightily impressive. It's also enchanted apparently, though how and by whom is never explained as far as I can recall.

So what about the Sorcerer then? Well his name is Xusia of Delos and he's a particularly ugly looking specimen - but then so would you be if you had been entombed after using banned dark magic and then resurrected centuries later by Titus Cromwell's pet witch! Xusia aids the evil ruler in finally conquering the kingdom of Ehdan  - but his reward is a literal knife in the back and he flings himself off a cliff, while Cromwell goes on to consolidate his stranglehold over Ehdan across many years. It's a swift end for one of the supposed main characters you might think.

But after Talon and his friends have fought Cromwell to a standstill, there is a massive twist towards the end of the film, as the kings sour faced adviser Count Machelli - standing in plain sight all the time - reveals himself to have been Xusia in disguise all along and with plans to take control of the kingdom himself.

"He's a sorcerer. Of course he can use illusion to conceal himself". Ah, but it's not the fact that Xusia was camouflaged that is the memorable moment from this movie - it's how he reveals himself. Machelli literally tears his own head in half, slime oozes everywhere and the hideous visage of the sorcerer struggles free of his meat-suit. It's one of those images which you never forget. Visually impressive in a film which had such a small budget but also genuinely disgusting. This is the part that all my school friends talked about when news of what a great film it was started to spread around the classrooms.

After this stunning revelation. the final battle features lots of clashing swords and gritted teeth plus further triple blade action and more hidden weapons than you can shake a Cimmerian at. Cromwell get his just deserts, Xusia is finally killed (twice) and Alana is saved from a huge snake between her legs. Yes this film is also full of incredibly thinly veiled innuendo. Following a night of celebration, feasting and not forgetting sex with the princess, Talon rides off into the sunset with his band of mercenaries.

"Watch out for Talon's next adventure - Tales of the Ancient Empire - coming soon" we were promised. But despite keeping an eye on the video shop shelves for the next few years, it never materialised (apparently it was eventually released a staggering 28 years later in 2010, with a totally different cast and only a cameo from Talon. I've never seen it. One reviewer's comment was that it's only redeeming quality was that it was laughably short. Ouch.)

Overall then "the Sword and the Sorcerer" is camp, low budget, has some terrible dialogue and some even hammier acting. But it's full of fun ideas, great action, visceral special effects, blood and gore (Talon is even crucified at one point) and some mild nudity. What more could a teenage boy have wanted? Its "don't care" attitude and word of mouth about how enjoyable it was meant it became a cult classic, not just amongst my friends at school , but also in the wider world. It made near ten times it's original budget and was the most successful independent film of the year.

Having looked at the home media version for the film that is available now, I see that it is rated 18 in the UK - which makes me wonder how on earth we were allowed to rent it back in 1982. I know that the clampdown was not in place for another couple of years but even so, this was not a film that my parents rented for me - I just went and picked it up of the shelf. Perhaps I just looked older than I really was. It's years since I have seen it, but this look-back just *might* make me search out an old DVD copy on eBay...

Honourable mentions:

  • Star Fleet - This fondly remembered science fiction puppet series was (as far as I know) only shown the once on Saturday mornings at the end of 1982. But this was not a Gerry Anderson show (no strings here) and for most children was probably their first exposure to some of the prevalent themes of Japanese anime. It featured a 24 episode long story arc, huge spaceships weird aliens, an ancient looking sailing ship in space and of course the heroes craft combining together to form an awesome giant robot - the Dai-X. We had never seen anything like it before. The UK version is also justly famous for the great theme tune which was later covered by Brian May from "Queen". The DVD box set has only recently arrived on my shelf, so I can't wait to watch it again. Now if I can only find those comic strips from "Look-In" magazine...
  • The Dark Crystal - another fantastical story featuring puppets but a far cry from "Star Fleet" or "The Muppet Show". The designs by Brian Froud are wonderful, the themes are surprisingly adult and as other have commented it's a magical, dreamlike film that casts its spell from the very first frame. I must have watched it dozens of times in the decades since and even now the Skeksis are a little bit scary. I sincerely hope they never maker a sequel as some films deserve to stand alone as examples of how to make a truly original piece of art.
  • The Young Ones - The anarchic show about four university students which launched the careers of Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmonson, Nigel Planer and (too a lesser extent) Christopher Ryan. After "Not The Nine O'Clock News" had finished earlier in the year, this became my favorite comedy programme and it's where I first came to adore the genius of the late Mayall (although I had seen him a year before as Kevin Turvey on "A Kick Up The Eighties". It was full of cartoon violence, surreal non sequiters, offensive talking puppets, subliminal flash frames and didn't so much break the fourth wall as smash through it with a sledgehammer (or probably Vyvyan's head). Plus a live band performance in the middle of each episode. For teenagers growing up in the 80s, this was *our* show. The critics hated it, the grown up's didn't understand it, but we could quote whole reams of dialogue. It changed the face of television comedy forever.
  • Yazoo - Upstairs at Erics - The first album by synth-pop due Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke. They were the first band I really followed - and I remember having a disagreement with my year-older cousin because he dissed them in favour of the supposedly cooler "The Jam". The combination of Clarke's synth driven melodies and Moyet's soulful voice, along with the experimental nature of some tracks was a revelation to me and the LP was never off my turntable after I saw them perform "Don't Go" on "Top of the Pops". Years later an acquaintance with his own band revealed that they had auditioned Moyet for the position as lead singer, but had turned her down for not being good enough!
  • Warrior - I only came across this most important of British comic publications by chance while browsing the shelves of a newsagent. The first issue cover with the maniacal, cleaver wielding cyborg Axel Pressbutton proclaimed "He's back!", even though I had never heard of him - and by this point I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about UK comics (but not music magazines clearly). Nowadays of course Pressbutton is more of a footnote, because the anthology is famous for launching the twin Alan Moore juggernauts of "Marvelman (Miracleman)" and "V For Vendetta". My brother and I used to fight over who got to read the issues first and I met editor Dez Skinn several times either at comic marts or by visiting him at the "Quality Comics" shop in South London. As well as the Moore strips with incredibly art from Garry Leach, Alan Davis and David Lloyd, I also enjoyed the medieval demon slaying of "Father Shandor" , although that might have been due to the voluptuous females drawn by John Bolton. I never did quite understand "The Spiral Path" though...

  • The Belgariad by David Eddings - A five volume fantasy series that takes many of the standard tropes of fantasy and deals with them in new and interesting ways. Prophecy and destiny are active forces, magic follows strict rules and the pantheon of local gods are real, taking direct action on the world. Eddings is adept at writing interesting and lovable characters and in the enigmatic Belgarath and his daughter Polgara he has created two of fantasy's most memorable sorcerers. Yes it's a quest story and yes by today's standards the plot might seem predictable (it's being marketed more for young adults now I think) but you want to spend time with these people - it's not just the destination but also the journey that counts. Sequel series "The Malloreon" expands on the world and follows many of the same story beats, but that's directly acknowledged in the plot as the hand of prophecy forcing things along. Two other single novels complete the 12 book saga by telling background and historical details from alternative viewpoints. Good fun and a great start for someone into the fantasy genre.
  • Eagle comic - I knew the title. I knew that the famous 50-60s comic had featured the legendary adventures of the original "Dan Dare" (plus I'd loved his adventures in 2000 AD). but the revival was something different. Dare was there in the centre colour spread (well his great-great grandson) but surrounding him were photo strips across a wide range of genres. Robot action in "Manixx". Police adventures with "Sgt. Streetwise". Cowboy scrapes with "Saddle Tramp". Most popular of all though was "Doomlord" - the tale of an alien race judging humanity and sending an envoy to destroy us all. Despite only having a rubber mask and a few meagre special effects, John Wagner and Alan Grant managed to tell an exciting and scary adventure and kept introducing new fresh elements . I really liked the new Eagle but to be honest I still preferred the hand dawn comic strip adventures such as "The Tower King" and "House of Daemon" (especially as both featured the stunning art of Jose Ortiz) and eventually the comic switched all the stories back to this. It never supplanted 2000 AD in my affections and I stopped buying it somewhere around issue 150 in mid -1985, but those early issues contain a lot of wonderful stuff.

ZX Spectrum - There is an entirely separate (long dormant) strand that will cover the innovation, enjoyment and legacy of one of the most important home computers in the history of gaming. Suffice it to say that for a period of time the humble "Speccy" became the dominant thing in my life (and those of my friends). I spent hundreds of hours typing in code, visiting computer fairs, reading magazine reviews, buying peripherals and playing a vast number of the thousands of games available. It was incredible what could be accomplished with a mere 48K of memory. You only have to mention "Jet Set Willy", "Daley Thompson's Decathlon" or "Knightlore"  and I go misty eyed with nostalgia. Forget Microsoft, Sony or Apple - Sinclair Computing's ZX Spectrum made home consoles and video games what they are today. *Lots* more to come on this...

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Random Ravings 14 - Milfay

Following last weeks marathon 2000 AD festival piece, it's back to more short capsule reviews - specifically something that most other science fiction fans saw months ago...

Rogue One

After the huge personal disappointment that was "The Force Awakens" (or "A New Hope Redux"), my personal bar for new "Star Wars" cinematic outings was set very low - so much so that when "Rogue One" was released I didn't bother going to see it. I wasn't going to be caught out wasting my money again. I knew that it was going to end up with those Death Star plans inside R2-D2 and I wasn't really interested in the continuity implant of how they got there. The "Star Wars" franchise seems obsessed with telling variations of the same story about a giant super-weapon and I had no interest in yet another. The movies may have been part of my adolescent years, but I can't say that I was ever really a full blown fan after the first one. I watched the sequels sure, but if we are talking big movie franchises I was always more of a "Star Trek" guy.

But in the months since, I've heard reasonably good things about this particular prequel story - even from those who held similar opinions to me about Episode VII - so when the home media version came out I decided to give it a whirl...

Well that was much better than I expected.

Sure "Rogue One" is not without problems. The pacing feels off in the first half. The main characters are likeable but quite thinly sketched. I'm getting seriously bored of desert-like planets. Forest Whitaker was just appalling. But who doesn't want to see Imperial troopers stomping through the sea while AT-AT walkers prowl in the background and a massive dogfight carries on overhead? This oddly felt like proper "Star Wars" rather than the reheated greatest hits of Episode VII.

It's a pretty dark story and it's a brave choice to have none of the characters make it out alive. It really does hark back to those classic war movies of my youth like "Guns of Navarone" or "The Wild Geese", as our band of "heroes" battle to achieve their goal against overwhelming odds but are picked off one by one. Maybe that's why I liked it - it's riffing on two different parts of my childhood.

I'd obviously heard some noise about a returning character through the use of a computer generated double, but when Grand Moff Tarkin turned up I was pleasantly surprised. The CGI were not perfect but it was certainly good enough to allow the suspension of disbelief (this is a  franchise about spaceships, 'magic' mental powers and sentient robots after all). I'd not mentioned anything to my wife, so she was frankly astonished. Her only real criticism was that the voice could have been "older". It was not the same story with the digital Princess Leia at the end though , which was both unnecessary and of a much poorer quality.

The other callbacks to the previous instalments (and there are a lot) are headlined by the presence of the man in black himself - Darth Vadar. Thankfully he's not overused but restricted to a couple of excellent scenes that are used to empathise what he is truly capable of. A darkened corridor. An ignited lightsaber. A swift violent massacre. This is the Dark Lord of the Sith as I remember him.

All in all it's thoroughly enjoyable, stylish if downbeat film and shows that different directors not slavishly worshipping at the altar of the original trilogy can bring something new to the table.  Now I'd like to see them really go off and tell other, brand new stories within the franchise universe - ones totally unrelated to the core "Skywalker" narrative. The book, comics, and animated series have managed it. It's time for the movies to do the same.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Timelord Thoughts 15 - The Pilot

For a number of long, boring reasons, my drive to produce lengthy detailed blog pieces about current Doctor Who episodes has withered away somewhat. At the moment I'd much rather write about my memories of a favourite book or TV show from 1983 than spend hours on minutiae filled check lists. Some may have noticed that I've not yet gotten round to doing anything on "The Return of Doctor Mysterio" (although I've left a gap in the post numbering just in case...) The thing is, I want to do *something* - just not the time consuming stuff of before.

So the idea now is to watch the episode whenever I can and then write a 'kind of review' and publish it within two hours of the final credits rolling. Keep it short and to the point. I'm still going to keep the sequential bullet point structure of before, mainly because I seem to struggle with forming a coherent narrative around my reviews and, well I kind of like it. Let's see how I get on...

But first some general comments.

With the new series of "Doctor Who" finally upon us, this should be a time of rejoicing and dancing in the streets. This is my favourite television show of all time after all. But sadly the reality is that I've not been this unenthusiastic about the prospect of a new run of episodes for a very, very long time. I tried to blame it on the long break between series, but we've had that before and the flame of fandom didn't waver then. I wondered if I was "burnt out" a little after the marathon of  my "800 Day Project" rewatch. Not really - I still love watching those older stories. No, when I get down to it I think that I just have never warmed to Peter Capaldi's Doctor and the thought of another year with him in the role just put me off.

I know that this flies in the face of the majority of fandom, who seem to believe he is the best thing since Tom Baker - and don't get me wrong, I think Capaldi is a solid actor in other shows. There have been a handful of excellent episodes ("Heaven Sent" being the clear standout", but that was more the concept rather than the character). It's just that as the Doctor, I don't think he works - for me at least. I can't quite put my finger on it or properly explain myself in words, but it's as if his performances to date haven't seemed "natural". It's like you can see the acting cogs working. I want to like him - I really do. I was excited when he got the role. But even at his best he has never made me adore the Twelfth Doctor.

So it's with a certain amount of trepidation that I pressed play...

Season 10 - Episode 1 - The Pilot

  • I loved the cold open before the titles and Bill's first introduction in the Doctor's study. The whole conversation about the girl she fancied (despite the odd use of the word "perversion" and unfortunately making it sound as if once she was fat she was therefore undateable), was trademark Moffat - smart and snappy, but it also sounded very natural and almost RTD-like with all the stuff about chips.
  • Speaking of RTD, this episode is the 2017 equivalent of "Rose" in a number of ways,  and it  apes that first episode of the new era with the repeated alarm clock and the quick cuts to Bill's day job, her home life and social activities. The lecture bit's in between though  - somehow I get the feeling that Moffat has been saving up that explanation about time and relative dimension in space for a long while - it's brilliant. I still find Capaldi's delivery very stilted though. Sigh.
  • Clearly what is inside the vault, why the Doctor has been guarding it for 50 years and why the he decided to tutor Bill are going to be carried over to the rest of the series this year. The constant flick's back to the photograph of Susan must mean something too. Blatant fan-baiting of course.
  • I had a small problem with the Bill and Heather dynamic because beyond basic instant attraction, I never felt there was any real connection between them. They met once in a pub and then on a bench in the university grounds and then spent a couple of minutes in a car park. Maybe there is more to come, but we also get no sense why Heather is so sad all the time. It just seemed a very loosely sketched.
  • It's a beautiful moment when you realise that the Doctor has gone back in time to take all those photo's of Bill's mum as a Christmas present to her. Lovely understated music as well. Which is then spoilt as we get the bombastic usual Murray Gold nonsense as the Doctor runs to look in a puddle.
  • I like Bill. A lot. For the majority of the episode she comes across as smart, funny, warm and compassionate. She makes interesting connections and figures things out. But there are parts of the episode where she is just a little but stupid - especially for someone who has supposedly seen some "Sci-Fi". Her reaction to seeing the inside of the TARDIS -  "Is this a knock through?". "This is a lift!" Okay so it's a funny joke, but it undermines her character. 
  • Nardole. Listen Moff - you'd better have a bloody good plan in place to explain why he is needed in this series, because at the moment I can't see what he brings to the table beyond toilet gags and funny noises. The few quips he is given could just as easily have come from Bill. Maybe I'll be in luck and his bolts will keep falling out until he's nothing but a pile of components and a bald head.
  • Excepting the TARDIS, the Terminator T-1000 puddle seems like the most powerful spaceship in the universe as once it has a pilot in Heather it can travel anywhere in time and space. Shouldn't that make the Doctor even just a tiny bit curious?
  • Nice to see the Movellans back even if it's just for a moment. I guess that's also the contractual season appearance of the Daleks out of the way too. Maybe when the series is released on DVD they will add in the "Friend from the Future" teaser sequence of a few months ago back into the actual episode at this point. I could have done with more of this and less larking about in Australia, but I get that it's meant to be an exponential introduction for Bill as to where the TARDIS can go.
  • With a B plot this thin the solution to the spaceship-Heather problem was never going to be the most brilliant ever devised but it kind of works. I'm hoping it's not the last we have seen of the character though as I really like the actress, Stephanie Hyam.
  • The mind-wipe sequence and the reason the Doctor doesn't do it is obviously a reference back to what happened between him and Clara at the end of last series. But please god don't let that mean that particular storyline is not over. Clara is gone. Leave it that way.
  • Who did the Doctor make a promise to? About what? And why? All interesting questions.Let's hope there are interesting answers. I don't want another "Hybrid" disappointment.

So overall I really enjoyed that even if the first, more domestic half was better than the latter. It's probably the second most confident introduction for a companion (the title still goes to "The Eleventh Hour") and there was an awful lot crammed into 49 minutes, even if the "alien of the week" plot was slight. 

A soft reboot of the series, a few new mysteries. Solid stuff. As for Capaldi? Well he's clearly softened the performance and has made his Doctor friendlier and more relatable (we've come a long way since "She cares so I don't have to"). It's a promising start and maybe, just maybe he'll start to win me over more during the next eleven weeks. 

But it's okay if he doesn't. Not every incarnation can be your favourite and in any case - a new one will be along soon. Just as long as it's not Kris bloody Marshall...

Friday, April 14, 2017

Golden Sunsets - 50 Years Of Memories - Part 15 - 1981

A series of SF novels is the focus this week - ones which captivated me as a young teenager and deserve to be up there with the best of the genre...

The trivia:
  • The town of HuĂ©scar in Grenada, Spain declared war on Denmark in 1809. It was completely forgotten about until 1981, when a formal peace treaty was signed. During the 172 years not a single shot was fired and nobody was killed or injured.
  • Roger Fischer, a professor of law at Harvard suggested a unique idea to deter the use of nuclear weapons - put the codes in a capsule and implant it next to the heart of a willing volunteer, who would always carry a large knife. In order to use the codes, the President would have to kill the individual with his own hands. Needless to say the Pentagon didn't go for it, citing that it would "distort the President's judgement"...
  • Stiff Records in the UK released an LP entitled "The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan". Despite it being completely silent on both sides, it still sold more than 30,000 copies.

The memory:

The Saga of the Exiles by Julian May

After a brief dalliance with a couple of SF stories in the early 1950s, Julian May became  a prolific non-fiction writer, penning thousands of science encyclopedia entries and over 250 books for children. So effectively she was a brand new author when I came across "The Many-Coloured Land", the first in the "Saga of the Exiles" in my local bookshop. The unusual cover and the premise of a group of time travellers going back to ancient Earth only to find that it was already occupied by aliens intrigued me enough to buy the book. What I never expected was that the story would be much more complicated, thoughtful and wide ranging, would expand to cover a further four volumes beyond the original quartet and would become one of my favourite SF series of all time.

By the late 21st  / early 22nd century, three hugely important things have happened to the human race and society on the planet:
  • Time travel has been discovered. However the time gate only works in one French location and back to one time -  six million years to the Pliocene era. It's also just one way - any attempt to travel back ages the traveller or organic object instantly to death.
  • Various individuals have emerged  as "metapsychics" - possessed of mental powers strong enough to manipulate energy or objects, coerce others to do their bidding, communicate telepathically and heal mental illnesses. 
  • After being under surveillance for centuries, Earth has had an "Intervention" which introduced it to the wider galactic community and a number of equally psychic exotic alien races which are together striving for mental "unity". A faction of humans opposed to this idea and with a view to making humans supreme, fermented a "Metapsychic Rebellion", which resulted in a horrendous loss of life across the galaxy but was narrowly defeated.
Despite the advances of humanity and the expansion into the galaxy, there are still those who want to escape the modern world. A steady number of misfits and outcasts use the time gateway to try to start over in the simplistic world of the Pliocene. All technology that will not decompose after a hundred years is banned from being carried back and all females are sterilised to prevent the contamination of the past.

The saga begins as a fresh group of "exiles" prepare to travel through the gate to a new life. However the Pliocene world that awaits them is not the pastoral utopia they expected. Instead it is already inhabited by two evolutionary branches of a metapsychic alien race - the beautiful, tall Tanu and the short, ugly Firvulag - who are engaged in a centuries old war. Having fled their own galaxy, they were marooned on Earth when their living spaceship crash landed. The Tanu have enslaved most of the previous human settlers through the use of various metal torcs around their necks and use them as workers, battle troops and breeding stock (female sterilisation is reversed) and to assist in their constant battles with the Firvulag - which culminate each year in the "Grand Combat". The torcs also enhance any latent metapsychic powers of the wearer.

What follows is an epic science fiction meets fantasy meets super-powers series when the exiled humans begin to vastly influence and change the dynamic of the aliens endless conflict. Via the power of the Golden Torc, various individuals find themselves in possession of enormous mental abilities. Some like trickster Aiken Drum want to take over , while others like the unstable Felice are driven mad and seek to destroy the society the Tanu have built over the centuries since their arrival.

In the third book ("The Non Born King"), May introduces the survivors of the Metapsychic Rebellion who fled into the Pliocene, and the efforts of their leader and the Galactic Milieu's strongest mind, Marc Remillard, to escape his prehistoric prison. Marc's family don't necessarily see eye-to-eye with him on all his plans and this conflict adds another layer into an already large cast of characters.

The clash between the various factions of "exiles" mounts to a crescendo in the final volume when allies, friends and families turn against each other and the fate of both the ancient and futuristic worlds hang in the balance. I'm incredibly reluctant to reveal too much detail about the plot as experiencing it fresh for the first time is really the best way. Suffice it to say that there are plenty of twists and turns before all the players reach their final destinations. May also offers tantalising glimpses of background characters and past (or is that future) events, fleshing out the societies and races involved.

Like George R.R. Martin,she is hugely adept at mixing multiple points of view, political infighting, human relationships, huge battle scenes, intricate plotting and life changing events. Although much of the world building has its roots in Celtic mythology and religious symbolism, it never feels anything less than fresh and exciting and there is a real cross-genre feel, which meant the storyline appealed to all of my interests.  I remember impatiently waiting for each book to come out, and along with "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant", this was a series which I read and re-read in my teenage years, each time getting something new out of it. Part of me thinks that it would make a great multi-season TV series, but then again perhaps it's best that these characters live vividly in my imagination instead of watered down on the screen.

After the end of book four ("The Adversary"), May released "A Pliocene Companion" - a reference guide to the world she created, along with maps, author interviews and discussions on the sources that provided inspiration. It's certainly not essential to read it to enjoy the books, but it does offer some interesting background details for real fans.

May than followed up her epic with a further four book story that although more pure SF in flavour is still both prequel and sequel to the original saga. The massive single volume "Intervention" details the history of the Remillard family and the events that lead up to the Great Intervention where the alien races inhabiting the galaxy reveal themselves to the population of Earth. The subsequent "Galactic Milieu" trilogy - "Jack the Bodiless", "Diamond Mask" and "Magnificat"" moves forward forty years and tells the story of the Metapsychic Rebellion, fills in much of the backstory only hinted at in the original quartet, reveals many secrets, and in the end loops everything back very neatly to the events of the Pliocene Exile (just look at the mirror image in that final cover).

I really would consider Julian May to be one of the great science fiction or fantasy authors and as a complete eight book sequence (or ten books if you count the "Companion" and split "Intervention" in two as some versions have) it's an incredible inventive and enjoyable piece of work that must have taken meticulous planning across more than a decade of writing. It's amazing how things referenced in the last novel tie back to those in the first and vice versa.

Sadly May seems to have been largely forgotten about in the modern era, but she is well overdue discovery by a new generation of readers. Although it's been quite a while since I last re-read it - and I wonder if my much older self would get quite the same thrill now as I did back then - the "Saga of the Exiles"  still remains one of those series which expanded my horizons on what could be accomplished in a genre novel.

Honourable mentions:
  • The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy - The TV series rather than the LPs, novels, stage show, video game, etc, etc...  I'd been a fan of the original radio episodes since the previous year when BBC Radio 4 had transmitted all twelve in one go, but it was the television production which really cemented "Hitchhikers" in my long term memory. Okay so Zaphod's second head was a bit crap and Marvin The Paranoid Android's design may look dated now, but otherwise the casting and effects were near on perfect. My real love though was The Book.  The hand drawn animation along with the voice of Peter Jones was exactly how I had imagined it and no amount of 21st century CGI will convince me otherwise.
  • Shock Treatment - "Rocky Horror"'s often neglected semi-sequel movie is just as much fun as the original and I love some of the songs even more. The wordplay in "Bitchin' in the Kitchen" and the sheer exuberance of "Little Black Dress" always make me sing along. I wrote more about the film and how I was lucky enough to see the stage production during it's limited run in London in 2015, here.
  • An American Werewolf in London - One of the first films that I can remember renting on VHS from our local video shop. I also remember not being scared of the werewolf or the gruesome killings, but curiously being creeped out by the ever more decomposing body of David's dead friend Jack. It also gets on this list for containing a cameo from the legend that is Rik Mayall.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark - How could I not love a film that harkened back to the black and white cliffhanger serials of my school holidays, had a WWII setting, contained stuff about fantasy / the supernatural and featured a globe trotting hero? I was hooked from the famous temple opening sequence.
  • The Antipope - The first novel by humourist and "father of far-fetched fiction" Robert Rankin. Part of the increasingly mis-numbered "Brentford Trilogy", it sees anti-heroes Jim Pooley and John O'Mally drinking and womanising their way through a surreal adventure against Pope Alexander VI, last of the Borgia's, and his attempt to take over the world (or Brentford at least). I was lent the book by a friend originally and although I found it interesting enough, it wasn't until the early 90s when Rankin's career really took off that I truly appreciated what a fun book it is. Much like early Terry Pratchett, the seeds of the great writer to come are all present here but the running jokes, old traditions or charters and talking the toot are still to come. There really is no one like Rankin out there and It's a damn shame his output has decreased in recent years.
  • Ka-Zar The Savage - Another of my early Marvel comics titles and one of the first to go down the "direct market" route of distribution in speciality comics shops. The Tarzan analogue with his trusty pet Zabu the sabre-toothed tiger and girlfriend Shanna the She-Devil was a completely unknown character to me until the new series was released -  but the combination of writing from Bruce Jones and fantastic art from Brent Anderson soon put it to the top of my reading list. The first dozen or so issues are the best, dealing with the discovery of the hidden land of Pangea, the descent into a version of Dante's Hell and the battle against the demon lord Belasco. I lapped this up and to be honest I don't think the character has been handled as well since.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Golden Sunsets - 50 Years Of Memories - Part 14 - 1980

We move into a new decade, I become a teenager, and an album featuring the *other* composer with the initials JW becomes my favourite of the year...

The trivia:
  • A satirical group known as the Rhinoceros Party, received over 1% of the popular vote in the 1980 Canadian elections, despite campaigning to repeal the laws of gravity and build taller schools to provide 'higher' education. 
  • Photographer Robert Landsburg spent many weeks photographing the Mount St. Helens volcano in the lead up to it's huge eruption. When the mountain exploded on 18th May, he was only a few miles from the summit and realised that he would never escape the rapidly advancing ash cloud. Winding his camera film back into it's case, he put it into his backpack and then lay on top of it in attempt to protect the contents. Seventeen days later his body was found buried in the ash and the film was later developed.
  • In 1980 the first ever 1 GB hard drive weighed an astonishing 226 kilograms and cost nearly £ 18,000

The memory:

Sky 2

No, not the television channel from the Murdoch media empire but the second album from the quintessential classical / progressive "supergroup".

Sky were formed by the coming together of five musicians at the top of their game:
  • John Williams - one of the most acclaimed classical guitarists in the world, probably most famous for "Cavatina" - the theme from the movie "The Deer Hunter".
  • Herbie Flowers - a former member of "T. Rex" and an incredibly busy session bass player who appeared on albums with Elton John, David Bowie, Cat Stevens and Paul McCartney. He also played the prominent bass line on Lou Reed's "Walk On The Wild Side" *and* worked with Jeff Wayne on his musical version of "War Of The Worlds".
  • Tristan Fry - a drummer and percussionist on (amongst many other things) the Beatles "A Day In The Life" and was the timpanist for the "Academy of St Martins in the Fields" chamber orchestra. He also played at the weeding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
  • Kevin Peek - an Australian guitarist who for many years was part of Cliff Richard's regular backing band. He also played on many film soundtracks, including, "The Long Good Friday", which was written by:
  • Francis Monkman - founder member of pioneering psychedelic band "Curved Air", he was an accomplished harpsichord player and a fan of free-form musical composition techniques.
Williams, Fry and Flowers had been friends since the early 70s when they had performed together (along with others) on Williams' non-classical release "Changes". They stayed in touch over the years and when Francis Monkman joined them on the 1978 album "Travelling", they realised that they wanted to set up their own full-time cross-genre band, combining pop, classical and rock elements. Recruiting Kevin Peek (fresh from working with David Bowie), the quintet was complete, and Sky released their first self-titled album in  1979 to much success and critical acclaim. Sell out concerts followed.

I knew none of this at the time though. I had a growing interest in pop music, but I also really enjoyed instrumental albums - the disco-style versions of classic film and TV science fiction themes by Geoff Love were some of my favourites. Plus Jeff Wayne's "War of the Worlds" had clearly been my passion and hardly off my turntable in the year or so since it's release. But I had been too young for the peak years of the prog rock explosion  - and classical music? Well up til now, 99% of that left me cold as it seemed to be the stuff for ancient granddads who liked listening to the eternally dull BBC Radio 3.

Then on an episode of "Top of the Pops" in May 1980, I saw Sky perform the track that became their most well-known and successful single - "Toccata" -  which eventually reached number five in the charts. This was an arrangement of Bach's famous "Toccata and Fugue in D minor", but with the usual organ and orchestra replaced by synthesizers, frantic drums and electric guitars. Now this was classical music I could get into to! They also seemed to be having a lot of fun, perhaps hardly able to believe that they were on the BBC's flagship pop music show. See for yourself:


Intrigued by the performance, I ambled along to my local record store in search of more music by the band, and there, still in the top 10 was their second album "Sky 2" - a double LP no less. Thankfully I had enough pocket money saved up from doing odd jobs around the house that I could afford to buy it. Eagerly I took it home, opened the gatefold sleeve and placed the first vinyl record on the turntable.

The first disc is made up of original Sky compositions - and some lengthy ones at that. Jeff Wayne aside (and that's a special case I think), I was used to the more traditional three or four minute pop /  novelty songs of my early childhood. The jaunty  "Dance of the Little Fairies" was fairly brief, but two tracks ("Hotta" and  the Arabic-influenced "Sahara") were around seven or eight minutes long. What's more, the fourth, "FIFO" - a four movement ode to computer programming no less -  took up the entire B side, effectively one seventeen minute prog rock opus. That was my first real exposure to this kind of thing and I immediately fell in love with it.

The second LP began with live novelty favourite "Tuba Smarties", showcasing Herbie Flowers and his brass instrument. I seem to recall seeing Herbie perform this on later occasions dressed as a kind of gnome, his tuba bedecked in multi-coloured fairy lights. Following that were several fairly traditional versions of classical pieces from Praetorius, Rameau and Vivaldi, before Mr. Fry had his own turn with the percussion focused "Tristan's Magic Garden" ( I particularly liked the use of the vibraphone) and John Williams worked his Spanish folk magic on "El Cielo". The final side saw Sky's own take on the Curved Air barnstormer "Vivaldi" before the wonderful twelve minute "Scipio", that allowed everyone to get in on the action. The closing track was of course "Toccata".

Okay, so maybe it's true that the music was not going to set the world alight or create a cultural revolution and maybe it's true the five members (apart from Monkman with his long hair) looked like the kind of respectable people that your grandma might approve of, but for some reason their music really spoke to me. Millions of others obviously agreed because "Sky 2" was immensely popular, topping the charts - and the band made regular appearances on television. I had friends at secondary school who were also into the band, and we regularly talked about our favourite tracks.

The other thing that made the album stand out was the fact that it had liner notes from all the members of the band (another first for me), talking about the pieces and the music they had written. These were written in a jokey style, gentle taking the mickey out of each other and it really felt like Sky were connecting with the audience. On weekends I read these brief notes while I played the two LP's over and over again at as loud a volume as my parents would allow.

Sky's popularity continued to grow and their 1981 tour culminated with the first ever rock concert performed at Westminster Abbey in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Amnesty International. It was recorded and shown later as a special programme on BBC1, and I remember watching the show, as it was the first time I had seen Sky live in proper concert mode, instead of on something like "The Val Doonican Show"

Francis Monkman had left the band by this point and been replaced by Steve Gray. The Westminster Abbey concert was also the first time that many tracks from the new third album were played to the public -  and Grays involvement moved them away from the more psychedelic sound of some of the music on the first two albums. I think I bought "Sky 3" as soon as it came out and although there were some great compositions and I did play it regularly, it just didn't feel quite as important to me. My brief passion for the band was beginning to fade. I think part of it might have been that my tastes were expanding and changing and I had discovered the electronic musical genius that is Jean-Michel Jarre when a friend lent me his copy of "Magnetic Fields".

But that's another story...

Honourable mentions:
  • The Adventure Game - The immensely popular science fiction game show where celebrities had to solve a series of puzzles to get back to Earth, and clearly the inspiration behind "The Crystal Maze". Although most people now seem to remember it for the "Vortex" game at the end where contestants could be evaporated (which didn't come in til series 2), I personally liked the more cerebral tasks such as figuring out which of the "Drogna" shapes could be stood on based on a scientific mnemonic, the backwards talking alien ("Doog yrev") or using a creaky BBC micro to negotiate a pitch black maze. The fabulous "Den of Geek" website has a lovely look back at the series here. Wonderful stuff which is finally getting a DVD release in 2017.
  • Flash Gordon - As much as I adore the black and white Buster Crabbe serials that were endlessly shown on early morning television during school holidays, the 1980 Dino De Laurentiis rightly sits there alongside them. Yes it's tongue in cheek, but pretty much everything is perfect - the casting, the visuals and not forgetting the Queen soundtrack. It's cheesiness it part of the charm. Brian Blessed has spent the rest of his career bellowing two words at the world with great relish and find me a heterosexual teenage boy who didn't have indecent thoughts about Onella Muti as Princess Aura...
  • Cosmos - By rights this ground-breaking science series should have run away with my personal memory top spot for 1980. It's thirteen peerless episodes affected me in ways that have reverberated down the decades and I learnt so much from Carl Sagan that I wish I had had the chance to meet him and thank him for all that he did for me. When we talk about personal heroes, Carl Sagan's name is in the top three. The amazing journeys into outer space echoed the wonder I felt the first time I saw "Cosmic Zoom" - and that was without the electronic beauty of the music of Vangelis. I bought the music soundtrack, the accompanying book, the original and "special edition" VHS videos, and the DVD's (twice). I never get tired of watching it and Sagan's opening narration is ingrained on my brain forever. So why isn't it up there instead of "Sky 2"? Well partly that's because I'm trying to pick things that are slightly different instead of the most popular for each year and partly because "Cosmos" is *so* important both personally and culturally that it deserves much more space devoted to it. It'll probably have to wait til 2018, but I want to look back at each episode separately and in detail. Something to look forward to then...

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Random Ravings 13 - Gatherings

A lot later than planned...

Back in 1977 I picked up the first issue of a new science fiction weekly comic. A comic that would affect my life in ways that I could not possibly begin to imagine at the tender age of ten. I would also have been unable to conceive that forty years later I would still be reading that same comic - having collected every single issue, annual, special and spin-off - let alone that I would be attending a one day festival celebrating those forty years and the huge number of talented writers and artists that contributed to the success of this British publishing phenomenon. The comic is of course 2000 AD and these are my memories of that very special day...

It's worth mentioning that this was to be my first proper comics event in - unbelievably - 30 years. In the mid 80s, at the height of my comic fandom, I had attended the first two UK Comic Art Conventions (UKCAC) held at the University of London Union. A mere £7.50 gained my friends and I access to two days of panels, dealers rooms, presentations and all night film shows. This was the first opportunity we had to listen to and meet the great and the good of the comics world - not only from the UK (2000 AD creators were richly represented) but also from the more 'exotic' world of the US - including the like of Marv Wolfman, Bill Sienkiewicz, Dave Sim and Chris Claremont.

Alan Moore was at the peak of his fame and I think this was famously where he was hounded for his autograph wherever he went, even into the men's toilets (no wonder he gave up going to events). These conventions were also where Karen Berger and Dick Giordano began seriously scouting the UK talent to get them to work for DC, in what became known as the 'British invasion'. Everyone mingled together and there was a lively, relaxed atmosphere.

They were exhilarating times and I have lots of good memories of both weekends, even if I was exhausted afterwards through lack of sleep! The big question was - how would the 2000 AD festival measure up ?

One last thing before I begin -  it's important to note that I was accompanied on this journey by good friend, writer and podcaster Al No (of 'No Complications' and "RevNo"  fame), who had flown down all the way from the Arctic especially for this historic event. The second thing to mention is that our pilgrimage actually began the day before...

Friday 10th February 2017

Having collected Al from the airport and fortified ourselves against the Arctic weather that seemed to have descended with him, we decided that there was only one proper way to begin the weekend of 2000 AD hullabaloo  - a visit to the 'Cartoon Museum' to see their exhibition of original artwork from the title. Appropriately titled "Future Shock" it featured over eighty pages of incredible art from every decade of "The Galaxy's Greatest Comic". That may not seem like a lot considering the 50,000+ pages that have been published over the years, but clearly space was limited and one can imagine that it was important to get a good spread of artists, styles, stories and eras.

The displays certainly didn't disappoint on that score. All the classic greats from the comics earliest beginning were there - Dave Gibbons, Mick McMahon, Kevin O'Neill, Brian Bolland, Ron Smith, Cam Kennedy, Brett Ewins, Steve Dillon, Ian Gibson - plus the master himself Carlos Ezquerra. Then there were what I would class as the 'second wave' of artists - Mark Harrison, John Higgins, Bryan Talbot, Simon Bisley, Glenn Fabry, David Roach, John Hinckleton and David Pugh. Lastly and certainly not least there were re the creators from the more modern era - Frazer Irving, Henry Flint, Carl Critchlow, Simon Fraser, Chris Weston, Greg Staples, Dave Taylor, Simon Davis - the list goes on and on.

The various sections were laid out according to character rather than chronology, which meant that you not only got a great view of how different artists interpret the same character or series, but also how a single artists work could change over the decades. Each piece was beautifully framed with a small label next to it detailing the artist, plus the story and issue number it came from. What is more surprising is how much art had survived from those first one hundred or so issues. 

There were a few personal highlights amongst all this jaw dropping work. As much as fans rave about Bolland's precise lines or Fabry's moody cross-hatchings - and it was great to see those represented - I couldn't wait to see the original "Dan Dare" pages from Bellardinelli. I've waxed lyrical about his work before here but being up close to it sent a shiver down my spine. He was an absolute master at drawing weird alien creatures and the first artist I found instantly recognisable, whether it was in the pages of "Flesh", "Inferno" or "Meltdown Man". 

It was also lovely to see the clean futuristic lines of Ron Turner represented. He's most famous for the "Daleks" strips from "TV Century 21" comic (although I bought "Battle Action" and "Speed" which also had some stunning work). He didn't do a lot for 2000 AD, but I really liked his episodes of the Judge Dredd story "Robot Wars" and the various others he contributed to specials and Annuals over the years.

All in all it was a hugely impressive collection of art and a fitting testament to a comic institution that has lasted far, far longer than anyone could have ever predicted. The exhibition runs until 23rd April 2017, so if you are in London it's well worth a couple of hours of your time.

Our thrill-receptors clearly needed recharging after being exposed to so much raw power, so after a brief chat to the lovely people behind the counter of the museum shop, Al and I wended our way home for some well-deserved rest. The main event was almost upon us...

Saturday 11th February 2017

It was an early start when Al and I left the house around 7.15 am to get the train into London. The journey itself was uneventful although once we got outside of Hammersmith tube station it was obvious that Mega-City One Weather Control was on the fritz again, as all the winter sunshine we had ordered had been replaced by cold gusts of wind and a shower of sleet. Finding the hotel where the event was being held was almost a quest worthy of Slaine himself, as we wandered around in vaguely the right direction directed by the app on my phone until we saw a few other hardy adventurers heading the same way. Finally a relatively unassuming revolving door gave us a way out of the weather.

However there was to be one more obstacle before we could make our way to registration. The entranceway presented us with a bare space and the doors to two lifts. A small sign indicated that we should take the lift up to the hotel reception area. I'd come across this kind of thing before in a hotel in Rotterdam, so assured Al that this was the way to go. However a quick press of the button for floor one led to the doors closing and...nothing else. Despite repeating stabbing of the console, all we succeeded in doing was reopening the doors to be greeted by some more bemused looking 2000 AD fans. A stylishly bearded gentleman got in and pressed another button - on an entirely different set of controls on the other side of the lift ! With a smooth motion the lift doors slid shut and we ascended without further delay. I can only assume that this was one of Tharg's tests and if we had not been saved by the other Squaxx Dek Thargo, the floor would have opened up and we would have been dismembered courtesy of Mek-Quake.

Winding our way through the deceptively large insides of the hotel and following the signs down several sets of escalators, we came to the registration hall and the actual process of giving our names and receiving a goody bag and red wrist band was entirely painless. We had to be on our best behaviour though, as when we joined the already lengthy queue waiting to enter the event at 10.00 am, a Judge straight out of the Karl Urban "Dredd" movie was patrolling up and down the line with a severe look on his face.

Eventually the hour was upon us and we were lead to the door of  the main hall itself - wrist bands duly checked while overseen by a blue skinned genetic infantryman - and then we were in!

One small thing to note before we go any further. It was such a busy day and I was so caught up in the whole atmosphere that I neglected to take very many photographs. So some of the images below are my own but others are ones I have borrowed for the purposes of illustration. I acknowledge the copyright of the original photographers bur finding who they are has been difficult. At the very least I will mark out those which I did not take myself.

The entrance to the festival (not my photograph)

The main auditorium was laid out with rows of tables for most of the artists / writers in attendance, so it was possible to start of the left and zig-zag your way up and down the rows to see who was where, and join the appropriate queue for a signature, sketch or to buy anything they may have for sale. There was also large ("Millicom") and small ("Tir Nan Og") panel halls, an area for live art demonstrations, various Lawmasters and props from the "Dredd" movie and of course the obligatory bar.

I'm in there somewhere... (not my photograph)

I was surprised that there was only one dealers' table devoted to the graphic novel collections and just the excellent Orbital Comics selling back issues - although there were plenty of other retailers such as Planet Replicas, threeA Toys and Vice Press with their exquisite ranges of badges, figurines and prints. There were some exclusives from these guys that were in high demand. The merchandise arm might have been my thing back in the 80s when it was small (and I bought a number of T-shirts and wax candles and tiny lead figures), but now it was big business - even for a comic that didn't have the power of a Marvel or DC brand.

As I had hoped, this was a definitely a small scale "festival", nowhere near the size of something like the modern day MCM Expo's or even some of the larger UK comic conventions. At a guess I would say that there were no more than 1,000 attendees, which made it feel small and intimate, but ensured that there was a steady flow of people passed all the artists and writers tables and panels were always well attended, with most full to the brim.

Without a doubt the star of the show was Judge Dredd co-creator Carlos Ezquerra. Practically everyone wanted to meet him and the lines of people were never less than huge the whole day. Some poor fans had to queue up three different times to get to meet the great man, as just as they were approaching the table he was whisked away for a panel or an event elsewhere in the hall. I sincerely hope that someone had a ice cold compress ready for his hand at the end of the day because he was signing and sketching and drawing the entire time with barely a break. I'd met Carlos myself years ago so I thought I would let others have their turn with 2000 AD's greatest ever artist.

Carlos hard at work (not my photograph)

Of course there were other "big hitters" in attendance, all with long queues. Pat Mills and John Wagner both were extremely popular as you can imagine, with Wagner also selling the first few issues of his independently published "Rok of the Reds" comic. The other huge draw was Dave Gibbons, who hardly left his table all day and was never seen without a huge smile on his face.

I'd already decided that my 'autograph book' was going to be my coveted 1985 Judge Dredd Annual (which naturally came out in August 1984). Back in the day I had attended a number of 2000 AD signings organised by Forbidden Planet (then located  in their fondly-remembered store on Denmark Street). The first page of the opening Dredd story featured a Carlos image of an atomic mushroom cloud rising above a sector of Mega-City One. Above this were a number of signatures I had obtained at the signing - Alan Moore, John Wagner, Kevin O'Neill and Brian Bolland.  The intent was to add as many key scrawls as possible to this hall of heroes, time and panels allowing.

The "old school" creators from the early days were obviously high on the list but there were people from all eras of the comics history in attendance. There were actually almost too many people to get round in the time available. At the start with the first rush of enthusiasm some of the queues were long and it was enough to marvel at the original artwork they had on display or for sale, or watch in awe as they did a personal sketch or full commission for another fan. With others it turned out to be easier to be able to pause for a while and chat, especially as the day wore on and the crowds reduced somewhat. I'll come back to this in a bit...

I did have one other book with me for signing  - a copy of the recent collection of "Monster" from the pages of "Scream" comic by Moore, Wagner and Spanish artist Jesus Redondo Roman, who had long been a favorite of mine from the first golden age of 2000 AD, His work on "Mind Wars" in Starlord and "Return To Armageddon" and "Nemesis The Warlock Book Two" for 2000 AD (amongst many, many other pieces) was distinctive and very memorable. After the first walk around all the areas in the hall and deciding with Al which panels we most wanted to attend, I made a bee-line for Redondo's table. Now in his 80s he still has a real fire in his eyes and I happily watched as he did sketches for those ahead of me in the queue with just a few quick strokes of his marker pens until it was my turn. "Just a signature" I stammered, slightly in awe of this real legend of European comics (and being the first creator I met that day). With a smile, he asked me my name and...well you can see the result below:

A prized signature from a comics legend (my photograph obviously)

As Al and I circuited the main hall, two things became very clear - a) there was a *lot* of original art on display and most of it was for sale; and b) just about very artist was happy to do a quick sketch or a more detailed piece for a small fee. I'd long harboured an ambition to own some original artwork, but most of it continued to be well outside my meagre budget. (I do have one cherished page by John Ridgeway from his 1980s Epic series "The Bozz Chronicles", but that was a birthday gift). I would never be able to justify the costs of owning a Bellardinelli "Dan Dare" page for example, to either myself or more importantly my wife !  That's not to say that all pages for sale were expensive. Boo Cook for example was selling his rough design pages for £20 a time and others were in the £50 - £200 price band, but although extremely interesting to look at, nothing really grabbed my attention.

However as I walked around, I began to think that maybe an original commission was the way to go, as something to take home as a memory of this exciting day. The fees for these varied greatly from artist to artist, I guess depending on their popularity. Dave Gibbons was sketching for free and just looking for a donation to his chosen charity. Redondo was asking £25, but others were more (I think the most expensive commission price was £60).

Near the right hand end of the artists' tables we came across cartoonist extraordinaire Roger Langridge. Now I'd been a fan of Roger's work since way back in the early 90s, when he published the absurd adventures of "Art D'Ecco" and "Knuckles The Malevolent Nun" via Fantagraphics Books. He is mainly remembered in 2000 AD circles for the love-it-or-hate-it comedy serial "The Straitjacket Fits" from the early issues of volume one of the "Judge Dredd Magazine". In more recent years Roger had won wide acclaim for his work on "The Muppet Show Comic Book" and been the occasional artist (and almost permanent letterer) on the Doctor Who Magazine strip.

Like others Roger was offering to do sketches and drawings for a small fee. Amazingly his black and white sketches were priced at just £5.00 with full colour commissions at a mere £30.00 - an absolute bargain. Al decided that he was going to get a drawing of his favourite Doctor Who, Tom Baker. In just a few brief minutes Roger had drawn a perfect cartoon-like Baker - google eyes, wide toothy grin, the shock of curly hair - it was just brilliant. Al and I were astonished at his skill. For those wondering, I'm not going to reproduce the sketch here as Al has included it on his blog, alongside his own fascinating, cathartic and frankly moving tribute to the weekend's events and a lifetime of comics reading. You can be stunned at the power of his prose here. I know I was.

As we walked away from the table and Al put his precious piece of art in his bag, an idea started to form in my head. If I was going to get something, I didn't want it necessarily to be a drawing of a character that the artist had illustrated a thousand times. I needed it to be something different. Something special. Something no-one else would have. I mulled the idea over as we went to the first panel - "The Originals", featuring Dave Gibbons, Mick McMahon, Alan Grant and Cam Kennedy.

Left to right - Gibbons, Grant, McMahon and Kennedy (a snippet from the video)

At the end of a fun and wide ranging panel we did another circuit of the main hall and once again found ourselves at Roger Langridge's table. Having seen what wonderful things he could do with just five or ten minutes I decided that this was it - Roger was my man. I plonked down my £30 and asked if he could create a full colour commission for me. "Sure" he said "What would you like?".

"Could you do Strontium Dog as a Muppet" I asked. Roger grinned up at me. "No problem. Come back in about an hour or so". We'll see how he got on in a few paragraphs...

Clearly my most cherished moments of the whole day were where I got to meet some of my comics heroes and was able to chat so informally to them. I'm not normally a very gregarious person, and initially I perhaps was a little self conscious just thinking about going up to someone like Cam Kennedy or John Wagner and telling them how much their work meant to me. But as the day wore on, that feeling wore off - predominately because everyone was just *so* approachable and friendly. Every single person just seemed to be happy to be there, enjoying meeting the fans and having the opportunity to talk about their work and the shared love of this classic comics institution.

Highlights? Well Glenn Fabry may look and sound like a bit like John Hurt and appear slightly daunting when you are in the queue but he was actually one of the nicest gents you could ever wish to meet, regaling us with various stories about his long and distinguished career. Matt Brooker  - more commonly known as D'israeli - talked to me enthusiastically for a good ten minutes about his digital art process and how my own daughter was starting to get to grips with this technology. "Anderson Psi Division" artist David Roach was also just lovely - proudly displaying his in-progress pages from a new strip he was working on for 2000 AD and pondering with myself and a couple of other fans exactly what the consistency of the "munce" foodstuff from the Judge Dredd stories really is and why is the factory *so* close to Resyk...

I managed to catch up with former editor Steve McManus again (after meeting him just a few months earlier at the launch of his "The Mighty One" autobiography). Luckily at the time he was also joined by another ex-Tharg, Richard Burton, and I spent an extremely pleasant few minutes talking to him about the non-2000 AD reprints from the early specials and annuals (things like "Phantom Patrol" and "Rick Random") and how he personally preferred it when Carlos Ezquerra did not colour his work digitally.

Cosplay has become a large part of comic conventions in recent years and the 2000 AD festival was no exception. Beyond the plethora of Mega-City One judges patrolling the corridors  - from the comic and the movies - and the aforementioned Nu-Earth GI, there was some real innovation and amazing hard work that went into the various costumes being worn. A Cal-Hab Judge complete with kilt. Dredd's informer, Max Normal the Pinstripe Freak (although I'd always considered him to have a black pinstripe suit not blue...). Vampire Strontium Dog Durham Red. Zenith. There was even a gent who walked round the entire day with a three foot high Hewligan's Haircut. It was a real treat for the eyes. I'm not quite sure why Rorschach or Deadpool were there though...

My favourites were the more complex costumes. An excellent Judge Death,  two ABC Warriors -  Hammerstein and Blackblood - and lastly one brave soul who painted himself white, walked around mostly naked and wore huge horns and wings to carry off a performance as Satan from the "Anderson Psi Division" story of the same name, as illustrated by Arthur Ranson. That takes real dedication.

Judge Death poses for his fans (I took this one)

(Hammerstein and Blackblood relax in the bar (I took this too)

After a spot of lunch, Al and I hung around the live drawing area until the main panel room opened to allow attendees to grab a seat for the  "The Lawmasters" featuring John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra. This was jam packed as you would imagine and was made more interesting by Mr Ezquerra's penchant for waving the microphone around as he talked, meaning we could only clearly hear half the conversation!

At this point we decided to go in different directions, and I stepped up my mission to get lots of signatures on the opening page in my 1985 Judge Dredd Annual. When D'sraeli looked at the first few names from that original signing back in 1984, he looked slightly worried. "Are you sure you want me to deface something so special?" he said. Needless to say I gave him the go ahead. Dashing around the hall I flitted from table to table and suddenly noticed in the programme that Carlos was due to move from 'artists alley' to a '2000 AD Nerve Centre' signing along with four other creators. Unable to resist I joined the queue with just a few people in front of me and got him to sign right down the middle of the mushroom cloud. "This was a good story" he said as he flipped through the pages.

As time wore on and we approached 6.30pm, some queues started to get longer again as writers and artists began to think about packing up for the day. I craftily slipped Al the annual as he was already in the Pat Mills queue, which saved me a lot of time. It was the last one I really wanted that day, and for now at least, the 'scrawl wall' was complete:

Returning the favour I saved Al a space in the lengthening queue for the final event of the day (at least for us)  - an advance screening of "Search / Destroy: A Strontium Dog Fan Film". We knew this was going to be immensely popular, so needed to ensure we got a good seat. Speaking of "Strontium Dog", how had Roger Langridge managed with my special commission piece? Let's wind time back a couple of hours to when I had returned to his table...

Roger was just finishing off the colouring. As I approached he looked up and recognised me. Turning the page around  he displayed the completed work and...well see for yourself - it's absolutely bloody superb...

Strontium Frog! How marvellously obvious! I couldn't have been happier. "That was really fun to do" said Roger, as I gingerly took the drawing from him. I shook his hand and thanked him profusely, walking away with a huge smile on my face. This had turned into a really great day...

Back to the queue for the fan film, and excitement was building. We'd all seen the props and stills and promo posters. The young lady dressed as Durham Red. Could it possibly be as good as the creators previous film "Judge Minty"? We duly filed into the room and took our seats. Recruitment posters peppered the stage and a lectern stood waiting for someone to give an introductory speech. But who was that coming from the back of the room?...

Rather than the films director or main stars - who stayed sitting in the front row -  we got Harvey, commander of the Galactic Crime Commission headquarters known as "The Doghouse". He was there to give us a bit of a pep talk (of sorts) since the GCC had to meet their "diversity targets" and were considering letting a few norms into the freak-show that was the Search / Destroy Agency (terms and conditions may apply). Stalking off stage Harvey uttered "Roll this rubbish...".

"Search / Destroy" was clearly made by fans who just "get" it - the love for the characters and the world of "Strontium Dog" shone through from every frame. The casting was spot on (I can't imagine anyone else but Kevin Horsham playing Wulf now) and the CGI was frankly amazing considering the minuscule budget they must have been working with. The land craft were right. The guns were right. The look and sound effects and costumes were right. This is how you make something faithful to a comics property.

The Western influences of the original strip were played up as well, with several scenes in dry dusty environments, guns twitching as villains posed in a stand-off against Johnny Alpha and his Viking partner. Alpha was always Clint Eastwood in a Spaghetti Western with added glowing eyes and mutant abilities - a man of few words - his 'Electronux' doing most of the talking. That mystique was continued here.

The story was perhaps a tad slight, but given that the creators only had 20-odd minutes to play with that's to be expected to a certain extent. It's a lengthy showcase for the talent involved and a taste of what could be, given the right financing. I really need to watch it again to appreciate the full effort involved. I'd love to see more. Hell I *demand* to see more! 

The film is not out officially to watch or download for free until May 2017 but you can see a trailer here. I can't wait.

With the show over, that was the end of our very long day. Yes it's true that there was still a screening of the "Future Shock" documentary to go, but both Al and I had seen it before and the "extended" version will be out on Blu-ray later this year anyway. We were tired and it was time to go home. Like battle-weary troopers, we joined the crowds filing out of the hotel complex and into the darkened streets of Hammersmith. All in all it had been a brilliant, brilliant day. Relaxed, uncrowded, just the right number of panels with everyone in fine form and there to enjoy themselves and celebrate the 40th birthday of the Galaxy's Greatest comic. Could it have been any better?

Well, if I have any issues at all with the whole setup, they were only minuscule ones. The live drawing panels were really interesting but could have done with being in a more dimly lit area so that attendees could see the screen better. For the couple of panels I did attend, I thought the interviewers were quite poor and seemed ill-prepared, mis-informed or brought their own agenda to the table (since when has 2000 AD been "a gateway to satire magazines like "Private Eye" ?!) To be fair I've since seen video of the panels hosted by PR droid Michael Molcher and as you would imagine, those were managed much more professionally.

It's also a shame that I missed out on meeting a few creators because they did not have tables in the main 'artists alley' area and were only doing signings / sketches in the 'Nerve Centre' area. Meeting a talent such as Arthur Ranson would have been incredible, but he was only signing for one brief period across the whole day. As I said though, these are minor gripes - and that second one is probably more to do with my own poor reading of the schedule and shoddy time management.

Oh and one final thing - if you are reading this Rebellion, don't leave it another ten years before the next one !