Wednesday, March 29, 2006

What's a man to do?

April 15th is a fairly big date in my calendar.

Not only is it the day of the Scottish Cup Final, when my beloved Hearts (hopefully) will pick up their second trophy of the past forty years, but it’s also the day on which the new series of Doctor Who starts.

My plan for the day had been based round the idea – if I can’t get tickets for the match – of watching the game on TV in the pub, before seeing the celebratory open topped bus come down Gorgie in maroon splendour. Then a quick nip back home, watch the first episode of Doctor Who, prior to heading back to the pub for several triumphal beers.

All of which sounded fine until yesterday, when I discovered that one of our friends is having a surprise 40th birthday party for her husband on the same evening, to which I have to go, unless I want everyone's suspicions that I'm wholly anti-social confirmed.

Of course, I can still watch the game, but I can hardly roll into the party already drunk, and the timing means that watching new Who isn't possible. So I suppose I'll have to moderate my drinking at the football and get Doctor Who from a bittorrent to watch the next day - neither of which is optimal or in the spirit of the occasion, frankly.

Sometimes it's a terrible burden being mature.
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Monday, March 27, 2006

Things that went bump in the night, Seventies-style

I picked up dvds of the two series of Space:1999 over the weekend, but I'm now worried about watching them.

The first and most obvious reason for this is that, being a show I loved as a child, they might turn out to be rubbish on re-viewing. In the main I've found childhood favourites like Doctor Who, Catweazle and even Pipkins have stood the test of time brilliantly, but occasionally something like The Tomorrow People comes along and I end up watching a couple of episodes, slack-jawed and faintly embarassed, before putting the DVD in that section of my bookcases which in a library would be labelled 'of archival interest only'.

The less obvious reason for my reluctance to ssart watching is that a specific episode of Space:1999 is one of the three most scary television moments of my youth and I'd hate to watch that episode and discover that the delicious horror I remember is, in truth, composed of bad acting, dodgy haircuts and obviously painted plywood backgrounds.

To make matters worse, one of my two other Youthful Horror Moments has already turned out to be rubbish. The season 1 episode of Blake's 7, Time Squad, which gave me nightmares for months after watching it aged eight, is in fact plain awful and about as scary as that kids virtual reality show Knightmare.

On the other hand, the whole of the first story in the Sapphire and Steel series was just as incredibly creepy and full of iconic moments (Sapphire going into the picture being the best one) as I remembered.

So which is to be - crushing disappointment or forgotten classic? I suppose I'll have to watch it to find out (and it doesn't help that I can't remember what the episode is called - only that Barbara Bain gets one of her fingers chopped off in some kind of on-planet ritual. Possibly.)
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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Who will win the Hugo (that's a question, not a prediction)

The Hugo nominations are now out and, for the first time since I was approximately fourteen, I actually know what some of them are.

More specifically, three (or four depending on how you look at it) Doctor Who episodes from the last season have been nominated in the "Dramatic Presentation: Short Form" category. That's obviously excellent news if you're a Doctor Who fan, but I have to admit I'm more than a little surprised, both by the number of Who nominations and by the other contenders.

The full list of nominations is as follows:

# Battlestar Galactica: "Pegasus" (NBC Universal/British Sky Broadcasting; Directed by Michael Rymer; Written by Anne Cofell Saunders)

# Doctor Who: "The Empty Child" & "The Doctor Dances" (BBC Wales/BBC1; Directed by James Hawes; Written by Steven Moffat)

# Doctor Who: "Dalek" (BBC Wales/BBC1; Directed by Joe Ahearne; Written by Robert Shearman)

# Doctor Who: "Father's Day" (BBC Wales/BBC1; Directed by Joe Ahearne; Written by Paul Cornell)

# Jack-Jack Attack (Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation; Written & Directed by Brad Bird)

# Lucas Back in Anger (Reductio Ad Absurdum Productions; Directed by Phil Raines; Written by Phil Raines and Ian Sorensen)

# Prix Victor Hugo Awards Ceremony (Opening Speech and Framing Device; Written and performed by Paul McAuley and Kim Newman; Directed by Mike & Debby Moir)

Is it just my lack of understanding of the Hugos, but doesn't that seem a slightly odd mix of nominations?

More than half of it is made up of episodes of revivals of a British and a US TV series respectivly, whilst the remainder consists of the cartoon at the start of Pixar's Ayn Rand love-fest The Incredibles; a distinctly undergrad sounding one hour long comedy skit created for the Ewok-worshipping geeks at last year's WorldCon (see, I can say that - it's like black people calling each other nigga on rap records) and what appears to be a bit of a speech at last year's Hugos that someone taped on their camcorder.

Fingers crossed, therefore, that it's one of the TV shows that wins. I suspect that it'll be the BSG one, given that it's American and the awards tend to lean towards the US (plus, it's a very good bit of science fiction TV even if the constant use of the the name Number Six for one of the Cylons is a little distracting to Prisoner fans).

Of course, I'd personally love Steven Moffat's Doctor Who two parter, 'The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances' to win - it's probably the only episode of the last series of Who that I would say was a guaranteed classic which was likely to last the test of time, but I would assume that Dalek and Father's Day, which are both quite good, would split any Who vote.

I am slightly surprised to see that none of Russell T Davies' episodes of Doctor Who were nominated, given their apparent popularity. For me, though, they all disappointed on one level or another, with the exception of the penultimate episode Bad Wolf and that - with its trio of gameshow parodies - doesn't stand up to repeated viewing.
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Monday, March 20, 2006

It's getting like a bloody Zoo in here

So, some basic points to be borne in mind.

(a) I'm not an animal person (nor am I really much of a people person, but that's not germane at the moment)
(b) I've never wanted a pet of any description
(c) I'm allergic to animal hair.

With that in mind, I'm not entirely sure how I seem to have ended up - in the course of a single week - with both a cat and a dog.

Actually, the dog is easy. My daughter has always wanted one and, after years of going on about it, we agreed to buy her one for her birthday this year. And as she wanted to go to dog handling classes and shows and the like, it had to be Kennel Club registered and therefore both ridiculously expensive and only available from a house seemingly built entirely from dog hair, after a fog-ridden three hour drive into the middle of the darkest countryside.

The cat however was unexpected. I came home from work on Friday to find the kids standing outside the front door with my mother-in-law (who was watching them) beside them with a small black and white cat in her arms. The cat had just shot into the house during the afternoon, according to the m-in-l, and in spite of attempts to take her down the road and let her go, she just made her way back to ours and then sat on the doorstep until someone opened the door. At one point she seemed to have left, but when I went to lock the door for the evening there she was, freezing and looking pathetic inside our recycling bin.

So in she came (there's only so much hard-heartedness I can manage - and kittens in buckets are a step or two beyond the point at which I can keep any level of flinty resolve up).

So far as we can tell the cat (which is about one year old we think) was dumped by someone - no subcutaneous tag, but her collar has been removed and she knew enough to recognise a tin of tuna by sight and use a litter tray. We'll stick some posters up in the local shops and supermarket, but J asked at every door in the streets round us and no-one knew anything, although the kids in the street reckoned it had just appeared a day or two before.

If no-one claims her, then either we'll keep her (increasingly my prefered option - she's damn cute and sits on my knee for hours watching the very best of seventies television) or J's mother would quite like to have her.

Either way, it's got to be better than being left to freeze on the streets by some tosser (is it any wonder I'm not a people person?).
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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Best. Review. Ever

Originally posted as a passing comment to a Who mailing list, Phil's mini-review of the Doctor Who story, Time and the Rani, is simply the funniest review ever written of anything ever.

"Imagine five-year-olds attempting to act out a Star Trek episode they saw once, only they're each thinking of different episodes and one of them was watching Jigsaw instead. They have a dressing-up box and a BBC micro, and one of them's recently read a Ladybird book about Famous Scientists.

Compared with Time and the Rani, that would be fucking Solaris."

Like the adverts say, priceless.
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Monday, March 13, 2006

Goths and Grandparents

Exchange - Paul Magrs

The back of the proof copy of Paul Magrs new book, ‘Exchange’ says that the book has ‘wide YA appeal’, by which I assume it means Young Adult rather than something more cryptic.

That puts the book in competition with writers like JK Rowling, Philip Pullman and the apparently ubiquitous Jacqueline Wilson. Which is a shame because, leaving aside Ms Rowling’s frankly dreadful last Potter book, in such company ‘Exchange’ dies a bit of a death.

It’s not that it’s not a well written book or that the characters seem false or don’t ring true. But ‘Exchange’ feels like a very slight book in comparison to Pullman’s wild imaginings, Wilson’s heart-felt dissection of teenage relationships and Rowling’s… number of words per book, which remains impressive even though the actual words she chooses tend to be trite, clichéd and dull.

The Book Exchange of the title is an interesting starting point – a bookshop which appears out of the dark to a book-hungry boy and his grandmother, where old books can be exchanged for new for a very small charge, read and then returned to the shop in their turn.

That the shop appears mysteriously from the snow and is run by a man with plastic arms are the kind of Magrsian touches you would expect, as is the very fact that this is a *book* exchange – in the modern, electronic age it’s hard to imagine a shop dedicated to swapping genuine, made-of-paper books working as a real business, which just adds to the magical feeling. Other touches like the nature of Simon’s grandfather’s secret collection and the meeting of his Gran and her childhood friend are as good as anything the author has done before

That said, there is a problem with the book – but I can’t decide if the problem is that not enough happens, or that there’s too much going on.

For instance, Simon’s Gran has a brief flirtation with the owner of the Exchange and meets up with a childhood friend turned successful novelist; Simon and Kelly, the shop’s Goth assistant, hook up and Kelly sees off some bullies who have been harassing him before convincing Simon to steal something precious; and Ray, Simon’s grandfather, reacts badly to his two relations’ love affair with reading.

All of which sounds quite exciting, but in actuality the numerous sub-plots never go anywhere particularly or – as with Kelly beating up the leader of the gang of thugs who hang round the local phone box – seem very implausible (it seems more likely to me that those kinds of gangs are exactly the type who kick grown men to death for asking them to move on, rather than being cowed by a small, if cocky, girl in black make-up).

Added to that, the plethora of minor plot lines tends to obscure any larger theme running through the novel (the obvious theme – that of exchanging the old for the new – looks promising for a while, as Gran exchanges Grandad for Terrance the Armless Man and Simon exchanges his dead parents for his grandparents for instance, but neither change lasts and by novel end nothing concrete has changed).

To be clear, it’s a good book which is well worth reading, and there’s a lot of clever and funny writing in there, but at times it felt like a re-tread of previous work, which left me feeling a little disappointed.

As an example, Magrs is as capable as ever at writing older northern women, and Gran in ‘Exchange’ is a genuine and rounded character, but she isn’t a patch on the group of old women in the northern sections of The Blue Angel. Plastic arms are an interesting disability to have, but it’s no match for turning into a Gila monster or being in league with demons in the “extra-ordinary things happening in an ordinary world” stakes and doesn’t really serve any purpose (the reason for Terrance’s disability, when revealed late in the book, isn’t convincing nor does it serve any obvious or necessary narrative purpose either).

Anecdotally, I lent this book to my 12 year old nephew and 14 year old niece, both voracious readers. They read it and enjoyed it but neither was prepared to say anything beyond ‘yeah, it was OK’ when asked what they thought of it, whereas my niece had gone on for ages about Strange Boywhen she read that (and my daughter is still annoyed that Magrs’ new kids’ book isn’t the promised sequel to The Good, the Bat and the Ugly set on the TV show Pipkins).

I don’t want to be too hard on ‘Exchange’ since I read it and enjoyed it and really there’s nothing else you can reasonably ask of a book. But having loved ‘Strange Boy’ (which is aimed at a roughly similar age group) and devoured ‘To the Devil – A Diva’ (which utilises a similar writing style to ‘Exchange’, as opposed to that in Paul’s earlier novels), I’d been hoping for something astonishing and instead got something which is only rather good.

On reflection though, I take back one thing I said at the beginning of this review - ‘Exchange’ craps over ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’ from a huge height, it really does.
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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Adherent of the Repeated (book) Meme

I don't generally do memes, but I'm a sucker for lists of books, and this list is after all the list of 30 books all adults should have read, so...

[Bold for those I've read; Italics for those I'd like to read; and a strike though for those I either will never read or started by gave up on]

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The Bible

Not all of it, but enough in my younger years to qualify, I think.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by JRR Tolkien

I've read this several times, but not for a while - the last time was on a short holiday in Donegal where it rained all the time and I spent five days in a country pub drinking and reading in front of a peat fire.

1984 by George Orwell

Not since school though and not very likely to ever read it again.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Ditto. I'm not a massive fan of Dickens, although I like adaptations of his books a lot.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Hasn't everyone read this a few times?

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The best novel by one of the finest writers in the English language? Of course I've read it. Repeatedly.

All Quite on the Western Front by E M Remarque

Another one from school. Doesn't it have an odd ending where - in spite of the whole thing being told in the first person - the narrator is shot dead?

His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman

My daughter has these so I'll probably get round to it some day.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

I bought a copy of this in the tiny Uni bookshop when I was doing postgrad IT and it was a brilliant read at a time when everything else I read featured a programming language of some kind.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I'm sure I've read this, but I may fact only have seen the film.

The Lord of the Flies by William Golding

I like Golding a lot, but both The Inheritors and Pincher Martin are better books than Lord of the Flies.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

This is lying in a bookcase at home, waiting to be read.

Tess of the D'urbevilles by Thomas Hardy

Read during my Hardy phase at school - unlike Jude the Obscure though, I read it once and have no intention of ever reading it again (not that I intend to read Jude again either, but I read it several times in the space of year when I was thirteen or so).

Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne

I've read this for my own pleasure and to all my children at various points.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

I often wonder if this would be as good if I re-read it as I remember being way back when.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham

See Winnie the Pooh.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Courtesy of J, I've now seen and enjoyed the movie but the book simply doesn't appeal.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

My least favourite of the three Dickens on offer in this list, but none of them would exactly be amongst my desert island paperbacks.

The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

The Prophet by Khalil Gibran [Available online here but really not worth reading]

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Just sounds too dull and worthy.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Haven't even heard of this.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Sitting in a bookcase at home.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

I didn't like Silas Marner so I can't see myself ever reading this.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

I hadn't heard of this but a quick Googling makes it sound quite interesting.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzenhitsyn

Both excellent books, neither likely to be re-read any time soon however - there are just too many new books to read.

It's a peculiar list actually - no space for anything by Italo Calvino but room for The Time Traveller's Wife, which is surely too new to count as a perennial 'must read. And isn't two fictional memoirs of the First World War one too many? Equally, three kids' books seems a tad weighted, as does three Dickens (not that he's not great, but what marks David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations out over Oliver Twist, say, or Bleak House - or The Old Man and the Sea or I, Claudius for that matter?).

Not to mention the fact that a case could surely be made for suggesting that reading the Quran is more pertinent today than reading the Bible.

But that's what comes of asking a gaggle of librarians, I suppose...
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Monday, March 06, 2006

Letter to Skeletor (not mine, sadly)

Dear Skeletor,

First of all, many thanks for taking time to read this letter. I appreciate that your schedule is pretty packed with evil and evil related activities and that your time is precious. I'll try not to take up too much of it, but I really do think you need to hear what I have to say.

I, like a large number of other people on the planet Earth, have watched with amusement for the past twenty years as you have repeatedly tried and failed to infiltrate and conquer Castle Grayskull and gain access to it's legendary "secrets".

Yes, you read that correctly Skeletor: "Amusement".

Because while I appreciate the thought, effort and sheer dogged enthusiasm which go into your takeover bids, your apparent inability to spot the numerous and often gaping flaws in each and every one of them is laughable. I'm sorry, but it had to be said.

Take, for example, Faker. You remember Faker, don't you Skeletor! ? The clone you made of He-Man? On the face of it, the plan was brilliant. Flawless. You managed to create an exact duplicate of He-Man using just the power of your Ram's Head Staff, who could just walk up to Grayskull, knock on the drawbridge and gain entry. Victory was assured.

Or at least it would have been had you not given Fakir blue skin and orange eyes. I mean - what were you thinking there? I can only assume this was a frankly astonishing oversight on your behalf. The real He-Man doesn't have blue skin or orange eyes, Skeletor, so in order to be truly effective, nor should an evil double. An identical duplicate should be identical to the thing it's a duplicate of. The clue's in the name. It's just common sense.

Speaking of which, why do you insist on surrounding yourself with idiots? Okay, I appreciate that Beast-Man and Trap Jaw are some scary looking blokes, but what real help have they been in your war on Eternia? They might mean well, but they ! haven't contributed anything useful in two decades, Skeletor. Not a single thing. Even with employment law being so strict these days, any other employer would have found an excuse to dismiss them long before now.

It's not as if you even like them, and I'm sure they can't be brimming with job satisfaction either. I've had some shitty jobs in my time, but at least no boss of mine ever shouted "Fools!" at myself and my colleagues before shooting at us with lasers. I read somewhere recently that over fifty percent of people who get fired from a job go onto find higher paid employment in their next job. They'd probably thank you for sacking them in the long run.

And what about your strong right arm, "Evil" Lynn? Look at her name written down. You've just been pronouncing "Evelyn" wrong all these years, haven't you? Surely even you can't expect the Masters of the Universe to lay down their weapons and cower before someone called Evelyn? Particularly one who doesn't even have the confidence to correct people who say her name wrong.

Your recruitment policy is utterly ridiculous. Take Tri-Klops - okay, so he has three eyes, but how's that going to help defeat the mightiest man in the universe? At best it'll just afford him a better view of He-Man's massive fist as it connects solidly with his head. Likewise Ju-Jitsu - that big hand he has isn't a useful special power, it's just a big hand! He's deformed! While I applaud your policy on employing the disabled, you shouldn't fall into the trap of believing their disabilities will actually aid your nefarious schemes in any way. Elephantitis is not a valuable addition to your arsenal of evil.

And surely when you employed the two-headed Two-Bad you realized that each half of him spent every waking minute punching the other half in the face? Why didn't this put you off? Why didn't it start alarm bells ringing? Couldn't you have just found a single headed person who would spe! nd their time punching someone else in the face instead? Someone else who it would actually benefit you to have punched in the face? An employee who spends the entire working day physically harming himself is a liability, no matter what line of business you may be in.

And what about Stinkor? Jesus, Skeletor, you hire a guy just because he smells bad?! You think henchmen of that calibre are going to give you some kind of advantage over a man who can lift a mountain with one hand?

I dunno, it just seems to me that you're deliberately shooting yourself in the foot by hiring these people. You're attempting to conquer a planet and rule it with a fist of iron, Skeletor, not start a circus. It's like you want to fail or something. There's probably a psychiatric term for it, but I don't know what it is.

Assuming you do genuinely want to succeed, my suggestion is a completely clean slate. Start from scratch. This time round though, I recommend you pick your staff based on their intelligence and skills, not by how outlandish they look. If a guy turns up for interview with green and purple striped skin and metal wings, try to find out what abilities he has rather than just offering him a job on the spot.

And when I say "abilities" I mean useful ones. Sit down and make a wish list of skills and attributes you think will genuinely increase your chances of ruling Eternia. I'd be surprised if "mental command over fish" is on there, so retaining Mer-Man's services will be largely unnecessary. Again, he may be resentful at first, but he'll be relieved at no longer having to worry about being thrown headlong into a pit of lava when he inevitably makes his next blundering mistake and will soon come to accept the benefits of no longer working for you.

Once you have an effective team in place, pay attention to what they have to say. I know this goes against the grain, but even with the buffoons you have working for you! now disaster could have been averted time and time again had you only listened to them when they pointed out the obvious holes in your plans.

Like the machine you built to turn people to stone and bring stone things to life. Even Beast Man knew that one was an accident waiting to happen, and sure enough fifteen seconds later the machine was going crazy. What thanks did Beast-Man get for pointing out the dangers of your latest contraption? A lightning bolt to the feet. He was only trying to help. How long did it take you to devise and construct such a machine, Skeletor? Longer than the four seconds it took He-Man to defeat the giant statue you brought to life with it, I'm almost certain.

The same goes for the huge tank you made out of dinosaur bones. Appearance wise it was nothing short of breathtaking, but what was its purpose? I can see why the whole 'bone theme' appealed to you, but you can't have honestly believed that a vehicle which travelled at approximately four miles per hour and offered no protection whatsoever to those riding inside it was going to be the one to win the war? Trapjaw knew it was destined for failure, you could see it in his eyes, but he kept his metal mouth shut for fear of being on the receiving end of the mental and physical abuse he's come to expect from you.

Rather than waste valuable time and resources developing such ludicrous contraptions, maybe you should concentrate instead on learning how to use your magic Rams Head Staff properly? I've seen you use it for everything from simple fireball hurling to creating living creatures out of thin air, so it seems to be an incredibly powerful piece of kit. Do you maybe have an instruction book or manual for it lying around Snake Mountain anywhere? If not perhaps you could get in touch with the manufacturer to see if they can help. It's clearly far more effective a weapon than a ray that stops all the flowers in Eternia from blooming. ! What use is that, Skeletor? You think He-Man's going to give up the secrets of Castle Grayskull because he misses his Aspidistras? It's not going to happen.

And anyway, are you sure Castle Grayskull actually has any secrets? I've seen inside it and it looks kind of sparse to me. It's just all stone walls and very little else.

Maybe there's a room somewhere that's got secrets in it, but they'd have to be pretty impressive to justify the effort you're putting into getting them. What if the secret of Grayskull is just the Sorceress' family recipe for Bolognese sauce? Okay, that might be some tasty sauce, but is it really worth devoting your entire life to? It's something to think about anyway.

Finally - and please don't take this the wrong way - don't you think you perhaps set your sights a little high when choosing He-Man as an arch enemy? I mean, granted you're pretty toned and clearly keep in shape, but when your opponent can defeat you and your e! ntire army simply by blowing on you the time has surely come for a serious rethink?

I hope you're not too disheartened by this letter and that you take some of my suggestions on board. There are too few evil megalomaniacs with no skin on their face around today, and I really do think with a bit more thought and a few slight changes in strategy you will one day become ruler of Eternia. I wish you all the best for when you do.



P.S. - He-Man is Prince Adam with different clothes on. Obvious when you think about it, isn't it?
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