Monday, May 29, 2006

Big Buggering Bollocksing B'stard

Crap, crap, crap, crap.

Once a year I try to write a short story. It's the only time I try my hand at writing, both because I know I'm not very good and because I have nowhere near the level of dedication to write more often (Scott, on the other hand, wrote a book last year which was very good and - should he ever get his finger out sufficiently to go through a second draft and actually submit it to someone - could well be publishable).

Anyway, this year's Bernice Summerfield short story competition has come round again and so I've been working on a story, off and on, for the past month. It's due to be submitted to the editor by Wednesday and I was intending to finish the first draft tonight, leaving me tomorrow to got through it and tart it up a bit.

Except - after typing about the thousand words which comprise the middle part of the story - my idiot laptop crashed. And I hadn't saved any of it, because I am a total tit.

I don't know if I can be bothered doing it all again, especially since I was making it up as I went along and it was going so well and I doubt very much if I could replicate what I'd written.

So - as I said - crap, crap, crap, crap.

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Saturday, May 27, 2006

Hey - I'm cool and rebellious

I don't usually do these but I came across this meme/quiz thing on titaniccapybara's blog and since I got a cool result...

You scored as Serenity (Firefly). You like to live your own way and don't enjoy when anyone but a friend tries to tell you should do different. Now if only the Reavers would quit trying to skin you.

Your Ultimate Sci-Fi Profile II: which sci-fi crew would you best fit in?
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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Blakes 2007

One of the great pleasures of the new series of Doctor Who is the fact that my seven year old son also loves the show (so long as it's in colour - he refuses to watch Troughton or Hartnell, the young fool). It's not just him, though - all his friends love it too which has the unexpected bonus effect of making me suddenly the street's coolest Dad. I actually heard one of his pals the other day saying "You're *so* lucky - my dad's not got *any* Doctor Who DVDs" which was one of the stranger things I've ever heard anyone say.

Anyhow, I thought that I'd show him some other great TV from my youth and so stuck on the first season of Blakes 7.

And he hated it.

Without someone to identify with, he just wasn't interested and, within twenty minutes of putting it on, he had wandered off to find his Gameboy, leaving me to wonder how they could update Blakes 7 to capture that essential 7-13 age group who buy cheaply made tie-in toys (the other essential age group for that kind of thing is, of course, mid-thirties guys like me).

For a start, there'd have to be some serious recasting. Even at the beginning of the show Gareth Thomas was 33, Paul Darrow 37 and Jacqueline Pearce 35. These are not acceptable ages for series lead nowadays, where mid to late twenties seems to be the norm. Plus they were all...well, a bit ugly and/or Welsh. So first things first - replacements of the three leads with:

  • John Simm from Life on Mars as Blake
  • Nathan Fillion from Buffy as Avon
  • Jaime Murray from Hustle as Servalan.

    That gives us a couple of actors from two of the three most popular shows in BBC in recent years, plus an American who genre fans may well recognise. We'd probably need to have at least one black actor (Adrian Lester, possibly, in a more cerebral Gan role) and a minimum of one gay guy (James Dreyfus possibly as Vila - you really can't be too obvious in your casting.) Cally can turn out to be a bit of a lipstick lesbian later, if focus groups think that would boost ratings.

    Next, we have the woeful fact that - Blake apart - the entire crew of the Liberator are actually guilty of the crimes they were convicted of. Most of them don't even have extenuating circumstances to aid audience identification. In OZ, Prison Break, or Prisoner: Cell Block H any character with whom the audience is intended to bond will be either (a) innocent or (b) guilty but it's not really their fault. In Blakes 7, only Blake is actually innocent, with Gan guilty but a bit unfortunate. The rest of them revel in their criminal pasts.

    So what we need in Blakes 2007 is a series of flashbacks, shot with some kind of hazy filter a little like the scene where Kaiser Soze kills his own family in The Usual Suspects. Each of these flashbacks will last about ten minutes or so (enabling us to show all the back stories in one Special Episode) and in every case will establish either innocence or that it wasn't their fault. So Vila will still be a thief, for instance, but he'll only steal enough to feed some starving street kids he's keeping a fatherly eye on. Jenna will be a smuggler, but the cargo will be contraband medicine she was taking through a Federation blockade in a Firefly stylee. And Gan will be plain innocent.

    Which leads us onto the next area needing improvement. As it stands Blakes 7 is about moving the story forward in as exciting and action-packed a manner as possible. Which was all well and good in the 1970s, but nowadays we have to ask ourselves - where's the love?

    Let's give Gan a family back home (better make it quite a big family so that we can have one or two of them killed by the Federation over the course of the series). They can be working with a feisty young female lawyer (Billie Piper, naturally) to set Gan free when news of his escape reaches Earth. Having run from the Feds, Gan has - in the eyes of the general populace at least - proven himself guilty and this his family find themselves under growing pressure (probably on a bi-weekly basis at most) to disown him as a terrorist.

    But wait there a minute - a terrorist? The 'heroes' of Blakes 2007 can hardly be criminals, (no matter how innocent, plucky or plain unfortunate) fighting against a legitimately positioned central government using violent means, can they?

    Because that would make them the baddies and the Federation the good guys. That's just too freakish a reversal for any audience to accept - cheer for the Cylons and boo at Admiral Adama? Sorry, can't be done

    Oops, sorry - wandered into another show entirely for a moment there.

    But the point still stands - in the modern world it's just not plausiable to make terrorists the heroes of any show. So lets' make them evil. Scrap the nice back-stories and replace them with flashbacks nicked wholesale from the movie The Dirty Dozen. Vila is now a peadophile, Jenna a smuggler of hard drugs to Primary School World and Gan a white slaver. Servalan, on the other hand, is a now a feisty young lawyer, working on a case which will expose those within the Federation who are secretly helping the Blakian Terror Group (I'm presuming this would be some kind of left-wing cabal, led by the Vice, Deputy Prime, that doesn't sound right, best move the entire series to the USA and recast with uglier actors).

    Oh, and the ship can't be called the Liberator now, obviously. How about the Benedict Arnold - or is that too subtle?

    Right - I think we're ready to go. I'm sure my son would watch this new version - not that I'd let him of course. It sounds far too unpleasant.


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    Wednesday, May 17, 2006

    And they're off, one way or another...

    For the past few months Prison Break has easily eclipsed the increasingly annoying 24 in our house.

    24 seems to have but one idea when the plot begins to flag - have CTU/Homeland Security arrest and lock-up/torture a major cast member on some flimsy pretext or other, regardless of the obvious fact that it's going to bugger up the ongoing and urgent investigation. It was effective in the second season when Roger Stanton was tortured on orders of the President - whether I agree with torture or not, there was (as with the season four episode of the British spy show Spooks) a degree of seriousness placed on the decision to torture, an in-story discussion of the morality and consequences of going down that path and a (somewhat) achievable goal in mind. The physical act of torture itself was also treated with a decent level of gravitas (if that's the word I want) - bare feet in bowls of water then adding electricity is as brutal and graphic a scene as you could conceive of in prime time US television. Nowadays though, Audrey is threatened with media-friendly torture by injection on the vague say so of one person - and that person a known terrorist at that, whilst there's barely a cast member who hasn't been placed under arrest, temporarily sacked or killed off, all in the name of either keeping up the level of suspense or padding out the full twenty-four hours, depending on how charitable you feel towards the writers. I tell you, if they torture Aaron the Secret Service man I'm not watching 24 next year.

    Prison Break, on the other hand, has been a revelation. It's got some implausible ideas, certainly, not least the central conceit that Michael (the hero who has himself jailed alongside his Death Row brother in order to engineer his escape) has tattooed detailed plans to the prison on his body and added pretty daft aide memoires for good measure. But the characters act consistently, the plot twists (and there are many) do appear to come organically from within the drama and the whole thing is packed with little 'show not tell' moments which 24 is conspicuously lacking. Favourite of these in the last episode of the season is the unremarked and seemingly minor fact that having escaped from the prison Michael sits behind his brother in the escape van, highlighting the fact that once outside and away from his masterplan, Michael now needs Lincoln to lead him to safety (although the homage by Haywire to James Coburn in The Great Escape is lovely).

    I've no intention of giving away the ending, suffice to say that little or nothing goes as planned or expected and matters are left sufficiently open for a second season (and if there isn't one, it has exactly the level of resolution designed to both baffle and delight in equal measure).
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    Monday, May 15, 2006

    Glory, glory to the Jam Tarts!

    Well it wasn't the rout we'd all hoped for (plucky little outsiders be damned - I was hoping for 5-0), but Hearts eventually triumphed in the Scottish Cup Final on Saturday, beating Second Division Gretna 4-2 on penalties after the score remained 1-1 after extra time.

    Rudi Skacel, our one-time talisman turned ball-greedy spit monster, scored his first goal in fifteen matches to put us 1-0 up just before half-time but Gretna equalised with the world's softest penalty (even Charlie Nicholas, the biased, diamond ear-ring wearing little arse, said it was no penalty) fifteen minutes from time.

    We hit the post a couple of times, should have had a genuine penalty ourselves five minutes before the end of extra time and, to cap it all, had our main penalty taker sent off 30 seconds before the end of the game and the penalty shoot out started.

    Still - we won, they lost and, to be honest, I have a lot of time for Gretna now - they've got decent owner and friendly fans and they took defeat like gentlemen, unlike fans of the Bigot Brothers (or us, half the time).

    Second in the league and winning the Cup is our most successful year for nearly half a century but maybe next year it could all be a little less stressful? Please...


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    Wednesday, May 10, 2006

    Cigarettes and Alcohol

    I stopped smoking (again) about a year ago and almost immediately discovered that beer (that being the brown stuff so beloved of CAMRA, which I've always drunk) tastes odd, and slightly unpleasant, without the addition of a cigarette to the mix. So unpleasant have I found some previously favoured beers that I left almost an entire pint of Caley 80 in a pub last week, all but untouched.

    As it turns out, I've almost started smoking again in earnest (J's fault, not mine - she started again ages ago) and going to the pub last night should therefore have been a positive delight.

    Except you can't smoke in Scottish pubs any more. Which is crap, even on a relatively nice night like last night.

    Apart from the wind chill factor in permanently gusty Edinburgh, you are also open to being harangued by a man carrying his shoes in his hands and shouting at a phone box, who might well wander over to tell you quite forcefully that eating seaweed counters the carcinogenic properties of nicotine. Although - if very recent experience is anything to go by - he probably won't express himself half as politely as that.

    And back inside the pub, the beer still tastes rotten because you can't smoke and drink at the same time. Hence I actually drank bottles of Budweiser last night (and not the proper Bud, according to Scott and Andrew) which was quite vile, but it's lager so at least I expected it to be horrible.

    I won't live longer because I'll be smoking less, I'll live longer because the only drink I now like the taste of is water.
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    Wednesday, May 03, 2006

    This is not a meme, it's just a question answered

    So, after moaning constantly about dodgy plotting in last year's Eccleston-led season of Doctor Who, I was asked what my top ten Who stories were.

    And here they are, in no particular order:

    Ark in Space

    When I was 6 this scared the life out of me - and when I saw it again when it came out on DVD it was just as creepy. Green paint covered bubble wrap it may have been, but the set design is terrific, the script excellent and the three regulars already utterly convincing. Add to that the fact that this is the absolute pinnacle of the body horror genre in UK television and you have a sure fire winner.

    And the wonderful Britishness of Harry spending almost the entire story wandering around in his socks is simply perfect.

    The Iron Legion

    I'm not a comics fan, but the intitial Doctor Who Weekly run of comic strips (by Hill and Gibbons IIRC) have stuck in the momory for nearly thirty years and the recent Panini reprint of the entire run confirmed that these are special stories. Basically it's Doctor Who if Doctor Who had been a 2000AD strip rather than a venerable British TV institution, but it works so well that you don't even recognise how unlike anything on TV the strip is until you've finished reading. TV Comic had done much the same in the sixties, taking the TV series as a starting point and then wandering off into implausable comic capers style adventures with dinosaurs and giant wasps, but these DWW strips add to the strengths of the TV show, rather than dumbing things down for the kiddies.

    Spare Parts

    Prior to School Reunion this was the Who story (along with 'The Holy Terror')most likely to make me well up inside. The first three and a half episodes are pitch perfect - uniquely for BF the dialogue is so good that I can see the surface of Mondas and have no difficulty in connecting with all of the characters. Marc Platt then almost blows it with a naff ish continuity twist ending, but I'm willing to forgive him that when the rest is so good.

    School Reunion

    Just beautiful. I'd put this in my top 10 just for the shot of Sarah-Jane discovering the TARDIS, but there are too many other good bits to mention. It may not be the most complicated story ever, and there are a few glaring plot holes which could have been papered over very easily, but it doesn't matter when Tennant and Sladen are on such good form. As someone once said of 'City of Death' and John Cleese, 'and just when you think it can't get any better, Anthony Stewart Head turns up'...

    Fear Itself

    A very, very good sf novel with the Doctor in it. Could there be a higher recommendation?


    I seem to be in the minority here, but I thought Sanctuary was one of the high-spots of the New Adventures - well drawn characters, a lovingly researched and presented background, proper evil baddies, a love story and a tragedy all in the space of 250 or so pages.

    The Dalek Masterplan

    Twelve episodes long and yet it doesn't drag for a second. It'd got just about everything you could want in a Dalek story - planets named after their purpose or climate; the return of old enemies; cool looking new aliens; tragic deaths; a Christmas episode; the dream team of Hartnell and Purves; the way supreme creepy baddie Mavic Chen holds his pen...

    I could go on, but really there's no point. This is brilliant, plain and simple.

    An Unearthly Child

    As the first episode of a new children's televison series, aUC may be the strangest and most unlikely pilot ever. But it works and without it (and The Daleks) any Top 10 Doctor Who stories would have to be taken from the first seaosn, since I don't suppose it owuld have lasted much beyond that.

    The Blue Angel

    Probably the best written Doctor Who book - it's certainly Paul Magrsbest Who novel and thus essential reading.

    In the Sixties

    And this is his best short story. Has to be read to be believed. As close to a prose elegy as the series will ever get (even though it 'stars' the Cushing Doctor).

    I limited myself to stories actually featuring the Doctor, so no spin-offs, but even so I still had dozens of other stories which kept popping into my head which were equally worthy of inclusion. The final list apparently demonstrates that I prefer prose to TV (which I'm not sure is right) and that Paul Magrs is my favourite Who author (which is certainly true, although all those authors with three initials come in a close second).

    Of course, I'll probably change my mind tomorrow (hmm, I might change it right now - I forgot all about Heritage and The Five Doctors and...)
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    Monday, May 01, 2006

    Is it Yandek or Jandek?

    I had a hangover when I first heard Jandek. That might explain why I like his music.

    Discordant, tuneless and out of key, Jandek's first album, Ready for the House is the musical equivalent of the day after the night before.

    It'’s not music that it'’s easy to admit liking in any case - both because it's hard to pin down what there is to like amongst the sibilant singing and untuned, one note guitar picking, and because expressing a fondness for something so unmusical leaves you wide open to claims of supreme and unmitigated pretentiousness. Kurt Cobain, no stranger to arsey waffling himself, once said of Jandek that the singer isn't pretentious, but his fans are.

    Which is hard to argue with once you've watched last year's documentary, Jandek on Corwood, in which one fan points out quite ferociously that he files the first Jandek album (initially released under the name 'The Units') under 'U' and not 'J', whilst another repeatedly stresses that 'Yandek' is a better pronunciation of the singer's name (similarly, on the one and only Jandek mailing list, a poster recently proudly described his 'ordeal' in listening to every Jandek album in one sitting, including headaches, sweating and vomiting. Rather than suggesting listening to music he genuinely liked, the consensus seemed to be that his was a bold experiment and that he had basically taken one for the team).

    Far easier then to say that you like the idea of Jandek the mystery man, even though the documentary's attempts to divine the purpose of that mystery has also been slammed by some fans, concerned that such behaviour somehow cheapens the whole Jandek experience. Out simply, until last year no-one had ever met the man behind Jandek, save for a possible meeting with one journalist and a single phone call with John Trubee. Iwrin Chusid, author of Songs in the Key of Z, the bible of what's generally lumped together as Outsider Music then devoted a fair chunk to his book to Jandek, further raising his profile from 'completely anonymous' to 'virtually no-one has heard of this guy'.

    Contributing to the mystery was Jandek's reputed willingness to send dozens of copies of his albums free to anyone who reviewed them; the fact that for a long time the only way to buy his cds was via mail order to a Houston, Texas PO Box registered to Corwood Industries; and the fact that he didn't even have a definitive real name, never mind play live (Sterling Smith is the name most usually associated with Jandek, but even that is based on a credit in a single review from 1978).

    His album covers are equally perverse in today's heavily marketed musical world - all feature bland images of houses; amateur snapshots of a man at various points in his life; or blurred and indistinct pictures of curtains and drum kits taken inside a house somewhere. The back covers are plain white with a couple of black lines, the name of the artists and a track-listing with timings.

    Such is the level of involvement by the fans in the mystery that when he released 'One Foot in the North' with a different font on the back cover there was much discussion as to what light the vaguely 'Chinese restaurant menu' font shed on the man and his work (none at all, so far as I can see).

    Maybe it was all an incredibly clever marketing ploy - drag the fans in with the mystery and the deliberately non-musical nature of the sounds then sell bucket loads as the Jandek Craze sweeps the nation? Not likely - until very recently you could probably count the number of genuine sales of any single Jandek album in the hundreds rather than the millions and retailing at £4 each they're hardly the world's most expensive items in any case.

    Or possibly the 'artist' is mentally ill and releases these albums of sound and fury as part of his therapy? Or it's some kind of tax dodge. Or it's all a long and complicated practical joke. Or one of the many other theories that have been put forward about Jandek since 1978.

    I have no idea personally, and matters were further complicated when 'a Representative from Corwood Industries' turned up unannounced at a Glasgow music festival in 2004 and proceeded to play some very Jandeky songs. When that show was then released by Corwood as Jandek's first live album (Glasgow Sunday) it was confirmed that the Representative and Jandek were one and the same.

    Not that any of that helps with the larger questions - we now know what Jandek looks like (and it seems pretty certain that the man on certain Jandek album covers is the Representative himself) but are no closer to figuring out why he does what he does, nor what it is about some combinations of atonal guitar playing and off key singing that proves to be so profoundly moving when brought together.

    Because when all's said and done, the sole reason to listen to Jandek is that he can at times produce such utterly humane music, where the hurt in the singer is so plain that you can almost touch it. There's something very voyeuristic about a lot of Jandek's music and it's that I think which attracts fans as much as the mystery which surrounds him.

    "I passed by the building you were working in
    I wanted to step inside it
    I wanted to lie in your arms again
    I passed by the building that you live in
    And I wanted to die
    I just stood there and cried
    For then the way I felt
    For the way I was gonna cry
    For loving you
    I passed by the building where you sleep
    And I wanted to sigh
    At the sweet smell of your loving
    But I just weep at the morning
    I just weep"

    I Passed by the Building - Jandek, 1987


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