Sunday 31 May 2009

Wild West Monday

June 1st is Wild West Monday, a promotional activity to increase the awareness of westerns. So I'm asking you to take a moment this week to think about reading a western, especially if you've never read one before.

I've rarely come across anyone who doesn’t love a good western. But usually that's a good western film. The novels are not as well known. This is strange, as fans of other genres such as science fiction usually become fans of the novels too.

It's hard to pin down a reason why fans of western films don't then go on to read the novels. Maybe it’s down to a perception that they'll be outdated and full of 'Ah, shucks, ma'am'. Or maybe it's down to the fact that most people aren't aware they are being published, as retail shops tend not to stock them in favour of pushing celebrity autobiographies.

But the genre has many enthusiastic fans. In Britain the Black Horse Western series is the premier imprint, providing seven new books every month written by authors from all around the world. Styles vary and there's guaranteed to be something for every taste. Whether you prefer a John 'The hell I am' Wayne traditional western, a Clint 'My mule ain't happy' Eastwood spaghetti western, or a James 'Basically I'm on my way to Australia' Garner comic yarn, you'll find the written equivalent.

So I'd urge you to think about trying one. The books are written by modern authors in a modern style, contain plenty of action, a dash of romance and mystery, and plenty of strong heroes, feisty gals and black-hearted bad guys. And best of all, the books are short. There's none of that modern trend of writing 750 page epics with 600 pages of padding and 150 pages of story; westerns are 150 pages of pure fast-paced story. What more could a reader ask for?

So where should you start if you've not tried one before? A starting point would be the authors I like. There's Lance Howard, the acclaimed Spider Man scriptwriter, whose westerns are as gritty and vividly written as any fiction you could ever hope to find. There's the purveyors of action-packed yarns like Jack Giles and Ross Morton. There's the authentic flavour of the West from historical experts like Chuck Tyrell and Steve Hayes, the latter having been around for so long he knew John Wayne before he was famous. But not all the authors are long-established. New voices come along all the time like the star of Doctor Who and Merlin Jack Martin whose debut novel arrives this month. And neither is this a masculine stronghold. Many fans and writers are women, including Blakes 7 enthusiast Gillian Taylor, who this year nearly won Mastermind, and there's Terry James who made her debut last week with her first book. And then there's me with my no-nonsense shoot-'em-ups.

Oh and all those writers are very nice people who are appoachable through their websites and blogs. If you're tempted to try, I'd recommend visiting your local library and checking out a Black Horse Western. If you prefer, you can buy the latest titles from on-line retailers for around the cost of a retail paperback, or you can bid on eBay where you can pick up numerous titles, often for two or three pounds.

So, why not try one? And if the answer is thanks, but no thanks and you've visited this blog to read my Ashes to Ashes reviews, then remember this: Gene Hunt is the sheriff and he loves the glorious genre of the American Western…

Friday 29 May 2009

Finding your muse

I was today's blogger at Avalon Authors

Tuesday 26 May 2009

Ashes to Ashes - Season 2, Episode 6

Ashes to Ashes thrives on presenting episodes in which the main plot appears to take giant leaps forward and yet in reality it only advances by several millimetres. This week reversed the format by presenting what was seemingly a filler episode, but which in reality advanced the main story considerably.

Alex was shot in the head in the first ten minutes of episode 1, season 1. For the whole of season 1 she lay undiscovered. During the first 5 episodes of this season she was found and then taken to hospital. Now finally she has been operated upon and the operation was a success. The medical procedure didn't have a medical term involving a rose, so that's yet to come presumably, but this is a massive change from the snail's pace of plot development we've seen so far.

The progress of her operation was monitored through the episode and thankfully it was presented in fairly straight ways. I enjoy the show's nostalgic elements, but I had started to tire of the way every medical update is presented by Morph, Orville the Duck and other icons of the 80s. Curiously, for I think the first time, Alex viewed the operation in what was effectively an out-of-body experience. The usual format is for Alex to view reality on a tv screen, but seeing her real self be operated upon creates the impression that she's getting closer to her real body.

Her operation also clearly defined the relationship between the state of her real body and her experiences in her fantasy world. In Life on Mars Sam's progress in hospital often affected his fantasy, with his near death making lights go out and drugs changing his perceptions. This doesn't happen so often to Alex, but when her bullet is removed, it makes her euphoric and she becomes relaxed about her fantasy. This revelation is accompanied by the music that was playing when the bullet went in and creates a real feeling of progress, at last.

These significant advances were welcome as the mysterious Martin Summers merely marked time. After MacKintosh's ominous warning two episodes ago that Operation Rose is coming, last week Martin told her that Operation Rose is even closer. This week he told her that Operation Rose is now even closer still, and he sent her some dead roses to prove it. This is frustratingly slow plot development and frankly it's not good enough. Either move the plot forward or ignore it, but don’t keep repeating the same thing or the viewers will get bored.

More pleasingly the main movement on the Martin Summers story came with a clever throwaway line during a blink and you'll miss it scene. Alex is listening to her doctor report on the success of her operation when the doctor is called away to help his other coma patient who has had a seizure. The implication must be that the patient is the man in the hospital in episode 1, who might also be Martin Summers. For the first time this links Alex and the other coma patient in the real world, perhaps hinting that the connection between them in the fantasy world isn’t anything to do with them, but their doctor. This matches the way that surgeon Frank Morgan in Life on Mars intruded upon Sam's world.

This means that Alex now has a strong reason to hope she isn’t trapped in her fantasy and that she will return home soon. That hope is so great she even makes arrangements to leave by giving everyone letters in which she provides much-unneeded improvement advice. Amusingly everyone but Gene immediately read their letters.

All this is intriguing and makes up for the routine central plot, which is presented as a filler story that could have been shown at any stage in the series as it has no links with the ongoing plots. There's no hint of the corruption story arc or of most of the previous episode's character development. Instead, we have a story involving a murder hunt that goes nowhere original. There's a dodgy loan shark, a man who is so violent and arrogant he just has to be innocent. There's a grieving widow, who is so obviously innocent we all expect her to be guilty, except she isn't. And there's the minor character who has nothing to do with the story and appears on screen only for about two minutes, so he has to be guilty.

This story struggles to generate any interest, but thankfully the plot is just a vehicle to let the characters interact. And they chat amongst themselves so disarmingly that this week the show effectively becomes a tale about relationships. So far this season the plot-heavy stories and the often frantic pace has ensured that the characters' interaction has been carried out quickly while everyone hurtles from one place to the next. I didn’t mind this style, but it was also nice to take a breather and let the characters talk to each other.

So Chris and Shaz got to develop their bickering double act as they argue continually about their forthcoming wedding. Gene and Alex got plenty of time together to chat about nothing much in an entertaining manner. And their soulful looking into each others' eyes sequences didn't irritate me as much as they usually do, and neither did I mind the hurt and comfort set-piece. With Alex thinking she is leaving, there was some point to her now wondering about how she views Gene.

Best of all Ray again got plenty of airtime as, to quote from Life on Mars, he didn’t just get to play the good cop to Gene's bad cop, he got to be the positively gorgeous cop. He tried to be sensitive, solved the crime, bonded with Alex, and embraced psychoanalytical techniques. I'm tempted to say this carried on the theme of Ray's character changing every episode, but it felt a believable development from last week in which Alex helped him and he decided not to leave the force.

The concentration on relationships therefore made explicit the main point of this week's episode, which was summed up when Alex quizzed Luigi in his capacity as a barman who knows more than he lets on. She asked if the world carries on when you're no longer there. This was one of the central philosophical questions in Life on Mars, and one that ultimately led to Sam's triumph, or downfall depending on your view of the ending.

Sam worried that the world he had invented would end when he left it, so he returned to it. Alex has never worried about that as she knew from the start it was a fantasy. Now she's not so sure and with the characters interacting so much, as if they are real people with real lives, this episode suggested the answer is that this world will continue without her. This conclusion is reinforced by the clever manipulation of a production convention that has run throughout the franchise.

Life on Mars took the bold step of presenting the series entirely from Sam Tyler's point of view. In novels this is quite common, but it's rarely used in films and tv series as the constraint is demanding and perhaps too intense. But in LOM the convention of Sam appearing in every scene worked because that format made it clear that Sam had created the past world. So scenes would start when he entered the room and end when he left, and we weren't aware of anything that he didn't witness.

From the start, Ashes to Ashes loosened this convention. Sometimes scenes started before Alex arrived and continued after she'd left. Other small scenes would play out while she was elsewhere. This might have been a production decision that gave the makers more freedom to tell stories. But it might also have a reason within the story. Perhaps Sam was someone who only had dreams involving himself. Alex may have less of an ego and be more familiar with the psychological world so she can fantasise scenes that don’t include her. Also she knows she's recreated Sam's world, so she's content to let the characters interact without her.

But this season the convention has been played with and I think it is now saying something important. As the season has progressed, scenes in which Alex hasn’t been involved have grown, both in length and in significance. This trend culminated in an episode in which Alex's operation is a success, Alex's doctor mentioned the man in a coma who may also be in this world, and Alex questioned whether the world will continue without her. The fact that so many scenes didn't include Alex now suggest that maybe it will.

Next week a young PC arrives and he has an intriguing name.

Monday 25 May 2009

Operation Columbus by Hugh Walters

Review #3 looking back at the old and largely forgotten science-fiction series Chris Godfrey of UNEXA.

With the previous book in the series giving America and Russia a role in the space race, even if that was bombing the crap out of alien technology, the race to be the first nation to put a man on the moon hots up.

In the third book Operation Columbus (pub 1959), the brash Americans and the sneaky Russians decide they can't cope with losing out to the Brits on being the first to do everything in space. Both nations are determined to plant their flag on the moon first. The Brit scientists, viewing the whole empire building in space malarkey as being terribly unsporting and just not cricket, decide to drink tea and watch the test match instead.

With the sneaky Soviets being secretive Chris goes over to America to explain space travel to the technologically inferior Americans. But despite his help it looks as if the Russians will win. With super-slimy cosmonaut Serge Smyslov being ready to blast off first, the Americans seem doomed to come second.

So they fast track square-jawed all-American hero Morrison Kant, their chosen astronaut, but the trouble is they fast track him so much he falls over and breaks an arm. Tragically, despite spending several billion dollars on the space program, nobody thought to train a second astronaut. With failure looming, an ingenious Brit come up with a solution: send Chris Godfrey up in the American spaceship.

The race is now back on. Both rockets blast off at the same time. The Russians try some sneaky manoeuvres, but their duplicity can’t compete with American know-how and a plucky Brit's space piloting skills. Both crafts land on the moon, but they arrive so closely that nobody knows for sure who landed first. But with the Russians having fast-tracked Serge so much they didn’t have the time to build him a spacesuit, Chris leaps out of his ship and plants the Union Jack.

Chris has a spot of tea then explores the blasted to hell domes of Pico, but then he encounters a problem. Serge Smyslov is hell-bent on killing him. If he can’t be the first to the moon, then he'll make sure he's the only one to get back. He comes out of his ship in his rover and destroys Chris's ship. Then he moves on to get Chris. But with the radiation from the ruined domes being so strong it's appearing as a mysterious grey mist that seemingly has a mind of its own, it's making them both woozy. The attempted murder fails and Serge only succeeds in blowing up his own lunar rover and trapping himself inside.

Chris is now free to steal the Soviet ship and pilot it back to earth, but despite their fundamental differences, Chris resolves that Serge can’t be left on the moon to die; it's just not the British way. So he drags Serge out of his rover to take him back with him on the Soviet ship, even if the extra weight will ruin his own chances of returning to earth. They argue, they fight, they argue some more, but no matter Chris crams Serge into the ship and they return to earth.

Despite going on a diet to get home, this act of international non-diplomacy almost starts World War III. With nuclear warheads trained on Buckingham Palace, tensions on the ship are nearly as high. But then the ship suddenly has a new problem to face. A meteorite rips through the craft and they start losing their air.

Worse, a holed ship means they'll burn-up on re-entry. As they have no sticky tape available after throwing all non-essential objects out the airlock to save on fuel, there's only one way to save the ship. Serge and Chris put their own bare hands over the holes and plug the gaps. With them co-operating for the first time, the ship lands safely. There's probably a message there, (and it's not that they'd burn their hands off on re-entry) but the whole world is happy. World peace is declared, the cold war ends, and from then on international co-operation in space is the only way.

Next week Chris returns to the moon for the last time.

Friday 22 May 2009

Marshal Jake T. Devine

Recently The Tainted Archive and Broken Trails discussed my novel Devine's Law and in particular the brutal lawman Marshal Jake T. Devine. So I thought this might be a good moment to provide my own take on the character.

To explain where Devine started I have to go back to when I first tried to write a western. I decided I would use a pen-name and I arrived at Jake T. Devine. The Christian name matched the rhythm of James T. Kirk and the surname came from the actor Andy Devine.

I completed a book using that name. Sadly when I'd finished, it turned out to be so dire I had no choice but to send it to the loft to think on about what it'd done wrong. Despite that, I kept the name for my next western, which turned out to The Outlawed Deputy. I had it printed out and ready to go to Robert Hale Ltd, the publishers of the Black Horse Western series, but then at the last minute I had second thoughts. What if it got published, I optimistically thought, I'd be Jake T. Devine for life. Maybe I'd like to have my own name on a cover instead.

I opted for that latter option and in recognition of the pen-name that wasn't I put a one line reference into the book to Devine. The book did get published and so I kept up that personal in-joke. I think all my books prior to Devine's Law referenced him. The idea was that every book would mention him and bit by bit the reader would get a picture of who he was, and yet like Niles's wife Maris in the sitcom Frasier he'd never appear. This kept me amused, but a few chapters into a new book, I had a revelation. I was an idiot for making these self-referencing in-jokes that would interest nobody but me.

That day I resolved to write Devine into the current novel. In a no-nonsense frame of mind, I made Devine no-nonsense. From the hints elsewhere, he was an old lawman, so to have survived I reckoned he would have learned through experience how to solve problems. With a few chapters written with Gabe Cowie as the hero, Gabe was coming over as wet and bland, so Devine had to be the opposite. As Gabe's first scene involved him getting into a punch up to help someone who he disagreed with, Gabe personified the principle that he would defend someone's right to say something even if he disagreed with them. Devine had to be the opposite of that too. This led on to the thought that the conflict between Gabe and Devine had to be a battle between ends and means. Gabe believed if you did the right thing, a greater good would result. Devine couldn't give a damn how you got there and who he killed, brutalised and maimed on the way as long as he got his man in the end.

So I started writing and within an hour Devine had killed several main cast members who I'd thought would see out the novel, but that was fine as I didn't like them much anyway. I deleted their later scenes and carried on. The novel wrote itself faster than most and I can recall little about the story. It was one of the schizophrenic experiences you sometimes get where the characters tell their story and you write to find out what happens.

Periodically I stopped and wondered whether Devine was too being brutal when he beat up yet another innocent person, but I let him do what he wanted to do and went with the flow. I didn't even know the solution to the central mystery of what Max Randall's secret was. I kept writing to find out the answer, but with the book almost over and pretty much everyone dead, that secret still hadn’t come out. Then someone did a small hand gesture and that told one of the surviving characters, and me, what the story had been about. So that ended that. I did wonder whether I should change the story, especially the bleak ending, but giving Devine some humanity somehow didn't feel right. He was a force of nature, and I couldn't bring myself to give him any sympathetic traits and so I left the story as it was.

Afterwards, I realized writing him had been so easy I had to bring Devine back. So in Wanted: McBain I tried to use him again. I set him up to be the lawman chasing after the outlaws. The trouble was every time I wrote a scene with him in he immediately killed everybody. There were no half-measures, or plot developing. Devine is a blunt instrument. He just arrives, does something unpleasant and kills. I had to keep rewriting the scenes to keep enough plot for a novel and in the end I edited him out so much he appeared for one minor scene and about two lines of dialogue.

A few novels later I tried again in Mendosa's Gun-runners. I set him up to chase after the outlaws again and again he killed everyone off in his first scene. So I rewrote and kept pushing him back and back until he appeared in only one scene again. It was a slightly more significant scene this time, but I felt frustrated by my inability to use him and after two failures I gave up on Devine.

As an aside, as I've been banging on here about the tv series Ashes to Ashes, I should say that on first seeing Life on Mars I slapped my forehead in frustration. I realized Gene Hunt was the answer to my problems, if only I’d known at the time. Gene, like Devine, is a man who is concerned with ends while Sam Tyler, like Gabe, follows means. I remember thinking how I'd wished I'd given Devine some of Hunt's qualities, such as a sense of humour and made sure he only brutalized guilty people. But I hadn't and I was stuck with him.

Two years ago I had another go at a Devine story. I'd had a first chapter knocking around for a while that had gone nowhere as, to my surprise, the hero had got killed in his first scene. I had started writing his funeral, but I'd stopped as I had no idea where to go next. But when I looked again at that chapter I found I'd written in a mysterious stranger arriving for the funeral, but as I hadn’t known who this person was, I'd taken it no further. The thought came that maybe the stranger was Devine.

So I started writing to see what would happen and the next scene surged out in about thirty minutes. Devine beats up two mourners, kicks the coffin over and spits on the corpse. I decided then to go and write something else instead and haven't re-opened that file. But recently I had an idea why he might have done that, so perhaps I might let him lose on that plot idea some time soon!

Tuesday 19 May 2009

Ashes to Ashes - Season 2, Episode 5

This week's episode was a low-key one that marked time therefore providing a welcome slowdown in pace after last week's frantic developments.

After MacKintosh's demise the force find themselves in a quandary. The Sun newspaper is asking probing questions and producing thoughtful editorials suggesting that someone should vet the Met. I'm sure Sun readers don't care who vets the Met as long as they're curvy, but it's worried Hunt's new boss and he wants results to restore faith.

Hunt therefore seeks out a high profile bad guy to bang to rights and a chance to do that comes along when fingerprints are found at the scene of a robbery and they match those of a notorious criminal. The trouble is, the criminal died two years ago. The attempt to solve this mystery is a routine one and it wasn't helped when our house set our new record for solving cop show mysteries by working out the twist 0.25 seconds after the criminal's girlfriend Gaynor appeared.

You have to feel sorry for cop shows these days when their viewers have seen enough cop shows to know every twist in the book. Nothing can surprise and that's why Ashes to Ashes works. The mystery is never the interesting part of the show. The fun is in the way they solve it.

This week the routine investigation provided the most Hunt-lite episode so far. I'm probably stretching things to continue my theme that every episode this season has mirrored a season 2 Life on Mars episode as the corresponding show was the Sam-lite one. But either way this was a good move as Hunt has had a lot to do recently and it let the others take centre stage.

Alex therefore got to enjoy herself when she discovers that the robbery was at the home of Peter Drake, her estranged husband. The franchise has gathered a lot of mileage in Sam and then Alex meeting people they know when they were younger. Sam met his mother, father, girlfriend's mother, and himself. Alex has met her mother, father, godfather, and herself. So with the show already having dragged every last ounce of poignancy that this kind of 'time-travel' can provide, this time round they wisely decided to play it for laughs.

Rather than seeking any solutions as to why her marriage broke down and Peter abandoned Molly, instead Alex takes every opportunity to have a go at him while never once worrying that Peter is a 14-year-old who can't retort. With Peter's cat being called Molly, Alex gets more funny lines than she's had in the entire series so far. She relishes every moment of her subtle revenge and as she says goodbye to Peter for the last time, her muttered 'creep' sounds particularly satisfying.

But this is a side-show to the main focus this week which thankfully is closet-mason Ray, who had his best episode for a long time. I've been critical of his character in earlier reviews, but that was because I like Ray. I don’t like the character he portrays of course, but I like what the actor did with the limited material provided in Life on Mars. But in Ashes to Ashes his character has been inconsistent. In season 1 he was a comedy character. This season he was a nasty snit in episode 1, named as a mason and got angry about the Falklands War in episode 2, was pleasant in episode 3, and grumpy in episode 4.

I had no idea why or where this was leading, but the answer finally came. Ray was disgusted with MacKintosh's betrayal and it's forced him to question whether he wants to be an officer in a force filled with so much corruption the public don't trust him any more. This was a good development as the show has largely ignored the promising social and political angle. This was the time when the public lost faith in the police. It was a time of social unrest and yet you wouldn't know this was going on as it's never depicted. Letting Ray be the face of that dissatisfaction is a good idea and when I re-watch the earlier episodes hopefully Ray's disillusionment will become clearer.

So Ray follows Gene and MacKintosh in having an episode in which he has one of those long dark tea-time of the soul moments. This gives him some of his best ever moments, including a classic interrogation where he gets a confession out of a suspect by the simple act of passing wind in a threatening manner. Best of all is a scene where he's so disillusioned he can only bring himself to thump a suspect the once. Gene has to force him to give the suspect a hiding, which he does in a bored manner while everyone sits around discussing how bad the new television station Channel 4 is. This is a welcome return for this good in-joke and it's nice to see the writers still haven’t forgiven C4 for turning down Life on Mars.

Pleasingly the episode doesn't provide Ray with any simple answers. It appears by the end that he won't leave the force, but there's still no feeling that he's resolved his problems. Alex problems are also growing as the show does its usual brilliant trick of seemingly advancing the bigger mystery story by vast amounts while at the same time not moving at all.

In the real world Orville the duck tells her that she's at the hospital and that the doctors are ready to operate to remove that bullet from her head. This isn't much of an advancement, but within her fantasy world we finally get to meet the man who has been sending her roses.

Martin Summers becomes the first character to openly claim in an unambiguous way that he is from the real world. He's a police officer. He claims to be dying in reality, and so therefore might be the man in the hospital from episode 1 scene 1, and so that unlike Alex he has no desire to return to 'the other world'. He and Alex are the only ones in this world who know what it is, but they can die here. He also offers to help Alex return, but only if she'll join in the corruption. She refuses and so Martin promises her that Operation Rose will now change her mind. His scenes are filmed like his previous ones in an off-kilter way in which it's unclear whether other people can see him, aside from Luigi who maintains the tradition of barkeeps who know more than they let on.

So is this the most significant development in the franchise yet or a red herring? I vote for the latter. If the makers get their way, then we are at the halfway point in the three season series and that's too early to be providing the answer that Alex is an alternate reality. It may be that this reality is one that people who are close to death construct to help them pass on, or recover while their body is repaired, but it's too early to take the giant leap and say this is a shared reality. So far Martin has said nothing that Alex couldn't have fantasised him saying. Everyone else in this dream world act as if they have freewill and so Martin's freedom to view this world as unreal could represent nothing more than Alex's life signs stabilising and her slowly clawing her way back to life. Frank Morgan helped Sam Tyler back to reality and his comments were ambiguous, but Alex already knows that as she's read Sam's notes and so she would create someone who acts differently.

Martin has yet to exhibit clear evidence that he is acting independently. It's hard to define exactly what would provide evidence that he has freewill, but I'd suggest that his actions aren't ones that an independent man would carry out. He has acted like a spooky character who is there to spook Alex with spooky messages and spooky roses. We have no idea what he wants. We have no idea why he wants to help her. We have no idea why being corrupt will help her. We have no idea why he is helping her in a manner that is so creepy it's guaranteed to make her refuse him.

So despite Martin's fascinating comments he is still acting so mysteriously he could just be a voice in Alex's mind. This view can’t begin to change until we see that he is the man in the hospital and we see scenes from his viewpoint in Alex's world. Only when we can understand his motivation as being one that isn't connected to Alex's situation can it be possible for him to be from the real world. Even then I'll probably not be convinced!

I again missed next week's clip as I switched over for the 80s sing-along with Gene Hunt, but I presume with Alex's real life operation about to begin and Operation Rose looming, a connection could be imminent.

Friday 15 May 2009

The Domes of Pico by Hugh Walters

Review #2 looking back at the old and largely forgotten science-fiction series Chris Godfrey of UNEXA.

With the Brits having won the first space race by getting a man into space in Blast off at Woomera, the question then was: would we win the next race? The answer of course was the hell we would.

With the second-rate nations of the Russians and the Americans looking on in awe at our advanced technology, the plucky Brits returned in The Domes of Pico (pub 1958) with a mission to be the first to circle the moon.

This story cleverly picked up on an aspect of the first book in which Chris's spaceship had photographed a mysterious structure on the moon near the crater Plato. Now the mysterious structure is transmitting mysterious bursts of radiation that are causing nuclear power stations to mysteriously stop working. It's been many years since I read this book, but whenever I look at the moon through a telescope I always look at Plato and the range of mountains above where the action takes place.

Anyhow, this book moves away from the gritty and low-key plot of the first book to notch up the tension with a deadline along with bringing in what would become the series' main plotting style. Namely, a major problem is unleashed and Chris must face considerable danger to resolve it, but before he's got comfortable in his spacesuit in rapid succession several even bigger problems come along. Then, just when Chris is starting to think there's no way he can solve everything, a major calamity befalls… All the best books in the series stick to this brilliant plotting style. Those that deviate from it work less well.

So for this story the race against time is on to get a ship into space that can reach the moon. With every corner on safety being cut Chris pilots a ship into orbit around the moon, drops a probe, and only then does he discover that he's been duped. With the urgency of getting those nuclear power stations producing clean, efficient energy again, the scientists couldn't afford to waste time building a rocket that could bring him back home. This is strictly a one way mission.

Chris's stiff upper lip doesn't quiver for even a moment, and as he waits to die bravely out there in the depths of space, he pinpoints the domes' location accurately. Then the Americans and the Russians bomb the crap out of the site with their precision controlled nuclear bombs and so successfully wipe out the radiation.

But, just when it looks as if Chris is doomed to circle the moon forever, the seemingly nasty mission controller surprises everyone with the news that there's a second rocket sitting on the launch pad that nobody's noticed. Just in the nick of time, a brave rescue attempt reaches Chris and he returns home a hero, again.

Next week Chris becomes the first Brit to set foot on the moon.

Tuesday 12 May 2009

Ashes to Ashes - Season 2, Episode 4

After the dip in quality last week, this week returned to form with the series' finest episode. In fact I'd rank it as being amongst the top few for the whole franchise.

Last week I noted that each week a major plotting element was being borrowed from the corresponding episode in season 2 of Life on Mars. So to maintain the parallel course, this week needed to feature a swingers' party for rich folk, and this proved to be the case, but whereas with Life on Mars it was played for laughs, this time it was different. The jokes still came, but they came within the context of a strong plot that had been littered with red herrings and misdirection. In essence the plot was constructed like an onion, in which layer after layer was peeled away to reveal an ever more rotten core.

The topmost layer was presented as a fun introduction to the story in which Jackie Queen from season 1 of Life on Mars returns. When the makers announced they were doing the inevitable thing that all spin-off series do, I doubt Jackie would have been on any fan's short-list of characters they'd like to see returning. In fact I doubt she'd be on a long-list either, but having decided to bring her back it made a lot of sense. When she first appeared Jackie was a hard-nosed journalist who didn't like Gene Hunt, therefore providing him with one of his most formidable adversaries. It therefore provided a cute scene in which this time round she arrives at the station dressed in Gene's camel-hair coat and then opens it to reveal a bump. And Gene is responsible.

Not surprisingly the possibility of the patter of little Hunts turns out to be a lie, but it maintains the Jackie character as someone Gene can't intimidate. Also not surprisingly Alex and Jackie bond over motherhood. This lets Jackie open up and talk about Sam Tyler. This worked well as the previous mentions of Sam have felt more like a script obligation rather than a natural development. Apparently Sam married Annie and lived happily without any ranting and angst about him being out of time. As Alex is in a coma, I'd suggest this means she only dreamt that Jackie told her a fictional story about a real person because she is in the same state as Sam was at this stage of season 2. The dream world has become so appealing, it's becoming increasingly easy for her to forget about the real world. But whereas Sam had Annie so he was minded to stay, Alex has Molly. So this conversation with Jackie helped her to renew her desire to return, even if that desire only amounted to watching Roland Rat talk to Molly on the tv.

But this light story was only a way to introduce us to the next layer of the rotten onion. Naïve girls from Up North have been arriving in London seeking the bright lights only to be preyed on by dodgy blokes. So Hunt and co track down the dodgy blokes in a brisk, fun way with plenty of high-octane movement, one-liners, and what is sure to go down as another classic Hunt moment featuring dogicide. Last week I noted that Hunt is again doing a Jack Regan impersonation, so I'm glad he's moved on and is borrowing from Sandra 'You shoot one dog' Pullman from my second favourite cop show New Tricks.

But even this murky story isn't the rotten core. As the story progresses, this layer gets peeled away to reveal the even more rotten layer within. Alex looks up some records at Companies House and uncovers all sorts of useful information you most definitely cannot get there. One thing I love about this series is that the writers have created a format where they can say in complete confidence that there are no mistakes, only clues to a bigger mystery. This means any factual mistake can easily be blamed on it all being in Alex's head. Anyhow, the investigation leads to Jarvis, a dodgy bloke who stands out amongst dodgy blokes as being even dodgier than the rest. Worse, his best mate is MacKintosh and Gene's boss won't accept anyone laying a finger on him.

With Gene Hunt close to being shipped out to cider-country, something he's so depressed about he leaves a pint half-drunk and avoids a punch-up, bringing Jarvis to justice will require he and Alex to combine forces to bring MacKintosh down. In the end they succeed after a predictable plot development and an unexpected but very welcome piece of character development.

Firstly the predictable element: MacKintosh frames Alex and kicks her off the force. This is supposed to notch up the tension, but frankly it doesn't and it never will do in cop shows any more as decades of abuse of the kicking off the force tactic has devalued its impact.

So despite Alex being implicated in so much corruption she's looking at a long stretch in prison, she carries on investigating the case as if nothing had happened. Nobody raises an eyebrow at this, including MacKintosh who clearly has seen enough cop shows to know nobody takes being taken off the case seriously so it's not worth getting concerned about. Just for once I'd like to see someone get kicked off the case and then actually stop investigating and suffer a bit of soul-searching while they're doing the gardening.

Thankfully the solution to the MacKintosh problem doesn't lie in such lazy plotting. Hunt decides to bring him down with an excellent piece of character conflict. He attacks MacKintosh's only weakness; the fact that he is at heart a decent bloke.

Frankly that didn't feel as if it'd work as we've not seen any evidence MacKintosh has a good side. But mirroring Hunt's descent into the dark side in episode 2, MacKintosh toys with the light side and ultimately decides to do the decent thing. This was satisfying and believable as no matter how corrupt he is and no matter how many trouser legs he rolls up, there's no way he would let a slimy piece of work like Jarvis walk. And so having heard about the events in Life on Mars and so knowing how bent cop Harry Woolf sorted out his life in a corridor with a gun, MacKintosh executes Jarvis. Then he shoots himself, but not before he peels away the final layer of onion to reveal the utterly rotten core.

Something is coming and it's bigger than everything else, he ominously tells Alex before he dies to swelling ominous music with an ominous red rose spreading on his breast, and it's to do with the ominous psycho-killer who has been ominously leaving her ominous roses. These ominous last words set things up nicely for where the rest of the series will go. But where will that be? I don’t know. Anything would be a guess. But I hope Operation Rose has nothing to do with Rose Tyler and the return of the Master as that would make cult tv fandom implode into an alternate universe. Instead, I hope it will tie in with season 1 somehow.

In changing the light style of the first season, the makers also appear to have ditched just about everything that happened in that season. There's no young Alex, or Evan, or Layton, or even any repercussions and angst about Alex's dead parents. If everything is significant, then why has all that been forgotten? So I hope that Artemis from episode 4 ties in with this bigger thing that, presumably, will be the key to Alex waking up. As MacKintosh also mentioned that he was responsible for bringing Hunt down from Manchester, it's also likely that the bigger thing is very big indeed.

With so much happening this week there was little time for diversions. I welcomed that, but there was still time for closet-mason Ray to baffle me. When confronted with the news that MacKintosh is bent, he defends his fellow mason for about 5 seconds then gives up. I really can’t see the point of this freemason thing. You roll up your trouser leg, swear allegiance to your brothers forever, then forget about it. I'm beginning to suspect the masons were added in to the story purely so they could use the Tiler / Tyler idea along with a recurring motif of people being blindfolded.

Better though was the Shaz and Chris story. So far it's been played for laughs and that's sat uneasily with the murky stories, but this week it worked well. This is because for the first time this season Shaz had plenty of airtime. With her being involved in the plot, it enabled her to interact with Chris in a natural way rather than just appearing to provide the incongruous fun bits. I hope the show continues in this style for them while deciding whether Ray is a proper mason or Hunt's trusted right-hand man.

The short clip of next week promises the arrival of Alex's husband along with Martin Summers, and for all readers of the title credits Summers' appearance is welcome news indeed. Fire up the IMDB!

Friday 8 May 2009

Chris Godfrey: Britain's greatest space hero

My favourite book series as a teenager was the Chris Godfrey of UNEXA science fiction saga written by Hugh Walters.

As I reckon these books have been pretty much forgotten, I'd like to address the balance in the first of a weekly series. In looking at the saga, I'll poke a bit of gentle fun at some of the absurdities that were inevitable in a YA sf series that started life before man started to explore space. But for the record I adored these books as a youngster. I gather that the author died in 1993, and so these reviews are a belated thank you to Hugh Walters for the many hours I enjoyed reading about Brits in space.

Walters' series chronicled the British space program. In reality the British space program consists of a potting shed near Lossiemouth airstrip in which a lone odd-ball attempts to kill himself with two rockets strapped to his feet and a catherine wheel nailed to his hat. But in Walters' series it was so much more grand than that…

The series started with Blast off at Woomera. In this low-key and quite gritty book, written in the late 50s, plucky Brit scientists are hell-bent on ensuring that Britain is the first nation to send a man into space. They've managed to get some chimps into orbit but that's been the limit of their achievements. No matter how plucky they are, they can't build rockets that are big enough for a man. But down in a local school there's this ordinary kid, Chris Godfrey.

Chris is clever, and so bullied a lot. He's also rubbish at sport, and so bullied a lot. And he's small, and so bullied a lot. But that doesn't worry him as he always has his nose in a book. Then one day a scientist working on the small rockets that can only carry a chimp sees this small, clever but bullied kid and he makes an intriguing connection.

Now there might have been an important message there somewhere, but either way, Chris is whisked off to Australia. Once there, he foils a plot by some sneaky sabotaging Soviets and then he is blasted off into space for about five minutes. When he comes down, he's full of confidence and despite his small stature he is ready to become the greatest British space hero there's ever been.

Check back next week when Chris shoots for the moon.

Tuesday 5 May 2009

Ashes to Ashes - Season 2, Episode 3

This week the reset button was pressed so often and the plot movements were so minor it was comfortably the weakest of the run so far.

After the first episode in which the emphasis was on the greater mystery, and last week's concentration on Hunt's angst, it was probably inevitable that this week the show would provide a breather from the intensity by being a straight police procedural. Although this isn't necessarily a bad thing as the majority of episodes in the franchise are crime stories with a few weird bits added in, the series now appears to be following the format of Life on Mars series 2.

Alex saw the real world for the first time and started getting mysterious messages in episode 1, just like Sam Tyler did. In episode 2 bent cop MacKintosh acted just like bent cop Harry Woolf did in episode 2 of the earlier series. So it's no surprise that episode 3 also follows on from the earlier series in which Gene Hunt took on the IRA. This time round he takes on every crime show's favourite safe bunch of terrorists, animal rights activists.

The crime to solve was about as predictable as they get on crime shows, especially if you remembered who turned out to be the surprise guilty person last week. A mysterious doctor kidnaps Alex one week, then the smoothy doctor is the killer the next, and now the nervous psychoanalyst is guilty. Along with the medics in the real world I wonder if that's a theme?

Anyhow, as always the fun to be had is in how they solve the crime. So Hunt continues to remember he was based on Jack Regan from The Sweeney. After providing a variation last week on the 'get your pants on, you is nicked' line, this time he got to bark, 'shut it!'. Also he solves the crime Regan style by hurtling around some remarkably clean and deserted London streets and shouting at students. He also gives a pasting to a prisoner who is so obliging he even puts his hand in the door so Hunt can trap it there.

Meanwhile Alex questions a mysterious dying man in prison who appears to know not only about the crime, but also about her and the future. Not unexpectedly that knowledge of the future extends to him having read Silence of the Lambs. Before long he and Alex are adopting the required psychobabble chat, screen composition and general sinister moments required for scenes where murderers who know something meet female psychoanalytical cops in prison.

This comes to an expected end when in a leap of deductive brilliance Alex joins the dots that have been cunningly sprinkled through the episode and solves the crimes. And then in a burst of cop-show stupidity she rushes off to confront the mad murderer on her own, without telling anyone, without back-up, while being confident that someone will turn up and save her when things get tough. The only surprising thing about this story was that the dying man in prison managed to die before offering a cryptic last comment.

As regards the other elements of the show. The bigger mystery edged forward another few seconds in real time with Alex now being resuscitated by the medics. This appeared in her world as if it were being done by Tony Hart's Morph, a welcome nostalgic appearance only tempered by the fact I can already envisage the forty minute dvd extra gushing over those thirty seconds. I wonder if I'm the only one who's had enough of dvd extras. I loved the Camblewick Green sequence from Life on Mars right up until I sat through the extra that sapped the life out of it by explaining why everyone involved were creative geniuses for making some models and moving them around a bit.

Her resuscitation did at least explain why she couldn't remember Molly's face last week. She really was dying and now that she's not she can remember Molly again. So that's all right, then. The psycho-killer (I'm sticking with that term from my earlier review) didn't appear for a traditional cryptic message, but he does leave her a rose, which mirrors what he did in the first episode and again doesn’t move things on. I also didn't hear any Star Wars references or see any subtle asides about Lady Diana.

This lack of movement also extends to the police corruption story. Last week I thought it a mistake to have Hunt admit he joined the freemasons only so that he could bring down MacKintosh. To my mind this moved the story on too quickly and avoided some good potential character conflict between Hunt and Alex and between Hunt and Mackintosh. This week appeared to prove this point as the corruption story had nowhere interesting to go.

The man arrested in episode 1 commits suicide in a prison cell and MacKintosh wants Hunt to add a minor detail to his arrest statement to help prove that nothing dodgy went on in the prison. And Hunt refuses! This would be the Gene Hunt who has spent the episode kicking the living daylights out of a suspect for the crime of having green hands. This would be the Gene Hunt who last season let Chris and Ray half-kill a handcuffed cop-killer. This would be the Gene Hunt whose motto is that proof can always be found to back up his judgement. And now he won’t make a minor clerical amendment after a cop-killer has committed suicide. MacKintosh is as surprised as I was by this and the show ends on a cliff-hanger where Hunt is posted off to Plymouth... as if. Hunt is so surprised he forgets he drinks wine these days and has a pint.

The big problem with this confrontation is that I didn't understand Hunt's reasoning. He lurched out of control this week by eating fish and chips in a menacing manner, but that appeared to be due to the child getting blown up at the start and not his internalized conflict over whether to confront MacKintosh. With no clear explanation for his action, it ruins the confrontation from last week. After all the soul-searching over joining the freemasons, I thought Hunt was set to embark on his cunning plan to bring down MacKintosh. But that appears to involve doing a Heseltine by drawing a line in the sand over a minor clerical detail that nobody will understand or support.

It makes me wonder how this mason brotherhood thing works. Someone commits murder and all they have to do is give a funny handshake and the police break every rule in the book to get them off. But Hunt won’t sign a piece of paper and his brother mason sends him to Plymouth. Why didn't MacKintosh protect his brother? Why aren’t the funny handshake brigade sorting this out amongst themselves with some sort of ritual chicken-kissing ceremony? Where was closet-mason Ray in all this? 25 and 2/3 rds episodes in, Ray is suddenly revealed to be a mason and the next episode it's not mentioned again.

In fact continuing the lack of movement and reset theme, Ray has reverted back to being season 1 cuddly Ray, and Chris is back to Life on Mars Chris who throws up in buckets. Anyhow, because of all these reset buttons I'm looking forward to next week. If they continue to mimic the Life on Mars season 2 episodes it'll be time for Gene and Alex to infiltrate a wife-swapping party disguised as Gordon Brown and Jacqui Smith.

Sunday 3 May 2009

Wagon Train to the stars

With the imminent arrival of a new generation playing the iconic roles of Captain James Tiberius Kirk, Spock, McCoy et al, it's a good moment to consider Star Trek's contribution to the western genre.

In many ways it's a negative one. Gene Roddenberry sold the series to the studios with the tagline that it would be a Wagon Train to the stars. This was a good pitch. In fact it was so good that when eventually the series became popular tv producers became more interested in making western serials set in space than they did in making western serials set in the American West.

Of course not all the blame for the reduction in the number of westerns made can be laid at Star Trek's feet (I blame Star Wars for that). So let us consider the times when the series acknowledged its roots and made authentic western episodes.

The first fully-fledged western episode came in the original series' third season effort Spectre of the Gun. Like most of Gene Coon's late episodes it's pretty dire, but I think time has been kinder to it than most of the other third season episodes. The story is simple and neat.

Aliens take the crew hostage. Then they take Kirk's memory of the gunfight at the OK corral and recreate the situation. Kirk and his crew are cast in the roles of the men who'll get shot up, while the aliens take the form of those who'll live. Kirk tries to change the accepted history, but when he fails only Spock can save the day with one of his multitude of convenient face-touching brain skills that convinces everyone the situation is an illusion.
Although they missed the chance for a good in-joke as DeForest Kelley was a western veteran, including playing Morgan Earp in John Sturges' Gunfight at the OK Corral, what is most striking about the episode is the stylised sets. With almost no money for the episode they could only afford to build part sets for the frontier town setting. Rather than trying to disguise that, the show makes good use of the lack of funds to create a surreal atmosphere, and by accentuating the fact that it's all an illusion, it actually makes the ending one that works.

And of course any major mistakes in historical accuracy can be explained away by the fact everything is an illusion taken from Kirk's idealised memory of the American West. It's that type of ingenuity where everyone ignores the papier-mâché rocks and just gets on with telling a story that makes Star Trek work.

When Star Trek was reborn in the 80s, the Next Generation crew waited until the sixth season to go western in A Fistful of Datas. Again this is a pretty dire effort. It's filmed in a joking manner that's supposed to be fun, and yet it misfires with most of its attempts to provide entertainment.
The story is that android Data uses his big brain in an experiment to see if he can control the whole ship. But the experiment goes wrong and for no reason I could see he takes over a holodeck instead (a place where the crew play virtual reality games whenever the series needs a lighter moment). For about the 17th time in the series Data duplicates himself and Brent Spiner gets to play numerous characters, all sounding the same.

Huge western fan Counsellor Troi, an interest she never mentioned before or after, is on the holodeck playing a Rio Bravo style story. With Worf she gets caught up in a program that for about the 17th time becomes real and in which the multitude of Datas will kill them unless they can get to the end of the story. Why the 24th century health and safety people allow the crew to use holodecks is beyond me. You only have to stub your toe these days for a product to be withdrawn and yet more people get hurt on holodecks than get assimilated by the Borg.

Anyhow, there's some mild fun to be had seeing a glum Worf in a cowboy hat, and there's a nice nod to Shane with Worf's kid looking under the saloon doors. Aside from that, the only interest to be had is in watching for continuity errors. The techniques used to get multiple Brent Spiners on screen that in other episodes are usually done well are crude and unconvincing, and at one stage they even prop up an obvious tailor's dummy to represent him. Worse, a guest appearance by Worf's stunt double in a fight scene is more jarring than some scenes in the original version of Star Trek. Then, Kirk and a bad guy would get into a fight. There would be a cut to a long shot and then suddenly these two blokes you've never seen before would start knocking each other about.

This episode also demonstrates why Star Trek should never film outdoors. It looks plain wrong and the tedious shoot-up sequence at the end only livens up when you spot that the shadows change between every shot. I think most of the blame for the mess should lie with the producers for allowing Patrick Stewart to direct, as he clearly ought to stick to overacting. A commonly told story is of his trouble trying to get all the characters into shot for a scene and in the end opting to have Riker kneel down. This looks odd even if you didn't know the trouble they were having.
With this episode proving that when science fiction shows that originated as westerns have run out of ideas they revert to being westerns, it was no surprise that the Deep Space 9 incarnation didn't do a western episode. For me this series didn't run out of steam, although late on it did look as if they might go for a western motif. The crew's favourite, but never shown, holodeck program changed often but eventually settled on the Alamo where everyone enjoyed replaying a hopeless battle and getting killed. I always presumed this was hinting that the war with the Dominion would turn out badly, and yet it didn't.

If western episodes is a sign of steam running out then Voyager should have started with a western. Curiously it didn't and never did do one, although like Troi before, Captain Janeway did mention as an aside halfway through season 6 that she loved reading westerns. This though was just another hobby of the week and never got another mention.

For the final Star Trek version so far, Enterprise had another go at doing a western with North Star. Again it's a fairly poor effort, but it was the best of a bad bunch. For the first time everyone took it seriously and tried to craft something original. In some ways it failed less because of itself than the context in which it was shown. For season 3, with the series teetering on the verge of cancellation, the show decided to experiment with doing what had made Deep Space 9 work. Namely, having an arc story line with consequences beyond the usual episodic weekly format.

So for the whole of season 3 the crew fought to save civilization as we know it from a bunch of unstoppable baddies who had never got a mention in any other series. But just when things are starting to get interesting, the developing story takes a break so we can have a western.

It uses the standard Star Trek budget-saving idea of an alien planet in which the inhabitants are living exactly like a period of earth history. Here aliens abducted some 19th century American cowpokes to use as slaves, but the cowpokes shot up the aliens and they are now living a contented cowpoke life using the aliens as slaves.

Figuring that two wrongs don't make a right, Captain Archer resolves to defend the aliens, even if that means confronting some alien-hating cowpokes. Archer wins through after some shooting and fisticuffs, although pleasingly for one of the few times in Star Trek the episode suggests that an hour spent with enlightened humans may not provide any easy solutions to the centuries of oppression. The episode ends with the schoolteacher who Archer defended teaching the youngsters that aliens and cowpokes should have equal rights.

The episode is played straight and is heartfelt in its laboured message about prejudice. In some ways it's like many of the westerns that are made today: worthy, watchable, sensible but perhaps a little dull. It does though have one good saloon scene with Archer getting stuck into the mean and moody strangers ain't welcome around these parts so you ain't drinking in my saloon thing.

Where might Star Trek go in the future as regards the western? Hopefully nowhere, but I do hope the new kids on the block encourage more series to be made so that the Wagon Train can keep on rolling until the Vulcans make first contact with us in 2063.