Friday, 29 May 2009

Varieties of the Vampire

click to enlarge

For anyone intrigued by the varieties of actual vampires in folklore, here's a selection from The Usborne Guide To The Supernatural World.

For a more academic study of the vampire in legend and fiction, I recommend Children of the Night (Victor Gollancz 1999) by Tony Thorne.

THE STRAIN by Guillermo Del Toro & Chuck Hogan


As a great admirer of Guillermo Del Toro’s work, I was naturally very excited to hear that besides the myriad of film projects he has in development, he was going to pen a novel. And I was even more delighted to get my mitts on a naughty proof copy and find out early if the man Mark Kermode dubbed the Orson Welles of Horror Movies cut it as a novelist.

The first thing to note about The Strain is that Del Toro has a co-writer for this venture into the literary world. When I initially heard about this I couldn’t help wondering whether this would be prove to be a case of an outline from the great man fleshed out by other hands. I feared a cynical attempt to cash-in on his reputation to sell another author’s work – the modern equivalent of the ‘collaborations’ of HP Lovecraft and August Derleth in which the latter expanded the single sentence ideas from HPL’s notebooks into full blown stories.

But I’m glad to say this doesn’t appear to be the case. Although I don’t have any details on who wrote what, The Strain simply reeks of Del Toro at every turn. Apparently the concept for the novel was originally a pitch for a fantasy/horror TV series with a police procedural flavour to Fox (who weren’t interested surprise fucking surprise). So when he decided to produce the Strain as a book, he enlisted Chuck Hogan, a writer of several well respected police procedural thrillers, who he felt would be able to achieve the correct air of believabilty to the material. I’ve not read of his previous books but his work being bigged up by the likes of Stephen King, Jeffrey Deaver and the grand old man of thrillers Ed McBain, he appears to be the perfect collaborator for the project. And on the strength of The Strain I’ll definitely checking out his own work.

The partnership works extremely well. As you’d expect from a novel by a gifted director, the novel is very cinematic – even down the structure of the book which is arranged in scenes rather than conventional chapters. And as you’d expect from a novel by Del Toro, The Strain builds up a fascinating mythology which spins traditional folklore in a novel and intriguing way. However with a gifted thriller author on board, it’s also a tautly written and beautifully paced book. Del Toro and Hogan work together seamlessly; The Strain never feels like a screenplay fleshed out with prose. The characters are well developed, likeable and memorable, and the plot plays out very smoothly, deftly gathering momentum and atmosphere.

Also it avoids the common pitfall of horror novels, namely descending into a string of scenes of carnage which leaves the tension and suspense the story’s built up flapping in the wind – I’ve lost of the number of novels that I’ve read over the years which nicely build up atmosphere and interesting characters only to lose steam in the final third with a predictable montage of mayhem.

Stephen King described his own vampire opus as “a game of literary racquet-ball: ‘Salem’s Lot was the ball and Dracula was the wall I was hitting it against”. And in some regards, The Strain is similar – it too is a tale of an Old World undead lord coming to unleash a plague of vampirism in the New World. The book’s opening with an airliner landing in New York with all hands on board dead has an obvious parallel with The Count’s arrival in England on the Demeter.

To an extent all vampire fiction is such a game; although vampires had been flapping around in fiction for quite some time before Dracula, it is Stoker’s work that really crystallised the concept of the vampire. Virtually all the rules of vampirism come from his novel bar the idea of sunlight destroying them which Nosferatu, itself a pirate adaption of Dracula, originated. The actual accounts of vampirism in Europe from history and folklore differed markedly from the usual rubrics of fictional bloodsuckers.

For example, the common concept is that they must be destroyed by a wooden stake through the heart, and that there is some magically or ritual reason for this. However if you peruse the actual legends you discover that there was no one generally agreed method of dispatching the undead, and in different region different approaches were traditional – burning, beheading, dismembering, leg breaking. The real commonality was to prevent the infected corpse from being physically able to being able to leave its grave – hence staking it was just a one method of pinning it down and why some places favoured severing the tendons in the arms and legs.

Similarly. other than bloodsucking, vampires in different places displayed wildly different behaviours. Did ye know that in Russian they had a fondness for ringing church bells and gnawed their own hands and feet in the grave? Or that a Germanic species of undead called neuntoters, spread disease and Romany vampires were partial to joyriding horses into exhaustion? (For more info go here!)

The vampire is such an enduring figure because of his adaptability. In legend and fiction, the vampire has symbolised and personified a wide range of social ills and contemporary fears. In literature, vampires have always thrived as they come with a host of in-built subtexts for perennial human concerns – sex, disease, intoxication and power. The seductive sensual fops presented by Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer aren’t a new take on the undead; rather they hark back to pre-Stoker works that were more romances than horror. Dracula itself can be read with subtexts about Victorian sexual politics and colonialism. And in King’s novel vampirism can be seen as a metaphor for the Reaganomics responsibly for killing small town America.

Now Del Toro is by his own admission something of a collector of vampire lore, and this does shine through in The Strain. On one level he’s returning to vampirism to one of its roots - fear of plague – but embroidered with his trademark imagination. This novel presents a new conception of the vampire, and has a great fun reinterpreting familiar existing lore with a new scientific model of vampirism. The Strain’s brand of vampirism owes more to Cronenberg’s Shivers and Rabid than the dusty gospel according to Stoker.

But Del Toro and Hogan aren’t merely moving vampirism into science fiction. When reinventing an old monster there’s always the danger of diminishing the creature’s archetypal power if you over explain it. Much like Brian Lumely’s Necroscope series, which also creates a new undead biology incidentally, The Strain retains the creature’s mythic status and stresses their insidious presence throughout all history. They represent vampires as monstrous forces of evil; ancient beings of diabolic horror rather than melancholic beautiful outsiders, and achieves a pleasing balance between the fresh science model and the more traditional mythological approach.

Del Toro has said “each book contains unique and surprising revelations about the history, physiology and lore of the vampiric race, tracing its roots all the way back to its Old Testament origins.” and I, for one, am looking forward to seeing further development of this new vampire mythos. Now this brings me to the book’s only real downside – it’s first book in a trilogy. To use an old cliché, The Strain is a real page-turner that cracks along at a terrific pace and never drops the ball. So to have to wait another year before the next installment is annoying in the best possible way.

Now the trilogy is a much abused fictional format. All too frequently, a brilliant first part spawns abominable sequels – for most trilogies the equation goes something like this… first part is fully formed and well thought-out, the second has only half the creativity of the first and the third appears to be based on a quarter of an idea. However considering it’s TV series genesis, and more importantly judging from the manner in which the novel structures it’s tale, I thin we can safely assume that Del Toro and Hogan are in the JK Rowling camp rather the George Lucas school i.e. the series has actually been properly planned out in reality rather than in Pant-on-Fire Land.

In terms of Del Toro’s oeuvre it is actually breaking new ground; tonally The Strain occupies the gap between the fantasy action of the Hellboy films and the archetypal poetry of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. And in the context of vampire fiction generally, The Strain is a fine addition to the canon and potentially a future classic. As it is but the opening installment of a series, its real greatness is hard to judge until the sequence is complete, but on it’s own it delivers everything a good horror thriller should with great panache and imagination. And it’s nice to have some truly evil vampires back on the prowl. Roll on the next outbreak…

Big thanks to Paul from Chinstroker Vs Punter who informed me of The Strain’s TV origins and collaboration details.

And massive thanks to the guilty parties who supplied me with a proof copy of this book to review.

For further details check out the rather swish promo site

Wednesday, 27 May 2009


Today’s weather report – fine with heavy outbreaks of spoilers…

From the title, this movie sounds like a cash-in on the considerably better known The Day The Earth Stood Still, and from a quick glance at the plot synopsis it reads like a sci-fi tinged disaster movie.. Though it is one of a long line of science fiction films from the ‘50s and ‘60s dealing with the consequences of atomic power, The Day The Earth Caught Fire is actually a very different beast. Rather than bringing us the attention of creatures from beyond the stars or spawning rampaging giant monsters, in this film atomic weapon testing has had a far more plausible result – it has suddenly and disastrously altered Earth’s climate.

Now obviously for an island where discussing the weather is a national pass-time, it’s hard to imagine a more quintessentially British science fiction threat. But from HG Wells right up to Ken McLeod, British SF has always contained a strong vein of social commentary, and The Day The Earth Caught Fire is no exception. Its approach to the genre fits comfortably between John Wyndham’s social apocalypses and JG Ballard’s dystopian urban nightmares. Rather than square jawed military types and clean cut scientists, this film’s protagonists are journalists and office workers. Rather than the Establishment fending off the screen threat, we get a very realistic drama following the ordinary people affected by the changes wrought by technology. It’s a very refreshing street-level view of the end of the world.

Director Val Guest was not stranger to the genre, having helmed a trio of Nigel Kneale adaptions for Hammer (The Quatermass Xperiment, Quatermass II and The Abominable Snowman). And despite Kneale’s grousing about the compression of this original TV plays into the movie format, with these films Guest had shown he grasped the key dramatic elements of the original works – that character depth, realism and intelligence are what give Kneale’s stories their power. Outside the SF/horror fields, with films like Expresso Bongo and The Camp On Blood Island he has also demonstrated a deft touch in handling real-world drama on screen. And with The Day The Earth Caught Fire, he created a perfect blend of intellectual SF and social commentary.

Guest understood that for any genre picture, establishing getting the audience to suspend their disbelief is paramount. Hence, like the first Quatermass adaption, Guest chose an almost semi-documentary style. With a good deal of location shooting and creating a virtual replica of the Daily Express newsroom which is where much the film’s scenes are set, Guest brings us a convincing screen vision of 1960’s London which lends the later scenes of climate-induced chaos a great deal of realism.

Previous to going into the movie business, Guest had worked in Fleet Street and his previous personal experience really shows in this film. He even persuaded Arthur Christiansen, the editor of the Daily Express from 1932 to1956, to play himself in the movie. This verisimilitude extends beyond the locations and really shines in the script which Guest himself co-wrote with Wolf Mankowitz. There’s none of the usual ‘hold the front page!’ clichés here; instead we get a real insight the journalism of the day dealing with everything from the politics of what gets into print to creeping alcoholism. The Day The Earth Caught Fire captures what was perhaps the last golden age of journalism - a time when reporters actually bothered to leave the office and investigate and report, a time when the newspapers rather television was the prime source of in-depth coverage and commentary of the news.

Back in 1961 the broadcast media as we know it was still in its infancy, and in this film radio and TV appear as little more than mouth pieces for the establishment. In this era, the public forum for incisive commentary and debate was still the press. Therefore it is for almost burnout and washed up reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd), aided by science correspondent Bill MacGuire (Leo McKern), to discover that the rapid climate changes have been caused by atomic testing altering the Earth’s orbit, and furthermore that the government has been covering up this technological blunder.

But there is more to this than merely a time capsule snap shot of the press of the day. In an age where so many newspaper staff seem to do little other than copy and paraphrase reports from AP feeds or invent celebrity tittle tattle, watching this film will make you lament the decline of the popular press. It’s difficult to imagine the current incarnation of the Daily Express employing journalists who would investigate and reveal a governmental cover-up, unless perhaps there was some connection to either asylum seekers or Princess Diana. And it is somewhat ironic to note that over the years the broadcast media has not only superseded the press as the home of insightful and intelligent journalism but now appears to be rapidly declining into the same maelstrom of ill-formed sensationalist drivel that constitutes much newspaper journalism today.

This tension between the broadcast and print media, the tension between intelligent and dumbed down reportage, is summed up by Macguire’s sarcastic response to a television broadcast which patronisingly explains away a freak eclipse - “And that children, is how the little bunny rabbit got its fluffy white tail!”

This quote also highlights one of this film’s many strengths – the astoundingly sharp dialogue. Rather than the usual exposition spouting ciphers, we have characters that talk like real people. The banter between the newspaper men is simply a delight – a riot of ripostes and snappy come-backs brimming with wry observations and character depth. Often when watching what I’ll term ‘movies of certain age’ one has to sit through a great deal of talking heads between the action. However in this film, the dialogue is electric and the script could serve as a master class in how not a waste a single line. The golden rule in cinema is often said to be “show not tell” – a maxim that these days is bringing us 50 cut per minute and dialogue so trite and shallow that the average puddle has the fathomless depths in comparison. However as this film shows dialogue does not need to be chunky exposition – Guest’s characters are created as much by what they say and how they say it as much as what they do.

And the script is excellently served by the main cast. Leo McKern is brilliant as always and Edward Judd delivers a fine performance as Stenning, a man losing his grip on life who rediscovers his purpose through the larger crisis really carries the film. Stenning is not just the usual hero, indeed really he isn’t the hero at all in the conventional sense, as the film is as much about his character’s journey and redemption as it is about the atomic weather of doom. Whereas in the usual SF flicks of this period, we have the dashing young hero and the wise older man, here we have Judd and McKern, world weary and bitterly cynical hacks who through the course of the film rediscover their purposes and their humanity.

The interweaving of these personal stories, more usually found in serious drama rather genre films, with the larger tale of impending catastrophe really elevates this film above and beyond the usual death rays and bug monsters. And subtleties of the character’s story arcs go far beyond the run-of-the-mill personal epiphanies of most disaster movies.

The actual disaster itself is handled very nicely. Rather astutely, the Great British public’s first reaction to the rising temperatures is delight, with thousands skiving work to sunbathe and ‘Cor Wot A Scorcher!” headlines. However things soon decline with extreme weather and flash fires breaking out. Guest’s semi documentary style really pays off here as it allows him to use a good deal of stock footage reasonably seamlessly. But despite the budget constraints, there’s some great special effects work in here from Hammer veteran Les Bowie; particularly striking is the eerie fog which envelopes London. But again it’s the human angle that really strikes home – scenes of Londoners queuing up at stand pipes when water rationing has kicked in and the whispered exchanged about black-market water supplies.

Admittedly the movie’s basic premise is that nuclear tests have shifted the Earth from its axis is somewhat scientifically wonky. But to be fair a lot more plausible than giant insects or reawakening dinosaurs. But the scenario of climate chaos Guest’s film presents rings very true today - the ecological catastrophe here is very much like the one we will be facing all too soon if we don’t sort out global warming.

All in all it’s quite amazing how relevant this film remains today. The sobering if not chilling depiction of climate change is worth the price of admission alone. And as we’ve already seen, the commentary this film makes about the media is still very pertinent. The superb script will make you’ll wish films were as well written as this today. The ending is simply fabulous – there’s one wonderful shot which I really can’t spoil for you which encapsulates the depth and ferocious intelligence of this film. It’s not one of the most well-thought out sci-fi films ever made but also one of the best films about newspapers and one of the best disaster movies to boot. It really is an undiscovered classic.

(And if all of the above doesn’t recommend this film highly enough, it features a young Sir Michael Caine as a copper, a cameo by Peter Butterworth as a newsroom hack and ‘beatnik music’ by Monty Norman!)

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

STAR TREK Part 2 - The Search For Spoilers

In the first half, we had a quick weigh up of the problems of continuity and how clearing the slate could actually work in favour of a reboot. Terrace Dicks, long time Doctor Who script writer and editor, once defined continuity as “what the average viewer can reasonably expected to remember”, and this incarnation of Star Trek largely adheres to this rubric. The new film establishes it’s Trek credentials effectively by staying close to the iconic designs of the original series and more importantly staying true to the characters – maintaining tonal continuity if you will.

Plus choosing to follow this tonal continuity means that the script doesn’t have to waste time with explaining things everybody remembers like the transporter or the fact that phasers have stun settings. However what of the script itself?

When Abrams admitted that he’d been more of Star Wars kid there was a worry that we’d get a movie that was in the wrong sub-genre of sci-fi. Star Wars hails from the school of space opera, whereas Star Trek… well Trek has evolved into a subgenre itself. And the early trailers revealed explosions and starships, fans were beginning to have nightmares about the Enterprise spewing out shuttle craft like TIE fighters into interstellar dog fights.

However once again, Abram and co did their homework. The new film has Eric Banana (yes I know how to spell it, just not how to stop) as Nero, a rogue Romulan out to destroy the Federation in a very Trek storyline. Just compare the following key elements to the plots of the previous movies –

1) a renegade manic on the loose
2) out for revenge
3) with a planet destroying device
4) who travels back in time
5) to threaten Earth
6) AND the future of the Federation
7) and the Enterprise is the only ship in the vicinity to avert the catastrophe

Clearly the plot has Star Trek written through it like a stick of Blackpool rock. And that’s just comparing it to the film franchise! To be honest, the plot could only be more Trekkie if Nero turned out to be a three-way combination of child/machine/God.

Naturally there has been some carping from fanboys that this is a terrible state of affairs and that the new film is just a shallow, low-fat cannibal feast of the show’s illustrious past. Now admittedly there’s a fine line between homage and outright rip-off, but really the elements listed above are part of Star Trek’s DNA. The alien megalomaniac threat has always been in the Boy’s Book Of Star Trek Plots; it’s one of the top three plot frameworks along with beaming down onto a little visited world and encounter a mysterious force in the depths of space. Hence if you moan that this new version is just going all Hannibal Lecter on us, then logically the franchise has been Ed Gein all along.

Essentially it’s the “Watchmen was too faithful” argument again. Honestly, what do these people want? (Apart from Strap Trek obviously). Unlimited rice pudding perhaps? Would they really prefer a plot where doesn’t feel like Trek at all, where Vulcans can do wirework martial arts and the crew must blow away hordes of CGI alien monsters with big guns and macho wisecracks?

But before you start sharpening up the old Bat’leth, I will admit that the plot is perhaps lacking the classic ‘moral dilemma’ aspect and can be accused of both failing to do anything significantly new. But to do justice to a full blooded ethical minefield properly, you really need the characters to be already well defined. And as we noted in the first part, it is re-establishing the character interaction that is the main drive of the plot. This is not just another Star Trek adventure, it’s an attempt to bring the franchise back to life for a general audience. And thankfully, Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci have wisely chose to re-introduce the crew rather than redefine them and have laid the foundations for future instalments that can effectively tackle a story with a broader philosophical theme.

As for the charges of not doing anything new, again I’d point out that the script’s focus isn’t on the action. Bearing in mind Terrance Dicks’ remarks above, to re-establish the franchise it was a shrewd move to construct a story that fits into one of the more popular tropes and deliver the kind of plot most people associate with Star Trek. However looking beyond the narrative mechanics, the script actually does do something new and rather intelligent.

One of the big questions about this film was whether if it was a prequel or reboot. Now the problem of prequels, is that we already know the characters futures which severely limits the scope for dramatic tension as we already know that the characters can’t die yet or sustain any serious injury, like losing a limb. And for Star Trek, there’s the weight of 40 plus years of expanded continuity condensing the possible plot options. On the other hand, starting from scratch is going to potentially alienate fans who are invested in the Star Trek expanded universe.

However the script cleverly manages to have its cake and eat by creating an alternative timeline. Nero has travelled from the existing Star Trek universe, along with Nimoy’s Spock whose appearance here neatly dovetails with the end of his last adventure on screen (the Next Generation episode “Unification”). But more importantly in changing the past, Nero changes the future, clearing the way for adventures not bound the original continuity. It’s a great device that is not only well-thought out in terms of time travel but also elegantly woven in to the plot’s fabric. Like the introduction of the Time War in the resurrected Doctor Who, it preserves the old content while providing a Get-Out-Of-Continuity-Jail free card. Even changes in the aesthetic details, which continuity cops should really be ignoring anyway, such as the upgrades in the costume and set design can be happily explained away as a result of Nero’s incursion into the past.

(Blimey Doctor Who and Star Trek in the same review, and there’s worse to come! One moment please…
SCENE: Stereotypical 1950’s train platform. The 5.23 to Port Merrion is just pulling out of the station. Through the swirling clouds of high contrast smoke and steam, we can just make out our hero, JIM, running down the platform and waving goodbye to EVER ENJOYING FEMALE COMPANIONSHIP AGAIN… )

Now I do have a niggle with the plot. It’s a minor detail really … THEY FUCKING DESTROYED VULCAN! Now when this occurred on screen, it took a few moments for the implications to sink in. The immortal Arthur Dent’s words flashed through my mind – “look Ford, I’m a bit upset about that”. And then I thought “hang on, this is a time travel story, perhaps they’ll put it back”. But by the end of the movie, it hadn’t.

Now destroying a major planet (two actually as they’ve atomised Romulus too in the original Trek universe into the bargain) did initially strike me as short-sighted at best, and an act of cosmic vandalism at worst. Original series Doctor Who did the same in “Remembrance of the Daleks”, wiping out Skaro – which generally has been seen as a Bad Move, altering the show’s core universe to provide a story with a big bang.

However thankfully the script does follow up on the consequences of changing the Star Trek universe so drastically. On a base fanboy level, destroying Vulcan in the Neroian Timeline doesn’t pose the same continuity head aches as vaporising Skaro does for Dalek history, plus enough Vulcans have survived to effectively retcon the damage by establishing Vulcan 2. But more importantly, you change the continuity provided you have solid reasons for doing so - it’s the effect of seeing his home world destroyed has on Spock that matters.

To dip again into the Tardis databanks, a more apposite parallel is the destruction of Gallifrey and the Time Lords in the Time War. After the destruction of his planet and people, the Ninth Doctor is initially somewhat distant but does form a very emotionally charged relationship with Rose. And in this film, we have similar situation with Spock, a traditionally unromantic character finding emotional intimacy. Now I understand that quite a few Trekkers will consider the Spock/Uhura romance somewhat heretical, but it is justified in the script. And on the tightness of the script and it’s grasp of all things Trek, I think we can rule out the sequel seeing the Enterprise turning into USS Loveboat. Like Who fans before them, will either have to just let it go or appreciate the wider emotional depth it can to the character dynamics.

Handled correctly, the impact of the destruction of Vulcan could yield a great deal of material for exploring the essential dynamics of Spock, the conflict between emotion and logic. And at this point I’m willing to trust Abrams and co to do so in sequels. I think it’s quite likely that the sequel will see Spock returning to his logical side and cold shouldering Uhura; gaining emotional depth through tension rather than romance.

More generally though, the Neroian Timeline as also changes Kirk’s character – he now has grown up without a father – which gives the main characters license to not to be bound to act exactly as Shatner and Nimoy versions would. They have room to grow in new directions yet still be Kirk and Spock.

The fact that this film can include a major continuity change which registers as no more than a niggle is testament to its strengths. If Paramount can keep Abrams on board and keep producing scripts of this quality, then Star Trek is in safe hands and I look forward to once more exploring the final frontier…

PS Check out this week's Cinerama which is a Chinerama Star Trek special! Grab it here

Monday, 11 May 2009

Star Trek Part I - The Spoiler Free Frontier

Television and movies have long had a mutually parasitic relationship with properties being batted from one medium to another on a regular basis. And largely the results are never pretty. In his classic tale Dreams in the Witch-House, which effectively mashes up hyper dimensional physics and 17th century witchcraft, HP Lovecraft has his doomed protagonist theorise that a truly successful mode of travel between dimensions where different laws of time and space apply, the method of transport would have to alter the traveller’s biology to be able to survive outside his native dimension. And all too often when a property moves from television to film or vica versa, the adjustments to the new medium all too often ends up leaving it looking like the transporter accident in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

The problem is that that cinema and television have very different dynamics of story telling. If you are moving from film to TV, apart from the constraints of a much smaller budget, the trouble tends to be what works once on the big screen quickly becomes boring week in and week out. Of course there are exceptions, most notably Buffy the Vampire Slayer transformed itself from a rather mediocre movie into a truly fabulous television series. And more recently Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles has been doing sterling work.

Conversely moving a show into the cinema has its own unique trials – make it very like the TV series and you risk the infamous ‘long episode’ syndrome. However if you embrace the medium and craft a plot of cinematic dimensions, then the change in the type of story you are telling often results with the movie feeling like a different genre to the original. So bearing this in mind, you can see why so often these days, movies derived from TV series are either ‘ironic’ send ups (Charlies Angels, Starsky & Hutch) or complete reboots/reimaginings (Miami Vice, Lost In Space).

Of course of all the series subjected to the dimension shift from cathode tube to silver screen, the big success story is Star Trek – now with 11 cinema outings to its name. However looking at the development of the movies we can clearly see the difficulties. The first outing, often dubbed ‘The Slow Motion Picture’, tips too far over the line into extraneous cinematics with a ponderous plot and some awful costume redesigns. Whereas the final picture, Star Trek Nemesis, feels too much like a Next Gen two-parter cobbled into a movie.

So when the new Star Trek was announced, aside for JJ Abrams being attached, the key detail that caught my eye was that the plot would deal with the early years of the characters’ history. So were we going to be cruising at warp speed into the Prequel Galaxy and praying that Mr Scott could supercharge the dilithium crystals enough to get us safely beyond the Lucas Black Hole? Or would this be more an untold tales deal, with Trek going all Smallville on us?

Both were worrying concepts, fraught with ample scope for an epic misfire. However equally troubling was the prospect of a complete clean slate reboot. Could we ever accept new actors taking on roles so closely associated with Shatner, Nimoy, Kelly et al? And would jettisoning 40-odd years of continuity mean we would be getting an origins movie in which much screen time is wasted explaining things to us that we already know?

Now while the first issue is a matter of getting together a good enough cast together and hoping the fans will embrace them, the continuity aspect is a trickier matter. On one hand, you have the problem of reintroducing characters and concepts – if you present exactly how they were in the original, you’re wasting our time and if you change them people are doing to say ‘This isn’t Trek!”. However the thornier issue is how much continuity is just pandering to obsessive fans?

Now the Star Trek franchise had fallen into something of decline. Personally Voyager never really won my affections – it felt too much like they were just randomly swapping different tropes from earlier series. And while there was the wonderful holographic Doctor (surely modelled on one of the Crane brothers’ descendents), there was bloody Neelix who made you realise that Wesley Crusher perhaps wasn’t that annoying after all. (Indeed Neelix vs. Alien, Predator, Jason & Godzilla is still the spin-off I’d most like to see. Yes, even more than Strap Trek - 7 of 9 vs. Jenna Jameson. But moving swiftly on…)

However it’s Enterprise that really underlines the continuity problem. Now obvious the show was crippled from the get go with that awful MOR ballad of a theme but the real problem with the show was that it was being made purely for Star Trek fans by this stage. But heavy continuity based content doesn’t necessary always play well to the fans – often it can appear that the show is turning into fan fiction of the worst kind - “fanwank”. But worse the weight of continuity was driving away the ordinary TV viewers who can scent an anorak at 50 paces. Basically Trek found itself in a similar position to the later seasons of the original series of Doctor Who – what had once been a popular show with a general audience was squeezing into a much smaller niche as a cult show. And not at the cool end of cult either – the public perception was that these were shows for the obsessive weirdos – D&D players, undercover Morris dancers and the bulk buyers of Clearasil.

Therefore the challenge for Abrams and co was not just to make a film that would be accepted as ‘real’ Trek by fans – a daunting task in itself – but to make something the general public could relate to. And in this context, a clearing out of the continuity cupboard with a fresh reboot makes perfect sense.

So what did he actually deliver? Prepare to beam down onto the first part of review. A second away team will be assembled after to venture into spoiler sectors…

A quick tricorder reading to kick off: cinematics – good, pace – excellent and the atmosphere is breathable. As a film in itself, this is an above average blockbuster – it’s got a solid story, plenty of breath-taking action, and deft characterisation. But also, like last summer’s Iron Man, there’s a good deal of well-used humour and the film’s phasers are set firmly on ‘Fun’. It’s a superior slice of sci-fi action adventure…but is it Trek?

Well I’d say it is Star Trek … but not as we know it. And what I mean by that is that JJ Abrams has produced a version of the franchise that truly feels home on the big screen and yet still feels like Star Trek of old. It admittedly draws on the “boldly going” spirit of the original series rather the Next Generation philosophical splitting of infinitives, but as the movie is bring back the beloved original crew back it’s only appropriate that it should continue with the same ratio of fun and adventure in its DNA.

Although Abrams has admitted to not previously being a Star Trek fan, he’s clearly been doing his homework. Firstly he’s identified that what made original Trek more beloved than a host of other sci-fi series was the well defined characters of the crew and how they interact. And he has placed this at the heart of the film. Now there is a ton of great action sequences but the plot’s real drive comes from the characters’ emotional journeys rather than the FX’s storyboards. An overblown firework of a toy ad this is not!

I have heard some criticisms that the plot is a little simple and, often for die hard Trekkers, far too light on ponderousness. Certainly the actual main mechanics of the story are basic – Romulan captain wreaks havoc. And it is a suitably Star Trek type of tale, but more importantly it’s only really the framework device for telling the real story which is how the Enterprise got together. And their stories do have a typically Trek philosophical bent – it’s a good deal more subtle than the long profound speeches that pepper TV Trek from the Next Gen onward, but it’s still there. Yes, there is humour and spectacle, but the emotional weight of the plotting means that the film never descends to the level of a campy romp.

This movie is that it is actually an origin story. But it’s not told in the usual fashion – you know, with all that tedious building up to the characters becoming who we know they are in the last third of the film. It opens with a stunning opening sequence that hurls you squarely into the Star Trek universe and then barrels along, deftly balancing character development with more action.

And the new cast are more than up to the job. I was very surprised how quickly the initial strangeness of seeing new actors in these very familiar roles wore off. One thing that was oft discussed in the run up to this film, was the question of how the actors would play the parts – would they be parroting the verbal tics of their predecessors? Thankfully they don’t and thus avoid appearing as a parody sketch. Instead we get a solid script that stays faithful to the speech mannerisms and crucially the concept of the original crew. And very intelligently the script set ups situation for the characters to show us who they are the same as they always were. You recognise Kirk’s cockiness in Chris Pine’s dialogue, and Karl Urban is Bones from the instant he starts grousing about space. But most uncanny of all is Zachary Quinto – he is Spock! Minor spoiler – but in the scene towards the film’s close where the Quinto Spock meets Leonard Nimoy’s, you’ll have to remind yourself there’s no CGI double at work.

Abrams, along with screen writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, have took the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach with characters and story stylings and given us the Enterprise crew in a new adventure. Wisely the new additions to the Star Trek universe are mainly cosmetic. Although the look of the sets, ships and costumes are pleasingly faithful to the originals, Abrams has given the movie a distinct visual style. Now it has to be said, that he does like a lens flare a little too much (and has recently admitted that they went a bit too far with them) but overall his understanding that the Star Trek universe is a bright colourful and shiny place is spot on. His choice of lighting, tonal palette and colour schemes featuring a lot of coloured metallics reminded me of countless airbrushed illustrations from old Star Trek annuals and tie-novels. This vision of Star Trek evokes both the cover paintings of the Golden age pulps and the pop art sensibilities of the original series and manages to look both realistically modern and fresh.

So conclude this spoiler-free section – what we have here is an excellent Star Trek film. I do have a couple of minor niggles to air in the next bit but they are more than balanced by the rest of the praise. And I would tentatively suggest that this may be the best cinema version of Trek so far. Certainly it has reinvigorated the franchise and opens the door at last to a new era of Star Trek.

Any red shirts wishing to join the away team to Planet Spoiler, kindly step through the Jefferies tube to the right… While the rest of you who haven’t seen it yet, just print out the image below and get yourself to the local multiplex for a round of Trek Bingo. When you’ve crossed off all the boxes, feel free to jump up and shout “TUQ!”


Monday, 4 May 2009

The Library Is Now Open...

We've opened a section over at the main HYPNOGORIA site - The Library.

Here you'll find all the various short stories used in the site indexed. Plus any other scrawlings and scribbling we feel like posting.

The latest addition is William Hope Hodgson's classic tale The Hog featuring everyone's favourite occult detective Carnacki the Ghost Finder...