Saturday, 31 January 2015

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Read the full version of this review on Starburst.

The new Judge Dredd partwork collection, re-releasing a different story every fortnight, got off to a very strong start with America, and now its second instalment pits Dredd against a steely-faced opponent built in his own image.

Mechanismo, originally printed in the Judge Dredd Megazine in 1992, sees Chief Judge McGruder sanction a force of robot Judges, much to Dredd’s horror. Though at first remarkably efficient, they inevitably malfunction, murdering undeserving citizens in the name of the law. The two follow-up stories, Mechanismo Returns and Body Count, see a particularly overzealous Robo-Judge slaughtering people for crimes as menial as littering. The mentally deteriorating Chief Judge decides the obvious solution is to send more robots to stop it.

Building on the recurring Dredd theme of law enforcement gone too far, the Robo-Judges make great villains – hulking, indestructible behemoths with clear antecedents in RoboCop and The Terminator (which is directly referenced at one point). Importantly, they’re based on Dredd himself, with prominent metal chins and programming that follows Dredd’s handbook on Judge behaviour.

But comparing Dredd to his robot counterparts shows he isn’t so robotic after all – they follow the law that bit too literally, lacking the instinct and empathy to read a situation and work out when a less direct approach is needed. The Mechanismo stories are fascinating when they explore this difference, though at times – particularly towards the chaotic end of the first story, when several robots malfunction at once – the action overwhelms the story and limits how deep this exploration can go.

Mechanismo may not be one of the all-time classic Dredd arcs, but it’s definitely a good one, pitting Old Stony Face against a terrifying villain not too different from himself while straining his relationship with the weakening Chief Judge. At £6.99, it’s not quite the bargain volume one was, but a welcome addition to any bookshelf.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

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I've written a piece on religious satire – controversial topic, I know – in Life of Brian for The Big Picture. Here is that piece.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

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One of British comics’ most iconic characters, Judge Joseph Dredd has been appearing weekly in 2000AD’s pages since 1977. Now with his own Megazine as well, it’s not easy to catch up on the guy’s story so far. New partwork series The Mega Collection aims to solve this problem by reprinting a classic Dredd story every fortnight.

Volume One features Dredd creator John Wagner’s favourite story, America, plus its three sequels. The story that kicked off the more adult Megazine in 1990, America follows two ordinary citizens of Mega-City One. America Jara is the headstrong, idealistic daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants. Bennett Beeny is the timid but musically gifted neighbour she befriends. Their relationship is a love story, but not of the Richard Curtis kind; they grow further apart as America becomes increasingly irate at the fascist authorities Beeny’s happy to submit to, and by the time they’re brought back together, America is a hardened member of activist group ‘Total War’.

It may seem an odd choice to begin a Dredd collection with a story in which Dredd is the villain; he’s a representation of the oppressive, uncaring establishment that America rallies against. It's not an odd choice, it’s a perfect choice. A subversive exploration of the line between activism and terrorism, of police brutality, and of the need for anger against the system, it’s one of the most political, emotional Dredd stories there is – important reading in a world where we far too often find ourselves questioning the behaviour of those who supposedly protect us.

Where the volume loses marks, however, is in America’s sequels, which carry on the story of some of its characters but lose the political charge and place too much action back in the hands of the Judges. 

While The Mega Collection will put you back £9.99 a fortnight, the first volume is available for only £1.99, which, underwhelming follow-ups aside, is a remarkable price for a classic which is powerful, heart-breaking, and subversive – sci-fi storytelling at its best.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

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Thanks to the modern miracle of Netflix, I’ve just finished the fourth and final season of Battlestar Galactica, which is, quite frankly, brilliant. Now, I could write a detailed essay analysing the series, or even review each episode individually, but it would be six years late, plus I have other things to do, so instead here’s a poorly strung together collection of thoughts I had while watching the series:

  • Chief Tyrol has a bloody depressing ending, doesn’t he? His wife dies, he finds out his son isn’t actually his, he tries to get back together with his ex but she's only pretending to care for him so she can kidnap his friend's child, he realises his colleague killed his wife and murders her in a fit of rage (this is the colleague he was married to in a past life), everyone else couples up as he’s left alone. It’s a wonder none of those shots of people admiring Earth’s beautiful cliffs had Tyrol jumping off one in the background.

  • Speaking of Tyrol’s not-son, that was a bit of a fudge... The writers clearly wanted to position Hera as important, but there just happened to be another hybrid child going around since Tyrol had been outed as a Cylon. So they retconned Nicholas to be Hot Dog’s son, despite Cally typically being a very loyal character who I can’t believe would have cheated on her husband.

  • BSG has a tendency to make recurring characters LGBT in spin-off media and then never reference it in the actual show. This isn’t too bad for Admiral Cain’s relationship with a Six in Razor, but the Gaeta/Hoshi relationship is a real problem. They’re madly in love in the Face of the Enemy webisodes, to the point that Hoshi puts his life on the line for a very slim chance of rescuing Gaeta, but then the following actual episodes see Gaeta lead a coup in which Hoshi is presumably on the rival side. Now you’d imagine that must put a little strain on their relationship, and his feelings for Hoshi must have planted some doubt in Gaeta’s mind as to whether he was making the right decision. And yet their relationship is not mentioned at all… With the amount of heterosexual couples in the series, it’s a real shame this relationship wasn’t dealt with further after The Face of the Enemy. A series that was so progressive in terms of redefining science fiction TV feels disappointingly non-progressive in terms of sexual diversity, and this storyline suffers as a result.

  • I’d heard the way BSG ends was very unpopular and so was very concerned as I approached the latter half of season 4. As it continued to be very good, I wondered “at what point is this all going to go to shit?” It turns out all the controversial elements are in the very last part of the three-episode finale… but I’m in the minority here. I liked it.

  • OK, the speed at which the human race collectively agree to all give up their technology and start over is pretty implausible. Granted, that’s a big plot issue with the finale.

  • But the other common criticism I’m seeing (having glanced through the finale’s Wikipedia and Battlestar wiki pages…) is that the supposed appearance of a higher power in the final episode is a big fat deus ex machina. Well, no. It really isn't. This higher power has, as Baltar points out, been there from the beginning – the visions of Six and Baltar, Kara's resurrection, the highly prominent theme of the religious beliefs of both the Colonies and the Cylons. It’s also not a deus ex machina because, though this 'higher power' gives Kara the co-ordinates to Earth, a large amount of the effort in pursuing the main goal of the finale – defeating Cavil and rescuing Hera – is done by our heroes.

  • Though I suppose it is deus ex machina in a very literal sense – the God from the Machine... 

  • I suppose many things could be read into the finale and into what exactly this mysterious force is. I like how much was explained but much more was left unclear. Who needs answers when it’s much more fun to spend the next few days, or month, or years, thinking about it?

  • My personal theory… I got the implication that 'God’ could be a super-intelligent AI developed by the first society to make humanity's mistakes, now manipulating life in order to stop the same mistakes being made. One of the clues to this was the Centurions being let free to roam the universe – a part of Cylon society left behind, as if something like this led to the evolution of a machine God in the past. All of this has happened before...

  • But the big clue, and the line of dialogue I found most intriguing, comes in the final scene...

    Messenger Six: Mathematics. Law of averages. Let a complex system repeat itself long enough, eventually something surprising might occur. That, too, is in God's plan.

    Messenger Baltar: You know it doesn't like that name.

    Now isn’t that fascinating? At some points over the course of the series, I (as an atheist), was worried it would end on a too religious note, with an actual spiritual force revealed to be controlling everything. But that enigmatic final line puts a whole new spin on the theme we’ve been developing for four seasons. Particularly that little word, ‘it’. A machine bigger and more powerful than all of Cylon society, playing with our destinies like a child dicking around with ants. The God from the Machine.

  • The other big talking point of that final scene is, of course, the montage of current robotic technology. All of this happening again. That’s really clever, subversive television, which, like all the best sci-fi does, challenges us to look at our own society, and is executed with style and bravado. OK, I’m not entirely sure about the message that technology makes us corrupt (weren’t cavemen just as twattish to each other, albeit using sticks and stones rather than nerve gas and nukes?), but can get behind the point that contemporary society isn’t exactly a shining beacon of how we should be treating the world.  

  • Interesting that the real climax of BSG was the second part of Daybreak, and the third part was mainly epilogue. But hey, after 77 episodes, it deserved it, and there were some really touching moments. I was struggling to hold back the tears at Kara and Lee’s final scene - perfect, even if I had been hoping they’d get together for frack knows how long. And Adama and Roslin finally get their cabin in the mountains!

  • The Plan, the thing that apparently calls it itself a TV movie and re-tells the story of the first two seasons but from the Cylons' perspective, is really boring. Its purpose seems to be to fill in gaps that didn't need to be filled in, while repeating many scenes we’ve seen before with a lack of focus that strips them of their emotional relevance. Its only real strength is that it builds Cavil up as the mastermind behind many of the Cylon's early attacks, thus strengthening his position as the Big Bad of the series finale.

  • Ronald D. Moore's series bible is available online and is really fascinating from a writer's perspective. Here’s one of my favourite quotes from it about Galactica’s approach to its characters:

    "Our characters are living breathing people with all the emotional complexity and contradictions present in quality dramas like "The West Wing" or "The Sopranos." In this way, we hope to challenge our audience in ways that other genre pieces do not. We want the audience to connect with the characters of Galactica as people. Our characters are not super-heroes. They are not an elite. They are everyday people caught up in a enormous cataclysm and trying to survive it as best they can.

    They are you and me.”

  • It's also really interesting when he talks about the three types of storylines in Galactica - serial, multi-episode, and episodic - which I'd noticed it does a very good job of balancing. The majority of episodes are easy to tune into and enjoy on their own right, while the multi-episode trips to Kobol, New Caprica, etc. really feel like big events, and it's continually evident that the whole series arc – in terms of both plot and individual character development – has been planned out in great detail. 

  • Because of this great structural planning, BSG’s cliffhangers, particularly at the end of seasons, are so, so good. How did people ever wait more than a Netflix buffering time to find out what happened next?
  • The single episodes that work the best are often the ones that take a breather from the action and look at where a particular character is in a particular point in time  – particularly when that character is Starbuck. Including Scar, Someone to Watch Over Me, and the masterpiece that is Unfinished Business, Starbuck is the focus of several heartbreaking, introspective episodes. Though Unfinished Business should be called The Galactica Dances as it steals the 'dancing = sex' metaphor from Doctor Who.

  • One of the other interesting points Ronald Moore makes in the bible is that the series aimed to move away from the Star Trek-esque visual and storytelling style that had become cliché in science fiction. There are no bumpy-headed aliens, transmatting or evil twins here. Rather, it’s a believable, tangible type of space-faring society, with plots including a union strike. The one concession to more fanciful sci-fi tech (until the finale, at least) is Cylon resurrection, but this is a focused enough exception with enough explanation to allow suspension of disbelief.

  • I don’t entirely buy the design of the Cylon ships, though, with their garishly colourful interiors and data streams projected everywhere. It seems one step too far away from their human creators.
  • James Callis is bloody brilliant as Baltar. Selfish and untrustworthy, blundering from one situation to another and somehow gaining more and more power to abuse. He’s a real 'love to hate' character – though with a tiny scrap of conscience underneath all the self-preservation that allows him to be redeemed by the finale. Plus, I watched Bridget Jones’ Diary over Christmas and was surprised to see Dr. Baltar show up as Bridget’s gay best friend. He’s equally great in that, and even does his panicked eye-roll thing.

  • All in all, Battlestar Galactica is very, very good. Not flawless, but it’s politically engaged, character-driven, thrilling science fiction. Because of its cult genre show status, it won’t be, but it really should be listed alongside The Wire and Breaking Bad in the list of shows that constituted the last decade’s rise of quality TV drama.
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The latest issue of Starburst Magazine is ready to be picked up from all not-terrible newsstands today – or purchased online.

It's a robot-themed issue, and I've contributed a preview of Neill Blomkamp's CHAPPiE. My review of Neil Gaiman's upcoming Trigger Warning is also printed. Buy it now, human.

Monday, 5 January 2015

They dance the Continental.

They dance until they ache, and they keep on dancing. They dance until their muscles give in, and they keep on dancing. They dance until they sleep, and they keep on dancing.

Is it the magic of cinema keeping them going? The magic that kept Harold Lloyd hanging to the clock, that turned the gears of Metropolis, that came out of Al Jolson's mouth?

Or is it a darker magic?

The paper cutout of two lovers spins on the record player. Once, their deception would have been obvious. Before the Continental began. Now no-one notices. No-one cares.

Ginger sees something flicker over Fred's once-handsome face as he grabs her waist. A grey hair. Has it been that long? Now they're all grey. The world is grey. The illusion shattered, the magic seeps away, but the dancing continues.

They can't stop. They won't stop.

What I'm saying is, the big final dance number in this film is SO FUCKING LONG.
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If you’re not an obsessive Neil Gaiman fan, you probably know one, and as the fantasy author’s cult following grows, so does his diverse bibliography, which includes novels, comics, Doctor Who episodes, and an appearance in The Simpsons. Those struggling to keep up with everything Gaiman should be pointed towards Trigger Warning, a collection bringing together many of his short stories from recent years, plus two original pieces.

The big selling point of Trigger Warning is Black Dog, a new novella continuing the exploits of Shadow, the ex-convict with a supernatural secret from the author's acclaimed novel American Gods – it's an intriguing progression of its world as well as a clever and meaningful story in its own right, with thought-provoking rumination on the nature of depression.

There’s also Doctor Who story Nothing O’Clock, which pits the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond against the terrifying Kin, A Case of Death and Honey, which asks why Sherlock Holmes would really take up beekeeping in his old age, The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury, a touching tribute to the sci-fi legend who sadly died in 2012, and so much more.

If there's one thing to criticise, it's that only two of the stories are original to this volume, and so Gaiman fans will be already familiar with much of the material. Nevertheless, all the stories old and new showcase Gaiman’s masterful command of the English language, over themes as grand as mythology and as personal as heartbreak, and over what really keeps us awake at night, wondering about that word we can’t remember or that creaking in the floorboard.