Sunday, 24 January 2016

The End of the World.

The other night I was looking for something to watch on TV and my eyes fell on my Blu-ray of " 2012", which I had bought in a sale some time ago, and for some reason hadn't got around to watching. So I decided to give it a spin and popped it in the machine.

What can I say about 2012 other than its two and half hours of comedy gold. It's about the ancient Mayan prophesy (or something or other) that the world was going to end in 2012, so I guess it was a disaster movie, which isn't one of my favourite genres. Several sequences had me roaring with laughter. One last-second escape followed another last-second escape until the film was just a string of last-second escapes. No car could drive down the road without being chased by a fissure, no plane could fly without having an underground train being thrown at it (just like in Skyfall, it missed) and skyscrapers toppled over like dominoes. Sure the special effects were pretty good, but the whole thing quickly took on the tone of a Warner Brothers cartoon. As millions of people died in numerous horrible ways (most of which we thankfully don't see) our hero, who is a failed writer, lives through a sequence of disasters that would have killed even Batman. What's the Brave New World to do with a failed writer?    

Sadly for the film, we're all still here in 2016. Just about. Does that mean that we, the people who paid good money to see the film, either at the cinema or on DVD or Blu-ray, are eligible for a refund? After all I'm sure many people went to see 2012 in the belief that the prophesy was correct and that it was all going to happen; if not exactly in the same way that it unfolds on screen. I'm sure others could sue for distress, for making us believe that was world was going to end for real when there was nothing to get worried about.

But if watching "2012" did anything, it got me thinking about how much us humans enjoy predicting and thinking about the end of the world.

Honestly, we're obsessed with it. We actually enjoy it, in some obscene way. In fact I would go further and say we’re looking forward to it.

For example, almost every day there's a TV program about, well, the end of the world, playing on one station or another, with our extinction caused by...

Bird flu.
Super volcanoes.
Global warming.
Third world war.
The Wrath of God (caused by His/Hers/Its disapproval of, well, whatever it is you don't like).
The zombie apocalypse.
Cats becoming intelligent.

The list goes on and on.

Of course one day the world will actually end – everything comes to an end, eventually -- but be it tomorrow or in several million years from now, I bet you that there will be someone there saying, "I told you so" with a big grin on his smug face as the world burns.

So why are we looking forward to the end of the world so much? Why do we enjoy the anticipation? I guess one reason would be because we dislike each other so much. After all "they" are greedy, lazy, stupid, have a different skin colour, different religion, more/less money and have generally lousy hygiene. We're more than happy to see "them" get their comeuppance, forgetting that we will get our comeuppance along with them, but we're willing to forget all that. For many people the end of the world is selective, and we're not the ones being selected.

Another possibility is that we enjoy the fear, like when we ride on a rollercoaster, or see a horror movie, or takes part in an extreme sport. In a sense we know the world isn't going to end tomorrow, but we like pretending -- when we hear that a meteorite will pass within a million miles of the earth, or when we see the last ice-cap slip under the waves, or if some chap sees the world exploding in his morning cornflakes – that it will. Somehow these dangers feel remote to us, as if they're never going to happen, and because of that we feel a little bit more alive. Living life on the edge can sometimes be fun.

Of course, if anything is going to destroy the world and wipe out humanity, it's more likely than not to be caused by...humans. Yup those squidgy little organisms that celebrate greed and power above everything else. (And even if you don't celebrate greed, you're forced to be greedy by the system, or else you'll be living in a cardboard box under a bridge somewhere). We have developed quite a knack for the self-destruction over the last few thousand years and all it takes is some nutcase... 

Or do we look forward to the end of the world in the hope that it will bring a new start? A new beginning? Something fresh and new. Sadly the chances are we won’t be around to see it for ourselves, but maybe the time is right for the rise of feline empire. Let's just hope were not their playthings.

Great Expectattions.

You've been waiting for this day for over a year -- maybe even longer -- and finally it arrives.


You travel to your favourite bookstore, your heart beating like a drum and... and... there it is! Not just one, but a whole pyramid of the book that you know will make your life complete -- at least for the next few days.

The new Lord Snodberry Mystery: A Murder in Blue.

You've read the last seven Lord Snodberry mysteries and you can feel it in your bowels that this is going to be the best one yet. Nothing can possibly beat this, not even winning the lottery. Nothing!

With sweating hands you buy the book (the bookseller isn't surprised, he's seen that dumb/elated expression a thousand times) and you resist taking a peek inside as you ride the bus/train home. It's so hard, but it's a pleasurable pain. You know that the best is yet to come.

Finally you're home. Cup of tea brewed, chocolate biscuits on a plate, a suitable soundtrack playing on the iPhone. Phone off the hook, the cat put out, the dog locked in the back room, the husband/wife sent packing to his/her parents house for a long weekend. From this moment on it's all about you.

With shaking fingers you turn the first few pages, savouring even the flyleaves and that copyright rubbish they insist on putting there. At last you see it: text! Words! Story!

The adventure begins, and you’re going along for the ride.

Chapter One.

You begin to read with tears in your eyes, which slightly blurs your vision. You have to blink several times to bring the words back into focus. This is a big deal.

"I say, Charlie," said Lord Snodberry as he pulled the shawl around his narrow shoulders, "does this shade of blue match my eyes?"

What? Well, that was certainly a strange start. Your smile falters, but then comes back slowly, bravely. There is probably an entirely logical reason for this strange start. This must have something to do with a very complicated murder case that involves eye shadow. You read on regardless, expecting the mystery to reveal itself at any moment. One hundred pages pass and Lord Snodberry is still ignoring all the murders in the village and trying to find the perfect outfit to show off his figure, but it's only when you get to the part where Lord Snodberry says "He was murdered, you say? How strange. In my former life I would have certainly taken up the case with relish, but right now I'm having my living room decorated in chintz and I really don't have the time". That's it you throw the book down in disgust, resolving never to read another Lord Snodberry mystery for as long as you live, and you never do (even though the next one, Lord Snodberry Returns, is considered a classic).

Expectation is a strong emotion, but having that expectation dashed can result in an ever stronger emotion: hatred.

The problem with "great expectations" is that readers and authors look on sequels in different ways. The readers thinks "Oh goody, another book," while some authors (just ask Arthur Conan Doyle or Ian Fleming) think, "oh, do I have to write another book" (rolls eyes). Now consider that the reader expects that every sequel should be the same but different and yet better than all of the books proceeding it, then you can see that the poor writer can crash very quickly trying to maintain a forever upwardly climbing level of excellence.

This impossible to achieve escalation soon causes the author to start thinking outside the box, looking at the character or format from a different angle, or even being experimental with the format, just to keep the series going and keep it interesting, while the reader simply wants the story to be a rattlingly good yarn similar to all the others in the series (but, you know, better). Of course sometimes the experiment works, just as long as the reader gives it a shot, and then the author is declared a genius and ahead of his/her time.

But sometimes the problem has nothing to do with inspiration, rather the lack of it. The deadline’s looming and the poor writer simply hasn't had a good enough idea in time and has to just start writing and hope it will all come together at the end. Sometimes this can garner unexpectedly good results, and sometimes it can be a disaster.

But there's another kind of expectation: the expectation for a sequel to a book that's so good, so original and so incredible that there's no way the writer can possibly follow it up. The original book was a one-off, and everything the writer produces afterwards will always be a disappointment, no matter what he does.

Here I'm going to take two examples of foiled expectations, but taken from films rather than books, because they’re the ones that occurred to me first. Warning, there are some SPOILERS here.

The Matrix Sequels. Everybody was left breathless at the end of the first movie: humanity hiding behind computer-game style avatars were going to take on the nasty machine avatars in an arena that looked like the normal world. It was going to be a battle royale. What we got instead was a surprisingly meditative look at moral shades of grey, not just for the humans but for the machines as well. Whereas in the first film good/evil was clearly defined, here it wasn’t, and that led to ambiguity. The audience, who just wanted lots of kung-fu, explosions and weird Sci-fi stuff going on, were left disappointed and walked.   

The Dark Knight Rises. At the end of The Dark Knight it hints that poor old Batman will be chased through the streets of Gotham by the cops as he tries to fight the rotters, turned into a pariah to protect the false heroism of the horrible disfigured Harvey Dent. None of that happens. What we got instead was Bruce Wayne in retirement, brooding and still mourning the death of his lover. Actually I quite like TDKR but the world feels different compared to the previous films, sort of broken, just as Bruce Wayne is. This film is the logical next step after TDK, but the little details aren't there, which makes me think the writing of the TDKR was rushed, or the film had to go into production before the script was ready (which happens a lot).

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Opening Chapters: Trap, Pamper or Gatekeeper.

First chapters of a novel -- or indeed the first paragraph, first sentence, first word -- are very important; every writer knows it to be true. We sweat and labour over them like you wouldn't believe. Blood has been known to be spilled getting the first chapter just right, and it's not always the author's! Often the last thing to be completed on a novel is the first chapter. Every author wants the reader to finish their book because, hot damn, they spent a year+ of their lives writing the bloody thing -- a year that could have been spent drinking beer, playing with the kids, having kids, listening to music, flicking cards against a wall or getting a degree in economics -- and to have them stumble at the first chapter, well that's just wrong. They want the reader to like the book so they will pick up his or her next book, and the one after that, and the one after that. Also, canny readers who still frequent book shops (heroes, even single one of them) will often pooh-pooh the cover and the back-cover blurb and go straight to the first chapter to see if it's really what they're looking for; and if it isn't, well back onto the shelf the book goes and on they search.

But here's the thing: there are three types of opening chapter.

The first type is what I shall call the Trap Chapter.

The Trap chapter is there to capture the reader's attention, preferably in the first sentence. Usually the Trap chapter will start in the middle of the action, or present the reader with a mystery that won't be resolved until much later in the novel; maybe not until the very end of the novel. Descriptions and dialogue are often terse and to the point, sometimes verging on the daft, or overly-dramatic. Lots of exclamation points! Thrillers, mystery, horror and adventure novels often use a Trap Chapter in the hope of hooking the reader into the narrative. "What happens next?" screams the reader in frustration. “Give it to me now!” Ha ha, you've gotta wait, chummy! The problem is that sometimes the Trap has been tacked on simply for that purpose: to get that credit card out of your wallet, and it's not until you reach the end of the book that you realise that the Trap was either addressing a relatively minor aspect of the book, or it simply had nothing to do with the story at all, or failed to resolve the mystery in a satisfying way. You've been duped, buddy!

Books with Trap opening chapters are NEVER found on coffee tables, and infrequently in bookcases, as if one is ashamed to be seen with them, but frequently in bedrooms, on aeroplanes, trains and beaches. Such books are usually given away with undue haste and later found in jumble sales and charity stores. They are often well-thumbed, with broken spines and more than a few coffee stains. Their authors usually live in yachts floating somewhere off the coast of the Caribbean, or chalets in Switzerland.

Next up, the Pamper Opening Chapter.

Unlike the Trap Chapter, the Pamper Opening Chapter is there to beguile the reader with its sheer beauty: the beauty of the prose, the beauty of the characters; the lyrical, almost poetic dialogue, although the novel might not actually be about beautiful things but about war and nastiness, because war and nastiness can be beautiful too, you know, if you look at them in a certain way. Pamper chapters are usually well written, maybe over-written, and the description of a sunset over a lake can take up as much as two pages, bombarding the reader with such sights and smells that they can actually imagine themselves being there. The power of nostalgia and wanting is important here.

Such books are often found on coffee tables just after their glowing release, and then quickly bundled away when their star has faded, or, in the bookshop’s recommended section if they have endured. Their authors live in North London.

And then, finally, there's the Gatekeeper Opening Chapter.

The Gatekeeper opening chapter is the opposite of the Trap. It's like a test the reader has to endure, an obstacle course of words that needs to be cleared before the rest of the book opens up. In essence, the gatekeeper opening chapter says: if you can get through this, then you're ready to proceed. Often the opening sentence will be about something really clever that will make the reader's mind boggle and think "wow, this writer is one damn clever cat, I better read more, it might rub off on me", but for the life of him he won't be able to actually fathom what the chapter was about, and take that to be a sign of his own stupidity, because it had to mean something really deep, man. In fact the whole chapter will make little or no sense, but give a veneer of logic and intelligence that the reader of these novels will be irresistibly drawn to. Quite possibly the narration will be occurring in the head of a person in a mental asylum, or a wounded soldier on a battle field, ruminating on the craziness and futility of life, or even from the perspective of an inanimate object, like a pencil sharpener. Things will pop in and out of reality and the dead will talk riddles and dogs will talk philosophy. Dialogue will be obtuse and sentences will be constructed in such a way that nobody will ever be able to tell if they're actually well written or not. By the end of reading the first chapter – or indeed the opening paragraph – one will probably have a throbbing headache; but that will be perceived to be a good thing in that the brain has just received a judicious stretching.

Such books are always found on coffee table, often with a bookmark placed about quarter of the way in, but the pages are pristine, as if no human thumb has ever thumbed them. They have usually won many major literary prizes and their authors live a perilous existence in Parisian garrets, chain-smoking Gauloises and drinking espressos outside Shakespeare & Company on the Rue de la Bûcherie while they fix the hole in their shoe with a stale croissant.

Of course this is all very tongue-in-cheek nonsense, or is there some truth to it? Hmmm. You decide.

Friday, 3 July 2015

On Dragons.

Its official, dragons are getting bigger. Look at medieval woodcuts of the fabled beastie and you'll notice they were about the size of a spaniel, but now they've grown to the size of a house, or even a jumbo jet, and with every passing year they get bigger. At this rate they'll be the size of the moon by the time Apple have invented the iFingernail, and there's no sign of them stopping there.

Dragons are also (and we're talking here about the European dragon rather than the Asian one) scaly and often come, Dungeons & Dragons style, colour coded. Red ones breathe fire, blue ones electricity, green ones poison or just a lot of snot. There's silver ones (really important) and gold ones (even more important) and platinum ones (a dragon king), but the poor bronze ones get the cold shoulder and the less said about the tin one the better. They have long tails and snouts, long leathery wings and sly yellow reptile eyes that can see in the dark.

Dragons are really really brainy, but they're also really really greedy, which means they can easily be tricked, just so long as you're good at playing tricks and doing riddles and such. If you're bad at tricks and lousy at riddles...well, let's just say if you can't do the Times' cryptic crossword in under fifteen minutes then you're as good as lunch. Brainy dragons can often speak numerous human tongues and Mensa-level dragons are usually telepathic, which makes it easier for them to speak because dragons find forming human words difficult and often sound like they're speaking while chewing on a mouthful of bowling balls.

Dragons (at least post-cocker-spaniel age dragons) eat herds of cows or sheep, and sometimes even chickens or flocks of ducks straight out of the sky, but what they really like is a nice juicy maiden. Oh, they go crazy for that finger-licking maiden taste; but every meal has its expiry date, and when the maiden is no longer a maiden the dragon quickly loses interest in eating her, which is good news for the ex-maiden. The trouble is finding a maiden in the first place, so the wise dragon will usually resort to harassing the nearest town or village until they do the job for him and give up one of their own. Said poor damsel is then usually tied to a stake or rock outside of the town, where the dragon then usually takes the time to "air-out" the damsel somewhat (all the blubbing and crying makes them quite bitter), by which time a gallant knight has ridden past, killed the dragon and rescued the damsel from both her bonds and her maidenhood. 

Some have theorised that dragons aren't actually after the damsel at all, but after the knight, using the hapless maiden as nothing more than bait to lure the knight to him, desiring the tasty novelty of tinned meat. After all tinned meat keeps for a long time. Some have also postulated that maybe the dragons aren't male at all, but mostly female, which means they are more attracted to male virgins than female. This cannot be proven as nobody has yet managed to look under a dragon's tail and live to tell the tale.

Not all dragons are evil, some have given up eating maidens (or tinned meat) and gone veggie. A few of the really dumb ones allow stupid humans to ride on their backs they like they were some sort of winged taxi, but in truth any dragon with a shred of pride wouldn't allow a semi-evolved ape to ride on their back, let alone tell them where to go, even if they paid them all the compliments in the world, and gave them all the treasure too.
But where do dragons come from? From whence did they spring? Did ancient man come across the bones of dinosaurs and summoned up dragons by wondering what sort of beasts they belonged to, or did some mariner tell tall stories about the strange beasts he saw in far off lands? Of course in olden days dragons were often called wyrms, so maybe they're the projection of the reptilian parts of the human brain, or could it be that a grass snake gave someone a fright, and as every fisherman knows, no story would be complete without at least a little exaggeration.

Or are dragons something completely different? Maybe they were never real to begin with, but are simply metaphors for all that is powerful and uncaring in the world: huge, incredible strong, inhuman, reptilian, consuming all and breathing fire that destroys everything it touches. They lay the ground waste, reduce whole towns to ash, eat the young and the innocent without remorse and enslave all that they can bend to their considerable will.  Does these not sound like the attributes of certain persons who desire power, and will do anything (and sacrifice anyone) to gain it and then keep it? We shouldn't be surprised that dragons are often associated with kings and rulers and the very powerful, even to vampires, who are themselves metaphors for the rich and powerful. As the anxieties and pressures of the modern age grow, so does the popularity -- and size -- of dragons. They're almost neck-for-neck. In all good stories the hero slays the dragon, or tames him and flies off into the sunset on his back, and maybe this is the wishful thinking of the common folk: that every dragon can be tamed, or if not tamed, slain. But as we all know, dragons can slumber for thousands of years, and they will always awaken when we least expect it. And they are always hungry. 

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Thoughts on Star Wars, Star Trek and Thunderbirds.

(Note: I wrote this article a few weeks ago, before the Avengers 2 and the new Star Wars VII trailer were released, but I thought I'd put it up to get this blog started.)

Star Wars.

A recent perusal of the shelves of a Forbidden Planet in London made me come to the conclusion that if Disney isn't careful, they're going to kill the Star Wars franchise deader than anything George Lucas could have done (and he had a pretty good go at it), simply by over-exposing it. How many more comic books are Marvel intending on launching? Is there going to be a Han Solo #1? C3PO #1? How about Salacious Crumb#1, or even The Adventures of Jar Jar Binks #1? And then there's the novels, the computer games, merchandising and whatnot, not to mention the actual films, of course, of which they're planning on squeezing out one a year. Yes, I'm as interested as everyone else to see what Part VII is going to be like (I wouldn't say excited yet), but all fans have a breaking point, and if they feel they're being treated like idiots they'll turn their backs on Star Wars and go elsewhere. Maybe I'm wrong and it will turn out that the fans have an insatiable demand for all things Star Wars, but all it takes is a few stinkers and the Star Destroyer will go straight down into Endor, just like it did in Part VI.

I hope this doesn't happen because I love myself a bit of Star Wars, with some notable exceptions (I'm looking at you Return of the Jedi), and I hope I get to see a few more good Star Wars movies before my midichlorion count reaches zero and I do an "Obi-Wan" style fade-out.

Another worry for me regarding the new Star Wars film is that this time George Lucas is completely missing from the creative process. Whatever people say about the Prequel Trilogy (and they said some real nasty things), without George there would have been no Star Wars, and for me the world belongs to him. For all its many flaws the Prequel Trilogy actually contains a very powerful message and does things that no other Hollywood studio would dare do, either then or now. This was only possible because Lucas financed all the films (bar the first one) himself. Now that George Lucas has been put out to pasture, can Star Wars retain that story telling daring, its identity, or will it become just more homogenised Hollywood pap? We won't know the answer to that one until December.

Star Trek.

Unlike Star Wars, but like Thunderbirds, Star Trek has been with me since year dot. I thought the recent reboot movie was entertaining but nothing more than that, while 2013's "Into Darkness" was a rather dull affair. The main problem with these films is that Captain Kirk is portrayed as a cartoon version of himself (watch the TV series, he doesn't act like that at all) and that Spock has been repositioned as the central character. The whole point of Kirk (and the main strength of the TV show) is that his personality has been split into two individuals, who stand to either side of him like those angels and devils you see in old cartoons, sitting on Daffy Duck's shoulder, giving him guidance. On one side you have "Bones" McCoy: human, caring, flawed, impulsive and rebellious. On the other is Spock: cold, calculating, brilliant, loyal and as straight as an arrow -- also a bit of a sex maniac when the mood takes him. They are Captain Kirk's character externalised, allowing us to witness his thought process, the battle between his humanity and the expediency that command sometimes requires. Move Spock into the middle and suddenly the equation doesn't balance. Recently it has been revealed that Simon Pegg is involved in writing the new Star Trek movie, and I can only hope they return Kirk to his rightful place, as captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise.


Like Marmite, I think you have had to have grown up with Thunderbirds to really appreciate it. I used to sit with my sister in the living room, eating our Sunday lunches while watching the adventures of the Tracy brothers, and it's as part of my childhood as Star Trek and Doctor Who. A few days ago (Saturday 4th March) the first episode of a new series was broadcast on TV. For me nothing can beat the old marionettes, they're part of the show's charm, and not even Team America (itself brilliant) has dented my enthusiasm for visible wires -- but what was always more important was the amazing vehicles International Rescue used. There was nothing like them at the time, either on TV or in the cinema, and I really think Gerry Anderson could have become the UK's version of Walt Disney. The vehicles were really the stars of the shows and the makers knew it. Anime owes a lot to Gerry Anderson, as do I, although I would say Captain Scarlet was a bigger influence on me than Thunderbirds. Watch the first episode of Captain Scarlet on YouTube, and be amazed at how much incident and invention they manage to pack into twenty minutes of TV.  My dream is to see James Cameron make a 300 million dollar movie of Captain Scarlet.

My impression of the new TV series was mixed, but I have to concede that while the original show was aimed at a family audience (and the one thing you could always say about a Gerry Anderson production was that it never talked down to you), this one was aimed squarely at kids, which is a pity (for me, not the kids). I didn't like the character designs much, although they may grow on me, and some of the voice acting was weak -- there's also an annoying "Iron Man" style robot around to provide the comedy. The story was rushed and I have no idea why the Hood (the show's main villain) was wheeled out so soon, to stand there and go "I'll get you, International Rescue! BWA-HA-HA!" Of course what really matters is the action, and this is where the show came to life. I shall stick with the new Thunderbirds for the time being.