Sunday, 14 March 2010

Alice In Wonderland


When I was younger, I was in love with Tim Burton. Not in an 'I want to have his babies!' way, but in my nascent fan state, I remember getting very upset that the UK release of his movie Batman had been raised from the 12 certificate while it was on at the cinema to a 15 on home video. Being only eight at the time, I had hopes that my mother might allow me a 12 film (nice historical sidebar, Batman was the first movie in the UK to be awarded a 12, while Spider-Man in 2002 was the first movie to receive the amended 12A certificate which allowed children under the age of 12 to see it as long as they were accompanied by an adult, making it much closer to the American certification code of PG13). But a 15 film? That was a stretch. I needn't have worried, as my mother still let me see it, probably figuring that a movie about Batman couldn't be that bad. Shortly afterward, my father let me get RoboCop 2, an 18 rated film, out of the video shop.

I fell in love with Batman then. Of course, I was already familiar with the character from the Adam West TV series, which got a repeat airing on Channel 4 thanks to Burton's movie, and my embryonic love of Superman was already well in evidence thanks to endless repeats of the Christopher Reeve movies. In the days before video, it was hard to be a fan, especially when you knew there were such things as comic books, but nowhere nearby sold them with any great regularity. I had a few sporadic issues but nothing near enough to enter into that state of comic-book fandom. Even years later, with the knowledge of stores like Forbidden Planet in Newcastle, I never got the hang of collecting comic books.

Not that it matters. You get the impression that Tim Burton wasn't that bothered about the comic book continuity  either. He takes the basic essence of the character and fashions something that is undeniably Tim Burton. He travels further down that path in Batman Returns which, masterpiece though it undoubtedly is, it is barely a Batman film. It's more a gothic nightmare in which Batman has a supporting role. Tim Burton's gothic nightmare.

Tim Burton, from the start of his career as an animator for Disney, has carved out a unique niche in the film world that no other director has, with the possible exception of Martin Scorsese, who, like Burton, returns again and again to the same themes, often with the same characters. In the field of science fiction and fantasy, Tim Burton's only possible corollary is Terry Gilliam with whom he shares the animation background and a love of the British (or English, to be more precise) culture. But while Gilliam has a reputation for a hard-hitting vein of adult humour where the universe is a nasty place to live so you'd better just get used to it (the wonderful 'Don't touch it! It's Evil!' scene at the end of Time Bandits is a case in point as is the entirety of Brazil) Burton, despite his somewhat macabre outlook, still has the soft heart of a boy who grew up in Burbank, California, a place of endless summer and countless movie productions facilities.

Alice In Wonderland is Tim Burton's fourteenth film in 25 years, a prodigious output, especially for someone working in the fantasy field. It also marks his seventh film with Johnny Depp and his sixth wife his current partner, Helena Bonham Carter, who must count her lucky stars every day that she didn't get stuck in the costume drama trap that seemed inevitable in the mid-nineties. It stars relative newcomer Mia Wasikowska as Alice, an Australian native whose greatest success to date has been the Oz monster-crocodile movie Rogue. And the screenplay was written by Linda Woolverton who holds a special place in many people's hearts as the screenwriter behind some of Disney's modern classics (although I must admit, they don't really rank among my favourites) such as The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Mulan. Her iMDB profile does tell me that she got her break writing for the Star Wars spin-off cartoon show Ewoks and also contributed to one of the greatest cartoons of the 80's; The Real Ghostbusters so she will forever have a special place in my heart.

The title is somewhat misleading, as it is more a sequel to the story of Alice (and in the flashback scenes she is wearing a dress identical to that sported by Alice in the 1951 movie made by Walt Disney) in which she returns to Underland at a time of civil unrest. The Red Queen (Bonham Carter) has Underland under her tyrannical rule and Alice is forced to become the champion to the White Queen (a freakishly ethereal Anne Hathaway). Along the way she allies herself with an assorted group of mismatched companions, principle among them the Mad Hatter (a mesmeric performance by Johnny Depp, although he moves ever further away from the possibility that he might ever be able to play a normal human being again).

This being a Tim Burton film, however, the story is possibly the least important component of the film. The visuals are, as expected, sumptuous and the performances are pitch-perfect. Anne Hathaway doesn't get much to do and as the 'good' queen she could easily have gotten lost in the film, but she imbues her performance with a sense that there is something much more going on underneath and she can switch her emotions with the merest flicker of her eyes. She has come a long way since the potential Disney Princess she played in The Princess Diaries. And her role here more than makes up for the cinematic anathema that was Bride Wars.

Mia Wasikowska, looking uncannily like a young Emilia Fox, carries of the innocence and naivety the role requires, and is far better in the role than Lindsay Lohan would have been (believe it or believe it not, she lobbied for the role, despite her obvious unsuitability for it). Wasikowska manages to convey the journey of Alice from a scared youngster, convinced that Underland is all a dream, to becoming a warrior capable of taking down the Jabberwocky.

The greatest trouble Tim Burton movies have is the lack of emotional cores. It's a problem that stretches all the way back to Pee-Wee's Big Adventure in that it's less of a story and more a sequences of events linked by a number of characters. The only films in his oeuvre which don't suffer from this problem are Ed Wood and Big Fish. Both of which, perhaps coincidentally, are the least fantastic of his films. Even Edward Scissorhands hides behind the essentially emotionless core of a fairy tale; you see Winona Ryder fall in love with Edward but you don't feel it. It's a problem which afflicts Alice In Wonderland but perhaps not one which is Burton's fault. The original Lewis Carroll tales are essentially a series of puzzles and vignettes linked together by the barest of narrative threads. It is up to Burton and Woolverton to reshape the story into something with an emotional payoff, and while the climactic battle with the Jabberwocky, voiced magnificently by the inimitable Christopher Lee, isn't quite as satisfying as the movie demands, and Alice's return to the real world leads to a series of confrontations that reflect Alice's growth while she's been in Underland seem a little strained, it is not quite the point. The tale ends because it has to end, not because it wants to. Alice chooses to return to the real world, just as Will Bloom in Big Fish chooses to accept his father's stories and Batman chooses to remain the Dark Knight even after he's avenged the murder of his parents by Jack Napier. They all choose the right thing to do. Not necessarily the best thing; Bruce Wayne would have had a much easier life had he stopped being Batman, Will buys into his father's stories despite knowing that they are not true and Alice returns home despite how much she belongs in Underland.

In summation, it's not Burton's best film or even his most coherent (those awards belong to Big Fish and Batman respectively) but it is far greater acheivement than the several misfires he's had in recent years, chief among them the hollow and soulless adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the crushing disappointment of the generic and asinine Planet Of The Apes. It is worth seeing, and it's the first film of this year that I've been able to say that about. It is a shame that the 3D doesn't really add much to it as it's fairly obvious that the movie was shot normally and then the 3D grafted on afterwards, unlike Avatar for which the 3D was almost as much a character as the leads. But it isn't something which damages the film.


Saturday, 6 March 2010

Normal Service Will Be Resumed Shortly

Twenty minutes ago I turned 29. Now it's the long countdown to becoming a thirtysomething. And I'm sorry, I've been neglecting you all. So, starting this coming week, You have my word as a blogger that I will endeavour to file at least one substantial review/article a week.

And I am now endorsed by celebrities. Writers supreme David Mack and Keith RA DeCandido both made positive mention on my article about TV tie in fiction, so I heartily recommend that you check out their sites and follow them on Twitter. David Mack's site is at and his Twitter feed is David Mack's Twitter, while Keith RA DeCandido maintains a site here and you can follow his Twitter here. Both are involved in the Farscape comic book series, which looks magnificent and Farscape is still one of those series I love dearly and periodically rewatch (four episodes into Season 3 as of this writing on my current watching). So according to me this is a good thing. A very good thing.

See you soon.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Lions And Tigers And Mobile Phones, Oh My!

Well, this morning came and went. I had a bit of a lie in to recover from working late nights all weekend (and I'm working one tonight to - I'm at present skiving off the back pretending to do paperwork). But, in order to keep up with the 12 Blogs theme, I need to blog something today. Hence why I'm writing this on my BlackBerry and pondering why sf authors never postulated the internet and whether or not Captain Kirk can browse Facebook on his communicator.

It's often said that sf is the only contemporary fiction and there may be a valid point. Most mainstream authors, myself included, tend to stumble along a few years behind everyone else. It was 2003 before I even wrote a mobile phone into a story so convinced was I that they just weren't going to catch on. Today's mainstream novels (a few writers like Iain Banks aside) are just beginning to look at the impact of 9/11 on the world. Sf on the other hand, doesn't need to witness the history firsthand to postulate what the world might come to be.

But still, the power of sf as prophecy is vastly overstated as it is more a comment on the current times (cf. Star Trek's status as the American Metaphor) than a statement of "this is how it will be". So Neuromancer becomes a comment on the eighties rather than a proscribed future. Gene Roddenberry understood this, and he realised that he could use it to his advantage. Thusly, Star Trek's 'A Private Little War' is a balanced argument about Vietnam (and it's a measure of just how balanced in that you can watch the episode and come away thinking it has a pro-Nam outlook, while the person sitting next to you can take an anti-Nam message away from it. Joe Haldeman's masterwork, "The Forever War", published in 1974 when US troops were still in VietNam does much the same thing. It would take him twenty years to deal with Nam in a non-allegorical context with his novel "1968" and it was five years after the withdrawal that Hollywood was brave enough to deal with it in "The Deer Hunter". There's a line in "Watchmen" where the Comedian, played in the movie by Jeffery Dean Morgan in a fearless performance comments that if the US hadn't been victorious in Nam (the story is set in an alternate 1985, remember, where the first superhero, Dr Manhattan, helped to win the war) they would have gone a little crazy as a country. Which obviously a comment on what did happen. But is the present (at the time) offered up by "Watchmen" any better? That's what sf is good for.

Normal service will be resumed shortly.

Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

Monday, 14 December 2009

Why Sci-Fi?

And, just as a point of explanation, I usually abhor the abbreviation 'sci-fi' (although this has more to do with the media's [mis-]use of it that anything else) but I thought it would made for a nice sounding title.

So what is it about sf that appeals to me (and fantasy and horror, which are all generally part of the same genre which I like to call 'the fantastique' if that doesn't sound too pretentious)?

A lot of it, I think, has to go back to my childhood. As I've said elsewhere, the eighties was a prime stomping ground for sf and fantasy films and, to my mind, the genre's childrens shows (He-Man and the Masters Of The Universe, Thundercats, The Mysterious Cities of Gold among others) have never been bettered. That may be nostalgia talking, but I have since gone out and bought episodes on DVD and in the harsh light of day, with the critical eye of a 28 year old, they still hold up. Not all of them, I have to say. Dungeons and Dragons falls flat on its face, for instance, but then, even as a kid, I knew Uni the Unicorn was the most irritating character on TV. I think only the sixties have a claim of better telefantasy for kids and that is primarily down to Gerry Anderson. Mention must also go to Batman: The Animated Series which is quite possibly the greatest cartoon ever produced and which did an almost unprecedented thing; it introduced a character in Harley Quinn who subsequently appeared in the comics.

This exposure at a very early age to the tropes - even if they were dealt with in a basic way - that are the foundations of sf, rewired my brain in such a way that ftl travel, cloning and aliens are as normal to me as going down the pub. My mother and my sister, conversely, never having had this education (if that is indeed the proper word for it) simply cannot comprehend most of it. My sister, for example, loves the Harry Potter books. She also loves Stephen King novels. She cannot, however, get into King's Dark Tower series, to my mind his greatest achievement, because they are, and I quote "too fantasy". And Harry Potter is kitchen sink drama? I reply, sarcastically. But I understand her point of view, in a way. The Harry Potter novels, despite dealing with magic and the like, are set primarily in a world that is just like ours. Potter gets the train to Hogwarts from London. It may be a London that occasionally gets buzzed by wizards who should know better, but it's a London with its Burger Kings and Odeon and Buckingham Palace all the same.

Which is part of the reason I like sf so much. It is so obviously not of this world. It's escapism. It's fabulation. It's metaphor. One of the things most 'literary' critics don't understand is that sf is a genre that can both entertain and inform at the same time. Star Trek, now famous as the Great American Metaphor, was a great part of my upbringing. From the movies - usually on a wet Sunday afternoon on ITV when the cricket had been rained off, to the triple 6pm whammy that BBC2 concocted in the mid-nineties of TNG on a Wednesday, DS9 on a Thursday and the original series on a Friday.

I slipped away from sf in my mid-teens, convinced that I ought to be seeking out something more serious. I think a lot of people do this. They convince themselves of the essential childishness of sf and pack it away. The emerging niche culture of today makes that all too easy. Back in the days of only four channels, SF was something that was just there. Now, with a few notable exceptions (Doctor Who being responsible for most of these, good and bad) your SF fix is holed away somewhere on cable and satellite. Sanctuary and Dollhouse, two big American shows, are hidden away on ITV4 on a Monday night. Because they know that if sf fans want to see them, they will seek them out. We're not lazy like your average viewer. But in my mid-teens, I wandered away and I found the world of movies. I discovered Scorsese and DePalma and Easy Rider and Francois Truffaut and the sublime brilliance of Breathless. I even went to do a degree in Film and Media at university. But something happened.

In my late teens, just prior to my parents divorcing and for quite some time after that, I began to suffer from acute depression. There were numerous factors for it, none of which are really suitable for airing in a public blog, but suffice it to say, the one thing that brought me out of it, that made me somewhat less depressed was sf. I subsequently completed my final year dissertation on feminism in Doctor Who (and remember this is before the Rose Tyler Revolution so my conclusion basically ran "whatever intentions the programme makers had in positive female portrayals were subsumed by the structure and content of the story") and wrote a fair bit of Doctor Who fan fiction. And I was home.

Sf to me is like the best pair of jeans you could possibly own. Because it makes me feel comfortable and good and I enjoy it. I enjoy it more than I do anything else, genre-wise. It's an emotional reaction, I grant you, and one that is far from readily quantifiable, but it is also true. Sf has followed me from infancy to the present day and still interests and excites me with its constantly state of evolution. I could not have imagined, even ten years ago, a computer game so engrossing and so complex as Mass Effect. But here we are, when the sequel is due in six weeks time and the most wanted thing on my pre-order list.

It's not so much about the science (although a great deal of great sf has been written by scientists, one of my favourites being Timescape by Gregory Benford) it's about the possibility of discovery, of seeing and experiencing things far outside the realms or human imagination. And sometimes it's about Robot Chicken because what would sf be if it couldn't take the piss out of itself?

Sunday, 13 December 2009

The Revenge Of The TV Tie-In

As tragic as it might seem to today's youth, where you're apparently born with a mobile phone in your hand and a DVD in your bedroom, it might seem astonishing that I didn't have a TV until I was eleven,  video recorder until I was fourteen and I was actually in my last year of university before I delved into the world of mobile phone ownage. I was only lucky enough to get my own TV when I was eleven because I had won a NES in a competition relating to the release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret Of The Ooze that summer. And for those of you who are good with maths, yes, the NES was six years old by that point and on the Mega Drive was already out. But I didn't care, it was my first games console. And I had a Turtles games for it. Yeah! I was obsessed with the Turtles at that point, and still am in a way.

Oh, and when I first got a TV, we only had four channels. Count 'em, four. The repeat culture was not what it is today whereby if you miss something you can bet it'll be repeated on one of the ancillary channels about five times in the next week and then - if it's anything like Doctor Who - it'll be repeated ad infinitum anyway, even after release on DVD (twice).

Videos were a lot more expensive in those days as well. I spent an awful lot of money collecting all the Star Trek videos (only two episodes per tape! For £13.99! You can pretty much buy an entire season on DVD for that now). And they took up more room, too. I used to have an entire bookcase that was just devoted to my Star Trek video collection. Now, with me owning them all on DVD, it's just two shelves on a bookcase.

But my point is this; we didn't have easy access back in those days to movies that weren't on TV. So film and TV novelisations actually had a point. Certain Doctor Who writers made a living off novelising stories from TV for a hungry audience who either wanted to relive the episode or who had never experienced it in the first place. And Alan Dean Foster built his entire career or novelising pretty much every science fiction film going, as well as his mind-boggling adaptations of Star Trek: The Animated Series.

Funny story about Foster's Animated Series books. They don't read like novelisations. He extrapolates almost book length adventures from a 25 minute television episode. And while sometimes they don't feel like bona fide Star Trek (not least in the adaptation of Larry Niven's The Slaver Weapon, itself adapated by Niven himself from his short story The Soft Weapon) they do make good science fiction.

Perhaps sadly, perhaps not, the rise in popularity of home video and now DVD and Blu-Ray, especially given the minimal time between movies appearing at the cinema and then in your home, the film novelisation process has taken a bit of a battering. Its modus operandi has been lost and it's fairly rare nowadays to see novelisations in the shops, and those that do appear (JJ Abram's Star Trek, written by the old hand of Alan Dean Foster, who, despite the Gene Roddenberry byline, it was rumoured wrote the novelisation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture 30 years ago, Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, Stargate Universe: Air which is a novelisation by James Swallow of the three part pilot to the new series by the company that produces Stargate tie in fiction and who previously novelised the Stargate: Atlantis pilot) tend to be of the big event movies and are, by and large, more like proper novels than those skimpy speed-written 'masterpieces' of days gone by whose designation should be more 'tie-in merchandise' than 'literature'. Peter David, one of the best writers of comics and tie in fiction has made a nice sideline for himself in novelising all of the big Marvel movies that have appeared in the last few years. And of course, in years past, he was responsible for adapting Batman and Robin for prose. But we won't hold that against him, because he's also been responsible for some of the best Star Trek and Babylon 5novels out there.

You see, with the market dwindling for straight adaptations, companies turned to writers to craft original stories set in the same universe. It's an old practice, but one which really came to the fore with Star Trek, after a few novels published in the seventies, starting with the wonderfully titled Spock Must Die! by James Blish, who had novelised the majority of the original series episodes, the range really hit its peak in the eighties and, with the addition of The Next Generation when it aired, and subsequently Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise (and now there has been an announcement of a range of books based in the universe of the new film as well) as well as original novel ranges set in the milieu, like Peter David's New Frontier, there are hundreds of books, millions of words of prose all about Star Trek. Not all of them good, I have to admit. The range is peppered with books by people who were obviously in need of a quick buck and just churned out a Star Trek novel to pay the electricity bill. But after a low point in the late early 2000's, following Enterprise's low ratings and Nemesis' failure at the box office, the books have become re-energised. As with what happened to the Doctor Who novels in the 90's, when they suddenly had no TV series to support, they have become the main avenue for people who want adventures of Kirk, Picard et al. There are numerous comic books out there as well, but I am willing to place good money on the novels - some of which have appeared on the New York Times bestseller lists - sell a lot more than even the best comics.

The people writing Star Trek novels now, like Christopher L Bennett, David Mack, Keith R A DeCandido and Kristen Beyer may well have started out as fans, but so to did some of the best novelists produced by the Doctor Who range. Being a fan is not necessarily a pre-requisite for being a talented author.

The literary Star Trek universe, thanks to a ground-shattering shake-up by David Mack's Destiny trilogy, but which was built up in the previous few books, is now a more exciting place than ever before.

But there's always going to be people who look down on tie-in fiction, purely because it's not 'original'. There was a great brouhaha the first year SFX did their reader awards, because they had not split the 'Novel' section into 'Original' and 'TV/Film Tie-In' which led to Kevin J Anderson's X-Files novel Ground Zero coming top, which subsequently led to an outcry. Every year since, there has been the distinction in the novel categories (and pretty much every year, Terry Pratchett or Iain M Banks wins the original novel, deservedly so). But it was a good decision, because at the end of the day, they are two very different media, even though, at their hearts, they are both prose fiction.

I read both. I'm unashamed of that fact. I like to read books that feature characters from TV who I care about. TV shows are really the only form of drama where we get to know characters on a week-in, week-out basis. It's easier to love someone like James T Kirk because we spend so much time with him, as opposed to someone in a film which is like a two-hour date, or a five hundred page novel, which is like a fling. Watching a TV show is a long-term relationship.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

The 12 Blogs Of Christmas

Hello there. Me again. Yes. Me. Thought you'd got rid of me, hadn't you. And I was almost lost to the madness that surrounded the NaNoWriMo. I managed 20,000 words in the first week and a bit, then caught a monstrous case of the flu, managed to not write anything. In fact, it was a minor miracle that I didn't keel over at work. I was getting up for work, going, coming back home and going straight to bed. The worst case of flu I've had for a long while.

So, I managed to write a few thousand more words before I realised that A) I'd completely lost the thread of what I was doing and B) I probably didn't have enough plot for an entire novel. And you can probably add C) In which I (re)discover that I can't write science fiction for toffee. It was nice while it lasted though. It's been a long time since I've written that much, and certainly since I've written that much in such a short space of time. I think once Christmas is over and done with, it'll be back to the mainstream novel.

Which brings me, in a wonderfully roundabout way to my festive plans. Now, I'm an atheist, and so don't believe in A) God, B) The Baby Jesus, C) Santa Claus, D) The Movie "The Snowman". But I celebrate Christmas. Which makes me a hypocrite. But it's like the year and a half I spent as a tee-totaller, you spend more time trying to explain your philosophy of life and half the time people don't believe you anyway. So, yeah, an atheist Christmas. For the past two years my previous blog (the now defunct Pulp Fictions) has contained entries concerning this. So it's old hat. This year I've decided to do something a little different.

Hopefully, I can keep on top of this.

I'll be posting an article every day for the 12 days of Christmas. I'll be covering a variety of film related topics from superhero movies, to Film and TV tie-in fiction and the question of why zombie movies just don't tickle me. I hope you'll join me on this. See you tomorrow. Peace out.

Friday, 30 October 2009


If only. I know I've been a little quite on the blogging front lately, and for that I apologise. I am working on reviews for Triangle and Zombieland, as well as a piece on Star Trek novels.

However... November is almost upon us and I have decided to take the plunge and take part ion this years NaNoWriMo - which for those of you not au fait with it is an attempt by a great many people to write a novel of at least 50000 words in a month, essentially from the 1st November to the 30th. Insane, perhaps, but it only boils down to a minimum of 1667 words a day, which, if I'm properly motivated, is about an hour and a half's work for me, and I'm on holiday for the last week in November, so hopefully if I have fallen behind by then I can catch up.

So what am I writing? Well, I toyed with a great many ideas, even going so far as to consider Bridge End, and a post apocalyptic novel structurally based on American Idiot by Green Day. But in the end, after thinking how cool it would be to write a Star Trek novel, I have gone for finally writing Leviathan, the first (although not chronologically) tale in the Richard Swan saga. It's not the most complicated novel, but I do know the universe already, which helps when writing sf. So, I may be insane, but I have to give this a go.

All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that if I don't pop up here with any great frequency, it's because I'm plugging away at my novel. I'll keep you apprised of my progress, if you're interested :)

Peace out.