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Friday, November 23, 2018

Comic Cuts - 23 November 2018

Things might be changing here at Bear Alley for a while. It's no secret that I've been looking for work for a few months and it now looks as if I've been successful, at least in the short term. I still have a couple of meetings to get through, so wish me luck!

It will likely mean that I might be posting less for the next three or four months. I'm not planning a shut down or anything that drastic, but if you wander by on a Friday morning and don't see the usual whaffle from me revealing all the news that's fit to print from my mostly incredibly dull life, you'll know why. If it all pans out, the workload is going to be quite intense.

Not that I've had my feet up all week. I have a couple of things on the go. Bubbling under everything else, I've had a little annual indexing project running for months, I've started on gathering material for a pitch for a book, and had some actual paying work to contend with. The latter takes precedence, obviously, so I currently find myself with a couple of essays partly written, some annuals partly indexed, and the pitch developed only in rough and in no fit state to present to anyone.

Mind you, my life is littered with half-finished projects. Some that I regret the most is a history of The Man in the Iron Mask – the French historical/Alexander Dumas one, which I beavered away on for some weeks back in January 2009. I wrote 20,000 words and then had to take on some work that would pay the rent. I still have them, but, nine years on, I haven't a clue what I was planning or where to pick up the thread of what I was writing. The Valiant Index consists of about 40,000 words of notes, but that at least can be picked up at some stage. Ditto the long-planned expansion of The Mike Western Story.

One day...

I've finally caught up with season two of Colony, a science fiction series about the aftermath of an alien invasion. Usually these would turn into SF westerns, with groups of survivors in communities that resemble the old-style wild west. Not this one. This is far more urban guerilla warfare than cowboys vs. raiders. More V or Falling Skies than Defiance. The really big difference is that you don't meet the aliens, nor do we know what their motives are.

By coincidence, I'm reading Steel Beach by John Varley, which is part of his loosely connected Eight Worlds series. That, too, begins with an alien invasion of Earth, scattering a meagre handful of survivors around the solar system... but we never meet the aliens and have no idea of what they look like, what they want or what their plans are; they just arrived, stomped all over humanity and, within days, owned the planet. Two hundred years on, we still know nothing about them. I have to admit that I rather like that. Ditto Cloverfield, which doesn't waste time trying to explain the monsters – how can you assign human motivation to these alien creatures? They're beyond comprehension.

On TV, the motives are rather simpler. Conquest makes a little sense if the Earth has something the aliens need, although it would have to be in huge quantities to make the expenditure worth while. If they can get dozens, if not hundreds, of spaceships from their planet into Earth orbit, its not a power source – they clearly have that covered already. It's not water because it has got to be cheaper to make water (mix one oxygen to two hydrogen) than to ship it interstellar distances; humans as a food source are going to be a bit stringy unless we're bulked up like Mr Universe. No, most reasons TV uses for alien invasion don't make much sense.

In Colony the Hosts, as the aliens are known, have assigned  humans to various positions, some of power in the Transitional Authority and others making up an Elite overseeing the military occupation of sectors divided by vast walls dropped into place by the aliens. Movement between these "blocs" is strictly limited. Resistance results in being sent to labour camps or, worse, off-planet to the Factory

In Los Angeles, Will Bowman (Josh Holloway) and his family, wife Katie (Sarah Wayne Callies), and children Bram and Gracie, are separated from younger son Charlie, caught in another block when the wall descends. The first season established the basic situation, saw Will join the Redhats, a militarised police force set up to quell insurrection from the resistance movement, of which Katie is part.

As the second season opens, Will has gained a pass to Santa Monica where Charlie was lost and Katie is trying to resist aiding the Resistance and putting her family in danger now that her main contact Broussard is in hiding. Katie's sister, Maddie, has become the lover of Nolan Burgess, a figure in the Transitional Authority. Bram has been captured trying to escape under the wall.

I think this latest batch of thirteen episodes was even better than the first season's ten. There's a lot going on as Will tries to bring Charlie home and Katie is dragged back into the Resistance to team up with Broussard, who is trying to get a piece of alien tech out of the city. A new resistance movement, the Red Hand, begins targeting anyone they think of as collaborating or aiding the Hosts; and the authorities are preparing for something they're calling The Greatest Day with a zeal usually reserved for religion.

Cut to the chase... I really enjoyed this show. There was a lot of new plot developments as well as plenty of action. With a limited number of episodes (compared to the 22 normally given to a show on the major networks in the USA), the story isn't stretched to the point you start shouting at the TV; it feels as if the status quo of the show has been truly shaken up and the plot moved on. All the actors do a fine job, but I have to confess a soft spot for Peter Jacobson as the weasily Snyder, Governor of Los Angeles in Season One who is demoted to warden of a labour camp outside the walls for most of Season Two before he weasels his way back into Los Angeles. The soft spot is a patch of quicksand – he's not a nice man, after all – but it's a soft spot nonetheless.

Sadly, Season Three is the last, but it may be a while before I get around to it.

If I have the weekend to myself, I normally choose a show that Mel wouldn't be especially interested in – the last couple of times she's had to attend shows over a weekend have coincided with the release of Iron Fist and Daredevil from Netflix, which I've been able to binge watch. This weekend I hadn't anything saved up, so I rewatched a couple of films instead, two old favourites that I haven't seen for a while.

First up, The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), based on the novel by Elleston Trevor. James Stewart heads a fantastic cast as a grouchy pilot flying a mixed group of oil company workers, a couple of soldiers and a doctor to Benghazi when a sandstorm shuts down the engines of his Fairchild C-82 Packet cargo plane. Stuck in the Sahara, and too off-course to be found, the survivors face the prospect of dying from thirst, reacting to the prospect in a variety of ways.

One, a German engineer, quietly examines the wreckage and determines that there might be a way to reconstruct a serviceable aircraft using the one working engine, with its passengers lying on the wings.

My second choice was The Thing from Another World (1951) based on the John W. Campbell story 'Who Goes There?'. I heard recently that Campbell had written the story, originally published under the pen-name Don A. Stuart in 1938, as a novel, which he cut down for publication. There is a kickstarter to publish the novel, Frozen Hell, which must be one of the most successful kickstarters of all time: the publishers wanted $1,000 and currently there has been $129,000 pledged by over 4,000 people!

The film is a black & white classic. An isolated group in the Arctic (Antarctic in the original story) discover a circular flying craft has crashed into the ice. Their attempts to recover it using thermite to melt the ice result in the craft exploding but they are able to recover what appears to be a figure in the ice, which they take back to their base. The block melts and the alien creature rampages around the base and its vicinity, picking off any dogs and humans who get in its way.

A plant-based lifeform, it is almost impossible to kill. Also, the chief scientist on the base chooses to hide some of the things he has discovered about the creature, leading to a conflict between those who want to kill the alien and those who hope to communicate with it.

Both films have been remade. The Thing (1982), directed by John Carpenter, is considered a cult classic, but it's a very different film, one that I happen to like. There was a prequel, also released under the title The Thing (2011) which I've seen once and I can't really remember anything about it, good or bad. The Flight of the Phoenix remake (2004) starred Denis Quaid with Giovanni Ribisi as the designer who rebuilds the plane. It's half an hour shorter, and pointless if you have access to the original.

Our random scans this week are a little selection of books by screenwriter William Goldman, who died on 16 November at the age of 87. He was a prolific writer of screenplays, novels and non-fiction books, famously of Adventures in the Screen Trade. I almost chose Marathon Man as one of my weekend watches, but I recently rewatched another of his films, All the President's Men, about the Watergate scandal. Here's the Guardian obituary if you want to discover more about him... you've probably seen more movies written by Goldman than you realise.

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