Archive for April, 2009

THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971)

14 April 2009

Lucas’s first feature, based on an idea by Matthew Robbins which became a story by Lucas and then a script by Lucas and sound editor Walter Murch – it remakes and extends his student film THX 1138 4EB (1967). It was produced under the umbrella of Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope and Warner Bros.

The film is a dystopia where peoeple have letters and numbers as names, little more than registration numbers. THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) works with radioactive materials, but his mandatory drugs are being replaced by placebos by his mate, LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie). This allows his sexual desire to return and they have sex. Drug evasion and copulation are both illegal, and they are arrested. THX faces brain washing, and ends up in an all-white cell limbo with SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasence) – who ironically enough had been trying to become THX’s roommate (why, I’m not sure). The two escape and go on the run – SEN is recaptured, but THX reaches ground level and watches the sunset.

This is perhaps the most depressing Lucas material – the most deliberately depressing Lucas material, and the film was initially rejigged by the studio. The limited release saw a small but not significant profit, and a restored late-1970s re-release did little better. Naturally the DVD is a director’s cut, with added CGI crowd and world building, and the odd extra shot. Some of these make more links between THX and SEN. THX does escape, but SEN does not, and the pregnant LUH seems to be dead. There is a bird or two in shot at the end, but the sun is setting, suggesting the end of times.

The banning of sex and the imposition of sedatives are dystopian stand-bys, but the item that doesn’t convince is the insistence on consumption – aside from the consumption or ingestion of drugs. No one seems to own anything – the apartments are virtually bare aside from masturbation machines and holograms. But the satire of the cost of policing – which allows THX eventual escape – is still relevant today.

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Blakes 7 (Series 2)

14 April 2009

This appears to have destroyed my DVD player.

Here the initial fellowship begins to breakdown – the Liberator faces its original owners, and then Blake starts a rather desultory story arc. He hears of a central Federation computers which would cripple the evil government if it were destroyed. However, the Earth-based computer is a trap for the freedom fighters and they face being killed. Shiney Happy Person, Gan, is killed by Travis (now wearing a new face) and Blake begins soul searching. This begins a new series of cats and mouse games – more attempts by Travis to entrap them, and moments where Avon can abandon Blake (like Jayne and Mal thirty years on). Travis has been put on trial by the Federation for genocide, and they aim to execute him, so for part of the time he appears to be against the Federation and out on his own. But Blake still has scruples. Toward the end of the series they find the location of the central computer, and risk their lives to destroy it.

Cally is still there largely as a counsellor, sometimes not saying what she knows, and Jen only gets off the ship when guest characters want to try to seduce someone. Vila, meanwhile, does very little lock picking, and much comic relief. I confess that the best bits are Avon bitching about Blake or Vila or being bitched at.

Moonbase 3 (1973)

10 April 2009

A curious realist sf series from Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks – produced as far as I can tell in the gap between the Doctor Who serials “The Green Death” and “The Time Warrior”. It’s partly curious in that it comes at the end of a season in which Jon Pertwee’s Doctor is released from exile on Earth and can travel the universe again – and this is set in one place: the European moonbase and its immediate surroundings, with the occasional near orbit travel. The initial idea had been to set it on a ship or sub; the isolation is striking.

The six episodes were produced by five writers:

  1. “Departures and Arrivals” (dir. Ken Hannam; w. Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts; tx 9 September 1973)
  2. “Behemoth” (dir. Ken Hannam; w. John Brason; tx 16 September 1973)
  3. “Achilles Heal” [Heel?] (dir. Christopher Barry; w. John Lucarotti; tx 23 September 1973)
  4. “Outsiders” (dir. Ken Hannam; w. John Brason; tx 30 September 1973)
  5. “Castor and Pollux” (dir. Christopher Barry; John Lucarotti, 7 October 1973)
  6. Views of a Dead Planet (dir: Christopher Barry; w. Arden Winch; tx 14 October 1973)

Note the lack of regular Doctor Who writers aside from the creators who acted as producer and script editor as usual; Lucarotti had written for the series in the 1960s, but only historical stories such as “Marco Polo” and “The Massacre”. Barry directed episodes from “The Dead Planet” to “The Creature from the Pit”, but at that point only “The Dæmons” and “The Mutants” for Letts and Dicks (he went on to direct their swansong, “Robot”).

The set up is a base, one of several run by the US, the USSR, Europe and China. Typically the European one is run on a shoestring and knee deep in bureaucracy, so when the base director is killed in a shuttle accident, the troubleshooting David Caulder (Donald Houston) is brought in to turn the venture around. In the context of the daily dangers of staying alive, Caulder has to start showing a profit. He is rivalled by Michel Lebrun (Ralph Bates), a French by-the-book jobsworth and his second in command, and helped by former astronaut turned sort-of chief engineer and dogsbody Tom Hill (Barry Lowe) and psychiatrist Helen Smith (Fiona Gaunt) whose job is to monitor the rather flowing staff morale.

Most of the stories derive out of the every day stresses of their mission – when thing get done on autopilot, when people’s weaknesses are played upon, when outsiders have to show solidarity. In the second episode there’s the suspicion of life of the Moon – but the explanation turns out to be selenological. The rationalism presumably derives from the input of science journalist James Burke (pre-Connections) as scientific advisor. The end result was this BBC-Twentieth Century Fox-ABC co-production stopped after six episodes; it was insufficiently fantastical, and I suspect they’d run out of story ideas.

The one foot wrong I felt was the final episode, in which a nuclear detonation above the pole was meant to melt ice caps to free up more farming land, and it is assumed that a chain reaction predicted by a maverick scientist (Michael Gough, playing 90-something) has destroyed life on Earth. As it is the north pole, I’m not sure how much arctic land would be freed – and the sea level rise is hand waved away.

The special effects have dated badly, and the acting, especially from the non-regulars, is a little wooden. It is stuffed full with casual racism – Helen is frequently disbelieved and sidelined, and her role is to be empathetic, without a story line of her one. Her superiors and equals are rather too tactile – although when she stands up to the scientist she is respected.

A fascinating experiment – but space opera comes back to dominate British sf on tv.

Barry N. Malzberg, Beyond Apollo (1972)

6 April 2009

One thing that is constantly striking me is how neglected many of the writers are that I’m looking at. I confess I’m a little behind on writing up my reading, and it may well stay that way – and in a sense writers such as Ballard and Delany don’t need the attention. Malzberg, on the other hand, what at his most active through the 1970s in sf terms, and there seems to be little written on him. Previously I’d only read The Sodom and Gomorrah Business – I shall reread this – and now I have three more of these short novels to go through.

First up, for little more reason than being the first out of a rucksack of secondhand books, is Beyond Apollo.

In essence it is the story of a 1981 two-man mission to Venus, during which the captain was killed and the other man – Harry Evans – has lost his mind. The story is narrated by Evans, as he writes a novel about his experiences, the viewpoint shifting at the end to that of his publishing. Even that is misleading – Evans talks about himself in both the first and third person, and nothing he says can be taken as stable. We don’t even know whether his captain was Jack Josephson or Joseph Jackson. It might be that Evans killed him – but it is not at all clear. Even the descriptions of the post-mission debriefings are inconsistent.

Bob Shaw reviewed the book in Foundation 7/8 and sees it as an example of all that’s wrong with the New Wave, in particular the assertion that travelling through space drives you mad. Something else to look out for.