Sunday, 6 July 2014

These Are The Voyages...

When I was a kid, there was this secondhand bookstore near where I lived, where I used to find the most amazing things. More than books, the place sold American comicbooks, which were hard to get here in those days, but also science fiction novels, and especially Star Trek. I got most of the James Blish adaptations of TOS stories, as well as Alan Dean Foster's adaptations of the animated series episodes.

I also picked up a copy of the Starfleet Technical Manual and, unbelievably, a set of the Franz Joseph-designed plans of the Enterprise.

I used to wonder what it would take to build my own Bridge, a full, 360-degree set with stations and viewscreen; I had little concept of money in those days, but knew it wouldn't be cheap. And my imagination often outstripped my abilities when it came to building things, so I knew it was going to be little more than a pipedream.

But what if...?

And that's what it seems many other fans of Star Trek asked themselves, and then had a go at it, with varying results. From handheld video shot in someone's back yard, to more ambitious efforts using sets and props, culminating in professionally-produced episodes with full cast, sets and special effects in broadcast quality.

Initially, fans produced shows based on their own characters and ships, notably Starship Exeter and Starship Farragut, both sister ships of the TOS-era U.S.S. Enterprise, but focusing on their own crews rather than attempting to continue Kirk's adventures.

Sadly, Exeter only managed two complete episodes, the second of which ('The Tressaurian Intersection') languished in post-production limbo for several years awaiting completion, perhaps reflecting the inherent difficulties in raising capital to build sets, props, make costumes, rent facilities and equipment, etc.

Farragut's voyage was equally as ambitious, if more successful, with (to date) three episodes released and another due this summer. In addition, they've produced two animated episodes in the style of the 1973 Filmation series.

Numerous other projects exist, noble efforts all, but thus far, the two that stand out are James Cawley's Star Trek: Phase Two , with nine episodes completed, one on the way and another in production; and Vic Mignogna's Star Trek Continues, with three episodes available to view.

As with Exeter and Farragut, both shows are set in the Original Series era, working along the lines of "What if Season 4 had happened?" and every effort has been made to duplicate the 'feel' of the original, down to the smallest detail. Kickstarter has been a major factor in funding these projects, since they're not otherwise professionally financed, and the productions are permitted by the copyright owners on a not-for-profit basis. That probably means nobody gets paid (much)...

The results, however, speak volumes for their respective creators' love of the source work. Both Cawley (among other things, a successful Elvis impersonator in his day job) and Mignogna (actor/producer) star as James T. Kirk in their respective versions of the show, and both manage to carry the role without turning into 'Shatner impressionists'. Cawley, who had an uncredited role in JJ Abrams' 'Star Trek', has since handed over the role
of Kirk to Brian Gross, who will take the big chair for Phase II's next episode, "The Holiest Thing". Here's a trailer:

                                           (by startrekphase2DE via Youtube)


Star Trek Continues' latest episode focuses on the events following the conclusion of the TOS episode, "Mirror, Mirror". Entitled "Fairest Of Them All", it shows what happens in the Mirror Universe after Kirk, Scott, McCoy and Uhura manage to get back to their own reality.

This clip is a shot-by-shot comparison of the final scene of "Mirror, Mirror" as recreated by Mignogna and his team:

                                         (by tommiph, via Youtube)

The scene forms the opening for the episode, and so feeds nicely into the proceedings.

And so now we have not one, but two groups dedicated to continuing the 5-year mission. Differences will be evident in the production styles and story types - Phase II has gone for serious drama, with little of the humour that would occasionally be seen in episodes featuring Harry Mudd or Tribbles, while also addressing social issues such as same-sex relationships.  

ST Continues, for its part, started with "Pilgrim Of Eternity", a sequel to "Who Mourns For Adonais?" featuring Michael Forest (reprising his role as Apollo from the original), then followed it with "Lolani", a thinly-disguised commentary on the continued existence of slavery.

I remain impressed by the dedication of the people who create these new adventures; their passion will ensure that the crew of the Enterprise will continue  "...to boldly go where no man has gone before..."

Ahead, Warp Factor Two...

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Déja Vu All Over Again...

As I may have mentioned previously, I am a fan of crime fiction, especially detective novels in the Chandler style (or at least hovering around it).

To my mind, among the finest proponents of this style have been the late Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser series, and Loren D. Estleman, with his Detroit-based protagonist, Amos Walker.

Spenser, introduced in 1973 in The Godwulf Manuscript, has developed over the intervening 40-plus years, from a mid-thirties, Korean War veteran and ex-boxer into a sixty-something Korean War veteran and ex-boxer; and, with Parker's passing in 2010, the character seemed to stop aging altogether. This may have been as much due to the designs of Ace Atkins, the author selected to continue the bestselling series, than to any intent on Parker's part. Certainly for me there was always a sense that the character was aging in step with his creator (albeit at perhaps a 10-year remove), and so perhaps with Atkins's arrival it was seen as okay to, if not reboot the character, then at least inject a little more youthfulness into him and his world.

Gone are the references to Korea and fighting the famous "Jersey Joe" Walcott - now we simply accept that Spenser was at one time in the Service and boxed. The rest is all there, and Atkins's style sits so well on the page that one could imagine Parker's shade watching over his shoulder, ready to offer, ah, 'parently guidance'.

The stories are sharp, with more time given to the investigation at hand, and somewhat less to the Spenser-Susan relationship byplay that had become prevalent in Parker's latter novels. Pearl remains part of the cast; being a dog person, I have no problem with that.

The latest book in the series, Cheap Shot, sees the Boston P.I. approached by New England Patriots linebacker Kinjo Heywood, concerned about the possibility he's being stalked by persons unknown.

His own reputation for violent conduct having landed him on the wrong end of the media's interest in the past, Heywood hires Spenser to find and dissuade any would-be stalkers, despite objections from the Patriots' head of security and Heywood's own agent.

However, when Heywood's 7-year-old son Akira is kidnapped, Spenser and Hawk are quickly on the case, along with new protegé Zebulon Sixkill.

Scouring the city for clues to the whereabouts of the child, Spenser revisits old adversary Tony Marcus and encounters a new enemy in FBI agent Connor. When the boy's father decides to take matters into his own hands, it threatens to run the clock out before the veteran detective can save the day.

Another fascinating visit to Spenser's Boston, sharply written by Ace Atkins, Cheap Shot stands as a solid addition to the Spenser canon. Atkins once again perfectly captures Parker's 'voice', and I can't help but feel that the great man would be pleased that his character is in such good hands.

*********

I've been following the exploits of Amos Walker for so long that I feel I know Detroit like the back of my hand, despite my never having been there.

For me, it's a city that only exists at 3am, or on a wet Monday in February. It just has that feel to it, and no matter the narrative, I can't escape the image whenever Walker hits the streets.

However, this latest case left me feeling lost in warm sunlight...
:

:
:
From the moment I met Walker's client, Alec Wynn, I had a sense of déja vu. Not remarkable in itself; I get that a lot. But this was different - I had encountered this character before. Wife missing, only a note saying 'Don't look for me', no personal effects out of place - something about this case just didn't sit right.

Walker wasn't at his office when I visited, and I got past Rosecranz easily enough, never mind how. No prospective clients in the outer office meant I was free to try my luck on the inner door. It didn't give much trouble (what's there to steal in a P.I.'s office?) so I closed it quietly behind me and looked around.

Custer's Last Stand on the wall - check; souvenir ashtray from Traverse City - check; safe with spare shirt, extra bullets and the good Scotch - check.

That left the filing cabinet. A three-drawer relic from the Age of Wood, it offered little resistance to a letter-opener and a lot of determination.

I checked the clock. I had plenty of time - Walker wouldn't be back for a year or so. Then I dug deep into his files.

After what seemed like a month, but was only about half an hour, I found what I was looking for.

Thee was no mention of international drug dealers; no hint that MOSSAD or their associates had any interest or that the cast fared about as well as the lineup in a Shakespearean tragedy. Just the story, brief and unremarkable, of a missing person.

Closing and re-locking the file drawer, I had to wonder whether Amos was starting to lose it - was this apparent dementia a legacy of his Vicodin issues, or were the powers that be setting him up for something?

Certainly from what I knew of the Wynn case (the second, not the first) it seemed that he was off his game. Rambling dialogue, with comments intended to provoke a punch or a bullet rather than develop a lead, the poor guy seemed more in need of a vitamin shot than a shot of Scotch.

Worked out in the end, though - same as it did the first time, only in a less satisfying way.

I took a last look around the office, used a handkerchief to wipe any prints I may have left, then let myself out, locking the door behind me.

I left the building, passing Rosecranz, asleep and snoring softly in his cubby, one eye open.

I smiled to myself; with Cerberus to watch the place, it's a sure thing that Walker would come to no harm.

I resolved to look in on him again, then flagged a cab for the airport and left the Motor City behind...

*********

"Don't Look For Me" (Amos Walker #23) is expanded from the short story called "I'm In The Book", originally published in 1986 for an anthology entitled "The Mean Streets" (Mysterious Press) and subsequently in the collection "General Murders" (Houghton Mifflin, 1988).




Friday, 14 March 2014

O Captain, My Captain...

Tomorrow evening, at approximately 7:30pm GMT, one of the greatest careers in International Rugby Union will come to an end, as Ireland and Leinster player Brian O'Driscoll finishes his 141st and final international match against France, against whom he played his first Test match in 2000.

On that occasion, at the age of 21, he scored three tries and helped the side to their first win in Paris since 1972. To put things in perspective, if Ireland win tomorrow, it will be their second win in Paris since 1972.

Now, at age 35,having been team captain, four times Lions member, Heineken Cup Winner and 6 Nations Grand Slam Winner, as well as having been acknowledged by his peers as one of the best footballers ever to have worn the Number 13 shirt, O'Driscoll lines out for his final Test, facing the country against whom he posted his debut hat-trick and Ireland's best result in 28 years.

France.

Courtesy of a fan, here's a, shall we say, 'précis' of BOD's career highlights:


Tomorrow I shall be watching with my father, pint of Guinness in hand, as possibly the greatest player of his or my generation takes the field for the final time.

I feel tremendously privileged to have seen him play.

Now if only we could retire George Hook...

Non-Stop...

(Note: I began, but failed to finish, this post before the events surrounding Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 had taken place. I thought about deferring it but felt that the two incidents were sufficiently different in nature that I could proceed with posting.)

Having some time on my hands on Friday last, I went to see Liam Neeson's latest picture, Non-Stop.


For those who may have been off-planet lately (or deep within the Kingdom of the Molemen - they only allow the cinema of Uwe Boll), the story follows troubled US Air Marshal Bill Marks, who, while on a trans-Atlantic flight, receives a message from someone who says he'll kill a passenger every twenty minutes unless his demands are met, namely the transfer of $150 million into a Swiss account.

When the account turns out to be in Marks's name, he's deemed to be a hijacker by authorities, and with  no-one to trust but a passenger (Julianne Moore) and a flight attendant (Michelle Dockery), Marks has to deal with 150 potential suspects if he's to foil the criminal and save the aircraft and passengers.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who gave us the slick Eurothriller Unknown, also starring Neeson, Non-Stop delivers exactly what its name suggests - a suspense-filled thriller in which one is never certain what's a clue and what's a red herring.

Here's a trailer:


One has to suspend a certain amount of disbelief in one or two instances, but the payoff is worth it.

Neeson will return in "Run All Night", a third collaboration* with director Collet-Serra revolving around a retired hitman who's forced into a contract in order to save his family. Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman and Genesis Rodriguez co-star, and it's set for release in 2015.


*but not, it seems, with Joel Silver...

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Read and Reading - The Overflowing Bookshelf...

As I may have mentioned, I'm an avid reader, and am lucky to live within short walking distance of the largest bookstore in Ireland.

Which is probably just as well, given the amount of time and indeed money I spend there, and the often heavy load of material I carry away from the place.

The store is called, appropriately enough, Chapters, and has evolved from a small rented space on Dublin's South Side to its present location, a purpose-built premises on Parnell Street, in the North City Centre.

I mention this because, when on a recent trip to Toronto and in need of something to read, I found a bookstore called, coincidentally enough, Chapters, at the corner of John and Richmond Streets, next to the ScotiaBank Theatre.

I didn't realise at the time that this store was part of a so-called 'big-box' chain; indeed, it gave every bit the impression of being similar to the one in Dublin (albeit with a Starbucks on the premises). It's bright, with helpful staff, and you can have a coffee and read if your feet have been worn out from walking.

I bought three books:

Red Planet Blues, by Robert Sawyer, a neo-noir PI story set on (the name's a giveaway) Mars. The protagonist, Lomax, is Mars' only licensed private investigator, in the domed city of New Klondike where prospectors eke out a living attempting to uncover ancient Martian fossils outside in the wastelands.

Many elect to become Transfers, downloading their consciousness into an android replica (usually enhanced in some manner) that allows them to exist on the Martian surface without the need for an environmental suit. Like Pinocchio in reverse.

The McGuffin in this case is the "mother lode" of fossils discovered years previously by two explorers (but now lost following their untimely demise in a spaceship crash), and which everyone considers the Big Prize. Naturally skulduggery and double-cross abound, and our hero finds himself in one tight situation after another as he uncovers clues that lead him to the solution of who murdered the original explorers.

Originally a novella entitled "Identity Theft", Sawyer expanded the original story to tell a bigger tale, however for me the result was unsatisfying. Too many plot twists, reappearing characters, and changes in motivation made it difficult to warm to.

I made it to the end, but if a sequel appears, I won't be first in line..

Next, by Gordon Pinsent with George Anthony, is the autobiography (if one can say that where there was a collaborative effort) of one of Canada's foremost actors.

I first became aware of Mr. Pinsent when he appeared in the Canadian comedy drama Due South as Sgt. Bob Fraser, RCMP (deceased). Initially only supposed to appear in the pilot, reaction to the character was positive enough that the writers kept him in the show as a ghost, appearing to his son at certain moments to provide guidance or advice, not always useful.

 In Next, Pinsent writes about his life, from early childhood in Newfoundland, touching briefly upon military service before describing the beginnings of his career in acting; first, on the stage, then later on TV, working his way up from walk-ons to speaking parts, etc.

In terms of style it's very much as if he's recounting his anecdotes directly, in a tone that recalls the aforementioned Ghost of the RCMP.

In the course of the book, Pinsent drops enough names to cover a decent-sized living-room floor - the index runs to nineteen pages - but never (well, rarely) with a disparaging word for anyone.

A relaxed, sometimes poignant, but more often witty insight into a life on the boards.

The third and final book was The Cold Dish, by Craig Johnson, the first in his series featuring Sheriff Walt Longmire (played by Robert Taylor in the successful A&E TV show) of the fictional Absaroka County, set against the backdrop of Wyoming's High Plains country.

Initially involving the murder of one of four high school seniors acquitted of the rape of a local Cheyenne girl, the story, one of revenge, also serves to introduce the central character, his friends and co-workers and the country in which the stories are set. Indeed, the plains of Wyoming, the Bighorn mountains, Powder River, all are brought to life in the same vivid detail as Spenser's Boston, or the Los Angeles shared by Harry Bosch and Elvis Cole.

In the first book, Walt Longmire is the long-serving sheriff of Absaroka County, facing re-election as he approaches twenty-five years in the job. Widowed three years previously, and with a daughter in Philadelphia, he's still rebuilding his life and contemplating retirement. Friends Henry Standing Bear, a fellow Vietnam veteran; Victoria 'Vic' Moretti, his chief deputy, transplanted from Philadelphia PD, and former Sheriff Lucian Connally, with whom Walt plays chess, make up his core of close friends.

I picked up the book on impulse, having seen the TV series on cable here in Ireland, and was pleased to find it quite similar in tone to Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone series, with a light touch that brought to mind Parker's other character, Spenser. That being said, the two are entirely different in style, with Johnson's Longmire a far less introspective soul than either of Mr. Parker's creations.

The Cold Dish is the first of 10 novels in the series, which as yet I have been unable to find on this side of the Atlantic; happily, there's always Amazon, and I'm currently midway through Book Three. The series is a more-than-worthwhile effort, and I encourage anyone interested in crime fiction to give it a try.

And on we go...

Sunday, 25 August 2013

World's Finest...

It was announced this week that none other than Ben Affleck has been chosen to portray Bruce Wayne / Batman in the sequel to this year's Man of Steel.

Now, I don't know about you Fred, but I have to say I like it.

I've always had a regard for Affleck as both actor and director - I thought Argo was excellent, enjoyed his turn as the tortured angel Bartleby in Dogma, and Daredevil really wasn't as bad as people say. I think he'll do okay in the Batcave, but it will be interesting to see how he gets on in his encounter with the Man of Steel.

As to the story, the first meeting of Superman and Batman has always been a confrontation, and for good reason - a man with the power to change the course of mighty rivers and leap tall buildings at a single bound is obviously a potential threat to the world, and after leveling Metropolis in the battle against Zod, Batman will no doubt be looking carefully for weaknesses that he can exploit against Kal-El should it become necessary, if his power should somehow be subverted or he has, as so many of us do, a bad Monday.

And as the tale has been told, the two heroes will come to blows before joining forces against a common enemy and ultimately becoming friends.

This is Warner's chance to do it right; I enjoyed Man of Steel but there was something missing: emotion. Michael Shannon chewed the scenery as Zod, but the other actors were (and I'm going to have to watch it again to be certain) well, reserved is the best word I can think of.

I can understand why Henry Cavill played the role as he did; here's a young man who grew up with strange abilities, who used them for the good of others, and then discovered that he wasn't from Earth. Imagine your parents telling you you're adopted - now imagine them saying you've been adopted by a planet and showing you the ship that brought you here. The sense of displacement must be, well, incredible. So Clark leaves home and walks the Earth, trying to find out more about himself and his powers, helping people where he can before slipping away silently.

Much later, following the defeat of Zod, Clark works to help the people of Metropolis as Superman, a very visible symbol of hope in the city, perhaps reducing former leading citizen Lex Luthor (who we haven't met yet but know he's in the wings, waiting for his cue) to second spot, something he's both unused to and doesn't like.

I see Bruce Wayne going to Metropolis following the Zod incident and using Wayne Industries resources to help rebuild the stricken city. While there, he meets Lex Luthor, perhaps at a business meeting or reception, who expresses his utter distrust of the being known as Superman. Wayne is forced to agree, albeit not for the same reasons as Luthor, whose problem is not that Superman's power is dangerous, but that he seems intent on using it to help people rather than to rule them.

A subsequent plot by Luthor to discredit Superman is initially successful, but ultimately exposed jointly by Superman and Batman, and a friendship is forged. Somewhere in the middle of that, Lois needs rescuing (naturally) but it's Batman who does it. We may see Brainiac.
A good benchmark for the 'World's Finest' teamup was laid down by Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly in the WB animated series and movies - it'll be interesting to see whether the Affleck-Cavill dynamic comes any way close to that.

2015 seems a long way off...