The Early Carpenter

Before John Carpenter made his “apocalypse trilogy” of The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness, and the bizarre anti-1% gamble which was They Live, he made his name with a tight set of genre films which ranged from science fiction to horror to action thriller, providing takes on all three genres which would go on to be enduringly influential in their own way. Sure, he had his occasional misfires – but when he was on form, the results were so good that Hollywood let him spend much of the 1980s and 1990s taking a chance on off-beat projects which took his fancy. One could easily imagine a timeline where he was locked into doing Halloween sequels for his entire career; it’s arguably his early successes outside of horror (and at least one misfire within horror) which saved him from being entirely typecast. For this article, I’m going to look at a brace of those early works.

Dark Star

In deep space, the starship Dark Star flies from world to world seeking out “unstable planets” which might cause a hazard to subsequent colonisation efforts and demolishing them with AI-enhanced bombs (voiced by Dan O’Bannon). An unfortunate accident has mostly killed Commander Powell (Joe Saunders, voiced by John Carpenter), leaving him in cryogenic storage to be consulted in emergencies only; the de facto commander is Lieutenant Doolittle (Brian Narelle), who brushes off reports of potential intelligent life nearby to focus on the job of demolishing uninhabited worlds. Talby (Dre Pahich, dubbed by John Carpenter) has gone a bit funny, spending all his time in the observation dome staring up at the stars). Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) is doing target practice in the corridors with the ship’s laser rifles. And Sergeant Pinback (Dan O’Bannon)…

Well, Pinback’s kind of losing his shit a little. He was never meant to be here – the real Pinback died and he took his place by mistake – and the strain of maintaining the pretence has left him grumpy and neurotic. Worse yet, he had the bright idea of bringing onboard a beach ball-shaped alien as a “mascot”, and everyone else – including the ship’s computer (Barbara Knapp) – lumbers him with the responsibility of looking after it, which is a problem given its mischievous nature.

Eventually, however, the problems of the five crewmen (well, four living crewmen and one corpsicle) will become much worse than just the “mascot” throwing a tantrum: one of the release mechanisms for the bombs malfunctions, and the bomb in question is insistent that it be allowed to explode, this being the purpose to its existence. Can Doolittle save Dark Star and the others? Or will he have to just rely on his surf skills to save himself?

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Star Trek: Picard – The Season of False Beginnings

I hadn’t intended to write an article about Star Trek: Picard of this length for the blog. Not because I don’t have opinions about the show – I rant about it a lot with fellow fans burned by Picard online. Nor because I didn’t plan to cover it here at all – I did. However, I’d planned to cover all three seasons of the show in one article, because unlike Star Trek: The Next Generation and its immediate successor series, Picard is not a long episodic show telling a very large number of stories over its run. Instead, each season tells essentially a single story. How much could I say about each season?

Well, at least in terms of season 1, it turned out I had a hell of a lot to say. I was excitied about it early on, but bit by bit it lost me, making a succession of storytelling decisions which poleaxed my enjoyment of the show despite the excellent cast involved.

So, here it is: my thoughts on Star Trek: Picard, season 1.

This is the season which introduced us to a brand-new cast of characters, then gave them nothing to do.

The Premise

After the events of Star Trek: Nemesis, Jean-Luc Picard’s Starfleet career continued and he eventually made the rank of Admiral. When a supernova destabilised the Romulan Empire (catalysing the time-travel incident that kicked off the 2009 Star Trek movie and the J.J. Abrams-Trek timeline), Picard advocated for Starfleet and the Federation to offer extensive humanitarian aid (uh, Romulanitarian aid), much as occurred when a comparable crisis put the Klingon Empire on the back foot during The Undiscovered Country, and spearheaded the relief effort.

At some point in the meantime, the Soong-type android B-4 that Data had transferred his memory banks into towards the end of Nemesis ceased to function; since B-4 had only ever been an unstable prototype his systems simply collapsed. This freed up his component parts for the Daystrom Institute to study, leading to the creation of a range of Synths – androids more rudimentary than Data and his siblings, due to Dr. Soong’s breakthroughs still not being generally understood (and highly hit-and-miss even when Dr. Soong attempted them himself). Lacking much in the way of autonomy or advanced reasoning, the Synths were used as cheap labour on facilities such as the Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards on Mars – but one day the Synths on Mars ran rogue, committing mass murder and setting off a technological cascade which ignited the Martian atmosphere.

Faced with this devastating incident, the Federation rapidly passed a ban on creating synthetic lifeforms as a precaution against future incidents, and Starfleet decided to abandon the Romulan relief effort, leaving hordes of refugees in the lurch. Disturbed by the moral short-sightedness of Starfleet command on this issue, Picard offered his resignation as a desperate last bid to persuade them to rethink – instead, they called his bluff, leaving him pottering about in retirement at Chateau Picard, watching out for the coming symptoms of the neurological disease he knows from The Next Generation finale episode All Good Things he will eventually develop (it’s basically space dementia), and assisted in his housekeeping and vineyard maintenance by Laris (Orla Brady) and Zhaban (Jamie McShane), former members of the Romulan internal security organisation known as the Tal Shiar.

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Red Dwarf: Everybody’s Dead, Dave (2009-2020)

Dave is a TV channel in the UK which probably needs a bit of introduction for non-Brits. Back in 1992, the BBC and Thames Television (the London part of the regional broadcasters that made up ITV at the time) started a new jount venture – UK Gold, now rebranded as Gold, which would act as a satellite and cable channel that could be a repository for reruns of old material. Over time, this became the first channel of what would become UKTV, a cluster of commercial channels which, after some ownership changes, is now a wholly-owned commercial subsidary of the BBC, offering channels on satellite, cable, and over the digital airwaves, some free and some subscription-only.

UK Gold was a big enough success to spin off UK Gold 2, which would be rebranded as UK G2, a home for youth-oriented programming. Subsequent to this, in the late 2000s UK G2 got rebranded as Dave – marketed as “The home of witty banter”, it would be the comedy channel in the UKTV lineup, hence the jokey name. This would coincide with UKTV looking to spice up their offerings with more original programming. With 2008-2009 spanning the 20th anniversary of Red Dwarf‘s glorious launch and the 10th anniversary of its humiliating conclusion, and with Red Dwarf being a natural fit into Dave’s lineup already, the idea of making some new Red Dwarf stuff made a lot of sense.

This would bring an end to the longest hiatus in the show’s history. Back in the day, fans of the show were perhaps spoiled by getting roughly one season a year in the classic run of late 1980s and early 1990s seasons, and the delay before the airing of seasons 7 and 8 felt interminable. In retrospect, we didn’t know how good we’d had it – not only were we better off without season 8 and most of season 7, but the four year gap between Out of Time and Tikka To Ride was less than half the duration of the 1999-2009 hiatus.

Believe it or not, it wasn’t just the poor quality of season 8 that kept it off the air (though those episodes do constitute a good argument for the show going away for a while). Doug Naylor had spent much of the intervening time trying to get a feature film of the show off the ground, but simply wasn’t able to get the funding, despite some false starts (at least some of which appear to have been the result of scammers trying to work a grift on Grant Naylor Productions, rather than sincere interest). Meanwhile, the four main cast members all had other irons in the fire. Chris Barrie became Lara Croft’s butler in the Tomb Raider movies, Craig Charles was presenting Robot Wars, Robert Llewellyn was fronting Scrapheap Challenge, and Danny John-Jules was getting roles in stuff like the second Blade movie. If anything had been learned from season 7, it’s that any Red Dwarf revival would need all four of them onboard.

Initially, the plan was to create four shows – a two-part story, a “making of” episode, and an improvised live show. The latter was junked due to cost issues; the “making of” material was consigned to DVD extras, and the revival story was extended to three episodes. It was time to go Back To Earth

Back To Earth

Nine years have passed since the events of Only The Good…, and things on Red Dwarf have gone somewhat back to normal. Holly has been deactivated, due to his core systems getting flooded when Lister left a tap on by mistake. Kochanski is gone; at first we think she’s died, though it’s later revealed during this story that she simply got fed up of Lister being a sadsack and took a shuttle to go off on her own adventures. Rimmer is, once again, a hard-light hologram; it’s not clear what went down there, though later stuff in the Dave seasons suggests that this is the original hologram Rimmer, the one who went off to become Ace back in Stoke Me a Clipper, having made his return at some point, not the resurrected Rimmer we met in season 8. Indeed, all the resurrected crew are gone: it’s just the quartet of Lister, Rimmer, Kryten, and Cat, back together all again.

When the Cat spots a giant squid swimming about in the water tanks on G-deck, the gang realise that the squid’s probably responsible for the water supply acting up of late, and decide to eliminate it. Little do they realise that it’s a joy squid – a female counterpart to the despair squid from Back To Reality, which instead of using despair to render prey helpess uses joy to render them passive. This prompts a series of ever-more bizarre hallucinations, beginning with the restoration of Science Officer Katerina Bartikovsky (Sophie Winkleman) as a hologram, who declares she’s going to take charge of things, beginning by deleting Rimmer and aiding Lister in recreating the human race and culminating in a journy through a dimension portal to what turns out to be 21st Century Earth, where the gang discover that Red Dwarf is nothing but a television show…

I previously reviewed this back when it first aired; I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now. The Joy Squid twist is a little too obvious, and whilst I can see why it would be tempting to use the anniversary special to do a meditation on what the show means to its real-world fans, this is squandered in favour of self-serving whinging about the show not being on air, cracks about the fans being big nerds, and other self-indulgent bilge. At about halfway in, the story gets completely bogged down in extended ripping-off of Blade Runner, and sure, Red Dwarf has had its moments of parody and riffing on landmarks of pop culture before, but there’s where parody crosses the line from a wink and a nod into extended plagiarism and this is well on the wrong side of the line.

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The Telling: Akan Story-Slip

Aka is one of the many worlds of the Hainish diaspora – a planet settled millions of years ago by human beings from Hain, original homeworld of humanity, only to culturally diverge after a general galaxy-wide technological collapse. Just over 70 years ago, Aka was recontacted by the Ekumen – the Hainish-spearheaded interstellar organisation of recontacted Hainish worlds. The local Akans were fascinated with the offworlders, and many came to believe that their future was among the stars; the first contact team left with high hopes for future interactions with the Akans.

When an Ekumen Observer team was sent as a followup, they discovered that Aka had undergone a disturbing social change. A monolithic Corporation now ruled the world, which had become addicted to rapid technological progress in a bid to be seen as equals to the offworlders. Moreover, their society had undergone a harsh backlash against traditional knowledge – including folk histories and medicine – regarded as superstitious, and had undertaken a massive purge of their literary and cultural history.

All this coincided with convulsions on Terra – the rise of the terrifying Unist government, a force which spliced the extremist Christian right with anti-Ekumen feeling and which undertook a campaign of violent persecution on Earth. The Ekumen suspected that somehow the Unists had attempted to tamper with Aka, perhaps to convert them to their way of seeing things, only for this tampering to backfire catastrophically, prompting the Corporation to ramp up its anti-religious campaign and to mistrust offworlders.

Tong Ov, the head of the Ekumen mission on Aka, has struggled to get permission for any of his people to explore Aka beyond the strictly-controlled capital city; now he finally has the opportunity to send one of his aides on a trip to a rural town to get a picture of life there. He chooses Sutty, a Terran member of the team whose bitter memories of the Unists may be a burden to her mission, or might perhaps be the key to her reaching an rapproachment with the locals. Indeed, Sutty is eventually able to make contact with the network of traditional teachers and storytellers who maintain the Telling – the framework of traditional knowledge which was formerly the underpinning of Akan culture.

However, a Monitor for the Corporation has been trying to keep tabs on Sutty’s movements, fearful of the consequences if the Ekumen should make contact with this subculture. If Sutty is to get her report back to Tong Ov, get to the root of the Telling, and perhaps exert a positive influence on the future of Aka, she will sooner or later have to understand not just the stories of the Telling, not just her own story, but the story of the Monitor as well…

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Red Dwarf: Crash Landing (1997-1999)

Every five years, Red Dwarf fansite Ganymede & Titan runs a “best episode” poll, and over the course of their discussion of the poll results they’ve developed the concept of “the bubble”, that being the top 36 entries on the poll results. This is based on the broad consensus in the Red Dwarf fandom that the first six seasons of the show represented its golden age. Some fans outright reject everything that came since; some argue that it went through rougher patches but had a mild return to form later on; a few perhaps feel that the series started going to hell once the melancholic streak of the first two seasons began to fade.

In general, though, the idea is that those first six seasons, with their 36 episodes between them, are the benchmark by which Red Dwarf is measured. In general, in the Ganymede & Titan polls, those six first seasons collectively tend to dominate the bubble; that means that exceptions to this rule are interesting. If an episode from the first six seasons happens to fall out of the bubble, that’s generally a sign of an episode that’s regarded as being unusually lukewarm for the show’s classic period.

By contrast, if anything from after season 6 makes it into the bubble, that can be a sign of an episode punching above its weight and overcoming the affection of the fanbase for the original six seasons. That said, the polls do show signs of recency bias, with more recent material polling reasonably well and then quite often sinking down to a more natural level as the novelty factor wears off, the joy of getting new Red Dwarf material in any form fades, and any shortcomings of the new material becomes more apparent on rewatches.

In this article I will review some 16 episodes of Red Dwarf. Of them, only two of them have ever made it into the bubble – and as of the most recent poll, none of them make it in there.

The Mid-1990s Hiatus

Grant Naylor hadn’t planned on Red Dwarf vanishing from 1993 to 1997. After their 1980s seasons established the show and the early 1990s saw the show going from success to success, they concluded season 6 with a cliffhanger at the BBC’s behest, the plan being for the show to come back sooner rather than later.

However, this was not to be. Several of the show’s principal actors had increasingly packed schedules; Chris Barrie’s other sitcom, The Brittas Empire, was becoming a success in his own right, and Craig Charles was much in demand as a presenter. Things were further derailed when Craig Charles was accused of rape, refused bail for three months, assaulted whilst awaiting trial by a knife-wielding fellow prisoner, and acquitted after the tabloids had a field day raking over his penchant for cocaine and strip clubs which had emerged during the trial. (Acquittals in such things don’t necessarily mean nothing bad happened, especially when – as seemed to be the case here – the investigation had significant shortcomings, but Charles has at least not had any #MeToo-esque accusations come out against him since, even when he slipped back into harder drug use in later years.)

Charles’ ordeal ran from mid-1994 to early 1995, putting the brakes on any reunion, and by the time it was even possible to get the cast back together, other changes had taken place behind the scenes. Whereas Red Dwarf had previously been written by Grant Naylor – a gestalt entity formed of the writing partnership of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor – creative differences had broke out and Rob Grant decided he’d rather explore other projects, leaving “Grant Naylor” extant only as the name of the Red Dwarf production company. It would be Doug Naylor who would be the sole showrunner going forwards, writing or co-writing each and every new script.

Still, Naylor had been there for the first six seasons – he must have known what made them work, right? Whats more, Ed Bye, director of the first four seasons, would be onboard to direct both the seventh and eighth season, to give a further sense of continuity.

These two seasons would also be eight episodes long, the better to rack up the episode count to meet US syndication requirements. Did this rush for quantity result in a dip in quality? Well, let’s see…

Red Dwarf VII

In order to tackle the challenge of writing the show without Rob Grant, Naylor shared the writing duties this time around whilst remaining in a firm supervisory role – some of the episodes he would write solo, whilst on others he would work with co-writers. Apparently, the process here was that the co-writer would do an initial draft and then Naylor would do a second pass on it to bring it into line with the Red Dwarf style, or at least his particular take on it. Other scripts were written by Naylor alone. (For the purpose of this review, if I don’t mention a co-writer in conjunction with an episode, you can assume it’s a Doug Naylor solo number.)

Though this meant that extra hands were involved in the writing process, Naylor retained full control of the final scripts, and so whilst the mixed reception of this season has sometimes been attributed to those outside contributors, ultimately I think Naylor has to take primary responsibility for the overall outcome, for good or ill. And there is good in season seven, despite it also having significant shortcomings.

In fact, the season opened strong – in fact, season opener Tikka To Ride is the episode which sometimes troubles the top 36 in fan polls. It’s tasked with resolving the cliffhanger ending to Out of Time, and does so in more or less the way anyone who was paying attention during the episode would have expected – by stating that by blowng up the time drive Rimmer paradoxed the crew’s future selves out of existence, thereby paradoxing their future selves’ attack on them out of existence, thereby saving everyone. Naylor accomplishes this in a somewhat clunky fashion, with a monologue to camera by Lister explaining it away in a pre-credits sequence, before the main body of the episode offers us a different time travel story.

Production differences are evident early on; the live studio audience and multi-camera setup was gone, a laugh track was added in, and the footage was post-processed to look like film. For space shots, model work was out and CGI was in. Even Kryten’s head has been updated, and residual paradoxes from the time fault have apparently greatly expanded Starbug‘s capacity, allowing for the use of larger sets. All this seems to be part of a concerted effort by Naylor to make the show seem more epic and filmic and less like a rinky-dink low-budget sitcom, which would be in keeping with his long-held ambition of making a Red Dwarf feature film.

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Red Dwarf: Sustained Burn (1991-1993)

Back in the late 1980s Red Dwarf rapidly evolved over the course of three brief seasons from a deep space sitcom with a strong melancholic streak to a boisterously comedic science fiction series which, despite a somewhat lighter tone, was still informed and enriched by the deeper character work undertaken by the core cast in the first two seasons. In the eyes of many fans, the golden age of the show extended into the early 1990s – a time when the show offered up two seasons that essentially reiterated on the model set by Red Dwarf III, and a sixth season that shook up the show’s status quo whilst continuing its evolution.

Red Dwarf IV

Season 3 wrapped on the Kryten-focused The Last Day, which benefitted greatly from being the last episode of the season written – meaning Grant Naylor had a better handle on how Robert Llewellyn was playing the character. Clearly, they saw the potential in Kryten-based episodes, because this season opens with not one but two. The first of them is Camille, which opens with a continuity error (Lister is trying to teach Kryten to lie, when he deliberately lied at the end of The Last Day to overcome Hudzen 10) but then progresses into a robotic romance plot when Kryten encounters the titular mechanoid (played by Judy Pascoe). Or does he? Everyone else perceives her decidedly differently – each seeing her as their own fantasy partner…

This is, of course, a riff on the concept of The Man Trap from Star Trek season 1 – but Camille isn’t out to fatally drain anyone of salt, she’s just a GELF with illusion powers. She isn’t even being malicious – she even warns Kryten there’ll be complications if he introduces her to other crew members – she’s just terrified that she won’t be accepted in her true form, and she’s engineered to use her powers as an instinctive default. As it happens, Kryten does accept her – and being the most emotionally mature of anyone aboard ship with the possible exception of Holly, he encourages her to leave with her husband once he tracks them down, having potentially arrived at a cure for their condition.

It’s a charming little romance arc unfolding in under half an hour, as well as extolling the virtues of being understanding when a partner reveals something about themselves that’s unexpected or unusual. It works particularly well because whilst Judy Pascoe is not primarily an actor, she and Llewellyn are able to fall back on their real-life chemistry to make the whole thing work. With Pascoe playing Camille in android form and voicing her Lovecraftian true form, the episode also provides roles for other actors, with Francesca Folan offering an interesting take on the hologram of Rimmer’s dreams and Suzanne Rhatigan doing the same for Lister; Folan’s role here is a bit meatier because her initial encounter with Rimmer is a bit meatier than Rhatigan’s scenes, since it sets up the “illusory desires” plot point. (Cat, meanwhile, finds that his physical ideal is, well, himself.)

Of course, once Camille reveals her real form the other roles fade away a bit, and the episode risks feeling a little rushed – it’s trying to cram a fairly detailed story and a whole emotional arc for Kryten into its running time, after all. Still, Grant Naylor are more or less able to thread the needle, and are even able to work in a meaty character idea; the episode begins with Lister trying to encourage Kryten to be able to lie more fluently, insult people, and generally express negative emotions and personality facets his programming doesn’t allow, and by the end Kryten has gained some capacity to do this, and all it took was breaking his heart to do it. This is spun as a positive – beause an inability to do those things was limiting Kryten and making him a slave to his programming – which in turn suggests the idea that there’s perhaps some value in broken hearts.

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Le Guin Grasps the Nettle

Perhaps the trickiest subject for any American author to attempt to write about is slavery, since it’s a subject which shaped the history of the United States so profoundly and whose echoes are still heard so loud and clear today that it’s near-impossible for any American reader (or any reader exposed to American culture) to avoid having strong emotions about it. Nonetheless, Ursula Le Guin decided to tackle the subject directly in a sequence of novellas based in the twin worlds of Werel and Yeowe, part of the Hainish universe that was the backdrop of her early science fiction novels (including The Left Hand of Darkness, the book which put her on the map when it came to serious, literary science fiction for grown ups).

These tales were written as part of Le Guin’s 1990s process of re-examining her early fictional settings (as well as returning to the Hainish universe at this time, she also made her long-awaited return to Earthsea). This return to a cosmos she’d otherwise let lie fallow since the 1970s would also yield a clutch of short stories and a full novel, The Telling; the Werel and Yeowe stories represent a halfway point between these two.

For those new to Le Guin’s galaxy: the Hainish stories take place in a universe where once upon a time humanity arose on the world of Hain, colonised the stars some two million years ago, and then interstellar contact was lost and the colonies (including Earth!) were left to go their own way. Eventually, contact was re-established, helped in part by the invention of the ansible which allows for faster-than-light communication (but faster than light travel is, for much of the Hainish series, unknown), leading to the eventual establishment of the Ekumen, a sort of benign interstellar community which helps encourage best practice in inter-world relations and promotes a progressive set of values but is not overly interventionist.

Four of the five Werel and Yeowe stories were penned in rapid succession from 1994-1995, and were published in the collection Four Ways To Forgiveness. In 1999, Le Guin decided that the story cycle needed a fifth tale to round it out; this last tale was initially published in the collection The Birthday of the World and would later be republished with the others as part of the retitled Five Ways To Forgiveness by the Library of America, at first as part of their second hardcover omnibus of Le Guin’s Hainish works and also as a standalone ebook.

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Gore By Hooper, Woo By Wilson

The HMS Churchill, an advanced space shuttle with a fancy new propulsion system, is flying a joint British-American space mission to visit Halley’s Comet as it flies on its closest approach to Earth. Commanded by Colonel Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback), the ship makes the shocking discovery of a clearly alien craft travelling alongside the comet and concealed in its coma. A party boards the craft, and discovers it contains a morass of alien bodies with batlike forms – and three bodies which appear exactly like humans, enclosed in crystalline coffins. One of the bat creatures and the three crystal sarcophagi containing the apparent humans are taken aboard the Churchill and the ship prepares to head home.

Later, the Churchill returns to Earth orbit, but does not respond to radio messages. The space shuttle Columbia is launched to intercept, and finds that the Churchill has sustained a hideous internal fire, its escape pod is missing, but the three crystal sarcophagi and their human-like contents remain intact. Taken to London for study, the terrible truth of what the occupants are becomes all too apparent when the female awakens and kills a security guard by consuming all of his life energy… or does she? In fact, the alien energy vampire is a trickier creature than that. Anyone she “kills” by fully draining their life energy is reduced to a desiccated husk, but then reanimates in two hours, with a furious desire to feed on the life energy of others in turn. They must do this every two hours or so, or be reduced to their desiccated state and die outright. Moreover, the alien’s powers are not limited to this – it can partially drain others and establish mental links to them, to the extent of being able to hide outright in their minds.

With the female alien escaping, crack SAS investigator Colonel Colin Caine (Peter Firth) is put on the case, assisted by Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay), an expert for the Space Research Centre with a personal specialism in thanatology. Eventually, the two are joined by Colonel Carlsen, who lands in the Churchill escape pod and is able to offer some answers on what went down on the ship. Thanks to Carlsen’s interactions with the alien female aboard ship, he now has a mental link to her, which Caine and Fallada hope to use to track down the entity. But is it too late to stop the alien vampires from causing a mass plague to harvest the world’s Lifeforce?

Released in 1985, Lifeforce is a Golan-Globus production; more often than not, when you see their names and/or the Cannon Group logo on a film from this period you know you are in for a big dose of epic cheese, and if you go in with those expectations rather than hoping for a serious SF-horror movie you’ll probably enjoy yourself more. It was a massive flop on release, both critically and commercially, in part because the theatrical release hacks back a fair chunk of material, including a lot of the stuff necessary to coherently keep track of what is going on.

The movie hails from that era in the mid-1980s when Golan and Globus were trying to class up the Cannon portfolio by undertaking productions with bigger names than their usual mid-tier-at-best casts and crews – another product being the ludicrous Sylvester Stallone vehicle Cobra. For this one, they brought in Tobe Hooper to direct, fresh from the mega-hit of Poltergeist; this would be the first of a three-movie deal which would also see him knocking out the 1950s remake Invaders From Mars and the bizarre Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in short order. Dan O’Bannon was brought in to write the screenplay, his Alien work lending the production some science fiction credibility, and he brought along his co-writer Don Jakoby, with whom he’d written the 1983 action thriller Blue Thunder; the duo would stick with Hooper to write the script for the Invaders From Mars remake.

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Folk Horror Festival, Part 4: Horrors Veiled By the Iron Curtain

Time for another dip into Severin’s All the Haunts Be Ours, their sumptuous boxed set of lesser-known folk horror movies. So far in this series of articles we’ve seen the impressive range of different countries the movies selected hail from, and for this article we’re going to look at three productions from 1967-1970 which were produced in Communist bloc countries. This would hail from a period when, whilst the Cold War was still very much an ongoing concern, censorship restrictions in Iron Curtain countries had eased compared to the heights of Stalinism and a certain amount of cultural communication across the dividing line was taking place. Despite the political barriers (and the inherent hurdle any movie has in markets where the language it is made in is not widely spoken), at least one of these productions ended up gaining some notoriety in international cinematic circles, and the others all deserve their share of attention too.


It is the early 17th Century. In Šumperk, in the Kingdom of Bohemia, the elderly peasant woman Maryna Schuchová (Lola Skrbková) is spotted concealing a Communion wafer in a handkerchief. She claimed it was to feed to a sickly cow to cure it – the sort of folk remedy which you’d naturally expect to arise in a cultural milieu that venerates the Host so highly. Some of the local clergy recognise that – but others think that they are dealing not with essentially Christian-minded (albeit unorthodox) folk practices but Satanic witchcraft.

It is clear that the matter will not be settled without some sort of Inquisitorial process. The moderate clergy, led by the well-educated Dean Lautner (Elo Romancik) encourage the local countess to appoint Kaspar Hutter (Rudolf Krátký), a respected judge who is known to be sensible in these matters – in his most recent investigation he exonerated the four women accused on the grounds that they were not of sound mind. However, precisely because Hutter has shown mercy in the past, the local hardliners aren’t keen on him. They propose instead a certain Boblig (Vladimír Smeral), a failed law student turned Inquisitor for hire whose lack of fine credentials is made up for, in their eyes, by his zealous pursuit of witches.

Due to the controversies around his past investigations, Boblig is out of practice – for the last few years he’s dropped out of law entirely and has been running an inn – but once he gets the invite to come and preside over the witch trials in Šumperk, he and his assistant Ignác (Josef Kemr) see the opportunity to hop back on the gravy train and enjoy the fruits of high society once again. Of course, that particular gravy train only runs so long as there’s a regular supply of suspects to keep the trials going. Fortunately for Boblig and Ignác, their investigative methods always turn up more suspects – and when others like Dean Lautner try to moderate their excesses, they have a strange way of ending up on the suspect list…

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Star Trek: More Motion Pictures

Star Trek vs. Star Wars is a silly, undignified playground debate, like Nintendo vs. Sega, and the idea that one franchise can be held to be objectively better than the other when they’re really very different beasts which aren’t easy to compare and just happen to share a sci-fi aesthetic and misguided decisions by J.J. Abrams in common is ridiculous.

On the other hand, if you were having this argument specifically about the movies, then there’s certainly been more to talk about on the Star Trek side of things than Star Wars until Disney started their milking of the Star Wars legacy. That would be particularly true if you were having that playground argument in, say, the late 1980s to early 1990s – the sort of era when I was having this conversation on school playgrounds, in other words.

Whilst the original theatrical Star Wars movies ended up telling a closed story, with Return of the Jedi definitively ending the story and ruling out any possibility that the beastly Emperor Palpatine would ever menace the galaxy again, Star Trek had been an open-ended episodic series of one-off stories ever the original TV show; this was advantageous when it came to making sequels, because you could always just say “Here’s another adventure!” and it would not feel incongruous, because these were characters who were made to go from story to story, not ones whose tales were so inextricably bound with a particular story that once that tale ends it feels like their business is done.

So it was that, before the prequel trilogy brought Star Wars back into cinemas, Star Trek could boast double the number of movies. Of course, there was absolutely no way it would have gotten that far had the franchise repeated the weird, wonderful, beautiful, but astonishingly uncommercial and sedate experiment which was The Motion Picture. There would indeed be sequels, but the sequels would need to be different. And indeed, they were – very, very different indeed, both from The Motion Picture and from each other…

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Back on the original five-year mission, the Enterprise encountered the Botany Bay – a slower-than-light generation ship, and a relic of the devastating Eugenics Wars that ravaged Earth in the 1990s. Its cryogenic cargo was a brace of the genetically uplifted superhumans that were the misguided product of that terrible era, and their leader was Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalbán), former dictator of a wide swathe of the planet. Khan and his cronies attempted to take control of the Enterprise, aided by Lt. Maria Givers, who had fallen in love with Khan due to the combination of his manipulative abilities, her tradwife fetish, and her fascination for historical strongman dictators. Khan, Givers, and the rest of the antique ubermensch were exiled to Ceti Alpha V – but some years later one of the planets of the Ceti Alpha system exploded, altering the orbits of all the rest and rendering what was once a viable planet for them to live on indefinitely into a hostile wasteland.

Years later, the USS Reliant, commanded by Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) and Commander Chekov, has been tasked with finding a lifeless planet to test the Genesis Project, a rapid terraforming technology developed by the mother-and-son team of Carol and David Marcus (Bibi Besch and Merritt Butrick) which has the scope of turning a lifeless planet into a paradise with astonishing rapidity – but which would wipe out the ecosystem of any inhabited world it was deployed on. When Terrell and Chekov beam down to what they believe to be Ceti Alpha VI, they fall into the hands of Khan and his goons – and with Givers dead, Khan is in a lousy mood. On learning of the Genesis project – and discovering that Carol Marcus is an old flame of Kirk’s and David is his son – Khan sees not only the opportunity to make himself the terror of the galaxy using this new superweapon but also a chance to get revenge on his old adversary.

Meanwhile, Chekov is not the only Enterprise veteran who’s gone up in the world; Spock is now Captain, and is tasked with training up a new crew of cadets, including Lt. Saavik (Kirstie Allie), his Vulcan padawan. Taking the ship out on a training mission, he’s only too happy to bring along Admiral Kirk, who’s managed to get himself assigned to give the ship an inspection so he can tag along for the ride. After receiving a bizarre message from Carol Marcus objecting to Starfleet demanding handover of the Genesis project, supposedly on his orders – orders Kirk knows he never gave and Starfleet Command disavow – Kirk takes control of the mission and heads for the Regula I space station, where the project is underway. Little does he or Spock realise that they are about to face The Wrath of Khan

Continue reading “Star Trek: More Motion Pictures”