Mad Mitra: Beyond Hadrian’s Wall

In 2008 the Reaper Virus struck in Glasgow, unleashing a pandemic of unmatched lethality. A desperate British government resorts to erecting an enormous barricade in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall and a sea blockade around the Scottish coast. These harsh measures outrage international sensibilities, turning Britain into a dystopian pariah state. 27 years later and somehow the Reaper Virus breaks out in London. (How it is remotely possible for the virus to teleport some 400 miles south is never explained.)

Prime Minister John Hatcher (Alexander Siddig) and his Gordon Brown-esque deputy Michael Canaris (David O’Hara) are faced with various unpalatable alternative course of action to contain it – but there is one desperate roll of the dice they can try. Satellite images reveal the existence of a survivor population in Scotland; it’s possible that the enigmatic Dr Marcus Kane (Malcolm McDowell), who stayed north of the border even after it was sealed, was somehow able to develop a cure. Hatcher and Canaris ask Department of Domestic Security director Bill Nelson (Bob Hoskins in full Long Good Friday hardcase mode) to select his best agent to lead a small team north of the wall to track down Kane and retrieve the cure.

Nelson’s best agent is Major Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra), who along with her plucky party discovers that the survivors have turned into Mad Max gangs of fetish punks – as you do – and their mission ends up radically more violent than they ever dreamed it would be. With society disintegrated and primal brutality unleashed, their trip to find Kane will be a true journey into the heart of Scottish darkness – if this is Doomsday, does that mean it’s the apocalypse now?

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A Feral Process

Adam Parfrey of Feral House liked to put out clusters of books based on his particular interests, and one of those interests was the infamous Process Church, a cult from the 1960s and 1970s whose severe black uniforms and Satanic rites gained them a terrifying reputation. Robert de Grimston was the figurehead whose name was attached to most of the more traditional literature the Process created, but it has become apparent through later disclosure that it’s truer to say that the leader was his wife Mary Ann MacLean, who took pains to keep her importance a secret from outsiders.

If nothing else, the acid test of this came when de Grimston and MacLean split up in 1974; by and large, the community sided with MacLean and Robert was left trying with much less success to try and propagate his own reformed version of the Process before he gave up by the end of the 1970s. There can be few more unambiguous demonstrations of where the true power lay than in this display of loyalty to MacLean.

Under MacLean, the Process Church renamed itself first the Foundation Church of the Millennium, then the Foundation Faith of the Millennium, and established the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah. By 1993, the legal entity which had been the Foundation rebranded itself as Best Friends Animal Society and, to all outside appearances, had abandoned all religious and spiritual ambitions entirely for the sake of running the shelter; MacLean died in 2005. This would make it substantially easier to publish material on the Process without fear of litigation, and Feral House was happy to oblige…

Love Sex Fear Death

Subtitled The Inside Story of the Process Church of the Final JudgmentLove Sex Fear Death is billed as being by Timothy Wyllie and edited by Adam Parfrey, but I’d say on balance it is more of an anthology brought together by Parfrey than it is a single work by Wyllie, particularly since Wyllie’s words only account for about a third of the book. Still, Wyllie’s story is an important one and I can see the justification in giving him prominent billing. Wyllie was part of the Process Church before and after it had that name. He knew Robert de Grimston in 1959, before de Grimston and Mary Ann ever met.

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Bars of Social Allegory, Walls of Psychological Realism

In the half-century since it first aired, The Prisoner has become a televisual touchstone, as great a leap forward when it came to the artistic potential of television as the original Twin Peaks was several decades later. It also has one of the classic television intro sequences – a condensed version of the first act of debut episode Arrival which gets all we need to know about Patrick McGoohan’s character’s backstory across without dialogue, and provides a classic dialogue running down the basics of the setting that he finds himself in.

That premise, in summary: Patrick McGoohan’s character (who might be secret agent John Drake, his character from the early 1960s espionage show Danger Man) has angrily resigned from his job in a sensitive position within the British establishment. Packing his things – to go into holiday, or exile, or to flee the consequences of something he’s done? – he is knocked out by gas administered by mysterious agents, who transport his unconscious body away in a hearse.

He wakes up in the Village (the role played by the strange little mock-Mediterranean village of Portmeirion in Wales), a community where everyone is assigned a number – he is Number 6 – along with charming little cottages, delightfully hip fashions, and generally all they need to live a happy little life there. It is a facade, of course – the Village is operated by someone, who might be the British government, or one of their enemies, or one of their allies, or some unknown faction altogether, and is used as a controlled environment for advanced psychological interrogation techniques, and its population consists of a wide range of nationalities. The powers that be here are clearly international in scope, and also maintain careful ambiguity for the most part as to who is a prisoner and who is part of the staff, with some exceptions.

Whoever is behind the Village wants the information inside Number 6’s head, which is immensely valuable, but he doesn’t intend to give it up easily – and because they want to use him as an agent after they debrief him, the Village functionaries are forbidden from using some of the more destructive techniques available to them. Carefully-assembled files on Number 6 suggest that if he could be prevailed upon to answer the simple question “Why did you resign?”, that would open the psychological floodgates and the rest will be plain sailing.

Tasked with getting the answer to that question is the most visible authority figure in the Village, Number 2 – played by a range of different actors, many for only a single episode, as different Number 2s are deployed and then flushed (sometimes being replaced mid-episode, as in Arrival or Free For All). This device serves two purposes: narratively, it’s yet another disorientation tactic used by the Village, and prevents Number 6 from developing a deep understanding of any particular Number 2’s particular personality and style, and of course it also means that there’s a nice juicy role that could be offered to potential guest stars. The existence of Number 2s implies a Number 1 controlling everything, and the question of “Who is Number 1?” becomes the vital information which Number 6 himself wants to answer.

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Above Top Secret, But Not Beyond Reasonable Doubt

Timothy Good’s career has seen him make a mark on two distinct fields. In the world of music, he’s an experience violinist who has played for an extended period of time with several highly regarded orchestras, and has worked as a session musician for major stars. In his other career, he is a UFOlogist, whose Above Top Secret was one of the more prominent tomes to emerge from the British UFO scene.

Over the course of Above Top Secret, Good wants to persuade the reader of two things:

  1. Various governments around the world have looked into the UFO phenomenon, but have played down or actively covered up this interest on their part.
  2. At least a portion of UFOs are nuts-and-bolts spaceships piloted by aliens, and some governments have proof of this they are concealing.

Good plays a clever rhetorical trick with this book; to my eyes, the materials he offers do substantiate his first point, but point 1 can be true without point 2 being also true. His evidence offered for point 2 is much more tenuous, but if you are not reading carefully you may find yourself buying into 2 on the basis of how well he’s sold you on 1.

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Two Tubbs of Dumarest, Please

Science fiction writing loves its ongoing series, but E.C. Tubb’s Dumarest saga is truly something else. Debuting in 1967 and with the final completed part published in 2008, 2 years before Tubb’s death, the Dumarest series took in some 33 novels covering a single epic journey across the galaxy.

The first story, The Winds of Gath, introduces us to the basic premises of the series. Earl Dumarest is a wandering space traveller who survives on a narrow margin, often only able to afford Low Passage between star systems: instead of enjoying the luxuries of warmth and food and light and air during space voyages, Low Passengers literally travel with the cargo, cryogenically frozen for the trip in a process with a 15% mortality rate.

In short, almost every single trip Dumarest takes is a risk – but a risk he is willing to take, for Dumarest originated on Earth, birthplace of humanity, and is determined to get home. Earth is a blasted wasteland, you see, and when Dumarest got a chance to stow away on one of the few ships to visit the place to get offworld and away, he jumped at it – only to find that in the wider galaxy Earth is considered to be a myth, and nobody will admit to knowing where it is or believe him when he tells them he comes from there. Consequently, Dumarest travels the length and breadth of the colonised universe, desperate to track down any clue – no matter how minor – which could help him find Earth again and solve this grand mystery.

The Winds of Gath

We join Dumarest’s adventures just as he arrives at Gath – a dead-end world for space travellers who lack the funds for a return ticket, since there isn’t really enough of a functional economy there to let poverty-stricken space bums scrimp and save enough cash to buy a low passage out of there. Dumarest didn’t intend to go there at all, except the ship he was travelling on changed course to accommodate the wishes of the Matriarch of Kund, the ruler of a powerful realm of female-dominated planets.

The Matriarch, her ward Seena Thoth, and their entourage are not the only tourists – a swathe of wealthy individuals have come to Gath, including the sadistic and cruel Prince of Emmened, because they have all heard of its sole attraction. This is the massive mountain range a few days’ walk north of the spaceport, where every so often the curious weather patterns of this planet (arising because one hemisphere always faces the local star whilst the other hemisphere is in eternal night) cause a massive storm to erupt – a storm in which, it is said, the voices of the dead can be heard.

Dumarest is sceptical, as well he should be, but he has other concerns – like keeping his right-hand man Megan alive in one of the toughest seasons yet for the travellers stuck in the shanty-town surrounding the spaceport, earning his way off-world, and foiling a conspiracy against the Matriarch’s party. Meanwhile, Dyne, the matriarch’s hyper-logical Cyber advisor, is playing his own game in the aid of the Cyclan, the Cyber guild, and the vast Cyclan hive-mind – a colossal complex of living brains extracted from the most exceptional Cybers, in regular telepathic contact with Cybers across the galaxy thanks to the powers of the Homochon implant. And what, exactly, does a huge ever-growing pulsating brain that rules from the centre of the Ultraworld want in this situation?

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Kickstopper: Barkley’s Botched Pass

Cast your mind back to the late 2000s. Ferretbrain was just heating up. Bush’s second term was cooling off, or actually finally done with. RPG Maker freeware games had become widespread enough that the cliches of shoddy ones were as recognisable as the tropes of the JRPG genre they tended to sit in. Developers like Tale of Tales tried to stretch the bounds of indie gaming with material like The Path. YouTube was young, and 4Chan was mostly known for trolling Scientology. Pepe the Frog was a benign, nonpartisan figure.

Among the creative minds using the developing Internet as a platform was Chef Boyardee or cboyardee. Named after a pasta brand, Chef had an ear for a good chiptune and was an early YouTube animator, with his surrealistic, nihilistic, and disturbingly violent take on Dilbert being perhaps his most enduringly famous work.

In early 2008, Chef was part of a team who released Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden – Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa, a Game Maker-created JRPG that was a sequel to both the Sega Mega Drive basketball game Barkley: Shut Up and Jam and the weird Looney Tunes-meets-NBA movie Space Jam. Chef’s music, witty writing, and a slew of borrowed and tweaked graphical assets combined to make an absurd parody game whose sense of humour, whilst now badly dated in some respects (and in some respects inappropriate at the time) found a cult following.

Then in 2012, when Kickstarter was experiencing its post-Double Fine Adventure boom, Tale of Game’s (yes, that’s how it’s spelled) ran a Kickstarter for a sequel, The Magical Realms of Tír na nÓg: Escape from Necron 7 – Revenge of Cuchulainn: The Official Game of the Movie – Chapter 2 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa.

It is now eight years later, and it seems likely that a finished version of the game will never come out.

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Four Sides of the 1980s

As my backlog clearance continues, I am resorting to this: giving you a clutch of reviews of movies from the 1980s held together by the tenuous common theme of “all these movies represent a particular type of person you would have met in the 1980s”. Here goes.

The 80s Cokehead: Scarface

The movie opens against the backdrop of the Mariel boatlift – Fidel Castro’s surprise decision to allow thousands of emigrants to leave Cuba – resulting in a refugee crisis in Florida. The movie plays on the fact that Castro took the opportunity to send numerous prisoners and mental hospital patients to Florida, divesting the Cuban government of the cost of handling them, by including among the emigrants Tony Montana (Al Pacino), along with a number of his buddies – who, by the evidence of their prison tattoos, are apparently hardened criminals.

Montana and company end up in a makeshift refugee detention centre underneath a motorway flyover. Through the fence, they receive an offer suited to their skills: Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), a well-connected Cuban-American drug baron, will pull the right strings to allow them to get released and get their green cards in return for assassinating Emilia Rebenga (Roberto Contreras), who’d tortured Frank’s brother to death back in Cuba. This is accomplished in chilling fashion during a riot in the detention centre.

It’s not directly stated whether or not Tony engineered the riot, but it’d be entirely in keeping with his tendency for massive overescalation of violence, which we see plenty of as the movie progresses. As Tony moves his way up the ranks in Frank’s empire, eventually ousting him, a whirlwind of cocaine addiction, Tony’s infatuations with Frank’s ex-girlfriend Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer) and his own sister Gina Montana (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and his entanglements with even more ruthless figures like cocaine manufacturer Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar) all contribute to his downfall, which is ultimately spurred by his machismo-driven refusal to compromise with anyone or to back down in any situation.

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We Can Remake It For You Wholesale

We Can Remember It For You Wholesale has one of the more cumbersome titles of Philip K. Dick’s short stories, but under the much snappier title of Total Recall it ended up being one of the more successful adaptations of his work. Though not given the reverential critical acclaim of Blade Runner, the original movie turned a healthy profit – even when you take into account its status as one of the most expensive movies ever made at the time – and has a decent critical reception among both SF fans and action movie junkies.

Hollywood cannot leave well enough alone and will always remake rather than innovate if it can, so in 2012 Len Wiseman directed a remake, retaining the Total Recall title. How do these two recollections compare? Let’s see…

The Original

It’s 2084 and humanity is in the process of colonising Mars, with a significant population living in environmentally-controlled domed cities there. The governor, Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) exerts political control over the colony and oppresses the significant mutant population through his control of the oxygen supply. Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a construction worker living on Earth, is fascinated with the situation, not least because he’s been having evocative dreams of visiting Mars.

Quaid wants to take a holiday there, but his wife Lori (Sharon Stone) discourages this, pointing out the danger of taking a trip to a conflict zone. Instead, Quaid decides to go visit Rekall, Inc., a service which implants enjoyable memories into the minds of its customers, so he can at least have the recollection of having had an exciting visit to Mars (with an extra twist of memories of being a secret agent for good measure) even if he can’t do it for real. However, when Rekall’s technicians have sedated Quaid and are about to begin the implantation process, they discover that there’s already a pre-existing implant in there.

Cancelling the implant process and bundling Quaid into a cab, Rekall try to pretend he never visited – but when Quaid’s work buddy Harry (Robert Constanzo) pulls a gun on him and attempts to kill him because he went to Rekall, and when Lori tries to kill him when he gets home, he realises that something is up. As it turns out, Quaid wasn’t originally Quaid – in a past life he was Carl Hauser, an important agent for Cohaagen, who after attempting to defect ended up getting his memories wiped and a new life set up for him as Quaid. Now Quaid/Hauser must get his ass to Mars, discover the truth about his past and Cohaagen’s plans, and free the planet’s inhabitants. But Cohaagen’s goons, led by the vicious Richter (Michael Ironside) – Lori’s real husband and Hauser’s former buddy – are one step behind…

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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 5: Hey, Did You Know We Have a Movie Coming Out?

So far on my X-Files rewatch we’ve seen the show’s muddled beginnings, cheered it on as it got good, savoured its prime, and tried to enjoy what we could as it gradually began its decline. (We’ve also glanced over at Millennium and gone “nah, can’t be bothered”.)

Now it’s time to look at season 5, produced in parallel with The X-Files: Fight the Future, the first movie. As we’ll see, that’s a circumstance which ended up overshadowing this season somewhat.

I noted how in the previous season the writing team had become somewhat contracted, and that’s exacerbated further this time. The inner circle has now contracted to just Chris Carter, Frank Spotnitz, John Shiban, and Vince Gilligan – four writers as opposed to seven last season – and once again, there’s much less outside contributions than in earlier seasons, with only three episodes having scripts which weren’t written outright or contributed to by those four people.

The season opens with another Chris Carter two-parter focusing on the mytharc, Redux and Redux II, resolving both the “did Mulder kill himself?” cliffhanger from last season (of course he fucking didn’t) and the “will Scully’s cancer be cured?” (of course it fucking will). The only really exciting aspect of the cliffhanger, really, is “Whose dead body is that in Mulder’s apartment that Scully misidentified as Mulder to cover for him?”, and the answer turns out to be “a generic agent of the Conspiracy we don’t care about”.

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The Italian Alien Rip-Offs

As I’ve frequently highlighted here, somewhere in the transition from the 1970s to the 1980s Italian genre cinema lost its way; whereas previously it had produced an interesting mix of highbrow and schlock material, somewhere along the way a race to the bottom began, yielding a glut sloppy B-movies turfed out in a hurry, often for the sake of ripping off some more prominent, more successful movie. When Alien was a hit in 1979, it was inevitable that Italian producers would try to rip it off. Let’s take a look at two attempts, neither of which manage to capture the charm of the original movie.

Alien 2: On Earth

We open as journalists assemble to cover the the return of a mission to space, the capsule expected to splash down in the ocean. Meanwhile, caving expert Thelma Joyce (Belinda Mayne) hustles to a TV studio (which seems to be located inside an old cinema, based on the exterior shots), where the local station is going to interview her about her group’s explorations as a way of filling time until the astronauts show up. Thelma, during the interview, shows signs of illness; her husband Roy (Mark Rodin) explains that Thelma is telepathic and she sometimes has funny turns when significant things happen (in the same tone of voice you’d use to explain that someone has a mild allergy to cats).

After the interview Thelma drags Roy and, later, the rest of the caving team around town doing various weird errands – meeting some guy from a yacht who tells her to ignore her concerns, and then randomly yelling at a little girl at the beach for no reason. Well, perhaps she did have a precognitive reason – for after Thelma leaves, the child encounters something squamous and eldritch on the beach and disappears, and when her mother finds her she’s had her face ripped off (though apparently this leaves no bloodstains or trail of blood and she is still able to sit there sobbing like someone broke her favourite toy despite lacking any of the parts of the body which would allow you to cry).

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