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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Where Did the Patrol Go Wrong?

The tendency of the entertainment industry to try and turn everything into a franchise sometimes has strange results. Take, for instance, the example of RoboCop, where Paul Verhoeven’s original movie is generally regarded as a classic but where various efforts to create follow-ups and spin-offs have been at best incongruous, at worst just plain bad. There was the inevitable attempt to create a family-friendly kid’s Saturday morning cartoon out of it, for instance, because for some reason in the 1980s studio executives thought that making tie-in cartoons for small children based on films they weren’t allowed to see was a good ideas, and there was also the live action TV show which was watchable but entirely forgettable cyberpunk time-filler.

The 2014 remake came and went without gleaning much acclaim, and it seems like the rights holders have come to agree with the general sentiment that a lot of the stuff that’s been made since the original isn’t up to much. Not that they’re being sensible enough to just let it die, mind – they’re just working on a new movie which will be a direct sequel to the original film and treat everything else as non-canon.

Where did it all go wrong? Let’s look at the original movie trilogy and see if we can work it out.

RoboCop

The first film is, at its very simplest, a superhero origin story, and like all the classic superhero origin stories it’s so archetypal that I really don’t need to spend much energy summarising it here. Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is a cop in Detroit in an edgy cyberpunk future. The privatised police force’s contract is held by Omni Consumer Products (OCP), which is researching robotic alternatives to conventional flesh-and-blood police. When the ED-209 project of corporate vice president Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) suffers a few setbacks, the up and coming executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) proposes stepping up his own RoboCop project. Blah blah, Murphy gets mortally wounded at the hands of Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang, he gets cyborged up, the memory wipe doesn’t work 100% and he sets out to recover his memories and avenge his death with the help of his former partner on the force Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen).

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Mini-Review: The Thirteenth Floor

Coming out in 1999, The Thirteenth Floor was overlooked or outright rejected by critics on its release, probably because it shared the whole total immersion virtual reality schtick with The Matrix – indeed, I suspect the two films represent one of those Armageddon/Deep Impact situations where multiple studios produce movies with a similar general concept because one of them got word of what the other was doing and thought it sounded promising enough to steal.

Whereas The Matrix had wire-fu, an action movie plot, long waffly philosophical speeches, an aesthetic which combined Gigeresque postapocalyptic wastelands with a latex budget larger than Keanu Reeves’ paycheque and a breakneck pace, The Thirteenth Floor had a slow-paced detective mystery with one foot in present-day LA and the other in a perfect simulation of LA in 1937, housed on the thirteenth floor of a downtown apartment building. (I am immediately reminded of Philip K. Dick’s Now Wait For Last Year, which includes a faked-up version of Washington DC circa 1935 built on Mars for a powerful man’s personal amusement.)

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Blake’s 7: Final Foray

The story so far: after a slightly bumpy first season, a second season which found a team of additional writers taking the show to new heights, and a third season which managed excellent ratings despite not featuring the title character of the show, Blake’s 7 was renewed for a fourth season, which would prove to be its final one. This was a great surprise to everyone involved, who had fully expected it to be cancelled after the third season, crafted the season finale to act as a plausible end to the story, and in the course of that finale blew up the Liberator, the starships our heroes had flown since early in season 1. Terry Nation, the show’s creator, had gone to the US to take up a scriptwriting job in Hollywood, but the BBC wanted one more season and so someone had to pick up the slack and perform a thorough revision of the show’s premise in the process.

For this season the showrunner role – to an extent that a TV show of this era could be said to had one – was arguably shared between Chris Boucher and Vere Lorrimer. Boucher, as the script editor since the start of the show, had always exerted significant oversight over the writing process, to the point where in season 1 he was effectively the unnamed co-author: Terry Nation had only intended to write a few episodes of the season but was unexpectedly tasked with the entire thing, and the only way they could make it work on schedule was for Nation to pass his first drafts to Boucher and for Boucher to whip them into shape. He’d also written the General Notes and Baffle Gab Glossary that served as the show bible for incoming writers in the production process for season 2. Nation’s exit naturally solidified Boucher’s command over the writing side of things, and this would be underlined by Boucher penning the first and last episodes of the season – slots which had traditionally been Terry Nation’s beat.

On the direction side of things, Vere Lorrimer had been a regular director for the series from the beginning, and indeed was credited as director on nearly a quarter of the series’ episodes. For this season he stepped back into a producer role, though he would step in to salvage Assassin when David Proudfoot, the episode’s director, fell ill and wasn’t able to finish it (which may explain why that episode is a bit janky).

Lorrimer was keen to shift the tone of the series, leaning into the more gritty aspects of the universe which had always been part of the show but had previously also had a significant dose of space opera camp leavening it. The destruction of the Liberator, with its fantastical technology, seemed the perfect time to update the aesthetic of the show to something a bit darker, and also perhaps made it necessary on a behind-the-scenes basis; since they’d fully expected season 3 to be the end of the show, the crew had destroyed the actual Liberator sets in the process of making Terminal, so a retcon to allow the Liberator to rebuild itself out of the smithereens it had disintegrated into wouldn’t really have helped – the interior would end up looking different anyway, so they might as well just introduce a new ship and let the Liberator‘s destruction and the death of its onboard AI Zen stand so as to not undermine the consequences of the third season finale unnecessarily.

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Blake’s 7: Third Front

The story so far: show creator Terry Nation and his loyal script editor sidekick Chris Boucher had managed to shepherd Blake’s 7 through its first season, by the skin of their teeth – Nation having unexpectedly being landed with the task of writing all the episodes, and getting through the deadlines largely by passing his first drafts to Boucher and relying on the latter to punch them up to shape. This resulted in a season which, at its best, has some actually incredible moments, and a few extremely strong episodes. The Way Back, the debut episode, has seared itself into my brain with how powerful it really is, and the season did a great job of establishing its cast (and has the best version of Travis). At the same time, at its worst season 1 Blake’s 7 is clearly struggling to find itself and work out how to do the sort of show it wants to be.

It was good enough to snag a second season for the show, at which point a broader range of writers were drafted in and the overall quality improved. Yes, season 2 has the crap Travis – but it also has the show finding its feet properly, adjusting as it went to cast members’ departures as it went. With everyone’s contracts up for renewal at the end of the season and some cast members intending to leave – including Sally Knyvette, who was finding that she didn’t have that much to do as Jenna, and Gareth Thomas – AKA Blake himself.

Not knowing who’d come back, who’d depart but leave the door open for a potential return, and who would leave forever, Nation crafted the end of the second season around an alien invasion from Andromeda – an invasion with the avowed end of total human extinction. This prompts the Liberator crew to gallantly interpose themselves between the Andromedans and their point of attack – Star One, the Federation’s isolated computer centre – in order to give the Federation time to muster a response, because despite their hated of the Federation the Andromedans were clearly an even bigger threat.

The season ended mere seconds before the eruption of an almighty space battle, which of course was a situation where any character could plausibly end up killed or separated from the others to cover for their actors’ exits. The battle would also allow for an adjustment to the status quo of the series to be made – arguably necessary, if you were going to continue the show without its title character. Would they pull it off? Let’s take a look at season 3 and find out…

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Blake’s 7: Second Insurrection

As you might remember from my thoughts on season 1 of the show, Blake’s 7 was the brainchild of Terry Nation and he ended up writing the entire first season all on his ownsome, establishing the series’ unusually dark tone for a 1970s space opera television series along with a beloved cast of core protagonists and recurring enemies. This was actually more than originally planned – the initial intention had been that he’d write the first seven episodes and a two-part finale for season 1, and the remaining four episodes would be written by other hands.

As a result of having to pen more episodes than expected, Nation had to rush it, turning in only a first draft of each script and giving script editor Chris Boucher a very free hand in script revisions, which explains why the first season is a bit shonky in places. (Apparently Bounty was especially badly affected, to the point where on set director Pennant Roberts had to improvise ways to pad out scenes to reach the target running time.)

Clearly, it was time for other hands to get involved, so on season 2 more writers ended up getting involved. In fact, Terry Nation only wrote three episodes for the season – each of which a significant tentpole episode setting up the action for the next third or so of the season – whilst Chris Boucher ended up turning in 4. (By this point Boucher, in his script editor role, had become so conversant with the series continuity that he actually wrote the terminology guide to assist other writers in churning out Blake’s 7-flavoured technobabble.) Let’s see if the additional hands boosted the quality of the series whilst retaining its consistency of tone – or whether they steered it right into a ditch.

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Blake’s 7: First Flight

Some things you don’t want to leave up to chance. Whilst all of Blake’s 7 seems to be freely available via YouTube, with no particular effort by the BBC to get it taken down, at the same time I’d wanted a physical copy of the thing just in case all that changed in the immediate future – plus, getting the proper DVDs likely meant better quality than the YouTube copies. Lo and behold, after Christmas HMV went bust (again), and in the midst of the fire sale I was able to get a boxed set of the complete series for a fraction of the usual price.

I’m going to share my thoughts on Blake’s 7 here, and like my mammoth article on Babylon 5 way back when I’m not going to flinch at dropping spoilers. If you’re averse to spoilers for a show which is now over 40 years old, then to be honest I’m not that fussed about your feelings because there’s a statute of limitations on these things, but don’t complain if you read deeper into the article and encounter spoilers.

Other sources of comparatively fresh Blake’s 7 discussion include the excellent podcast Down and Safe, featuring various professional SF authors taking it in episode by episode, but don’t get your hopes up for them to ever actually finish the damn thing – the update schedule got increasingly glacial, until their season 2 wrapup got released nearly a year and a half ago, so I suspect the odds of them actually getting to the end of season 4 are so remote as to be not worth considering. (Dear Down and Safe crew: I love your work but if you don’t want me saying mean things about your schedule, prove me wrong, mamajamas.)

A non-spoilery observation, by the way: as much as American hegemony is problematic, I am really glad that American English has given us this distinction between “series” and “seasons” in talking about television. In British English, it is the case – or at least used to be the case – that “series” was used to mean both “series” (as in the show as a whole) and “season” (as in a particular run of the show), which in retrospect is tremendously awkward because whenever you mentioned a “series finale” it was unclear whether you meant the final episode of a series ever or just the last episode of the latest run. It feels like we’ve had a bit of a sea-change lately, possibly due to the boxed set/Netflix streaming era making it more common to consume TV by the season and so much of the fodder for that coming from America.

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He Was Turned To Steel, In a Yaoi Magnetic Field…

The Tetsuo movies by Shinya Tsukamoto get mentioned whenever you look at the Japanese cyberpunk genre. “Japanese cyberpunk” is simultaneously a very apt and a very misleading term; on the one hand, it does touch on a whole heap of the same themes as the rest of cyberpunk, but on the other it does so with such a different and idiosyncratic approach that sometimes those links aren’t so apparent. That’s especially true of the Tetsuo material, where Tsukamoto has this regular habit of slowing the plot down to an absolute crawl so he can communicate a particular idea in excruciating detail, usually by throwing in a surreal sequence comes across more as an Einstürzende Neubauten music video than an attempt at conventional cinematic narrative.

This is especially true of the first one, Tetsuo: The Iron Man. It wears its Eraserhead influence on its sleeve and it’s widely seen as being similarly plotless, but I actually think the plot here is much more straightforward than Eraserhead – it’s just that the plot is sufficiently thin that if it weren’t for the highly unusual manner of its delivery, the movie would be done in 10 minutes (and as it stands it barely breaks an hour in running time).

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Kickstopper: Big Trouble In CyberChina

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Back when I started doing these Kickstopper articles, the first one was for Shadowrun Returns, a rather successful bid to redeem the Shadowrun IP on the videogame front. I’d actually played Shadowrun: Hong Kong, its sequel, a while back, and had even written the review, but I inadvertently didn’t get around to posting it. Better late than never, though…

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

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Nirvana In Mirrorshades

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

If you’ve enjoyed the Persona games – I’ve previously provided reviews of the first, third and fourth – then odds are that sooner or later you’re going to want to explore the wider Shin Megami Tensei series of demon summoning-themed JRPGs. What you discover is a mixed bag; most of the other branches of the series eschew the high school life simulation visual novel and dating sim influences of the Persona games (and only Persona 3 and Persona 4 actually focus on that), and whilst sometimes their surreal takes on fairly standard JRPG plotlines can be quite interesting, other times the games can get bogged down in repetitiveness and tedium. On top of that, there’s a sprawling morass of side-series which, like Persona, take the demon-summoning concept and put their own spin on it.

One of these is Digital Devil Saga – not to be confused with Digital Devil Story, the strapline for the original NES-era Megami Tensei games. Digital Devil Saga was a Playstation 2-exclusive duo of games which emerged after Lucifer’s Call – the sole game of the core Shin Megami Tensei series to get a PS2 release – and before Persona 3 came along to both redefine the gameplay of the Persona series and radically expand the bounds of what you could do in a Shin Megami Tensei game.

Consequently, what you might to expect to deal with here – both from the title being highly reminiscent of the original series and the fact that it preceded Persona 3 – is a more traditional Shin Megami Tensei game, and for the most part that’s what you get. So any of y’all who were hoping for another life simulation will probably be better off waiting for the recently-announced Persona 5.

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