The Original Foley Artists

busterkeatonUntil the late 1920s films were all silent, with musical accompaniment generally provided live by a pianist. You might have seen clips of silent films with some very clichéd music playing on a hideous honky-tonk piano, such as Mysterioso Pizzicato (The Villain’s Theme). You will know that piece of music whether you think you do or not. However, that cliché is a very distorted view of the art of the silent cinema pianist. If you can track down some of the programmes Paul Merton did a few years back about silent film, try to find an episode where he employs an expert pianist to provide a realistic performance of silent film accompaniment, transforming the viewer’s experience. It really brings those old films to life, when they are accompanied by a skilled live performer rather than that kind of lazy woman-on-the-train-tracks stuff we’ve all heard. The accompanist had to be able to respond to the events on screen and bring the film to life, and it’s a tradition I am proud to say that one of my grandfathers was a part of.

Some film theatres went further, and attempted to provide sound effects as well, to create an even more immersive viewing experience. Some of the techniques used, which will still be familiar today to foley artists, were described in the 25th March 1909 issue of The Bioscope:

While a really good pianist can do much to improve a bioscope exhibition, his work can be further enhanced by the careful and judicious use of certain simple, inexpensive “props.” But great care must be exercised not to overdo the “effects,” or the results may become ludicrous and grotesque. A very fair imitation of the sound of falling rain may be produced by allowing small shot to run backwards and forward on the surface of an ordinary, flat-bottomed tin pie-dish. It is not a bad plan to place the required amount of shot in the dish, and then covering the top of the dish with a piece of cloth, fastened over the edge securely by fish-glue and string. For a small sum, a special “wind” whistle can be purchased from any of the makers of theatrical “properties,” and will be found most useful when showing motion pictures of rough seas and similar subjects. Two old cigar boxes, or blocks of wood, each with one side covered with sand-paper, form most useful “props” in capable hands, for they can, by drawing one sand-papered surface over the other, be made to produce the sound of escaping steam from a railway engine, and the sounds of the waves washing over the rocks and sands in a coast picture. Small drumsticks used on a bass drum will produce a fine effect of the passing of a train, while the dull rumbling roar of a train passing over a bridge can be imitated in a very realistic fashion with the aid of a bass drum and a pair of drumsticks which have been thickly padded at their tips with cloth.

To successfully imitate the sound of horse traffic passing over hard wood or asphalt roads, a couple of cocoanut [sic] shells will be found to do good service; the desired effect being produced either by hitting the shells against each other, or by striking them against a fair-sized piece of slate. The thud of horses’ hoofs on turf can be imitated with the cocoanut shells by substituting for the slate a piece of board well covered with several thicknesses of cloth. The usual method of imitating thunder is produced by shaking a good-sized piece of sheet iron, to which a wooden , handle has been attached. Sudden, sharp noises, liable to startle or alarm an audience, are better left alone, but a very fair imitation of a pistol shot can be produced by the smart stroke of a hollow block mounted at the end of a stick against a stone slab. Sleigh bell effects can easily produced by mounting a dozen bells, such as are sold for fastening to dog-collars, upon a loop of stout wire.

With a few such simple “props” as I have above described it is a comparatively easy matter to produce many sounds that will greatly help towards the realism of the picture. But your “prop” manipulator must be an enthusiast, and at the same time have a nice ear and judgment, for half-hearted work will yield very poor results. Let him see each new programme through at least once without his “props,” and always try to have a couple of rehearsals with the “props” and music, so that everything may run smoothly at the performance. It is strict attention to these little details that does so much to make a bioscope exhibition popular and a financial success. The public are as keen as ever, provided they have the pictures shown as perfectly as circumstances will permit, and they are quick to realise and appreciate any effort on the part of the exhibitor to increase the realism of his exhibition.

RP

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Another Episode 10

Another Glass Eye Akazawa meets Koichi“Glass Eye”

The view from Igirisu:

With only a couple of episodes to go we are starting to get some answers to the big questions in Another. We get to see the first meeting between Akazawa and Koichi for the first time, although it’s still unclear as to why neither of them remembered it, unless I am missing something. Matsunaga’s tape is played in full for the first time and his solution to the curse is a grim one. He killed the extra student.

“That’s when it dawned on me. The guy I’d killed must have been the extra student all along.”

Perhaps it would have been better if he had never made that tape. It’s obviously going to do more harm than good. It was nothing but coincidence that the student he killed (by accident, in a fight) was the one who was already dead, so his tape does nothing more than put the idea into everyone’s head that they can save themselves by killing another student, but they don’t know who. Those are dangerous thoughts to be swirling around in the heads of teenagers who are terrified for their lives, and from that point onwards it’s pretty obvious what trajectory the series is going to take. We are just marking out time until the students turn on one another.

“Could you kill a classmate?”

Before this piece of deadly knowledge comes to light, they are already turning on one another, with Akazawa’s vicious verbal attack on Misaki. It’s the politest bullying you’ll ever hear, but it’s bullying nonetheless.

“I sincerely believe that you Misaki bear some degree of responsibility for the disasters we faced.”

Asking her to publicly apologise is cruel, and it’s a little out of character for Akazawa. Yes, she is the epitome of cool, calm and collected, and there have been hints we have been building up to this, but it’s hard to square it with the more human Akazawa we saw in the beach episode. She has always been calculating, to the extent that she will sacrifice somebody for the greater good, but this is just vindictiveness for no reason.

Mei’s response is remarkable. She is impossible to bully simply because her reaction is a blank. She knows that an apology is just meaningless words, so she does it anyway. In the end, she probably just doesn’t care what most people think of her. With certain provisos, that a healthy attitude to have in life. The extent to which other people’s opinions are unimportant to Mei is clear when she reveals that she possesses the knowledge to absolve her of any question of wrongdoing or failure: the first death from the curse was her twin sister, before Koichi even arrived: two degrees of separation, not the three that a cousin would be. We get some flashbacks to scenes which are taken from the OVA episode (which I didn’t realise on first viewing), which is a prequel episode but does need to be viewed after the series rather than before, as it obviously blows the twist of the girl in the hospital being Mei’s twin. Perhaps the most heartbreaking line of the whole series is this:

“It was a matter of supply and demand.”

The strength of Mei and Koichi’s relationship is evident in the way she confides in him. Their very subtle budding romance has been a lovely balancing aspect to all the horror in Another, a ray of hope in the darkness. I think she knows exactly what she is doing when she thanks him for sticking up for her and then stands intimately close to him, teasing him with the words “will you come see me later”. As usual they just talk about the curse, like all their dates, but it’s pretty clear that their friendship is deepening to something more. She’s not one to become visibly emotional, but she is allowing Koichi into her inner thoughts and emotions:

“I didn’t want to believe that Misaki had died because of some crazy curse.”

And then we’re into what must surely be the build-up to the big final battle between these students and the curse, or perhaps these students and themselves.

“Is the dead person here on this trip with us?”

(Lightning strike – every episode makes me jump out of my skin at some point.)

“The extra person is here.”
“Who is it.”
“It is…”

…and another jumpy moment as Teshigawara bangs on the door. Something terrible has happened…   RP

The view from Amerika:

Well, we know the solution to stopping the calamity: send the dead back to death.  Figure out who the dead person is, and kill them for good.  There’s got to be a recipe book in the Lovecraft library that talks about taking a group of people and slowly turning them all into homicidal murderers.  And that’s a terrifying concept, especially as the series draws into the final 3 episodes and we have the entire class heading off to an isolated hotel together.  Can you say “Overlook”?  Stephen King’s masterpiece The Shining is coming together wonderfully.  Or is that the next episode and this one is The Haunting of Hill House?  The Haunting?  I have a feeling these last three will take elements of all of these and many more.

This is the first time I had a clue that really presented itself and I think I know who the dead person is.  I noticed it first here.  Can you see it?  No?  Well, moments later…

image001

…the class is taking a group picture by the gates of the place and there is a banner to the left of Akazawa. Sure this might be because the class wants to keep the banner visible but in a series of red herrings, couldn’t it be more than that? Then Teshigawara gives me another clue. He says Mochizuki and Ms. Mikami are too far apart. So is Sikaki and Misaki. He says nothing of the gap around Akazawa, and if you look, it’s on both sides of her, not just the side of the banner. The head of countermeasures has now been left apart twice. Why is that?

image002

When the small group start listening to the tape, another interesting thing happens.  The person’s name is left off 3 times.  (Maybe more; I might have lost count.)  But that’s telling.  See, if it were Dead Meat Thompson, we would not know who that was.  It was from 15 years ago, after all.  But the fact that we are left without the name is more than ghostly avoidance.  It’s not wanting the audience or the students to know the important fact: we know this person! 

There’s more.  When the question is asked, “you don’t supposed the extra student is here at the lodge?” there is a quick flash to a girls legs.  Now, she appears to be sitting like Misaki sits, so it might just be there to denote her worry.  And Asakawa tends to wear long stockings, so it might be nothing, but it might be letting us know that the dead person is a female.

This is going to be hard to keep the pace without wanting to jump from one to the other immediately.  I’ll pace myself though.  Let’s talk about other things.

Reiko is finally revealed to me to be Koichi’s aunt.  If they ever said that before, I missed it.  Also revealed is what Mei meant when she said “my other half” in episode 1.  She was a twin and her twin sister died.  There’s also an interesting thing that happened here.   Koichi is not out of the woods yet.  It’s said quickly but when Mei says that she knows the deaths started a month earlier than the rest of the class thinks, she’s basing it on the death of her twin.  She knows Koichi can’t be the dead person because her glass eye doesn’t see anything weird from him.  (I’m reminded of the movie The Eye, aren’t you?)  But Koichi knows that he was enrolled in the school before he started.  If we think back to the first episode, he told his class visitors at the hospital that he should be able to start school in June.  But that means he was enrolled in May – when the calamity began!

The episode leaves us on a violent cliffhanger with a lightning strike that actually caused me to jump and Teshigawara runs into the room saying that he screwed up, just as Mei was about to tell Koichi who she believes to be the dead person.  For the love that all that is scary, I want to move on to the 11th now…   ML

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Babylon 5: Z’ha’dum

b5This was always going to be the hardest episode for me to write about because I don’t think there’s any way to do it justice.  The episode is like getting the cover of the puzzle box so we finally see what we’ve been putting together all this time.  Anna, John’s wife, dead for 5 years, walks into his bedroom and offers to tell him “what it’s really all about.”  All he has to do is go with her.  Where?  “Where else?  To Z’Ha’Dum!”

But where do we start?  Do we talk about how much has lead up to this point?  Some examples are: Justin, the bushy-eyed old guy who talks with his hands a lot, tells John the same thing Sebastian told him: kill him and another rises to take his place.  John jumps from a height in the season 2 finale The Long Night.  He seem to like doing that.  The stories about the Shadows and the crew of the Icarus now all come together, and more impressively, the involvement of IPX, setup from the beginning of the series as a shady group of scientists, was involved from the start.  They knew about what happened on Mars, something we learned about this season.  Notice Justin’s reaction to the question “who are you?”  He’s not happy with it.  That’s the question Sebastian asks of John and Delenn in Comes the Inquisitor.  (A sort-of counterpoint to the Shadow question, “what do you want?”)  And what about his line about being a middle man.  (“The man in between is searching for you”, All Alone in the Night.)  Even G’Kar’s thermonuclear explosives are a throwback to the way John defeated the Minbari during the war.  And this just scratches the surface.  Like I said, we can see the puzzle we’ve been putting together.  There are others who have put together a list of how many episodes connect to this one, I am sure.  Suffice to say, there have been a lot.

Along with those things, there’s the phrase “the younger races”, used throughout the series referring to any race not Vorlon or Shadow.  Now, it’s interesting considering that when Justin and Anna are explaining things to John, it seems to come down to is parenting.  Didn’t see that coming!  This makes for a fairly compelling argument.  Yeah, it’s “gussied up a bit” for the scifi conflict, but as a parent, this is interesting. The Vorlon, Justin says, are like parents who wants everyone to play nice, by the rules; they are agents of order.  By contrast, the Shadows are agents of chaos who believe strength comes from conflict.  I find this such a compelling idea because my wife and I raise two boys and she Vorlons the hell out of them.  I Shadow them.  I mean, they’re boys, for Kosh’s sake!  They need to learn life skills.  And in the workforce, we grow more after mistakes than we do when we get it all right.  What about Jeff’s idea from season 1: the best way to get to know a guy is to get into a fight with him.  Strength does come from conflict; or at least growth does!   Does that mean I side with the Shadows?  Not necessarily.  They have merit to their thinking, absolutely, but when you look at it from a parental point of view, both attitudes have merits and the reality is that we go back and forth based on the needs of the situation.  These two races are a bit too militant.  It’s like the two agreed that they would represent a paradigm at all costs.  But that does create an interesting issue because it changes the “evil” Shadows to a race with different motivations; not wrong, just different.  They are making a stronger universe.  Chaos will bring strength.  So where do I fall in this?  Does Darwinism really beat a guided path forward?  Do I just want the “good guys” to win because I like the characters or is the belief (or as Justin refers to it, the dream) worth more than the characters themselves?

I found the acting in this story amazing.  The scenes with John and Delenn were intense.  From Anna’s arrival, letting John know that Delenn knew she was alive, there’s a tension that never lets up.  I think Boxleitner delivers his lines like a pro, using inflection to perfection.  His awareness that Delenn “couldn’t allow” him to know about Anna is a massive blow and one wonders if they can ever recover.  Based on the message he leaves a heart-broken Delenn, I think they still had a chance!   I also loved the interaction between John and Garibaldi.  They never felt as tight as Jeff and Michael were but they have an understanding.  I respect that.  Then there’s John’s real motivation for sacrificing himself; a thing Sebastian was looking for during his interrogation.  He remembers Delenn saying not to go to Z’Ha’Dum during his time jump forward in War Without End.  He posits that if he does go, sacrificing himself, maybe he can stop the devastation of Centuri Prime.  This is another good dilemma: in trying to prevent a bad future, did he, in fact, create it?  Based on his ending, one would have to think not because it would entail surviving a billion mile fall.  As the music gets completely awe-inspiring, John finds himself on a ledge and, with nowhere to go, arms the White Star to plummet down and destroy the Shadow city.  (Anna did say the Shadows believed if anything remotely Vorlon ever touched the planet, they would be destroyed.  She appears to be somewhat right!)  John hears the voice of Kosh, “Jump.  Jump, now!” and he leaps into the abyss.  Right behind him, the White Star falls and blows up.  And back on the station, the Shadow ships that had surrounded them, take off, while Susan realizes “he’s gone!”  Meanwhile, we learn later, even Mr. Garibaldi is gone… Next season is looking bleak!

Are there issues with the episode?  I didn’t like that they had to retcon Anna, since the original scene was played by a different woman.  I almost wish for the DVDs they remastered that one small scene from the earlier episode to make it match Boxleitner’s real life wife, Melissa Gilbert, but I guess it would have written that other actress out of the series and that wouldn’t be fair!  Barring that, when John is slowly reaching down with his left hand to get the gun off his leg, he stops to point at the back of his neck.  Risky move if he didn’t want that hand seen.  Not impossible that he’d have done it, but awkward.  The episode is a powerhouse and one I can watch over and over again.  I think I was really enjoying the series at this point but this finale solidified it!  Oh, there are a lot of good ones prior to this especially mid-season 3, but this one was insanely good.  The music was spot on too.  G’Kar ends the season with a marvelous speech but as we ponder the quote, I can’t help but wonder: is this the last we see of Sheridan?  Surely he couldn’t survive that fall and the nuclear blast?  And whatever happened to Mr. Garibaldi?

“G’Quan wrote: ‘There is a greater darkness than the one we fight. It is the darkness of the soul that has lost its way. The war we fight is not against powers and principalities, it is against chaos and despair. Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams. Against this peril we can never surrender. The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain.'”

Even in just a few lines, we’re reminded how awesome G’Kar is and I find his comments oddly reassuring even in our uncertain times.  Perhaps there’s something in it.  But for now, I am anxiously awaiting season 4.  ML

The view from across the pond:

We pick up where we left off at the end of the last episode, with the shock return of Sheridan’s wife. Bruce Boxleitner sells the emotion of that moment brilliantly, with his voice cracking a little as he says her name, and then the conflicting emotions: he has mourned her death and started to make a new life with Delenn, and is suspicious about whether it’s really Anna or not.

“All you have to do is come with me.”
“Where?”
“Where else? To Z’ha’dum.”

That moment surely should be sufficient for Sheridan to realise it’s not really his wife, especially as she is clearly talking to him in a manipulative way, but the desire to have her back is a strong one, and it takes medical evidence to tell him what he needs to know. Being Sheridan, he goes anyway, but at least he goes with his eyes open, and prepared.

After the brief distraction of Londo’s promotion (“It’s not a reward, it’s a leash.”), we finally reach the moment the series has been building to, Sheridan’s arrival on the home planet of the Shadows, who are not really called Shadows:

“Their actual name is 10,000 letters long.”

Doesn’t sound very convenient. That’s the kind of line sci-fi writers come up with because they think it’s all mysterious and cool, but in actual fact it’s just very silly. The Shadows don’t talk to Sheridan themselves, presumably because a CGI alien mouth speaking is beyond the abilities of 1990s sci-fi. Instead, they have a spokesman.

“I’m with them.”

Apparently the manipulation of humanity has gone both ways, with not just the Vorlon involved, and the “them” are the people who have decided what hemlines are in fashion, of all things. So, what, he’s a Kardashian?*

I’ve never been keen on the Von Daniken stuff that crops up all the time in sci-fi, with the course of the human race guided by aliens. It turns us into pawns on a chessboard and robs us of any real achievements. Although Doctor Who does a bit of that, I prefer its world view of an “indomitable” species. Ditto Star Trek. It’s also slightly lazy sci-fi. Writing about dawn-of-time aliens who have interfered with history isn’t exactly original or difficult for a writer. JMS does raise a fascinating point though:

“We never would have come this far if we hadn’t been at each other’s throats.”

That’s debatable. No, scratch that, it’s wrong. War creates progress in certain areas, generally the ability to kill each other more efficiently, and yes, there are occasional beneficial offshoots in terms of scientific progress, but war and instability overwhelmingly stalls progress as a whole. That’s why studies show that the greatest advancements today are coming from stable countries, not the war-torn or corrupt. It’s a simple matter of money. Yes, war can fund science, but the taxes that result from a stable and successful country can fund it much better. Some kind of a remark to that effect from Sheridan would have been useful, because the idea goes unchallenged and as a result we are sold rather a bleak view of human progress by JMS. Thankfully, actions speak louder than words, and there is not a single moment where Sheridan looks remotely convinced. Instead he blows himself up, and takes as much of Z’ha’dum with him as he can.

Can that be the end of Sheridan? It’s hard to see any way out for him, although we don’t know what was at the bottom of that pit, and Garibaldi’s heading for Z’ha’dum himself, like it or not. Somehow I doubt we’ve seen the last of the heroic captain.   RP

* I hope that joke works. I have no idea what they do at all, but I’m guessing the vapid hero-worship of these “celebrities” extends to fashion!

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Dead Men’s Tales

dead mens talesThe first thing that caught my attention with the beginning of season 3 of Jago and Litefoot was that the title of this first adventure was very … seafaring.  Now I should point out that as a fan of Cthulhu and his minions, this made me happy!   I go for mer-people.  I mean, barring a certain squid girl (Dagon), I don’t mean I find them attractive, but I like stories about them. “It’s like something out of the Black Lagoon!”  But when Leela comes out saying they are looking for a time distortion, the obvious thought is: there’s no way this has to do with sea people.  So when we are introduced to a gurgling creature of the sea and dead men walking out of the ocean, I think Davy Jones’ Locker and Pirates of the Caribbean.  And right there, in a nutshell, is the image that I conjured for the sea person.  Must have been awkward recording this…   I will take a moment here to acknowledge yet again, the cover artwork is outstanding!

But this story, while excellent, is very short.  No, I don’t mean to say they skimped on the story – it’s still nearly an hour, but the “wet men” portion felt like it was less than half of the story.  So what happens with the other half?  Leela!  And she’s fantastic.  The relationship between her, Jago and Litefoot is marvelous.  How do you improve on such an indomitable class act?  You add Louise Jameson as Leela and sit back to let the dialogue roll.  And some of it is off the charts outstanding!  Hearing Leela learn cockney slang is priceless but when she starts using it… that’s where the laughter really comes in. Her Crocodile Dundee moment is great too.  You know, the “that’s not a knife… this is a knife!” scene!  Great fun. Then her discussion about the Land of Nod (sleep) was even more fun as she acts like it’s a place.  But did she let a major secret out when she says: “It is sometimes better to understand more than others think!”  You said it.  And that was the Second Doctor’s very strategy throughout his time!  I wonder if the Fourth Doctor saw something he recognized in her when they started traveling together?

Litefoot is as good as ever and Jago continues his magnificent use of alliteration, as they go to a “rugged rookery of wretched rascals” to solve the mystery of the Wet Men.  I love listening to him, but Sergeant Quick gave me the most explosive laugh of the episode when he says he didn’t expect to see Jago and Litefoot “especially trying to hide behind a lamp post”.  (I never thought to try to hide behind a lamp post…!)

In the end, the dead men are, as one might expect, more than they seem.  These are not dead from something that happened, but rather something that will happen and they are looking to replenish their crew.  And the time distortion that Leela has come to investigate suddenly makes sense.  When the storm arrives, it’s looking for one man, Johnny Skipton, and I was reminded of the excellent short story by Ray Bradbury, The Wind.  Anytime one can anthropomorphize a thing like wind or a storm, it adds a sense of dread because… what do you do to beat it?  It’s a force.  Johnny Skipton had broken time and the force that is coming for him cannot be beaten.  How will they solve this mystery?  With typical Big Finish style!  And again, Justin Richards does a great job opening another season with a hook that caught this fish for another 4-story arc!

I don’t want to give away more than I have.  If episode one is anything to go by, we’re in for a good season.  But where is this season’s Moriarty?  Talp is gone.  Sanders is gone.  Are we in for a season with no main baddie?  Might be good if Leela is in the whole season; give us more time with her and our title heroes.  But there was mention of a Mr. Payne.  Or is that simply Mr. Pain?  I guess we’ll have to wait and see… tune in next week to find out!  ML

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Star Trek: Where No Man Has Gone Before

Star Trek Opening TitlesArguably one of the most unnerving episodes of Classic Trek, Where No Man has Gone Before features Captain James R. Kirk’s school friend, Gary Mitchell.  They are so close that when Gary summons a tombstone, he forgets Jim’s middle name.  Seriously, though, the episode is deeply unsettling.  The music helps, but the eyes of Gary Mitchell really convey something otherworldly.  When Elizabeth Dehner starts turning, the effect is (perhaps obviously) multiplied.  They both move in very uncertain ways, like being human is a strange thing.  The scene where Kelso gets killed is also extremely unsettling with a wire wrapping around his neck and choking him, while Mitchell is superimposed over the scene indicating he is responsible for the death.  And back to the eyes for a minute, Spock looked best when he had the harshly upswept eyebrows.  I wish they kept that look but it was deemed too scary or something.  A missed opportunity.

Ok, and speaking of Spock, why is he wearing a yellow shirt?  And Scotty is too!  And Sulu is in blue.  For the love of Spock, what’s going on here?  Sulu must have changed jobs from his last appearance feeding weepers in The Man Trap.  Arguably this takes place first, but considering we are taking the adventures in broadcast order, we need to find a logical way to make sense of what we see.  I’m going with promotion.  This might make sense too, if we consider that after Mitchell’s demise, they’d need a new helmsman and offer Sulu his old job back with a rank promotion.  In other words, he was leaving a command position for a science one but after Mitchell dies, he comes back to command.  (I imagine we should talk about shirt colors: Yellow is command, blue is science and red is engineering.  There’s a symbol on each arrowhead to differentiate them too, but the colors do that at a glance.)   Scotty’s shirt color would also make sense Kelso had on red; it might indicate that after his death, Scotty applied for that job and got it, but Kelso also wears yellow.  It’s nice to finally see Scotty, for that matter, but where did Bones go?  Was he on holiday?  So far, I haven’t seen a single redshirt die!  Thank Sarek!

Now, as much as I like this story, I’ve got a complaint.  I’m a title-guy; I remember titles and I find titles can be very interesting.  But Where No Man Has Gone Before is a terrible title.  It should be a great one, but the whole story is about the Enterprise crew finding wreckage from a ship which, 200 years ago, experienced the same events.  The ship went where Kirk’s ship is going, and the crew went through the same events.  So really… where are they going that no man has gone before?  If they mean evolutionarily, um, no.  That’s the point; the other ship experienced the same things!  Speaking of that wreckage, when they find the recording device, why does it beep?  Presumably it would be floating in space and, perhaps you’ve heard, in space, no one can hear you beep!  There are a few other technical gaffs… or should that be laughs.  The Enterprise uses microfiche and when Gary is done reading on his bedside monitor, when he turns it off, the text is still visible, just without being backlit.  And the biggest issue of all: Delta Vega, the planet that Kelso rigs for an explosion if things go wrong… yeah, it still has that button setup for some poor schlub who comes to the planet in the future.  “Gee, Bob, what does this do?  Maybe kicks off the refueling?   I’ll press it.  Oh, Tribble Crap!”

Then there’s a big plot point that got me thinking.  When Mitchell knocks Kirk and Spock out, he takes Dehner on a date.  They wander off into Eden.  Kirk wakes up and decides to go hunting ESPer Adam and Eve.  Now, I have to ask: why??  Why not just beam up to the ship and leave?  Mission accomplished, Mitchell is stranded, Kirk doesn’t have to kill an old friend and since no one else was on the planet, what would they do?  Well, I’m guessing divine birds and godlike bees, if you get my meaning, but you know what I mean!  And to assume they’d be a threat to passing ships is folly if we consider how many other godlike entities there are out there, one of which we saw an episode earlier in Charlie X.  Sure, it gives Kirk a chance to philosophize with Gary about absolute power corrupting absolutely, but it could have been avoided.  And if Gary Mitchell is evolving as quickly as he thinks, Kirk should have watched David McCullum in The Outer Limits The Sixth Finger to know eventually, we evolve beyond all of that anyway.  Mitchell would have been a friend again in no time.  (Maybe with a bigger head, that’s all!)

So what’s left?  No point talking about Spock’s ancestor who married a human.  We’ll learn about that eventually.  Or that Jim almost married a girl Gary set him up with.  So I guess the only thing to talk about is body count.  During Charlie X we learned there are 428 crewmen.  9 died in the attempt to go through the space forcefield (yeah, I’m not even going to tackle that one…).  Then we lose Kelso, Mitchell and Dehner.  12 dead so far.  416 left.  Let’s see how many deaths occur before a redshirt dies.   ML

The view from across the pond:

“That’s enough, Doctor.”
“I don’t think so.”

I couldn’t imagine somebody answering back to Picard like that. There is an interesting vibe in the way Kirk commands his ship. A lot of people call him Jim too, rather than Captain, so there’s clearly a strong team spirit here. Although it is early days, you get the sense that this is a group of friends trekking around the stars, and in this episode Kirk has to face the loss of one of his oldest friends, a colleague he has known for fifteen years. The fact that he considers marooning him and ultimately has to kill him shows the conflict between friendship and command, and when it comes to the crunch Kirk is the sort of man to put his duty before a friendship.

It already feels like we are hitting big, important episodes with this series, and this time the Enterprise leaves the galaxy and encounters something outside it which turns Lt. Commander Gary Mitchell into a monster. But he remains a very human monster. His latent ESP abilities are brought out and empowered, until he develops a god complex. The only problem with this is we have had two very similar episodes in a row, where somebody on the ship is near-omnipotent and Kirk has to find a way to defeat him against almost impossible odds. The manner of his defeat is much better though. Whereas the last episode gave us somebody else arriving on a metaphorical white horse to save the day, Kirk actually resolves the problem himself this week, by cleverly playing off one superbeing against another:

“There’ll only be one of you in the end.”

The manner of his death is grim, and the question of whether he was crushed or buried alive doesn’t bear thinking about. It’s surprising Kirk doesn’t want to make sure he isn’t leaving a man buried alive, but perhaps he’s more concerned about another casualty of the fight: if this keeps happening he’s going to run out of shirts.

Mitchell’s death wasn’t the only scary thing about the episode, with Gary Lockwood playing the possession scenes brilliantly. There is a moment where he is being watched on a screen and he looks straight at the camera as if he can see right through it to the people watching, which is incredibly creepy, as is the moment where he conjures up a grave and gravestone for Kirk in an instant.

But in the end he’s just another addition to our Trek Tally of Enterprise crew deaths. The encounter with the cloud of whatever that was outside the galaxy resulted in nine off-screen crew deaths, and Mitchell and Dehner bring our tally so far to 15, after just three episodes. There won’t be anyone left on board soon. Mitchell of course became the first crewmember to die at Kirk’s own hands.

A quick mention for something I have been noticing since the start of the series: the special effects have impressed me very much so far. For the 60s I think the model shots of the Enterprise are exceptionally convincing, if you compare them with most other sci-fi effects shots happening around this time*. The effects guys were obviously struggling with portraying some other aspects of future technology though. Although it would be child’s play nowadays, creating a convincing miniature monitor screen in 1966 was obviously an insurmountable problem. The writing remains on the screen after it is switched off, betraying the fact that it is simply a light in a box. But as always with sci-fi it is the stories that matter, and we have had three crackers in a row to kick off this series. We are perhaps falling into a bit too much of a pattern of somebody with superpowers endangering the ship, with a big final confrontation with Kirk, so I am hoping we will break out of that pattern into something different soon, but considering I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Star Trek at all I’m a happy bunny right now with what I’ve seen so far.

“I just thought of making it happen and it does.”

Mitchell tried to make it so, all by himself, but for the second week running Kirk and his crew defeated a god-in-waiting. Trek is showing us the power of an inspired leader, with a strong and loyal team behind him, to beat any odds. False gods don’t stand a chance.   RP

* OK, so nobody told me I was watching updated effects.  That would explain it then…

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Captain Jack Harkness

touchwoodThe penultimate episode of Torchwood is another character piece, this time focusing on Captain Jack Harkness, in case the title wasn’t helping…  We get an interesting story: ghostly music is heard from an old building.  Jack and Tosh go to investigate and find themselves back in the 1940’s right before the Cardiff Blitz.  This element offers the chance to take a hard look at prejudice (“Why is George dancing with a Jap?”), but misses the mark at making any substantial impact here.   To get Jack and Tosh back, Owen wants to open the rift but Ianto has another thing to say about that.  Throughout it all, a Mr. Bilis Manger exists in both times and has a file on Torchwood that leaves us wondering: just who is this guy anyway?!

The tension of the episode is whether Owen will open the rift of not.  Ianto is hell bent on stopping him and even resorts to shooting Owen.  (Dude, you should have aimed a little better; we could have been done with this guy once and for all!)  But the tension is well crafted: leave Jack and Tosh in the past and Tosh would probably have been treated as an enemy of the nation because she is Japanese during a time where they were not well received.  Jack might be alright, just living life a second time around avoiding his younger self, but Owen doesn’t know that.  This element I really enjoyed.

On the other hand, all the scenes of Jack and Tosh lose any menace because we barely scratch the surface of the prejudices that could have been explored.  Instead, it’s all about Jack meeting the real Captain Jack Harkness and the relationship the two of them develop.  Now, for the most part, I’m not a big fan of on screen “PDAs” (that’s public displays of affection) but this entire sequence is a build up to the kiss between Jack and Jack and that was tedious to watch because it was so clumsy.  Nancy is introduced and there’s so little reason for her if the whole point was write her out anyway.  But what annoyed me about it most is that we went for a racial slur with the “Jap” comment, but somehow everyone stood around watching two military men dancing intimately together and kissing; all just watch like a happy little love story?  It’s supposed to be 1941!  Sorry, but I don’t think people were accepting of homosexuality back then.  Maybe I’m wrong but I think if you plan to make a racial slur, you can’t chicken out because it’s not in vogue to make homosexual comments.  (For the record, I don’t think either is right, but don’t do one, if you lack the courage to go for both!)  So for me, this is where the episode could have been so much more important.  Have the courage to tell the story fully or don’t bother poking the hive.  There was a lot of potential here, but we give it up to give the Two Jacks a chance to hug and kiss.

There are genuinely great elements though.  Bilis appears to be helping Gwen and you’ve got to wonder why: is he a good guy?  Does he have ulterior motives?  The episode seems to end well enough with everyone saved thanks to the clues he lays.  I’m also cheating a bit but I did find it a nice touch that on the wall of Bilis’s office, there are horns everywhere.  Not of the musical variety either, but the type that go on the heads of animals.  There’s a great moment where Jack mentions what happened to him and we hear Rose’s Theme from Doctor Who and when he comes out of the building at the end, there’s a torn “Vote Saxon” sign on the building.  (This is just before Series 3 of Doctor Who, remember! He’s about to meet up with the 10th Doctor and Martha Jones!)

In the end, it’s a good prelude to the finale, but it was a bridge too far for me to really love.  I was fine with the direction the story went if it was really willing to commit to it, or they could have done a better episode and built up more of Jack’s backstory.  Still, Bilis remains at large, so I wouldn’t have quit now.  I just hope the next episode really takes my breath away.  (But I’m not holding my breath to find out…)  ML

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Okko’s Inn

Okko's InnThis is one of many films marketed for it’s ex-Studio Ghibli staff member credentials. The director is Kitaro Kosaka, who was a key animator for the studio. It’s worth mentioning, because if you are looking to find that Ghibli magic elsewhere you could do far worse than explore what the animators who moved on from the studio have been up to. This comes close to achieving the beauty and wonder of a Ghibli film, and the storyline is certainly worthy of the famous studio.

Okko loses her parents in a car accident, miraculously thrown clear of the vehicle and unharmed. The first thing she sees after the accident is a vision of a ghostly boy floating away from her, up into the sky. When she goes to live with her grandmother at a traditional inn near the healing waters of a hot spring, she sees the same ghost boy again, Uribo, a long-term inhabitant of the inn, who was a childhood friend of Okko’s grandmother.

So it’s fair to say her life has been turned completely upside down, and the film is very much about exploring the way Okko deals with her grief and the people (and ghosts) who help her on that journey. Just like a girl in a Ghibli film she finds ways to deal with her issues through positivity, determination and bravery. She is determined to help her grandmother and become a good inn keeper herself so that the Hananoyu Inn will continue to survive. Uribo is initially an annoying character, flicking ghost bogies around, but it soon becomes apparent that he has a heart of gold and cares deeply for both his old childhood friend, and her granddaughter who is so much in need of his help. Okko is also helped by another ghost, who has a important connection to Okko’s main rival, the privileged heir to the town’s other hotel, the huge and luxurious Harunoya Inn. Matsuki is initially a cliché of a spoilt brat, but the most important way that this film picks up the Ghibli mantle is that there are no villains. Matsuki might be stuck up, but the last thing she wants is for the rival inn to fail, as it would bring dishonour to the whole town. Like Okko, she is able to set aside differences when it matters, and like everyone in this film her heart is in the right place.

Also helping Okko on her journey of healing is a guest of the inn who becomes a sort of surrogate mother character, taking Okko under her wing. If you were in any doubt where the writer was going with this, a moment where a vision of Okko’s parents fades away to be replaced by her friend Glory makes it clear that she has become a mother figure for Okko, although the relationship is often more akin to a big sister. So this is all about Okko being helped to overcome her grief and find her new place in the world, but it also works both ways, because Okko has people to help as well. Her ghost friends have been hanging around for a long time, and need some kind of closure before they can move on to the next world. Matsuki lives a life of luxury but no friends. And the Hananoyu Inn faces an uncertain future with its ageing host. But the moment the film really goes from watchable fun to sublime emotional depth is when somebody involved in the car accident that killed Okko’s parents turns up at the inn, and the way Okko deals with that situation.

This never quite hits Ghibli standards, but that’s not much of a criticism because very little ever does. The animation is beautiful, but a couple of times a bit of CGI kicks in jarringly for moments that are hard to animate in the traditional way (the place you will often spot this in anime is when there are moving vehicles), something that never happens in a Ghibli film. The ghost characters never quite achieve the pathos of, say, Marnie from When Marnie was There, and there is a demon creature who is largely redundant to the story. The ending is also a little abrupt. But aside from a few issues this is a beautiful and emotional film, which is also family friendly and deserves a place in the collection of any fan of Ghibli and Ghibli-esque anime films. The tagline is “all are welcome here”, and that sums up the film very well. I will leave you with the trailer, which gives a good idea of the emotional journey Okko’s Inn will take you on.   RP

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