A Rag-Tag Fugitive Fleet Part 1

I watched TV in the 80s. Lots of TV. In Britain, a lot of the TV that children watched (except for the stuff shown on children’s TV on weekday evenings between 3 and 6) was American. The stuff produced for kids in Britain was often quite… odd. I remember the obvious shows, the famous ones, like Bagpuss, Danger Mouse and Fraggle Rock, but I also remember some more obscure ones, like Jamie and the Magic Torch, Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and The Adventure Game. Not to mention Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine, Chorlton and the Wheelies, Metal Mickey, Cheggers Plays Pop, King Rollo, Mr Benn, Rentaghost… the list goes on! Many of these titles I remember with fondness, some with a cringing horror and a couple with genuine confusion. Check out the opening titles to Jamie and the Magic Torch on youtube if you don’t understand why.

Look at this picture and tell me that someone wasn't on drugs

But these shows, rose-tinted though my recollection may be, are not the ones that were truly formative. These just formed a backdrop to my early years, when there were far more interesting things to do than watch telly (there were only three channels back then anyway, at least until 1982). Riding bikes and climbing trees were much more exciting! But then something changed. Friday and Saturday evenings, usually at the beginning of what they would term ‘Prime Time’, started being taken over by the Americans. A couple of names drifted across British televisions a lot in the 80s: Glen A Larson and Stephen J Cannell. Between them, they produced a huge percentage of the iconic TV shows that British children ended up watching: The Rockford Files, Alias Smith and Jones, The Six Million Dollar Man, Battlestar Galactica, The Greatest American Hero, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Knight Rider, Magnum P.I., The Fall Guy and The A-Team, as well as several less known and short-lived series (Manimal, Automan, The Highwayman). These two men, just names on a screen, shaped a generation of British kids with their heroes and villains. Yes, the shows were largely cheap crap, with recycled stock footage and the same four stunts shown from different angles, but that didn’t matter. They created an entirely fictional America, in which the sun always shone, convertibles were the coolest thing ever, everything was slightly too yellow, and every woman looked fantastic in a shiny jumpsuit.

Any excuse to show a picture of Wilma Deering (Erin Gray)

These shows were incredible to my young eyes, although if I watch them now I can see just how much television has moved on since the 80s. I genuinely believed in the formula that they were selling. I believed that the good guys would always win, even if my heart was in my mouth the whole way through each episode. I believed that facial hair often indicated a bad guy (and now I have a beard – what does THAT mean?), and women needed men to rescue them, unless they were Wilma Deering, in which case she’d kick a bit of ass (before needing to be rescued). There were other issues, ones which the child didn’t notice but the man can’t ignore. The shows were almost exclusively white (Mr T’s inclusion in The A-Team being the most obvious exception). Any racial minority was either a bad guy or a one-off supporting character at best, often appearing in a storyline about how racist everyone except the hero was. Remember that this was two decades after Sidney Poitier won his first Oscar, so black actors were not unknown, just unused. The black community shouldn’t feel alone though, because women were pretty poorly treated as well. Relegated to supporting characters, or more usually a bit of eye candy, they were invariably the love interest for the main hero, or a glorified secretary. Even the supposedly ‘strong’ characters, like the aforementioned Ms Deering, were always getting into trouble by being too impulsive or careless, and the hero would need to come and rescue them again. The 80s weren’t a great decade for female empowerment, it must be said.

Ok, now that the critique (such as it was) is out of the way, let’s have a look at what made some of these shows so great. We’ll start with an easy one: Battlestar Galactica. I won’t be talking about the new series, partly because it offends me, with its high production values and sets that don’t wobble, but mainly because I haven’t bothered watching it. I remember the original with too much fondness to watch a new version. If it’s bad, it will taint my memories of the original, but if it’s good, I’ll feel like I’m betraying the original! So we’ll stick with the original in this article.

Apparently, both cigars and shit-eating grins are in plentiful supply out in deep space.

Battlestar Galactica was pretty much a rip-off of earlier, and more succesful, science-fiction stories. Universal Studios were sued by 20th Century Fox, who claimed that they had plagiarised a large number of ideas from Star Wars (a slightly rude claim, considering how much Star Wars had stolen from earlier shows). Glen Larson was given the nickname Glen Larceny by Harlan Ellison for this very reason, and Galactica failed to make a huge impact on American television. It was a modest success in Britain, where it was repeated for a good few years. It never made it to a second season, although Larson certainly had plans for one, including bringing Isaac Asimov in as Science Consultant (which may have involved throwing pretty much everything about the first series out of the airlock!) and trying to bring in some female viewers by strengthening the characters of Athena and Cassiopeia. We’ll never know if this would have worked, obviously, but it’s worth noting that this plan did apparently introduce several elements that were picked up in the remake.

As a child, Galactica was great. Even the brown suede jackets and guns that looked suspiciously like the Stormtrooper pistols from Star Wars. Even better were the Viper fighters. A poor man’s X-Wing, maybe, but undeniably awesome. They looked brutal, dirty and cool, like they would actually fly (even if they did only have three buttons), and had huge flaming jets out of the back when the pilot hit the Turbo! Oh, and the pilots were replaced by female shuttle pilots in one two-part episode, when Blue Squadron succumbed to a mystery disease. This gave the producers an excuse to show what the flight suits looked like under the suede and velveteen.

Damn, I love my job!

Sexist? Never! The Apollo/Starbuck friendship was the classic mix of straight-laced and easy-going, with Dirk Benedict schmoozing his way across the screen with his trademark cigar clamped between his (impossibly white) teeth. These were cookie-cutter hero templates, with righteousness oozing from every pore, and their only flaws being just too damn irresistable to the opposite sex. Oh sure, Starbuck would get into trouble by being too impulsive, and Apollo would disobey orders so he could ‘do the right thing’, but it would all be fine in the end. There wasn’t really any conflict, and even the Cylons weren’t that much of a threat – having forced the fleet to traverse the galaxy looking for a new home by destroying the colony worlds, the Cylons seemed incapable of blowing up a few ships and would constantly be foiled by a handful of ‘plucky Viper pilots’ (TM) despite having an overwhelming numerical advantage. But this is the Way of the TV Hero. No matter what, you will live to win another day.

This is very clear in what is arguably the most famous of the 80s TV action shows: Frank Lupo and Stephen J Cannell’s The A-Team. It told the story of four Viet Nam veteran ex-commandos who were “sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground”. The four men, Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith, Lieutenant Templeton Peck – otherwise known as Face, Captain ‘Howling Mad’ Murdoch and Sergeant B.A. ‘Bad Attitude’ Baracus, became mercenaries, hiring themselves out to any good cause that wanted help. There were a few subsidiary characters (notably reporters Amy Allen and Tawnia Baker – the only two recurring female characters who had both ‘left’ the show by the third season – and Frankie Santana in the fifth and final season), mainly made up of the military police officers assigned to hunt the A-Team down. The final important member of the team was big, black and made by GMC: the iconic A-Team van.

If you don't want to take this thing sideways on a dirt road, I don't even want to know what's wrong with you.

The A-Team spent a large proportion of their time firing fully automatic weapons at the bad guys, causing huge explosions and making jeeps spin out of control, leap a parked car and explode, yet somehow managed to avoid killing or even seriously wounding anyone! Helicopters would spiral into the ground, exploding in a ball of flame, and a few moments later the occupants would crawl out of the fire-blackened wreckage. This was a deliberate ploy on the part of the programme makers to ensure that the show was acceptable for early evening, prime-time broadcast. The violence was kept to exciting but safe levels, almost comic-book style, big explosions and wild gunfights, with no blood or death to disturb the young viewers (or the censors).

Each character filled a very specific niche, both in terms of their skills and their personality. Hannibal was the sensible leader, the man with the plans. Face was the smooth-talker, the fixer. Murdoch was the crazy one, the pilot who could fly anything. And B.A. was the strong man, the mechanic, who wouldn’t take no shit off fools! They would almost invariably get captured at some point in each episode, and end up inexplicably locked in a shed which just so happened to have all the parts and tools with which to construct an armoured, fire-breathing, racing tank (or similar). As a team, they had all the bases covered and had the righteous courage to stand up to any bully, and this was the core of the series: a group of comrades with no fear, as long as they worked together. They may not always have been friends (Murdoch was always deliberately winding B.A. up, for example), but they always pulled together like the battle-hardened soldiers that they were.

An iconic vehicle was the order of business for our next show: Knight Rider. The car in question was KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand), a truly pimped-out Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. It was fitted with pretty much anything it would need, most of which would only be used in one episode and then forgotten, but the usual gear included a turbo boost, flame-throwers, smoke-screens, ‘Super-Pursuit’ mode, impenetrable armour plating and, of course, an Artificial Intelligence Unit with Voice Synthesizer. KITT was capable of driving itself around, so quite why it needed the presence of that mop-haired buffoon, David Hasselhoff, is anyone’s guess.

No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, you will never be as cool as this picture. FACT.

The story was that Michael Long, an LAPD officer played by Larry Anderson, was shot in the face while investigating the murder of his partner. Long was declared dead, but was actually transferred into the care of FLAG (the Foundation for Law And Government), a secret organisation set up by billionaire and philanthropist Wilton Knight. Long’s wounds were healed and he was given a new face (that of Wilton Knight’s presumed dead son) and a new identity (that of Michael Knight, played by The Hoff(TM), with The Hoff’s Hair(TM) in a supporting role) with which to go out and fight crime. Michael Knight had support, in the shape of Devon Miles, the Director of FLAG played by Edward Mulhare, and Dr Bonnie Barstow, FLAG’s chief engineer, played by Patricia MacPherson. Knight would drive around California (usually) as a high-tech knight-errant, fighting crime and solving mysteries. It was pretty formulaic, and eventually lost out to The A-Team in both the ratings war and the nostalgia war.

In another case of ‘The Car’s The Star’, a 1969 Dodge Charger, nicknamed the General Lee, with an orange paint job and welded-shut doors became an iconic piece of 80s action history. The Dukes of Hazzard was a highly enjoyable romp around Hazzard County in Georgia with the Duke Boys, Bo and Luke (played by John Schneider and Tom Wopat), as they drove like lunatics and annoyed the local law, portrayed as the incompetent redneck Roscoe P Coltrane (James Best), under the control of the corrupt Boss Hogg (Sorrell Booke), the county commissioner. The Duke Boys were forever foiling Boss Hogg’s money-making scams by…well, by driving around mostly. I have to admit, I have only a tenuous grasp on the actual plot, beyond the fact that the Duke Boys were moonshine runners originally, and now had a thing about foiling Boss Hogg’s plans. Look, there was a lot of driving around, and skidding and jumping over things.

I was ten years old, leave me alone.

Ok, maybe there was another reason...

Yeah. Cousin Daisy, played by Catherine Bach and her two supporting co-stars. She drove around in her white Jeep spying on Boss Hogg for her cousins and generally kept Uncle Jesse company. There was basically a lot of driving and vehicular stunt work in the show, as Bo was supposedly an ex-stock car racer and the General Lee was modified for racing. There was also the famous ‘hood-slide’, where one of the Duke Boys (usually Luke) would slide across the bonnet of the General Lee in order to get around the other side of the car more quickly. I don’t really know why, because it didn’t really impart much of an advantage. It just looked awesome.

All I know is that it didn’t work so well on a 1983 Austin Ambassador.

END OF PART ONE

It Came From The …Wait, What?

SPOILER ALERT – ARTICLE MAY INCLUDE SPOILERS, BUT SINCE I’LL BE MAINLY TALKING ABOUT FILMS FROM THE 50s IT’S YOUR OWN FAULT IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THEM!

A series on monsters wouldn’t be complete without a quick look at an often overlooked side road. So this article will examine the wild animal and the alien as monster. The obvious examples are films such as the Jaws series, about some seriously pissed off Great White sharks, but it is in fact a venerable sub-genre with many precedents.

"Um...Maybe we should go the other way."

The first proper creature-feature (as they came to be known), and an iconic moment in cinematic history, was 1933s King Kong. This was a ground-breaking film, with stunning (for the time) stop-motion animation by Willis O’Brien and secured Fay Wray’s reputation as the original ‘scream queen’. Many people forget that Kong was a sympathetic creature, who took Wray’s character back to his lair instead of killing her (as was intended by the villagers). Once he was captured and taken to New York, he was chained and mistreated, before breaking free and again seeking out the object of his love. As Robert Armstrong’s character observes in the closing moments of the film, “it wasn’t the airplanes, it was Beauty killed the Beast”. Merian Cooper’s film is rightly seen as a classic, despite Kong’s reputation as a mindless monster.

King Kong spawned a rash of sequels, spin-offs and imitations, but the creature-feature explosion was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. Monster movies in this period were more reliant on tried and tested supernatural horrors that could be tied in to the Nazi menace: vampires, werewolves and mummies. But at the end of the war, something happened that changed the monster movie: America dropped two A-bombs on Japan, and the Atomic Age began.

"Is nobody thinking of the ants?"

In the 1950s, a new trend emerged with the testing of the hideously powerful H-Bomb, with over a thousand times the destructive capability of the A-Bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a new understanding of the horrors of radiation sickness. Movies were suddenly infested with creatures mutated by atomic radiation, somehow growing huge and developing a taste for human flesh, rather than growing tumours and developing weeping sores. These movies are fairly well represented by 1954s Them!, in which the evils of nukes cause giant ants, that’s GIANT ANTS, to rampage through a New Mexico town, eating people called ‘Gramps’ Johnson and Alan Crotty. It’s actually nowhere near as appalling as it sounds. It contains some genuinely tense moments and some good performances, including some seriously moving death scenes. Gordon Douglas’ direction is solid and his storytelling is well-balanced, as one would expect from the man who would go on to direct They call me MISTER Tibbs! in the 1970s. It was well received on its release and has been referenced and copied many times, with such ’50s classics as It Came From Beneath The Sea (which starred a giant, radioactive octopus and Howard Hughes’ one time lover, Faith Domergue), Attack Of The Crab Monsters (an early Roger Corman attempt with some frankly appalling rubber ‘crab monsters’), and Tarantula (starring Leo G Carroll and a really big spider).

Up from the depths!
Thirty stories high!!

The Japanese, certainly no strangers to the horrifying effects of the Atomic Age, came up with a long-running series of films centred around a man in a dodgy rubber suit stomping through a cardboard Tokyo. Released in the same year as Them! (1954), Godzilla (or more properly Gojira) was a landmark in Japanese cinema that led to nearly thirty sequels, remakes, a pair of cartoon series (one by Hanna-Barbera in the late ’70s, the other a Fox TV anime in the late ’90s), a poorly received American movie remake and a planned reboot! This makes it arguably one of the most successful film franchises ever. Godzilla is a classic example of the monster as a representation of atomic destruction. He is released by atomic testing, is radioactive, has ‘Atomic breath’ and is effectively immune to conventional weaponry. In fact, an early design of the suit gave him a mushroom-cloud shaped head. A huge number of the monster films of the 1950s and 1960s use the monster as allegories for a variety of real or perceived dangers: nuclear weapons and Communism are typical, although underage sex, alcohol, ‘un-American activities’ and other immoral behaviours are also targeted. The Godzilla franchise flourished in the 60’s, dominating cinema with films depicting the titular monster as a (kind of) defender of Tokyo against an ever-increasing horde of rubber suited stuntmen.

Other giant monsters crawled from the woodwork in the ’50s and 60s. We had scorpions (The Black Scorpion), locusts (Beginning of the End), man-eating slugs (The Monster That Challenged The World), venomous shrews (The Killer Shrews – Hollywood was really running low on ideas at this stage), large scorned ladies (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) and even jelly – or Jell-O to our transatlantic cousins (The Blob). Basically, anything that film-makers could recreate with some foam rubber suits, trick photography or the talents of Ray Harryhausen, would walk, stalk, slither or ooze across cinema screens for a couple of decades. Even plants got a look-in, in the shape of British sci-fi/horror The Day of the Triffids, adapted from the book by John Wyndham. The Triffids of the title were (in the film at least) semi-sentient alien invaders, ambulatory sticks of killer celery that were, rather conveniently, allergic to sea-water (which rather begs the question “Why did they choose to invade a planet whose surface is about 70% covered in the stuff?”).

Aliens were also a common feature of monster movies. The development of rocket technology had nations looking spaceward once again, and a rise in tensions between the political ideologies of East and West gave film-makers the perfect excuse to make a large number of alien themed movies with cookie-cutter communism-inspired antagonists. The Red Menace was sneakily inserted into a range of movies including The Flying Saucer (1950), Invaders From Mars (1952) and, of course, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). These films show the insidious nature of the Communist threat, how it can sneak unnoticed into your neighbourhood, brainwash and indoctrinate people you have known for years. One film that specifically targets the insanity of Cold-War paranoia is the timeless classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. This amazing 1951 film explores how a defensive and paranoid humanity reacts to an other-worldly visitor, who is quite clearly a stand-in for Christ, with his amazing powers, resurrection and message of peace.

Om nom nom!

In 1975, the movie monster changed. An adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws was unleashed on the public. Directed by Stephen Spielberg, the movie has a number of completely iconic touches: the triangular fin cutting the water, the shark’s haunting tuba-based leitmotif, the boat-based camaraderie of the three male leads, Brody’s warnings being ignored by those in power. It is an almost perfect monster movie, let down a little by the fairly poor (even by the standard of the 1970s) rubber shark. I first saw this film at a very young age and loved it, apart from the very end, when Quint (played to perfection with grizzled, Hemingway-esque machismo by Robert Shaw) slides helplessly down the deck of the listing boat and into the shark’s waiting maw. His desperate struggle against a force of nature sum up the film in that brief moment: man vs fish, and the fish is winning. It is a creature perfectly designed to survive in its environment, an environment that humans are playing around in. Jaws spawned a handful of sequels, none of which managed to match the intensity and excellence of the original, but it also changed the way that the average cinema-goer and critic thought about monster movies. They were no longer B-movies; they could be blockbusters.

Not all films lived up to this benchmark of course. A large number of cheap creature-features continued to be churned out by Hollywood studios, such as the largely unknown Joan Collins vehicle Empire of the Ants (which is worth digging up, if only for the hilariously bad special effects). Rather better known, as well as better production and better acting, is the Burt Lancaster and Michael York version of The Island of Dr Moreau in 1977. Although by no means flawless, it is a solid adaptation of the H.G.Wells classic, with a truly creepy Lancaster as the disturbing (and disturbed) doctor. It attempts to turn the genre on its head, in suggesting that the hideous ‘man-beasts’, the results of Moreau’s twisted experiments, are less monstrous than the dark soul of humanity, represented by the doctor. It is only by shedding their humanity and embracing the animalistic side of their natures that York and his love interest, Barbara Carrera, manage to escape.

In 1978, another creature attacked humanity, or rather lots of creatures. But these were not giant, irradiated creatures. No, these were slightly more everyday: bees. Or, to be more specific, a swarm of African killer bees. The Swarm stars Michael Caine, Katherine Ross, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia De Havilland, Slim Pickens and Henry Fonda. Oh, and a shitload of bees. It was directed by Irwin Allen, producer of such classic TV serials as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Time Tunnel, Lost in Space and Land of the Giants, and the film was adapted from a novel by well-known (at the time) science-fiction author Arthur Herzog. An impressive pedigree, wouldn’t you agree? Apparently not. The film bombed. Badly. It was pulled from cinemas after a pathetically short run (in some places as little as two days) and was unable to even make half its $21 million budget back at the box office. Michael Caine is not alone when he describes it as one of the worst films he has ever made.

Bees. Apparently not that scary.

The next true landmark in the monster movie did not arrive until 1979, with Ridley Scott’s science-fiction horror masterpiece, Alien. Sold to the studios as “Jaws in space”, the movie brews a heady blend of tension, shocks and gore, with genre-defining visual effects courtesy of the deeply disturbing and undeniably sexual artwork of H.R.Giger. The alien is a shadowy menace, truly an unknown quantity, with a (pretty unlikely) life cycle of egg-crab/spider-chest bursting penis-huge shiny black cock with teeth. The sexual subtext of the movie has been commented upon before (many, many times), but if you are unconvinced, take a long hard look at this concept art for the xenomorph:

Um, yeah.
I've got nothing for this one.

If you can’t see that this is a picture af a massive penis, there’s something wrong with you. Add that to the fact that Kane (played by John Hurt) is orally impregnated by the face-hugger and ‘gives birth’ in a terminal shower of gore from his ribcage. The writer of the screenplay, Dan O’Bannon, has explicitly stated that the Kane scenes are a metaphor for male fears about pregnancy and childbirth, and has explained the alien as embodying elements of male rape, payback for the countless female victims of horror movie monsters and serial killers. The only survivor is Ripley (Sigourney Weaver in the role that launched her career and one that she would return to three more times so far), a woman who is in a masculine, industrial environment. She is not refered to by her first name, only her surname, which has the effect of clouding her gender. The film is about sex, but it is also an excellent horror movie, dark and moody with a perfect, iconic and terrifying antagonist.

Alien also signaled a turning point in the creature feature. Films moved away from ordinary animals turned evil (either by radiation or otherwise) and focused instead on extraterrestrial or supernatural horrors. Dream monsters (A Nightmare on Elm Street), alien hunters (Predator), ghosts (Ghostbusters 1 & 2) and gremlins (Gremlins 1 & 2) were the order of the 80s, and things didn’t improve much in the following decade, with only such paltry offerings as Mosquito and Anaconda (I really wouldn’t recommend either, but if you must, go for Mosquito, if only for its knowing nods towards its B-Movie roots).

The new millennium gave film-makers the chance to make ironically bad B-movies (following from the cult success of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead), and this gave audiences such wonders as Eight-Legged Freaks, featuring some toxically mutated spiders and a lot of screaming. It is a mixed bag of B-movie tropes and tongue in cheek dialogue, but the basic premise (monsters attacking a small American town) has been done before and done better, notably in Tremors six years earlier. Other 21st century offerings include a couple of Anaconda sequels (somehow worse than that first one), the fabulously titled (and apparently gloriously awful) Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus and its sequel Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus, Sharktopus and Mega Python Versus Gatoroid. These films revel in their B-movie credentials, deliberately using exaggerated monsters and over-the-top violence to titillate their audience.

Heads or tails?

Cloverfield, directed by Matt Reeves, was hailed as a new breed of monster movie and is told through the use of ‘found footage’, home-video style film of events of a monster-induced disaster. From a relatively tiny budget of $25 million, it made a massive $171 million at the box office. Its suggestions of terrorist attacks (the subtle reminders of 9/11 run right through the movie) gave it an intensity that most creature-features lack and it was met with high praise from critics and movie-goers alike. Again, the choice to show little of the creature served the film well, heightening the tension and creating the faceless menace to support the subtext.

Is the creature-feature dead? Replaced with endless movies about aliens destroying our cities? Or is this just a phase, and, like the changes in the 50s, we are due a new revolution? A new way of looking at the world around us? Maybe this has already started. Contagion attempted to tap into our collective fears of infectious diseases, following on from the real-life scares of SARS, Bird Flu and Swine Flu. The film didn’t capitalise on its own premise, but the portrayal of the emergency protocols and procedures slowly grinding into motion was interesting: in the world of Contagion there is no quick fix. So maybe the creature we will be scared of next are the ones that we really can’t see, rather than the ones that the film-makers keep hidden.

Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite…

Sweet dreams!

When There’s No More Room In Hell…

This is the first in a series of blogs about famous monster types from literature, film and folklore. I thought I’d start with a common creature that mostly appears in movieland: The Zombie.

"Anybody got a Band-Aid?"

As you all know, the name ‘zombie’ originates from Haitian and West African traditions of Voodoo (or Vodun, or Vodou), where a zombie (or zonbi, or nzumbe – thanks Wikipedia!) is generally regarded as a re-animated corpse, brought back from the dead to do the bidding of a practitioner. Some have argued that zombies are the result of pharmacological compounds, consisting of pufferfish venom among other things, but this is generally dismissed by the medical community. Although the word is linked to Voodoo, the creature appears in many different cultures, fulfilling different niches in folklore. The draugr (recently seen in Skyrim) are the living dead from Norse mythology that guard the burial chambers of heroes, while revenants are European spirits that return from the dead in physical bodies, mainly to pick on their living relatives or take revenge on their killer. The German nachzehrer (basically ‘devourer from the afterlife’) was linked to deaths from epidemics, predating recent ‘infected’ zombie types.

Zombies have gained popularity over the last few decades, mainly down to the stirling work of film-makers like George A. Romero, Sam Raimi and Edgar Wright (as well as the less stirling work of a veritable horde of others). There are a number of takes on the zombie, ranging from the shambling, groaning undead (the ‘classic’ movie zombie) to the sprinting and leaping ‘infected’ (the ‘new-wave’ zombie), but they all have a relentless hunger for human flesh – and often brains – in common. A zombie can be created by a disease, often spread by bite or other bodily fluid, by magic or by radiation, as well as a range of other possibilities, so it seems that the existence of zombies is of far greater importance than what caused them. In fact, this is often the case with these movies – ‘where did they come from’ is far a less important question than ‘how the hell do we get away from them?’

So why are they so popular? Why do they make such a good monster?

Well, firstly it is a force of numbers thing.

The queue for the new iPhone was getting out of hand

The idea is that there is an endless supply of hungry, angry, cannibalistic corpses. On its own, a single zombie isn’t that much of a threat – it’s slow and stupid – but they don’t tend to attack on their own. As the great bard himself said, “When zombies come, they come not in single spies, but in battalions”. And because they are technically already dead, it’s a bit tricky to actually kill them. In movieland, the destruction of the head is usually the way forward – sever the connection to the brain and the body will die. This leads to a series of cool special effects as zombie skulls are exploded across the screen in a variety of inventive ways and bloody showers of gore.

Of course, if the horde does get its hands on you, it’s a painful and violent death. We have an in-built horror of being eaten by something – it triggers a primal fear in us – and zombies are an embodiment of this fear. They keep coming. They have no remorse. They will eat you alive. It’s a predator/prey thing.

Om nom nom

Typical zombie films consist of a group of – usually mismatched – strangers banding together for protection as they try to find a safe place to escape to. This gives the film-maker good scope to include the frictions between the disparate characters as well as the stress from thousands of relentless killing machines bearing down on them. Themes of racism, sexual politics and growing up are common in these films, although the learning is often interrupted by someone’s intestines being pulled out through their anus, followed by hysterical screaming and a lot more running away.

The image of the zombie horde has lodged itself so firmly in the collective consciousness that the internet is full of sites dedicated to the creatures, from artwork to fan fiction, from (de)motivational posters to scholarly – and not so scholarly – articles on how to survive a zombie apocalypse. Even The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has posted an article on what to do in the event of an outbreak of zombies in your town. Admittedly, its tongue is firmly in its cheek, but it raises some good points about general emergency preparedness.

Are you prepared? What would be essential kit for your zombie survival kit? Let’s see if we can get a definitive kit worked out.

“I’m Commander Shepard, and this is my favourite blog on the Citadel.”

 ATTENTION: SPOILERS INCLUDED

It’s not long now until the third and final installment in the best-selling and award-winning science fiction series Mass Effect is released, so I think it’s a good time to look back and see what makes this game so successful.

The games are described as action role-playing games; basically third-person shooters with role-playing elements, including decision-making that shapes the story. This decision-making affects the story across the installments as well, because you are able to import your character information from the earlier games (a feature that is continued in the latest title, making it possible to continue your character development through all three games). You play Commander Shepard  (either male or female, depending on your preference), a human soldier who uncovers the existence of a race of mechanical beings called Reapers. In the first game, a Reaper called Sovereign, aided by a Spectre (SPECial Tactics and REconnaissance) named Saren Arterius, is attempting to open a route for the other Reapers to enter the galaxy and exterminate all sapient organic life. They are aided in this by the Geth, a race of artificially intelligent synthetics, originally created by the Quarian race as servants/slaves. Once this threat is dealt with, the Reapers (in Mass Effect 2) work through a shadowy race called the Collectors, who are kidnapping entire human colonies. Shepard is killed by the Collectors at the start of the game and brought back to life by Cerberus, the human supremacist group responsible for some of the nasty side missions in the first game. You find out that they are not necessarily as evil as they appear, but you decide how much to trust them and work with them. The third game apparently focuses on the final attack of the Reapers as they enter the galaxy determined to exterminate all sentient life. I think it’s fair to say that we can expect a really big fight, especially if the trailer and this screenshot are to be believed!

So why are these games so good? Well, Bioware (also responsible for the Dragon Age series and the recent MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic) have put a lot of work into designing and developing their universe. The locations (while occasionally limited) are well realised and the cut scenes well animated. The voice casting is excellent, with characters voiced by Seth Green, Martin Sheen, Armin Shimerman, Lance Henriksen, Marina Sirtis, Claudia Black, Adam Baldwin, Carrie-Ann Moss, Dwight Schultz and Michael Dorn among many others. It’s like a cult TV/film convention guest list. The bonus is that the voices sound familiar without being distracting, allowing you to immerse yourself into the game without spending time muttering “I know that voice. Who is that? For fuck’s sake, who is it?” and missing half of the plot.

Or is that just me?

The depth of the universe is well demonstrated by the number of non-human races, all of which have their own talents and weaknesses. There are the Asari (blue, pseudo-psychic squid-haired women), Batarians (four-eyed criminals and slavers – very anti-human), Collectors (insectoid bad guys), Drell (lizard people with eidetic memories), Elcor (elephantine and slow speaking, the Elcor state their emotions explicitly to avoid confusion), Geth (sentient machines with a hive-mind), Hanar (religious jellyfish), Krogans (hardcore warrior toads), Quarians (interstellar travellers with poor immune systems and excellent technical skills), Salarians (hyperactive scientists and spies), Turians (honourable raptor-like creatures), Volus (dumpy diving suits), and Vorcha (barely sentient scavengers and fighters). Over the two games so far released, Shepard will build a team featuring several of these races, with recurring characters who come to trust and respect the leadership of the player. Other races have been introduced through the downloadable content, comic books and iOS games: I have focused on the main installments here.

Some of the races you'll encounter in the Mass Effect universe

The universe is arranged in star clusters, which Shepard can travel around at will using the galaxy map in his ship (more about that later). Some planets can be landed on, with side missions and main missions taking place in a wide range of environments. In the first game, the player has access to the Mako, a six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle armed with autofire weapons and a single shot cannon. This allows Shepard to roam the surface of terrestrial worlds searching for resources to collect and enemies to slap. This vehicle is missing from Mass Effect 2, replaced by a system whereby you scan planets from orbit using the map screen and launch probes to collect resources. This does rob the game of some of the exploratory feel of the original, and makes it feel somehow smaller in scale. However, it does bring me to the next item on my list: The Normandy.

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SSV Normandy - Possibly the most beautiful ship in Sci-Fi history

Look at it! Just look at it! Isn’t she beautiful? Sleek and sexy, a design classic! Sorry if I’m getting carried away, but I really love the Normandy. As you play the game, she becomes more than just a vehicle, more than just a base of operations, more than a home, even. She becomes a character in her own right. Which is why the opening scene of ME2 is so heart-breaking. An enormous Collector ship appears from nowhere and blasts the Normandy into scrap, killing Shepard in the process. I don’t mind admitting that it brings a tear to my eye every time I see it, even though I know that Cerberus will bring Shepard back to life and supply him with the SR2 (a slightly redesigned Normandy). It is the design of this ship that helps breathe life into the franchise. The designers could easily have created a functional, practical ship to haul Shepard’s team around the galaxy. Instead, they came up with something iconic. Good for them.

Another area in which the design tem excelled themselves is the armour and weapons. Shepard’s N7 armour has become something of a classic among the fans, and the weapon sets available match the design perfectly. In ME1, you could choose from a range of armour, depending on preference for heavy or light, colour and appearance, but this option was removed for ME2. In the second game you had one set of armour, although you could customize it in terms of colour, pattern and material, as well as purchasing add-ons which altered the appearance and granted combat bonuses.

The famous N7 armour

I am, as I’m sure you have realised, a huge fan of the Mass Effect universe, and I am really looking forward to receiving my copy of ME3 when it is released. But I am a little worried. I hope they have managed to keep the feel of the game. I hope that they have kept the sense of scale. I hope that they haven’t lost the love. If they have turned the game into a bog-standard shooter it will be an enormous disappointment. The well scripted and intricate story is what makes these games great.

They need to keep the promise made by ME1 and 2. If not, it will be a massive tragedy.

#writing – or trying to

Ummmmm...

I am currently (or constantly) trying to write. I am aiming to complete a selection of short(ish) stories based around the same world setting. I must have started a hundred stories, if not more, before becoming disillusioned with the plot, characters, or, usually, my level of talent. I am beginning to understand that my depression has had a lot to do with that, but I refuse to allow myself to use that as an excuse any more.
So why do I want to write?
The fame? The groupies? The money?
No. Don’t be daft. I want to write because…well, I want to write. Simple as that. I have always enjoyed writing stories. I used to borrow my mother’s typewriter as a young child and write terrible superhero stories (the one I remember featured Captain Forcefield, who had to overcome a dastardly plan whereby his nemesis stole the ladder to his bunk bed, thus stranding him in bed). I moved on to running impromptu role-play style games for friends at primary school, based on my love of choose-your-own-adventure books, such as the Steve Jackson/Ian Livingstone Fighting Fantasy books.

You enter a 10X10 room. A goblin is guarding a chest...

Later on, I met someone who was far better at running these games than I ever was, so I generally stuck with creating characters and playing. I enjoyed the way that the story developed as we played, and that we could affect the outcome. It satisfied my creative temperament, as well as forming a solid group of misfits and outcasts. This social interaction was an excellent way to avoid doing the stupid things that many of our peers were involved in (such as sport, drinking in crappy pubs, joyriding and so on) and to make some very good friends in many parts of the country and beyond.
I have always read avidly, often having two or three books on the go at any one time, usually in various locations in the house so I can pick them up and carry on with the story when I find myself there with a few minutes to spare. One of my regrets is the speed at which I consume books, especially new ones, so the pleasure of reading is over far too quickly. I envy the imagination and skill of a huge number of writers, from the obvious to the obscure. In fact, the writing doesn’t have to be of a particularly high standard for me to enjoy, as long as the story itself is engaging. Some of the writers I would not hesitate to recommend include Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Jim Butcher, Toby Frost, George Mann, Ben Aaronovitch, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens… and so on (and on, and on…).
I have, over the last few years, stopped playing role-playing games on a regular basis. This has, oddly, left a rather sizeable hole in my life. Sad, I know. Not so much because of the lack of role-playing per se, but rather the lack of creative thought. So I’ve started trying to write again.
However, writer’s block is killing me! I have tried lots of different techniques in my writing. I’ve tried just getting on with it and making it up as I go along. I’ve tried planning out the story in as much detail as I can. I’ve tried creating a general ‘road map’ of where I want the story to go. Nothing seems to be working. I can’t get the story onto the page no matter how hard I try. Part of my depression (and I suspect everyone’s depression) is the feeling of being a failure in everything I do, of feeling that it isn’t worth doing anything because I will be judged harshly by others, or I will be held up as an example to avoid. All this tells me not to write.
Fuck that. Fuck that sideways.
I am a writer, even when I can’t write anything that I want to read back. I have to believe that, or I won’t write anything ever again.
And that thought is too horrific to contemplate.
So, my current project is a series of short Steampunk stories featuring a group of adventurous types led by an inventor/academic who has had a ‘device’ stolen by a group of Prussian mercenaries. The group is going to investigate… and so far, so predictable. I need to develop the idea in new and interesting ways, unfortunately I have no idea which direction to take! I would like to use this blog as a way to bounce ideas off people but I obviously don’t want other people to write it for me! So, any ideas that people feel happy offering would be gratefully received!
More to the point, I would be very interested in writing collaboratively with other people. I am happy to write in a range of genres and styles, although my preferred area would be fantasy/sci-fi (including urban fantasy, steam- or cyberpunk, pulp etc.). If you’re interested, DM me on Twitter (@Bailey_san75) leave me a message here, or email me on bailey_san75@hotmail.com. Also, any helpful advice would be gratefully received.
So, is that needy and desperate enough?

Sci-Fi/Fantasy and Snobbishness

Science fiction and Fantasy (and we may as well take a leaf from the booksellers and lump Horror in with them as well) have always been seen as a lesser cousin to ‘proper’ literary fiction. Many articles have been written on the subject and many words thrown into the arena.

So why am I bothering to add my own?

Well, it’s simple. I’m a fan and an aspiring writer of so-called ‘genre’ fiction, and I therefore feel the need to defend my chosen form of escapism.

Last year the BBC hosted its World Book Night, a celebration of the written word, with copies of 25 titles to be handed out to thousands of people. A noble intention that I am sure none of us would take issue with. This was their choice of titles:

Kate Atkinson – Case Histories

Margaret Atwood – The Blind Assassin

Alan Bennett – A Life Like Other People’s

John le Carré – The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

Lee Child – Killing Floor

Carol Ann Duffy – The World’s Wife

Mark Haddon – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Seamus Heaney – Selected Poems

Marian Keyes – Rachel’s Holiday

Mohsin Hamid – The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Ben Macintyre – Agent Zigzag

Gabriel García Márquez – Love in the Time of Cholera

Yann Martel – Life of Pi

Alexander Masters – Stuart: A Life Backwards

Rohinton Mistry – A Fine Balance

David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas

Toni Morrison – Beloved

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Half of a Yellow Sun

David Nicholls – One Day

Philip Pullman – Northern Lights

Erich Maria Remarque – All Quiet on the Western Front

CJ Sansom – Dissolution

Nigel Slater – Toast

Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Sarah Waters – Fingersmith

These titles are, no doubt, all exceedingly well written and worthy. But are they representative of the type of books that people actually read? Or is it an elitist list, designed to tell us what we should be reading? Is it descriptive or prescriptive? Only two of these titles (Cloud Atlas and Northern Lights) could be classed as Science Fiction or Fantasy, and Cloud Atlas is more of a philosophical journey and literary exercise than a true SF novel. But a glance through the best selling lists for last year will throw up names like Stephanie Meyer, George RR Martin, Terry Pratchett, JK Rowling and so on. Statistically, the ‘genre’ fiction market represents far more than 8% of book sales. So why isn’t this represented?

Fantasy author Stephen Hunt, along with 85 other authors, wrote an open letter to the BBC complaining about the ‘sneering derogatory tone’ adopted towards genre fiction. The BBCs reaction? Fairly predictable. Read it (and Stephen Hunt’s well informed rant, at http://www.sfcrowsnest.com/articles/news/2011/One-Genre-to-bring-them-all-and-in-the-darkness-bind-them-15938.php

Margaret Atwood would, possibly, disagree with the sentiments expressed by Stephen Hunt et al, if the oft-repeated comments about The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake are to be believed. She is repeatedly quoted as having denied writing science fiction (calling it “spaceships and monsters”), preferring instead the sobriquet ‘speculative fiction’. It is usually suggested that she was refusing to be classified as a Sci-Fi author in case it damaged her standing as a serious writer, but she has since claimed that she uses the terms speculative fiction and social science-fiction to differentiate her work from those stories that contain “things we can’t yet do”. Well, she won the Arthur C Clarke Award for The Handmaid’s Tale. Read it and decide for yourself. In my opinion, it is science-fiction, similar in some ways to Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World. Just not as good. And more than a little preachy…

So what is it about SF&F (and Horror) that eludes mainstream appeal? When you consider that some of the high points of the genre in over the last few hundred years are so well-known that they have become part of the English language and are firmly embedded in popular culture, it seems doubly strange that an interest in or affection for SF&F(&H) is still seen as an adolescent fascination at best, just plain weird at worst. Think about Dracula, Frankenstein, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, War of the Worlds, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and so many others. Think about the way that SF&F has embraced the new technologies – early genre films include the classics Nosferatu, Metropolis, and the early short A Man In The Moon. SF&F films today include some of the highest earning films in history. According to Wikipedia (and therefore probably wrong) eight of the top ten grossing movies in history belong within the SF&F genre bracket (assuming we accept the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise into that group).

I would like to think that the majority of people enjoy the genre, and could class themselves as fans but choose not to. Why is that? Well, let’s be honest, SF&F fans have a certain…reputation, don’t they?

I know! I’m treading on thin ice a little, but hey! I’m a fan too! These are my people I’m insulting here. But it’s true. Fanboys (and they are mostly male) take ‘weird’ to a whole new level. They redefine what it is to be a social outcast and have suffered for it. Of course, some of them kind of deserve that suffering…

Spandex: it's a privilege, not a right!

These days, being a fan is slowly losing its pejorative status due to the commercial success of a raft of Marvel and DC comic characters, but for a grown man to admit any more than a casual knowledge of comic-dom is still akin to admitting a bizarre sexual fantasy. In fact, I suspect more men would prefer to admit a penchant for being buggered than admit that they know why Issue #38 of Detective Comics is important (answers on a postcard!).

OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But people will happily sit for two hours, watching a bloke in spandex fight bad guys on rooftops, yet still claim that comic books are for kids. Obviously, these people should be forced at gunpoint to read Watchmen but that may be a rant for another day.

Some of the earliest stories ever written down are fantasy. Myths, legends, religions and other fairy tales (I know, that was a cheap shot) all rely on the frankly unbelievable for their appeal. The Scandinavian Sagas are the precursors of The Lord of the Rings. And what is Superman but a retelling of the Jesus story? Only with more laser death beams than the original, obviously.

Let’s be honest – the human race is moved forward by those individuals who are capable of seeing what doesn’t exist and making the dream a reality. We need these people. Without the nerds and geeks, our computers wouldn’t work. There would be no internet, no space program, no mobile phones. We would still be sitting in caves, eating raw meat and dying at twenty of toothache.

So let us work together, ladies and gentlemen, to usher in a new dawn. A world where genre fiction is celebrated as the true saviour of the human race. A world where you can wear your Starfleet Academy uniform to the pub and not be kicked in the beer garden. A world in which all things are possible.

Even if they aren’t plausible.