It’s back! The Schizopolitan podcast returns, and this time Jehan and Saxon tackle the thorny subject of the newly released DC movie slate! A slew of release dates have been revealed for movies in the DC shared universe (which will be properly kicking off in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice) stretching through till 2020. But what does this mean? What properties have been chosen, and why? Will DC stand any chance of matching Marvel’s success? And will any of what Jehan and Saxon say result in Aquaman actor Jason Momoa wanting to punch them? Listen to the podcast to find out the answer to these questions, and many more!
Also, Lego movies! Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them! Rumblings in the world of Marvel! And does Sony really not have the faintest idea what they’re doing with Spider-man?
Enjoy the podcast (please let us know in the comments if you do), and stay tuned for more episodes soon! And remember – you can now subscribe to the podcast on iTunes! Follow this link to subscribe – the first three episodes are already available, and this latest one should be up there in the next 48 hours…
(The opening and closing music on the podcast is ‘Ouroboros’ by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0. creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)
Schizopolitan lives! After a hiatus longer than we wanted, Jehan and I have finally succeeded in recording another episode of joyful rambling about film, television, comics and everything else that takes our fancy. This week, I do a brisk half-time report on Season 8 of Doctor Who, looking at how Peter Capaldi is shaping up as the new Doctor, and then we’re on to tackling two new US TV shows. First up is Gotham, the new series that’s using a traditional cop-show format to do a massive prequel story for the Batman mythos, giving us a sprawling origin not only of Batman and stand-up cop Jim Gordon, but also virtually every villain you can think of. We look at the first two episodes of Gotham – its highs, its lows, and its tonal weirdness – while the other show we look at is Star Wars: Rebels, the entertaining new CGI animation that’s also the first onscreen Star Wars material released since George Lucas sold the franchise to Disney, and an interesting sign of what’s to come…
Enjoy the podcast (please let us know in the comments if you do), and stay tuned for more episodes and less lengthy hiatuses! And please remember – you can now subscribe to the podcast on iTunes! Follow this link to subscribe – the first two episodes are already available, and episode 3 should be up there within the next couple of days…
(The opening and closing music on the podcast is ‘Ouroboros’ by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0. creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)
And we’re back! Our first podcast went better than we expected, we got some nice feedback from a few people, so here, for your delectation and bewilderment, is episode 2 of the Schizopolitan podcast, featuring 75 minutes of Saxon Bullock and Jehan Ranasinghe talking about stuff! This time we tried to be a little more structured, and spent most of the podcast discussing Marvel’s latest hit Guardians of the Galaxy, looking at the many aspects of the movie that worked surprisingly well, while also examining the parts that didn’t come off quite so effectively. (There are a few spoilers in what we talk about – nothing huge, mainly about story structure (especially as relating to big Marvel bad guy Thanos), but it probably helps if you have seen the film already, and it isn’t spoil-free.) After that, there’s also time for a short update on the first podcast’s discussion on Female Superheroes, as we examine Sony’s plans for a female-fronted superhero in the Spider-man universe and try to work out whether any of them have any chance of working…
Hope you enjoy the podcast (feel free to let us know in the comments if you do), and stay tuned for another episode in the not-too-distant future!
Also – you can now subscribe to the podcast on iTunes! Follow this link to subscribe, and episode 2 should be available there relatively soon after this post goes live…
(The opening and closing music on the podcast is ‘Ouroboros’ by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0. creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)
It’s been a long time, but Schizopolitan has risen from the grave… and this time we’re trying something a little different – presenting the SCHIZOPOLITAN PODCAST! I’ve teamed up with my friend and occasional collaborator Jehan Ranasinghe (on Twitter as @Maustallica) for what we’re hoping is going to be a regular series of podcasts looking at the world of Movies, TV, Animation, Games, Comics, and whatever else grabs our attention. It’s our first attempt at anything like this, so bear with us as we figure out various problems, wrestle with technical difficulties and generally ramble like there’s no tomorrow.
In this debut episode (running for 95 minutes), we use the recent aftermath of San Diego Comic Con to discuss some of the con’s announcements and reveals, but that soon spirals into a general discussion of blockbuster cinema in general – there’s talk about Star Wars and the new TV animated show Star Wars: Rebels, the first photo of the Wonder Woman costume and how much we know about Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, the potential upcoming DC Universe movies, and then a more wide-ranging talk about the ‘problem’ of a Female-fronted superhero blockbuster and why Hollywood seems so nervous about the idea…
Hope you enjoy our first episode, and stay tuned for more editions of Schizopolitan: The Podcast soon!
1: I’m surprised that it’s actually happening. My first reaction to the rumours that JJ Abrams might be directing Star Wars: Episode VII was “That’s weird.” My second was “Didn’t he say he’d turned it down?” My third, eventually, was “I bet this is one of those rumours that turns out to be false.” Just occasionally, it seems the Internet can prove me wrong.
2: It’s a choice that’s simultaneously understandable, a little odd, and almost a little too obvious. Alongside Joss Whedon, Abrams was one of the first directors touted by fans for Star Wars, simply because of his 2009 Trek reboot, which almost immediately seemed to make him unlikely to do it. He’s proved himself able to handle a big, technically complex blockbuster with heavy levels of special effects. He’s also able to handle character well, something not every candidate could manage (Hello, Zack Snyder). The fact that the 2009 Star Trek reboot shared so much storytelling DNA with Star Wars makes this all feel like one of those fandom wish-fulfilment “Oh, wouldn’t it be great if ****** got to direct it?” dreams that’s somehow spilled out into reality. But he’s signed. It’s official.
3: The countdown begins now to the point where Disney announce a release date shift from 2015 to 2016. Abrams is still in post-production on Star Trek: Into Darkness, and then he’ll have major press commitments around the release. If the 2015 release is stuck to, that gives him just over two years for all the pre-production, shooting the film, and the post-production – for a blockbuster, that’s a pretty tight turnaround, and while they can be made to a tight schedule, the end results often aren’t pretty. Many blockbusters have been ruined by sticking to a release date over everything (often meaning that shooting starts without a script in place), but with so much riding on this, I’m pretty sure Disney aren’t going to force Abrams to rush what’s likely to be an epic production schedule (especially in terms of post-production and CGI effects work). I’d also lay bets on that being part of the deal – I doubt Abrams would have signed to do something like this if he didn’t also get the power to do it *right*.
4: He’s a fan. It’s one of the resons he quoted for originally turning it down, but Abrams is a dyed-in-the-wool Star Wars fan, which means anyone worrying about Episode VII being slathered in lens-flare can probably relax. I’m sure it’ll look slick as hell, but I also suspect he’s going to stick a lot closer to the visual style of the original movies. Not being a fan of Trek before he hopped onboard the reboot meant he went about reviving the franchise in a very deliberate way (admittedly, one I didn’t always agree with), giving it a very new and fresh identity, with aspects of the classic version of Trek woven in. I suspect Abrams’s Star Wars will be a lot more faithful to what’s come before.
5: He’s capable of being an amazing director, but Abrams has yet to make a film I’ve wholeheartedly loved. Mission: Impossible III is great fun, but light as a feather and essentially plays as a feature-length episode of Alias (Abrams’s hilariously convoluted female-led TV spy-saga) with Tom Cruise as a lead, a blockbuster budget, and fewer over-the-top costumes and wigs. Star Trek is great fun, but has a plot that shatters into pieces if you so much as breathe on it, and also sacrifices a bit *too* much of Trek’s sense of intellectual SF adventure in favour of wham-bam action and STUFF! BLOWING! UP! Super 8 is frustratingly close to being an outstanding movie – when it’s being a homage to the Amblin movies that Abrams grew up with, it’s heartfelt, beautifully played and genuinely moving. However, when it veers left into Stephen King territory, it ends up drowning out the quieter (and stronger) emotional content in favour of horror-movie shocks, an alien that’s both an evil chomp-monster and a misunderstood tragic figure, and even more STUFF! BLOWING! UP! It’s especially frustrating when Abrams’s television work has almost always been stunning – especially the pilot episode of ‘Lost’, which still stands up as an awesome and adventurous piece of television. I’m hoping that maybe taking on Star Wars will make Abrams push that little bit further, and produce something that really does pay off the talent and storytelling I saw in all those jaw-dropping early episodes of Alias.
6: Screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Transformers, Cowboys and Aliens, Star Trek) are not writing this film, and I can’t begin to describe how happy this makes me – especially as they seemed joined at the hip with Abrams. Other people are worried at the idea that Damon Lindelof may get involved thanks to his Abrams connection, a worry mainly rooted in him getting lots of the blame for people’s disappointment with Prometheus – but (a) most of the blame for Prometheus’s undeniable flaws have to be piled at Ridley Scott’s door, and (b) screenwriter Michael Arndt is already at work, and if whatever he’s done is presumably good enough to play into changing Abrams’s mind, I’m hopeful that we may be in good hands. (And whatever happens, any of the screenwriters will have to work very hard to best some of the insanely creaky writing in the prequels).
7: Thanks to a rumour that directorial contender Matthew Vaughan would have cast Chloe Moretz in a pivotal role, it’s very possible that there’s a significant role for a young female lead. If Abrams isn’t on the phone to his Super 8 star Elle Fanning right now, then the man’s a fool…
8: Ultimately, I can live with JJ Abrams directing Star Wars, but it doesn’t fill me with an immense surge of excitement either. We’ll get a damn efficient crowd-pleasing SF blockbuster, and I can almost guarantee there’ll be a sense of character and life back in the celluloid Star Wars universe that hasn’t been there for a while, but there’s still no guarantees that it’s going to be anything other than a pretty SF blockbuster with kick-ass setpieces. Abrams is unlikely to serve up a turkey, but he isn’t the bold and interesting or left-field choice they could have gone for, and he isn’t a director with an approach I would absolutely love to see tackle a Star Wars movie. (I know it’s a foolish dream and it’s ultra-unlikely to happen, but a Star Wars film directed by David Fincher would send my inner geek into meltdown). But I do think Abrams is a solid choice, and there’s potential for greatness there (as well as the potential for it all to go a bit wrong, as well). Whatever happens, despite previous disappointments, the prospect of new Star Wars movies still has me intrigued. For now, there’s life in the old Saga yet…
It’s weird – I’d never describe myself as a dedicated Beastie Boys fan – there are certain tracks I love, and others that I’m not fond of – and yet the death of Adam Yauch, founder member of the hip-hop pioneers, has ended up one of those moments where I read about a celebrity death on Twitter and actually feel sad, like the world’s a slightly less interesting place now. The Beastie Boys were one of those bands I was aware of for ages, but never really locked onto – I can remember right back to their first major days as the leery punky white-rapping loudmouths of the Licence to Ill era, and they certainly didn’t look like the kind of band who’d be sticking around for long. But they did, and with their second album, the brilliant and fantastically sample-heavy Paul’s Boutique, they started heading in different and adventurous directions. Weirdly enough, the first Beastie Boys track that I really liked was thanks to an edition of Chris Morris’s anarchic Radio 1 show that I’d taped off the radio and listened to death – as well as Morris’s bizarre, head-expanding comedy, there was also an eclectic mix of music, including a track that turned out to be the second (much faster and louder) half of ‘The Sounds of Science’ from Paul’s Boutique. And, I found myself listening over and over again to it – I’d always kind of liked rap, but that was the first time I started really understanding the linguistic creativity and sheer coolness that could be pulled off by really good rap artists. I’ve enjoyed bits and bobs of the Beastie Boys’s output over the years (including the magnificent Criterion Collection DVD collection of their videos), but I think what I admired most was the enthusiasm, passion and creativity that exploded out of virtually everything they did. The music of theirs that I loved took me in some new directions (For example – I’d never have seen the wonderful Sixties cult movie Danger: Diabolik if they hadn’t used footage from it in the wonderful Bodymovin’ video), and I’m genuinely sad that the founder member, Adam Yauch – a brilliant rap artist, and the straight man to the more wild and cartoony fellow band members Mike D and Ad Rock – has just succumbed to cancer at only 48.
So, in honour of the Beasties, here’s a selection of their brilliantly anarchic videos. Kick back and enjoy…
This Sunday evening, I returned from the wilds of North Wales where the weekend-long third annual SFX Weekender event was taking place. (And here is the point where I have to do full-disclosure and say that I’ve been writing in a freelance capacity for SFX magazine for the past ten years – I got a discount on the Weekender ticket price thanks to my SFX work, so you can take or leave whatever I say according to that, but hopefully you’ll see that this is as honest an appraisal as I can manage of the ups and downs of the weekend’s festivities).
Both me and my girlfriend ended up seriously tired (to the extent that most of the following Monday was taken up with recovery)– it was a good weekend overall, and a sometimes brilliant one, although there were some problems and snafus along the way. Hanging out in a Pontins holiday camp in North Wales in February may not be everybody’s idea of a good time – we knew roughly what we were getting into when we signed up, but it’s still a bit dispiriting to arrive in a place that looks more like a Communist work-camp than somewhere designed to actually be fun:
As you can see, what was soon less-than-affectionately christened ‘Prestatyngrad’ features lots of utilitarian architecture, and the chalets themselves could only really be described as functional, but ours was clean and didn’t have any problems, and it’s easy to see that an event like the Weekender really couldn’t be run in many other places at its current scale (not without cranking the expense up to ridiculous levels).
The Weekender is a loud, brash, entertaining con that packs an awful lot into two solid days (with an added Thursday evening for early arrivals), and it really seems to inhabit an interesting world between the commercial ‘please pay here to get your actor autograph’ conventions and the usually more genteel fan-run cons that I’ve been to in the past. It also, unfortunately, ended up a very good example of the “It’s a really really good con – but…” effect. No event is ever going to run perfectly smoothly – it’s a simple fact that problems are always going to come along – and for the 75% of the time when the Weekender was firing on all cylinders, it really was a tremendous amount of fun. But – there’s that 25% of the time, which resulted in my overall feeling about the con being “mixed, but really good”, and a lot of it comes down to first impressions.
Our journey to the site, for the Thursday evening ‘pre-show party’ was actually fairly smooth – we live in Manchester, so it’s an hour-and-a-half drive – and while I was a little nervous about some of the facilities (having heard horror stories about the accommodation at Camber Sands, the previous venue), I didn’t know exactly what to expect, and was looking forward to getting inside and exploring the con locations. Unfortunately, what we got when we arrived at Prestatyn at just before 5pm was a massive two-hour queue to check in, an hour of which was outside the main building in temperatures that rapidly went sub-zero. Annoyed is not the word, and it didn’t help that there was no communication, no staff members letting us know what was happening (or that the credit card machines had crashed, meaning they couldn’t process people’s security deposits fast enough) – just an hour in the freezing, FREEZING cold, and then another hour winding through a queue in a pretty small reception area, where there were only three check-in-windows. One of the only things that kept me going in the last half-hour was the idea of going to the chip-shop I’d spotted outside – the chalet was self-catering and we’d brought plenty of food, but I wanted something as soon as possible, so once we got our keys and found our chalet, I rushed off to get some food… and found that the chip shop had shut. At 6pm. I found out later that there was a canteen and a fast food ‘outlet’ (neither of which were incredibly appetising), and soon sorted myself out with something from the shop that I cooked back at the chalet… but it was the kind of massive disappointment that should have been avoided. Add to that a sleepless night due to a stiff and uncomfortable mattress, and my enjoyment of the Weekender took a major hit that took a while to recover.
There were, of course, certain other problems that nobody could do anything about – like the unexpectedly arctic weather, or the train derailment that ended up prevented several guests from arriving, and which delayed others. But there were organisational problems, and communication errors that could have been avoided – like the lack of any specific printed schedule or map in the ‘Welcome Packs’ we received, and the absence of a communal noticeboard where you could go to get updates, which left the whole event occasionally feeling a little vague frustrating.
It was only the avoidable problems that really bugged me. You don’t sign up to a con that involves staying in a Holiday camp chalet without understanding roughly what you’re getting into, but there were ways of dealing with problems like this, and (in order to let it all out and clear my head), here’s my constructive suggestions that I’d make in order for next year’s Weekender (which I am, despite the problems, still pretty damn likely to sign up for) even better:
1: The event doesn’t start for Weekender customers once they’ve checked in – it starts once they’ve arrived. Our journey only took us an hour and a half- there were people there who’d been travelling for much longer, and who had to queue for even longer than we did, and I dread to think exactly how annoyed I’d have felt if that were the case. At the least, there could have been more people manning the check-in counters, and staff there to handle the queue and generally communicate with people – a couple of explanations and heartfelt apologies for the delays would have gone a long way. At the best, there could have been hot drinks laid on for anyone who wanted them, or the check-in should have been opened much earlier than 5pm (going for a 1 or 2pm start would have definitely reduced the amount of congestion). The venue may not be perfect, but good service and first impressions are really important, and treating your customers like cattle isn’t a good way of getting them in the mood for a weekend of sci-fi fun.
2: Maps in the welcome packs, along with printed schedules. People need to know where everything is, and how to get there. My girlfriend had the schedule stored on her phone, but the whole point is that she shouldn’t have to – communication is vital. (Plus, all important information relating to the chalet should have been in the welcome pack – many people were complaining about having no hot water, when it was only because the water heater needed to be switched on, and the piece of paper telling you this wasn’t immediately apparent.)
3: A central ops area (or desk) seperate from the main reception area, where people can come with any queries or problems, and attached to that, a noticeboard of some kind where changes to the schedule can be posted. Yes, put the changes on Twitter as well, but you shouldn’t rely on social media and/or word of mouth at a place like this.
4: Try and improve the food options. Con food is very rarely spectacular (it’s one of the touchstones of the convention lifestyle), but there were very few options available, and most of them were very understaffed. It took me fifty minutes to queue for fish and chips on the Friday, and the fact that the chip shop wasn’t set up to open late into the evening (except on Saturday, where it stayed open till 8pm) was ludicrous. At the least, a selection of hot dog stands or burger vans would have fulfilled people’s emergency protein needs, or the chip shop should have been paid to open until at least 10pm. Either that, or it needs to be very, VERY clear in the Weekender literature that it’s vital to bring your own food for the entire weekend, especially with the town centre being a taxi-drive rather than a walk away.
5: Add a chill-out area – because while the noise and activity was mostly great, it was also – to be honest – pretty damn noisy. It’s a little like being in Las Vegas: the noise and activity is thrilling, but there comes a point where you want something a little quieter, and maybe the chance to sit and talk with friends or new acquaintances. The pub was always crowded and very noisy, while the main bar was directly behind the screening room, which late-at-night was showing a succession of horror movies, so not the most relaxing of environments. If the only opportunity to get something a little quieter and more peaceful is to go back to the chalet, there’s something wrong – and if it means losing something like the VIP bar (so that there’s more room for *everybody* to relax), then so be it.
6: Hang the DJ. Or, at least, make sure that the non-legendary Pat Sharp never gets within range of the music choice again (proving, as if it needed to be proven, that playing ‘Three Lions’ at a sci-fi convention is an excellent way of clearing the dance floor). Craig Charles’s DJ set was barnstormingly excellent, but the other DJ sets were sporadically good at best, and mostly featured an overload of the kind of bangin’ Nineties house that didn’t seem to be making masses of people want to dance. The music needs to be better…
7: Nametags. Meeting new people – and particularly meeting authors and writers – is a hell of a lot easier when everybody knows everybody else’s name. It’s a small touch that I really think would make a big difference to the social side of the event.
If they can pull off the options listed above, the Weekender might not be perfect, but it’d be well on the way to being genuinely great – because while the above problems were all there, and unavoidable at times, when the SFX Weekender got things right, it got them extremely right. Once you’ve gotten to know a few people, fan-run conventions can sometimes feel like a fantastic excuse to hang out in a bar talking to SF geeks and drinking, with panels and events as an occasional distraction, but the Weekender did a very good job of packing the schedule, resulting in very few bare patches, and plenty of moments where I was forced to choose between several enticing options. While I did end up missing some attention-grabbing events (thanks to the usual con excuses like ‘I have to eat’), my highlights include Sylvester McCoy prowling the audience and being fantastically entertaining, the epic Blastermind quiz where my esoteric knowledge of bizarre films helped my team get third place (out of dozens of teams) and won me a stack of cult horror DVD/Blu-Rays, and the incredible panel with Brian Blessed which was as deafeningly loud and hilarious as you’d expect, along with the realisation that alongside Blessed’s jaw-droppingly eccentric manner, there’s a passion for life and inspiration that’s seriously admirable. The Saturday night disco, featuring Craig Charles DJ’ing, stage dancers, illuminated stiltwalkers, angle-grinders and hallucinatory video projection was also amazing, and all the way through the weekend there was a brilliant atmosphere – the dealers room was the most active, energised and lively I’ve ever seen at a con, there were costumed Star Wars Stormtroopers and Daleks prowling the halls, and the level of cosplay from the fans themselves was truly epic, with people throwing an incredible amount of effort into some of the most entertainingly kooky costumes I’ve ever seen, and a whole selection of character-appearances I never expected in a million years.
Once past the initial organisational errors, on the whole it was a very welcoming con, and the SFX crew obviously worked their arses off in order to keep things running as smoothly as they could. Since Sunday, there’s been various posts on the SFX forums claiming that loads of people were hideously disappointed (as were everybody they spoke to, apparently), but aside from a few mild grumbles here and there, what I saw for the whole weekend was a gigantic crowd of people having a truly excellent time. There’s a lot that other, smaller cons could learn from the Weekender about the kind of fun and energy that will bring new people into the Con and fandom lifestyle. Ultimately, the issues that I listed above were only truly frustrating because everything else was so good, and the Weekender really did get close to being a top-notch experience crammed with weirdness and geekery. The high-points of this weekend certainly blew the hell out of any convention I’ve been to in the past (I’ve never laughed so loud or applauded so hard as I did at the Brian Blessed panel, for example), and it’s also excellent that they emphasised the literary and comic-book side of things as well as the more attention-grabbing TV stars, putting on a selection of panels that acted as a really good intro and discussion of many aspects of the genre. I just hope SFX and the organisers can take the feedback they’re getting onboard – as away from its flaws, the Weekender really is an impressive amount of fun, and is in serious danger of being the kind of con we need to see more of…
Author: Alfred Bester ~ Length: 244 pp ~
Publisher: Gollancz ~ Originally Published: 1956
Reviewer: Saxon Bullock (aka @saxonb)
What’s it About?: Stranded in space and left for dead, Gully Foyle is a brutal, beast-like nobody – and when a spacecraft refuses to rescue him, suddenly he finds a new reason to live. Finding his way back to Earth, Foyle embarks on a quest for vengeance, but his murderous grudge is destined to have unforseen consequences for the whole human race…
The Story: Classics don’t always age well, and sometimes a highly-regarded genre novel can leave you scratching your head and wondering “Is that it?” – so it’s nice to have finally caught up with Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination and find that there’s a reason this is ranked as one of the great SF novels. Fifties-era science fiction can sometimes seem very clunky – even writers like Phillip K. Dick didn’t really get into the swing of things until the Sixties hit – and yet The Stars My Destination moves like a bullet, and aside from a handful of dated aspects, it could easily have been written last year. Vivid, colourful and packed full of life, Bester’s novel is SF as full-throttle entertainment and darkly literate character study, fitting more into its 240 pages than many modern-day sci-fi thrillers manage in 500 or above. Yes, Bester co-opts the plot of The Count of Monte Cristo into an SF setting, but instead of merely playing this as a smart pastiche, The Stars My Destination goes further, and it’s all thanks to the fascinatingly weird journey of Gully Foyle.
Going from brutish thuggery to morality and then onwards to a truly cosmic conclusion, Foyle isn’t ever completely sympathetic – he’s too filled with rage, and simply unstoppable, for that – and yet he’s a completely fascinating protagonist, and Bester uses him in such a wildly creative way that what could have been a simple SF revenge story ends up mind-bending, hopeful and profound. There are rough edges here and there, and opinions may sharply divide on the infamous section where Bester breaks out the typographical tricks (possibly influenced by his time working in comics) and the novel almost seems like it’s trying to escape from the page – but the sharp energy and focus of The Stars My Destination is something special. If you’re an SF fan and you haven’t read it yet – do yourself a favour, and correct that situation as quickly as possible.
Once again, the Internet and the fans give me a reason to care about Star Wars again. One of those crazy projects that seems completely demented until you see the final product and realise that yes, people actually did this, Star Wars Uncut is a crowd-sourced version of the entire original 1977 film that takes a Be Kind Rewind ‘swedeing’ lo-fi approach to expressing love for the classic SF adventure, and did it by inviting fans to remake the film however they liked. The only rule? Each group of amateur remakers only got to tackle 15 seconds of the original movie. The result is a barking made patchwork-quilt of live-action, animation, glove-puppets and the truly unexpected that all holds together a lot better than you might think. Two hours of sheer Star Wars nuttiness awaits…
Ah, piracy. There are so many ways in which it’s a measurably bad thing, something we’d undoubtedly be better off without – but one thing that the world of copyright infringement is annoyingly good at is catching the things that fall through the cracks. Not everything stays in print, or easily available, and it’s amazing what you can track down if you’re prepared to look. I’d never have gotten another look at the wonderful, wonderful James Burke documentary series ‘The Day the Universe Changed’ if it wasn’t for piracy – and I also wouldn’t have gotten another chance to watch the fantastically atmospheric and spooky BBC childrens drama serial, Moondial.
Broadcast back in 1988, Moondial got a VHS release sometime in the early Nineties, but ever since then it’s almost entirely vanished from view – it’s ridiculously difficult to get hold of, and the one ‘proper’ DVD release it got vanished from the shops almost as soon as it was released (the most recent DVD release was – weirdly – via the Reader’s Digest, and is also now unavailable – it’s this full episodic version that is, at least at the moment, up in full episodic format on Youtube. And just to be clear, I’d buy a commercial DVD release of it in an instant, as would plenty of other similarly aged TV SF/fantasy geeks, I’m sure). Of course, there’s an awful lot of stuff from that era that doesn’t get a release as well, but it’s frustrating in Moondial’s case because it stuck in my memory so strongly from when I first watched it, back when I was fourteen, and the world of Children’s TV was a much weirder, spookier place.
There’s a whole variety of shows that are burnt into my mind from that era – one of them, the ITV anthology series ‘Dramarama: Spooky’, scared the living crap out of me so much that I’ve actually avoided the recent DVD release, simply because I’m not sure I want to find out that my memory cheated and that it wasn’t quite as scary as I’ve remembered. Some haven’t aged brilliantly – The Box of Delights, for example, a much-praised 1984 adaptation that kicked off a whole run of prestigious fantasy adaptations, still has charm but doesn’t quite hold together (mainly because of the completely insane free-form nature of John Masefield’s original story), but while Moondial is absolutely a product of its time and often spectacularly Eighties, it’s also aged better than I expected and pulls off some impressive levels of atmosphere.
Adapted by children’s writer Helen Cresswell from her own novel, it’s the story of Araminta Caine (teen actress Siri Neal), usually known as Minty, who’s packed off to stay in the country with her slightly stand-offish aunt, but barely gets a chance to settle in before her mother is involved in a near-fatal car-crash that puts her into a coma. Traumatised and lonely (especially since her father already died a few years previously), Minty ends up exploring the grounds of the sprawling country house nearby (actually Belton House in Lincolnshire), but soon finds herself involved in the kinds of spooky goings-on that tend to happen around mysterious country houses in children’s stories. In this case, an ancient sundial holds the key to something that’s halfway between a time travel tale and a ghost story, as Minty crosses paths with an ailing kitchen boy called Tom, and a terrified girl who always hides her face – both of them trapped in their respective worlds, and both needing Minty to eventually find their freedom.
Safe to say, this isn’t exactly action-packed. We do get two definite villains – an evil governess, and a hilariously nasty goth ghost-hunter, both played by Jacqueline Pearce in full-on style that’ll bring back happy memories of her days as ferociously camp villainess Servalan in BBC cult space opera Blake’s 7 – but this is in no way an adventure story. Mood is the key word here, and there’s a certain level of weird abstractness to the story that you certainly couldn’t get away with today, but while Moondial is mainly a gently-paced, slow-burning mood piece that’s all about character, it’s often an astonishingly good one.
The late Eighties is a time when the whole look of television started to change and evolve at a pretty dizzying rate, and there are a certain aspects of Moondial that feel very entrenched in the way things used to be – for example, the number of beautifully plummy English accents on display, especially in the adult members of the cast. However, visually there’s a very definite effort to make this look good – fantasy TV is always very director dependant, and it’s pretty clear that the director here (Colin Cant, who only worked on a handful of projects after this according to IMDB) understood that the visuals and the location was going to have to do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of generating a sense of enigma and mystery.
The end result of this is that the whole show has a wonderfully spooky edge, one that’s helped by the emotional undercurrent at the heart of the story – that it’s essentially about a girl finding a way of dealing with the possibility that her mother might die. We get a whole selection of sweeping tracking shots and kooky wide-angle lenses, which gives the show a very definite sense of style, and it’s also one of the few examples I can think of where filming day-for-night – throwing special filters onto the camera to acheive the illusion of night, back when cameras weren’t as powerful and night shooting was pricey – actually works. This is thanks to some carefully used filters and video effects, as well as the decision to drain most of the colour out of the image – what you get is something that doesn’t exactly look like night, but it does look dusky, weird and definitively spooky.
What makes it even more surprising is that Moondial is shot on video, and it’s incredibly difficult to make something shot on video look stylish (for an object lesson, go look at the late Nineties Neil Gaiman-written BBC drama Neverwhere, which only occasionally manages to lose the shot-on-video curse). Even the contemporary episodes of Doctor Who shot at the time (Season 25) don’t pull off quite so many moments of pure cinematic style as Moondial does when it’s really working. Matching this is a music soundtrack by David Ferguson that uses a mix of synths and traditional instruments in a way that’s weirdly timeless, adding a major level of darkness and edge to something that really could have come across as whimsical and feather-light.
There’s also the deliberately sinister edge given to the transport through time – I’ve always been fond of shows and movies that try to depict the impossible as real, and Moondial presents its fantasy elements very carefully, in a stylised but very controlled way. The travel through time via the sundial/moondial is acheived really simply – a circling tracking shot that spins around the sundial in question, combined with a funky piece of spinning late 1980s video effects – but combined with some fantastically eerie sound design, it gives a real sense of process. Rather than trying to be magical and charming, time travel in Moondial is weird, unsettling and disorienting, and the whole story feels much more weird (and ever-so-slightly science-fictional) as a result.
Admittedly, while much of Moondial still works astonishingly well, not everything here has aged as effectively. For a start, there’s an earnestness to the story that’s often touching, but occasionally trips over into slightly clumsy storytelling – it’s a very internal story, and unfortunately ends up relying on the ‘central character talks to herself’ device a few too many times. Siri Neal is often very impressive in a demanding role (she’s in virtually every scene), especially the sequences between her and Tom (Tony Sands), but there’s a few awkward moments in the opening episodes – especially a bit of full-on hysteria in episode 1 when she finds out about her mother’s accident – that don’t quite come off. The adult actors are generally divided into those who are really effective, and those who are giving slightly mannered ‘childrens TV’ performances (although Pearce isn’t among these, and gives a wonderful villainess turn that’s cool, chilling and distinctly camp).
The pacing is a bit too slow at times, even by Eighties childrens series standards – it’s a show that works better in 25 minute chunks than taken all in one go, and there does come a point in episode 6 where it’s hard not to think “Oh dear god, not another slow walk along the terrace to the Moondial?” Plus, the style is often very Eighties, even though there are plenty of TV dramas from that era that have aged much, much worse (like a 1986 version of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which now bears an unfortunate resemblence to the music video to ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’).
Ultimately, the thing that’s most effective about Moondial is its sheer weirdness, which is what makes it even sadder that there’s hardly anything like it on television anymore. It taps into a very English form of spookiness (from the menace of country houses, to the devilish children dressed in Wicker Man-style animal masks), it’s as gothic (and Goth) as a childrens TV series can probably get away with, and it’s a show that dares to take its time and be deliberately dreamy and surreal. While it’s rough around the edges, and the ending will almost certainly leave you scratching your head and going “Okay, that wasn’t entirely satisfying…”, this is still a trip down memory lane that’s worth taking. Here’s hoping that a proper DVD re-release turns up sooner rather than later…