Sunday, 19 April 2015

Sunday Summary (19/4/15)

I was making plans for this post as I walked home from work yesterday evening; it was going to be a Five Things That Made Me Happy This Week theme. Then I logged onto the internet to find that Death had visited yet another one of my "safe" places, a story world which shaped my very being, this time taking Canadian actor Jonathan Crombie, who was best known as Gilbert Blythe in Anne of Green Gables. It seems Mr Crombie passed away this week from a brain haemorrhage at the age of 48. (Younger, I could not help observing, than Gilbert was in Rilla of Ingleside. That's not right.)

It's not easy for someone to satisfy me as the romantic love interest of a story which has had my heart since I was eight years old, but as soon as I saw Crombie as Gilbert, there could be no other. ** I only knew of Mr Crombie from that one role, but what a role it was, and how well he fitted it! I had fantasies of bringing him and Megan Follows back to the world of Anne if ever I was to finish my screenplay of Rilla of Ingleside and get it turned into a miniseries. And of course, my condolences go out to his family and loved ones.


But onto happier subjects. Despite the best efforts of Royal Mail, my Ninja Book Swap parcel finally turned up this week, and in fact its sender was the same person I'd sent my parcel to: Sarah in Ottawa. I have to say Bex and Hanna did a wonderful job of pairing us up; Sarah is brilliant; I follow her on Tumblr, and she is one of my favourite posters on there. *waves fangirl flag.* She sent me two books: The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane, and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. I can't wait to read them, and because they came from overseas, they are different editions to the ones I've seen in this country and very pretty! Also included in the parcel were a postcard, a cardboard Bookmobile - she's studying to be a library technician - which is on my bookshelf, a Book Nerd badge (which I've added to the collection on my favourite customised bag) and an Anne of Green Gables poster! (Have I mentioned how much I love Anne? Maybe once or twice? A week? Since I was eight?) Thank you so much, Sarah!


On Friday I went over to Southsea to see a touring production of Return to the Forbidden Planet, which is a rock'n'roll musical loosely based on Shakespeare's The Tempest and set in space! In 1999, when I was thirteen and in my last year of middle school (because we used to have middle schools on the Isle of Wight) this was our school play, and it has so much nostalgia for me. If I looked back at my diaries (which I have long since destroyed) I suspect that I'd find it was a difficult time of teenage angst, the pains of unrequited crushes and being a relatively unpopular kid, but my abiding memories of that summer are of long sunny days, an innocent time, and not being quite so lonely as I would be in high school, when my little group of friends ended up going our separate ways. Ours was far from being a perfect production. We had a parent in to play Prospero, the lead, and adult musicians (including my dad on the guitar.) One of the leads could not sing, could not act, and could not even be heard, and was probably cast in a prominent role entirely due to being the biggest boy in the school. But it was the most fun I've had in a school play, even just being in the chorus, shoved off to one side of the stage, and I was madly in love with a boy called Sam, who had long eyelashes and danced with me once out of pity at a school disco. Even now, if I hear most of the songs on the radio, they automatically make me smile: "Teenager in Love," "Great Balls of Fire," "Good Vibrations" or "She's Not There," to name but a few.

But none of this could compare to sitting in the King's Theatre and hearing the songs combined with mangled Shakespeare, dreadful puns, ...enthusiastic... accents. This felt like the proper context for these songs. The cast were magnificent, especially those playing Cookie, the ship's cook with an unrequited crush on Miranda (daughter of mad scientist Prospero) and the robot Ariel (a combination of Ariel and Caliban from the original Tempest). The music was played by the cast, a very multi-talented group. And the casting of "Chorus" - the pre-recorded narrator - was a stroke of genius in the context of a rock musical about space: Brian May from Queen.

Watching Return to the Forbidden Planet from the audience, I realised how much I hadn't quite appreciated as a chorus member. I still knew the songs inside out (although this [production had a couple of substitutions, as well as reinstating one or two that had been on the soundtrack cassette I have since, regrettably, lost, but which we had not used. But the plot still managed to surprise me in some places, where I had not been present for the acting rehearsals, or our cast had played things differently (and, I suspect, slightly bowdlerised) or the things I'd simply forgotten. And now I have sixteen years' extra Shakespeare knowledge and two of Star Trek fandom. I played a mental game of "identify the original quote" throughout the show, and was astonished that the "Live long and Prospero" line I'd thought was an ad-lib in the school play, was in fact in the script. I suppose you couldn't not put it in. All in all, I had an evening of tremendous fun and nostalgia, boogieing away to my heart's content in my chair by the end. I can recommend going to see Forbidden Planet if it comes to your town.



* and, if you insist, also in "The Continuing Story," if you wish to acknowledge that one's existence. As far as I'm concerned, it occupies the Pit of Oblivion alongside Star Trek Generations and the live-action Thunderbirds movie. Or would, if any of these things existed!

**The webseries Green Gables Fables, which is a modern-day vlog adaptation of Anne does a pretty good job with its casting too. I was slow to be won over to GGF, but somewhere along the line I came to love it, and to love the new generation of fangirls to discuss the Anne books and adaptations with in the sort of minute detail that I love. This was, after all, why I started this blog in the first place.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

In Memoriam: Leonard Nimoy. Best of Spock

The world is quick to move on, it seems. Last month, the science fiction and fantasy community lost two of its most beloved legends almost at once. As a longterm Discworld fan and new but ardent Trekkie, it was one blow after another. When a public figure dies, there is an outpouring of grief for a day or two, but the world keeps turning, and soon goes back to normal for most of us. As a fan, I wouldn't want to claim a greater share of a grief that belongs to the bereaved friends and family. But I would like to take a little time to pay my respects to someone I admire.

For some reason, I've found it harder to get my head around Leonard Nimoy's death than that of Terry Pratchett, despite having been a fan of Discworld for at least half of my life, while only discovering Star Trek two years ago. And the publication of April's SFX and Sci Fi Now magazines, with their memorials of both men in one issue, made me sad all over again (as well as muttering like a mad person in the supermarkets that it's just ridiculous for one issue of a magazine to contain two important obituaries.) So here's my lengthy, slightly belated tribute to Mr Nimoy in his most famous role, as well as a few others. I would prefer not to have to write any more of these posts in the near future!


I am aware that my Star Trek review posts tend to get a little unbalanced and fangirlish when it comes to Spock.  My love for the Vulcan science officer came as a huge shock even to myself. Why would a cold, emotionless alien from a cheesy '60s science fiction show capture my affections so much? Of course, it is all down to the way Mr Nimoy played the role, his skill as an actor to portray a character with huge depth of emotion hidden beneath the surface, subtly revealed through a raised eyebrow, or the delivery of a line. His friendship with the Enterprise's Captain, James Kirk, based upon respect and loyalty, and with the Chief Medical Officer "Bones" McCoy, which is characterised by bickering, provide the series with its emotional centre. Leonard Nimoy brought so much heart to the role of Spock that what could have been a two-dimensional character has become one of the most beloved nerd heroes, not just of the Star Trek series, but of all fiction.

 My top twenty Spock moments mark the evolution of the character, and are not a bad place to start if you want to familiarise yourself with Star Trek's original series and characters.

1. "The Naked Time" (S.1) Not to be confused with the Potter Puppet Pals video of the same title. The Enterprise's away team brings back an infectious disease which exposes the crew's most hidden, suppressed sides to themselves. Sulu neglects his duties to enact his swashbuckling fantasies. (This is one of Sulu's finest moments.) Another crew member succumbs to his horror and despair about exploring space's furthest reaches. Nurse Chapel declares a long-held love for Mr Spock, who in turn breaks down from the strain of a lifetime of controlling every emotion, regret for being unable to show love, even to his human mother. This early episode gives a deep insight into the inner life of the Enterprise crew.

2. "This Side of Paradise" (S.1) A magic - sorry, sciencey - plant brings out a softer side to Mr Spock, enabling him to fall in love, climb trees and disobey orders, to Captain Kirk's dismay. The effects are only temporary, of course, but at the end of the episode Spock reveals, matter-of-factly, "For the first time in my life, I was happy."

3. "The City on the Edge of Forever" (S1.) One of the best all-round episodes of the entire series, with a solid storyline, time-travel, a moral dilemma and heartbreak - but what I like best about it is Kirk and Spock pretending to live a normal life in the 1930s, sharing an apartment while trying to find a way back to their own time.


4. "Amok Time." (S2.)
Concerning... biology. Vulcan biology. The biology... of Vulcans.
Spock acts very strangely, and it is revealed that he must mate or die. But when he, Captain Kirk and Dr McCoy beam down to Vulcan, Spock and the Captain are matched in a battle to the death... This episode shows a rare glimpse beneath the emotionless mask that is not influenced by outside factors.

5. "Mirror, Mirror" (S2)
In which Captain Kirk and some of his crew find themselves in an alternative universe, aboard a scary version of the Enterprise. In place of the peaceful Federation is a ruthless empire. Shipboard discipline is brutal. And Spock has a beard!


6. "Journey to Babel" (S2) Introducing Spock's parents, Sarek and Amanda. Spock is faced with an agonising dilemma when forced to take command of the Enterprise at the same time that Sarek falls gravely ill. Presenting a new insight into Spock's dual nature.

7. "Friday's Child" (S2)
In which Dr McCoy has to deliver a baby. It's his episode really, but Spock gets a couple of wonderful moments at the end, responding with bewilderment to what the captain calls "an obscure Earth Dialect" ("Ootchy-wootchy-kootchy-coo".) And his response to learning that this baby will be named after the Doctor and the Captain could so easily be misinterpreted as jealousy or indignation, if those were not emotions. "I think you're going to be insufferably pleased with yourselves for at least a month. Sir!"

8. "The Trouble With Tribbles" (S2.)
If "The City at the Edge of Forever" was the best dramatic episode, "The Trouble With Tribbles" is the best comedy, in which the Enterprise is overrun with cute and fluffy creatures which multiply faster than you can blink. Spock picks up one of the tribbles and observes its soothing effects on the human crew members. "Fortunately," he says, a hypnotic glaze spreading over his face, "I am immune." No one is convinced, and he puts the tribble back in a hurry.


9. "A Piece of the Action" (S2)
In which Kirk (enthusiastically) and Spock (reluctantly) play at being gangsters, and are hilarious.

10. "The Enterprise Incident" (S3)
The only season 3 episode I'm featuring here - there were a few good episodes in that series but for the most part the stories vary between mediocre, hilariously bad, and tragically bad. But in "The Enterprise Incident" Spock goes undercover aboard a Romulan ship and seduces its beautiful commander. Underhand, yes, but you do get the impression that they have a lot of respect for each other even when Spock is exposed as her enemy.

11. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Spock has been away from the Enterprise from years, desperately trying to rid himself of all emotion and be a true Vulcan. He fails, and returns, but is colder and more distant than ever. But as he mind-melds with a computer, he finally comes to value emotion: joy, love and friendship alongside the logic his people hold so dear.

12. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
"I have been, and always shall be, your friend." Spock sacrifices his life to save that of his ship and crew, and breaks everyone's heart in the process.



13. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Thankfully, he doesn't stay dead - as if the title didn't give that away! Kirk and his crew steal the Enterprise (and blow her up) rescue Spock's body and return it to Vulcan to resurrect, though with no guarantee of success. Dressed in his ceremonial Vulcan bathrobe, he walks towards his friends with no sign of recognition, but slowly his memories return to him as he is reunited with his Captain. "Jim. Your name is Jim," he realises at last. His friends gather around him, he raises an eyebrow, and you know he's going to be all right.

14. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the one with the whales)
The Enterprise crew find themselves in 1980s San Francisco, and Spock and Kirk exchange their starship for a public bus, where an obnoxious punk blasts music at full volume. Most of the public are too intimidated or polite to ask him to turn it down, and Kirk's request is rudely ignored. Spock, however, takes the logical course of action and knocks him out with a nerve-pinch, much to everyone else's delight.

15. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the one with the whales) part 2
Spock attempts to fit into 20th century Earth by using "colourful metaphors." In fact, let's just count everything Spock does while wandering around San Francisco in his bathrobe and headband.

16. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the one with the whales) part 3.
At the beginning of this film, Spock's mother is anxious when her son is unable to answer the simple question: "How do you feel?" But by the end, he sends a message back to her through his father. "Tell her - I feel fine."

17. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Kirk, Spock and the crew are ready to retire. They have survived one final adventure, successfully begun negotiations with the Klingon Empire, and are unceremoniously summoned back to Earth by Starfleet. "Is that it?" they all think, but it is up to Spock to break the silence.
"If I were human, I believe my response would be, 'go to hell,'" he says. Everyone turns to stare at him. "If I were human," he repeats, innocently. The Captain makes his decision. "Second star to the right, and straight on till morning." A beautiful, poignant finale for this crew who served together for so long, together for the last time.

18. Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Unification." (S.5)
The original Enterprise crew may have retired from Starfleet, but it is not the end of Spock's career; he takes on the role of ambassador to the Romulans, and in this two-part episode, plays a key part in attempting to bring unity between the Vulcan people and the Romulans, who live by very different philosophies, but who have a common ancestry. His decision is seen as foolish, even treasonous, but Spock has always been a stubborn man, and age, it seems, has made him even more so. Captain Jean-Luc Picard travels to meet with Spock and give him a message from his dying father, and gets caught up in the political chaos. This episode sets the scene for the events of Star Trek: Nemesis as well as being the catalyst for the 2009 reboot film.

19. Star Trek (2009)
James Kirk is marooned on a frozen planet, is about to be eaten by a monster. Then a cloaked figure shows up and chases away the creature, before turning around and revealing his face. Yes, this is Spock, the real Spock, ancient, wise, irreplaceable. Leonard Nimoy's presence in this film made it more than well-made fanfiction, it welcomed it into the Trek universe, and he passes on the wisdom that will shape James Kirk's character and set the events back onto their correct course... if only Kirk will listen and believe him.

20. Star Trek (2009) part two.
And finally, we get to see Spock the elder and Spock the younger come face to face, in a passing on of the torch that is heartwarming, humorous and, especially now, poignant. The elder Spock advises his younger self to carry on in Starfleet, and watches from afar as the Enterprise sets off on its five-year mission. His days of gallivanting around the galaxy seeking out new life and new civilisations, etc, are behind him, and yet for another version of himself, they are only just beginning. There is a mixture of wistfulness and joy as, with Spock, we watch with anticipation of all the adventures that lie ahead, and hear him softly reciting the "Space, the final frontier" monologue that preceded every episode.


And the rest:

Now, please note that Leonard Nimoy had a very long and varied career, not only in acting, but also in directing, photography, even poetry and music. But I've only really "known" him from a fan's point of view for a little while, and as such this following list is very far from comprehensive. Still, here are just a few other roles I've enjoyed seeing him in:

Dr Mayfield in Columbo: 
It seems everyone who was anyone in the 1970s appeared as a murderer on Columbo, and it is no spoiler to announce that Nimoy dunnit in the classic episode "A Stitch in Crime." If you're not familiar with the shabby, bumbling detective Lieutenant Columbo, his investigations are not so much about "whodunnit" as "how's he going to catch them. Incidentally, this was one of the first episodes I saw as a kid, and one so memorable that when I recently walked in while my parents were watching this, I shouted out: "It's in your pocket!!!" Nimoy's character is a superficially charming, but ruthless and ambitious killer surgeon, and holds the distinction of being one of very few murderers to make Columbo lose his cool.

Leonard Nimoy as Himself on The Simpsons:
Most of what I know, I learned from The Simpsons. Leonard Nimoy made two cameo appearances as a version of himself on the show, once as a pompous celebrity guest of honour at the opening of the ill-fated Springfield monorail in "Marge Vs the Monorail," and the other narrating one of my childhood favourite episodes "The Springfield Files."

"The following tale of alien encounters is true. And by true, I mean false. It's all lies. But they're entertaining lies. And in the end, isn't that the real truth? The answer is no." This episode also introduced me to the main concept of The X-Files and agents Mulder and Scully. (I really want to watch that episode again now, it was brilliant! We used to have it on VHS but I expect it's long gone.)




Dr William Bell in Fringe:
William Bell was a mysterious figure throughout the first season of Fringe. Every mystery seemed to lead back to him, but he was conveniently out of the country whenever the Fringe agents wanted to speak with him. Until the very last scene of the season one finale, when Agent Olivia Dunham is transported into a parallel universe. A figure appears in the shadows, and a familiar gruff voice speaks. And I fell out of my chair.


Dr Bell appeared for a few episodes in season two, before apparently being killed off in the season finale. But death did not stop him, and nor did Leonard Nimoy's retirement at the age of 80. Anna Torv took on the role for a few episodes, and they even wrote one episode as an animated hallucination, allowing them to use Nimoy's voice without him appearing on-screen. By season four, Nimoy was un-retired enough to return once more as the ultimate Big Bad of the season.

Spock Doll Action Figure in The Big Bang Theory:

It seems as though E4 only have a couple of Big Bang Theory episodes on repeat, because every time I switch it on, I see either the episode with the table or the episode with the Spock toy. Penny buys the boys Star Trek transporter toys, and after a dream encounter with his Spock doll, Sheldon opens and breaks his friend's toy. That night, Tiny Spock confronts Sheldon once more, urging him to own up.
Tiny Spock: "If I told you to jump off the bridge of the Enterprise, would you do it?"
Sheldon: "Ohhh! If I got onto the bridge of the Enterprise, I would never ever leave."
Tiny Spock: "Trust me, it gets old after a while."
I guess if E4 do keep showing the same episodes all the time, this isn't a bad one to see over and over.

Spock vs Spock:

I hate car adverts, but I can't resist this one, which is a nerd's delight, with Zachary Quinto issuing a challenge to Leonard Nimoy: last one to the golf club buys dinner.



Leonard on Twitter: 

I am very selective about which famous people I follow on Twitter or other social media; they say it is best not to meet your heroes, or see too much of their private selves. Leonard Nimoy was the only Star Trek person I followed on Twitter. Not the busiest of social media users, his comments would be brief but wise and made me smile to see an update, always signed off with "LLAP" ("live long and prosper," of course.) His account was full of fond memories, love for his family and fans, even offering to be an honorary grandfather to anyone who needed one, and later, when he was diagnosed with the lung disease which would kill him, was full of advice and encouragement for everyone trying to quit smoking. His last update, a few days before he died, was poetic and poignant, but perhaps go some way towards helping to understand the mystery of death that seemed so straightforward when I was younger and only gets more confusing.


And finally:

Because, when the announcement came of Mr Nimoy's death, more than one of my friends shared this video on Facebook and got this song firmly lodged in my head for over a week, now I am going to inflict it on you. Ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to present the, um, classic song, "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins."


I have only been a fan for two years, but it has been an honour. Thank you.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Sunday Summary: Migraines, steam trains and Shakespeare... IN SPACE!

Well, here we are on another Sunday afternoon, and LOOK! THERE IS A SHINY YELLOW THING IN THE SKY! (Which reminds me, I have a machine full of soggy washing that needs to go out on the line - which I'm sure you really don't need to know about.) I've had a bit of a rough week, with the migraine to end all migraines - it started up on Good Friday and lasted at least a week. At some point it probably stopped being a migraine but even now there's just enough residual effects to say, "Get used to me, this is your head now." Thanks, brain.

So last Saturday, the day before Easter I had to take the day off from work, meaning that I inadvertently had the whole bank holiday weekend off, though I couldn't really enjoy it, being tucked up in bed, unable to sleep, but also unable to read or watch DVDs or do anything that involved looking at things. 



Monday I was a bit better, and me, my sister, two cousins and one cousin's fiancee went out to the Isle of Wight Steam Railway for the day. When my mum was growing up, her family owned an old train carriage, which had been turned into a holiday chalet called Sunny Siding, and lived in a field near the sea. I never got to visit it as a holiday home, as it was sold back to the railway when the farmer wanted his field back, and it spent a long time being restored, with added disabled access (subtly hidden in the period design) and went back on the rails in the early 2000s, with a big family outing for the official opening. Unfortunately I was off on a university visit that day. But my cousin's fiancee Libby is a big steam train nerd (she will fit right at home in our family) and so we spent a lovely bank holiday at the steam railway centre at Haven Street, which also had a falconry display, my sister got to hold a tiny little owl called Chive, and there was a very attractive man working there who was dressed as a pirate for reasons I was unable to determine. Then, after our train ride (in the family carriage, naturally) it was off to the local carvery for a very late lunch or perhaps early dinner. 




Me, Jenny, Stewart and Jeremy
What else I've been up to:

Reading: 
Mostly sci-fi magazines, rather than books, thanks to the aforementioned migraine, though I was most displeased with Morrison's for displaying them under "Men's interest." Fortunately, the other shops' magazine departments are - mostly - displayed by subject rather than gender. I also read the second Geek Girl book by Holly Smale - how has it taken me so long to read this brilliant series? - and finished Tess Gerritson's Gravity, a thriller set on the International Space Station. There is a high body count, but a satisfying resolution, although perhaps best not read when you're ill. Also, the main character is called Emma Watson, so of course I pictured the actress, if a bit older and with an American accent.


Watching: Dabbling about on Netflix, watching odd episodes of Buffy. I also caught part of the new Thunderbirds Are Go! The original Thunderbirds was the first of many obsessions when I was seven, and I'm very suspicious of any remake, especially when they've made the famous puppet characters into brightly-coloured CGI and (possibly) killed off Jeff Tracy! What I saw did not fill my purist heart with confidence, but I'll watch a few episodes properly before making any judgement. It can't be worse than if they were to make a live-action adaptation, make Alan Tracy a teenager and focus all the attention on him. Which of course would never happen. Nope.



Looking Forward To: going to see Return to the Forbidden Planet in Portsmouth. This was going to be tomorrow, but I realised that the only way home would be by taking the midnight car ferry, arriving on the Island at 1AM, which would be fine by me, but I'm going with Judith who starts work at 7AM the next day. So we changed our tickets to Friday, which has an earlier showing. I was in a school production of that show when I was in year 8 and have such fond memories. Whenever I hear any of the songs on the radio or in a shop, it lifts my mood right up. If you're not familiar with it, Return to the Forbidden Planet is Shakespeare's The Tempest... IN SPACE. With rock'n'roll! It'll be great to watch it from the audience this time.

Other Doings: You may be aware that colouring has suddenly become an acceptable pastime for adults, just in the last few months, largely thanks to the Secret Garden colouring book by Joanna Basford. It is recommended as "art therapy," a way of de-stressing and taking your mind off things. I can confirm it really works; Friday I woke up feeling very miserable and lonely. That day my Anne of Green Gables colouring book arrived, which I had ordered through Hive, and I spent the rest of the day (and also yesterday evening) colouring in the pictures. It's got an abridged version of the story, not just pictures, and I love it. It was Anne of Green Gables, it existed, therefore I had to have it.


Monday, 6 April 2015

Star Trek (2009)

Everything I knew about Star Trek before I watched the 2009 film for the first time:
  • Captain Kirk was in charge of the Starship Enterprise, and was a bit of a womaniser
  • Leonard Nimoy was Spock, and irreplaceable, an utter legend. 
  • George Takei was Mr Sulu. 
  • Scotty beamed people up. 
  • Uhura was an enormously significant character, a black lady in an important and interesting role in 1960s TV. 
  • I did not know of the existence of Dr "Bones" McCoy, or Pavel Chekov, or Nurse Chapel.
  • Vulcans had pointy ears, severe straight fringes, and lived by logic over emotion.
  • Other alien species included the Klingons, who had a fully-formed language and whose spaceships were called Birds of Prey, and also Romulans.
  • Spock dies in Wrath of Khan. (I did not know, then, that he would return, but I did know that he has been, and always shall be, Kirk's friend.)
  • "To boldly go where no man has gone before."
  • "Set phasers to stun."

This is where it all began with me. Until early 2013, I was quite comfortable with my nerd status, but I held that there were certain lines which, once crossed, marked the point of no return. I was not into Dungeons and Dragons. I was not into Star Trek. But my friends were organising a trip to see Into Darkness when it hit the cinemas, and the trailer intrigued me, so I thought I ought to give myself a bit of insider knowledge of the Star Trek universe, so that I could understand what was going on. The 2009 reboot film seemed like a logical place to start, not requiring decades of catching up with the series and the original films, but just one film. Who was I kidding? Not even myself, I think. I knew as I sat down to watch Star Trek on TV that this was going to be a big deal. How big, though, I had not conceived.

It took me most of the pre-credits sequence to understand what was going on. I was thrown straight into an attack by Romulans on a Federation starship, full of chaos and explosions and J.J. Abram's traditional lens flares. The Romulans spoke of Ambassador Spock, and a young Starfleet officer named Kirk is rapidly promoted to Captain. But the Spock the Romulans seek is old, and the Captain Kirk is not James Tiberius, but his father, George, who sacrifices his own life while his wife gives birth to their child. Among the chaos, the special effects are breathtaking, but do not draw too much attention to them; my brain just accepted what it was seeing. And the music is beautiful, a simple but haunting theme as the titles flash up.

This film introduces the key characters and concepts of the Star Trek universe simply and concisely. The twelve-year-old Kirk stealing his stepfather's car gives an insight in what we can expect from this character: a rebel, brave but reckless and arrogant. (More on this version of James Kirk later.) Meanwhile, on Vulcan, a young Spock is bullied by his peers, and a few short scenes with him and his father Sarek establish the Vulcan philosophy of logic which covers a passionately emotional nature, as well as Spock's unique conflict between his human and Vulcan halves. 

I thought I knew what to expect from Spock, and did not expect to warm to such a coldly logical character. Wow, I thought, with some surprise and glee, when Spock confronts Kirk for the first time in his trial for cheating at the Kobayashi Maru test. Spock's a bit of a jerk! However, I did not like this Kirk at all, and enjoyed watching the animosity between them. But it is that inner turmoil between his two natures that makes Spock such a fascinating character, and the more he suppresses any human emotion, the more you sense it beneath the frosty facade. Zachary Quinto gives a marvelously nuanced performance here, and is solely responsible for sending me back to the original series, which made me fall utterly in love with the character who piqued my interest from his first, contemptuous, "live long and prosper," in response to insults from the Vulcan Academy. Several days later, on a quiet shift at work, I realised I was being haunted by the look on his face as he watched his mother plummet to her death. Oh dear, I thought, This isn't such a casual interest after all. (Oh Katie. Do you have any casual interests?) 

With the audacious decision to destroy the planet of Vulcan, J. J. Abrams and his crew of storytellers demonstrated that this Star Trek is no mere prequel. Spock spells it out: the Romulans came through a wormhole in time, and by doing so, changed the course of history enough to create an alternative universe. Anything can happen. Nothing and no one is safe. It certainly adds a sense of suspense to the film, because it doesn't have to seamlessly join up to the original series. And with this plot twist, Star Trek hooked my imagination, went from interesting to something clever and extraordinary.

After being a bossy, shouty brat one too many times, Jim Kirk finds himself marooned on a frozen planet - rather an extreme punishment, I can't help thinking -  where he encounters a most unexpected and familiar figure: his nemesis Spock, as an old man, played, of course, by Leonard Nimoy, the biggest legend of the entire franchise. Even as a brand new not-quite-Trekkie, I recognised this as a Really Big Deal and fangirled accordingly. This Spock has changed a lot - which old fans will have watched through the original series and films - to become a wise, warm and calm presence, at peace with his dual nature, and a little bit mischievous.
(Old Spock: "He inferred that universe-ending paradoxes would ensue should he break his promise." Young Spock: "You lied?" Old Spock: "Oh... I implied.")
Although Chris Pine's Kirk is the main protagonist of this Star Trek film, really it is Spock who is at its heart: the old and the young. It is a perceived wrong by the old Spock that sets the events in motion, a tragic sequel to the "Unification" episodes of The Next Generation in which Spock attempts to form peace between the Romulan and Vulcan people, and from Star Trek: Nemesis, at the same time as being a sort-of prequel. And as well as being integral to the plot of the film, Leonard Nimoy's presence marked a link between the two universes, the old and the new series. Yes, the series that began nearly fifty years ago, is still (boldly) going strong. This passing-on of the torch gains an extra layer of poignancy now, seen after Mr Nimoy's death. The supporting cast are pretty wonderful, bringing warmth and humour to the story. Simon Pegg is an inspired choice as Scotty, with his comic timing and expression, and clearly a lot of joy to be part of this project. And oh, Karl Urban, who plays Doctor "Bones" McCoy, is DeForest Kelley all over again. The likeness is really quite uncanny in some places. John Cho's Sulu is the quiet, self-assured helmsman - even if he forgets a rather crucial stage in warp-speed travel on his first day. And Anton Yelchin, while not an awful lot like the original Chekov (apart from the character's youth and accent) is altogether sweet and endearing.

Perhaps Star Trek is a little bit longer than it needs to be, with action sequences that make me lose concentration towards the end - but this is a minor criticism, and one that I'd apply to most films these days. For the most part, it is an edge-of-the-seat adventure with an interesting plot, evoking a breathtaking longing for space travel. By the time the elder Spock gives the traditional "Space, the final frontier" monologue, I had a big goofy grin on my face, feeling as though I was coming to a home I didn't know was mine. This was where it began for me, two years ago. And I'm very glad it did. I came very late to the party, and now I'm here to stay,

There are, however, a few factors which, though they did not spoil the film for me, must be discussed, and by "discussed," I mean "ranted about at great length." So if you want to stop reading here, I'll put in the very first teaser trailer in here. Oh, what must it have been like to be a long-term Star Trek fan and see this in the cinema, wondering what can this be? before the dawning thrill of realisation? I'm sorry not to have been able to experience that first hand. But it's a beautiful teaser nonetheless.



And now, the rants.

First of all: I do not like Chris Pine's version of James T. Kirk. We get told that Jim Kirk is a genius, but we don't really see any evidence of that. He'll come out with some impressive knowledge once or twice, but his character is not that of suitable officer material. He's a cadet at Starfleet Academy, he is arrogant and rebellious and shouts over everyone else. Kirk has always been a bit arrogant, and one to decide whether or not to follow orders, but at least in the original series he had some wisdom and an air of authority. This young Kirk just comes across as a brat.

And then there's his way with women. There is a fine line between smarm and charm. For all his faults, the original Kirk, played by William Shatner, mostly fell the right side of that line. Chris Pine's version, however, is so far through smarmy that he is repulsive. At least in the original series, he shows a genuine interest in whichever lady is his love interest of the week. This young Kirk, on the other hand, is that guy who hangs around in bars, hits on women who are clearly not interested, and even if he's trying to show an interest, his ulterior motive shows through. He wants the pretty women to be interested in him. What a creep. It feels to me that this version of Kirk is based upon the idea of Kirk the Ladies' Man, rather than the actual character. I suspect that the different eras in which the stories were made does not help matters. In the 1960s, Star Trek would show the courtship, and perhaps there might be a tasteful scene later on showing the lady brushing her hair in the Captain's quarters. In the 2009 film, there is the opposite. We don't get to know Kirk's latest conquest, she doesn't get a character, all we get is a scene of them cavorting in their underwear on her bed. Oh, and then Uhura comes in and strips down to her underwear, as you do, as if to confirm the tired old stereotype that Star Trek is for sad, overgrown teenage boys who can't get a girlfriend.

And on the subject of Uhura, I felt that she was a rather two-dimensional character, a Strong Female who could be interchangeable with many other Strong Female Characters: forceful and demanding, most notably in the scene where she confronts Spock, her superior officer about assigning her to the starship she wants to work on. "No. I'm assigned to the Enterprise." No doubt this was an attempt to avoid the 1960s stereotypes of what a woman ought to be like: demure, softly-spoken, sweet-tempered. But surely true feminism means to embrace traditionally feminine traits as just as valuable as traditionally masculine? Yes, the original Uhura was sweet and "girly," but she was much more than just a pretty face; she had a quiet strength, a calm authority, as well as a musical talent and a cheeky sense of humour, (remember her comeback of "sorry, neither" to a swashbuckling Sulu calling her a "fair maiden." It makes sense in context.) She was a rounded individual, and I feel that in trying to fit her into the 21st century mould of Strong Female Character, she lost a lot of her personality.

Finally, and I am not saying this because I have a "shipping" problem - after all, one of the beauties of alternative universes is exploring how a story would be different when different choices are made - but I do find the pairing of Spock and Uhura a bizarre one. It does not seem logical for this Spock, at this time in his life, when he's trying so hard to be a true Vulcan, to get involved in a very human romantic relationship. Moreover, I can't see what Uhura gets out of such a relationship. No, that's not quite true. Zachary Quinto is a very attractive man, and Spock is a wonderful character. We have established my fondness for Spock, for every version of Spock. But there is a difference between loving a complex fictional character and wanting them for a romantic partner. It must be very challenging to fall in love with a Vulcan, especially if you're a passionate character like Uhura. I can't imagine such a love affair to be fulfilling to either of them.

That being said, it does come as a relief to see someone try to comfort Spock at the lowest point of his life, when his planet is destroyed, and his mother killed. As a viewer I just wanted to give the poor guy a hug, so it was good to see Uhura stand in as proxy.

But even as grumpy as I get about these issues of characterisation, some of which only started to bother me as I got to know the original series, they don't really stand in the way of my enjoyment of the film. If you're looking for a way into the Star Trek universe, the 2009 film is an excellent place to start, accessible, exciting and lovable. But beware. Venturing across the final frontier may be a one-way journey. It certainly proved so for me.

Live long and prosper.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Murder Most Unladylike & Arsenic For Tea - Robin Stevens

There's been a rather shocking murder at Deapdean School for Girls. Unfortunately, there is no proof; between Hazel Wong stumbling upon a dead science mistress in the gymnasium and going for help, the body has vanished, leaving no evidence that Miss Bell has done anything other than resigned her post and moved away. But Hazel knows what she saw. It is up to her and her friend Daisy Wells, the founding members of the third-form Wells and Wong Detective Society to uncover the truth!

Set in a 1930s girls' boarding school, Murder Most Unladylike is reminiscent of the school stories that made up a lot of children's literature of the 20th century - Malory Towers, the Chalet School, Angela Brazil - mixed up together with the Famous Five or Nancy Drew. Robin Stevens recreates the golden age of children's books wonderfully, with dormitory pranks and midnight feasts, gym tunics and bun breaks, with a mystery to be solved without getting the police involved. But within this old-timey children's story are subjects that wouldn't have been written about in 1934, not for children - the racism Hazel, who is from Hong Kong, faces, two of the schoolmistresses having been in a relationship, and an illegitimate child showing up from someone else's past. Plus murder, of course - I don't think anyone ever actually died in Enid Blyton's writing. A dog might have got ill from eating poisoned food once or twice, but that's about the extent of it.

Daisy and Hazel join a long line of classic detective duos: Like Sherlock Holmes, Daisy is the intrepid detective whose excitement for a case sometimes overlooks human compassion. Hazel is more cautious, and the chronicler of their adventures - Daisy even calls her "Watson" from time to time. The story is a lot of fun, if verging on the ridiculous sometimes as this small private school has an unusually high body count!

The sequel, Arsenic for Tea, takes place away from Deepdean. You can't have too many murder mysteries at one school; it would be closed down! Hazel goes to stay with Daisy at her huge, if slightly faded, English country house. Daisy's birthday falls during this holiday, and her mother throws a big tea party, but as well as the family and school friends, the house has some mysterious and sinister guests. The atmosphere is terrible, filled with unspoken secrets and deceit. And then, one of the guests falls horribly ill and dies. The evidence points to poison. But who might bear such ill-will towards this guest? Perhaps it would be easier to ask who doesn't. Wells and Wong launch another investigation, but Daisy finds it is not so easy to get swept up in the spirit of adventure when her own family members are implicated in murder.

Arsenic for Tea is another instant classic of children's literature, perhaps even better than Murder Most Unladylike. It is Agatha Christie for children: a well-plotted, twisty mystery with plenty of red herrings, a limited cast of suspects, but everyone keeping secrets, even if none of them are the secrets they are suspected of hiding. But Stevens plays fair, and hides the clues within the text, if you only know what you're looking for. I actually picked my suspect quite early on and stored up the evidence against them even while they were seemingly eliminated from the list. I felt very proud of myself when I was proven right - not because the author was sloppy but because I was paying attention. An excellent, very satisfying pair of mysteries, and I hope to see a lot more of Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Sunday Summary: Miniature catastrophes and minor disappointments

Hello and good evening. I hope you've had a good week. On the blog, this week's been all about commemorating the life and works of Sir Terry Pratchett, who unfortunately passed away the other day. It's been a change for me to focus solely on one author, rather than my usual hopping between genres. From the Discworld series alone, I read an old favourite, a new favourite and one book which will never be on my favourites list - but that's okay, because there are so many excellent Discworld books out there, they can't all be the best. If you're interested in discovering the works of Terry Pratchett for the first time, but don't know where to start, Bex and Kirsti have both got good guides to the series.

Last night I rewatched the adaptation of Going Postal which Sky One produced a few years ago, following on from Hogfather (which is near-perfection) and The Colour of Magic (which I don't think I actually watched all the way through.) Going Postal is the story of a con man who is saved from the gallows under one condition: that he take an honest job getting the Ankh-Morpork Post Office up and running again. Going Postal is one of my favourite books in the series, and the Sky One production has an inspired cast, with Richard Coyle (the funny one from Coupling) as the lead, the unfortunately-named Moist Von Lipwig, Claire Foy as the equally unfortunately-named Adora Belle Dearheart, and Charles Dance as the icy, sinister Lord Vetinari. That last piece of casting in particular was sheer brilliance. However, I found that the adaptation was not as good as the cast and source material. For one thing, there was too much angst and melodrama, and not enough humour. Moist is haunted by black-and-white visions of the far-reaching consequences of his "victimless" crimes - which, yes, he needed to confront, but there was no subtlety to it. And is it the case that if TV shows a character who smokes, they have to make a Very Big Thing about it, and beat you over the head with its moral that Smoking Is Bad? Adora's smoking is presented not as a minor character trait but as a Tragic Flaw that Must Be Overcome. Is this the 21st century equivalent of the Hays code?

Going Postal is visually spectacular, and you instantly forget that this is set in a fantasy world, because it presents to you an established Ankgh-Morpork with little fanfair, and it recreates the later books' feeling of being more like Dickens' London which just so happens to contain dwarfs, werewolves, golems and banshees among its population. It just didn't quite seem offbeat enough for me. Entertaining, but the book was better.


Away from the drama in my books, tv and CD player, I had an unfortunate misadventure at work on Thursday when I got myself trapped in the lift between two floors. It was entirely my own fault, and I take full responsibility: I was taking the hoover upstairs to put away, and was a bit careless in winding up the cable. The plug got stuck in the doors, but for some reason that didn't stop the lift from moving as far as it could before shuddering to a halt. And it would not go back down again. I had to ring the bell and call for help, and it was the end of the day, we had just a couple of members of staff in and they were at the other end of the shop and didn't hear me. Eventually a customer heard me calling and fetched help. I could force the inside doors open, but the outside doors would not budge. Eventually my colleague Simon was able to reset the lift and bring it back down to the ground floor, and all in all I was only in there for maybe twenty minutes. But it is not an experience I can recommend.

Friday was my day off, and I sat outside to watch the much-hyped eclipse of the sun. It was a very British eclipse; the sky was completely clouded over, and the only difference I noticed was that the clouds turned a slightly darker shade of light grey, and it got very cold. Also the seagulls sounded very distressed when the eclipse began.


In the afternoon, of course, the sun came out and was beautiful. Judi came over after work - she works just down the road from my house, and finished at lunch time - and we set out a table in the back garden where we played Carcassonne and Trivial Pursuit (regular and Disney versions) before going indoors to watch The Empire Strikes Back. 

What have you been up to this week? Did you get a better view of the eclipse? (i.e. any view at all!)

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Guest Post: Judi on The Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

Imagine you wake up to a world where everything has changed. It's like the birth of the internet all over again, only overnight. Suddenly, everyone is talking about this thing called a 'stepper'. If you assemble this fairly simple circuit from easily obtained ingredients, including the humble potato, you'll be able to move 'stepwise' into a series of alternate worlds, empty of humanity and full of possibilities, and with no more cost than a bit of nausea. Welcome to 'Step Day.'

This was the premise of a short story the wonderful Terry Pratchett wrote, called "The High Meggas"(mega as in thousands of worlds away). It was a very good short story, and full of potential. I like to think Stephen Baxter read this story and was on the phone to Mr Pratchett later that day. "This story you have: I think we could do something great." I like to think Terry Pratchett was flattered but initially reluctant, since he had so many projects on the go. Eventually, he was won round and this series was born.

Made up of The Long Earth, The Long War, and The Long Mars, with The Long Utopia still to come, these books span the next fifty years or so of exploration as humanity makes the most of this extra real estate by moving into it and making it pretty much the same as the 'datum Earth'. Well, okay, that's a lie. Nothing iron can travel, so the new settlements have to make much from scratch. People who know how to make things are suddenly much in demand. Security takes on a whole new dimension as anything valuable has to be buried in cellars, to prevent people merely stepping into the middle of a bank vault. Sprawling Western cities are reproduced in miniature in these other worlds, with extra rooms or allotment gardens expanding the effective size of properties.

There are pioneers, who go deep into the Long Earth in the search of particularly clement conditions. There are natural steppers, who don't need the potato, and one of them (the daughter of the man who leaked the plans for the stepper onto the internet) finds 'soft places' in the Long Earth, where she can take massive shortcuts to travel further, even beyond a town called Haven, thousands of worlds stepwise, where natural steppers sometimes accidentally end up. There are phobics, who can't use the steppers for whatever reason and so are left on Earth amid a mass exodus. There's an AI called Lobsang who claims to be a Buddhist motorcycle repairman reincarnated as a vending machine. There's Joshua Valienté, his friend and a natural stepper. Together they travel beyond what any human alone could do, and see all the different routes evolution could have taken if our Earth were only slightly different. More dramatic is the sheer number of worlds where multicellular life never got started at all, a reminder of how unlikely we really are.

This is a fantastic series, very readable sci-fi with sympathetic characters and a gripping narrative. Spoiler alert! The second book focuses on stepping aliens, who were born on an Earth distant from our own and the source of many fairy tales. As the name suggests, there's a build up to a war that never really happens. There's also an alien encounter with what's basically an intelligent giant amoeba, which absorbs life wherever it finds it without destroying it. The third book catalogues an expedition to find life on stepwise Mars. Throughout the series there's an increasing sense of impending peril as the aliens seem to be migrating en masse. Something is coming. I can't wait to see what adventures The Long Utopia will have.

Thanks to Judi Fruen for this post. I haven't read The Long Earth series yet, but after reading this review it's shot right to the top of my wishlist. - Katie 

Friday, 20 March 2015

Book to Radio: Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman


Crowley had always known that he would be around when the world ended, because he was immortal and wouldn't have any alternative. But he'd hoped it would be a long way off. 
Because he rather liked people. It was a major failing in a demon.
The end is nigh. Very nigh indeed. It is up to Aziraphale, angel and part-time bookseller, and Crowley, "an angel who did not fall so much as saunter vaguely downwards," to make sure all goes according to the Ineffable Plan. But they have other ideas. Over the past millennia, angel and demon have spent a lot of time together, and a lot of time among humanity, and they don't want it to end.

Good Omens is a collaboration between two of the greatest creative minds of offbeat fantasy, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and it is every bit as brilliant as you could hope: witty, irreverent and philosophical, a story of good versus evil on a cosmic scale as Armageddon approaches, with an angel and a demon as its most prominent protagonists. But ultimately, it is is a story about humanity, presented in microcosm in the form of the eleven-year-old Adam (who ironically isn't really human at all. Or perhaps he is exactly as human as he seems...)

Crowley doesn't have a very high reputation among his fellow demons, with their proud boast of tempting priests and corrupting politicians - while Crowley's biggest achievement is merely tying up the phone lines at lunchtime, causing a spread of bad temper and nastiness throughout the country. There is something very British, I feel, about how little minor inconveniences can do far more lasting and far-reaching damage than a more overt evil. Oh, [Crowley] did his best to make their short lives miserable, because that was his job, but nothing he could think up was half as bad as the stuff they thought up themselves.  

It is remarkable how well Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's writing styles work together. They have their differences in style - Pratchett was more overtly comic, for the most part, while Gaiman - though he masters a wide variety of genres - has a dark poetry to his writing. But in Good Omens, the two come together seamlessly. You cannot tell who wrote which part. (Allegedly, neither could they in some places.) The only line I would be willing to swear was the work of one author was: "and she held her sword, and she smiled like a knife," which is a strongly Neil Gaiman turn of phrase.

As well as Aziraphale and Crowley, Good Omens is full of colourful and wonderful characters: Adam Young and his gang "Them," The Four Horsemen (or bikers) of the Apocalypse (and the other four bikers of the Apocalypse) Sergeant Shadwell - the dour last Witchfinder in England - and his apprentice Newton Pulsifer, and Anathema Device, a witch and keeper of The Nice And Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter. The book is packed with memorable scenes, lines and gags that spill out from the pages and become part of how the reader views the world. For instance: I take it as fact that any cassette (or CD) left in a car stereo will mutate into a Best of Queen album (which is why I felt it was really a bit superfluous to buy my sister that album for her birthday, although I did.) Elvis's cameo in a fast-food restaurant. (I DON'T CARE WHAT IT SAYS. I NEVER LAID A FINGER ON HIM.) A drunken angel waffling on about dolphins. A demon terrifying his house plants into growing properly. And really, I feel I've just scratched the surface of this book. It is not a long book, but it has so many wonderful, laugh-out-loud and profound moments. Go and read it! Or, alternatively, you could listen to the dramatisation.


Last year, Good Omens was adapted by the BBC into a six-part radio drama, aired over Christmas, and is now available as a 4-CD set. (Just don't leave it in your car or you know what'll happen. The creative team behind it, Dirk Maggs and Heather Larmour, were the same people who adapted the star-studded Neverwhere last year. As with Neverwhere the casting is spot-on. Mark Heap is a wonderfully fussy Aziraphale, and Peter Serafinowicz brings the right balance of darkness and snarky likability to the role. The supporting cast, too, are wonderful (although Death did not sound quite right. Really, he needed to be Christopher Lee, but that is a small grumble.) There is even a small cameo from Neil and Terry as traffic cops in the first episode.

The original novel was written 25 years ago, but very little really needed updating: a little technology here or there. Adam and the Them, and the village of Tadfield in general, are right out of the first half of the twentieth century, before computer gaming consoles and health'n'safety. That's the village's charm, and kept that way unconsciously by Adam's supernatural powers. I was sorry that a couple of my favourite jokes were omitted or changed -  there is an allusion to the Queen gag, but it was not stated outright - while I was surprised that one or two lines made it in that are perhaps well past their use-by date. But overall, Good Omens is an utter treat, and I listened to it on Christmas week in bed, giggling madly to myself.

Radio drama is an underrated storytelling format, and very occasionally the exposition is a little clunky - a limitation of the format as you have to tell everything through dialogue. But apart from the rare moment of "people don't really talk like that," it is very well done, utterly engrossing, and the hours simply fly by.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Pratchett Readathon: Night Watch



 This isn't your past any more. Not exactly. It's a past. And up there is a future. It might be your future. But it might not be. You want to go home now, leaving Carcer here and the real John Keel dead? But there'll be no home to go to, if you could do that.
When Sam Vimes faces a vicious serial killer on the roof of the Unseen University, the last thing he expects is to find himself stranded thirty years earlier in his own past. It was a very different time, an explosion just waiting to happen. The ruler was out of touch with the common people and reality, the Watch were corrupt, and the masses had just about had enough. Vimes just wants to go back to his own time, when his wife is having their first child, but there is a problem. Vimes brought the evil Carcer back with him, who is running amok in Ankh-Morpork and mingling with powerful villains, quite happy to cause as much disruption to history as he possibly can. And John Keel, the man who taught Vimes everything he knew, is now dead. Now it is up to Vimes to mentor his younger self and single-handedly turn the City Watch around. But revolution is brewing...

Night Watch is, without doubt, my favourite of the thirty-plus Discworld books I've read. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is objectively the best book in the series! It is best to read the other "Watch" books first, however: Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay at a minimum, with The Fifth Elephant and Jingo as optional extras. That way, you get to see how far Samuel Vimes and the Ankh-Morpork City Watch (or police force) have come since the start. When we first met the Watch in Guards! Guards! it comprised only three men, and its Captain was a drunk in a gutter. (Not, as my sister so rightly pointed out, an alcoholic - he wasn't rich enough for that. A drunk.) Over the course of several books, Terry Pratchett built up the characters, improved the Watch, promoted Vimes several times and saw him happily married to the richest woman in the city. Pratchett shows us just how much Vimes's life has improved, just how good he's got it - and then snatches all that away. We see how bad Ankh-Morpork has been by comparing it with the city we've come to know, which may be a mouldering cesspit crawling with villainy, but it is a mouldering cesspit that works, crawling with well-regulated villainy. That may not sound like a glowing recommendation, and yet it shines a light into the dark places of the city in years gone by.

But the real conflict of Night Watch is that which comes from within. It is up to Vimes, in the role of his mentor John Keel to not only sort out the corruption and brutality of the Watch and protect the populace during a time of severe unrest, but also to make sure that his younger self will stay on the right path (while knowing that it's a path that will lead to a lot of pain along the way.) And he does so magnificently. As "John Keel," Vimes strides in and takes over with sarcasm, audacity and an unconventional but very firm moral compass. I think it is fair to say that Sam Vimes becomes the closest thing that the Discworld has to a hero.

This series began life as a comic parody of the fantasy genre, but by Night Watch it barely feels like fantasy at all. This is literature, albeit literature containing time travel, trolls, werewolves and zombies, all taking place on a flat world held up by four elephants on the back of an enormous turtle called The Great A'Tuin. All this is secondary. I wouldn't even call Night Watch a comedy. There is humour throughout, but instead of silly gags there is a more piercing wit that is all the more satisfying for being paired with darker themes. And the social commentary is just as relevant today, if not more so than when it was published in 2002. Just think of the political situation in the UK with a government out of touch with the people it claims to speak for, or in America with all the reports we hear of racism, corruption and brutality ingrained in the police force. Night Watch can be held up against Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo in its fierce morality, as well as being a jolly good story. This is Sir Terry Pratchett at his finest.


Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Pratchett Readathon: Reaper Man


"I remember," said one of the oldest mayflies, "when all this was fields, as far as you could see."

Reaper Man was one of the very first Discworld books I read, when I was thirteen or fourteen, and although I've reread all of the others in the "Death" mini-series several times, somehow Reaper Man has been missed out on these rereads. So returning to this book this week, I was amazed by how good it really is. There is, of course, the humour one comes to expect from Terry Pratchett, but also a lot of pathos and philosophising (but not in such a way that you feel beaten around the head with it.

The book opens with a broad view of the universe, before focusing in on the Discworld, lyrical observations on life, death and nostalgia as seen by mayflies and ancient pine trees, before focusing in on the human characters who will feature in the novel. It is a thoughtful, lyrical opening, showing the parallels in all life, no matter its length. I'm reminded of another personification of Death, from Pratchett's friend Neil Gaiman, who says, "You get what everybody gets - you get a lifetime."

JUST BECAUSE SOMETHING IS A METAPHOR DOESN'T MEAN IT CAN'T BE REAL.

Reading Reaper Man in the context of its author's death is a strange experience, poignant but also comforting. Pratchett portrays death as part of the natural cycle of the world, using impossible fantastical situations to try to make sense of the real world. As a child, death seemed quite straightforward: you live and then you die. But as I've grown older, I find it more difficult to get my head around.

In Reaper Man, Death loses his job, and chaos takes over. The dead find they're not going anywhere, and learn all about undead. Death himself gets a job on a farm, and starts to learn a little bit about life, about how precious time is when it is limited. And the wizards of the Unseen University find themselves faced with strange poltergeist activity, souvenir snowglobes and shopping trolleys.

LORD, WHAT CAN THE HARVEST HOPE FOR, IF NOT FOR THE CARE OF THE REAPER MAN?

Death, the Reaper of the Discworld, is one of the series' most lovable characters, despite his gloomy profession. Although he doesn't always quite understand his human charges or the way they do things, he cares about them and is a warm, safe (?) presence despite his appearance and job description. And he likes cats, and has a horse named Binky. When he is reinstated at the end of Reaper Man, the effort he puts into paying a very special visit is both heartbreaking and beautiful. This is the book to read this week. Given its subject matter, yes, it may be a painful read, but it is a pure sort of pain, which is also comforting and soul-refreshing. Reaper Man has easily shot into my list of favourite Discworld books. I'm sorry that it took so long to rediscover, but I'm very glad I found it when I did. It was the right book at the right time.






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