Sunday, 10 January 2010

Doctor Who: Human Nature/The Family of Blood (2007)

Adapted from the much-loved Doctor Who: New Adventures novel by the marvellous Paul Cornell (who wrote both the novel and this TV version), this has long held a very special place in my heart as one of the finest stories told since Doctor Who arrived back on our screens in 2005. Beautifully made, impeccably directed and perfectly scripted, it was something of a departure for the tone of the series and the first time one of the numerous Doctor Who novels has been adapted for TV.

The two part story was broadcast as episodes eight and nine of the third series of the new era of Doctor Who, and featured David Tennant as the Doctor and Freema Agyeman as Martha Jones. Originally written with the seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy in the TV series) and Bernice Summerfield (the non-TV companion that Cornell introduced in the novel 'Love and War', who went on to star in her own series of novels and audio dramas) in mind , the story sees the Doctor turn himself human so's to escape a bunch of marauding aliens who want to feed on his Time Lord life force.

He ends up in 1913, posing as a teacher at a boy's school, while Martha becomes part of the house staff. It's an interesting thing to see David Tennant playing a character completely unlike the Doctor for one thing, but the whole story is a brilliant piece of genre television that lives on in the memory long after the credits roll. It was nominated for a Hugo award in '08, and quite rightly so.

The aliens, known as The Family of Blood, manage to follow the Doctor to 1913, but by the time they arrive, he is well integrated as the human John Smith, with no knowledge of his real identity other than strange dreams of fantastic adventures. There are some notable moments where the attitudes of the time are brought up when Martha's ethnicity is mentioned, which are handled nicely and highlight the character's strengths to great effect.

The aliens proceed to take over new host bodies and try to track the Doctor down, which they finally do so, but he is trapped in his human disguise and unable to stop them laying waste to the village and the school. He would be able to revert to his true form, but the fob watch that the Doctor had put his essence into has been stolen by a psychic boy who can hear the strange energies within it. Thus an ever more tense tale is woven as the Family of Blood, and their army of animated Scarecrows, set about finding the Doctor.

'Human Nature' and 'The Family of Blood' are incredible pieces of entertainment, and thrilling science fiction. There is more than excitement at work though, as there are some incredibly poignant moments throughout the two episodes. Of course, it is set a little while before the outbreak of the first world war, and there are moments that allude to the horrors that were to come, which make for some of the most powerful scenes in the whole Doctor Who canon.

I've been a fan for twenty years, but nothing has moved me as much as this story. It is a testament to the artistry and respect of the cast and crew that the issue of the war is handled so tastefully. The scene in which the young boys are forced to take up arms against the Scarecrows is breathtaking in its simplicity and its double meaning.

David Tennant plays the dual roles of the Doctor and John Smith with astonishing power, especially during the scenes in which John Smith is trying to come to terms with his existence being a lie, and his dream self of the Doctor being the real thing. Those moments are heartbreaking. However, the most moving scenes are saved for the epilogue, which never fails to bring a tear to my eye.

The Doctor and Martha visit Timothy, the psychic boy from 1913 who ultimately helps the Doctor regain his real self (and whom survived the first world war), as an old man in the present day. They attend a remembrance service, where Timothy is in a wheelchair, surrounded by veterans. While a reading of the poem "For the Fallen" by Laurence Binyon is given, Timothy is holding the watch that he has kept at his side his entire life, and he looks over to see the Doctor and Martha. Both of them are wearing poppies. The reading ends, and we are left with the image of Timothy clutching the watch.

It is an incredible moment and a most poignant ending to a story that is one of the very finest examples of televised science fiction that, to me, has ever been made. Gorgeous in its execution and very memorable indeed, 'Human Nature'/'The Family of Blood' improves with each successive viewing, and reminds you that the most mind-blowing, thought provoking science fiction doesn't have to take place beyond the stars. Sometimes, the greatest stories can be told right here.



Voyage Of The Rock Aliens

This filmed warped me. It really did. As a teenager in the mid nineties, I was completely in love with ll things 80s, the music, the films, the styles, way before it was fashionable. I snapped up as many 80s movies as I possibly could, which meant I did end up getting hold of a lot of crap as well as the good stuff.

This flick found its way into my collection as a big-box VHS, and last week showed up on my DVD pile in a vanilla release I'd found cheap. Jeez, where do I start with this monstrosity? Um, right. Here goes.

Take Grease, 80s electro pop, the eighties fascination with he 50s, Devo style alien guys in pink costumes who fly around in a giant space guitar, bizarre dance sequences, an obese jogging lady covered in chocolate bars, Craig Scheffer being butch, Pia Zadora being Pia Zadora and an opening sequence that is actually a Jermain Jackson music video in which he duets with Ms Zadora in a weird post apocalyptic wasteland that has nothing to do with the movie, and you have a recipe for madness.


Aliens have come to the town of 'Speelburgh' (say it out loud), looking for the source of rock n' roll. Instead they run into Dee Dee (Zadora) and her hot-headed boyfriend Frank (Scheffer), who is the head of a street gang (who also double up as a rock band) called The Pack. Hilarity, dancing and lots of hairspray ensue.

This is, without a doubt, one of the most ridiculous and gloriously surreal films that the 80s spat at us. It's like having your brains scooped out and candy floss pumped into the empty space while you listen to bouncy pop for 90 minutes.

The film was shot in 1984 but languished on various shelves until 1988 when it was finally spat out at the public. Quite rightfully, it disappeared without much of a trace, but there are VHS copies and now DVDs of it doing the the rounds if you're feeling particularly masochistic. yet, despite all of its flaws I find that I can't help but be glued to every ridiculous minute of it.

It is literally a terrible film in every respect, but it is also genius for the same reasons. Craig Scheffer must cringe when this flick is brought up in conversation, but at least it looks like the cast had a blast making it. The film plays like some kind of sugary hallucination, yet it's hard to look away from the screen. All it really needs to be perfect is a cameo from Michael Berryman. Oh cool! There he is!

Electro pop aliens, be-quiffed 50s-loving 80s rock and roll, outlandish outfits, mental songs, dance scenes that start out based around girls' underwear around their ankles in toilet cubicles, the barest hint of a plot and some of the most bizarre visuals ever committed to film during that oh-so-tasteful decade? Sign me up! This film is awesome! Now I'm off to try and detox all of this sugar from my system before I end up in a coma. Voyage of the Rock Aliens is hazardous to your health. If you want a great film, don't watch this. If you want a great time taking the piss out of every frame, then you may well have found paradise.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Voltron Collection 1 (DVD-2007)

While I'm definitely a fan of 80s cartoons (having been a kid throughout that glorious decade of mental TV shows), I was always more a Transformers person than Voltron. I was always aware of it, but the series never seemed to get all that much attention here in the UK. I had a couple of the figures bought for me as a child by relatives, but only recently have I actually sat and watched any of it to any great extent.

This three disc collection was on special offer at three quid for the metal case version, and it seemed like a good idea to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of the cartoons that shaped the geekery that I love so much today. I love the story behind the creation of Voltron, namely that it was stitched together from two different cartoons from Japan and then stories and scripts were formed around the footage that was cut together.

As a writer myself I can't help but feel sorry for the people who had to try and work these separate pieces of animation together into a coherent story (or indeed the editors snipping it all into one). despite the limitations of scope they had to work with, a pretty good job was done by all accounts.

Voltron, for those of you unfamiliar with the character and the story, is about a bunch of young pilots who each helm a robotic Lion in an unending battle with a (very generic) alien bad guy and his armies. When in the most dire of trouble, those five robotic lions can combine to form one giant robot- Voltron. Erm, that's about it.

The show is fun, but even as far as the oddest 80s cartoons go it's not great. Don't get me wrong- it looks brilliant- it's the stories and the voice acting where the show falls apart. A ton of work went into putting these collections together. Five volumes were made, each of them containing new versions of the original episodes and a bunch of extras.

This first volume contains over six hours of cartoons along with a trailer, production sketches, archive footage and a merchandise trailer. The booklet supplied with the set tells you all about the mammoth task of putting this much loved series back together.

As the original prints of the episodes were long gone, the people behind this set completely rebuilt each episode from the two shows that Voltron was created from. Now that is some serious grind going on there.

It has paid dividends, as the visuals are fantastic, but in being colour corrected and recreated, it has brought to light the shortcomings of the show, and you really can tell how disjointed it is. Ah, to view it through the eyes of a kid again. I would have loved this as a boy, and while I can see why it was influential, it ain't Transformers. Heck, it's barely at the level of Ulysses 31. Looks cool though. A fun watch with your brain disengaged.