Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Dust and Bones [Bad Peter and Hyperlight]

Two more short-film gems from the Dust YouTube channel to watch while you're waiting for the next episode of Automata...

Hyperlight (16 minutes) is an atmospheric thriller with hints of Moon, Solaris or The Cloverfield Paradox. Two astronauts on an experimental faster-than-light mission wake from cryosleep to discover their cryopods have been ejected from the spaceship and are drifting towards a planet. It's a dramatic opening. Having rescued her crewmate and returned to the ship, Newton (Jeananne Goossen) discovers something strange has happened.

Bad Peter (9 minutes, some adult language) is a black comedy. Rachel (Frankie Shaw) is pregnant and has got herself an Alexa-style Personal Digital Assistant to advise her on health and preparation for motherhood. However this PDA has decided it knows best, and it's equipped with a smug male voice and the latest Behaviour Modification hardware so it can "nudge" Rachel if she tries to skip its' recommendations. It's not clear why Rachel has signed up to the programme, or why she is unable to remove the device, although it's hinted that some kind of child protection agency has been involved in the past. The end result is funny and sinister.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

You Say Tomato, I Say Automata [Automata Episode 2]

The second episode of Automata is a lot of fun. I'm warming to automaton PI Carl and his smart, non-human comments in every situation. Good to see him in action too - turns out automata can kick 1930s ass when needed. Every detective story needs an arrogant and stupid chief of police, so when Sam returns to the robot brothel to find his former target has been murdered, he has to call in his former police boss who isn't exactly woke to robot rights.

Automata is still very much a 1930s remix of Humans - and that's a good thing. Like the TV series Life On Mars, the moral dilemmas faced by the protagonists are in sharp contrast to the immoral, dinosaur attitudes of everyone else, and there's a lot of humour in these exchanges too. This episode also takes the story forward with several plot twists crammed into a busy 10 minutes. I guess this is necessary for a 5-part series.

You can find out more about Automata on the Facebook page here and you can watch the episodes here on Dust - a new episode every Tuesday. This is an impressive webseries, it's really delivering and I'm looking forward to episode 3.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Do Automata Dream Of Electric Moonshine? [Automata Episode 1]

It's the 1930s and America is coming to terms with a new technology - robotics. Android workers known as "automata" are part of everyday life. Welcome to a world where robots can be bartenders, manual labourers, cops, detectives or prostitues, but it is AI, not alcohol that is now becoming subject to prohibition.

Automata is a new webseries released under the Dust channel on YouTube, based on a comic series originally published at Penny Arcade. Episode 1 premiered this week. It's just under 9 minutes long. As with the comic series, the protagonists are Sam (human, played by Basil Harris) and Carl (automaton, played by Doug Jones) - ex-cops and now partners in Private Investigation, investigating cheating partners and other crimes that happen to have a robotic aspect.

The idea of humanoid robots living amongst us is not new, and right from the start this series reminds me of Real Humans or Humans, transposed a century into the past, mixed in with a little I, Robot. The themes of robots as lower class members of society, facing direct or subtle discrimination, and being exploited are pretty much the same, along with the Dickian question of humanity. And if the trailer is accurate we are also at some stage going to see anti-robot humans beating robots up in clubs - exactly like Humans. So can this new webseries actually provide anything new?

Well, the first thing it can provide is a sense of style. There's something about the 1930s, Prohibition, the gangsters, the suits and hats, the hairstyles, the dark alleyways and speakeasies, the jazz, the smoky, rainy, dark film noir atmosphere and the sense that an awful lot is going on just below the surface - taken together and done well, this is a great setting for any drama, particularly when it comes to crime and moral ambiguity. Automata has been well-made and so far the style and the attention to detail is impressive, including the design of the automata themselves.

There's also opportunity to tell some important stories in the Prohibition era. In real life this was a dystopian era in the US - a government reaching to control the lives and habits of its' citizens far beyond any reasonable mandate, and the parallel birth of a violent organized crime network. So far Sam and Carl's investigations have only placed them at the beginning of an investigation so it's too early to say exactly where the scriptwriters are heading, and I also want to avoid spoilers, but it's an interesting opening gambit. I think this series has promise and I am looking forward to episode 2.


Episode 1 can be watched on YouTube here.

Monday, 4 June 2018

Living In A Box [Podcast Review: The Habitat]

For those fed up with the antics of I’m A Big Brother Survivor, Get Me Out Of Celebrity Love Island With Bear Grylls and seeking a more cerebral reality show, you could do worse than checking out The Habitat podcast.

The Habitat is an 8-episode podcast about the real Hi-SEAS IV mission, a research project in which six NASA scientists spent a year isolated in a dome in the mountains of Hawaii, simulating a manned mission to Mars. Water was rationed and recycled, food was dehydrated, communication was limited to e-mail and Internet with a built-in 20-minute delay, and apart from brief spacesuited excursions the team were unable to leave the dome – to do so would have implied death of the crew and led to the end of the experiment. The mission lasted from August 2015 to August 2016, and was successful in that the team survived a year in each other’s company and did not break role at any time. It’s an impressive achievement and hopefully the psychology research conducted during the period will genuinely help in preparing for future space missions.

The podcast is presented by Lynn Levy and is mostly based on clips from recordings sent to Levy by the astronauts in response to her questions, together with her own thoughts and observations, and some background info about the history of space exploration. There are 8 episodes and the pace and structure feels about right. It’s not quite a linear account of the mission, instead each episode takes you a bit further with the timeline but also covers a particular aspect of the mission.

This is a non-fiction podcast – or is it? It’s the story of a fictional Mars mission, and in a way it's more like a live-action RPG, a historical re-enactment (futuristic pre-enactment?) or an Alternate Reality Game. At times it definitely has the flavour of a reality TV show – including one episode gently speculating about will-they-won’t-they romances amongst the crew, although for the most part they seem to have been more interested in playing ukulele and harmonica duets. The concept reminded me indirectly of The Adventure Game, a show from my childhood in which three B-list celebrities were sent to the planet Arg to defeat logic puzzles set by shape-changing dragons and a very angry aspidistra (obviously), and more recently the cruellest reality TV show of all time, Space Cadets, in which astronauts selected for gullibility were fooled into thinking they were actually on a Space Shuttle mission. Worth mentioning that the Mars One project is based on the idea of a reality TV show providing the funding for an actual Mars mission. Whether that project gets off the ground literally or otherwise is a question for another day…

The Habitat is a Gimlet Media podcast. You can listen to it on your favourite podcast app or via the website. You can also read about the Hi-SEAS missions here.