Monday, 8 February 2021

Eleven Great Sci-Fi and Fantasy Shows On The BBC That Aren't Doctor Who - Part 1

Can you have too much Who?

Even as a lifelong fan of the BBC's flagship sci-fi drama, I'm aware that one of the risks of pouring so much investment and energy in to one show is that it can eclipse other shows, particularly other science fiction and fantasy. So it's worth reminding ourselves that, believe it or not, there are occasionally programmes shown on the BBC channels that aren't Doctor Who. And no, I'm not talking about Torchwood. Here, to prove my point, are eleven BBC sci-fi or fantasy shows that are not even a tiny bit Doctor Who.

I should add that some of the shows here are produced by the BBC, often in collaboration with other networks, while others are produced elsewhere and were broadcast by the BBC thereby demonstrating their excellent taste in programme purchasing. I'll try to make it clear which is which.

Good Omens

Adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet's novel about the unlikely friendship between an angel (Michael Sheen) and a devil (David Tennant) both of whom prefer living on Earth to Heaven or Hell respectively. Co-produced by BBC and Amazon and broadcast in 2019 and 2020, this show is funny, inventive and satisfyingly bonkers, and despite starring David Tennant it is definitely not Doctor Who.

War Of The Worlds

Since H.G.Wells first invented the alien invasion trope there have been rather a lot of adaptations of War Of The Worlds. I have a soft spot for the 1953 movie, and would probably describe the Jeff Wayne musical version as my favourite. I'm less fond of the £2 coin adaptation featuring the four-legged Tripod. I really like the BBC's 2019 miniseries. Instead of setting it in the present day, it's a period drama set in the early 1900s. The story loosely follows much of the novel, but centres on George (Rafe Spall) and his scandalous girlfriend Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson) thereby increasing the number of lead female characters from zero to one. We all know the Martians lose, and how, so a good adaptation of WOTW needs to add something original. This series uses flashforwards to show the aftermath of the war - a world still grieving and still on its' knees many years after the Martian defeat.

Tracks

This might be one of the best things the BBC has ever done. Five series of audio dramas, or if you prefer, fiction podcasts, starring Romola Garai as Helen, a GP who is drawn in to a series of conspiracies after she witnesses a horrific plane crash - and rises to the challenge. Written by Matthew Broughton, each series is an intelligent biomedical thriller very much in the vein of Michael Crichton or Robin Cook.

Missions

Broadcast on the BBC in 2018, this is a sci-fi drama about tech tycoons Meyer and Goldstein, who are not at all inspired by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, their privately-funded expeditions to Mars and the surprising discoveries they make on the surface. The series follows Jeanne Renoir (Hélène Viviès), the psychologist trying to keep the crew of Meyer's expedition sane; but as this is a French drama, she must also be having an affair with the married captain.

Dracula

Two out of three ain't bad. A completely new BBC adaptation of Dracula written by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, starring Claes Bang as Dracula, and combining the wit and inventiveness of Sherlock with the sumptuous gothic shenanigans of the Hammer Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing series of movies. I loved the first two episodes, set in Dracula's Transylvania castle and then on board a ship sailing for England, and the rivalry between Dracula and his nemesis Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells) which runs through the series. The third episode which brings Dracula into a completely different setting is a gamble, and I found it less satisfying although there's still a lot to enjoy.

To be continued...


Sunday, 31 January 2021

Ghost In The Machine [Review: Host]

Housebound under lockdown conditions, Haley and her friends decide to use their weekly Zoom call to carry out an online séance. Haley (Haley Bishop) has hired a medium, Seylan (Seylan Baxter), to lead them in what will no doubt be a fun, entertaining evening without anything sinister or dangerous happening. What could possibly go wrong?

Host (2020) is a found-footage horror movie that takes place in real time during a Zoom call. It’s not in any way related to The Host (2013), the movie based on Stephenie Meyer’s alien parasite rom com novel reviewed here, or to Korean newt-based horror The Host (2006), reviewed here. Host is set during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic - and it was also filmed during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, during a period of lockdown. Cast and crew could not leave their own homes so had to set up equipment and film themselves at home, with director Rob Savage guiding them remotely. The concept of the Zoom séance is a clever way to make a film under these tough conditions.

Other aspects of the film add to the improvised feel – the cast all use their own names, and family members appear in cameo or supporting roles. The script makes good use of all the Zoom cliches we’ve grown to love tolerate over the past year – sound and vision glitches, people joining while mute, dodgy animated backgrounds, pyjamas and badly-timed Ocado deliveries. Acting is excellent, there’s a lot of humour, and there’s a good, gradual ramping up of tension leading to full-on catastrophe.

In a year where making any movie has been difficult, a crew have come together against the odds to release a new, low-budget, creepy and effective horror movie not unlike Paranormal Activity, reviewed here. In fact my only criticism of this movie is that it is a little too like Paranormal Activity, with one or two fright scenes almost borrowed wholesale. For this reason, although I really enjoyed Host, I am only giving it three stars.



Score: 3 out of 5 stars

All movies reviewed on the Sci-Fi Gene blog are given a score of 3 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 16 January 2021

I'll Take The High Road [Review: Cloudpunk]

It's a rainy night in Nivalis. You're a recently arrived immigrant and a newly signed-up courier for the slightly illegal delivery company Cloudpunk, delivering parcels to customers around the city guided by the mysterious and melancholy Control. You're penniless and alone apart from your flute and your naive, excitable AI companion Camus the dog. And you have a flying car. It's a cheap pile of junk, handles terribly, and guzzles fuel, but it's still a flying car.

The star of adventure game Cloudpunk is the setting - Nivalis, a massive sprawling neon-infused megacity that you can explore freely in your HOVA or on foot. It's a huge voxellated environment, insanely detailed and full of character. The architecture is extraordinary, and it's alive with activity. HOVAs whip past you along the powered highways or take shortcuts between buildings, and the streets are full of strangers and robots - most minding their own business, but a few who will converse with you, leading to discoveries or side-quests. Even if there were no game element simply exploring the city would be an absolute pleasure. Cloudpunk is basically the game version of every flying car fantasy ever, particularly the neo-noir settings of the Blade Runner films, the Fifth Element or Revenge of the Sith, and it also reminded me strongly of other adventure games I've enjoyed - particularly Omicron: The Nomad Soul, and Anachronox, both of which also feature futuristic cities, free exploration and flying cars.

The main story is told through a series of missions usually taking you from a pickup point to a customer. Rania's conversations with her customers reveal the nature of Nivalis and of this future society, as well as clues leading to a mystery about the city's past. Your meetings with customers are like short stories - you get a brief glimpse of their personalities and lives before moving on to another story.

As a game Cloudpunk is easy. You don't have to learn the Nivalis equivalent of The Knowledge - nav points guide you through Nivalis to your destination. There aren't any time limits on the missions, and there don't seem to be any ways to die or lose - even your encounters with robot gang members and other unsavoury characters don't seem to turn violent. Most of the missions are pretty linear, although occasionally you are offered a moral choice in how you complete them. Fuel this costs money, and you don't earn much as a courier, so getting enough money to buy fuel and repair damage is a challenge, and you'll need to work very hard to upgrade your HOVA or pimp your apartment. Simply flying around the city will eventually use up all your cash, although there are a few alternative ways to make money, such as picking up abandoned items and selling them to merchants.

It's always interesting playing a non-violent game. Again comparing to Nomad Soul's beat-em-up and FPS sequences, they added challenge and peril to the game, but detracted from the story, and often caused frustration when I wanted to continue with the story, explore the setting or just enjoy the David Bowie soundtrack, not repeat the action sequence hundreds of times because it was slightly too hard. Those action sequences could have been removed without detracting from the game - as Cloudpunk proves. Cloudpunk also has a more modern outlook in all aspects of its' writing - Rania often finds herself challenging NPCs about their cultural assumptions and attitudes. And I have been playing for several hours and the plot has not lead me to either a red light district or a strip club - unlike every single other noir-inspired book, movie or game.

To sum it up, Cloudpunk is a beautiful, joyful world to explore, and it's an experience first and game second. While I should be delivering parcels non-stop, it's tempting and equally rewarding just to wander around immersing myself in the scenery and taking selfies.


Thursday, 31 December 2020

Happy New Year

 

The Sci-Fi Gene's final theremin video of the year. Strange as it seems, the 100th anniversary of the creation of the theremin has been overshadowed a little by other events in 2020. Anyway. Wishing everyone a good 2021.

Sunday, 29 November 2020

You're on mute! [Review: Sleep Dealer]

Sleep Dealer is an indie science fiction movie made in 2008 and set mostly in Mexico. I first came across it when reading an interview with the director, Alex Rivera. I recently watched it online and I think it's a beautiful film, deserving a second lease of life in this era of Zoom remote working.

 Memo (Luis Fernando Pena) is a tech geek growing up in a farming village but dreaming of escape. When catastrophe strikes his family in the form of an aerial drone attack, Memo is forced to leave. He travels to Tijuana, along the way meeting city girl and aspiring writer Luz (Leonor Varela), gets mini-jack ports inserted painfully in his arms and back, and he's ready to get work in a "sleep dealer factory" where he can plug into the VR network and control a construction robot that could be working in another country.

This movie uses near-future sci-fi concepts to tell a very personal story about oppression, exploitation and the value of life. Remote working is not safe - thanks to dodgy electronics Memo runs the risk of blindness or injury every day he clocks in. His employers don't seem to be interested in health and safety and there's little he can do. But while labour is cheap, water is expensive - following the construction of a dam, the rivers around Memo's home village have dried up Jean de Florette style and the inhabitants pay to collect water from a commercially owned and heavily guarded reservoir.

The remote working theme is interesting as it becomes a metaphor for indirect oppression - while the privileged seem to be running the world, the means of oppression are remote controlled checkpoints with machine guns, and their operators are likely to be other low-paid workers. The drone pilot is revealed to be a young American with a Mexican immigrant background and perhaps it is this connection that leads him to seek information about Memo, leading in turn to a surprising finale with elements of Star Wars or Dambusters.

There's also a Scanner Darkly-esque theme about the many aspects of surveillance: Memo and his brother watch the drone attack unfold on a live TV programme, recognizing their own village as the drone approaches its target. Luz pays her bills by literally selling her memories online, including her memories of meeting Memo - a career choice that does not bode well for their relationship.

Sleep Dealer is accidentally prophetic. In addition to the themes of remote working and social media, it's the second indie film I've seen that predicts a US-Mexico border wall. The other is Gareth Edwards debut Monsters. In this case the wall has prevented migrants coming to work in the US, and as a result the low-paid migrant workforce has become an equally low paid remote working workforce, migrating to work digitally all over the world while remaining plugged in to their factories.

As other reviewers at the time of release noted, a weaker aspect of this movie is the CGI for the aerial drones and the construction robots. While it's good enough to tell the story it's not quite convincing as real. In contrast, the practical special effects are excellent. I squirmed in empathic pain when Memo had his nodes inserted - that's one memory I won't be downloading. And the acting from all the lead characters is superb, with total commitment to role.

Overall this is a likeable and thoughtful indie sci-fi and well worth the three stars out of five I'm giving it.




Score: 3 out of 5 stars
All movies reviewed on the Sci-Fi Gene blog are given a score of 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 3 August 2020

Shake, Rattle and Roll [Review: Shivers]

Along with Nakatomi Plaza, Peach Trees, Wyndham Tower and the unnamed High-Rise, I have unfortunately had to add Starliner Towers to the list of high-rise buildings to avoid. It's a shame - the period architecture, the peaceful island location and the easy accessibility of the on-site swimming pool, supermarket, medical and dentist's surgeries and parasitology research lab all make it so tempting...

Shivers (also released as The Parasite Murders and They Came From Within) is a horror movie from 1975 directed by the emerging David Cronenberg and set in a tower block in Montreal. Dr. St-Luc is the resident MD tending to the inhabitants who have started to develop odd stomach complaints that are definitely not related in any way to his colleague's work on a parasitic organism designed to replace organ transplants. He is asked to investigate a suicide-homicide that took place in one of the apartments, and discovers a link to the parasites - and the possibility they have already been spread to several other residents through their fun and games.

Taking Shivers out of the context of other films, it's an uneven quality experience and mainly of interest as it shows an early Cronenberg still coming into his powers. Acting is hit and miss, sometimes sincere and convincing, sometimes melodramatic or wooden. Scenes of violence, sex or sexual violence are also variable. A few of these scenes are horribly effective, including the homicide-suicide where an older and sinister man appears to be attacking a schoolgirl, and clips of their fight are juxtaposed with a new couple being shown around the luxury tower-block. 



Other effective horror scenes betray the director's influence by his contemporary George A. Romero as the residents, turned into sex-crazed demi-zombies by the parasite, try to corner St-Luc and nurse Forsythe.  The parasite creature is fun but doesn't ever appear convincing or threatening itself - the most effective creepy scenes are the ones that don't show the creature at all but just its' trails of blood. However the legacy of this film is the continued popularity of parasite-horror, including such classics as Alien (1979), The Thing (1984), Species (1995), The Faculty (1998), the Cronenberg-inspired Slither (2008) and so on. Meanwhile Cronenberg grows in filmmaking ability and his own later films such as Videodrome and eXistenz develop the bio-horror theme further, and the high-rise genre also continues to develop - High-Rise (2015) is essentially a re-make of Shivers without the parasites.



Score: 3 out of 5 stars
All movies reviewed on the Sci-Fi Gene blog are given a score of 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

[Review: Thin Air]

Mars - a planet of factions. There are the Western and Chinese settlements, the corporations, the criminal underworld, the political groupings, the various military, police or security organizations... and in the middle of it all is Earthman Hakan Veil, once a unique kind of spaceship security officer, now stranded on Mars, trying to live day to day and find a way to get back to Earth. But someone with Veil's abilities can't stay hidden for ever.

Thin Air is a novel by Richard Morgan. It's unrelated to the Altered Carbon series, and takes place in the same setting as Thirteen (originally published under the title "Black Man") - a few centuries into the future, the Solar System explored and settled, genetic engineering is commonplace, but despite this humans are still as quarrelsome and pugnatious as ever, and boy bands are still a thing.

Veil was engineered from early childhood to be the ultimate deterrent on a spaceship - a hibernating one-man army to be thawed out as a last resort in the event of piracy or mutiny. His abilities come at a high cost - he's a hibernoid, only able to remain awake for nine months before he must find a hibernation chamber, and while "running hot" he has little control over his aggression and lust. Veil is also a relic - the hibernoids have been consigned to history, at least officially. 

Veil's story arc and character are also pleasantly retro. He's the wounded, traumatized tough ex-soldier a la Cormoran Strike and any number of ex-military private investigators, or the special agent with superhuman abilities a la James Bond. The novel reads like a Bond film, with plenty of supervillains, gadgets and femmes fatale to enjoy. At least in Veil's case his ability to handle weapons, vehicles and people is explained by his genetic engineering and AI enhancements - the least credible aspect of the Bond canon is the idea of a competent British civil servant.