Quatermass on Network’s blu-ray

Quatermass blu-ray case and novelisation

Twenty years after Quatermass and the Pit thrilled British television audiences, Nigel Kneale created a brand new science fiction adventure for a very different era. Instead of the cramped studios of Lime Grove and 405 line TV cameras, Quatermass was made in colour, on film and made on mostly on location. The result was was an epic piece of science fiction television that divided critics and audiences at the time but has gradually risen in appreciation and is now considered very much a part of the Quatermass saga, as well as a fondly remembered ITV drama.

The near future. Seemingly thanks to a worldwide economic crisis, Britain has descended into a state of anarchy. Professor Bernard Quatermass, now an elderly man, his British Rocket Group a distant memory, has come to London to take part in a live television broadcast celebrating a pointless US/USSR space mission. But really he is trying to find his missing granddaughter Hettie. Then to everyone’s shock the spacecraft is inexplicably destroyed. Escaping the furore with a young scientist called Joseph Kapp, Quatermass discovers that masses of young people are being drawn towards ancient sites. Intrigued he and the Kapps go to the nearby stone circle Ringstone Round, only to witness the horrific sight of the whole crowd being wiped out by a huge energy beam from space. With only limited resources and growing danger from fanatical Planet People, a shaky government and violent gangs, Quatermass tries to uncover the nature of a terrifying wholly alien threat.

Nigel Kneale originally approached the BBC with the idea of a fourth Quatermass story, then titled “Quatermass 79”. Star Wars had brought science fiction back into fashion and the corporation was enjoying success with both Doctor Who and Blake’s 7. However the BBC executive most closely involved left for Thames Television and took the project with him. Thames and its cinema division Euston Films were keen to branch out from the gritty two-fisted action fare like The Sweeny which had made their name and correctly predicted that science fiction was going to be the next big trend. In order to raise the budget the project was planned to be made simultaneously as a four part mini-series and a feature film for the USA market. Kneale later said he regretted the strategy, feeling it harmed the structure his script, producing a television series that was too padded and a film that was too short for the story to be properly developed. I beg to disagree.

This set contains both the television series and The Quatermass Conclusion movie version and it is fascinating to compare them. In order for the story to work as a film, an exclusive scene was filmed to cover certain plot points. The biggest story difference between them is a sub-plot about Quatermass becoming lost after a London gang ambush and joining a community of elderly people living in hiding under a scrapyard. In the movie he simply arrives safely at the hospital and witnesses that bizarre transformation of a young girl hit by the alien ray, something that happens without him in the television version. Another major casualty is Quatermass’ friend Joe Kapp, whose family life and later mental disintegration is largely excised. Generally I much prefer the television version, which has room for its characters to develop and generally become even more sympathetic, which in turn makes the violence and the destruction more horrific. There’s also more room for humour too, such as the fuming of a camp director of a soft-core porn television show, whose studio is taken over to transmit a message.

It is wonderful to see Nigel Kneale’s literate, often downbeat, thoughtful script be realised with such an impressive production. Director Piers Haggard had previously helmed the 1971 cult British horror movie “Blood on Satan’s Claw” and many well regarded television dramas. He gives the series a great sense of scale, creating a convincing urban apocalypse and bringing energy and pace to a fairly conversational script. Compared to other British television SF of the time, such as Blake’s 7 and Tom Baker’s Doctor Who, it looks amazingly glossy, shot mostly on location, featuring night filming, and some impressively large scale sets such as Ringstone Round. Only the space shuttle interior lets the side down, looking distinctly like painted wood and lacking the accurate details. Special mention should also go to Marc Wilkinson and Nic Rowley’s melancholy and imaginative music, blending electronic and conventional musical instruments.

A common criticism of the series was that its main human danger, crowds of mesmerised hippies, was an out of date concept for 1979, a time when punk rock was the major youth movement. I’ve always found this a rather shallow argument. Its’ sense of urban decay seems relevant in any age, whilst the way that Planet People and other influenced humans reject science in favour of New Age beliefs is quite prophetic of the mood of anti-intellectulism that appeared in the nineties and continues to a lesser extent today. “Stop trying to know things!” shouts an angry protester at one point. Kneale himself said he felt the onscreen Planet People were too flower-power when he had intended them to be more manic and aggressive.

Quatermass marked John Mills’ third major British television role. As a well-known film star on both sides of the Atlantic, his participation guaranteed the production’s huge (for the time) £1.2 million budget. Playing the famous scientist at a very different time of his life, Mills brings out the professor’s humanity and decency, a man who regrets the way his obsession with manned spaceflight has damaged his family. Writer Nigel Kneale felt the avuncular Mills was miscast and lacked the authority needed for the character. Yet the Quatermass Kneale has written is initially a beaten, lonely old man who gradually rebuilds himself as the story continues and Mills is fine at playing this. Playing Joseph Kapp, Simon McCorkindale, a few years before his international fame in Dynasty, Falcon Crest and ahem Jaws 3D, in many ways represents the man Quatermass used to be, passionate, principled and driven by his work to the point where he puts his family in second place. Kneale was critical of him too in later interviews, saying he was better at playing foolish lightweight men and wasn’t good at playing an intellectual. Barbara Kellerman is excellent as Clare Kapp, his sensitive wife who begins to show signs of alien influence. Veteran actress Margaret Tyzack makes a good companion for the Quatermass as a government District Commissioner called Annie Morgan. The series is filled with familiar TV character faces like Brian Croucher, Brenda Fricker, Ralph Arliss, David Yip, Kevin Stoney and Bruce Purchase. Sharp eyed viewers will also see a pre-fame pop star Toyah Wilcox as one of the hippie travellers.

The serial has been released on VHS and DVD before but Network have once again worked wonders with the HD restoration of the 35mm film footage. The picture quality is quite incredible, filled with detail I’ve never noticed before and making the most of outdoor set pieces such as the riot at Ringstone Round or devastated London. I was worried that HD would be unkind to the special effects of the day. I shouldn’t have worried because the optical effects look better and more detailed than ever before, whilst the modelwork in the space scenes whilst obviously filmed models, looks perfectly acceptable and does not break the serious mood. The brand new 5.1 surround sound mix is equally impressive. However purists will be glad to know there is also the option of the original mono soundtrack.


With many of the principle people no longer with us, it’s perhaps inevitable that the extras on this release are fairly minimal. No commentaries or new documentary on the production. However this area is more than satisfactorily filled by the enclosed booklet by well-regarded archive TV historian Andrew Pixley. Pixley’s style of writing is exhaustively researched but very accessible. He is already something of a legend amongst cult TV fans for his work documenting series like Doctor Who, Mystery and Imagination, Out of the Unknown and many other Network and BBC DVD releases. Suffice to say that everything you need to know about the making of this series is in this slim volume. He also puts into the context of Nigel Kneale’s whole career.

There is the option for music-only soundtracks for all four episodes, and also whether the view the episodes with the original ITV episode recaps. A silent version of the cinema trailer is there. It’s a shame the soundtrack couldn’t be recreated for it. Probably the least essential extra is a silent, textless version of the movie credits, which is pretty similar to the first scene that opens the TV version. Finally there is an Image Gallery with many rare photos.

As an extra bonus (or gimmick depending on what you think), Network have released the first thousand copies of the blu-ray edition with one of four exclusive covers featuring artwork based on the original four TV title cards. The standard edition features a photo montage which is also used on the DVD release.

This new edition of Quatermass is definitely worth an upgrade if you have a blu-ray player. There is also a restored DVD edition being released simultaneously but with the blu-ray you’ll get a significantly upgraded presentation. It is a thoughtful, excellently made SF event series that deserves to be rediscovered by a whole new audience, as welcome as welcomed back by its admirers.

Star Trek Deep Space Nine – From Worst to Best

Deep Space Nine Companion book

Season One of Star Trek Deep Space Nine (or DS9 as I’ll refer to it from now on) has got a lot of ‘boiler plate’ episodes, not actually bad as simply predictable stories with no real impact or stakes to them. Episodes where the dread word ‘anomaly’ tends to get passed about a lot. In Trek anomalies are convenient bits of pseudo-science, essentially magic, which creates a very plot specific effect that will require another bit of made-up science to fix.

I’m planning to watch DS9 from start to finish in order for the first time ever, courtesy of Netflix. In the past I’ve watched a majority of the episodes in different ways: VHS, BBC2 and Sky TV, and in a patchy order. Will viewing it as one long epic make me feel differently about some episodes and characters? Will I discover some lost gems or find my memories do not live up to harsh reality of the screen?

Back to Season One. At this moment the production team still seem to be finding out what kind of show they are making. Compared to these high pressure days where a network  show can be cancelled after a handful of episodes, it seems remarkable that they were given three seasons to really exploit how good their premise was. Anyhow at least I can rely on Odo and Quark to enliven any story with some banter, and already there are hints that this was a show prepared to end an episode without every problem neatly reset. Then there is religion. DS9 is still the only Trek incarnation to really grapple with faith in anything like a nuanced way. Watching these episodes again, the other element that is leaping out at me is Avery Brooks’ downright odd acting. Because it is Star Trek his distractingly emphasised delivery of his lines somehow fits in, but I couldn’t imagine it working in any other more realistic show like say The Wire or anything involving naturalistic acting. But here amongst all the other fairly broad playing he gets away with it. And after the diplomatic Captain Picard who sometimes seemed a bit too polite, his more aggressive manner does make him a convincing Starfleet military officer.

I’m going to be covering each season’s episode from the least to the greatest of its year.

An episode focused on Dax in which she largely sits in her room not saying anything. The twist is painfully obvious as soon as the victim’s wife Renora appears. It’s just painfully dull, the kind of characters-earnestly-discussing-a-fantasy-problem situation that sketch writers like to lampoon Trek for. And it only emphasises that the team are not doing enough with a potentially great character.

Move Along Home
Game obsessed aliens is quite a fun idea, but this is an episode made up of budget-saving filler and even the cast look clearly fed-up with some of the challenges in places.

The Passenger
When ideas run out, have a crewmember taken over by an evil alien. This really does feel like a rejected Star Trek The Next Generation plot.

It’s not bad, just the kind of escapade than any incarnation of Trek (or Stargate or Babylon 5) could do.

The Storyteller
In which Bajorans are basically portrayed as superstitious idiots. With the real heir to the Storyteller job obvious from the start, there’s no sense of jeopardy. However Bashir acting as O’Brien’s publicity officer is amusing.

Past Prologue
Kira’s struggle with her new role as part of the establishment after years of being rebel fighter was her defining quality in season one and it was explored a touch repetitively. This isn’t bad but once again it’s pretty obvious where it’s going.

If Wishes Were Horses
Not quite as bad as I remember, but still a generic Trek episode that any incarnation could do.

Brian Keith brings a lot of class to his guest star role. But it is yet another rerun of “Kira torn between being a rebel and being part of the establishment”, and so not as interesting a story as it might have been.

Q turns up and whilst John De Lancie is as entertaining as ever, as is Jennifer Hetrick as his partner Vash, it’s basically a shallow, broad comedy episode. However having Quark being openly criminal but still allowed to carry on at the end, does again point out that this is a different kind of Trek.

Dramatis Personae
DS9 characters should be above the Trek trope that characters have to be possessed by aliens to be less than perfect. But this remake of “Day of the Dove” does build on the existing tensions between the characters and thus is more thoughtful than many episodes this season. Plus it gives us our first encounter with slinky evil Kira.

The Forsaken
Quite a sweet episode thanks to the Odo / Luxania sub-plot that builds to a genuinely touching moment. The pompous Federation ambassadors visiting the station are quite funny too.

Nothing about it is subtle, but this look at the occupation and its legacy on both Bajorans and Cardassians is creditably serious.

Great episode for Odo and one of the first stories dealing with the “otherness” of the Delta Quadrant, full of races who don’t care about the Federation at all. The twists are satisfying and there’s a feeling of groundwork being put in for later stories.

Emissary: Parts 1 & 2
The best of the Trek pilots, setting up the scenario, introducing the cast and telling a pretty good SF adventure too. The battle prologue is a great hook and lends an epic quality. Some lovely character moments too, such as Kira mocking Bashir for his patronising “frontier” comment, or Picard slightly awkward but genuinely considerate farewell to O’Brien. The conversation with the wormhole aliens teeters on corny portentousness but the way their timelessness is depicted is clever. It all feels organic and excellently paced.

Captive Pursuit
Another ABC Trek plot but the performances of Colm Meany and Scott MacDonald are splendid and the episode is the kind of combination of action and philosophy that is the bedrock of Trek.

Battle Lines
A great SF idea and a satisfyingly cynical attitude about violent human nature. Getting rid of a significant supporting character was a bold move that sets off a fascinating ongoing storyline in the next season. Surprising to learn that in the first draft that role was taken by an original character, whose loss would have been far too predictable. Good call by the producers.

The Nagus
Yes it’s as broad as a whale wearing a red nose but for entertainment value I loved this episode with the shameless Ferengi. Even if the plot is predictable, there’s plenty of energy and the comedy sings. I actually can say I enjoyed this as much as the later Tribbles episode.

In the Hands of Prophets
This tale of religious and secular intolerance is the moment DS9 really feels like it has gelled into Trek’s boldest incarnation. Even though teacher Keiko O’Brien is meant to be a voice of reason, her barely disguised contempt for the religious protesters makes her almost as unsympathetic as Kai Winn. Both Louise Fletcher and Rosalind Chao are excellent in this. There is a real feeling in this story of the stakes being raised. Kira’s open faith also adds an interesting extra layer to what could have been a very one-sided drama. Her final scene with Sisko is a lovely summing up of the whole season and almost makes one wish the Trek season formula did not always insist on ending with a cliffhanger. Having a satisfying wrap-up can be just as effective and subtler too.

Just for the Record

One from my archives. Back around the late nineties/early noughties I was a regular contributor to a Doctor Who website called timelord.co.uk As well as discussions, it used to have an active fan fiction side, including many chain stories we called “Random Fiction”. One of it’s long running series was “The Cool Kids of Time” created by Steve Lake. Originally a team of assassins trying to kill the Doctor and change history, they eventually reformed and became time agents for good. They had several authors and at one point I tried turning our stories into an audiobook series, removing the Doctor Who elements to make it an original SF entity. I also contributed one story to the series, “Just for the Record”. I found it again recently and I think it stands up pretty well. Hope you agree because I’m republishing it below, along with the audiobook version, read by the marvelous voice actor/anime sub translator Kara Dennison. It’s a straightforward pulp action tale of monsters and a kick-ass-babe.

You can listen to the audiobook version here:

Just for the Record

By Gareth Preston

“She’s here again.”

Neil raised his eyes from the scribbled lines in his order book and looked over at Joe. His friend had been re-reading his crumpled NME for the third time but now was surreptitiously nodding his head in the direction of the storefront window. That is, he thought he was being subtle, but it looked more like an embarrassing tic. He followed the direction of the jerks and saw with pleasant surprise an attractive young black woman standing outside. Her hair was close-cropped and her graceful neck flowed down to a trim toned figure. At least he imagined it did, she was wearing an expensively tailored grey coat. She wasn’t looking at the records on display, not even his cover of “The Kids are Alright” signed by Pete Townsend. Instead she was scanning the street and as he watched, checking her watch. Digital he noted. Suddenly she seemed to register that he was staring because she glanced through the window at him. He averted his eyes but not before he had registered the directness of her gaze.

“I reckon she’s been stood up,” opinioned Joe. “What an idiot he is eh?”

Neil tried to busy himself with the order book, but that was hard since the ratio of blank page to sale details was large and depressing.

“Idiot right?” Joe persisted.

“Yeah,” agreed Neil with studied casualness. He snapped the book closed and scratched his half-hearted beard. Looking around the empty aisles of his music shop he let out a sigh. Motes of dust swirled in the afternoon sunbeams. “Why don’t you check through the heavy rock section? Make sure it’s sorted right.”

Joe shrugged. “No one’s looked there since first thing. There’s nothing doing. Want to take a look?” He offered the magazine across but Neil shook his head.

“I think I’ll reorganise the window tonight. Get some of those Duran twelve inches up.”

A frown crossed Joe’s round face.  “You changed it on Monday. It’s only mid-week.”

“Yeah well it’s not working is it?” snapped his friend.

“You ought to do it now,” advised Joe sagely. “Show off your prowess in front of the lady.” He gestured towards the window but was disappointed to see the girl had gone, leaving only the grey street. “Her fella must have turned up.”

Joe felt a mixture of disappointment and relief and felt annoyed by both emotions.

An orange glow bathed the street. All was quiet save for that indefinable urban background hum. There was barely any breeze but the air was cool. Neil dropped his empty Wimpy cup of cola into a bin and pulled out his keys. He knelt down and unlocked the metal roller blind guarding his shop door. The grating noise of its ascent seemed loud but he knew he had no neighbours to annoy. Yet he couldn’t rid himself of the feeling he was being watched. He glanced around at the shops across the road but they remained dark and silent. Dismissing the thought he unlocked the door and stepped in, the bell jangling out.

A brief time later he was leaning into the front window, changing some albums on the display rack, moving others into prominence. He had a vague concept about producing a more modern selection of titles but really there was as much personal intuition as market knowledge in his choices. When he’d been made redundant from the old engineering firm it had seemed like a golden opportunity to change the direction of his life. Music had always been his main interest, the design work had been something he had had an aptitude for. Like many a lad in the seventies he had a go at being in a band, as a bass player. Sadly after several months of big ambitions and small local venues, “Distress Flare” had petered out thanks to a mixture of egos, bad bookings and a letter from the drummer saying he had joined the navy. But the music always remained.

What was that? His reverie was interrupted by the image of a large dark mass moving frighteningly quickly out of the corner of his eye. He cupped his hands against the glass and peered out. Nothing in the road as far as he could make out. The silence seemed to deepen. Trying to dismiss the prickly feelings on his skin, Neil returned to his nearly completed work.

“Grooves” – his record shop seemed like a great idea eleven months ago. A way of turning his obsession into a practical job. Rhonda his then girlfriend had been all for it as well and together they’d made up the business plan, found the shop and cleaned it up. But like a easily bored child with a new toy (his opinion) once they’d got down to the day to day business of running the place, Rhonda had lost interest. Started going out at night on her own, then one day just not coming back. Now his capital was running out and the income was not flowing back fast enough. Joe had blamed it on the new compact disc format but Neil still felt that was not a convincing format. Look what had happened with laserdiscs. You couldn’t record on them, so the public hadn’t been interested. Anyway the sound quality on the compact discs he had heard had been annoying tinny compared to a halfway decent turntable.

There was another movement across the street and this time he did catch the source. His eyes widened in surprise as he saw the tall figure of the black girl from earlier in the day climbing up the front of the office equipment store across the way. She moved swiftly and efficiently and only when she had reached the top and swung herself upright did she look down. Nick followed the direction of her gaze and gagged in shock and disgust.

A sleek black monster strode angrily into view, its elongated head twisting to and fro. Neil’s terrified eyes took in its slick wet skin which stretched tightly across huge twitching muscles, the long barbed tail which whipped about its owner, metallic talons, a pair of thin slits for eyes which glowed with an inner crimson glow. He desperately wanted to run, to put as much distance as possible between himself and sheer unnaturalness of the creature. But his limbs were frozen with fear and all he could do was stand in the lighted shop window, waiting for the monster to turn and notice him.

Incredibly though, the oily head snapped upwards towards the rooftop girl in the shadows instead. The monster emitted a sibilant hiss and its tail reared in anticipation. Then it sprang upwards, clearing the front of the shop in two easy bounds. One of its clawed feet struck the business’ neon sign as it ascended. It clattered down to the pavement in a shower of sparks. Above the girl tossed aside her long coat in a swift movement and somersaulted backwards, out of Neil’s sight. The creature balanced nimbly on the parapet and hissed something that sounded like a language but he could not recognise it. Then it rushed forward and he heard crashing sounds.

With the creature out of sight, Neil found he could move again. With a lurch he turned and scrambled out of the shop window, scattering record sleeves and feeling at least one disc snap under his shoe. He dashed behind the counter and switched off all the lights. Covered in sweat, he stood for a moment in the darkness considering his next move. Could he make it out the door and down the street? The rear door was useless, it only led into a cluttered backyard with a padlocked rear gate that he didn’t have the key for right then. Should he phone the police? What could he say? He could lie a bit, say he saw someone breaking into the premises across the street and leave out the black glistening description. He heard a small explosion outside, followed by a demonic screech. Surely someone else must have seen the monster by now? Heard the fight that seemed to be going on above? Another explosion, no this was more of a zap, something electrical.

A sixth sense he never knew he had suddenly made him duck back into the rear storeroom just in time.

With an ear-splitting crash the front of his shop abruptly caved in as ten feet of leathery monster came crashing through the window, taking most of the surrounding wall with it as well. Its body ploughed through the tables, boxes and cabinets that made up the aisles, reducing them to jagged splinters on wood and vinyl. Clouds of masonry dust billowed into the air and the whole building shook with the impact. In the storeroom, Neil’s arms instinctively protected himself as records and boxes tumbled and crashed around him.

Finally it was over. Wincing from his bruises Neil pulled himself up and peered through the crooked door frame. The dust was beginning to clear, giving him a horrifying vista of the bombsite his investment had become. Sparks sprayed out from the old air-conditioning unit that was now dangling ominously from the ceiling on a frayed electrical cable. Instinctively he grabbed a fire extinguisher from the side of the door but before he could begin to understand how to use it, the wires had snapped and the unit clanged onto the floor. Burglar alarms were ringing in the distance. He gaped dumbly at the gigantic body that sprawled in front of him. The fierce jaws of the long head were hanging open, drooling thick saliva onto the dusty floor. He took in it powerful oiled torso and smelt a burnt vinegary aroma coming off it.

“What the hell are you?” he wondered out loud. Then he heard a soft groan and suddenly registered that there was someone lying on top of the creature. The girl, her body slicked with blood from a deep cut, her hands still gripping the hilt of the huge metal shaft which she’d obviously plunged into the monster’s chest. She raised her eyes to meet his boggling ones. After a moment she sighed and let go of the shaft, but not without a moment of effort.

“You never saw this. Understand?” she whispered. Then her eyes glazed over and she began to slide off the creature’s body. Neil stumbled forward to catch her. She revived and he supported her as she stood upright. She gazed down at her foe. “Never underestimate a Hericona. Tough bastards.”

She brushed Neil’s arm aside and began to walk towards the gaping hole in the wall with only a slight limp.

Neil found his voice, “Wait! Uh…what…I mean…who?” She looked back at him with a questioning expression. “What is it?” he settled on.

To his surprise she smiled. “I shouldn’t worry about it. Some of your black ops will be along in a while I expect and clean it all up. Not that they’ll learn much from him. I doubt their scalpels will scratch his skin.” She winced and he began to offer some help but she held up her hand to silence him. “I’m sorry mister, but this was private business. Sorry about your shop, guess it was in the wrong place.”

He couldn’t honestly detect much sincerity in her apology and a flash of indigence coursed through him. Gesturing around him he shouted, “Sorry! Just…just look at this place. This is my life! I’ve got everything in this place!”

To his frustration the girl had turned her back to him and was heading back to the door. Stepping over the dented fire extinguisher he had bought for safety, much good it had done him, he tried to stop her leaving. Wrapped up in his emotions, he failed to see the shudder that ran through the prone beast underneath him. His mystery woman was too busy trying to ignore his protests to react to the movement fast enough.

With a chilling shriek the monster swept upwards, more plaster raining down as the crest of its head struck the ceiling. At the same time the honed spike at the end of its tail whipped through the air, aiming straight towards her back. Neil yelped out a warning but before the girl could do more than twist her shoulders, the tail had speared her in the side. She didn’t scream, she just fell to the side with a soft groan. The creature swung its head towards him and hissed like a hard-breaking steam train. Looking into its gleaming eyes he suddenly became aware of the metal cylinder in his hand. He was still holding the fire extinguisher. In a blur of instinct he raised the tool, snapped off the safety ring and pulled the trigger. White vapour spurted into the monster’s face and it recoiled slightly. Still gripping the handle, Neil tried to move towards the door but already his predator had recovered and was rearing to strike.

There was a silver flash as something long and pointed shot across his vision and into the side of the monster. It howled and looked at the spear hanging out of its side, a match for the one still sticking into its chest. He felt a hand pulling him on his shoulder and looked around to see the girl, looking pale but standing. She tugged again and he got the message. As the dark giant thrashed around the room, gripping the spear they ran out of the door and into the sepia darkness.

They scrambled down the street and turned left at the end into a similar row of shops. Neil could tell that the woman was in pain by her ragged breathing. They couldn’t keep this pace up for long. His legs were already protesting as the adrenaline began to lose effect. With another sharp turn, his rescuer pulled into a dark backstreet. Feeling her way around a skip that smelt of wet cardboard and oil, she then stopped and nodded towards a bolted back door. He looked at her non-plussed.

“Okay then, I’ll do it,” she whispered irritatedly.

She stepped out, producing a coppery sliver of metal from her jeans’ pocket. Checking to make sure they were unobserved, she waved it over the lock and Neil heard a snap from inside.

As she moved she began giving a soft commentary. “This is a very handy toy to have in this period. Pays to do your research. By the end of the next century it’s all electronic and a couple of centuries back the locks are all too heavy for this baby. But right now it’s perfect. Dyanne’s useful for something.”

With a push, the door swung open and they walked inside.

It seemed they were in some kind of kitchen and instinctively he looked for a light switch. She must have read his mind for she whispered, “Don’t! We’re hiding remember?”

Then she swayed and he jumped forward to catch her as she began to fall forwards. Breathing hard he lowered her to the grubby tiled floor.

Her wound! Cursing himself for his momentary forgetfulness, he turned her slightly on to her side and with whatever light there was available, examined the wound left by the monster’s barbed tail. To his surprise it didn’t look as deep as he had feared, nor was it bleeding. Climbing to his feet he looked for the sink and was able to run some water over a J-cloth. Kneeling down he began to clean away the blood. The cold cloth made her stir and she looked over at him with unfocused eyes.

“What’s your name?” she asked quietly.

“Neil,” he answered, not looking up. Was it his imagination or was the wound smaller than when he first looked?

“I’m Chayni. Dammit, Chris is never going to let me forget this if he finds out. You won’t tell him will you? He’ll only fret.”

Neil sat back, resting his back against a cheap kitchen unit. “Is he your husband then?”

She sniggered gutturally. “No, he just acts like it sometimes. Suppose I like it really, having someone care what happens to me, but he can be a bit – conservative. Guess it’s the policeman in him. Listen to me. Rambling away to a stranger. Must have had a full load of poison in it that sting. Or maybe you’ve got one of those faces?”

“Poison!” Neil hunched forward in alarm. “What can I do? We need to get an ambulance.”

Chayni waved her hand. “Don’t panic. Nanobots are doing their job. Nullifying it. Good thing too, ‘cos I’d be lying dead in your shop otherwise. Funny that. The bastard’s legacy is keeping me alive. Bet he’d be really upset if he knew.” Before Neil could comment she continued. “But Hericona venom is some of the best there is. Even with the tech it still has side-effects on me. Makes me talkative for a start. Lowers my inhibitions. You might have noticed.” She grinned with a set of perfect teeth.

He couldn’t help but smile back for a moment. Then curiosity and worry took over again.

“What is that monster? Where’d it come from?” he demanded.

Chayni flapped her hand at him casually. “Keep it down! You want him to find us?” A look of concentration filled her face and she appeared to be trying gather her thoughts together. Then she seemed to give up the struggle and decide to just go with the stream.

“He’s the High Jokra of Frasheen family. From a lousy ball of rock called Hericona. I think he’s mad with me because I killed his brother.”

“His brother?” gaped Neil.

“Yeah, a nasty piece of work. Ruled a grubby little province but suddenly was rich enough to hire a gang of mercenary spaceships. I guess that why I was sent in to cut the head off the snake. They thought it was an ana – anoml – a mistake.”

Her voice was slurring and her eyes were hooding. Neil decided the best action was to keep her talking.

“So who sent you? I mean are you some kind of…” he groped for the right words. “…woman in black?”

Her eyes focused on his. “Huh? Lavarre named us the Cool Kids. I sometimes wondered if it was some kind private joke or something. We come from all over the multi-verse and we’re very good at what we do.”

“Killing monsters?”

“Killing anyone. For a fee. But that was then and this is now. We don’t do that schitck anymore, now we guard history! We won the contract from… powerful pan-dimensional guys. Well it was a kind of an offer I couldn’t refuse y’know?”

Something else had been bothering him. “Why here? Why didn’t you fight him in a desert or something? Away from people?” And their shops he added to himself.

“The early eighties were conveniently near,” she explained. “For the rest I had to improvise after… did you hear something just then?”

He craned his head around. There had been something, a distant clatter. Then his spine ran cold as he heard the scraping sound of something heavy being pushed aside. Indicating to Chayni to stay quiet, he frowned as he saw her slumped against the cabinet apparently unconscious. Slowly, he crept across the kitchen vinyl and pulled himself up too peer over the work-surface to the window. Just as he was trying to peer into dark, something massive flexed in the gloom and a massive claw erupted through the window, missing his head by a whisker. He scrambled back as the talons clutched in the air. A fierce red eye appeared in the jagged hole for a moment and another of alien’s chilling screeches juddered through the room.

“Why doesn’t somebody come?” thought Neil. “They must be able to hear that!”

He looked down at the unmoving Chayni. She would not stand a chance against her enemy. A small part of him told him to get deeper into the shop and hide. When the Jokra or whatever it was found her, it would kill her and then hopefully leave, vengeance achieved. Maybe she deserved it? Perhaps she was a hit-woman, a gangster with a price on her head. Hadn’t she already admitted to killing people for money in the past? All this went through his mind in a few seconds mixed with confused thoughts of attraction, movie heroes, gratitude and anger. By the time the dark, oily creature was begin to demolish what was left of the window frame and force its way in, he had made his decision. Grabbing the biggest knife from the floor, he leapt forward and jabbed it into the monster’s arm. The blade barely made a dent in the skin but the creature reacted with a hiss and pulled back for a moment. Neil dashed to the back door, already hanging off its hinges and swung it open. He dashed out into the street, screaming at the top of his lungs.

Tail swishing, the alien giant swung its head away from the ragged hole in the wall and regarded him for a moment. It’s working he thought with elation. With a lurch of his stomach he saw that it still had a spear sticking out of its chest. Must be jammed somehow, or it is too dangerous to remove it a dispassionate part of his consciousness wondered. His voice was hoarse but he tried to shout louder, tried to make himself look fierce, interesting and worth chasing. But to his despair the alien turned back to the rear of the shop. Jaws salivating, it began to crawl back into the hole. Neil looked about the street, trying to identify a weapon, something big and sharp. Just before he started towards a rusty skip, he heard a bang and a shriek of terrible pain.

To his confusion he watched as the monster’s body began to shudder. He could see blue-white flickers in the folds of its skin. A revolting smell of oil and burnt hair hit him with an almost physical force and all the time the creature screamed. Then it suddenly it was over and the monster slumped on to the brickwork.

It took a moment for Neil’s legs to work again but then he was running over to shop, shouting her name. When he reached the door-frame he stopped and peered through the dust and foul smoke. A dirt smudged Chayni was crouched in front of the creature, her hands still holding on to electrical cable which she had pressed against the creature’s embedded spear. Sensing his gaze she gave him a forced grin and laid the cable down, before rising to her feet.

“Note to self, do the job properly the first time when fighting a Hericona. It’s not enough to stake ‘em, you’ve got to cook ‘em in their jacket. No I’ll be okay, the nanites did their work in their own sweet time.” She was waiving away his proffered hand.

Neil stepped back and allowed her to leave what remained of the kitchen. They stood and regarded the faintly smoking corpse in silence. It was Chayni who broke the silence.

“You’ve got a good set of lungs on you. I heard you outside as I was coming around. Thanks.”

He was at a loss for words, so eventually he decided on, “Glad you’re okay.”

Sirens were slowly building up in the background. Her face lit up with a smile. “Sounds like me cue to be gone. You too if you’ve any sense. Like I said, let the experts deal with the body.” She leant over, wrapped her arms around him and kissed him full on the lips. Before he had a chance to release any of the questions or thoughts in his head, she just as quickly disengaged and ran down the street waving. Then he blinked and she was gone. The wailing was growing closer and Neil’s instincts took over, propelling him in the opposite direction.

Neil could still here the sirens as he approached his own shattered shop front, not to mention a helicopter overhead. They’d probably be here in short order. How could he begin to explain all this? He stepped through the front door, the bell jangling far too loud. Irritated he raised his hand to muffle the chimes and it was then that he saw the polished wooden box sitting on the grimy shop counter. Vinyl crunched underfoot as he walked swiftly over to it. Raising the lid he exhaled sharply as he saw the six gold bars inside. Lying on top of them was a note:

“Hi, this isn’t strictly policy but it seemed the right gesture. This should help you rebuild the shop, if that’s what you want to do. Personally I think you could do with a better location but what do I know? If you want to thank me, do me this favour. Remember Chris? If a big muscular good-looking guy comes asking after me, you never anything. Like I said he worries too much and I don’t need a lecture about Hericona blood feuds right now or ever. This was personal business. Stay cool.  C”

Alien artwork by Rodolfo Hernandez – http://rahovart5.deviantart.com/
Audiobook reading by Kara Dennison – http://karadennison.blogspot.co.uk/

Go Ape! Or Get Your Stinking Paws Off My DVD Boxset


I am a terrible hoarder of unwatched DVD boxsets. It’s a modern blight of our affluence. So this year I’ve been doing my best to reduce the clutter on my DVD shelves and that has led me to this six disc collection in an orange slipcase. Watching the five Apes movies in order for the first time I’m struck by how good the continuity is, especially considering that most of the films were not planned with sequels in mind. Little details like reusing the design of the spacecraft throughout the films mean a lot because I like my film series to fit together into one world.

Planet of the apes (1968)

The opening half hour is already visually striking, even before the apes appear. The spaceship crash is ingeniously created and because it is shot from the ship’s POV it hasn’t dated. Once the astronauts are on the surface there’s an emphasis on their tiny figures in a large unforgiving landscape. Taylor is a well-conceived protagonist who’s a bit more interesting than the average straight-arrow hero. He’s confrontational, cynical and self-reliant, but also intelligent, capable, passionate and ultimately concerned for the individuals around him, even if he doesn’t entirely respect them. I also approve of the way he doesn’t go “on a journey” to become a cuddlier, more sensitive man. He survives and achieves a kind of victory by the end.
Watching the film again, I’m impressed with how balanced its components are. It’s a satisfying action adventure, a witty satire on Western society, in particular race, class and religion, and it’s a meaty science fiction concept too. Seeing ape versions of environments like zoos and museums is unsettling. A definite droll highlight is the funeral service Taylor interrupts, with the priest eulogising that the deceased “never met an ape he didn’t like”, unconsciously quoting cowboy star Will Rogers. There’s a couple of terrific horror moments too, the gorillas posing for a photo over a pile of dead humans, and the later discovery of a stuffed Dodge in the museum.
The impact of John Chamber’s ape prosthetics cannot be under-estimated, a great melding of nature observation and theatricality. The apes are realistic enough to be convincing, whilst having faces that convey recognisable human qualities, such as the aristocratic orang-utans. Jerry Goldsmith’s marvellous and imaginative music score is another big factor, increasing the sense of Taylor’s alienation and the peril of the fight scenes.
Noticeably absent from this first film is the theme of gorilla militarism that becomes a much bigger motivation in the series later. Here the gorillas are simply straightforward blue collar workers.
Zira’s changing relationship with “Bright Eyes” as she names Taylor is cleverly written and played. Whilst always sympathetic, at first she treats him very much as an amusing pet. Later she has a moment when she’s resisting the idea of him being an equal, before accepting him as a person and in their last scene actually kissing him (clearly shown as a sign of affection rather than attraction take note).
Although its ending is a well-known part of pop culture, and in fact spoiled by the DVD box art, seeing it in context the moment is still chilling. I think it’s partly because of the lack of music, just the sound of the indifferent waves upon the beach, partly the way Charlton Heston sells it, and perhaps partly in the emotion of the glass painting itself, thanks to artist Emil Kosa.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

It’s slightly irrational but with its mutants with psychic powers, an underground city, a more obvious antagonist in General Ursus and a new emphasis on action and militarism, this first sequel feels much more of a conventional science fiction movie than the original. To me is one of the main reasons why this sequel is inferior to the original. Another problem is that there is an inbuilt feel of repetition in the first half of the movie, as Brent undergoes the same series of discoveries that Taylor did, not to mention the fact that with the addition of a beard, James Franciscus has been cast as a knock-off Charlton Heston. That’s a shame really because Franciscus is fine in the lead and handles the action convincingly, but because of his cloned look, the film is continually reminding you that he isn’t Chuck.
There are some impressive scenes. The mass unmasking of the mutants is a great set piece. The gorilla army on the march and the mass hallucination they are attacked by is an unexpectedly vivid moment, especially the statue of the Lawgiver weeping blood. Ruined New York is not as poignant as the statue because the melted buildings give the whole place more of a fantastical atmosphere and thus less recognisable.
The film’s story may be darker but it also feels shallower. The first film touches on all kinds of modern concerns whilst this one is a cruder anti-war, anti-bomb parable. It also mostly misses the humour of its predecessor, aside from Cornelius and Zira pretending that he struck her, in order to deceive Zaius.
It’s quite brave move to seemingly finish the series so definitely but in the coming years that knowledge of the destruction of Earth does lend an extra frisson to the further sequels. That last line from some unknown omnipotent narrator is portentous yet I find it quite effective, a moment of very literary SF.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

In retrospect it is such an obvious idea, reverse the journey of Taylor and make some intelligent apes the misunderstood strangers in an alien civilisation. That it works so well and makes this third sequel almost as much fun as the original owes a lot to Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter and their strong performances. It also benefits from the return of much of the droll humour of the first film, making the fantasy seem much more believable. The sequence where they explore Seventies USA as celebrities is one of my favourite parts of the film and its loveliness only enhances the tragedy of the third act. The scene where they face a congressional enquiry and win the audience over with their wit is another highlight.
It’s a smart piece of continuity that the villainous scientist pursuing the couple is Dr Hasslein, the scientist Taylor was narrating to in the first film. The story is an excellent tragedy. We know from the beginning about Zira’s past as a human zoologist and that sooner or later that is going to catch up with them. Carrying on the mirroring of the first film, their very existence challenges the society they have landed in, and it is almost inevitable they will be imprisoned and killed.
The film’s sympathies are almost completely with the chimpanzee couple, although commendably human society is depicted not so much as actively evil, more misguided and short-sighted. Only Hasslein is unquestionably the bad guy for his hubris in trying to change future history.
Natalie Trundy gets the best of her four roles in the Apes series, as sympathetic zoologist Dr Branton, even though she basically in the role of supportive girlfriend of the human hero Dr Dixon.
I remember the final scene of the young Caesar beginning to talk being quite haunting. Watching it this time, not so much because the looping of the film to make the chimp appear to talk is more obvious to me this time. Nevertheless it is an effective end and the only film in the series to end on a cliffhanger they had already planned to resolve.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Despite the fact that it often looks more like a made for television movie, thanks to an even lower budget, this is an entertaining if downbeat seventies SF parable. The metaphor about black slavery may be anything but subtle, especially compared to the first film, but it does create some striking scenes in Ape Control as human guards herd crowds of frightened apes about, moving them with cattle prods and whips. Making MacDonald, the apes’ chief supporter amongst the government a black man is also rather obvious, even if Hari Rhodes plays him well.
Roddy McDowell impresses once again by making Caesar noticeably different to Cornelius. Much more aggressive and less humorous. Once a slave he quickly takes on the mantle of the alpha male in a prison block, with a wide streak of cynicism. As a result the studio re-edit of the final scene to make him a peacemaker, rather than a revenger, doesn’t really work. Those final words about treating the conquered humans with justice and fairness ring hollow, especially against a city on fire.
Using the Irvine Campus of California University was a good decision, since the place certainly looks futuristic without the need for too much set dressing. Dressing nearly all the apes in jumpsuits however does lend an air of cheapness to the enterprise and it was no surprise to read that a lot of the futuristic props and sets were recycled from Irwin Allen television productions. It seemed in keeping with the TV feel of much of the film. But the story is brisk and benefits from no gratuitous romantic sub-plot being shoehorned in. If the series had ended here it would have been a satisfying conclusion.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

The final film in the original series is not great but it’s not a turkey either, thanks to the care taken to keep the continuity links with the previous films, and the performances, especially Roddy McDowell and more interestingly singer/actor Paul Williams as the optimistic, curiosity-driven orang-utan Virgil. It’s a more hopeful conclusion to the saga, although there remains a shadow that the promised human and ape equality will fail and humanity will devolve into mute hunter gatherers again.
As with the previous film there is something of television movie feel about it all, with lots of recycled props and masks from older films. Aside from the debate about whether the future can be changed or not, after Caesar hears the voice of his father describing it, the plot in this one is shallowest yet. It is essentially a western, with the good ranchers facing gorilla black hats and mutant enforcers from the railroad company. It’s not about themes of racism and nuclear war anymore, it is about captures, escapes and a chimpanzee having to do what a chimpanzee must do.

Planet of the apes (2001)

A misfire on several levels, director Tim Burton’s “reimagining” suffers from not really being about anything more than a nostalgic desire to do an Apes movie with modern technology. The film’s highlight is undoubtedly Taylor’s arrival in Ape City, watching in amazement along with Mark Wahlberg at a culture that is simultaneously non-human but with echoes of our own. The detail in the costumes and implements, drawing on Asian and African influences is beguiling. I feel this is where Burton’s real interest lies, just realising a simian-centric culture.
However neither he nor writers William Broyles Jr, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal have an idea what story to set in that world. So we get a script that tries to be different for difference’s sake, making the planet definitively alien for example and bringing in genetic engineering, neither of which really adds to the interest. As for the ending, it just doesn’t make any sense tagged on to the end of the story we’ve just watched, let alone having a huge statue of Thade on Earth without any more justification than it’s a surprise.
Performance wise it’s largely a disappointment too. In the role of Taylor, Wahlberg is his usual dull frowning self, whilst Helena Bonham-Carter gives one of her worst performances as Ari, failing to convey any sense of being a non-human and perfunctorily running through her admittedly trite dialogue. In fact only Tim Roth really comes out with any credit, putting in the energy and conveying Thade’s personality with his whole body and movement.
Rather than telling a good adventure tale whilst holding a mirror up to our current culture, this remake is just a succession of sub-plots about characters we don’t really care about, leading to an underwhelming time travel revelation. And it’s a tribute to John Chamber’s original make-up that the ape prosthetics of thirty plus years later do not look significantly better.

I’m going to leave the recent two CGI movies for another time, especially since I haven’t seen Dawn yet. Watching these movies again has been an entertaining experience. Strange to think the Apes movies were the biggest SF movie franchise until Star Wars came along four years later. They were very much films of the restless Seventies, when pre-Star Wars, USA cinematic SF tended to be gloomy and message driven rather than just escapism. The best of the Planet of the Apes series combined that intelligence with good characters and a sense of adventure and Saturday matinee peril.

My pitch? Orcs podcasting on Youtube.

A few years ago I wrote a pitch for a Warhammer 40000 anthology called “Fear the Alien”. In case you don’t know, Warhammer 40000 is a huge SF franchise that has grown around a tabletop wargame set in a distant future. A universe where humans, elves, orcs and other races were fighting a never ending war with super technology rather than magic, although this scenario was equally fantastical. I must admit I was not a player or collector of the series, nor had a read any of the earlier books. However it was an open submission window, and after doing some research on various Warhammer fan sites I felt confident enough to pitch my idea and included the sample below. The story was about an orc engineer who fancied himself a filmmaker and who was trying to make a propaganda video.

I think you can guess that I never heard back from the publishers Games Workshop. However recently I came across the sample again and not only still liked it, but I performed it at local open mic evening in Bolton called Georges to a good response. So I thought I would share it here:

A shell exploded above them, illuminating the trooper’s furrowed brows in orange light. He gaped at the foreign looking object in BlastGud’s hands.
“Wot kinda gun izzat?” he asked, his yellow eyes flicking between the Lookbox and his own shoota. His weapon had a huge front barrel leading back into a lump of crudely welded together powerpacks, with a metal frame wrapped in leather strips making up the butt. Before the Mek could answer, the soldier’s eyes had glazed over. BlastGud’s gun was lighter, obviously less powerful that his own and not worth haggling for.
BlastGud raised the Lookbox to his eye. “Iz not gun. Iz Lookbox. New mech.” His thumb pressed the red button. The top of the troopers head was blurringly framed in the viewfinder. BlastGud frowned and squeezed the button until the picture was sharp. Now he had a perfect view of the soldier’s disappearing back. He lumbered forward to keep pace with the ShootaBoyz, who ignored him.
“Can memorise wot you can see. See it again,” he explained. He did a quick pan of the mountain ridge ahead of them, catching two more colourful shell bursts. Then stopped the LookBox and presented the viewer to the trooper.
The orc scowled but nevertheless looked into the viewer. He glanced up and glared at BlastGud, confused for a moment. Then he looked at the mountain range and shrugged.
“See better with mi eyes. Your mech is garbage!” he advised.
BlastGud’s explanation was cut off by a horn blast. Immediately the ShootaBoyz were jostling with each other to find a space on the ridge that looked down into the valley. The signal meant the humans had been spotted entering their patch and everyone wanted to be first to get a shot in. BlastGud raised his Lookbox, drooling a little in excitement. This was what he had come for – combat. Seeing the glorious Boyz in action. Best fighters in the clan, thanks to his shootas.
“There dey are!” shouted Fista, waving his blaster-harpoon kombi. Through the viewfinder, BlastGud zoomed in on a column of marines, cautiously clambering over a rockfall to the far east. One of them seemed to look straight at him.
“WAAAGH! Let ’em ‘ave it!” cried Fista. The air was alive with radioactive beams and streams of hot metal as the Orks poured death into the valley. The clacking, barking, roaring sound of the shootas was wonderfully painful in BlastGud’s ears and he considered adding some kind of mechanism to Lookbox to make it work louder. People would really know he was working then. It would make the film better too. The ground around the humans exploded into a dust cloud. A few shots came out of the brown mist but none reached the ridge.
After two minutes of this Fista howled to them to stop firing. A few minutes later, they did. They peered into the dust as it cleared. To their joy several burnt human bodies were revealed, sprawled on the ground. The Boyz roared in approval. Fista was the first over the ridge, greedy to scavenge the human weapons for himself. BlastGud followed him as he lolloped down the slope. A shadow moved behind the rockpile beyond. Fista’s comrades got one cry of warning out before a column of angry red plasma struck out from a human trooper’s rifle, hitting Fista square in the neck. Instinctively, BlastGud followed the arc of Fista’s severed head as it flew backwards over the ridge and landed with a metallic thump on the rock. He filmed it as it lay there smouldering, wondering if this moment counted as a funny or a feel bad.