Posts Tagged ‘Science fiction’


This is my “definitive” article on Star Wars, the film that made me fall in love with science fiction in the first place. My mum took me to see it in 1978, when I was five. I still vaguely remember the trip. Apparently I talked all the way through. In the weeks before I drew an awful lot of TIE fighters at school, and was very envious of the kids who had seen it the first time around. I got some Star Wars figures before I saw the film. In following years, I built up quite a collection of Star Wars toys, but was forced to sell them after I returned from living in Poland as I was flat broke. This initial handful, however, I kept and passed them on to Benny 35 years later.

This article was originally published as part of Death Ray #21‘s “Time Trap”, which looked at the year 1977.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, science fiction was about to change forever…

In 1977 the most influential science fiction film of all time came to cinemas. George Lucas’ Star Wars has had such a large influence on the genre it is hard to quantify. Naturally, space opera movies became a dime a dozen in the 1980s, but it had effects as diverse as speeding the restructuring of the way Hollywood financed its movies, introducing the ‘worn’ future, heralding breakthroughs in special effects that were to transform cinema, and cementing the idea of the Summer event movie. Some of these seismic shifts stemmed from 1975’s Jaws, the first modern blockbuster, but Star Wars accelerated them.

Lucas conceived of Star Wars sometime round 1971, when he wrote an outline called ‘The Journal of the Whills’. Some of the ideas that were to later feature in the Star Wars movies were present, including the Jedi, but many were not, including the story. The structure of the first trilogy, even the idea that there were to be more movies, was not present initially, and the reconception of Star Wars as but one part of the life story of Anakin Skywalker, fallen Jedi Knight, did not occur until much later (Lucas has often said that he wrote a massive treatment, then decided to concentrate on the first third as it was too big. There is little evidence for this in Lucas’ drafts). This initial treatment, about the son of a famous fighter pilot who is training to be the ‘padawaan’ of Mace Windy, a famed ‘Jedi-Bendu’ was described as too complex to understand, so Lucas started again, this time basing his story on Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Initially, the Star Wars was little more than an SF remake of Kurosawa’s classic, but over time and four drafts it would move further and further away from it, incorporating elements from more science-fictional sources and fairytale, crucially reintroducing the wizard-like Jedi, whose struggle with their own instincts was to form the thematic core of the entire universe. The final draft, with input from Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, was finished 1 January, 1976. Throughout the writing process the story changed, Luke’s character turned from a 60-year-old general into a dwarf. Right up until filming commenced, Lucas was toying with the idea of making him a woman. Han Solo was supposed to be a green alien with gills, C3PO a car-dealer type… Star Wars was not conceived as a saga, but more as a loosely defined universe inspired by Saturday serials, Japanese cinema and World War II movies, whose story was subject to revision right to the very last minute. There will never be a definitive version. The genesis of the film is steadily sliding into the realms of apocrypha, with the imperfect human memory the main culprit, aided by deliberate misdirection here and there. George Lucas has made many contradictory statements about the conception of the film, while stories from different people involved do not entirely match up. Was Alec Guinness as uncomfortable on set as he always maintained, requesting his own death so he could stop saying such “rubbish lines”, or was the characters’ death down to Lucas, and Guinness mostly happy at work as the director maintains? Was David Prowse dubbed because there were no black characters, as he maintains, or was it because he, like many of the other dubbed actors in the film, sounded too British? This are but a couple of examples of the many stories surrounding the film’s production, alternative versions of which can be found in numerous media.

What is certain is that it could so easily have not happened. Universal and Paramount passed on the film, seeing it as high-risk and high budget. Alan Ladd Jnr at Fox, however, saw promise in Lucas and the concept, and took it on.

The complex production was tense, and for the crew involved, bewildering. Stories about these difficulties include the crew members ridiculing the production, extras whispering ‘wanker’ at Mark Hamill as he walked past the crowd at the medal giving climax, Lucas tearing out his hair at endless British tea breaks, and union interference with the nascent ILM being seen off with a showy display of computer controlled camera work. No-one had ever made a film like this before, and many made fun of the avalanche of outlandish names that accompanied it. ILM were brilliant but disorganised, and spent half their budget on four shots Lucas rejected. The actors complained about the dialogue and about Lucas’ direction (“Faster” and “More intense” were his sole phrases). Lucas argued with cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, who thought the young director was overstepping his bounds in requesting specific shot set ups. Accidents dogged the production – on the first day of shooting in Tatouine, the area of Tunisia standing in for Tatooine, there were the worst torrential downpours in 50 years. Props didn’t work, and Anthony Daniels’ C3PO costume broke and speared his left foot.

Though Star Wars was fairly expensive for its day, Lucas had ambitions much bigger than his budget. Money was tight. He was unhappy with the effects, the costumes and props. Time ran out. Reaching crisis point as shooting fell two weeks behind schedule, Fox gave Lucas an ultimatum: wrap production in a week, or Star Wars will be cancelled. Splitting the crew into three teams, Lucas scraped over the deadline.

Scheduled for release at Christmas of 1976, there were further problems in Star Wars’ post production process. The initial cut was disastrous, prompting Lucas to replace the editor. ILM struggled, Mark Hamill (Luke) was involved in a car crash that made reshoots impossible, while an early screening of the incomplete film to Lucas’ film buddies was unsuccessful with only Stephen Spielberg enjoying the film. The release was postponed until May of the following year.

But it was now that things began to come together. A new edit gave the film its famous pace, Lucas spliced together a load of dogfights from war films to inspire the effects house, while both Ben Burt’s innovative, organic sound design and John Barry’s bombastic martial score, recorded in just 12 days, brought the film to life.

Star Wars‘ final budget was driven from $8 million to $11 million. Lucas was a nervous wreck, suffering from hypertension and exhaustion. He was thus gratified by the response of the Fox brass – they all loved it, and one broke down in tears. The film was a difficult sell to reluctant cinemas. Fox threatened to withhold the more eagerly anticipated movie The Other Side of Midnight if cinemas did not show Lucas’ film.

Star Wars was, as we know, a huge hit, so successful that 20th Century Fox’s share value doubled in weeks. Alone, Star Wars has earned more than $700million dollars in its lifetime. The estimated lifetime takings of the franchise it spawned, merchandising and all, is put at around $20billion.

The cultural impact of Star Wars has been immense, not least in its refocusing of Hollywood on spectacle after a decade of thoughtful, arty films. Some have called this a betrayal, others a re-engagement with the audience. Either way, effects-heavy thrill-rides became the default setting for big-screen success.

The first SF blockbuster’s effect on the genre was complex. It is arguable Star Wars destroyed the credibility of science fiction at a time when it was just becoming an excepted form. Book companies redirected their efforts toward juvenilia, and the more cerebral cinematic SF efforts of the 60s and 70s gave way to numerous Star Wars imitations. Although a wave of great SF films trailed Star Wars’ success, they were outnumbered by cheap, unimaginative copycats. Such movies as Space hunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone did much to earn SF its status as a pariah genre in the 90s. When you hear of critics dismissing SF, it’s not Alien or The Terminator or Mad Max they’re thinking of, but the bad sets, ropey effects and cardboard characters of TV and straight-to-video Star Wars rip-offs. To them, ‘science fiction’ stinks of the unsophisticated mindset of the nursery.

But this was but a reactive dip, one SF has come out of now, in the main, and we can thank Star Wars also for SF’s renaissance, for the creative types who fill our screens and bookshelves with weekly wonders had their minds’ eyes opened wide by Star Wars as children. And that, dear readers, includes your friendly correspondents here at Death Ray.

The Expanded Universe

It wasn’t the films that made Lucas his fortune, but millions upon millions of tiny plastic toys…

When Lucas negotiated with Alan Ladd Jnr. for his fee, he settled on a relatively modest sum of $150,000 in return for 40% of the merchandising rights and rights to any sequels. It is this canny deal that has made Lucas a billionaire, and allowed him to operate largely outside the studio system for much of his career.

At the time, Hollywood made little money from merchandising. The days of themed Happy Meals and action figure toy lines were ushered in by Star Wars. Fox provided little direct marketing support for the film, leaving marketing director Charles Lippincott to find other ways to publicise the movie. He sold the toy rights to Kenner (who invented the three and three-quarter inch action figure size still popular today for the film). Over 300 million of these figures were sold between 1977 and 1984, but Kenner initially under-produced. The toys were so popular that Kenner rapidly ran out of stock round Christmas of ’77, prompting them to fill shops with empty boxes containing a promissory note. The back orders took three months to fulfil.

Lippincott also looked to print media to provide a push to the movie, negotiating a pre-release comic adaptation with Marvel. A novelisation of the film was published under Lucas’ name, although it was actually written by Alan Dean Foster. Titled Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, it was based on the screenplay and released six months before the film. The book interestingly contains several minor departures from the book, including the cut Tosche station scenes filmed for the movie’s opening, and differences in detail here and there.

But it is the book that followed, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, also by Foster, where things get interesting. This novel was intended to form the basis of a cheap sequel should Star Wars perform poorly. When the film became a smash hit, this idea was dropped. Instead, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, along with Star Wars comic issue 7, formed the basis of Star Wars‘ enormous Expanded Universe.

Many popular SF franchises have Expanded Universes, but Star Wars is among the largest of all, rivalled in scale only by Star Trek‘s. It encompasses books, comics, roleplaying and video games, toys, audio dramas, cartoons, and TV shows, telling stories in the Star Wars universe from 10,000 years in the past until 100 years in the future (Lucas, intending to one day make a prequel trilogy, barred authors from delving into the history of the Empire, Anakin, or Palpatine). Like most such things in the genre, these stories are not considered canon, and yet they have had a profound influence on the film series itself, with many characters and locations working their way into the movie series.

The Star Wars expanded universe is remarkably consistent, although not immune to shifts in the story and retconning. This consistency can be credited to West End Games. Their RPG products, beginning in 1987, were so detailed they were often sent out to other licensees as reference materials, leading to a situation where West End found itself, in later years, producing supplements based on stories which had been generated with the help of their products.

After the release of Return of the Jedi, Star Wars fever abated somewhat, though the Expanded Universe remained a lucrative industry. With the release of Timothy Zahn’s Admiral Thrawn trilogy in 1991, the acquisition of the Star Wars comic book license by Dark Horse and renewed speculation about further films, it really took off, paving the way for the return of the franchise to the big screen.

Did you know?

The 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special was the first televisual outing for the expanded universe. A collection of musical skits, comedy segments and unused footage from Star Wars, it featured all the main cast in a story loosely centred on Chewbacca’s return home for Life Day (Wookie Christmas), and the struggle he and Han Solo have as they try to get back to the Wookie world of Kashyyyk. Through the medium of television watched by Chewie’s son Lumpawarrump, we get a musical interlude from Jefferson Starship, a 10-minute cartoon about one of Chewie’s earlier adventures, as well as cameos from various other Wars’ stars, such as Luke, who is shown having mechanical trouble with his X-Wing fighter. This all takes place as Imperial forces search Chewie’s tree house, so there’s an air of totalitarian absurdity to it.

Aside from the cartoon, which introduced Boba Fett, the Holiday Special is widely disliked by fans and those involved, with Lucas himself being particularly unhappy with the show. (he said once he wished he could hunt down every copy. It has only ever been screened once, and has never been released in any home entertainment format. Bootleg copies, however, can be had for the right price. We’d never condone illegal activity, but it is one of the most deliciously bad pieces of television ever to have been made.


Ah, Death Ray, how fruitful plundering your corpse is for my blog… This article originally appeared in Death Ray 08, back in 2007, as part of our insanely crammed “Ten Minute Guide…” series. These were among my favourite articles to write; packed full of detail, and no transcribing involved. I’ve put this one up as my review of the Flash Gordon TV series of 2007/2008 is one of the most viewed articles on this site by a long, long way. General searches for “Flash Gordon” take people there, so curiosity about this primal member of the modern SF heroic pantheon still abounds.

Flash Gordon: Perennially popular cosmic adventurer

flashgordon_1cvr

The original, and the best. Click the pic for more on the comic.

Golden-haired saviour of Earth, Flash has been protecting us from the art-deco hell of Ming the Merciless’s Planet Mongo for 70 years, often in a pair of tight trunks. In a word: Pulp.

Flash’s adventures are ones of swash-buckling, over the top, Prisoner of Zenda style derring-do in space. The stories are simple stuff, simply told, their enduring popularity down to the sumptuousness of Alex Raymond’s art and the on-screen extravagance it inspired. If scantily clad slave girls, finned rocket ships, weird alien kingdoms and decadently luxuriant palaces are your thing, step this way… (more…)


At last! I can tell you about some of the very exciting things that I know about and that you don’t, or rather didn’t know until now!

Today I can finally reveal not one, but two of my Black Library novels. In case the picture above doesn’t give it away, one is Skarsnik, about the infamous night goblin warlord.

I’m a big Warhammer fan, as you might know. I started playing in 1984 with the first edition of the fantasy game. That’s right, when there was none of this new fangled Warhammer 40,000 business and Toughness values were represented by letters. I was 11. I’m now 39, so I’ve been playing for 28 years. And I still play. I love it. (Playing for so long puts on odd perspective on things – I bought myself a little birthday gift on Wednesday, a box of plastic bikers for my 40k ork army. I’ve wanted these for ages. To me they are “new models”. They came out five years ago).

I’ve always been a massive greenskin fan, leading orcs and goblins since day one. For years they lost, but the last half decade has been kind to my green minions and they now win more often than not. It helps that Skarsnik himself is my army general. Want to see my army list? Here it is.

Skarsnik’s Stabbas

(I date all my army lists when I draw them up. This is the most recent variation on Skarsnik’s army, but it really doesn’t change that much. The last game I played with this was 7/5/2012. It represents but a small proportion of my greater goblin horde. No, I don’t have any orcs in my army, although I have Ruglud’s Armoured Orcs prepped for painting because they are very cool. Other orcs can go feed my squigs. Literally).

Naturally I was well up for it when Nick Kyme at The Black Library suggested I write a novel about Skarsnik. Nick worked for me when I edited White Dwarf magazine, now I kind of work for him. A strange reversal, but a fruitful one. Our earlier association means he knows full well how much I like my goblins.

I’ve put up a page on Skarsnik here with a brief breakdown of the plot, so I won’t repeat myself, but I will tell you some of what I am trying to do with the story. A lot of people see goblins as funny, comic relief characters (why, just check out The Black Library’s own blog post to see how prevalent this attitude is). Granted, they are funny, but they are also vicious, wicked, baby-eating horrors of the first degree. “Ooh! Look at the funny goblins”, gamers say. Yeah well, you wouldn’t want to be bound to spiky stick in a stinky cave with a lot of them standing around you. They’d have knives, and they’d be laughing. Not so funny now, are they?

Come to think of it, you probably don’t want to face mine on the battlefield either.

So, I wanted to capture both sides of this character. You’ll see how amusing and horrifying goblins are as we watch Skarsnik trick, wheedle and stab his way from sporeling to king of Karak Eight Peaks. For non-goblin fanatics there is plenty of skaven and dwarf action, with a little bit of the Empire thrown in. Truly, Skarsnik is a cornucopic fantasy delight.

Now to the other project. Sharp eyes might have seen this on Amazon. Yes, I’ve also written a Warhammer 40,000 novel called Baneblade. It’s about the tank of the same name. Although I wrote this book quite a while ago, and it is actually out some time before Skarsnik, the arcane nature of publishing dictates that I can say only that it’s about a young lieutenant of a noble house who joins a veteran baneblade crew. And that’s your lot.

By the Emperor, there’s more! I’m also writing another book for BL called [REDACTED] about the [REDACTED] and the [REDACTED] who must [REDACTED] before [REDACTED] and the [REDACTED] is [REDACTED]! I’ve not finished writing that yet but I’m having a lot of fun with it. More later when I am free to talk.

Of course, none of this is out for a while, so why not (blatant plug time! Please forgive me, I have to eat) check out my Richards & Klein books. A buddy-cop adventure series set in the 22nd century that pairs a dour, ex-military German cyborg with a wiseass super computer in a trenchcoat. Click here for more on both books, and free R&K short stories “The Nemesis Worm” and “Ghost”. You may also like Champion of Mars, an epic tale spanning millennia from the next century to the far, far future of the Red Planet.

There are further free short stories here on the site (of varying vintage, so perhaps not me at my best, but still interesting). There are some others you can buy if you wish at The Angry Robot Trading Company.

Right, you’ve been good and read my pleading for you to buy my books. In return, please feel free to ask me anything about anything – including these hot, newly announced BL titles – in the comments. Games, journalism, GW, Mantic, SFX, White Dwarf, whatever. I will answer what I am allowed to. Think of it as an interview by you, if you like.

If you’re into wargaming, you might want to follow me on this blog and/or on twitter, as there will be another announcement on the little toy men front soon. Plus there’s all the SF/Fantasy/Horror reviews, interviews, features and so forth you get regularly on this site. On twitter you might have to put up with a bunch of stuff about dogs, beer, social issues, the environment and children, but I do talk about gaming, SF and writing sometimes.

Thank you for your attention. Guy out.


Written originally for SFX‘s Best of British Special Edition, which I also edited, in 2011.

www.sfx.co.uk

The True Nature of the Catastrophe

Cosy catastrophes? Not on your nelly! Here are some terrible ends to UK civilisation, all from off of that telly.

You might have heard the term “cosy catastrophe”; coined by Brian Aldiss in his book Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, it refers to that very peculiarly British form of apocalyptic SF where civilisation is laid low by some terrible event, leaving only a few plucky survivors to pick up the pieces and build anew. Somewhat mocking, but Aldiss does have a point. There’s more of a hint of the jolly Robinsonade in British science fiction, where some plucky chap, and they’re nearly always chaps, keeps his sense of right as society degenerates into barbarism all about him, usually leaving us at the climax of their story to head off into rising sun to relaunch civilisation in comfort afforded by the decimation of the population. His chin up, motley family substitutes manfully protected, he has it somewhat easy.

That’s fairly cosy. But that’s only part of the story. British science fiction has postulated some brutal ends to our society. In even the The Day of the Triffids, which Aldiss singled out as particularly cuddly, violence and horror abounds, and the protagonists of these tales really do have to have the toughest of moral fibres.

For all the romance of it – the idea of being able to start afresh in a less crowded Britain – it’d be hell, and telly does not let us off lightly. Apocalyptic fiction is often at the more realistic end of SF, properly speculative. Think on this, some of it could just happen, and most of us just would not cope.

Here we’re going to take a look into the alternate worlds imagined by British SF where things really didn’t work out quite as well as they did here (crikey, it’s arguable things aren’t going brilliantly on Earth Prime). Buckle up, there’s some scary stuff ahead.

Survivors

Vector of Collapse: DISEASE

Broadcast: 1975-1977 and 2008-2009

Was it any good?: The original was a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall pipe-dream paradise without ghastly proles, the new one decidedly average.

Cosy factor: Four (of five) sofas.

Likelihood: Four (of five) mushroom clouds.

Every other year there seems to be some major panic about a flu pandemic, primed to carry us all off to our (mass) graves. Survivors, in both its incarnations, posits exactly that.

Originated by Doctor Who writer and Blake’s 7 creator Terry Nation, Survivors has a genetically engineered virus accidentally released to kill 95% of the world’s population. Initially following the adventures of Abby Grant (Carolyn Seymour) as she searches for her lost son Peter, the show had a different feel to each of its three series. The first is very much a depiction of the aftermath of “The Death”, the second depicts the survivors trying to establish a community, the third takes us on a journey across a Britain made up of many different, small societies linking up and reinitiating trade and steam-powered railway travel. Derided for being middle-class and overly concerned with self-sufficiency tips at the expense of drama, Survivors is nevertheless fondly thought of.

Nation himself only stayed on for the first year, leaving after he fell out with the series producer. He wrote a book based on this initial run, with a radically different ending: Abby finds Peter, only to be shot by her own son as he does not recognise her.

A remake was launched in 2008, although for legal reasons it was billed as being based on Nation’s book, and was written by Adrian Hodges. To better reflect Britain’s changed ethnic make-up, two muslim characters were introduced, and Tom Price was reimagined as a convict on the run. The show managed good character dynamics, but was ultimately undone by a convoluted plot involving a secret society of scientists hiding out somewhere, who may have been responsible for the plague.

In some regards the cosiest of all catastrophes, Survivors still engenders unease – its mass, disease-prompted die off is worryingly plausible.

Class War

Is the original Survivors a middle-class Good Life fantasy? You decide…

Points for:

Most of the characters are posh.

Many scenes take place in large kitchens with agas in them.

In the second episode, Anne says “and then father had to send the servants away.”

Tom Price is the only “commoner”, and he’s a shifty Welsh tramp.

Arthur Wormley the show’s big bad, is a trade unionist.

The first episode has Peter Bowles in it.

They all seem quite happy pottering about in the garden, making their own beer.

Points against:

Um…

The Day of The Triffids

Vector of collapse: CELESTIAL PHENOMENON/GIANT CARNIVOROUS PLANTS

Broadcast: 1981 and 2009

Was it any good?: 1981 version very, 2009 version not so much.

Cosy factor: Three (of five) sofas

Likelihood: Two (of five) Mushroom clouds

Pity poor Bill Masen, he’s been hospitalised by giant tulips plenty of times now, chalking up two TV series and a film, with another cinematic outing in development. He’s the hero of John Wyndham’s classic, a triffid farmer spared the blindness that afflicts most of the population after they observe strange lights in the sky. Masen’s laid up with his eyes bandaged after an accident in a lab involving triffid venom, and awakens to a world suddenly thrown into chaos. Masen struggles against man and triffid – giant, ambulatory plants of unknown origin which are farmed for their oil – before finding refuge on the Isle of Wight where he mulls man’s inhumanity to man.

The Day of the Triffids was not Wyndham’s first book, but it was the first under the Wyndham name, and remains his most famous.

Both TV adaptations were made by the BBC, the first in 1981 starring John Duttine as Masen. In the main the plot of the book was followed closely, unlike the 1962 film, and is still highly regarded.

Not so the 2009 remake, which departed considerably from the book’s storyline. Masen (played by Dougray Scott) gets bolt-on emotional baggage in the shape of an estranged dad and a mother killed 30 years ago by a triffid in Zaire, an event replayed in clumsy flashback, a move typical of our touchy-feely times, as if the end of civilisation isn’t enough to generate empathy in a modern audience. Masen, who’s a scientist in this version, has the opportunity to halt the killer plants by retrieving information from a triffid farm. He still ends up on the Isle of Wight, though.

Did you know?

John Wyndam Parkes Lucas Benyon Harris was the triffid creator’s full name, and proved handy for generating pseudonyms.

Triffic Triffids

In all many versions of the story, the Triffids have different origins. In the book it is intimated that they are the product of Soviet experimentation. They walk on three stumps, have a whiplike sting, a flower head and clackers that knock on a large bole at their base (speculated to be for communication). The 1981 BBC show followed this closely, with plants made in the main from fibreglass, operated by a man crouched in the base.

In the 1962 film they are from outer space, seeded on the Earth by comets, their sting is a projectile propelled by gas, and they are vulnerable to seawater. In the 2009 adaptation they’re from Zaire, rendered in glorious CGI with strangling, prehensile roots rather than foot stumps and a cluster of agave-like leaves. The 2009 triffids also weep oil, rather than being processed for it.

Terrifying Telly

The Day of The Triffids is not the only Wyndham book to have received the TV treatment. Creepy, unnerving and on after school, Chocky is a different kind of story altogether. Matthew is a boy whose father becomes concerned about his invisible friend, Chocky, especially when he undergoes a period of rapid mental development. And rightly so, for Chocky is actually an alien communicating telepathically with the boy. This contact puts Matthew under a great deal of pressure, worse, Chocky is of ambiguous intentions, and their link is of interest to the government…

Chocky (written in 1968) was adapted by Anthony Reed for Thames TV in 1984. An ’80s staple, the show generated two sequels – Chocky’s Children and Chocky’s Challenge. It was seriously spooky stuff. The opening titles began with a bloodcurdling scream, the show’s star, Andrew Ellams, turned in an excellent performance as the haunted Matthew, while the series’ themes of madness, isolation and fear were intensified by Chocky’s eerie, disembodied voice (Glynis Brooks).

The Tripods

Broadcast: 1984-1985

Vector of collapse: ALIENS

Was it any good?: Good effects (for the time) didn’t stop it dragging.

Cosy factor: Two (of five) sofas.

Likelihood: One (of five) mushroom clouds.

Samuel Youd is the great purveyor of global catastrophe, although you probably know him better as John Christopher. Youd is a prolific man, having written more than fifty novels from 1949 on. The Tripods trilogy is, doubtlessly, his most famous.

In the future, mankind has reverted to an agricultural existence. There are no cities. Technology is unused. Why? Aliens have taken over our brains! Exerting a form of mind control via “caps”, implanted at the age of 14, the Masters rule the Earth, awing the yokelised locals with their tripedal terror machines.

Only young Will (played by John Shackley) doesn’t want to be capped, and sets off to uncover the truth behind the tripods, discovering that the aliens are not content with ruling from their cities, but wish to xenoform our world for themselves…

The Tripods TV series was broadcast in 1984 (seven episodes) and 1985 (eleven episodes). Only the first two books were made; plans for an adaptation of the third volume were underway, but never realised. In many regards the series was faithful to the book, but was at times interminable, with the appearances of tripods few and far between as our three stars (Ceri Seel and Jim Baker joining Shackley) trudged across France. However, the sequences set within the fabled city of the Masters were pretty cool by any standard, its effects impressive for the time and the show brave in its use of non-humanoid aliens.

Killer Chris

Youd had a fine line in cataclysms. Here are some more.

A Wrinkle in the Skin (1965)

Tectonic activity redraws the map, with seafloors upheaved, and lands drowned. Survivors struggle to find loved ones and fail.

The Death of Grass (1956)

All grasses die, as that includes most of our food crops, we’re stuffed. Tragic fratricide ensues. Filmed under its alternative title, No Blade of Grass, in 1970.

The Prince in Waiting (1970)

Volcanic activity has reduced the world to medievalism, where birth defects abound. Our hero, a deposed prince, overcomes innate knobbishness to effect a new technological dawn.

The World in Winter (1962)

Solar-induced global cooling sends Brits packing to Africa, where they’re treated as second-class citizens. Protagonist doesn’t like it, and escapes to come home.

The Empty World (1977)

An ageing disease kills most people off, leaving kids to fend for themselves. Much horribleness happens, but a bright future beckons. Televised in Germany.

The Last Train

Vector of collapse: METEOR STRIKE

Screened: 1999

Was it any good?: A curate’s egg of a show; dodgy science did it no favours.

Cosy factor: One (of five) sofas

Likelihood: Three (of five) mushroom clouds

Penned by Mathew Graham, the co-creator of Life on Mars, The Last Train is an oddity, an SF series from a time when SF on British television was approached with something approaching nervous apprehension. “It’s not science fiction,” said the series producer to SFX on a set visit “it’s post-apocalyptic fiction”.

Naturally, it’s about as science fiction as you can get. The inhabitants of a train travelling to Sheffield are frozen in time when a canister of cryogenic gubbins clatters from lead character Harriet Ambrose’s (Nicola Walker) bag as the train conveniently enters a tunnel. Convenient, as the Earth is pummelled by a meteor strike that very instant.

The characters, a motley band including a thief, a cop, a pregnant girl and an unbalanced businessman, emerge into a changed world. They have one hope, a place called The Ark, built by the government in anticipation of the catastrophe, and to which Harriet is connected.

The show was a little silly. The cryo-fluid was implausible, as was crim Mick Sizer’s (Trevor Etienne) van starting up after 50 years in a shed, while the production’s attempts portray topographic and climatic upheaval were mainly restricted to hoiking an increasingly sorry collection of tropical plants from location to location. In any case, a meteor strike of sufficient size to cause that much devastation would have made a much bigger mess. Still, a brutal (two of our heroes are locked out of The Ark and crucified) if safe (they get rescued) finale for the show and a cracking first episode lift its quality.

Did you know?

The series working title was Cruel Earth, which is much, much better, really.

Ringing The Changes

Magical mayhem, thanks to Merlin

The Last Train might have taken scientific liberties, but that’s as nothing compare to the outrageous apocalypse employed in The Changes.

Based on the series of books by Peter Dickinson, this 1975 show depicted a Britain suddenly gripped by anti-machine hysteria, where technology is smashed to pieces and becomes taboo. Nicky is a girl whose adventures lead her to discover the cause of all this grief – Merlin the magician!

Sounds daft as, but it’s a successful idea (although more so in the books than the drama). Better, perhaps, to embrace out and out fantasy than embrace dodge-tastic science, a la The Last Train

Threads

Vector of collapse: ATOMIC WAR

Screened: 1984

Was it any good?: Terrifyingly so; a harrowing depiction of nuclear war.

Cosy factor: One (of Five) sofas

Likelihood: Five (of Five) sofas

The 1980s might seem all glam and greed and Ashes to Ashes now, but our current nostalgic phase for the decade misses one important point: We were all shit-scared of nuclear apocalypse. Threads, made in 1984, helpfully made us all that little bit more frightened. And they showed it in school. Thanks for that.

Speculative fiction in its truest sense (to this day, no one is entirely sure what the aftermath of a nuclear war would be like) Threads has it all – milk bottles melting in firestorms, animals writhing in agony, frantic surgeons performing amputations with wood saws, mass panic, machine gun-armed traffic wardens, nuclear winter, deformed babies, and the collapse of language itself. It is really not much fun, but absolutely fascinating.

The film presents this cheery scenario from the point of view of we ordinary joes, and follows the fates of two families ­ the Becketts and Kemps, whose children are due to be married following an unplanned pregnancy. Until they all die.

The main character, Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher), dies blind and prematurely aged after scratching about in a field. Her mentally compromised daughter survives, has ungentle sex, and later produces a stillborn horror in a grim boarding house with one lightbulb.

Threads was not so much a prophylactic piece of SF as a snatch of the zeitgeist. People in power knew that nuclear war would be beyond terrible, and it never happened. And yet, it’s more likely than an alien invasion, isn’t it?

Did you know?

Threads was the third attempt by the BBC to make a nuclear war docudrama. The first was stalled by Winston Churchill, the second, The War Game (1965) remained unscreened for twenty years, being deemed too disturbing.


I did this interview with Dan in 2010, prior to the release of the Warhammer 40,000 animated movie Ultramarines, for SFX 201.

DAN ABNETT

He’s the man with the golden pen – a 3000-words-a-minute model that can lay waste to whole star systems…

Dan Abnett is one of the UK’s most prolific SF authors, producing up to 300,000 words a year (his estimate, probably conservative). Beginning his career at Marvel UK in the 1980s, Abnett became a mainstay of 2000 AD in the 90s. For years comics of all kinds provided his bread and butter – he was SFX’s regular comics reviewer, too – before he began penning novels for Games Workshop’s Black Library. Work on Torchwood, Doctor Who and Primeval followed. With his first non tie-in novel Triumff out last year from Angry Robot and his first movie, Ultramarines, in production, the fickle gods of SF have amply rewarded Abnett’s industriousness.

Ultramarines is Games Workshop’s first foray into motion pictures. It’s set in their dystopian 41st Millennium where mankind’s Imperium stands on the brink of destruction, and features their signature Space Marines – genetically modified warriors. The company has licensed out its intellectual property in the past, but it’s long been wary of dipping its toe into the murky pool of Hollywood, fearing a loss of control (think Stallone, Dredd, no helmet…). Not so here, with London-based Codex Pictures making the feature and Abnett providing the script, we’ll be getting a proper Warhammer 40,000 film.

“Retaining the essential atmosphere was the key thing,” says Abnett. “My focus was a story that was absolutely true to the spirit of 40k. I needed it to fit inside the production constraints, ‘Listen, Dan, this may be an animated film, but you simply can’t ask for eighty million Space Marines to come galloping out of the Eye of Terror on choppers’, they said, and I was determined not to dilute the very bleak but heroic feel of the universe. Most of all, I wanted it to be a story that suited a film, rather than something designed to fit a novel or a comic. From what I’ve seen so far, it’s fantastic. The action, the amazing voice cast (John Hurt, Terrence Stamp, Sean Pertwee, Johnny Harris etc). And, my god, it’s got mood and atmosphere. It’s been a very interesting, educational job. The producers have been very good to work with, and I’ve learned a lot. I want to do more work for film, and I have two or three immediate opportunities to do so.”

Although GW provides much employment for Abnett, he continues to work for others. He’s still writing strips for 2000 AD, and together with Andy Lanning he signed a deal with Marvel two years ago to work on their cosmic characters. These are but two of his regular gigs.

The secrets of Abnett’s success are several. Although he tells us his specialisation was entirely accidental, he has an affinity for his “SF war” niche, so much so that real veterans sometimes assume he’s served in combat. Chiefly he’s done so well because he doesn’t hold anything back when he’s writing for other people’s worlds.

“What is generally termed ‘tie-in’ fiction gets a really bad press,” he says. “It’s not ‘proper’ books. It’s reheated crap churned out to cash in on a property.  Bollocks to that. There is a vast audience that wants to read good stories connected to their favourite show or film or whatever. If you think tie-in books are ‘cheap’ then you’re saying that the audience is cheap too, so shame on you. If they’re prepared to shell out for a book and invest the time reading it, someone had bloody well better have written it properly. I am constantly amused by the notion that I have two ‘grades’ of writing in me, my everyday style I use to lob out tie-in potboilers, and my Sunday best, proper quality style I only get out on special occasions to write ‘real books’ with. Yes, that’s exactly how it works. If you sit down and consciously think to yourself ‘I can knock this out using my economy rate writing,’ then step away from the keyboard. The book’s going to be shit, and you’ve got no business ripping readers off.”

Having said all that, for such an imaginative man, you would have expected an original novel from him earlier than last year.

“I write whatever comes next,” he says, “and for a long time, it was hard to find a gap in the schedule for Triumff. But it was immensely rewarding. I’m finishing my second Angry Robot novel now. It’s called Embedded, a combat SF thriller, but in a rather different vein to the war stories I write for BL.”

Another novel, on top of everything else?

“I work a lot because I love what I do,” he says. “I’m not suggesting it’s never hard work – everyone has bad days at the office. But I’m doing what I really want to be doing. But I have had to slow down. In September 09, I was suddenly pole-axed by seizures,” he says. “Turned out, after two anxious months waiting for a diagnosis, to be ‘just’ late onset epilepsy. Considering what it could have been, that was a relief. I had to gently get back on the horse, re-invent my working day, reduce the stress, work around the anti-epilepsy meds etc. This is going to sound strange, but it was an oddly satisfying experience, very liberating. I had been working ridiculously hard for too long. I got time to take stock. No more late-nighters for me. Lots of relaxed, clean living. I go to bed, get a good night’s sleep, rise early, get started. I’m sitting here at 6.30am. I can’t believe I’ve been missing out on such a great time of day for so long.”

BIODATA

Occupation: Freelance author

Born: 12th October 1965

From: Maidstone, Kent

Greatest hits: Sinister Dexter and Kingdom (2000AD), Gaunt’s Ghosts and Eisenhorn (novel series, Black Library), Guardians of the Galaxy, Nova, Star Trek: Early Voyages (Marvel Comics), Legion of Superheroes  and The Authority (DC/Wildstorm).

Random fact: His great-great-something-something grand mother was Lady Emma Hamilton.


This interview with Brian Froud comes from 2007, when it was published in Death Ray 06.

This particular piece appeared in our “New Gods” profile slot. Unfortunately, the 2009 release date he gives at the end of the article for The Power of the Dark Crystal has come and gone, but I live in hope we’ll see it some day. You can read my review of the original The Dark Crystal here.

I interviewed a number of artists for Death Ray, and will be posting the articles here in due course. Hopefully, should I get permission from the artists, accompanied by some of their glorious illustrations.

Froud was a really nice chap to talk to (my rule of thumb is that artists and writers are great to speak with, actors less so), and yes, he really does see fairies…

The Goblin King

A quarter of a century ago, Muppet Master Jim Henson tracked down Brian Froud to provide art direction on The Dark Crystal. We talk to the master of faerie painting about this film, his artworks and his encounters with the other…

Brian Froud paints fairies. His pictures, influenced by the pre-Raphaelite movement, Arthur Rackham and Swedish artist John Bauer, are a mass of detail, of otherworldly faces peeking into the human world.

“I left college as a jobbing illustrator,” he says, “and did all sorts of things for about five years – magazines, book covers, and I got fed up with it. I used to have battles with art directors, until I discovered that any project that I art directed myself I would win awards for. As soon as I created my own things it just worked.”

Froud had always yearned to live in the countryside, so he upped sticks and headed to Devon. The folkloric book Faeries, produced in conjunction with artist Alan Lee (who lives in the same village) came out in 1977. He’s not looked back since.

“When I moved to the country, my response to nature was to paint fantastical creatures, fairies and trolls. It just haunts me, I’m fascinated. I can’t help it. I’ve a book coming out in America called Brian Froud’s World of Faerie. It’s thirty years of my work. It’s a journey through time – my earliest stuff up to the very latest. But it’s also a journey deeper into fairyland, as my art has become more about the spiritual aspects of fairies.”

This journey has taken to Froud to the edge of Faerie itself… The artist says he now sees the little folk. His good-natured tone becomes a little more self-conscious.

“It was just after finishing Good Fairies, Bad Fairies, I was on tour signing and I spontaneously started to see fairies.”

And these positive experiences generally?

“Erm, yes,” he says tentatively. A chuckle breaks his reticence. “Until the white van arrives!” He explains, “As an artist there are various techniques you use to get across an idea, but it has to contain an element of truth. And it’s fascinating to me that when I’m doodling in sketchbooks, I’m looking at these faces, getting them so I can say. ‘Yep, there’s something true there,’ rather than something I’ve made up.”

Ah, so he communicates with the fairies through his art…

“No, no. I am seeing them. Everyone says they want to see a fairy, and they want to see it with their eyes, you know, but you see it with an inner eye. They are psychic experiences. It doesn’t happen all the time, and I can’t make it happen, and it’s always a bit surprising… It’s hard – I paint fairies that feel right, but to paint fairies that look right is difficult. The experience involves so many other things.”

Wherever his art springs from, his appreciation of nature, his own imagination or through a communion with the world of Faerie, Froud’s pictures do have a glamour about them, and carry a lot of emotion for his fans.

“This could be self-delusion,” he says “but my sense of the ‘rightness’ of the pictures comes across from the response I get from people. It’s often about family, their mothers have given their books to them, and they’re going to give their books to their children, or that the books have helped them through terrible experiences, even abuse. The books have given them a safe world to flee into. I’m very humbled and proud that they’ve had such an effect on people.”

Froud’s also known as a conceptual designer on Hensons’ fantasy classics The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and The Storyteller, and for him these experiences remain a high point of his career. Jim Henson saw a picture of Froud’s on a book cover, and thought the artist would be perfect to help him bring to life an idea for a world he’d had. Froud jumped at the chance, and not only because he is a huge fan of the Muppets.

“I’d always wondered what it would be like if my art moved. I figured that traditional animation would not work, because my art doesn’t have depth to it, and so I’d actually thought, well maybe puppets is the way to add that depth.”

Ironically, after hiding himself away in the country, he was to spend much of the next five years in New York and London. But it had many benefits, not least that he met his wife Wendy, a puppeteer, at Hensons.

“Being in the Muppet workshop was like being in heaven. Colours, glue and fur and stuff! Jim and Frank [Oz] would come in and talk about the world, about the sort of creatures that might populate it.”

Froud oversaw every aspect of the design, drawing and sculpting on The Dark Crystal. Initially beginning with a small team, as the crew grew to 360 people, the lone artist had to learn to collaborate, the most satisfying part of the experience.

“It took five years of my life in the end. And I think that’s what makes The Dark Crystal unusual, we did literally build the whole world from the ground upwards. A whole world that had history, it had a religion, it had different animals. Jim was financing it himself until really quite late in the day. That gives it its freedom of expression. Nowadays everything is driven by accountants, I don’t think you’d ever get that freedom again. We made this film for ourselves, it caused confusion when people saw it – they wanted to know who it was for. But we though we didn’t really know, I think it affects everybody.”

This lack of a clear target audience and the release of ET meant that The Dark Crystal was a modest financial success. Froud and Henson’s next  foray into fantasy, Labyrinth (1986), bombed. But both have gathered a large cult following, and Froud expresses amazement at the diversity of different editions he signs at events. Over the years a sequel to The Dark Crystal has been mooted, but it’s only recently that Froud was approached to design creatures for a second film in the series. He was initially less than taken with the idea.

“My first thought was ‘Why’? I’m always up for going on forwards, not going backwards. If we’re going to go back to this world, there’s got to be a reason. Talking to David Odell, who scripted the first, we came up with a reason. When we left this world it was paradise. Now we’re returning, something’s gone wrong; why? For me that’s the intriguing nub of the story. At the moment that’s in the script, but who knows what will happen! Anyway, I’ve done some designs for various creatures, Gelflings and things like that.”

Currently the film is going under the name of The Power of the Dark Crystal. Hensons literature reveals that a much older Jen and Kira, the heroes of the original, are rulers of the Castle of the Crystal. A fiery girl named Thurma from the centre of the planet (early development of The Dark Crystal featured underground civilisations, according to Froud) requests a shard of the crystal to revitalise the inner sun. The Gelflings refuse, so Thurma steals one, leading to the re-emergence of both Mystics and Skeksis.

“They’re still getting the final funding in place,” says Froud. “I spoke to Cheryl Henson at Comic-Con the other week. And she’s confident we’re talking about a 2009 release.”