Posts Tagged ‘Death Ray’

I was always disappointed by Torchwood. It had its moments, but mostly it was just very silly. I heard that series creator Davies (who I should say here is generally an exceptional writer/producer) thought Death Ray couldn’t get over the gay sex. That is not the case. We couldn’t give a monkeys, and the most moving relationship in Torchwood was a homosexual one. What bugged us was that everybody was shagging everybody else all the time, and that the team was so damned incompetent. Torchwood was arch farce, not the “grown-up” SF we were promised.This miniseries, however, was really rather good. A highpoint for the show. This review of it was originally published in Death Ray #21 in the autumn of 2009.


2009/295 mins

Directors: Euros Lyn

Writers: Russel T Davies, John Fay, James Moran,

Starring: John Barrowman, Eve Miles, Gareth David-Lloyd, Kai Owen, Peter Capaldi, Liz May Brice, Cush Jumbo, Lucy Cohu, Paul Copley

It’s shiny! It’s scary! It’s exciting! It’s got a lot less silly sex! Torchwoooood! Lemme hear you sing it Torchwoooooooooood!

Torchwood! Oh how much you have promised, and so little you have delivered, until now. What can we say? We can say: ‘Well done!’

Personally, aside from a few episodes, I’ve loathed the show. It promised us ‘adult science fiction’. Torchwood has not been adult, it has had the sensibilities of a randy teenager, and its welter of bi-curious bonking was a poor stand-in for characterisation. We don’t care who our characters are boffing, but we do like is my characters to be believable. A lot of the time, the sex was in there purely because it could be, not because it should be. It never really helped itself, Torchwood, undermining the bits that did work, like the tender relationship between Jack and Ianto. Lastly, they’re a bunch of clowns, unprofessional to the end. Above the UN? Responsible for the security of planet Earth? Bollocks. They couldn’t run a branch of Gregg’s The Bakers.

Some of this remains true in Children of Earth, where evil aliens known only as ‘the 456′ demand 10% of Earth’s children. The klutzy Torchwood are nearly destroyed. Although they put themselves back together quite neatly, the special ops outfit run by the stern-faced Johnson (Liz May Brice) is more how we’d imagine Earth’s frontline defences to work. She’s an A-grade grafter compared to Torchwood’s common room slackers. I mean, the Hubmobile gets stolen by kids. Torchwood are chumps.

There are other weaknesses in Children of Earth. Like, the Earth has stood up to bigger threats before. Would a government really destroy its best anti-ET agency to cover up something that happened 40 years ago? Would the Americans really be able to waltz in and take over? Nope.

Then there’s Ianto’s death scene. It’s very moving until until Jack (Barrowman), crouched over his dead lover, looks as if he is about to burst into song…

But it’s breakneck, and it piles on the tension. The Torchwood moments are still ridiculous, but they entertain and they’re exciting. (The epitome of both Torchwood’s general incompetence and the series pep has to be the moment when Captain Jack blackmails his way into the alien’s audience chamber. Cock out, metaphorically speaking, he tries to out macho them, and it goes horribly, horribly wrong).

There’s a dissonance between Torchwood’s Keystone cops adventures and the sober, sweaty scenes where the cabinet debate how to fulfil the aliens’ terrible demands. Peter Capaldi’s Frobisher, a hardworking mid-level civil servant ground up in the cogs of history, is a marvellous character. Ironically, when Torchwood are not on screen, it’s great televison. But mostly, the mix works well.

This is what adult means, not giggly snogging precipitated by alien jizz. This is a story no-one comes out of well, the pressure of the story stamps out well-moulded characters and good performances from all. When Captain Jack is called upon to make a sacrifice of unconscionable magnitude at the end, that is the moment Torchwood finally grows up.

Extras: ‘Children of Earth: Declassified’ (30 mins) takes us behind the scenes of the show, and Eve Myles gives us a few pages of breathy Welshness with a Torchwood audio book extract.

A decidedly odd end to this strange remake. From Death Ray #19. Read more about the show here.


The US version on Life on Mars, cancelled, takes a rather literal turn. SPOILER ALERT! We really blow the whole thing here. Meanwhile, back in 1982 DI Drake has a new set of problems to tackle.

Either the finale of the US Life on Mars is a stunningly daring piece of television, or it’s bollocks. Jury’s out. If you plan to watch it, turn away now, because there is a gargantuan spoiler on its way…

…now. Okay, so the final episode has Sam under pressure. His younger self has been kidnapped by his criminal dad Vic. Meanwhile, the mysterious phone voice that has been bugging him throughout the series gives Sam three tasks to complete if he wants to go home. Vic is confronted and shot dead as he’s about to kill Sam, after revealing that he knows Sam is his son. Annie ‘No Nuts’ is promoted to detective, she and Sam kiss. Sam tells the phone voice to get stuffed, because he likes 1973. This transpires to be the final task, and Sam is returned home… to 2035! He’s been on board a spaceship to Mars all along. What?!

We’ll be honest here and say we did not see that coming.

Sam’s been in a VR dream for the trip to Mars. He chose to be a cop in 2008, but the ship was rocked by a meteor storm, so Windy (who is actually the ship’s computer) had to tinker with his adventure, er, by sending him to 1973. The space probe that Sam kept seeing is a ship-board minibot. The ‘gene hunt’ is that for Martian ‘genetic DNA ‘ (um, is there another kind?). Annie is in command of the mission, and Keitel turns out to be Major Tom(!), Sam’s dad.

No doubt the writers will one day come clean as to whether or not they planned this from the beginning. For now, in favour of this being the intended denouement is the regular appearance of the space probe, Ray calling Sam ‘spaceman’ consistently throughout and young Sam being fascinated by space. On the other hand, if the references to hospitals and inference of angels are red herrings, they are members of a suspiciously coherent shoal. The cast make the most unlikely band of astronauts ever, while NASA would never put a warring father and son on board a long-term mission together (Sam’s time in the ’70s is sold to us as a big metaphor for filial/ paternal conflict). It makes very little sense, especially with all the scenes where Sam is not present (who’s experiencing them, eh?). The tasks are weak. There’s a flashforward to 2010, out of place alongside the ultimate denouement, and lots of silly justifications for the slang used throughout. Most egregious is the feeble “I was supposed to be in 2008″ explanation for why Sam’s so au fait with the period, and that nearly breaks the concept. Wry Bowie quotes are shoehorned in quick succession to foreshadow the ending, only for Elton John to sing us out. As you’d expect, most of the plot points from earlier episodes are left guttering, like, well, candles in the wind.

It’s a brittle resolution, but to say they had to wrap it up all of a sudden, it does the job. A decidedly odd end to a mostly inferior remake.

In September 2009, Death Ray closed and my career as a journalist/editor began to wind down. Fortunately, weeks before I had secured a book contract for Reality 36. Shortly thereafter came the one for Baneblade.  I had always wanted to be a “writer with a capital W”. Unemployment enabled (forced?) me to try. My current career as a full-time (more or less) writer of fiction started.

Since then, I have written:

10 novels (one still looking for a home, if you’re interested).

Four novellas.

31 short stories (I think).

I have also edited one factual book and six magazines, provided background text for two game worlds and done various other bits and pieces.

I estimate I’ve written about 1.3 million words in that time. Not bad. When I started out on this particular road, I figured I’d give it two years to see where it was going. Initially I worked a variety of roles in publishing, but these days I’m pretty much doing nothing but fiction. Things could go either way still, as  I personally don’t believe I’m established enough to relax yet. In particular, I could really do with a non-Black Library book that sells well. But I’m safe in my basement office for the time being. I have the freedom that I craved, and have been able to bring my son up. We’ve had some lean years, but although I don’t yet think I can say “success”, I’ve moved a long way from failure.

So if you’ve bought one of my books, I must say thank you very much. If you enjoyed it too, that’s even better.

I said earlier this week that I don’t do much journalistic work any more. But I still do the odd spot of editing. The Sci-Fi Chronicles was this year’s big editorial job. As it was released yesterday, I thought I’d write a little about what editors do.

Editing is a loose word for a wide range of roles. I’ve edited special editions for SFX where I’ve been responsible for everything in the magazine bar the subject matter. That is, determining the tone, planning and commissioning the contents, controlling the production process, collaborating with the designers on the look, helping source photography, liaising with the advertising sales people, then checking all aspects of it before signing it off. On Death Ray I was working under an editor-in-chief, so had less overall say and responsibility. White Dwarf was very different, its contents being dictated by Games Workshop’s release cycle. (more…)

This is the second of two interviews I’ve done with Raymond E. Feist, conducted in late spring 2008 for Death Ray #12. He’s a somewhat bombastic, very talkative man, yet unlike some of the “white male writers with beards” contingent I’ve spoken to, his self-confidence (and he is supremely self-confident) never tips over into offensive arrogance. Further points in his favour are his candour, and his professionalism (as far as one can judge it from outside).

I loved his books as an adolescent, but got bored after five or so of them. Although this is standard for me with most writers, in this case it was part of a wider process of disenchantment with epic fantasy. I abandoned the genre in the late 1980s, not returning to it until I began working on SFX in 1997, and then only under sufferance. A combination of my own developing tastes and my urge to experience new worlds and new writers, I suppose. More frankly, I kept reading book after book that was just awful. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy fantasy, and read more of it now than I did. But unlike science fiction, it’s harder to find fantasy’s gems amid the dreck. For a long while I became exhausted looking for them.

You could point at Feist, with his umpteen books, as the bannerman for the franchisation of the genre and its domination by an industry standard of tediously predictable frolics, but so what? More power to him. He writes stories people enjoy, and is rewarded for it. That’s the way it should be. And he is, let it be said, among the better multi-book fantasy saga writers.

Speaking to Feist is a bit like being hit by a very large wave. Overwhelming but fun. When all’s said and done, he’s very hard not to like.

He’s one of the top-selling fantasy authors on the planet, a powerhouse of prose whose 24-book (and growing) Riftwar cycle dwarfs those of even the most prolific author. A real magician of words, He’s Raymond E. Feist, and he likes to talk.

At twenty-four books long, the Riftwar saga is one of the most extensive of all the grand fantasy epics. Written by Californian Raymond E. Feist over a period of more than 30 years, Riftwar began with the smash hit Magician, first published in 1982. Magician is typical of the genre, a huge fat wedge of a book. Beginning with the story of an orphaned boy, Pug, before opening up to cover a decade of interplanetary war. Feist’s books are not art with a capital “A” (his own words), they’re derived from a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting he and his friends created while they were at university in San Diego, and contain the full Tolkien menagerie of Elves, Dwarves and so forth. So far, so familiar.

Where they are not typical is in their expert artifice. Feist is a master of fast-paced epic storytelling, his characters are heroic but mortal, struggling through massive wars with enemies both human and monstrous who gain access to his the world of Midkemia via magical “rifts” (we’re talking a wizardly stargate here). Magician is a masterclass in storytelling, a sweeping epic which sees Midkemia plunged into chaos as men from the world of Kelewan invade without warning. Caught up in the decade-long conflict are the boy Pug and his adopted brother Tomas both of whom, by different paths, become powerful men. Feist’s books are set against an intricate backdrop which, though initially it appears to have been drawn from the usual catalogue of fantasylands, is a superior example of the type. On the cover of his latest Wrath of a Mad God, a quote describes his work as “A guilty pleasure”. That this grudging praise comes from The Guardian newspaper says it all – this guy is good at what he does. (more…)


Along with The Wrath of Khan, this is actually my favourite Star Trek film.

A feature on Star Trek‘s first cinematic outing, originally published in Death Ray 17 at the beginning of 2009.

Loved by some as the best of the Trek movies, hated by others for its ponderous pace, Star Trek: The Motion Picture at least brought Kirk and co. out of retirement. Guy Haley examines its troubled genesis.

Of all SF TV series, the original Star Trek remains the undisputed king. No other TV show has had such an impact on the genre as a whole, or spawned such a sprawling franchise. But its early history was rocky, with its future importance little in evidence. Cancelled after three years, in 1969 (it had, in fact, only narrowly evaded cancellation the previous year), it would be ten years and many near misses before Star Trek: The Motion Picture hit the big screen, and modern Star Trek would take off in a big way.

Trek‘s original viewing figures were low, but it built an audience for itself through endless reruns in syndication. In time it was to return as an animated show (1973-74), but these were lean years for Trek-creator Gene Roddenberry. Aside from the animated series, success continued to elude him. His film Pretty Maids All in a Row for MGM was only modestly successful. Of his many ideas for further TV shows, only four made it to pilots, and none to full series. Though the popularity of Star Trek continued to grow, for a few years he was unable to find work in the film and TV industry, and was forced to make ends meet by taking to the lecture circuit.

Finally, in 1975, development work on a possible feature film began. Scripts by such awesome SF demigods as Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Silverberg and Harlan Ellison were received and rejected. Finally, in 1977 a script entitled “Star Trek: Planet of the Titans” by Chris Bryant and Allan Scott was greenlit, but before pre-production started, Star Wars came out, and a cagey Paramount canned the project for fear that the market would not cope with another big SF movie.

Instead, they would reinvent Star Trek for the small screen. Star Trek Phase II was announced. It was to be the spearhead of Paramount’s programmes for a brand-new network which would otherwise show TV movies. The show would bring back the old cast bar Leonard Nimoy (he was trying to disassociate himself from the character, and had had legal issues with both Roddenberry and Paramount to boot) and introduce new characters: Ilia, a bald, hypersexual Deltan, Decker, Kirk’s new executive Officer, and Lieutenant Xon, a full-blooded Vulcan right out of Starfleet Academy. A two-hour opening episode named “In Thy image”, based on an idea of Roddenberry’s for his abandoned show Genesis II, was written by Alan Dean Foster. Experienced TV director Robert E. Collins was hired to direct, and work got underway. But all was not quite as secure as it seemed, and the series was never to be made…

Paramount had worked out as early as August of 1977 that they could not make their new channel work. Unwilling to reveal this to their competitors, they kept it secret, and that included not telling the crew of Star Trek: Phase II. Actors were hired, 13 scripts written, sets built and miniatures completed. Then, in March of ’78, a full nine months after the decision to stop the project, Paramount-head Michael Eisner called a shock meeting: the series and the network were being dropped, but had decided to turn the pilot into a movie. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was born, its tumultuous conception a foretaste of things to come.

Though the story of the pilot (a dangerous alien intelligence comes to Earth looking for its creator. It turns out to be the now god-like Voyager probe) was retained for the movie, Alan Dean Foster was shut out, deemed too inexperienced to pen a movie, and the Writer’s Guild had to step in to ensure his name was retained on the script at all. Roddenberry did not get on very well with new script writer Harold Livingston. Livingston, an old hand, had attempted to recruit several other writers but ending up writing the script himself. The two argued so much that Livingston threatened to quit several times. The result was a script that was endlessly rewritten. Interference from executives and actors added to the turmoil, and daily drafts became the norm. In the end, the finale where Decker merges with Voyager was made up on the day of shooting.

Collins was also given the boot and replaced by Robert Wise (ST:TMP was to be his third SF film). He inherited a film that was ten weeks behind schedule before a single shot had been filmed. The script was unfinished, the sets needed upgrading to movie standard, casting and costuming had to be revisited… Wise, who was convinced to take the role by his Trek-mad wife, became so worried he considered throwing in the towel too, and tried to convince Paramount to can the project altogether.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is rightfully remembered for its fantastic effects work, but these, like so much else on the film, proved problematic to produce. Robert Abel Associates, the company hired to provide the effects, were dropped when it looked like they could not cope with the scale of the job. Paramount offered Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey) a big pot of cash if he could get all the work done by the Christmas release date. He dropped most of the already completed effects (only the wormhole sequence is a full Abel effect). Trumbull sub-contracted John Dykstra, and employed the effects team off the just completed Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Trumbull also wrote and directed the sequence where Spock goes deep into V’Ger in a spacesuit, completing it at the last minute. (An earlier version of this sequence had been part filmed but abandoned after it was calculated that just removing the wires from the shot would consume most of the effects budget.)

The models used were large – the Enterprise model was eight feet long – but not large enough to allow the detail shots the production needed, so Trumbull had to commission a special periscope camera system from Panavision. A further problem was that the depth of fields in many shots required exposure times counted in minutes, substantially adding to production time. All this helped make Star Trek: The Motion Picture come in at $46,000,000, the most expensive film ever made at the time.

Post-production went on until the day before the film was released. The copies were shipped wet, straight from the duplication lab, and airlifted to their destinations. Neither sound mix nor effects shots were fully completed until the 2001 release of the Director’s Edition.

Critical reception for the film was mixed. Roddenberry was wary of drawing comparison with fantasy of Star Wars, so had pushed the film in a more serious direction. (To date, this remains the only Trek film in which the phasors are not fired). Regarded as ponderous and self-important, critics dubbed it the “Slow-Motion” and “Motionless” picture, and pointed out that the plot is very similar to that of the second season episode “The Changeling”. The film’s gross, roughly three times that of its cost, was a disappointment to Paramount. But others praised its effects, and Jerry Goldsmith, who began a long association with Star Trek with TMP, was nominated for an Oscar for his score.

Its influence on later Star Trek was pronounced. Its slowness and lack of action prolonged the franchise’s push and pull battle between serious SF concepts and cosy space opera (Roddenberry, often in the middle of this particular storm, was virtually frozen out of the next film, which was to be a swashbuckling space adventure) and it introduced many things – music, make-up, cinematic sensibilities, even the Klingon language – that we regard as uniquely Trek. Star Trek was back to stay.

Star Trek Fact File

A dozen Star Trek The Motion Picture factoids for your edification.

  1. Gene asked his wife Majel if she’d don a furry tail and reprise M’Ress, the catwoman she’d voiced in the cartoon. She demured and played Doctor Chapel instead.
  2. This is the first time Klingon and Vulcan are spoken on screen. James “Scotty” Doohan wrote words for both languages (the Vulcan words were dubbed over actors were speaking English, so he devised words that fit the lip movements). Marc Okrand later used the Klingon words as the basis for his Klingon Language.
  3. The cast were getting older when the film was made – William Shatner was 48, DeForrest Kelley 59, James Doohan 59, Leonard Nimoy 48, and Nichelle Nicholls 46. Special lighting and camera tricks were used to hide their age, and Shatner went on a crash diet.
  4. The scene where Kirk addresses the crew before they set out involved many notable extras. Including Bjo Trimble who co-organised the letter campaign that led to Star Trek coming back for a third year. David Gerrold, who wrote “The Trouble With Tribbles”, Robert Wise’s wife, Millicent and James Doohan’s twin sons Montgomery and Christopher.
  5. The costumes for the alien crew members were leftovers from the 10 Commandments.
  6. The NX-01 was nearly inserted digitally into the shots of Decker showing Ilia previous ships named Enterprise when the film was tarted up in 2001. Though this did not happen, the ringed SS Enterprise from the pictures appeared in Star Trek: Enterprise instead.
  7. The V’Ger prop was so large that one end of it was being used in scenes while the other end was still being built.
  8. Chekhov was going to be killed, this was changed so he just injured his hand.
  9. Uhura’s ear-pieces are the only props from the original series – they forgot to make new ones.
  10. It is the longest Trek film, and the only one to break the two hour mark.
  11. Wise made Goldsmith redo his score, as he said it “sounded like sailing ships.”
  12. A bizarre electronic device, the Blaster Beam, was one of many different instruments used in the score. It was 15 feet long, and was played by hitting it with an artillery shell. This was made by Craig Hundley, who had played two guest roles in the original series when he was a child.
Did you know…?

It’s often assumed that Alan Dean Foster ghost wrote Gene Roddenberry’s novelisation of the film. This is not the case. Foster wrote the script for the original pilot episode of Star Trek: Phase II, upon which the film was based. He did write the novelisation of Star Wars, but he did not write the Star Trek book.