Monday, August 11, 2008

The show that just won't die

Life must be getting tedious for poor old Stephen Moffat. Another Worldcon, another Hugo for Doctor Who. Sigh. Year after year, regular as a clockwork assassin.
Congrats to Moffat and all that, but what really caught my attention in this year’s awards, was one of the other entrants in the "Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form" category: Star Trek New Voyages World Enough and Time. Unless I've missed something momentous, and a new Trek series is airing that no-one told me about, then surely this is a fan production? Is there such a dearth of quality SF programing that the Hugo selectors have stooped to nominating amateur, unlicensed dramatic fanfic?

Obviously I'm being a leetle obnoxious here. Downright bigoted, in fact. And clearly I have missed something momentous, but more on that later. The notion of fan made continuations of classic series is not alien to me. I was introduced to the notion when I stumbled on a virtual sixth season of Babylon 5, back in ‘99, and there have plenty more since.They occupy a ghostly no-man’s land: by no means canon, but not exactly fanfic, either. More often than not, enthusiasm turns out to be a poor substitute for talent, and none of these projects could ever be accused of professionalism or, to be blunt, ambition. My evaluation of these projects’ ultimate worth changed when I discovered Big Finish, who I grudgingly acknowledged did a fine job producing new, fan made Doctor Who after the series ended. Some of the audio adventures - particularly Spare Parts, The Holy Terror and Chimes of Midnight - surpass their parent show in terms of quality. But World Enough and Time is a full, hour length, visual presentation. Offered for free on the internet. Surely it has the words train-wreck, clusterfuck and the well worn phrase, apparently now trademarked by Lucasfilms, "raped my childhood" all over it. It had to be watched.

Well, if I did it, so should you. Tomorrow I’m going to run in front of a bus. World Enough and Time is the third episode in the New Voyages series, and can be downloaded from a number of mirror sites, listed here, along with the previous stories.

Now, enough of the flippancy. The truth is, I wouldn’t be linking to it if I didn’t think it was worth an hour of your time. I watched it, and to say I was surprised would be an understatement. Not only did I feel ashamed for expecting so little, I finished it wanting more. Yes, my feeble, uncharitable preconceptions were well and truly smashed.

Star Trek New Voyages’ mission statement is to chronicle:

the continuing voyages of Captain Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, NCC-1701 as seen in the 1966-69 television series, Star Trek. The series was cancelled after its third season. We are presenting the series as if it were in its fourth year. We acknowledge that the visual effects are contemporary, but we work hard within out capabilities to keep the effects familiar to fans of the original series.

Despite some hair(line)-raising eyebrow acting and one appalling Scottish accent, they succeed. This is a well made piece of drama, deserving of its nomination.

The Enterprise, responding to a distress signal from a ship that has strayed into the Romulan neutral zone, arrives just in time to watch it atomised by three Romulan birds-of-prey, packing a powerful new weapon. The Enterprise retaliates against the Romulans, but after destroying them and their weapon, is trapped within an inter-dimensional shield. Sulu, accompanied by a computer scientist, pilots a shuttle into the wreckage to salvage a means of freeing the Enterprise. However, when the docking bay is destroyed, and the shuttle lost, the Enterprise has to try and beam them back. Only Sulu returns, but thirty years older. Having been shunted into a parallel universe, he’s lived through all that time while only seconds have passed on the Enterprise. Now with a daughter in tow, he must try and recall the knowledge of the Romulan device and save the Enterprise. The price he must pay to do this is almost beyond bearing.

The CGI used in the project is decent, and the script rock solid, with excellent characterisaton, a compelling complication, plenty of alarming reversals and a strong moral dilemma at its core. And the denoument is spot on.

That the script was of a high calibre oughtn’t be surprising, given that the writing credits of Michael Reaves and Marc Scott Zicree could probably shame many of us. Episode two, To Serve all My Days, was penned by the legend that is D.C Fontana, and the upcoming Blood and Fire is by David Gerrold (The Trouble with Tribbles).

I’ve never subscribed to, or properly understood, the fanatical devotion inspired by Gene Roddenberry’s creation, famously described as “Wagon Train in space,” but anything that can drive any group of people to create such a high quality, clearly demanding labour of love, and then offer it up for free, has to have been a worthwhile endeavour. Roddenberry, and everyone attached to this series, and its various “sister” projects, can be proud of their achievements, and their greatly appreciated altruism.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Got an X-Box 360? Get Braid.

Braid is the most ingenious, thoughtful, fulfilling game I’ve played since Ico. It debuted on X-Box Live Arcade on Wednesday, after several years in development, and in a matter of days has taken the gaming world by storm. Hyperbole? When you read the game’s description, you might think so:

Braid is a puzzle-platformer, drawn in a painterly style, where the player manipulates the flow of time in strange and unusual ways. From a house in the city, journey to a series of worlds and solve puzzles to rescue an abducted princess. In each world, you have a different power to affect the way time behaves, and it is time's strangeness that creates the puzzles. The time behaviors include: the ability to rewind, objects that are immune to being rewound, time that is tied to space, parallel realities, time dilation, and perhaps more. Braid treats your time and attention as precious; there is no filler in this game. Every puzzle shows you something new and interesting about the game world.

Nothing much original there, you might imagine. Portal was all the puzzle game I need, thanks, and we’ve all seen time go backwards, or haven’t you played Prince of Persia? And anyway - 2D? HDTV might be the source of a sprite renaissance, but no-one who’s serious about games is going to give it a second look.

You may assume that because this is a 2D platformer, downloadable content hosted by X-Box Live Arcade, it’s in some way a less than legitimate game. That if it hasn’t had $100 million spent on development, PR and marketing, it’s no more than a simple product for the casual gaming crowd. But to call Braid a casual game is to miss the point as spectacularly as those who would call Watchmen a comic for people who don’t read comics. It draws from the entire history of a medium to tell a story that can only be told effectively using the tools of the medium, in a way that uses the medium’s conventions to comment upon itself, its audience and the world. Like life, it provides no instructions; you learn the rules by observing the world around you, and its interactions, and then you break them. Braid goes so much further in the way it uses time as a gameplay mechanic than anything that came before it that it’s almost a quantum leap. When you first create a parallel version of yourself to solve a puzzle, I promise you, your mind will be blown.

Because listen, this not just a game that uses time to forestall death, a la Prince of Persia; this is a game about time. About growth, and development, and regret for the things you can’t take back. It’s a game whose design, with its two-dimensional environment, created beautifully in bold watercolour strokes that look glorious on an HDTV, and whose soundtrack, classical and subdued, together generate an atmosphere that transports you to other places, other times, and totally complement the game’s metaphorical and allegorical storyline.

This is not just a game about time, but a game about history. It’s a game that looks back though the medium’s past and synthesises influences to create something wonderful; not merely nostalgia for an eight bit past, but a love letter to the “princess.” WIth an art style that evokes Yoshi’s Island, and levels inspired by Donkey Kong, Braid is an outright paean to gaming’s development.

It’s a game that shows us, through little more than fiendish level design, that we’re always changing, but rarely recognise it. That you have to look back to go forwards. That sometimes, you don’t know how far you’ve come until you return to the start, or that you can be minding your own business when suddenly, something - the scent of perfume, a snatch of music, a bird’s ascent - throws you back in time. Most of all, it reaffirms that the present doesn’t make sense, is a chaotic place, and only coalesces, if we’re lucky, into a narrative based around ourselves when we can look back at it from a point outside time, outside our own lives and experience. Generally, we can’t do that while we’re alive, so we use art to look at the lives of others. We inhabit, temporarily, the worlds of constructs, and seek to extract from them knowledge that can enrich and explain our existence. The very best of these worlds can change the way you look at your own.

Braid holds that honour. You really should experience it for yourself.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Ita in vita ut in lusu alae pessima jactura arte corrigenda est

There’s been not a lot of note going on in the world of TV lately. In the UK, plenty of new shows have premiered: Bonekickers (still ludricrous but no longer shit), Harley Street (honestly, was anyone in need of more docs on the box?), House of Saddam (Godfather in Iraq), and Burn Up (trashy polemical); while the altogether higher quality Mad Men, Burn Notice and Saving Grace have returned to American screens. ABC Family have introduced The Middleman, of which I have no idea what to think, but suspect I enjoy. The other ABC have been airing The Hollowmen, which is a tamer version of The Thick of It. Subsequently, it’s a lot less funny, but still fun to watch.

Yesterday, there was a perfect storm of telly news. In the UK, it looks like Holby Blue has been axed in order to maintain the purity of the Holby brand. That the brand was applied by a filthy, hot poker, and is leaking pus all over the nation’s TV screens matters to nobody. Poor old Red Planet - that’s two out of three shows down, now. As long as it stays at that ratio, and Moving Wallpaper gets a second stab, I’ll be happy.

I was convinced its appalling first season would be Robin Hood’s only chance to target the appreciation index, but back it came for season two, despite Budapest being a poor stand-in for Sherwood, and Keith Allen being a terrible stand-in for Alan Rickman; who was himself a pale, mooncast shadow of Nikolas Grace. Season three is on its way, but the news that poor wikkle Jonas Armstrong will be too tired to continue further must surely be the drama’s death knell. Tiger Aspect can’t possibly regenerate Robin Hood, though they might be out there, looking for their Jason Connery, right now. Let’s all move on. Ivanhoe, anyone? Treasure Island? Moonfleet?

Well, that’s my humble nation dispatched with. Over in the States, there’s good news for those who love original and offbeat writing; bad news if you’re of a superstitious nature, and believe there ain’t no-luck-but bad-luck. TV jinx Darin Morgan has been bought onto staff at Fringe, the new JJ Abrams opus. Morgan’s most recent gigs were Bionic Woman and Night Stalker. Better luck this time, sir.

Battlestar Galactica may well be coming to an end in ten episodes – though they might all be seventy minute episodes, the way things are going – and Caprica may be we all get of Ron Moore in 2008. But it looks as though the show intends to live on. Jane Espenson has been announced as the writer of a further prequel, to be directed by Edward James Olmas, which is due to air after the series finale airs, sometime in 2009.

Finally, AMC, having recreated the early sixties in all it’s sexist, entitled glory, are turning their hands to the down-beat, crime-ridden, paranoia-driven seventies, with a series version of Francis Ford Coppala’s inter-Godfather gem, The Conversation. Apparently, NBC tried this in ’95, but got nowhere. I’d love to see someone capture the Easy Rider, Raging Bull film sensibility and whack it onto telly. If this pans out, it could be the greatest series ever. Tip out that sax, Harry!