Saxon Bullock

Writer, Journalist, Copy-Editor and Proofreader

Category: Articles (page 1 of 6)

From The Vault: Richard Morgan Interview (2002)

(Another resurrected post from previous iterations of my website – this is an interview I did with SF author Richard Morgan back in 2002, shortly after the release of his first novel, the turbo-charged SF thriller ‘Altered Carbon’. The interview was for an online magazine set up by some friends of mine who worked at a bookshop, and I’m still proud of it – even though I’d only been professionally writing for two years, so I’ve still got plenty to learn here…)

There are certain things prospective book authors have to tell themselves in order to keep their sanity. Don’t expect huge acclaim first time around. It’ll take a long time to establish yourself. And don’t even bother thinking about the film rights…

For 35 year old Richard Morgan, things have worked out rather differently. With his funky, dark and razor-sharp debut novel Altered Carbon he’s gained the kind of widespread acclaim most self-respecting authors would commit mass murder for, while Hollywood has already come calling;- the film rights have been enthusiastically snapped up by Matrix producer Joel Silver for a seven figure sum.

Take a look at the novel, and it’s not difficult to see why so many people are getting excited. It’s a dark William Gibson-edged crime thriller set in San Francisco a few centuries from now, when the main difference in society is the ability to digitally record the soul and download personalities into new bodies after death. Dying is no longer an obstacle thanks to the “sleeving” technology (as long as you’re not Catholic and you have the right insurance policy) and prisons exist digitally, meaning that while you’re incarcerated for a minor crime, someone else can either rent or purchase your body. Crashing into this society comes Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-member of a UN sponsored gang of borderline psychotics called the Envoys, who is downloaded into an unfamiliar body and unwillingly hired by the wealthy and near-immortal Laurens Bancroft. His mission is to investigate Bancroft’s recent (but not final) death, a mystery that the Police are viewing as suicide but which Bancroft views as murder.

Naturally, this investigation soon spirals out of control and Kovacs finds himself caught between the police, the criminal underworld and a face from his past… but what’s most suprising about Altered Carbon is how effectively it manages to weld provocative and adventurous cyberpunk sci-fi onto a slick, gripping and page-turning crime thriller. Oozing the kind of attitude found in classic crime writers like James Ellroy or Jim Thompson, it’s an effortless read that, like the best noir, manages moments of profundity amidst suprising plot twists and some genuinely shocking violence. To find out more, here’s Richard Morgan himself, on life, brutality, karma, and that vaguely worrying interest in firearms…


How did the idea for Altered Carbon first develop?

It started out from an argument I was having with a Buddhist. The point of conflict was the karma system. He was arguing any suffering you undergo in this life is a direct result of something bad you did in a previous life, which sounds fair until you realise that you can’t actually remember any of your previous lives. Then, it suddenly starts to sound existentially pretty fucking unfair. After all, if you can’t remember a previous life then to all intents and purposes that life was lived by another person. And why should you be paying for someone else’s crimes?

Once I got hold of the idea, it fascinated me and I couldn’t let it go. I decided that I wanted to tell a crime story based around this injustice. And since I’m not in any way a religious man, the only way I could make it work was to go shopping for the hardware in the SF Mall of Fame. There are precedents for the kind of technology Altered Carbon describes all the way back to writers like Robert Sheckley and there’s even an episode of the original Star Trek that has the same basic premise. So I just ransacked the genre and made off with the goods. Later on, of course, I had to sit down and figure out how to make all this stuff work in a social and political context, and that was where the fun really started.

Where did you grow up, and when did you start writing?

I was born in London, bustled out in my crib to East Anglia aged 5 months and subsequently spent the next seventeen years of my life in and around Norwich. Not a bad place to grow up if you don’t count the total lack of bumps in the landscape – Norfolk looks as if Slartibartfast took a huge pair of scissors and cut out any geographical feature more than about ten metres above sea level. I grew up just outside Norwich in a semi rural dormitory village called Hethersett. It was a very restful, stress free upbringing, aided and abetted by incredibly supportive parents and a series of private schools old fashioned enough to try to hammer my natural idleness out of me. In 1983 I got into Queens’ College Cambridge where for the first time I found myself surrounded by people as smart or smarter than me – I never got over the shock and recoiled out of academia three years later with a very average degree in political history.

By that time I’d decided I only wanted two things out of life;- One, to be a writer and Two to travel as extensively as possible. As a result I didn’t really bother with things like earning a decent living until about a year later when it became apparent that my seminal short stories weren’t going to (a) make me famous, (b) pay the rent or (c) get published. I consoled myself by qualifying to teach EFL and pissing off forthwith to exotic locations (specifically Turkey, which back then was still pretty much untouristed). I’ve been an EFL teacher and trainer of one sort or another ever since. I lived mostly in London and Madrid with some extensive time out in North and Central America. Writing was a spare time thing until….today actually. September 20th 2002 is the official date of my leaving the teaching profession and becoming a full time SF writer. Timing´s good – after fourteen years in the classroom, I’m about ready for a change.

Kovacs is definitely an “old school” noir hero, and in no way afraid of inflicting serious damage on people. Was it difficult or therapeutic to have a borderline psychopath as the main character?

The latter, definitely. You need the patience of a saint and the outlook of a hippie to survive in TEFL. There are actually teacher training books with titles like “Caring and Sharing in the EFL Classroom” – and worse still, if you’re going to do the job well, you have to buy into that dynamic, at least to a certain extent.

You end up spending a lot of your time being kind and supportive to people who in some cases you’d really rather just punch out. I mean, what can you do when a student – a group of students actually – front you with something like “Ah, yes, Hitler – now he really knew how to handle the Jews.” That’s an extreme case, of course, but it did actually happen to a colleague of mine. And there are a host of less offensive but thoroughly unpleasant attitudes to be found in the heads of some of the people you teach. And for some reason these people seem to feel that the EFL classroom is the ideal place to just come out with all this shit. So Kovacs dripped out of me one corrosive drop at a time, as the side of my character I had to repress in order to do my job well.

How did you approach the extreme violence in the book- and were there ever any points where you thought you might have gone too far?

You can’t ever go too far with violence. You either write it or you don´t. If you choose to avoid it, that’s fine, but if not, you’ve got to do it justice. I’ve taken some stick for passages in Altered Carbon which people complained had sickened them, but then violence should be sickening. I have no time for the sanitised approach you find in so much contemporary literature and film – the gun battles where bullets make neat red holes and bad guys fall conveniently and quietly dead, the interrogations where people get slapped about a bit and then rescued. Or worse still the Lock, Stock brand of violence where it’s all seen as a bit of a giggle and as long as you’re enough of a cheeky geezer, it all comes out OK. It´s precisely because of this “light” approach that we misunderstand the subject of violence so badly. I´m not interested in pursuing that line. Where violence arises in my books, it is intended to shock, to horrify and to some extent to get the reader to face up to their own ambiguity on the subject. Because we all like seeing the bad guys taken down, but we don´t usually like it so much when the flesh and blood reality of that act is rubbed in our faces. That ambiguity is exactly what I´m after.

The image of the future is incredibly detailed- how much did you work out before hand, and how much came out of the process of writing the novel?

It’s been a process of marinating more than anything else. The basic ideas for Altered Carbon have been kicking around in my head since at least 1993, and before that I’d written a couple of short stories featuring Kovacs and variants on the Protectorate universe. So I already had a lot of the background detail to hand, carefully aged in casks of reflection and unpublished brooding. Obviously that made it very easy to throw out hints and references along the way, but the process of writing also generated a lot of circumstantial stuff.

In a lot of cases it´s hard to remember which is which. Kovac’s home planet Harlan’s World, the Martians and the general process of diaspora are all ten year old single malt, laid down back in the early nineties, but the Meths were invented on the spur of the moment to provide a realistic backdrop for the characters of Laurens and Miriam Bancroft. The Envoys were a bit of a blend – in an attenuated form they’ve been around as long as any other element in the story, but a lot of the finer detail was added later on. And to be honest, that accumulation of detail is an on-going process. There’s a lot of new stuff on the Envoys in the second novel, Broken Angels, as well as more about the Martians and the archaeologues. The third novel, which I’m working on now, goes back to Harlan’s World and takes a closer look at some of the cultural and historical influences that have made Kovacs who he is. The great thing about having invented a universe like this is that you then have a practically unlimited licence to explore it.

There’s a convincing edge to the drug sequences, as well as an amazing amount of detail about the various weapons (particularly when Kovacs goes shopping for guns). How much was research and how much was experience?

I must be a walking advertisement for the Nature Not Nuture argument, because I was brought up next best thing to a pacifist and still managed to develop the standard unhealthy male fascination with guns. I wouldn´t like to say what it is. Something about their functionality, something about the power to reach out over distance and do damage. In my teens I became quite the little expert on contemporary small arms, and though the phase seems to have passed – I don’t subscribe to Guns and Ammo or own any firearms of my own – the base knowledge has stood me in good stead. I find I acquire new arms-related data almost effortlessly – very often I’m hard put to remember where I read/watched/heard the information, but it´s there. This is confusing for me because, as I said, I’m not into weapons in any discernable way. Kovacs, of course, is. He’s a soldier after all, so he needs to be conversant with the technology of killing. I don´t know, maybe he’s just a distillation of my own repressed fascination with the area. Put it down to being incurably male, I suppose.

The drugs – well, that’s another story. I can hardly lay claim to a misspent youth, but I think I’ve taken my share of illicit recreational chemicals (not to mention the licit ones, which were probably more dangerous and damaging) and I’m at a complete loss to understand the current hysteria about (pounding drums) “THE DRUG PROBLEM”. (There isn’t one, of course – the PROBLEM is poverty and a whole stack of other issues that no-one wants to look closely at, but that´s another rant). So anyway, I had enough background experience to describe altered and altering states of consciousness without too much difficulty. For the rest, it was imagination and wishful thinking. Who wouldn´t want to score some Merge Nine if the stuff only existed.

Did you ever expect the film rights to be sold for so much money?

Basically – no. In fact, I didn´t really expect the film rights to be sold at all. It had never occurred to me that Altered Carbon would make good cinema, until I found myself being taken out to lunch by a London film company the day after the book was launched. Later on, I heard that a number of major studios had shown interest at the London Book Fair, and finally Gollancz told me that an agency in Los Angeles had taken Altered Carbon on. At that point I pretty much had to believe that if it sold, it would go for a good price, because those guys don’t mess about with pennies. Brutally speaking, they operate on commission, and it wouldn´t have been worth their while putting in the work unless they had high hopes of a high price.

Could you ever see yourself going all “Iain Banks/Iain M Banks” and writing either a modern day crime novel or something completely non-genre?

Right now I´ve got at least another three SF novels lined up, plus ideas for a revisionist sword and sorcery epic. I suppose I might come up with something non-genre at some point, but it isn´t on the horizon at the moment and to be honest, having just arrived on the SF scene, I´d like to just stick around and do some more work. The great thing about SF is that you’re free to do pretty much what you want (I’m not one of these respect-the-physics types) and then stand or fall by the limits you set yourself. That´s very much my temperament

What was the first story you ever wrote?

The first piece of fiction outside of my English Studies exercise book was an SF short called Process. I wrote it when I was about 13 or 14; it’s about an unfortunate collision between an alien, fauna-eating plant and a human criminal on the run in a wrecked spaceship. The human lands on the plant’s world, gets attacked by the plant in standard Quatermass-type fashion and…dies. Haha, shock twist! Unfortunately for the plant, Earth-derived bodily juices turn out to be rather stronger than those of the local fauna with the result that the usual osmosis goes into reverse and the human protagonist’s blood sucks the plant’s vital fluids out through its roots. So it dies as well. I had this pretty bleak world view, even at that tender age…

What’s next- will you be sticking with the Altered Carbon universe, or zooming off in a different direction?

The sequel to Altered Carbon, Broken Angels is done and comes out in March next year. It´s set in the same universe, though not on Earth, and is built around the same central character. The contexts are a little different – Kovacs is caught in the middle of a planetary war this time instead of just an unwelcome investigation, and his motivations are that much more desperate as a result. (So I guess I´ll be taking some more stick for the extreme violence, and here´s fair warning to those who couldn´t cope with it in Altered Carbon – you guys won´t like this one much either). I´m currently at work on a third Kovacs novel, the one set on his home world, and this is focused on issues of organised crime, weapons de-commissioning and revolutionary politics as evidenced by the Quellist movement. After that, I think I´m going to retire Kovacs for a while.

I´ve got something a little different waiting on the back burner, set ten minutes into the future – it´s a novel focused on an unpleasant corporate practice called Conflict Investment. Basically the corporate types in the novel make their living from putting money into various third world conflicts and gambling on the outcome. If their particular troop of revolutionaries win, they then have stakes and rights in the emergent economy. The toast at the quarterly do is “Small Wars – Long May They Smoulder”. Tenders and Promotions are decided in Mad Max style driving duels on motorways that are empty because no-one except the executive class can afford to run a car anymore. It´s intended to be very bleak and very unpleasant – the challenge will be making at least some of the characters sympathetic to the reader. I´m looking forward to that.

Finally- beyond the technology and the murder mystery, what would you say Altered Carbon is trying to say?

Good question. Don’t visit Earth, perhaps? Seriously, I’d like to think that each individual reader takes away something different. You can read Altered Carbon as a simple future crime story and leave it at that, equally you can see it as a love story of sorts, or you can understand it as a social and political commentary on the uses and abuses of technology. Jon Courtenay Grimwood, reviewing for the Guardian, called it “a hypermodern vampire tale.” From my point of view, any interpretation is a compliment because it indicates a depth of engagement on the part of the reader, but I wouldn’t want to dictate what message that reader is supposed to take away.

What I personally see is Kovacs’ affirmation at the end of the book that society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political force dictated by an elite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a wilful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the very majority whom the system oppresses. But that’s just me. Another reader might think Kovacs is a self destructive, pessimistic burn out and doesn´t know what he’s talking about. It all depends on where you stand and who your sympathies lie with, and it´s not for me to dictate those sympathies. I just write the stuff. It´s up to the reader to judge – if they can.

 

From The Vault: The Secret History of Monsters (2005)

A guide to the ups and downs of Cinema’s greatest Creatures…

(This is one of the articles I was most proud of, simply because the original comission was totally different. Done for Hotdog magazine in December 2005 to accompany the release of Peter Jackson’s version of King Kong, it was supposed to be a “Monster Deathmatch”, kind of a comedy wrestling-style face-off between different legendary screen monsters. One problem – I simply couldn’t get it to work, or be remotely funny. So, after a great deal of panic, I brainstormed a different idea that felt like my kind of lunacy, pitched it, and amazingly they accepted it. Due to complicated reasons I never actually got paid for it, but there are various bits in here that still bring a smile to my face (even if certain gags have dated – God, I’m not sure if anyone nowadays will even remember Dragonheart…))

Ever wondered what Kong was getting up to between his infrequent movie appearances? Wonder no longer, as we unearth the behind-the-scenes lives of cinema’s greatest (and not so greatest) monsters…

KONG (King Kong, 1933)

He may have initially struggled to match his 1933 success, but Kong finally found massive acclaim on the London Stage, particularly during his unbroken two-year run as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Romantically linked with a string of screen beauties including Jean Harlow and Katherine Hepburn, Kong remained a committed bachelor, spending most of the Forties and Fifties as a representative of the World Wildlife Fund. Probably the most unexpected turn in his lengthy career was his Avant-Garde period in the Sixties, immortalised in the Andy Warhol film “Kongdom”- a four and a half hour single shot of the giant ape asleep in front of New York’s Carnegie Hall. Appearing in the unsuccesful1974 King Kong remake was an unwise move, resulting in Kong losing out on a role in Beyond The Poseidon Adventure, while his self-written sitcom “Who Brought The Ape?” was eventually cancelled after two seasons. He now lives in Northern California running his own vineyard, and is credited as an “Executive Consultant” on Peter Jackson’s remake.

GODZILLA (Godzilla, 1953)

Fondly referred to as ‘the hardest working Monster in show-business’, the 50-metre tall radioactive lizard and self-confessed ‘Renaissance Beast’ has barely stopped working between his 28 movies. Since 1964, he’s appeared regularly on Japanese television in the Sesame Street-style education show Gojira Chikara Kazu!! (Number Power Godzilla), where he teaches children to count how many buildings he’s just knocked down. The Eighties saw the start of the Big G’s infamous talk show Shiawasena Gojira (Godzilla Happy Chat), while he’s recently moved into directing with a series of highly acclaimed (and destruction-heavy) arthouse dramas.

T-REX (Jurassic Park, 1993)

The star of Jurassic Park started developing a substance abuse problem when his starring role in the mooted remake of One Million Years B.C. failed to materialise. After being overshadowed in Jurassic Park III by the supposedly scarier Spinosaurus, the T-Rex was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct on the Universal Studios lot. In and out of rehab for the next few years, the T-Rex has now cleaned up its act, spending much of its time hanging out with Corey Feldman, and is strongly tipped for a comeback with a vital role in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards.

THE SCORPION KING (The Mummy Returns, 2001)

Widely mocked at the time for his unconvincing, CGI-like appearance, the Scorpion King made the move into professional wrestling, but was booted out of the sport for accidentally slicing the heads off some of his opponents. After an unwise attempt at shifting careers into Telemarketing, he was declared bankrupt in 2004, and is currently living as a derelict on the streets of Downtown L.A. According to reports, he can regularly be found flexing his claws outside the Bradbury Building wearing a cardboard sign that says “Will Raise Eyebrow For Food”.

THE BALROG (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001)

Already a legend on the Lord of the Rings set for his practical jokes involving banana skins and lava, the Balrog’s hard-drinking lifestyle was exposed after he publicly brawled with one of the Nazgul’s Fell Beasts at a 2003 post-Oscar party. Despite this, he remains friends with all the Rings cast members, and his cameo opposite Orlando Bloom in Elizabethtown will be re-instated on the forthcoming DVD release. He lives in a New Zealand volcano, and is currently suing Peter Jackson for a percentage of the profits from Fellowship of the Ring,

BRUCE THE SHARK (Jaws, 1975)

After many years trying to get out of the iron-clad contracts that forced him into the shoddy Jaws sequels, Bruce The Shark has finally left the world of Hollywood far behind. He now lives at an exclusive resort in the Cayman Islands, where he’s allowed to snack on any guests who don’t pay their bills on time, and is strongly rumoured to be writing a candid expose of his film career that will ‘set the record straight’ on the supposed rift between him and Steven Spielberg.

THE SKELETONS (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963)

The sword-wielding stars were an instant success in the early Sixties thanks to their novelty hit record version of “Dem Bones”. Sadly, the sextet soon split for artistic reasons, with one Skeleton recording a 3-volume concept album, and another launching a series of pop art “happenings” with fellow Argonauts star Talos. Thankfully, the group was re-united in the mid-Eighties as a result of the “We Are The World” Ethiopia charity single, and today can still be found performing their spectacular “Boneyard” theatrical extravaganza at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.

DRACO (Dragonheart, 1996)

Despite Dragonheart’s lack of success, Draco the last dragon did, briefly, manage to carve out a successful career as a witty, urbane sidekick in TV shows like Dragon P.I. and Flaming Hell, but his flippant attitude soon stalled his film career when he got himself fired from As Good As It Gets, with his role being switftly rewritten to fit his replacement Greg Kinnear. Draco currently runs his own Flame Grilled Barbecue restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, as well as earning money on the side doing Sean Connery-impersonating prank calls.

 

Transmission, Interrupted: The 2007 Review (2008)

TRANSMISSION, INTERRUPTED

1: Fall Out (The 2007 Year in Review)

 

Your eyes are not deceiving you – Vector has acquired its own TV column. In an era where some of the best onscreen Science Fiction and Fantasy is regularly to be found on television channels rather than the cinema screen, Transmission, Interrupted is aiming to be entertaining trawl through these sometimes bewildering waters, and one that’ll hopefully throw light in some unexpected directions. I’ll be your guide on these trips – Saxon Bullock, curiously monickered freelance writer, regular contributor to SFX, and irregular blogger with a habit of kicking the hell out of Torchwood at the drop of a hat. The world of cult genre TV is one that I’ll be exploring for as long as Vector is foolish enough to allow me, and I’ll be looking at material from both sides of the Atlantic while – most important of all – I’ll also be dealing heavily in spoilers, so anyone not wanting to have any major surprises blown should probably look away right now…

But, before we advance forward into the future, it’s time to look back at the twelve months of 2007, a time during which the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres proved to once again be in robust health. They may go in peaks and troughs, but all throughout 2007, both genres have had their claws firmly into the TV zeitgeist, and show no signs of letting go. In a year of Weeping Angels, dinosaurs, unexpected flash-forwards, ageing pulp heroes getting seriously embarrassing makeovers and old-school Cylons, there was a ridiculous variety of highlights and lowlights to choose from, but if there’s one thing 2007 will be remembered for, it’ll be for the spectacular rise (and abrupt fall) of Heroes.

Over the last twelve months, Tim Kring’s comic-book inspired ensemble drama has gone from being the most promising newcomer of the US 2006-2007 TV season, to the kind of global smash that it’s alright for mainstream audiences to like. Of course, it’s also managed to screw everything up in record time with an underperforming and frankly dull second season, but even if you look at the 2007 run of Heroes’ first season (from episode 12 on), it’s a blend of storytelling that’s always had its problems. The show’s biggest advantages are its well-thought out and practical approach to X-Men style super powers, along with its fast, intertwined ensemble plot, and some of the most joyfully insane, ‘what-the-hell-just-happened’ cliffhangers under the sun.  Unfortunately, this isn’t always enough to disguise the major weaknesses, from the wheel-spinning plots (with the scene-stealing character Hiro spending massive sections of Season 1 running in circles), to the less impressive members of the cast, especially Ali Larter as angsty multiple-personality case Nikki, and the permanently gormless Milo Ventigmilia as power-sponge uber-hero Peter Petrelli.

When playing to its strengths, it was amazing how gripping the show could be, and even the creakier patches of episodes 12-16 could be forgiven when we were presented with crackerjack instalments like Episode 18: ‘Company Man’, where the ambiguous Horned-Rimmed Glasses-wearing Mr Bennet’s past history was finally exposed, or the shameless pastiche of the X-Men storyline “Days of Future Past” in ‘Five Years Gone’, which also delivered one of the most pointed twists on the legacy of 9-11 that’s yet been seen in a US mainstream show.

Unfortunately, it couldn’t last – like Babylon 5 before it, Heroes is marvelous at the build up but rarely good at the pay-off. It might reward its audience with frequent revelations rather than Lost‘s ever-expanding enigmas, but more often than not, the end result is an empty sugar rush, and a show that isn’t anywhere near as deep or well-written as it thinks it is. The rambling last three episodes of Season 1 dropped the ball, leading to a finale that was both badly staged (one thing Heroes is in desperate need of is a decent action director) and massively disappointing – and yet, hard as it was to believe, things actually got worse in Season 2. Despite the engaging nature of Season 1’s origin stories, Heroes only ever functioned once its plot arc built up momentum and things actually started happening – so why the production team though that slowing Season 2’s story to a crawl was a good idea frankly beggars the mind. Added to this, the show started hitting the reset button like it was going out of style, recycling massive swathes of plot that we’d already seen (Claire clashing with her father, a mysterious killer offing the Heroes), and plunging into new realms of absurdity.

At the least, it seems like US audiences haven’t swallowed it – the show plummeted to its lowest recorded ratings, reviews were bad, and even series creator Tim Kring came out and admitted that they’d messed up. However much we’re promised a ‘reboot’ for “Volume Three”, however, (a reboot now delayed by the Writer’s Strike), it’s hard not to think that Heroes is going to need serious help if it’s not going to end up simply treading water and running in circles to try and recapture the fresh, comic-strip entertainment of its first eleven episodes.

One of the biggest symptoms of Heroes’ success has, naturally, been the traditional “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” method by which a large proportion of the Autumn 2007 US Network pilots managed (by pure coincidence, of course) to revolve around the idea of ordinary people suddenly having extraordinary powers thrust upon them. The highest-profile of these was the heavily hyped update of Bionic Woman, but giving this particular Seventies cheese-fest a coating of New Galactica-style grit didn’t go as planned.

It didn’t help that while Michelle Ryan did a commendable job in the lead role, she was blown off the screen every time Galactica star Katee Sackhoff turned up as psycho bionic woman Sarah Corvus. However, what really sunk the series and resulted in a massive ratings dip was its incredibly muddled approach. The dark and serious outlook which worked so well for Galactica doesn’t play on what’s essentially a goofy feminist fairy tale, and in the absence of any self-deprecating humour, we got an ungainly amalgam of other, far superior shows (most notably Alias), and a production team that seemed to change their mind every week as to what the show’s tone should be. As with Heroes, a major reboot is rumoured once the Writers Strike is resolved – but with only eight below-par episodes under its belt, Bionic Woman’s future is looking distinctly shaky.

More conventional in execution was Journeyman, with Rome’s Kevin McKidd as a San Francisco journalist who suddenly finds himself bouncing across time to help people, a problem that plays merry havoc with his work and family life. Not quite the shameless Quantum Leap rip-off it appeared, Journeyman owed a far greater debt to Life on Mars and The Time Traveller’s Wife, with the deeply routine ‘missions’ McKidd carried out never carrying as much weight as the soapier yet weirdly engaging melodrama surrounding them. At times horribly sentimental and never escaping the feeling of nostalgia-laced televisual comfort food, the series did at least pull off some interesting and imaginative twists on the time travel theme (such as McKidd having to reverse-engineer the moment when he fell in love with his wife) but the lack of real inspiration meant the plug being pulled at episode 13 didn’t surprise anyone.

Fluffier series like spy romp Chuck and the near-identical (but fantasy-based) Reaper did better at carving out an audience, although while Chuck’s mix of silly espionage and heartfelt melodrama coasted entertainingly along thanks to a fine cast, Reaper’s Buffy-meets-Kevin-Smith vibe (a feeling increased by Smith directing the pilot) soon led to repetitive gags and diminished returns. For nostalgic Angel fans with an astoundingly low quality threshold, there was the hilariously creaky vampire detective saga Moonlight (a show that’s somehow escaped cancellation and built up an audience), but the finest drama of the new season came from Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me writer Bryan Fuller, who created a world so off-kilter and stylized it was like nothing else on television.

Mixing the Coen Brothers, Amelie, Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton, Pushing Daisies is a wonderfully bizarre blend, a forensic fairy tale about a piemaker (Lee Pace) with the ability to bring the dead back to life, and his subsequent team-up with a private detective to quiz murder victims about how they were killed. It’s even built in a well-constructed example of the traditional ‘love story that can never be consummated’ between Pace and Anna Friel, the childhood sweetheart he resurrected but now can’t touch without killing her again, and for good. What’s most remarkable about the show, however, is the way in which its fast-paced, hyper-stylised and fluffy exterior acts as a cunning disguise for a tremendously dark and tragic story all about death, unrequited love, loneliness and abandonment. Without the fast-paced humour and the atmosphere of cute playfulness, it’d be almost too painful to watch, and while the sweetness level occasionally verges into diabetes-inducing levels, the first nine episodes of Pushing Daises have been masterful stuff – so hopefully the Writer’s Strike-enforced hiatus won’t prevent the show from at least getting to run out it’s initial 22-episode season order.

Elsewhere on the US airwaves, HBO once again flirted with the world of genre with John From Cincinnati, a truly offbeat mix of fantasy and drama overseen by Deadwood creator David Milch, which asked the question, “what would happen if an official, true-blue Messiah turned up in a South California surfing community?” The kind of drama that tetered on the razors edge between absorbing and frustrating, John From Cincinnati was too self-consciously bizarre and rambling to ever stand a chance of getting beyond its first ten episodes. And yet, for those patient enough to stick with pacing that made HBO’s legendarily slow Carnivalé seem like an action movie, there were fantastic performances, some rich, memorable dialogue, and some of 2007’s most bizarre and transcendent TV moments.

While John From Cincinnati reached a premature end, the inexplicably long-lived Stargate SG-1 also finally came to a halt at its tenth season, although its spin-off Stargate Atlantis shows no sign of running out of fanbase-driven momentum anytime soon. Both shows aired on the Sci-Fi channel, whose output varies massively from brilliant to near-unwatchable – and while the channel’s December mini-series Tin Man was a fitfully watchable but heavily flawed dark fantasy take on The Wizard of Oz (a take which somehow failed to feel as nightmarish or transgressive as 1984’s surreal film sequel Return to Oz), Sci-Fi really pulled out all the stops with its other re-invention of 2007, delivering possibly the worst piece of science fiction television to hit the screen in years.

It takes a certain talent to drain every ounce of pulp energy and style from a concept like Alex Raymond’s comic strip hero Flash Gordon – and considering how ingrained in the world of cult movies the ferociously camp 1980 version (and its accompanying Queen soundtrack) has now become, any TV show was going to have to try hard to compete. As it turns out, however, the producers of the Sci-Fi channel’s Flash Gordon didn’t even want to try, instead stripping out the rocket ships and the idea of Flash being stranded on an alien planet (the whole raison d’étre of the original’s pulp flavour) and substituting a Smallville-style set up, and a version of the planet Mongo that redefines the word drab. Cheap and nasty in the worst possible way, with a bland Ming, a henchman gliding around on casters, ‘Hawkmen’ running around in flappy cloaks, and execution-by-disco-lighting, the show doesn’t even qualify as a ‘so bad it’s good’ entertainment, instead showing exactly how low the quality threshold can go if people put some effort into being truly dreadful.

In comparison to this televisual agony, even the weaker moments of Battlestar Galactica’s third season on Sci-Fi were near-genius, but despite some fine moments, the show that was once the Great White Hope of SF TV is still showing some dangerous wobbles. The third season never seemed to recover from blowing most of its budget on the (admittedly spectacular) New Caprica storyline, and followed its 2006 run of impressive but heavily flawed episodes with yet another late-season slump, serving up some of the least interesting material they’ve yet explored. From the eternal boredom of the Kara/Lee/Anders/Dualla Love Quadrangle to the dreary medical drama of ‘The Woman King’ to the teeth-grindingly awful sequences featuring Adama’s imaginary chats with his ex-wife, the lion’s share of Galactica‘s 2007 run was shockingly dull stuff, taking the downbeat atmosphere of the show and applying a sledgehammer, until even dedicated viewers couldn’t help but wonder what the frak was going on.

Galactica’s Executive Producer Ronald D. Moore is refreshingly open and honest on the show’s podcast commentaries when it comes to episodes that didn’t work, and it’s been long known that the show really needs a wider canvas to function properly, with either heavily stranded standalones as in Season 1, or the full-scale serial that paid such fantastic dividends for the first seven episodes of Season 2. Nevertheless, a parade of bad decisions and unexpected rewrites hobbled most of episodes 11-20 of Season 3, with an entire subplot concerning the Sagittarons (the seeds of which were laid in ‘The Woman King’) that was supposed to impact on the finale being unceremoniously dumped, and other plotlines (such as the handling of the original Cylon version of Boomer) showing little of the thought and character that made the first two years of the show such a treat to watch.

Even the ‘death’ of Starbuck came as something of a relief, in that it actually meant significant traction in the plot, but thankfully the show managed a small recovery towards its finale. The class warfare and labour disputes in ‘Dirty Hands’ were far from perfect in their execution, but the episode harked back to the first season’s brief of taking realistic looks at the kind of problems you don’t normally see in SF shows. Then, while the ‘Trial of Baltar’ thread never escaped feeling desperately talky and theatrical, the monologue from Lee Adama in “Crossroads – Part 2” still managed to be one of the finest moments of the show, addressing themes that had been ignored for most of the season, and reviving the ‘anything-can-happen’ feeling that Galactica has at its best. On top of that, we also had the reveal of four of the Final Five Cylons, a Jimi Hendrix-driven plot twist that may have divided the audience between whether it was genius or heinous nonsense, but certainly earned Moore a salute for sheer, barmy audacity.
The lack of Cylon-mashing action in Season 3 was slightly made up for by November’s 90 minute special ‘Razor’, which packed in plenty of old-school adventure, spectacular special effects and effective character moments. Given that this was the most purely entertaining Galactica had been in a long time, ‘Razor’ was almost fast and energetic enough to make up for the fact that the much-vaunted flashbacks to Admiral Cain’s time on the Pegasus didn’t really tell us more than what we already knew. The kind of fill-in-the-blanks storytelling that sometimes blights Lost, it brought back some good memories of the pacier second season (as well as giving nostalgia freaks a chance to goggle in joy at Seventies-style Cylon fighters and centurions), but Ronald D. Moore and his writers are going to have to pull out something devastating for the fourth season if Galactica is going to shake itself out of what feels like a downward curve.

Speaking of Lost, the show that’s never quite been forgiven for being what it essentially advertised itself as – an ever-expanding, character-led mystery on an enigmatic island – also finished its third season in 2007. It’s interesting to contrast the reaction to the show’s evolution and the support it’s receiving from the ABC network with the similar ABC show Twin Peaks, where the creative team bowed to pressure to solve what was supposed to be an ever-evolving murder mystery (which, if co-creator David Lynch had his way, would never have been solved), and arguably killed the show in the process. Lost‘s sluggish and gloomy second season resulted in the departure of a lot of viewers, not without good reason, and Season 3 didn’t exactly get off to the best start, with a ‘mini-season’ of six episodes that focused too strongly on the Jack-Kate-Sawyer love triangle. Even the opening of the 2007 run was weak and badly focused – and yet, from episode 10 onwards, the show began to get its mojo back, remembering it was allowed to be entertaining as well as crammed to the brim with angst, and whirled through plots which could potentially have stretched for the entire season in a paltry handful of weeks.

The quality rollercoaster was still in play (especially in the misfiring fourteenth episode ‘Expose’), and the show has all but given up on trying to present the castaway’s life on the island as remotely realistic, but there was also a sense of momentum and progress, and an absence of easy reset buttons. Even previously dull storylines like the long-running saga of Sun and Jin’s unexpected pregnancy were suddenly feeding back into the main plotline in a way that harked back to the smart interconnections of the first season, and it all built up to a finale that was dangerously close to the best the show has ever been.

‘Through the Looking Glass’ was thrilling, violent and pitched Lost in some surprising directions, as well as pulling one of the most genuinely mind-warping twists of the year in the form of the flashback-that-turns-out-to-be-a-flashforward, showing that Jack’s desire to get off the Island is going to have major and negative repercussions. With the end-point of the show officially declared (in 48 episodes time), it only remains to be seen what the production team can pull off in the interim, but regaining the popularity of the first season seems very unlikely. A mystery like Lost was almost doomed to be a cult, rather than an all-out smash, with a structure that can only really lose viewers in the long run, and it’s also hard to tell exactly what effect the twist in ‘Through the Looking Glass’ will have on the show (although it’s alledged new episodes will mix flashbacks with flash-forwards). However, for now, Lost has pulled another major “what the hell just happenned?” moment, and when at its best, it’s reaching the kind of quality levels that Heroes can only dream of.

Meanwhile, despite all the effort from the US shows, if 2007 belonged to any other series on this side of the Atlantic, it was Doctor Who. In UK television, the influence of New Who can be felt everywhere – from BBC spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures, which managed the not-at-all-difficult task of being better than Torchwood (even if it never quite balanced the emotive storytelling with its action), to ITV’s silly but rather entertaining Saturday-night dinosaur romp Primeval (the first major genre success from the network for a very long time). After a first season climax that came out firmly in favour of time travel, Life on Mars’ finale did a virtual U-turn into more mystical, ambiguous territory, but still managed to maintain a sense of surreal freedom and adventurousness in what could easily have been a flat Seventies pastiche.  Even Jekyll, from New Who writer Steven Moffatt, felt like the kind of genre-hopping, daring drama that would have been impossible to imagine happening five years ago, and despite some major issues (wild tonal shifts, improbable American accents) found new angles and twists in some very familiar material, as well as showcasing Moffatt’s knack for adventurous story structures.

Who still ruled the roost, however, even if the show itself is still capable of suddenly veering from awesome highs to spectacular lows – and nothing showcased this quite as well as the return of the Master. For five minutes, at the end of ‘Utopia’, Derek Jacobi brought the Master to life and provided one of the finest ‘geek’ moments of the entire series, as well as the joyful feeling that – as with the Daleks in Season 1 – the production team were actually getting the character right. Of course, it only took seven days to go from one of the show’s finest moments, to a cackling and gurning John Simm leaping around like an over-hip geography teacher, and deciding that dance track “Voodoo Child” by Rogue Traders would be a great soundtrack for the end of the world.

Painfully disappointing doesn’t even cover it, but while Season 3 has arguably had more extreme highs and lows than previous seasons – the biggest culprit being the dull runaround that was the Dalek 2-parter, which answered the rarely asked question “Is a man with a prosthetic squid on his head scarier than a Dalek?” with a resounding “No” – when it peaked, it was arguably the strongest material the show has ever seen in its forty-four year history.

Top of the list was episodes 8-10, with Paul Cornell’s two-parter ‘Human Nature/The Family of Blood”) adapting his original Who novel into a tale that perfectly matched the emotion-based storytelling of New Who with the ‘anything-can-happen’ ethos of the traditional series, while also bringing the horrors of World War One to life in a timeslot that’s usually reserved for embarrassing talent shows. Following up this two-parter, Steven Moffatt’s ‘Blink’ was a dazzlingly constructed standalone story that flushed away all memories of the previous Doctor-lite episode ‘Love and Monsters’, being simultaneously smart, sexy and genuinely terrifying. A pilot episode for the finest Who spin-off we never had (and featuring possibly the greatest ever one-off companion in Carey Mulligan’s Sally Sparrow), it’s also one of the episodes this year that marked a small shift away from the slightly heightened reality that New Who often deals in. Unlike most of its predecessors (and virtually all of Torchwood), it was actually possible to believe that the characters in ‘Human Nature/Family of Blood’ and ‘Blink’ were real people, and it felt for the first time like the show was actually prepared to treat its audience like grown-ups, balancing the scares, fun and adventure with wit and intelligence, and not feeling the need to play to the cheap seats with weak slapstick.

Of course, it turns out we were only a couple of weeks away from yet another “Dimensional Rip opens up and billions of CGI monsters pour out” finale, along with an almost painfully unwatchable sequence that turned the Doctor (who’d already been transformed into a CGI House Elf) into a mythical amalgam of Jesus and Tinkerbell. It’s very easy to criticise the weaknesses in Russell T. Davies’ writing (especially the way that almost all of his villains end up sounding like bad boy character Stuart Jones from Davies’ Queer as Folk), and yet it also has to be admitted that a massive proportion of New Who‘s success is down to various decisions that he made – but the question has to be… “What now?”

Davies has already stated that Season 3 was, in his opinion “too dark”, and the decision to bring Catherine Tate’s Donna back for a frankly unwelcome 13-week run as a companion suggests we’re in for less angst and more happy-go-lucky romps. And yet, the blockbuster approach to Who episodes is already starting to get repetitive, and over the last three years, the bigger, more OTT stories have usually turned out to be the disappointments. It’s the darker, quieter stories like ‘The Empty Child’, ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’, and ‘Human Nature’ that people will be talking about in ten years time. Yes, it can be argued that you need the blockbusters to grab the audiences so they’ll stick for the quieter episodes, but it doesn’t suggest what Davies is going to do when he runs out of recognisable London landmarks to blow up, or when even the casual viewers start thinking: “Oh, god- not another semi-industrial spaceship that conveniently looks just like a Power Station”?

The decision to put the show on hold for a year, with three ‘specials’ in 2009, might make sense from the perspective of keeping Davies and Tennant (who’s unconfirmed past Season 4) onboard, but the one thing that kept Doctor Who alive for so long was its capacity for change, and the fact that the show simply had to go on. The main reasons its popularity dwindled in the Eighties was that the production team got locked into a specific idea of what Doctor Who was, and didn’t try to significantly change it. Now that it’s back, and such an important part of the BBC schedules, there’s a different kind of fear involved – nobody wants to be the one who killed the goose that lays the golden eggs, and with Davies arguably having the biggest profile of any creative influence in the show’s history (at the moment, he’s almost at the same level of indispensable association with Who’s success that Tom Baker reached), it looks like the BBC will do everything within their power to keep Who the way it is.

In many ways this is a good thing – even after four years, Davies still has a huge passion for the series, and is arguably one of its finest salesmen – but it’s now inarguable that the man with the most control over the show (and averaging five episodes a season) delivers some of the weakest writing, and his desire for big, tabloid-style ideas is also being combined with a dangerously perfunctory “that’ll do” attitude to storytelling. New Who has already started to self-consume and develop a sense of sameness, an aspect full in force during the throwaway Christmas 2007 special ‘Voyage of the Damned’, which spent so long pastiching The Poseidon Adventure that it forgot to include anything truly memorable (beyond some utterly hilarious Michael Bay-style slow-motion).  The top-tier villains have all been done (with only Davros due for a rumoured and probably unavoidable comeback), and while the best episodes are forging a new identity for the show, too much of New Who is simply refining and improving what Davieslaid down in 2005.

For the moment, Who’s future has never been safer, and it’s arguable that SF TV has reached a point where it’s certainly more popular and accepted than it has been in years – but it would be wise for New Who, and for the rest of the SF TV firmament, not to rest on their laurels. It’s the capacity for change, for invention, and for sheer, out-of-nowhere wonder that keeps the genre going – and the minute you start taking your audience for granted, that’s when the downward slide begins. There’s no substitute for imagination, and whether the genre continues its climb in 2008 or does an almighty bellyflop, it’ll be the level of imagination t

DVD Collections: Rock Stars (2004)

The greatest movies featuring Rock Stars on DVD…

1: THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH

The Film: Possibly the greatest example of a rock star merging with an onscreen role, the man who’d made himself into interplanetary icon Ziggy Stardust was the perfect choice to play the alien lead role in Nicolas Roeg’s mind-blasting science fiction drama. As the enigmatic Thomas Jerome Newton, David Bowie comes to Earth in order to save his planet from extinction, but ends up falling prey to the eternal vices of drink, sex, and making impenetrable concept albums.

The Disc: The R2 disc has a documentary, trailer and publicity brochure- but the brand new R1 Criterion Collection edition is the one to go for, with commentaries from Roeg and Bowie, a ton of interviews, galleries and essays, as well as a reprint of the original novel.

Classic Moment: Newton reveals his true alien visage (including cat-like eyes and missing genitalia) to his girlfriend, who really doesn’t like what she sees…

2: A HARD DAY’S NIGHT

The Film: Pop Cinema gets launched into the stratosphere thanks to the energetic misadventures of the Fab Four, and Richard Lester’s black-and-white marvel captures the birth of Beatlemania in all its glory. Following John, Paul, George and Ringo on their journey to a TV performance, the four stars dodge screaming girls, find time for verbal sparring with Steptoe and Son’s Wilfrid Bramble, and generally make playing themselves look deceptively easy.

The Disc: Miramax’s 2-disc edition gives a landmark film its dues, with a brace of interviews from cast and crew, vintage footage, plus original documentary “Things They Said Today.”

Classic Moment: On the run from their minders, the Fab Four go wild in a playing field to the sounds of “Can’t Buy Me Love”
3: EVITA

The Film: The Material Girl’s quest for cinematic glory may have seen her sink to the depths of Swept Away, but Madonna has managed the occasional home run- and none more spectacular than Alan Parker’s gleefully OTT adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera. Following everybody’s favourite dictator’s wife Eva Peron on her rise from poverty to politics, it’s a riot of music and song, and Madonna holds it together with the kind of charisma and star power she’s rarely shown since.

The Disc: Interactive Menus? Scene Selection? Monsieur Entertainment In Video, with these special features, you are really spoiling us…

Classic Moment: Ms. Peron takes the microphone at the victory celebrations, and tells the Argentinians something about not crying for her…

4: 8 MILE

The Film: Banishing memories of Vanilla Ice into the hell where they belong, white bad-boy rapper Eminem made the leap into movies and stunned the hell out of everybody expecting him to fall flat on his face. Curtis Hanson handles the nuanced direction, while Mr M. Mathers is Rabbit, a wannabe rapper in the decaying suburbs of Detroit who’s searching for the right way out of the ghetto and into a better life.

The Disc: Hardly a bumper crop for the Slim Shady-appreciating gentleman about town, with only a pair of featurettes, music videos and a trailer to shake your thang to.

Classic Moment: At his lowest point, Rabbit faces off against his drunken mother (Kim Basinger) in a brutal argument.
5: FIGHT CLUB

The Film: Have a moment’s pity for poor Meat Loaf Aday. The portly singer of Bat Out of Hell finally slims down from his previous lard-heavy physique¬– and then, for his role in David Fincher’s psychomania masterpiece, he has to don a gigantic latex fat-suit with added cleavage-enhancing bitch-tits. Still, it did give him his finest cinematic moment as weepy, ex-bodybuilder turned Project Mayhem goon Robert “Bob” Paulson.

The Disc: One of the first (and best) two disc editions, this is packed with juicy extras- although discerning collectors should seek the R1 version which has three additional commentaries.

Classic Moment: Bob discovers his inner man-mountain while taking on the unnamed Narrator (Edward Norton) in the Fight Club ring.
6: QUADROPHENIA

The Film: The classic Brit tale of youth rebellion, street violence and haircuts, Franc Roddam’s punky Mods vs Rockers saga has no better icon than Sting as the strutting, cool-as-a-cucumber King Mod known as Ace Face. With a sharp suit and an even sharper hairstyle, Ace Face is the essence of Mod attitude on the streets of Brighton- even if he does turn out to be kow-towing to ‘The Man’ as a menial bellboy.

The Disc: 8 minutes of “production montage” and an ugly full-frame transfer will have you looking for a DVD executive to kick the hell out of.

Classic Moment: “Got a pen, your honour?” Presented with a seventy quid fine in court, Ace Face responds by whipping out his chequebook.
7: ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE

The Movie: Filmed between Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, Scorsese’s romantic drama is a world away from his usual grit, and gives country star Kris Kristoffersen a peach of a romantic role as David, the cowboy-style farmer who romances Ellen Burstyn’s widowed housewife turned singer. Will he be able to net her heart and win over her cocky ten year old son? No prizes for guessing the answer…

The Disc: It’s only available on R2 as part of a box-set- but you get a commentary with Scorsese, Kristofferson and Burstyn, a retrospective documentary, and three other Scorsese classics, including the Goodfellas special edition. Bargain!

Classic Moment: David shows off his no-nonsense attitude to parenting by spanking the hell out of Alice’s smart-talking son.
8: DOWN BY LAW

The Film: The working definition of “kooky”, Jim Jarmuch’s self-proclaimed neo-beat-noir-comedy uses a cramped jail cell to bring together an uptight pimp, an English-mangling Italian tourist, and raspy-voiced musical pioneer Tom Waits as Zack. He’s a failed DJ imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, and the eccentric trio soon find themselves on the run from the law in the Louisiana wetlands, where sinking boats, hunger and alligators may be the least of their problems.

The Disc: You decide¬– the barebones R2 DVD, or the feature-packed Criterion Collection version that’s filled to bursting with interviews, photos, Q+As and music?

Classic Moment: Lost and alone in the swamp, Zack switches into Radio bulletin mode and starts his very own weather report.
9: BOYZ N THE HOOD

The Film: Packing a fearsome punch, John Singleton’s debut tale of urban violence in South Central also kicked off the cinematic career of Mr O’Shea Jackson, a.k.a. Ice Cube. A long way from his current role as scowling (yet cuddly) comedy grump, the rapper once known as America’s Most Wanted plays the foul-mouthed Darin ‘Doughboy’ Baker, one of three young guys on their way to a potentially tragic end.

The Disc: A decently loaded special edition, with John Singleton in commentary mode, a selection of deleted scenes, music videos, and the “Friendly Fire” making of documentary.

Classic Moment: In a parking lot, Doughboy gets revenge for his brother’s death- but instead of triumph, it’s a moment of quiet horror.
10: MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM

The Movie: Ol’ Blue Eyes himself pushed the limits of Fifties censorship with this classic drama, playing a sharp card-dealer and ex-heroin addict who wants to re-invent himself as a big band drummer, but can’t get rid of that monkey on his back. A universe away from the silky-voiced Rat Pack crooner, Sinatra shows a real edge as his life falls apart and he plummets into the sweaty nightmare of ‘Cold Turkey’.

The Disc: A classic movie gets a decent package, with archive Sinatra interviews, a film historian’s commentary, and a documentary on legendary composer Elmer Bernstein.

Classic Moment: “The monkey never dies, dealer.” Giving in to his cravings at last, Frankie falls off the wagon and gets himself a fix.

Collector’s Additions: Mindwarp Cinema (2007)

The greatest head-melting movies on DVD…

1. No collection is complete without this

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) * * * * *

Cinema doesn’t come more head-scratchingly weird than legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi “visual poem”, a mind-boggling space saga with minimum dialogue and maximum classical music. “Explanations are for wimps” seems to have been Kubrick’s mantra, as an enigmatic black monolith inspires primitive man to start bashing people around the head with bones, before later luring humanity on a space-bound quest to Jupiter with tragic consequences. That’s nothing, however, compared to the final third of the movie, a brain-melting journey into another universe that ends with a time-accelerating hotel room, and a leap in mankind’s evolution. “If you understand 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered” said co-writer and sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke at the time, and it looks like this particular space oddity will be stretching minds and confounding people for decades to come.

EXTRAS: Splash out extra dosh, and you can get the “deluxe edition” with a collectable booklet, film cel and the original soundtrack- otherwise, all you get in the standard version is a paltry theatrical trailer.

BEST BIT: In the middle of having his mind demolished by an annoyed astronaut, murderous supercomputer HAL 9000 regresses back to its ‘childhood’ and starts singing “Daisy, Daisy…” :

2. Essential Selections: The foundations of your collection

Brazil (1985) * * * * *

Ex-Python animator Terry Gilliam is your guide for this nightmare tour through the darker side of the modern world. In an endless city choked by paperwork and terrorist attacks, looking for your dream girl can be a dangerous thing– as meek bureaucrat Jonathan Pryce finds out to his cost. From SAS-style heating engineers to the terrifying corridors of the Ministry of Information Retrieval, Gilliam’s finest work redefines the onscreen ‘future city’, and plays like George Orwell’s 1984 on some seriously bad Acid.

EXTRAS: The R2 disc features a trailer and an illuminating half-hour making-of documentary, but seek out the 3-disc Criterion Collection edition for a whole lot more, including the “Love Conquers All” edit of the film that tacks on a happy ending.

BEST BIT: A gang of terrifying masked stormtroopers erupt into the flat of shoe repair man Harry Buttle with devastating force, all so that he can “help the Ministry with its enquiries.”

Fight Club (1999) * * * *

Pummelling you into submission and twisting your brain into knots for an encore, David Fincher’s psycho-mania marvel is one of the most demented Hollywood movies ever made. Edward Norton is the unnamed Narrator who befriends Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden, a freewheeling anarchist with plans for spiritual harmony that involve men beating each other up for the sheer hell of it. Only when Project Mayhem rears its head does Tyler’s true identity comes to light, and the result is a blisteringly strange masterpiece that leaves you bruised, battered, and desperate for another viewing.

EXTRAS: One of the funkiest original two-disc editions, Fight Club still stands up thanks to a huge selection of featurettes, and a truly unmissable commentary from Fincher, Pitt, Norton and co-star Helena Bonham Carter.

BEST BIT: Smashing down the “fourth wall”, the Narrator gives us a tour of Tyler Durden’s life as he sabotages restaurant meals and splices frames of pornography into family cartoons.

3. REALITY BITES
When the everyday world stops making sense…

Videodrome (1983)
It’s official: watching TV is bad for your health. Just ask Max Renn (James Woods), a television executive who views a violent pirate broadcast named “Videodrome”, and is soon neck-deep in a hallucinogenic conspiracy and inserting videotapes into a worrying vaginal slit in his chest. David Cronenberg’s fractured tale of horror throws the reality rulebook out of the window, and leaves us trapped in a world where even our own bodies can’t be trusted.
****

Pi (1997)
Obsessed by patterns in nature, paranoid number-cruncher Max (Sean Gullette) is investigating the New York stock market when he discovers a new 216-digit number that causes his computer to melt, and soon has him hallucinating about abandoned brains on the subway. Has he found the secret 216-letter name of God, or is he simply going insane? Either way, Darren Aronofsky’s hyper-intense, black-and-white drama is hypnotic, dazzling stuff that refuses to give any easy answers.
****

Donnie Darko (2001)
Teenage life in Eighties America holds plenty of problems for the emotionally troubled Donnie (Jake Gylenhaal), and that’s before an imaginary six foot bunny rabbit starts telling him that the world is due to end in 28 days. A mind-bending tale of time travel, social satire and Tears for Fears songs, this cult classic has already had multiple DVD incarnations¬, including the Director’s Cut which adds new songs, new scenes and new questions into the mix.
*****

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
You’re a Vietnam veteran. You’re suffering from major flashbacks to the war. And then, horrific demons start looming out of nowhere to scare the living crap out of you. Fatal Attraction director Adrian Lynne’s tale of damnation and salvation keeps the audience guessing as to what’s really going on, leaping adeptly between realities and indulging in some truly horrifying visions. Tim Robbins also excels as the confused, shell-shocked Jacob, tortured by glimpses of Hell on earth.
***

4. END OF THE BEGINNING
Stories that don’t just go from A to B…

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Jim Carrey decides to hit the “delete” button and get his memories of kooky ex-girlfriend Kate Winslet erased– but halfway through the procedure, he changes his mind and tries to fight back. With half of the movie taking place inside Carrey’s head as he re-experiences the affair in reverse, the film uses plenty of surreal effects and visual tricks, but it’s the relationship between Carrey and Winslet that’s the heart of this beautiful, backwards love story.
*****

Mulholland Drive (2002)
For 90 minutes, David Lynch’s thriller is a bizarrely compulsive tale of the dark side of Hollywood. Then, wannabe actress Naomi Watts and beautiful amnesiac Laura Elena Harring visit the reality-warping Club Silencio, and the whole movie turns inside out. Characters swap identities, time rolls back, and the audience gapes in complete confusion. Adding otherworldly tramps and minature OAPs is just the icing on the cake for one of the Sultan of Strange’s weirdest and most memorable movies.
****

Memento (2000)
Following Guy Pearce as he tries to hunt his wife’s killer and cope with a bizarre form of memory loss, this brilliant thriller tells its story in reverse, starting with a brutal murder and then working backwards to explore why it happened. The devious structure keeps us as disorientated as the hero, and the DVD itself features plenty of extras to help unlock the story- including the chance to watch the whole thing in chronological order.
*****

21 Grams (2003)
In the hands of anyone else, this tale of three people (Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts) united via a tragic car crash would be your average, run-of-the-mill drama. Instead, Amorres Perros director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu mixes up the order of events, delivering the story in a blizzard of initially confusing fragments. It’s a daring choice that forces you to pay attention¬¬, as well as perfectly mirroring the shattered lives and emotions of the main characters.
****

5. FUNNY WEIRD, OR FUNNY HA-HA?
The lighter side of Strange.

Schizopolis (1996)
Oceans Eleven director Steven Soderbergh writes, directs and stars in this whacked-out comedy that sends the weird-ometer spinning off the chart. The tale of corporate drone Fletcher Munsen who swaps places with his identical duplicate– a dentist who also happens to be having an affair with Munsen’s wife–, Schizopolis is part sketch-show, part satire, part rumination on the nature of reality, and has “Kooky” written through it like a stick of rock.
***

Being John Malkovich (1999)
It doesn’t get much stranger than Spike Jonze’s directorial debut, as tangle-haired puppeteer John Cusack discovers a magical portal leading into the head of John Malkovich, and quickly starts charging entry, as well as using the unwitting Malkovich to spice up his sex life. Mixing up ideas of fame, identity and reality, the film achieves the seemingly impossible by making Cameron Diaz convincingly dowdy, and climaxes with an unforgettable chase through the landscape of Malkovich’s mind.
****

I Heart Huckabees (2004)
Philosophy meets slapstick in Three Kings director David O. Russell’s hilariously bonkers comedy, which turns modern day Los Angeles into a surreal playground for all manner of intellectual tomfoolery. Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin are the existential detectives hired by Jason Schwartzman to investigate a set of coincidences, and Jude Law is a smug corporate oik with a neurotic supermodel girlfriend (Naomi Watts)– but it’s Mark Wahlberg as a petroleum-hating fireman who steals the show.
****

Collector’s Score

So… how many do you have?
0-4 Slightly strange. You sometimes wear dark glasses when it isn’t sunny.
5-10 Medium strange. Weird is your middle name (but you don’t like to talk about it…)
11-14 Ultra Strange. Life is a psychedelic carnival, and you’ve got a front row seat.

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