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Review: Hallo Spaceboy: The Rebirth of David Bowie January 30, 2016

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Music.
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David Bowie's "A Reality Tour" - April 22, 2004

Photo by Lester Cohen/WireImage.com, according to the metadata that came with the cover image from the ECW website and got automatically dumped in here, so there you go.

ECW Press recently put this book on sale, so I picked it up because it looks at a relatively underchronicled era of David Bowie’s career, after 1980.

Dave Thompson is a very prolific writer. I read a lot of his stuff in Alternative Press, back when that was an alternative rock magazine instead of a mall punk/nu-metal magazine, and I’ve read one or two of his other 80 books. I don’t know how much original research he does; most of his books seem to rely on published sources, like other quickie music books, but he is very much a fan of a lot of the music he writes about, so that compensates a bit. I don’t think he’s a cynical opportunist churning out pages for money. Certainly not in this case, anyway; it’s very clear that he’s a big Bowie fan.

Hallo Spaceboy seems to exist to argue that there’s a lot of good Bowie music after Scary Monsters, something I’m reasonably inclined to agree with. He looks at the creation of each of the albums, including the Tin Machine period, and while he can be dismissive of some of the material, he argues strongly for a lot of the music.

I think his fanboyism gets the better of him at times. Talking about Bowie’s live albums, he casually dismisses 1978’s Stage as abysmal; while he likes some solo Morrissey, he writes off the Smiths as hopeless. He also, in my opinion, greatly overstates the importance of Tin Machine. I remember that at the time Bowie talked a good talk about being influenced by the likes of Sonic Youth, which seemed promising. But instead of working with anyone like that for Tin Machine, he got a couple of ’70s rockers and Reeves Gabrels, who seems to have come from more of a proggish background. The result was something that played it a lot safer than Bowie’s “Brancasonic” talk. Clean, disciplined hard rock, without the experimental strangeness I expected. To spin this as the obvious precursor of grunge, as Thompson does, is… well, fanboyish, to use that word again. Nirvana didn’t cover “You Belong in Rock’n’Roll,” they covered “The Man Who Sold the World.”

Still, it’s good to have a book that tells the story of Never Let Me Down, the Glass Spider tour, and so on through the more critically acclaimed Outside, Heathen, and other late comebacks. The book also discusses a lot of soundtrack, movie, and collaborative work I hadn’t been aware of. There’s also a lengthy discography. That doesn’t make The Complete David Bowie or Bowie on Bowie any less necessary, but it complements them.

It’s unfortunate that Hallo Spaceboy ends before The Next Day, never mind Blackstar, but there’s probably another book in the last few years.

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A tale of two crossovers January 30, 2016

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cover80320-mediumcover80325-mediumSPOILERS!

There be spoilers in this reviews written in exchange for Netgalley advance e-copies of recent Star Trek/Green Lantern and Conan/Red Sonja crossovers. Be warned.

Crossovers are an eternal temptation in the comics biz, and Star Trek comics have been no exception. Various Star Trek characters have encountered the X-Men, Planet of the Apes, Doctor Who, Legion of Superheroes, and now Green Lantern. One lesson that seems to have been learned along the way: if you don’t have many issues to work with, don’t spend a lot of time on meet and greet/getting to know you stuff. Go straight to the action and let the characters fill each other in with a little dialogue along the way, and assume the reader knows enough already.

This one packs as much story and action into its limited amount of space as it can. You’ve got Green Lantern’s universe destroyed in an epic battle with Nekron, the surviving Lanterns dumped into an alternate universe (the current movie version of Star Trek), members of the Enterprise crew and assorted aliens getting power rings, battles involving Federation, Gorn, Romulan, and Klingon opponents alongside the Lanterns, and then the Enterprise crew and the Lanterns teaming up against Nekron on a zombie version of Vulcan. Not a lot of sitting around talking. The Trek side of the dialogue seems appropriate enough, and the art is quite good.

Definitely an alternate universe tale for both sides, because it ends with the Lanterns staying in the Trekverse and a lot of political turmoil in various unfriendly empires. Light and fast-paced enough to be reasonably entertaining even if you don’t like chocolate in your peanut butter.

Meanwhile, in the Hyborian Age…

Robert E. Howard created Conan as a brawling adventurer, mercenary, and, eventually, King in a long forgotten age. He created Red Sonya of Rogatine as a one-off character in a work of real world historical fiction. Roy Thomas, writer of the original 1970s Conan the Barbarian comics from Marvel, adapted Howard’s Sonya into Red Sonja, a warrior woman of Conan’s time who would have occasional encounters with him. She proved popular enough to get a solo run in Marvel Feature and then her own comic, though that didn’t last too long. She was brought back by Marvel for limited runs, had a series of novels, and a movie, then disappeared.

When Dark Horse brought the Conan comics back, they passed on the idea of reviving Red Sonja, so Dynamite brought her back, and with evident success. I haven’t been reading their series but I’m pretty sure they long ago surpassed the number of Marvel Red Sonja comics.

Red Sonja began as a Conan character, so a crossover is an easy proposition. Just have to have the rights owner and the comics publishers on board. No need to introduce the characters to each other or to each other’s world, as they already know all that, and the reader doesn’t need any introductions either. So, straight to the story.

The main problem here is that it’s a very familiar story. A bit of battling armies, a little debauchery, more battling, then up against a wizard and an old enemy. I feel like I’ve read this story quite a few times already. It’s done well enough but I’ve seen it all before.

One other quibble: these are the comic book versions of these characters. Howard’s Conan wore clothes pretty often, and his Sonya did as well. But the stereotypical image of these characters is still the same as they appeared in the early 1970s comics, Conan in a furry loincloth, Sonja in a chainmail bikini, both looking unprepared for a real fight. Marvel tried to present a more believable Sonja in a 1980s miniseries, but Dynamite took her back to the classic sexist look, and the artists have a field day drawing her body for the delight of… well, whoever reads comics and doesn’t have access to real women or Playboy magazines, I guess. It looks silly more than anything. But so does Conan, so what the heck. This would be a fun enough diversion for someone who used to read the comics years ago and wants a quick hit of nostalgia.

Catching up with John Foxx January 23, 2016

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When I started this blog to write about music, mainly for my own pleasure and to stave off the boredom of being between jobs, I posted several times about John Foxx for two reasons: first, I like his music, and second, he’s prolific. Looks like the most recent of his albums I posted about were the live album In the Glow and some reissues back in 2009. So what’s he done lately? I’ll skip reissues and compilations and remixes.

 

jf1D.N.A. (2010, one CD and companion DVD with videos). It’s a collection of tracks created for collaborators to make videos from. Many of the videos are good, but the CD doesn’t really flow as an album, mixing beat-oriented and ambient tracks.

 

jf2Interplay (2011). The first album by new project John Foxx and the Maths. More song-oriented than some of the preceding albums but built entirely with vintage analogue synthesizers. Retro synthpop, basically.

 

jf3Torn Sunset (2011). An ambient collaboration with Theo Travis, who’s also worked with Robert Fripp and various jazz and progressive rock musicians. I like Foxx’s work with Harold Budd, but Travis’s flute pushed the line between ambient and new age a bit too much.

 

jf4Nighthawks (2011). A new release packaged with a reissue of the Foxx/Budd Translucence/Drift Music albums, this teams Foxx and Budd with Ruben Garcia on more piano/electronics ambient music.

 

jf5The Shape of Things (2011 and 2012). The second release by John Foxx and the Maths came in two versions a few months apart. The first was a 14-track album with an 8-track bonus disc of remixes and collaborations, the second was a single disc with all of the album tracks plus one from the bonus disc and one new track. It basically continues the Maths’ melodic retro electronic song style, if slightly darker.

 

jf6Evidence (2012). John Foxx and the Maths continue to develop their style, but this album is a mix of new material, collaborations, and remixes rather than a single piece of work conceived as a new album.

 

jf7Analogue Circuit: Live At The Roundhouse (2012). This is a big package from a big concert, with John Foxx and the expanded version of the Maths and special guest, former Ultravox guitarist Robin Simon, playing songs from Ultravox’s 1978 album Systems of Romance, Foxx’s 1980 Metamatic era, and the recent Maths material on one DVD and two CDs.

 

jf8Rhapsody (2013). Currently the final recording by John Foxx and the Maths, this is a “live in the studio” album, presenting solo Foxx, Maths, and Ultravox songs as they might be played live but with the sound quality of a studio recording.

 

jf9Gazelle Twin/I Speak Machine: Exponentialism (2013). Not exactly a Foxx album, this is an EP featuring four Foxx/Ultravox songs as covered by two women who worked with Foxx in recent years on Maths projects, released by Foxx’s label.

 

jf10Empty Avenues (2013). Musicians from The Belbury Poly and The Advisory Circle, of the Ghost Box label, known for retro/hauntological electronic music, collaborate with Foxx under the name John Foxx and the Belbury Circle. It’s a beautifully melodic EP, the least synth-purist thing he’s done in years, with some of his best singing and songwriting in a long time.

 

jf11European Splendour (2013) Another EP, this time in collaboration with Jori Hulkkonen. More electronic than Empty Avenues but just as strong and melodic. These two EPs rank among his best recordings since the 1980s. Or ever, really.

 

jf12B-Movie (Ballardian Video Neuronica) (2014). Back to the conceptual, this instrumental electronic album sounds like outtakes from Metamatic and soundtracked a video inspired by the work of JG Ballard.

 

jf13Evidence Of Time Travel (2014). More conceptual instrumental electronica, this collaboration with Steve D’Agostino is the soundtrack for a multimedia work by the artist Karborn (apparently Foxx’s son). Somewhat more austere and abstract than B-Movie, but not overwhelmingly dissimilar.

 

jf14London Overgrown (2015). Inspired by the experience of moving to London in the 1970s as well as by Ballard’s disaster novels and surrealist art, Foxx has long incorporated references to visions of an abandoned, overgrown London in his music over the years. This is something of a summation of the concept, recycling a couple of tracks from other sources, including bits of Cathedral Oceans with the vocals removed. But it works well and nobody else makes ambient quite like this.

 

jf15Ghost Harmonic: Codex (2015). Another strong ambient album, this collaboration between Foxx, Benge (from the Maths), and violinist Diana Yukawa.

 

That’s a lot of music to absorb. The critics loved the Maths albums; I liked them quite a bit, but my favourites here would be the two EPs from 2013 and last year’s ambient albums.

2016, the year of almost no Doctor Who January 23, 2016

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12So Steven Moffat is leaving after the next series of Doctor Who, to be replaced by Chris Chibnall, who’s doing a third series of Broadchurch first. But Moffat’s last bow is scheduled for next year and all we get is a Christmas special for 2016. Oh the humanity. How will we cope with only one new episode?

(I’m not actually happy about it, because Capaldi’s really good and this last may have been my favourite season of the Moffat era. But when I started getting into Doctor Who there hadn’t been any new Who on TV for five years, and it would be four more before it was back. I’ll be okay.)

No Doctor Who until Christmas. What will I do? Well, for a start…

Doctor Who and Sarah Jane Adventures DVDs. We’ve still got a few stories we haven’t seen from the 1963-89 Doctor Who and the final SJA episodes to watch. We’ve been saving them for a rainy day. It’s bound to rain some time this year.

K9. I have a whole season of the semi-official K9 series on DVD. I’ve only watched the first episode. I’ll be honest, I don’t think it looks all that great, but I bought it. Might as well watch it.

Class. Scheduled for later this year, eight 45-minute TV episodes of an all-new Doctor Who spinoff¬† from a critically acclaimed novelist. I’m definitely looking forward to this one.

Big Finish. Every month there are several new audio adventures featuring past Doctors and their companions. Related series like Jago & LItefoot, UNIT, Torchwood, and more. The Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble will have some new stories this year. Never mind that I already have a backlog of Doctor Who audios that is well into three digits now. I might catch up before the end of the year if I listened to at least one every day.

Comics. Ongoing series for the 10th, 11th, and 12th Doctors, miniseries for the 8th and 9th and, apparently, one coming for the 4th. These are from Titan. I still haven’t read all of IDW’s Doctor Who comics yet, and they lost their licence a couple years ago.

Novels. There are a few new ones scheduled for this year. And I’ve got a backlog of a few dozen.

Bernice Summerfield, one of the Doctor’s greatest companions, despite never being on TV. Last seen in the recent 12th Doctor novel Big Bang Generation. I loved her in the New Adventures books, with the Seventh Doctor and on her own, but I haven’t read most of the books published by Big Finish or heard most of her audio adventures.

Faction Paradox. Iris Wildthyme. Erimem. Lethbridge-Stewart. Spinoffs, all of them with several books I haven’t read yet, some with audios I haven’t heard. And more to come.

2016. The year of too damn much Doctor Who. Nah, no such thing. But there’s plenty.

Review: Harlan Ellison: Can and Can’tankerous January 20, 2016

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Another review in exchange for a free advance read from Netgalley.

I’ve read a lot of Ellison. I tracked down a lot of his books in the 1980s. I loved his columns as much as, if not more than, his fiction. I bought his Outer Limits episodes on VHS. And I bought a limited slipcased hardcover edition of his book on his Star Trek episode, City on the Edge of Forever. Haven’t read much from him lately, though. So when a new collection of his popped up on Netgalley, many years since the last Ellison book I picked up, well, that was an easy decision.

But.

This feels like a relatively minor collection in the context of Ellison’s work… but if you’re a devoted Ellison fan, that’s not much of a problem. (And if you’re a really devoted fan, you want the limited edition.) But it’s not a great starting point for newcomers. One story in particular is a rather drawn-out revisitation of old pulp SF adventure tropes that never really takes off. Some of the stories are apparently rewritten oldies, and they definitely feel dated. Unlike a lot of his classic work, much of this book feels like anything but a writer taking on the world today. I set the book aside once or twice to read other things, not something I often do.

What made this book especially interesting to me, though, is the short bits interspersed between stories in which Ellison writes about his stroke. I won’t say it’s enough to make the book worthwhile on its own, given its brevity, but it adds up to a pretty memorable story.

David Bowie January 20, 2016

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bowielookI’ll try to keep this one fairly short. There’s been so much said already.

The first Bowie record I had was a 7″ 45 of “Space Oddity”/”The Man Who Sold the World.” I liked it well enough, back when I was listening to a lot of Queen and Electric Light Orchestra and Fleetwood Mac.

But in 1979, I was 16 and starting to listen more to new wave, punk, and electronic music, losing interest in top 40 MOR and light prog rock. So one night I was watching Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, a late night show with concert footage and music videos from before MTV, and they played three new David Bowie videos: “D.J.,” “Look Back in Anger,” and “Boys Keep Swinging.” They were perfect. Songs by someone familiar from the kind of music I was moving out of — but as adventurous and unique as the stuff I was getting into. Within a year or two I had Stage, Lodger, Low, Heroes, Scary Monsters, ChangesOneBowie…

It’d be a lie to say I stayed with Bowie from then on out. Like a lot of people I tuned out circa Tonight and didn’t tune back in until Outside, aside from going to see him on the Glass Spider tour. It took me a while to catch up with some of the pre-Station to Station albums, but I made up for it, especially over the last couple of years. And while I like The Next Day, it was… well… kind of ordinary rock music, a lot of it, with a misfire or two. When the news broke about Blackstar, it sounded like it would be more what I wanted from Bowie, more of what I discovered in 1979, something unique. And it is. But just as he shows the world he can still surprise us and impress us, he’s gone.

Blake’s 7: The Liberator Chronicles January 20, 2016

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b7 set1_disc1_the-turing-test

If you’re not familiar with Blake’s 7 and didn’t read the previous post, here it is in a nutshell: Star Trek crossed with Star Wars made by people with Doctor Who connections and Doctor Who budgets in the late 1970s. The heroes are a political prisoner and a group of criminals sent to a prison planet who end up in an abandoned but powerful alien spaceship. They fight the Federation, they sometimes fight among themselves, main characters sometimes die or disappear. Not bad for a show that started in the late 1970s.

Big Finish is a British audio production company that’s been doing new audio adventures based on Doctor Who and other TV series for quite a few years now. Most of the productions are full cast audio, like old time radio shows, where you’re getting basically a TV episode — dialogue, sound effects, music — but no visuals. Others are more like conventional audiobooks, in which someone reads a story. And some are in between.

Big Finish has released eleven Liberator Chronicles box sets. You can get them as actual sets of three CDs each, or buy them as downloads from their website. (I go for the downloads. Great price, no shipping, no clutter.) A typical box set has one story per CD, with one or two actors from the original series cast and a guest star or two. Depending on the story being told, some lean more towards audio drama, some a bit closer to audiobook, with exposition from a character’s viewpoint along with the dialogue. Sometimes the three stories are standalones, sometimes two or three are linked through a situation or guest character.

The main thing is, they’re really good.

Blake’s 7 gets knocked for its special effects and sets (which could be painfully unconvincing even decades ago). They can detract from even the best episodes. That doesn’t happen here. The stories aren’t limited by budget constraints as far as space battles, aliens, futuristic cities, and other elements are concerned. And there are some good writers with experience writing in the Doctor Who and Star Trek universes who know and love Blake’s 7 (including Una McCormack, James Swallow, Steve Lyons, Iain McLaughlin, Cavan Scott, Simon Guerrier, James Goss, and more). Plus, of course, many of the original cast.

People have tried to bring the show back to TV. In an age where you can see hints of it in shows like Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5, and a lot in Farscape and Firefly, it seems like an obvious thing to do. But we’ve already had a few dozen really good new episodes in the form of these audios. They may even be an easier path into the show than the TV episodes. I recommend them highly.

I’m almost done listening to the Liberator Chronicles, though more are planned. In the meantime, fortunately, there’s the second Big Finish range of Blake’s 7 audios, the Classic Audio Adventures, which are full cast dramas rather than the hybrid format used here.¬† I’m looking forward to them.

(Remind me to chat about the short-lived reboot audio series one of these days.)

A bit more on Blake’s 7 January 17, 2016

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I think I first heard about Blake’s 7 when Starlog did a series of articles about it in the 1980s. I found the first novelization and the episode guide and read them and thought, yeah, seems pretty good, I’ll have to see this.

And then I got a chance to see an episode. I didn’t get through much of it. The special effects, sets, costumes, and the other things people often point to… I couldn’t get past them. I tried again a couple of times, to the same effect.

But people kept going on about how good it was. So, one day, I was at a bookstore with a good video selection and I grabbed the VHS tapes with the first two and last two episodes (I already knew how the series ended, more or less). I decided to give the show a proper chance. I was hooked partway through the first episode. It was much darker than I expected. And through the tapes I found I liked a lot of the dialogue and the characters, despite the special effects and sets and whatnot. I ended up buying a lot more videos. And books. And audios.

At its best, Blake’s 7 is Star Trek turned upside down, Star Wars taken seriously. You’ve got a group of rebels against a corrupt, dictatorial Federation. But the rebels aren’t a group of squeaky clean good guys. There’s a political reformer turned revolutionary, a computer hacker, a smuggler, a thief, and other criminals, who manage to escape a penal colony with a powerful alien starship. As they start to fight the Federation they argue over goals, over tactics, over alliances. They aren’t a happy, united family of voyagers. People die. people make bad choices. People walk into traps or see their plans go spectacularly wrong. And then there’s the brutal ending that people still talk and argue about.

If you’re one of the people who can’t watch old TV shows like the original Star Trek or 1963-1989 Doctor Who because of special effects and all that, don’t bother with Blake’s 7. But if you do like those old shows, and you haven’t seen B7, give it a shot. I recommend starting at the beginning. It’s not available on DVD in North America, but it’s not too difficult to find online if you can’t make use of R2 PAL DVDs. Give it a try. And then get ready for the tie-in books and audios. Especially the audios.

On taking things seriously January 17, 2016

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As far back as the 1980s I remember people watching the original Star Trek because they were amused by its campy cheesiness. The British TV series Blake’s 7 gets a lot of the same kind of “appreciation.” To be fair, there are certainly moments in each that are either accidentally awful or clearly just taking the proverbial. Take “Turnabout Intruder” or “The Harvest of Kairos.”

But I never cared for that approach. That kind of ironic appreciation, the whole “it’s so bad it’s good” has limited appeal for me. I can see sitting through something like Plan Nine From Outer Space, but several seasons of a TV series? Why put yourself through that?

There’s two sides of the equation, of course — the creator’s intent and the audience’s reaction. I think it’s safe to say that, for the most part, the creators of Star Trek and Blake’s 7 took what they were doing fairly seriously. They did the best they could with the resources at hand, doing what was possible at the time they made their shows. That the world has changed since then is beyond their control. The rerun/video audience is watching outside of the original context and isn’t seeing the show as it would have been received in its time.

So, as far as I’m concerned, if you’re going to invest enough time to watch a whole old TV series, you have to see past the years between you and the show. You have to see past old-fashioned and unconvincing special effects. You have to adjust to the slower pace. You have to engage with it on its own terms and see what is actually going on.

The original Star Trek is not about space battles, fistfights, and Kirk getting it on with all of the women in the galaxy. Those are cliches propagated by people who don’t take the show seriously enough to actually watch all the episodes and see that Kirk is actually a three-dimensional character, and that there’s more moral complexity and thoughtfulness in the show than some people grant it. Yes, you can name obvious counterexamples. But in the context of the whole series, they’re blips. Blake’s 7 is not just about Servalan camping it up or Avon chewing the scenery. The relationships between the characters have a fair amount going on onscreen and hints of more underneath. The show addresses the morality of the characters’ actions, too — they may be trying to be honourable freedom fighters, not terrorists, but there’s no shortage of dead innocents in their trail.

When you take the shows seriously you can see how the characters change, how much depth there is to their personalities, even on these old TV series that didn’t focus as much on those elements as some newer shows do. You can see their fictional universes expand and become more interesting, more able to generate new story ideas. You can understand why people still want to spend time creating or enjoying new stories in those universes without thinking they’re wasting their time doing it.

Review: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me January 12, 2016

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51jz4wKcWJLIt’s entirely possible that you’ve only heard any of the music in this film without knowing this band existed. You’ve probably heard that classic 60s hit “The Letter” by the Box Tops without knowing what the guy who sang it did next. You may have heard the opening credits song from That 70s Show played by Cheap Trick without ever having heard the original. For that matter, you’re probably skeptical whenever rock critics or obsessive music fans tell you that this band you never heard was actually one of the best bands ever, never mind one of the best bands that never had a hit. Well, give this a shot anyway.

If you’re a fan, you’ve probably already got this.

This is a two-hour documentary about a band most people still haven’t heard of, decades after they came and went. But they’re a band with a big cult following that includes a lot of influential musicians and writers, so there’s been a couple of books already, too.

Having read those books, I thought there were a few things that could have been covered in the documentary that weren’t… but that’s a fairly minor quibble, which I’ll get back to in a minute.

Overall this is a really good documentary that should work both for committed fans and people just wondering what the fuss is about. There’s a surprising amount of 1970s video footage of the band members, along with more recent interviews with band members, family, record company people, and other musicians. You get the pre-band history — Alex Chilton having a big hit single as the singer of the Box Tops, Chris Bell starting a band with some friends — and what came after. Chris Bell trying to go solo, Big Star continuing without him and then Alex Chilton going solo and spending years trying to get away from anything to do with Big Star and its sound, the unexpected reunion, and a lot of deaths. It’s not the most cheerful movie, to put it mildly. But the snippets of music and the obvious love for the band from many of the people interviewed, as well as the way in which Big Star was eventually discovered by a larger audience, adds a lot of positivity.

The main thing I missed from the documentary was most of what got me interested in Big Star. In 1985 I bought It’ll End in Tears by This Mortal Coil, which has covers of the Big Star songs “Kangaroo” and “Holocaust.” Not long after that I picked up the Rainy Day album, with another version of “Holocaust.” In 1986 the best song on the second Bangles album, A Different Light, was their cover of “September Gurls.” In 1991, the third This Mortal Coil album had covers of two of Chris Bell’s songs. In 1993, His Name Is Alive covered “Blue Moon.” And somewhere in there the Replacements recorded their tribute song “Alex Chilton.” The Replacements tune is referenced in the movie, but that’s it.

A few other things, the aforementioned quibbles:

  • what I’ve read about the third album suggests that Chilton’s girlfriend Lesa Aldridge played a big role as muse and, apparently, as a singer, until Chilton wiped most of her vocals; she’s not interviewed and not mentioned much.
  • Though there’s a fair amount about the Big Star reunion shows, the new lineup’s live album and single studio album go unmentioned aside from an album cover popping up on screen for a second.
  • The film is open about Chris Bell’s drug and alcohol abuse but only dances around the issue of his sexuality; he may have been gay or bisexual.

Oh… What did they sound like? Well, they were influenced by the Beatles and in turn influenced an awful lot of North American and UK alternative/indie bands. R.E.M.’s Mike Mills is in this; so is Douglas Hart of the Jesus and Mary Chain. If you were ever a new wave/alternative/indie rock/power pop fan, Big Star is in the DNA of your music. If you were into art-damaged ethereal goth bands like This Mortal Coil, well, the third album adds some precursors of that music to the power pop/classic rock sound, and it works. But you should probably start with #1 Record/Radio City, usually available on a single CD, then go for Sister Lovers/Third and Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos. I bought them in the mid-1990s and was impressed, and as time goes by I listen to them more and more often. To quote the Replacements, “I never travel far without a little Big Star.”

Catching up on Star Trek books (spoilers) January 9, 2016

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I was burned out on Star Trek for a little while (and a lot more interested in Doctor Who). But for a variety of reasons I’ve decided to get back to Trek. It’s the 50th anniversary, after all, and the whole mess of the Axanar situation spurred me on to watch some fan films and hang out on TrekBBS and next thing you know I’ve started to put a dent in the Trek books backlog.

Jeffrey Lang’s The Light Fantastic follows on from developments in his own Immortal Coil (was that really in 2002?) and David Mack’s The Persistence of Memory (2012). Like Immortal Coil, it deals with the one theme Star Trek keeps introducing and then dropping like a hot potato: artificial intelligences. This time around we get the welcome return of the holographic Moriarty, as well as the new and improved Data, his daughter Lal, and their pal Alice, along with a few others. It’s not a cursory bit of checkbox-ticking but a novel that continues the work of explaining Trek’s AIs while treating them as growing, interesting characters in their own right. Good stuff.

Tony Daniel’s Savage Trade is… mostly fairly enjoyable but also frustrating. It has a tendency to throw something new into the mix when what’s already there should be developed more. We’ve got a mission to a distant world with a Vulcan diplomat. And slave traders and raiders with some connection to a long thought dead civilization. And a bunch of Excalbians in human form like the ones in the episode “The Savage Curtain.” And a bunch of other Excalbians, aggressive and definitely not trying to take on the personalities of important figures of Earth history. And a Demiurge that has destroyed Excalbia and threatens the remaining Excalbians and the Enterprise. Is it any wonder that the storyline about the dead civilization fades into the background and is just barely given a quick resolution? Is it any wonder that the issue of how human the transformed Excalbians really are doesn’t get challenged as much as one might expect? Is it any wonder that some questions — why did the Excalbians take on only human form this time around, and why only humans from the 20th century and earlier, and how they adapt so easily — don’t get much of an answer? The book needed at least a couple of complications knocked out and more focus on the first few plot elements.

I’m well into David Mack’s Seekers 3: Long Shot and really enjoying it. More on that later, I expect.

 

 

Review: Mrs Hudson and the Malabar Rose January 9, 2016

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malabarAnother Netgalley review.

Martin Davies offers a fun, refreshing take on the world of Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes and Watson aren’t the only residents of 221B Baker St. There’s also Mrs Hudson and her young assistant, Flotsam, aka Flottie. At a time when a matter of national importance occupies the time of Holmes and Watson, what seems like a much simpler domestic matter may pass unnoticed… but Mrs Hudson can take care of this case while more prominent figures are busy elsewhere, with Flottie’s help. And it turns out that Mrs Hudson is a very smart and resourceful woman, and Flottie has her moments too.

And, not too surprisingly, the case of the missing husband and the case of the mysterious jewel thief who plans to steal the Malabar Rose turn out to be more complicated than they seem, and to have some unexpected connections.

Holmes and Watson are definitely supporting characters here; Flottie is the narrator, and she and Mrs Hudson are the stars of the show. They do what they do as women in Victorian London, sometimes unnoticed by the men around them, noticing domestic details that turn out to be very important.

All in all, a fun way to revisit the world of Sherlock Holmes that isn’t just another imitation of what we’ve already had many times over.

Review: Star Trek Sex: Analyzing The Most Sexually Charged Episodes Of The Original Series January 9, 2016

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Another Netgalley review.

Okay, this is a bit odd. Apparently Will Stape contributed story elements to a couple of Star Trek episodes years ago, and in recent years he’s been producing ebooks of Star Trek essays. This appears to be his first in print form, and it’s an oddity.

The first 60% or so of the book is dedicated to examining the sexual content of a few dozen original series episodes and movies, followed by brief chapters on Kirk and Spock’s bromance, Star Trek’s sexiest women, and other topics. It’s a very casual pop culture book, not at all scholarly in approach. Given that there’s a chapter on Star Trek and Howard Stern, it’s a bit random in approach.

The tone sometimes seems a bit like a nerd trying to sound like a dudebro, or vice versa. I have no idea who this book is aimed at. It doesn’t make a lot of new, in-depth analyses and critiques of the show’s approach to sex and sexuality, so it’s not for the scholarly crowd, but the level of analysis is also probably on par with most fans’ thinking, so I’m not sure how much is there for them, either. Might be a fun read for more casual fans.

Review: Ghosts and Girls of Fiction House! January 9, 2016

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ghostsgirlsAnother Netgalley review.

Mainly for serious comic history buffs. The book captures some of the work of a company that’s mainly of historical interest now. There’s a few short introductory chapters with text, photos, and sample art providing the context of the company, its creators, and their work, followed by a cover gallery and a collection of stories about a ghost-chasing detective. The art is variable, as is the writing. It’s sometimes fun but not a rediscovery of lost timeless classics. It’s not sleazily awful enough to compensate for the fact that it’s not really great stuff. There are people who will probably be happy with this, especially those who are interested in the work of the less well known comic companies, but its appeal to a wider audience is probably limited. If you are interested, though, there’s some useful information and some well reproduced art (I assume; it can be hard to tell from a pdf what the print version will look like).

Review: Doctor Who: Deep Time January 9, 2016

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Another Netgalley review of an advance ereading copy in exchange for a review.

Trevor Baxendale’s contribution to the three 12th Doctor novels featuring the mysterious threat of the Glamour is very different from Gary Russell’s quirky tale. In Deep Time, the Doctor and Clara Oswald join a dangerous mission into deep space. A privately-funded expedition is looking for two possibly linked artefacts: a spaceship lost decades ago and the last of the Phaeron Roads, a network of linked wormholes used by a long-gone civilization to travel through space.

Baxendale introduces the small crew; they tend to be familiar types, but he fleshes most of them out well enough. Different characters have different goals and there’s some conflict between them. The story follows the hunt through deep space, the mystery of the dead planet they encounter, the struggle to survive a world in which people can be flung back millennia into very different eras of the planet’s history — all of them less than hospitable, some deadly. Not everyone survives.

The story keeps up the suspense and mystery until near the end, when the plot threads come together and the Glamour connection comes into play. I’m not sure it feels entirely consistent with Gary Russell’s novel, but it works reasonably well. It’s one of the weaker aspects of the book, though. After an almost Alien-style extraterrestrial survival horror tale, he has to balance a slam-bang action ending with a fair amount of exposition and explanation. Still, a fast and suspenseful read overall, with some classic science fiction sense of wonder and good portrayals of the Doctor and Clara.

Review: Doctor Who: Big Bang Generation January 9, 2016

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And we’re back with more Netgalley reviews. Netgalley provides advance ereading copies in exchange for reviews. This time it’s the 12th Doctor novel Big Bang Generation by Gary Russell, the prolific Who novelist who’s also worked on Big Finish audios and the actual TV series, among many other things. This is one of three simultaneously released and loosely connected novels.

I didn’t like this one as much as I hoped I would.

After Doctor Who went off the air in 1989, the show lived in for several years in a series of novels, the New Adventures, that moved the story forward. One of the key developments was the introduction of a new companion, Bernice Summerfield, a 25th century archeologist. She was in many of the New Adventures and, when the publisher lost its Doctor Who licence at the time of the 1996 TV movie, they carried on the line with Bernice as the lead character for 22 more novels. When that line ended, the audio company Big Finish began its line of Bernice Summerfield audio adventures and books — dozens of them.

For Doctor Who fans who venture beyond the TV series, she’s kind of a big deal. And although she’s had audio adventures with the Doctor in recent years, she hasn’t appeared in an official Doctor Who novel in roughly twenty years.

So it’s a bit disappointing that she shows up in a mishmash of Douglas Adams and Steven Moffat featuring our protagonists battling against the end of all of time and space. It’s a humourous romp set against the backdrop of the destruction of Sydney, Australia, and the death of virtually all of its residents. Not that the humour always connects — Benny’s nickname, when she and her group are pretending to be con artists, is Da Trowel — nor does the huge body count really matter because you know there’s going to be a mighty whack on the reset button before the book is over. And that’s the problem. When you have the characters in a series book playing for the biggest stakes of all, there’s nothing at stake. The universe won’t be destroyed. All of the characters won’t be killed off. Everything will be back the way it was by the end of the book. All you’ve got is the journey, and it’s not as great a journey as it could be.

Russell does a decent job capturing Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, but his Benny doesn’t remind me of the one I’ve read about. But then she’s been through a lot of solo adventures I haven’t read or heard yet.

Then there’s the Glamour, the connecting thread of the three most recent 12th Doctor novels. It doesn’t seem to work quite the same way here as it does in Trevor Baxendale’s novel.

Overall, not awful, and sometimes enjoyable, but not fully satisfying. YMMV.

About JJtrek January 9, 2016

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On the subject, often expressed by Axanards, of how the JJ reboot movies aren’t real Trek, something I wrote in a Star Trek Into Darkness review a while back on another blogging platform:

Star Trek Into Darkness is a big dumb film full of dumb, simple mischaracterizations. It’s Star Trek by and for people who don’t know or care about pre-2009 Star Trek while thinking that it’s faithful to the original. It’s nowhere to go for all the things I ever loved about Star Trek over the years.

But. Star Trek Into Darkness is bad Star Trek, but… so are most of the previous Star Trek movies. With a couple of possible exceptions, they all tried much too hard to be big skiffy spectacles with lots of action. They warped the characters, they had plot holes, they learned the wrong lessons from The Wrath of Khan (it’s about the characters, not the villain). Even the ones generally agreed to be the best — Wrath of Khan, First Contact — don’t hold up under close scrutiny. You can tear apart pretty much every Trek movie ever made without much effort.

The best we can hope for from most Star Trek movies is that they don’t make us yell “oh, come ON” until after they’re over. And that they do well enough to keep Star Trek as a brand alive. But the best place to rediscover what made Star Trek the phenomenon it was for so long isn’t a movie theatre. TV Trek is the heart and brain of Star Trek. (And the books are what keeps them alive.)

TL,DR: almost all of the Trek movies fail at being real Star Trek. Because they’re movies, not TV.

Wrong things I have learned from Star Trek: Axanar fans January 1, 2016

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CBS and Paramount have filed a lawsuit against the producers of so-called fan film Axanar. The response has been enlightening.

  1. “I assume no one would have started a million-dollar project without their lawyers getting written confirmation from CBS and Paramount that this is a legal and licenced work.” Well, you assume wrong. There were no lawyers and there was no written confirmation from CBS/Paramount and there was no licence.
  2. “You can lose your copyright if you don’t defend it and since CBS and Paramount didn’t go after other productions, Axanar is perfectly legal.” Wrong. Copyright doesn’t have to be defended, that’s trademarks. Rights holders get to decide who they want to stomp on and who they want to benevolently disregard.
  3. “You aren’t violating copyright if you aren’t making any money.” Wrong. If you use what isn’t yours without permission and without meeting the terms of the exceptions under fair use/fair dealing, you’re violating copyright.
  4. “Freedom of speech! Fair use! This film is protected by the constitution of the United States of America!” Wrong. Freedom of speech means the government can’t shut you up without a good reason. Period. Even in the USA, there are secrets acts, libel laws, copyright laws, and other limits on speech. Raising money, hiring professionals, planning to sell tie-ins, and so on… that’s business, not speech or comment.
  5. “But it’s a fan film! Fan films are okay!” Wrong on both counts. Alec Peters has repeatedly referred to Axanar as a professional production, including in an annual report on the Axanar website. People are being paid salaries, professionals are working in front of and behind the cameras. This is not some fans in a garage with their homemade props and an iphone. Second, as said above, copyright holders get to choose who they stomp on. They’ve been nice so far. They don’t have to be.
  6. “CBS and Paramount are afraid of Axanar because it’s better than their garbage!” I love this one. There is no Axanar to be afraid of, just a talking heads fake documentary and one scene. They’re still building sets and casting characters (some of the planned stars have dropped out).
  7. “Axanar is Gene’s true vision!” Hell no. Not even close. Axanar is based on the FASA role playing game’s concept of a Four Year War. When Gene regained some power over Star Trek at the beginning of The Next Generation, he wasn’t happy with the war and military stuff in FASA’s RPG and had their licence revoked. (Update: their licence was revoked because they started doing TNG supplements without a TNG licence, apparently; this is a fan myth based on all the other anti-military things GR was saying and doing at the time, or so it appears.) He would have been as anti-Axanar as he would have been anti-Abrams. More, probably… he’d have liked the pandering sexism in the Abrams movies.
  8. “Axanar is allowed to film because Majel has Gene’s rights to Star Trek!” On the TrekBBS a few screenshots from Facebook show that there are people who believe Gene Roddenberry owned Star Trek, and when he died Majel inherited it, and at least one person believes she’s actually still alive and running things. Gene never owned Star Trek. Paramount used to, once it bought Desilu; since the Viacom split, Paramount owns the movies, CBS owns TV Trek. If Gene Roddenberry came magically back to life he would have no control whatsoever over any aspect of Star Trek.
  9. “Axanar will win!” In a pig’s eye.