Thursday, 17 December 2015

Special Report: Journey To Mars

"July fourteenth, twenty-oh-five. Today. The year humans set foot on Mars, for the very first time."

The as-live TV movie, Special Report: Journey to Mars is in simple terms, a hoot. Similar in tone to 1994's asteroid-phobic, Without Warning, the story follows an 'as-it-happens' broadcast of the so-called "Destiny" Mars landing, and its intrepid crew, who are merrily voyaging within what is occasionally described as being, "The most complicated machine ever built." A fairly risky-sounding proposition, if you ask me, as far as vital life support capsules are concerned. The simpler, the better, surely. Lest we not forget the sage wisdom of Montgomery Scott, "The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain."

'Co-hosted' by perpetually-concerned optimist, Tamara O'Neal (Alfre Woodard) and stern-toned stalwart, Nick Van Pelt (Philip Casnoff) of globe-spanning news station, GNN, we are told that this once-in-a-lifetime event is being broadcast to a precisely-measured opening audience of 2,922,214,208 viewers – although, it is never explicitly stated how this figure has been deduced. Are these merely individual TV sets tuned in to the show, or social media trends, perhaps?

If that is the case, how would a group potentially watching in a pub somewhere be taken into account? Or an entire classroom, or a hospital ward tuned in? It was at this point that I found myself thinking back to just how improbable mass-Internet usage might have sounded around the time of broadcast (1996) and how the very notion must have seemed perfectly-suited for a light-hearted, Sci-Fi lark.

Ironically, it is arguably Special Report's imaginative depiction of Terran networking that has best withstood the test of time. Yet throughout, there's a "Mark my words – by the year 1980, everyone will have their own personal hovercraft" vibe that remains both as charming as it does distracting. Without mitigation, the delay-free link between Mars orbit and Earth stretches credulity somewhat, as does the CG model of the spacecraft never visibly rotating, despite centrifugal force being explicitly stated as a source of artificial gravity for our astronauts. It may sound pernickety, but target audiences tend to be clued-up on such technical matters, and simple errors or omissions can easily bounce viewers out of the presentation.

A skein of political satire ties together a conspiracy subplot that threatens the security of the entire mission.

In the space of just under ninety-minutes, the thankfully level-headed crew are forced to contend with cancer-causing nanotech infections, debilitating malware affecting one of three crucial radars, a suspected saboteur, the cosmic reach of greedy corporate malfeasance, and even "ultra fascist" Europeans who for some reason appear to be proudly flying the flag of Bulgaria, which in this timeline (underhandedly) represents a radical splinter cell of the otherwise peaceful, "Native Earth Alliance" – a group of forward-thinking neo hippies, who for an environmental group, seem more clued-up in matters, fiscal than botanical.

Khaki-swathed N.E.A. chairman, Eric Altman (the ever-wonderful, Richard Schiff), first interviewed from the edge of a minor but disproportionately-loud placard-protest, and later Houston Detention Facility(!), is staunchly opposed to the squandering of public money pooled from the twenty seven nation-strong 'Alliance' required to fly half a dozen people to a lifeless rock 183,401,807.74 miles away. With next to no counter-argument produced as to the mission's validity or purpose, you can't help but sympathise with the granola crowd's simplistic case.

As the slew of disparate villains merrily manipulate and coerce back home on Earth, you can imagine the eagerness of the Destiny crew at signing up, just to get the hell out of Dodge. At times, the privilege of being able to shout, "First!" on the ruby Martian soil almost feels like an afterthought than a game-changing historical privilege. Overall, the Destiny mission feels far too gooey and heartfelt a crusade than the scientific game-changer it rightfully ought to be.

The crew are both typically diverse and conservatively unremarkable as once might expect. At heart, they're all Gosh Darn Heroic Sons of Guns™ – Astrotech Brit, Susan Lobel requires only four hours' sleep and likes fencing. Microbiologist, Lin Yo Yu's husband ironically refuses to fly. Russian pilot, Tanya Sadavoy once dreamed of meeting Neil Armstrong on the moon, which from one of the veritably-propagandic mission profiles peppered throughout the show, seems to have been enough to land her the gig, alone.

When the posse gathers in the med-bay, and their injured commander asks for two volunteers for a dangerous space walk, everyone's hands go up. The faultless heroism and teamwork on display is enough to make you Rimmer Salute in respect.

The only crew-member on-board who deviates from the norm is Captain Eugene T. Slader (played by Keith Carradine). Progressively unable to think straight, his erratic orders and disorganised commands stem from an unforeseen physical ailment, which is set in motion practically from the get-go. This is initially manifested in repeated, painful arm-clutching, before his eventual relief from duty (which surely would/should have happened on medical grounds as soon as his obvious and undeniable symptoms began to show.) Nevertheless, Carradine progressively brings a notably tragic confusion to a once charismatic lead character.

Also on-board, doe-eyed, fish out of water, GNN Science Correspondent, Ryan West (Judge 'Freaking' Reinhold) is the only (visible) alien in the entire piece. Pleasantly buzzing from crewman to crewman, needlessly distracting them from their crucial work, he updates the studio (in real time, no less) courtesy of a wired comms device which is far too bulky and expensive-looking a prop not to be of crucial importance, later on. For better or worse, West must by far be one of the most relentlessly upbeat and clean-cut characters I have ever seen in any medium. His cheery grin and humming voice could both buff and cut through steel simultaneously. And that hair. Seriously. What a guy.

As a prime example of reality-bending cinéma vérité, Special Report is a curious but worthy addition to the pantheon. Despite very much being an U.S. production, connections to other works (including Ghostwatch) are more plentiful than they might first appear.

For a start, the 'live' studio location has its very own sixteen-screen video wall, which connects the two hosts to special guests/talking heads (curiously, Without Warning also has a similar setup, though slightly smaller, comprising nine screens.) There are several (albeit simulated) video glitches, including one fairly disturbing moment early on, in which the live feed is 'hacked' by a balaclava'd techno terrorist who threatens to fatally derail the daring space mission if his demands are not met – itself, evoking daymares of the Doctor Who/Max Headroom pirating incident of 1987.

As with the equally-watchable Without Warning, for a reality-based narrative, the dialogue is at times, well, florid to say the least. Though, in all fairness, it can be an incredibly tight rope to traverse in constructing natural speech that also advances the plot – hence, one of Blair Witch's strengths being particularly strong improvisation.

And then, there's the ending. Which I actually still find to be genuinely unnerving. I don't know what it is about these Reality Horror moments that even now continues to chill me to the core. Perhaps it's a kind of Uncanny Valley effect – when something gets so close to (at least, feeling) real, that alarm bells start ringing in the backs of our heads. It's as good a theory as any other, I suppose. (spoilers follow...)

After saving the day and landing safely (as she humbly proclaims, "Right on the button!") Sadavoy steps out onto the sandy surface of our nearest planetary neighbour... and sees something. Then, the image cuts to static, leaving us all in unsettling limbo. It's an unexpectedly stark moment that evokes one of the final shots of Alternative Three. And the eerie silence that follows, coupled by the discordant tones of X-Files composer, Mark Snow's closing theme does a remarkably effective job of intertwining the profound loneliness and isolation of our potentially lost crew.

Granted, to the trained eye, Special Report may not adhere strictly to the form it is drawing from, but Drama does have a habit of taking many different routes in order to achieve its ends. Yes, the film might have dated here and there, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I actually found it quite fascinating to revisit (having caught it many years previous on Sky Movies,) and tick off the once-fanciful notions that have since become commonplace. However, those going into this hoping to catch a more accurate type of space romp may come away feeling just slightly frustrated.

It's so easy to retroactively amend a film, but in hindsight, I wonder if it might have been interesting to follow the adventure with a more accurate time-delay – particularly, if thanks to some sleuthing, the studio presenters suddenly became aware that something was about to happen to the crew, and had no choice but to watch them tumble into oblivion via the cool eye of the impartial video-link... A kind-of cross between Apollo 13 and The Two Ronnies' Mastermind sketch, you might say. Actually, scratch that. Doesn't sound scary, at all.

In any event, Ghostwatchers, do try and check this one out if you can. Special Report: Journey to Mars is barely available on VHS from all good unusual outlets.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Barely-Related Set Report: Red Dwarf XI

The night that Ghostwatch went out, I vividly recall my excitement upon first discovering that Craig Charles would be making an appearance. I've been a Red Dwarf fan for almost as long as I can remember. And that simple fact (not counting my prized shelf of merch) is what makes me a proper, cast-iron-balled, Dwarfer.

I was following the show back when the sets were naff. When the models were just painted cornflakes boxes suspended on uneven bits of twine. When the costumes were far too dated, the acting far too obvious, and the writing far too laddish. Back when the characters were underdeveloped, that vampire was in it, and Cryton was just a bald, middle-aged guy projected onto a TV screen.

... Except, the show has never actually been nearly that bad. Even at its least gripping, it has never been close to unwatchable. For the most part, it's actually been rather impressive. Honest.

You see, Red Dwarf has the dubious honour of being often described as a 'cult' programme. Which roughly translated, means that despite the fact a disproportionate social percentile will find it inexplicably effortless to simultaneously comprehend, appreciate, and enjoy the occasional episode, book, or assorted curio, those who orbit the periphery of said fandom (I like to call them, 'Unbelievers') will statistically find it more emotionally demanding to effectively combine those elements into a unified, copacetic viewing experience, or something.

Yes. Some people love it, some don't. You heard it here first. And let's not get into whether or not it's first and foremost a sci-fi comedy, or a comedy sci-fi. Trust me, we'll be here all night. At this point, all that matters is that it's back. Which is, to coin a phrase, ace.

As far as my single remaining taste-bud is concerned, the first thirty-six episodes of this niche, Emmy-award winning pleasantry are for the time-capsule. Inevitably, what I perceive as being such a perpetually-strong initial run has consequently set the bar rather high for all subsequent future endeavors. That (hypocritically) said, the chance to witness an episode being recorded live had long, long, long been on my proto-Bucket List. After all, such barriers tend not to protect that which is behind from what might be ahead - rather, prevent what is behind from getting ahead, at all.

Just to needlessly rankle any fellow Dwarfers who may be reading, this was not in fact the first time I had seen the Small Rouge One up close and personal. In fact, I've seen the show recorded live twice before. The first occasion was a legitimate, ten-thousand-to-one-shot via the Lost In TV ticket selection last year for the Series X opener, Trojan. The second ticket was a gift of sorts (along with a biryani) for a solid week's work, which at one stage involved me pretending to be a vicar. That episode, ironically entitled, The Beginning, happened to book-end Series X. Needless to say, both were a lot of fun to watch being put together, and equally enjoyable to behold when later broadcast.

In fact, during that final installment, if you listen carefully to the Simulant/Harakiri scene, you may just hear a distinctly Midlands-eqsue "Aww..." as one cybernetic character cottons onto his imposing superior's deadly double-meaning. That's me! Which in my mind, makes me practically a guest star. Actually, I wonder if I'm due a repeat fee or two..? I'm not joking, actually.

Plus, little known fact: Craig's interview for the doc was recorded during rehearsals for the episode, Fathers and Suns, and yes, he arrived on set in full dreads and leathers. In fact, I spent quite some time airbrushing out his 'Listerton-Smythe' lycra jumpsuit out of the background of this shot, as to prevent spoilers from leaking. He's wearing my long Melton, here for much the same reason...

This time around, with tickets being in such notoriously short supply, I found myself attending as a privileged +1, courtesy of a generous, fellow Dwarfer. So, thanks, you. You know who you are. You cool person, you.

This particular episode, the as-yet-unnamed 'S11.E04' (4/11/15), was filmed at Pinewood, as opposed to the usual (and for a plethora of several multitudes of reasons, much beloved by me) Shepperton Studios.

In the interests of providing a little advance context to this piece, there are a couple of things I should just say before we get waist-high in madras sauce. First, as requested by the production shortly before filming began, there will be no specific plot/character spoilers. And second, as far as the most recent televised series is concerned, I really liked Dear Dave. And yes, I'm comfortable with that. So, with this latter point well in mind, you may wish to invert any likes/dislikes I happen to mention from here on in...

Arriving well ahead of time at Pinewood, we were ushered in groups to the 8960 sq-ft strong TV One studio, only to be greeted by two giant black curtains, and several rows of unforgiving blue plastic seating. Interestingly, even the first episode of Series X had the new sets on display practically from the get-go, so this was quite a change from the norm. Bit more theatrical, you might say.

In addition to feeding the crowd special shoot footage, rough cuts of pre-assembled sequences and the like, evenly spaced in front of us were the usual bank of freestanding flat screen TVs proudly displaying the newly (oldly?) reworked elliptic logo from Series III. Little known fact #2: the veritably prehistoric-style poster seen above (admittedly, sans 'XI') was designed in mind to be showcased at the most recent fan conference in Nottingham, earlier this year. Great minds, eh?

When the giant drapes were finally raised, the as-yet unseen environments were undoubtedly impressive, though for my continuity-driven satisfaction, were still missing their Bibby-worthy red stencils, or similar, over the entryways. A second, new(ish) on-board location boasted some feature-quality hi-tech props (specifically, we were told, one in particular). A revamped iteration of a certain iconic support craft was also present, though out of view. I'm not sure if it was the angles relayed to us live on the monitors, but you'd think the seemingly smaller space would be playing merry hell with Lister's claustrophobia. Or perhaps, that was something he suffered from for just the one episode. Harrumph, harrumph.

In any event, it was nice to see the old girl brought out of quantum-mothballs. And when undoubtedly inter-cut with some purty exterior model and/or CG shots, this will most certainly be something to look forward to around the time of transmission. So yes, some slightly newfangled locales, but with some fun call-backs which I'm sure eager Dwarfies shall enjoy pointing out when the time comes. Didn't happen to see any furry dice, though. For shame.

As we've very much come to expect over the years, the episode itself was an ensemble piece, nicely balanced across the main characters, with Rimmer as a focal point. Craig was particularly on form as the Universe's unlikeliest slobby beacon of Humanity. Delivering a typically carbonated performance alongside his shipmates, he willingly took the time to rally the audience between takes, in the hopes of generating an ever better response. No doubt, a fresh batch of delicately-nuanced Smeg Ups will almost certainly be on the cards, come time for the inevitable DVD release.

But above all, the episode was, truth be told, consistently funny. Within seconds of rolling, the opening visual gag got a deservedly big laugh, and set the tone rather well for the next few hours. The cast appeared to enjoy playing certain scenes more than others, and their individual performances were directly boosted as a result. One such woofer, as ably Gatling-gunned by Robert Llewellyn roughly halfway through the shoot, practically brought the house down - so much so that I seem to recall it drowning out Craig's next line, requiring a retake.

The imaginative plot called for some daring FX that managed to impress even in its roughest, most incomplete form. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if High-Reaching Ambition proves to be this series' raison d'être. The lighting was particularly striking and dimensional. Whilst the bunk-room in Back To Earth made use of its bright walls to bounce light in all directions (functionally doubling it up as a portrait studio,) this newer iteration seems tailor-made to effect an overall greater sense of visual definition. Put it this way - in isolation, I found the shots natively well-balanced, and surprisingly bold. The trick will be seeing how it all works stitched together and graded, I guess. One wonders how a dramatic episode such as say, Quarantine might've looked if using the same camera setup. Is there a difference between something looking cinematic, over say, 'feeling' cinematic? I dunno.

Tonally, there was some interesting/prescient sociopolitical satire that harked back to the show's glory years. One or two salient points from modern day life were effectively woven into both the comedy and plotting, without one much sacrificing the other. One could even argue, at its most engaging, the story briefly came close to taking on the form of a morality play.

Throughout, there were also one or two nice callbacks to previous episodes, which I'm sure fans will enjoy noting down on their JMC clipboards. The studio audience were at certain points, treated to memorable music cues from yesteryear, and even SFX from classic films to help set the mood. Even though it was a long night, the crowd clearly enjoyed themselves from start to finish. I know, because I was one of them. It was all really lovely.

In fact, I don't want to say much more, as I'm likely to give something away, but allow me to close by simply saying that I found the evening quite a bit of fun, and certainly on par (at times, perhaps even a shade more) than my experiences watching both Trojan and The Beginning. And Dear Dave.

... And yes, I'm still comfortable with that.

It's a good picture...
In the run-up to National Séance, The Guardian ran an article that delved into the work of Kirigami aficionado and self-styled Paper Dandy, Marc Hagan-Guirey.

In September, a book containing twenty of Marc's designs hit bookshelves, containing a smorgasbord of sliceable schematics each inspired by a different Horror movie, tale or story... and who'd have thunk it, even Ghostwatch.

In fact, the very first example which readers can attempt to construct themselves is entitled, "The Thing under the Stairs." As you can see below, the spooky piece features a tentacular shadow escaping from a familiar-looking doorway, all of which is bathed in a striking, pinkish-blue glow. Overall, the inspiration is unmistakable - particularly, when you read the accompanying text on the opposite page...

"This was the most traumatic piece of television I'd ever seen. I was found by my neighbour sobbing on the doorstep of our house, too afraid to be inside by myself. If you haven't seen it, hunt down a copy because essentially this show is the original Paranormal Activity (2007) and spawned an entire genre of 'found footage' films."

If you're brave enough to give this particular Horrorgami a go, get in touch and send us a photo! The book is available from all the usual outlets.