Keep Your Neutrons Flowin'

This is a blog about all the nerdy crap we love but are afraid to admit in public.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Torchwood: Because I had to.


As a fan of all things Doctor Who, I felt it was time I turned my attention to the spinoff series Torchwood. Now I had actually seen an episode of TW before I saw a single Doctor Who episode, and I didn't like it. To be fair, it was the final part of a five-part mini-series and I didn't know who any of the characters were, save one, and I didn't fully understand the stakes. All this in mind, I still thought it was a bit melodramatic and ended on an extremely dark note. But, again, I'm a completist and I like the crap out of DW, so after a few months, I thought I'd give it another chance. Luckily, all of Torchwood is available for instant play on Netflix. God. Bless. Netflix.

First some context. In the first season of the revived Doctor Who, a character was introduced in the last five episodes. His name was Capt. Jack Harkness and he at first appears to be a normal WWII American Air Force pilot on loan to the British. He is quickly revealed to be a 51st Century Time Agent-cum-Con Artist. He's a roguish character, the Han Solo of the series. He's morally ambiguous and a bit of a loose cannon, but never the less a loyal companion to The Doctor. Capt. Jack is played by openly gay actor John Barrowman, which I'm sure aided in the decision to make the character Omnisexual (men, women, aliens, monsters, etc.) and added yet another layer to his already colorful personality. The showrunner of the updated series was Russell T. Davies, the creator of Queer as Folk, and I think in general it was a very brave awesome thing to do to introduce a main character on a "family" show who is GLBT. At the end of the season, Capt. Jack is killed by a Dalek only to be brought back to life by the energy of time. He is, however, stranded in the far future, seemingly forever. That isn't the case, however.

During Doctor Who's second season, there are multiple references to the Torchwood Institute, a secret organization started by Queen Victoria as a means of protecting the Crown against alien threats, the Doctor among them. In that season' finale, Torchwood reveals that it takes and adapts alien technology for service to the the United Kingdom, but they are all but destroyed. Or, the LONDON part of Torchwood was destroyed. Torchwood 3 is working just fine over in Cardiff, Wales.

And that's where Torchwood season 1 picks up. In Cardiff, as is explained in a Doctor Who episode, there is a temporal rift allowing time and space matter to travel between dimensions, making it a hotspot for alien phenomenon. This follows the Buffy model of having all the action take place around a single area that happens to attract the paranormal. Makes it easy to keep the location shots cheap. Since both Doctor Who and Torchwood are BBC Wales productions, all they have to do is go outside. When series one begins, Captain Jack is the leader of a small team consisting of medic Owen Harper (Burn Gorman), tech-savvy Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori), and stuffy paper-pusher Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd). In the very first episode, they are more or less discovered by Police Constable Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) who helps solve the case and is inducted into the world. Blah blah blah, heard it all before.

It took me about five months to get passed the first four episodes. Torchwood was a "post-watershed" series, which in Britain, given the limited number of television station, is the designation of a show that airs later at night and can have much more adult content, including graphic violence, sexual content, and bad language. I am always up for heaping helpings of all of these, except when they aren't handled well. It felt to me that the writers didn't know how to make a show of this nature and as such put in huge amounts of sex unnecessarily, or just because they could. In many cases, the sex didn't have anything to do with the story and was really more just titillation for the sake of it. Sci-fi writers generally don't know how to deal with sex. Gwen, who is dating blue collar Rhys (Kai Owen) has an affair with Owen which is neither interesting nor very important to their characters. There was also, amongst the sex, a fair amount of homosexual activity. One episode finds Toshiko (a female, the name's not a giveaway to anyone outside of Japan) in a relationship with a mysterious blonde woman who ends up being an alien, wouldn't ya know it? Another ends with a sweeping, 360-degree camera sweep around Capt. Jack passionately kissing goodbye to a young military man of the same name. I definitely applaud the show for going there and that much doesn't distract, it's just used in such a sensationalized way.

One bit I did enjoy about the season is just how deeply damaged all the characters are. Gwen struggles with her personal life and her work life, Owen hates himself and wants to die, Tosh is crippled with insecurity about everything, and Ianto, a straight man, grapples with his growing romantic feelings toward Jack. We also learn little bits about what happened to Jack after he was stranded in the 24th century. Turns out the time energy that brought him back to life left him immortal, or more accurately, left him with the ability to come back to life after getting killed. He is shot, stabbed, strangled, smothered, and other means of dispatch not beginning with S only to eventually gasp back to life. We also learn that he somehow got sent back to the late 1800s and has to live through the whole 20th century waiting for the off-chance the Doctor will come find him.

Because of the not-so-great writing and sometimes way dramatic acting, I'd say I actually liked 2 and a half episodes of the 13. But I kept watching because I heard it got better. At the end of Torchwood season 1, Jack goes off to find the Doctor leaving his team without a leader. That storyline picks up in the last three episodes of Doctor Who season 3 where Jack does indeed find The Doctor and travels with him and his new companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman). A whole mess of stuff happens that I won't get in to if you ever want to watch it, but at the end of it, Jack decides he misses his team and working for and with Torchwood and leaves The Doctor to return to them.

But when he does, at the beginning of Torchwood season 2, he finds a team that is at once happy to have him back and resentful that he left in the first place. During this season, the writer's calmed down a bit and found their own rhythm. They introduced a few character's from Jack's past (which is our future... wibbly wobbly timey wimey) and strengthened the character relationships. Gwen is engaged to her boyfriend Rhys and eventually tells him about her job. Toshiko tries to confess her feelings to Owen, who just doesn't get it. Ianto embarks on a romantic relationship with Jack that is allowed to develop naturally. My favorite arc occurs in the middle of the season where Martha, now an agent of UNIT (Unified Intelligence Taskforce) comes to Torchwood to help. During this time, Owen is killed and Jack tries to bring him back to life. It half works. Owen is animated again, but he's still technically dead. None of his bodily functions are operating, his heart isn't beating, he doesn't get tired, he can't drink or have sex. If he's injured, it won't heal. So he has to deal with being the living dead, which doesn't go too well.

Season two had uniformly better writing and acting, but it was still far too "monster-of-the-week" and often those monsters were uninteresting. The season ends with Owen being disintegrated and Tosh is killed by the bad guy, leaving Torchwood severely diminished. The next time we see Jack, Gwen, and Ianto is during the finale of Doctor Who season 4, where every character who ever existed reappears. It's a pretty ridiculous finale. But after THAT, is the five-part miniseries "Children of Earth" which is pretty damn amazing, I must admit. It's basically a sci-fi version of 24, which I also loved. The writing is top notch as are the guest stars. I could try to describe what it's about, but I wouldn't want to spoil any part of it. If you like sci-fi at all and think I have good taste in anything, give "Children of Earth" a watch. It's on instant play on Netflix and it's only five episodes. What's stopping you!?!?!

For a whole calendar year, there's been no new Torchwood, but in the recent weeks it has been announced that BBC, BBC Worldwide, and Starz Entertainment are teaming up to produce a fourth season of Torchwood, starring the remaining cast, and adding new people. This version will also travel beyond Cardiff for an "international flavor." I won't say I'm excited, but I have tempered optimism. The show improved every time it came back, and if it ups the ante of CoE, then we're in for some excellent crap.

Man, I do go on.

You're welcome.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Top 6: Ways Sci-Fi Movies Lied To Us

The 1961 film, "The Phantom Planet" begins with a narrator telling us that since the splitting of the atom, Mankind has triumphed in breaking through the atmosphere and is now exploring the vastness of space. It depicts rocket launches occurring from the moon and artificial gravity inside the oddly Hobbit-sized rocket ship. It's a vision of a future we know little about, but we should. The story is set in 1980. None of that shit happened. What a load of bollocks. (See for yourself. The whole movie, which is pretty hysterical, can be watched on Hulu) Ever since people started writing fiction with science in front of it, we've been given hypothetical potentialities for futures that, at the time, seemed so far away and yet, we've more or less passed all of them. It's to the point where thinking about it is laughable for having missed the mark so badly. Here are the 6 most egregious errors committed by science fiction.

To say nothing of time travel, which is excluded because it's not depicted as a universal thing, Back to the Future part II shows us all the crazy, and really unnecessary, bits of technology we have to look forward to in five years (the movie takes place in 2015). For example, food hydrators preparing pizza in seconds, a weather service that can accurately predict a rainstorm to the second, and holographic movie adds that pretend to bite you in half. But the most glaring lie is the fact that cars can fly, or "hover" as they say in the movie. Now, hovercrafts we have; they're about two inches off the ground. These things fly, through the air, and have traffic lights and taxi cabs up there. Doc Brown mentions that he got the Delorean hover-converted in the early 21st Century, which would seem to allude to sometime within the first decade and unless we're gonna hover-convert the shit out of our cars this year, BTTF2's claim in just plain phony.

V - Manhattan Island is a maximum security prison (ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK)
The conceit of this 1981 movie is that the crime rate in the United States gets so bad in the future that there wasn't any more room in the prisons. The solutions was to move every criminal in the entire country to a fenced off and patrolled Manhattan where they could roam freely and do whatever they wanted to each other. The trouble is, this was all supposed to happen in 1997. I'm damn skippy that didn't happen. In 1997, Bill Clinton began his second term, arguably the most prosperous time in America for a long-ass while, the crime rate was the lowest it had been in 20 years, and the New York Yankees had just won the World Series. As much as I love this movie, it could not have been more wrong.

IV - Aliens live among us relatively peacefully (ALIEN NATION)
In one of the more audacious examples of counting your chickens before they hatch, the film Alien Nation was released in 1988 about a world three years after an alien 1988. Yes, the filmmakers so wanted to date their film, they made the initial landing of alien Newcomers just a few months after its release. That's about as "near" as the "near-future" can possibly be. The bulk of the action takes place in 1991 where the Newcomers have become part of the society and are discriminated against in a thinly veiled nod to race relations. People watching this movie when it initially came out on video were already in a world where this couldn't possibly be real, since aliens did not indeed land and gentrify the nation in 1988. Couldn't they have even waited until 1990 for the landing? At least give people a little time to pretend. We all know it's fiction, but that seemed destined to fail from day one. That'd be like if I wrote a thing about giant rocket powered flamingos that took place the day after I wrote it. Anyone reading it would go, "Okay, well this didn't happen."

III - Nuclear Holocaust caused by sentient computer (TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY)
This is something I feared for a long time, and in many ways still continue to fear. Ever since I saw the 70s tv movie "The Day After," I have been scared to death of the end of the world via nuclear annihilation. So, when I first saw Terminator 2 when I was 14 and it actually gave a date to this horrible event, 29 August 1997, I was petrified. Until I remembered that it was six months earlier. Yes, James Cameron's best film is still considered among the top ten sci-fi and action movies ever made, and in 1991 when it was released, it could still be seen as visionary. Skynet, the insanely smart computer thing, is going to become self-aware in 1997, and it's up to the Connor clan and a re-programmed T-800 to see that it doesn't happen. Or, they could just not do anything, cuz it fucking didn't become self-aware at all. We were not vaporized by atomic explosions, nor have huge mechanoids started marching up and down the streets, destroying anyone they see. I never understood why it becoming self-aware was such a bad thing. I know a fair amount of people who could benefit from being a little more self-aware.

II - We have colonized Mars (BLADE RUNNER, TOTAL RECALL, et al)
According to these movies, and some others too, we took off from Earth, terraformed our nearest celestial neighbor, and began building a population. Blade Runner takes place in 2019, and although the action is entirely on Earth, there's much talk of replicants being used for labor on Mars. Total Recall takes place in 2084, but we've already had a colony on Mars for sometime in that film. Gonna get a little scientific on your asses now; here's why we can't do that. 1) GRAVITY: The surface gravity of Mars is just a little over 1/3 that of Earth's. 2) COLD-ASS: The average surface temperature of Mars is -63 degrees Celsius (-81.4 degrees Fahrenheit). The coldest it's ever been on Earth was in Antarctica where it bottomed out at -84 degrees C, whereas Mars routinely falls to -140 degrees C. 3) WATER: There's no fucking water on Mars. 4) PRESSURE: The atmospheric pressure on Mars is ~6 mbar, and in its current condition, is well below the Armstrong Limit, 61.8 mbar for people to survive without pressure suits. Since terraforming cannot be expected as a near-term solution, habitable structures on Mars would need to be constructed with pressure vessels similar to spacecraft, capable of containing a pressure between a third and a whole bar. 5) MONEY: No one on Earth is going to give money for colonization of Mars when they could easily spend it on the new Miley Cyrus album or the Shake Weight. In short, we're never going to Mars, apologies to Philip K. Dick.

I - Space Odyssey? (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY)
I was really looking forward to this and here we are nearly a decade later and we've not had a single space odyssey. There is no regular transportation from the Earth to the moon, there is no artificial gravity, super computers have not reached sentience (see number III) and we've found no enormous slabs of black granite anywhere that inexplicably turn us into giant, glowing, omniscient babies. This is probably one of my top ten favorite movies of all time, and yet I still can't get passed how wrong it was. Granted, it was made in 1968, a full year before Man set foot on the moon, so it had very little to work with, but come on! In the aftermath of Kennedy's great "New Frontier" speech, the world seemed to be bursting at the seems to go live in space, but we just never got there. Too many worldly concerns got in our way, technology didn't advance as fast as films had promised, and the world lost interest. This might also be the first example of a film AND its sequel being proved wrong. Part two of this saga, 2010: The Year We Make Contact is happening right now. Again, we're not living in space, and we haven't made contact with any alien life forms.

So to sum up: Nothing cool will ever happen. People nowadays are far too jaded to actually believe in the hope of ever breaching the atmosphere, and with the economy in trouble, NASA has just taken a huge budget cut, effectively putting the kibosh on even the smallest celestial glimmer. It seems that we as a people are too self-centered and small-minded, myself included, to realistically go into space or even develop "space-age" gadgetry without an app being involved. Unfortunately, it seems, even our visions of the future are behind the times.

You're welcome

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Top 6: Romero-Free Zombie Movies

As a fan of horror, and specifically the zombie sub-genre, it's hard not to be a fan of George A. Romero. He not only breathed new life into an already-passed-its-prime monster, but gave it the lore and rules that are still being followed to this day. His first three entries into the cycle work not only as gorefests, but as sophisticated satires of a society bent on self-destruction long before the dead started rising. Unfortunately, since the first three, Romero has made three other films bearing "of the Dead" that few could deem sophisticated. With his latest, the totally nonsensically-titled "Survival of the Dead," getting panned across the board, I thought I'd mention some of the entries into the genre that don't bear Romero's name or myth at all. These are the Top 6 Romero-Free Zombie Movies.

This Spanish/Italian film from the pre-Dawn era of undead flesh-eaters is an under-appreciated gem. It tells the story of long-haired hippie George (Italian heartthrob Ray Lovelock) accompanying pretty Londoner Edna (Spanish actress Cristina Galbo) through the countryside in her tiny little English car. Along the way they are attacked by people who just plain don't look right. It's probably because they're reanimated corpses. Obviously. Unfortunately, when the youngsters go to the police, they are immediately suspected of the grisly murders themselves by the youth-hating Inspector (Arthur Kennedy). The Manson murders had just recently been committed so this movie definitely sought to point out the backlash the counterculture felt shortly thereafter, and to offer some kind of revenge against the squares. This movie is noteworthy also for having a number of completely unrelated titles. The original Italian title is "Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti" or "Do Not Speak Ill of the Dead," which no one on screen really does, nor is that the reason they rise. Another title is "Let Sleeping Corpses Lie," which, again, is not something anyone is disagreeing with. I think George and Edna would have happily left the dead fuckers alone the whole time. The most absurd one is "Don't Open the Window," despite there not being a single instance in the film where someone befalls any harm after opening a window. Nor is there a scene where someone opens a window. Nor is there a scene where there's a window. The best title is the "Manchester Morgue" one, even though the main end fight takes place in the Manchester hospital and not its morgue.

This movie is, to put it mildly, one of the weirdest fucking movies I've ever seen. Long before he made "Porky's," and "Baby Geniuses," director Bob Clark used to make interesting horror movies. The year after this, he made both the slasher archetype "Black Christmas" and another zombie movie "Dead of Night" (aka "Deathdream) about a boy killed in Vietnam who returns home as an decaying bloodsucker. Both are interesting in their own right, but it's his first that is the most notable in my book. It follows an irritating theatre troupe as their leader tries to raise a dead body. They go to a cemetery and play pranks on each other and argue for most of the film as they dig up a body, named Orville, and say some phony magic words. A little over two-thirds of the way into the movie, something unprecedented happens: the other dead bodies in the graveyard begin to rise. The rest of the movie is a genuinely scary and bleak zombies-attacking-a-house story where the annoying people get their comeuppance and Orville has a "coming out party." A remake was in the works until Bob Clark's untimely death from a car accident in 2007.

Director Jean Rollin was known for pornographic vampire films in his native France when he was approached by producer Claude Geudj to make what became this film. It began as a desire to cash in on the American disaster movies like "Earthquake" and "The Towering Inferno," but when finances proved prohibited, they decided to modify the format of a group of people hindered in travelling from point A to point B by various problems (every four minutes) into the horror oeuvre Rollin was used to. The premise is what makes this movie interesting. A certain vineyard is using a hazardous pesticide on its crops which gets made into wine. But instead of just making people sick, drinkers of the vino made from the Grapes of Death start to rot from the inside out, making them mindless and bloodthirsty ghouls who stalk the French countryside. Displaying a good amount of a gore, and even R-rated versions of Rollin's X-rated roots, Les Raisins de le mort is a worthy entry to the non-Romero group.

It's rare to find an understated horror-comedy in any capacity, least of all one from the zombie ilk, but this Italian outing manages to be just that. It's a film full of romance and heartache as well as misunderstandings and silliness, but there's also a fair amount of head shooting and throat-tearing. It's the story of Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) who is the proprietor of the local mortuary/cemetery. This particular cemetery seems to bring people back to life, so on top of all his normal duties, Francesco also has to put the residents back down once they get up. He falls in love with a young widow and in a particularly ill-conceived instance, has sex with her on her husband's grave. Go figure, he gets up and is pretty pissed about this whole thing and bites his wife, forcing Francesco to shoot her before she becomes an undead creature herself. Of course, she didn't die from the bite and he shot her when she was alive. Francesco is wracked with guilt and starts killing the townsfolk BEFORE they die to save him the trouble of dealing with them later. The film ends with probably the bleakest and most existential of finales proving that there really isn't nothing out there but our own little worlds.

Part "Frankenstein," part "Braindead," Stuart Gordon's 80s monster classic "Re-Animator" is the perfect mix of grossness and hilarity. One of the themes of these movies I've chosen (with the exception of the previous one) is that the zombification is explained as opposed to the Romero model of having zombies appear due to God knows what. In "Re-Animator," it's all there in the name. This guy, Dr. Herbert West, is TRYING to raise the dead, and breaks all kinds of ethics laws to do it, even resorting to murder. That's how you get the freshest specimens after all. Full of black humor and memorable lines, "Re-Animator" also has one of the most shocking images in all of horror, where a dead body holding its own decapitated head attempts to perform oral sex on a kidnapped co-ed. It's so insane that you wonder why no one thought of it sooner.

I - SHIVERS (1975)
David Cronenberg is often hailed as the king of body horror, which started early with this Canadian horror classic. In "Shivers," also known as "They Came From Within," a semi-mad scientist is experimenting with parasites in an attempt to aid in transplants (?) but really he thinks people have lost touch with their instincts and flesh, so the parasite is actually part aphrodisiac and part venereal disease. He infects his teenage mistress and sets her loose in an enormous ultra-modern apartment complex in Montreal. The effect of the parasite on the host is to create a sex-crazed maniac, hell-bent on spreading the disease to everyone in the vicinity. It's up to a physician and his assistant to stop it before the city is lost to mindless lust. Some of the images from this film were copied by Romero in "Dawn of the Dead," and even though the premise sounds like a porno version of a zombie movie, "Shivers" actually works as a pitch-perfect allegory to the AIDS epidemic, which was just in its infancy back in the 70s.

One of my goals with these lists is not only to entertain but to educate and I would definitely recommend all of these movies to anyone who hasn't yet seen them. You might also notice I didn't include "Return of the Living Dead," which is in many ways the anti-Romero film. The reason is simple. I fucking hate that movie. Don't watch it, it's awful. Happy viewing!

You're welcome.