Darth Vader stands in the centre of Bristol

There’s been a genuine wave of affection after Dave Prowse’s sad death the other day, and in his hometown in Bristol there was erected a fitting tribute to him as the only, true Darth Vader.

It’d have been better to have The Green Cross Code Man because then the statue could have kept it’s Bristolian accent…

Dave Prowse has passed away…

Dave Prowse has sadly died and with that goes a large chunk of my childhood.

Of course his role as Darth Vader is what he’ll leave as his main legacy (no actor since has given that sense of physical power mixed with pain that Prowse did) but for a generation of kids we knew him as the Green Cross Code Man, who was a superhero created to teach British kids road safety.

Even then he was dubbed as his native Bristol accent was found ‘laughable’ by some.

Though they eventually let him speak in his own voice.

I first met Prowse when he visited my school as the Green Cross Code Man to do his thing, and I was in awe of how huge the guy was. He seemed 6 foot in every direction. This was just before Star Wars, so few knew what was coming for him but he’d been an actor for some time mainly in Hammer films and odds and sods playing the heavy, but imagine my confusion when I got older and saw him in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

As I got even older and started working in comics, I’d see him at conventions signing for hours and somewhere in a box I still have some Marvel Star Wars issues he signed around 92 or 93. By this point he’d spectacularly fallen out with George Lucas, and Prowse was shunned from official Star Wars conventions, so he made his wage from going to every other show out there around the world. I’d see him frequently in the 90s and 00s with a long queue waiting to for things to be signed.

I’d see Prowse everywhere during this time; at shows, or coming out the Empire Gym he owned when I lived in St. Paul’s in Bristol, or his picture hanging by the bar in the glorious late night eating and drinking den, Renato’s in the centre of Bristol.

Last time I saw him at a show he looked frail, so his convention appearences declined and he’d be working online sending out autographed pictures stating ‘DAVE PROWSE IS DARTH VADER’ because he was.He gave years of joy for generations and he’ll always be Darth Vader.

And the Green Cross Code Man of course…

Star Trek: Discovery would be less annoying if it dropped the Star Trek

Star Trek: Discovery is back! Big flashy space battles are back! Needlessly grim grimness is back! A confused, thinly written protagonist is back! Everything you’ve seen in <insert Generic Space Adventure here> is back!

Now I like the programme. It is garabge science fiction, but as a bit of space fantasy adventure it is a load of fun, however it really isn’t Star Trek. Sure there’s stuff there that reminds you it could be Star Trek like the Federation, Starfleet, Spock, The Gorn, etc, but it never really works with the context of the programme, so we don’t have one of the few positive visions of the future but yet another post-apocalyptic vision of a broken future. You might throw in the hope things might be rebuilt or better but you’re still treading old water with the grim, dark future gone wrong.

Star Trek is a hopeful vision of the future where humanity does better and stays that way. It comes with flaws, but Deep Space 9 expertly dealt with those, and still came out with a positive hopeful vision of the future. Season 3 of Discovery just sets up a massive disaster (The Burn) and the aftermath of that in a post-apocalptic setting all too common in 21st century SF. We couldhave seen how humanity continues to better itself among the many species of the glalaxy while exploring unknown worlds. But no, grimness, trenchcoats, big fights and virtually nothing to engage the brain. As dumb fun it works but this isn’t Star Trek and it’d do better for Discovery if it was something seperate from that but hey, this is 2020 so everything has to be a grim reflection of the now. Except the original Star Trek was made at a time when nuclear war was a heartbeat away and much of the world was ripping itself apart, so if they can do it we can do it too.

How one comic collection changed the history of comics

Back in the 1970s the comic book market was slowly melding into place on both sides of the Atlantic, but it was nothing like how it is today. Dealers were still relatively few, and actual bricks and mortar shops were also thin on the ground or part of science fiction and fantasy bookshops. Problem with this is many of the owners of these shops cared little for comics but stocked them to help get people in and make a bit of extra money however one collection turned comic book retailing from a minor hobby for most and a living wage for a few into an industry. It cemented the importance of grade for collectors and made clear how rare some comics are over others.

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The Edgar Church collection was bought by Chuck Rozanski in 1977 and while there’s various versions of the story (spun mainly by fans envious of Chuck’s find) the facts are consistent as laid out by Chuck himself in a lengthy piece on his website. Purchased for around $1,800 (which works out at roughly $7,900 today), Chuck knew he had a bargain not to mention a once in a lifetime deal, Today the collection would be worth $50 million and the last few copies in the wild were auctioned off recently.

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Over the years the story has become myth & there’s many a collection that’s boasted to be Edgar Church pedigree, but in reality they were never of the same quality or number. And although big collections have hit the market in the decades since which did match the Church collection few changed the industry in the was this did.

See, without this Rozanski wouldn’t have grown as he did. Mile High wouldn’t be such an important company as it grew. The benefits of this showed a premium collectors market existed and the profits from this meant that in a few years MIle High would be pushing for what’s now called the Direct Market.  Had that collection been thrown out we’d be in a very different place in the industry.

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On this side of the Atlantic a few copies of the collection made it’s way over here. You’d see as well some American dealers show off copies at conventions back in the 90s, but the UK suffers from having less Golden Age around so prices tend to be higher than in the US so for most of us these comics will only be things we look at in awe.

Harlan Ellison’s guest of honour speech from Albacon 1985

Back in the distant past of 1985 there was a science fiction convention in Glasgow called Albacon which had the late, great Harlan Ellison as guest of honour. He was supposed to be there in 1984 but couldn’t come that year, so Norman Spinrad stood in for him.

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His guest of honour speech is legend among those who heard it. There was a recording made and for years I had one, but sometime in various house moves it was lost to time.  These days it’d have been slapped online but I gave up on that ages ago which is a bloody shame as it was glorious.

Well, when searching for something else I stumbled across the grail as the speech is in fact online and downloadable. I never thought I’d hear this again in my life. Some of it hasn’t dated well but the thing is a work of someone who was a genius and this is a wonderful bit of SF history.

Listen to it here.

What I thought of Star Trek: Deep Space 9

One of the good things about barely leaving my flat since March is I’ve done a few things I wanted to do; one of which is rewatching Deep Space 9. When it was on I did, and didn’t watch it. I did watch most of the last couple of seasons on its first broadcast, but overall I couldn’t be bothered with it. It was the 90’s and catching up with programmes were a lot harder if you failed to set your video recorder.

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I loved The Next Generation. It started badly but became a firm favourite after a year or so of it being broadcast in the UK, but DS9 was another matter. It was broadcast at the time on Sky which meant if you didn’t have a subscription you missed it, so for most of the first season, I only caught the odd episode which I generally didn’t like. This is supposed to be Star Trek yet they’re sat around a space station talking about prophets with a load of dull characters.

Even when I did start watching it every week I wasn’t especially taken with it, so when it finished I filed it away but over the years the series has come in for serious praise, and friends have asked if I’ve ever sat down and watched the lot. I never really had the time til Covid made the time so back in March I started watching DS9 from the first episode. The first season is a slog as it tries hard not to be TNG, but at the same time it is restricted by the station setting however by the second season everything starts to settle down, and the bigger picture begins to unravel. Also the characters start to become interesting, especially Sisko who til then has been bland but becomes something else as this man still struggling with trauma, but starting to realise there’s something in the religion of Bajor, the planet at the heart of the series.

Then there’s Major Kira. There’s no way in modern American TV would you have a terrorist as a leading heroic character, but here’s DS9 doing just that while struggling with some of the things she did in her past. While the others started to round out, even O’Brian who’d been a minor role in TNG turned into a solid leading character and showed that there’s a class hierarchy in Starfleet.  By the time Worf comes on board in season 4 the series is in full flow and has become something more than just another Trek spin-off.

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But although it is ‘dark’, it also protects the optimism for a future where the human race is just better, so much so that they fight a long, two year way which costs the lives of millions to protect it.

In fact DS9 is one of the best bits of television drama made. Even though the idea of binge TV wasn’t around in the 90s, it’s a show made for it by accident at a time when episodic TV in America at least, still ruled. It’s a complex show that doesn’t overplay the dark as Discovery did or was just a rambling mess as Picard was, but it’s also clearly the show which influences modern TV Trek the most, yet the producers of these shows don’t understand that preserving that positive vision is Star Trek. Without it, it just becomes a space adventure series which you’ll flick past on Netflix.

DS9 showed you can find hope in the dark and Gene Roddenberry’s vision was more or less preserved and even developed as DS9 showed how ordinary people lived their lives in a society where science and culture have advanced beyond what we could ever expect today. By the end of binging on it, I felt as if I’d missed out on something great at the time, but if there’s anything good about Covid is it gives folk like me a chance to reassess things and in this case, discover something wonderful.

 

 

 

 

What I thought of Star Trek: Picard

There’s a point in one of the final episodes of Star Trek: Picard where I’m sitting there looking at a gigantic space battle where I have no idea what’s going on as the screen was just full of stuff. It looked fine but there was no real weight behind the battle but the producers of Picard thought it best through this scene to show how much money had been spent on the production. That for me summed the series up but I get ahead of myself.

I loved Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was (eventually) a smart, clever science fiction series that most of the time didn’t insult the viewer, plus it managed to present modern-day issues through the lens of Star Trek which is something it’s done since the very first episode which Gene Rodenberry made back in the 60’s. TNG was for many people, the defining SF series of their generation but the Next Generation crew had an awful send off with their last film, Nemesis, so the chance to have a great send-off for these characters, especially Picard, was one many of us grabbed with both hands.

The first trailers for Picard were great. They had maybe too much of an action focus but warning signs were there in the names of Akiva Goldsman and Alex Kurtzman.  Neither have an especially great record and neither seemed like they’d be involved with what many thought would be, a revival of TNG with that programme’s intellectual and moral core.

And for the first episode or two things were fine. There was a lovely, slow introspective pace that allowed Patrick Stewart to act his socks off as we were introduced to Picard 20 years after we’d last seen him trying to deal with his failures at the end of his life. The new characters were interesting, especially the Romulan couple working with Picard. Yes there was a little bit of action plus the Borg subplot seemed possibly distracting but on the whole, the first few episodes were great. But there were real issues. Starfleet seemed wrong. Less of a fleet of exploration but more military feeling while the paradise of the Federation was reduced to people holding racist beliefs. Now Star Trek has dealt with these things before, especially in the excellent Deep Space 9, but there was always a positive message that ultimately humanity could be better, even if there were one or two who fell from grace. Here so many humans have fell from grace with manufactured failures that it doesn’t feel that humanity has evolved into a better place.

The problems lie with heavily thrusting bad analogies for Brexit and Donald Trump into the programme which are then promptly dumped for a generic space adventure plot which ends up with Picard being surrounded by a bunch of unlikeable characters we don’t give a fuck about, plus Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine from Voyager who has had four years of a careful character arc wrecked to become a generic space adventurer and all that character work was just thrown aside.

The best episode outwith the first few is the Riker and Troi episode where again, things slow down, characters breathe, things develop but even then the producers inflict misery upon two characters for no reason than to add some ‘character development’. This is the problem, there’s no attempt to do anything but blunt development, which mixed with the urge to make the new characters ‘flawed’ leads to a mess. Then there’s the failure to develop Picard. Having a character like him confront his death in one last mission would have been interesting, but having him bleat like a lovelorn puppy to Data (who does actually get a good ending here) that he loves him. Then of course there’s giving Picard an android body so he can carry on, which the TNG Picard would have been horrified with but this isn’t the TNG Picard, this is the movie Picard.

It’s all a bit too forced. It’s all a bit too generic. It’s all too flashy. It doesn’t feel like Star Trek. It is missing a trick by falling on easy options rather than giving us a Star Trek unafraid to be intellectual, to be slow-paced and to force audiences to think. Instead it’s Generic Space Adventure with big dumb explosions and guns that go pewww.

I hope next season improves. With the delay in everything thanks to Covid19 there’s no excuses in having no time in developing the scripts but with Kurtzman at the helm again I’m not holding out much hope of an improvement.

 

RIP Max Von Sydow

As a child, my image of Max Von Sydow was from staring at pictures from The Exorcist, as at that point I was too young to watch it and it’d be at least 15 years before I did see it. I saw him as an old, frailish man.

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Yet when I saw him in Flash Gordon he was a relatively young man in all that film’s hot campy glory.

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Of course, it was a mix of Von Sydow’s wonderful acting and Dick Smith’s still astonishing makeup, and so for a while Max Von Sydow was my favourite actor. I’d eat up all his films when they landed on TV in those pre-digital, even pre VHS days so everything from The Seventh Seal to his still remarkable Jesus Christ (there’s something alien about his version of Christ I’ve never seen since) in The Greatest Story Ever Told, my favourite of the biblical epics with Ben Hur.

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There’s a ton of lost gems in Von Sydow’s C.V including the gloriously bizarre adaptation of Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf which simply has to be seen, preferably while off your face on MDMA.

1980 and 1981 saw him in some of my favourite films, including the mental Escape to Victory and Death Watch, a great SF film filmed here in a post-industrial, but pre recovery Glasgow. It’s a film I’m always recommending because it simply is a lost gem.

If I sat down and wrote a list of my favourite films, Max Von Sydow’s name would pop up over and over and over again in the credits, from Dune, to Dreamscape, to Hannah and Her Sisters, to Until the End of the World, to What Dreams Will Come, and fuck, even Judge Dredd has some moments.

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A great actor not afraid to play in genre film as well as mainstream film, and one who was such a talent he made it look effortless, but it really wasn’t. Another one who’ll be missed.

What I thought of Doctor Who season 12

Jodie Whittaker’s first year as the Doctor was patchy at best, shite at worst. Not as bad as  Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, in the seventh season but bad so much was riding on this season. The main criticisms for me were an overcrowded Tardis, a Doctor barely allowed to develop regardless of how hard Jodie Whittaker grafted to make some awful scripts fly while the programme was directionless with new showrunner Chris Chibnall seemingly lost now he’d got his hands on his childhood love.

Then they all went away, had a think and came back this year with a bang with a two-part story which brought back a truly crazed version of The Master played by Sacha Dhawan channeling Anthony Ainley a lot of the time and then we had the return of Captain Jack and a totally new Doctor in the shape of Jo Martin which created plotholes and canon anguish for fans but it turns out Chibnall had a card up his sleeve.  For those of us of a certain age Tom Baker was our Doctor, and one of his, and the programme’s finest stories is the Brain of Morbius, a retelling of Frankenstein not to mention a serial which featured a lot of new lore for the series, including this.

For 44 years there’s been a running argument about who those faces are after the Hartnell Doctor, with some saying they’re previously unknown incarnations to some saying they’re the faces of Morbius or just it was something to lengthen the scene so they just took a load of pictures of the crew and slapped them in. Yet the dialogue makes it clear, ‘how long have you lived Doctor?’, and it really is a push to make these faces anything else but related to the Doctor so how does that work?

And after 44 years Chris Chibnall explained that (yes, they are previous incarnations of the Doctor) as well as tiny little plot points only the uber fanboy cared about. It was an audacious bit of housekeeping that made me laugh, yet I’m not sure it worked yet. I’ll have to watch it again however this entire season has been a vast improvement. Better scripts which gave Whitaker some work, plus the Tardis crew were less annoying. Sure, there were some awful scripts but overall things moved in the right direction even if Chibnall has now done a reboot and tie up plot points at the same time. Has it worked? I dunno, but it is getting people excited for the programme but I do wish it was just well-done stories of the Doctor’s travels rather than universe-altering plots every season.

Basically things are moving in the right direction. There’s still rubbish though Jodie Whitaker is turning into a very good Doctor, if she gets the scripts. Hopefully her third year sees that happen more consistantly.

I’m now off to watch that last episode again, just for a laugh!

RIP Russ Cochran

If you’re a casual comics fan the name Russ Cochran will never grace the same ‘geek’ documentaries or films that lay homage to Stan Lee or Robert Downey Jr, but Cochran is quite possibly one of the most important figures in comics who sadly died this week.

Cochran’s massive contribution is carefully caretaking, and releasing the work of EC Comics in formats which do the work justice. The giant hardback box-sets are the easy sign a comics fan is not just an historian but a lover of some of the best comics ever made.

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Cochran was a comics fan who loved EC Comics, as well as the work of Carl Barks who started the entire idea of releasing comics in carefully curated editions with serious academic as well as artistic intent to preserve them for current and future generations.

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These editions were, and still are, massively expensive but Cochran also released EC reprints in a variety of formats more affordable to the average fan.

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Cochran’s contribution to comics as a medium and its fandom is immeasurable. These comics will teach you storytelling, design, scripting, everything and they’re great but for many in the 70’s and 80’s these were how people learned their first steps into the industry.

My dream is that before I die to have a full set of EC’s comics. I’ve got around a shelfload, with the Mad books being some of the most well-read comics I own. Thanks to Cochran making these things available maybe one day I will.