25 September 2016

Sex, Drugs and Strange Weapons (Review: 'Star Trek' 2.1, "Amok Time")

She's just watched "The Alternative Factor"

Spock starts acting very strangely indeed... he's all emotional. It turns out that he's in his 'mating period' and has to return to his native Vulcan to get married or he will die...

****
Right, let's get the 'saucy' bit out of the way first. "I have to mate or I'm going to die" is the sort of plot one commonly associates with a bad comedy or a porn film. Indeed, it was considered too adult for West German television (which was also easily receivable in East Germany) and the episode got majorly edited in the dub there... Also, 'pon farr' sounds like the sort of thing that immature teenagers would snigger at and "I'm in my 'pon farr' period" sounds like the sort of chat up line you'd use at a convention...

Leonard Nimoy spends most of the episode trying to contain his raging hormones... well, that's something every adult has experienced at some point or the other... as either the giver or the recipient. He does a great job at trying to suppress his emotion and not always succeeding, although we never entirely seem him completely lose it.

It's a credit to the writers of the show that they resist the opportunity to use Spock's predicament as fodder for jokes... or maybe they weren't allowed to by the network. Kirk comes across as a good friend understanding what Spock is going through, especially in an well-played 'awkward' scene in which Spock opens up to him about his biological urges. McCoy isn't the kind of gentleman who makes sex jokes and he has another strong performance in this - Season 2 also marks the promotion of DeForest Kelley into the opening titles of the show.

Speaking of regulars, this episode has the first appearance of Walter Koenig as Ensign Pavel Chekov and it's clear from the start why he became a fan favourite. Brought in to draw younger viewers to the show and made Russian by Roddenberry after he received a complaint from the USSR that the other superpower was being ignored in his vision of the future. He's a charming character who has an enjoyable cyncism - and anticipates changes in orders - although his hair (Koening wore a wig for the first few episodes he filmed) is a bit distracting. He definitely works well with Sulu.

This episode sees the début of two of Trek's most famous bits of iconography, the Vulcan salute and their associated catchphrase, "Live long and prosper". We also get to meet plenty of other Vulcans, most notably T'Pau, who is a pretty big cheese in Vulcan society and the Federation in general. Celia Lovsky, who was born in what was then Austria-Hungary in 1897 had a thick accent that got her cast in 'exotic' dignified old lady roles after her divorce from Peter Lorre, very well known for playing sinister foreigners himself and  with a distinctive accent commonly imitated by Looney Tunes.

The Vulcan ritual is very ornate and is the sort of thing I'm sure some Trekkies have actually employed for their wedding. Mind you, Dothraki weddings are far more violent.

Conclusion

Well known for establishing a good chunk of the Vulcan backstory, this episode is far better than its plot would suggest.

8/10

22 September 2016

James Bond: Never Say Never Again

When I saw that this was being aired again on ITV4, I finally decided to record the unofficial James Bond movie from 1983 i.e. the remake of Thunderball that Kevin McClory was allowed to make as part of the deal that allowed EON to make the original Thunderball... which honestly isn't that good a Bond movie to begin with.

This is simply put a dire film. The direction is awful, the music gratingly inappropriate at times and the so-called comedy is very, very forced. Connery is the best thing in it and even he's sub par...

After half an hour, I asked myself whether I wanted to carry on with this. The answer is 'only if accompanied by Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot...' because this turkey is only suitable as material for a Dr. Forrester experiment i.e. Mystery Science Theater 3000.

I hope no-one involved this piece of foulness is proud of this junk.

0/10 (Automatically awarded for any movie I decline to finish)

17 September 2016

Hooten and the Lady on Sky1

Three comments on this:
  • Definitely not in the least bit post-modernist; in many other shows made today, the clichés would have been called out to the audience with a knowing wink. Here, it's like the characters are wearing blinkers and I'm not talking about the horse.
  • Leads aren't that bad, but roguish male meets posh uptight female has been done before and better.
  • This is definitely a post-watershed show in some respects. Was not expecting buttocks that's for sure.
Not great, but I'll stick with it for a while.

13 September 2016

Kumar Chameleon - A Star Citizen Story, Part One - Inspection and Challenge

I've been writing a story set in the universe of Star Citizen for a while and am now ready to post the first chapter. Instalments will be posted on a monthly basis - with the current plan being for nine of them.

I hope you like it. I'd also like to thank Justin 'Chivalrybean' Lowmaster from the excelllent Guard Frequency space sim podcast for taking a look at this.

****

A Banu and a human walked into a bar. This wasn’t a joke, at least what they were discussing. As they headed over towards the VIP room at the rear, the former was thinking about the woman who had caused him so much problems over the last few months.

As they sat down and the bouncer left them in privacy, he activated his MobiGlas and a picture of a woman appeared on the screen. He made clear, in Terran, what he wanted doing to her. The human suggested an asking price for this. The Banu countered. There was some discussion and an agreement was reached.

Then they ordered drinks to celebrate the murder that they were going to arrange.

****

The life of a merchant hauler could be one of great boredom at times; cargo shipping generally involved a good deal of waiting around as things got loaded, unloaded or checked by customs. If it was all three, as it was now, then the only thing to do was sit back and read a book.

Sunita Kumar’s choice for this particular encounter with the UEE authorities was War and Peace, an ancient, very long tale of war, society balls and Freemasons. She’d just gotten up to the duel scene when the swish of the hangar doors brought another person into the hangar.

Putting her e-reader by the folding chair that she kept on her ship, the Aurora-class freighter ‘Robert Holmes’, she got to her booted feet and smiled.

“Ah, Mary”, she said, looking down from the balcony where she’d been sitting. Mary Grant, a blonde woman in her 50s, clad in a dark blue jumpsuit, had just arrived and waved at her.

“Glad to see you!” Sunita continued saying to a woman who had been her friend for five years.

A UEE goon moved to intercept the new arrival, extending the hand not holding his assault rifle towards her.

“Sorry, ma’am”, he said, “This is closed off for a Customs Search”.

“Go choke on a pretzel”, the woman sneered, “I’m her guild rep… which means I’m as good as her lawyer”.

The soldier looked at her and decided that this was a decision beyond his paygrade. Mary walked past him and clambered up the ladder to the balcony, to join Sunita.

Sunita was a dark-haired Latina woman with pinky-brown skin who could be called pretty when she remembered to smile; at the moment she was. She was dressed in a red leather jacket and black jeans; she’d been planning to head into the city when this ‘random’ search had encountered her day like an unwanted stray cat. She liked cats, but the strays had a tendency to smell horrible and spray urine everywhere… the ship had smelt for weeks after she’d got rid of the one she’d chosen to adopt.

“Can’t believe that trick still works”, she said as Mary stood beside her, the two of them looking down at the unloading of her Stor-Alls in preparation for an imminent tossing by the soldiers and a suited man who was clearly their boss.

“It’s starting to fail on occasions”, Mary replied as she reached into a pocket and pulled out a bag of sweets, opening it and offering one to Sunita; who took it with a thanks, “You got anything dodgy in there?”

“Except for some space-frozen lasagne that possibly contains space weevil, no; you know I’m not a smuggler”.

“No… you’re not that. You’re one of the most law-abiding people I know… you don’t even jaywalk. Why they searching you?”

“Don’t know… don’t care. It just annoys me”, Sunita said with a frown.

“You got plans tonight?”

“I was going to watch the latest episode of Guardians, but that can wait. Series is starting to go downhill rapidly since they got rid of Brigitte”.

“Yeah…” Mary said in the voice of someone who had no idea what Sunita was going on about, “We’re going to Langley Beach for some skeet shooting”.

“Trap shooting?”

“Yeah… you never done that before?”

“Seen it done, but I’ve never actually shot at the things… not with a proper shotgun at any rate. I entered that ‘Space Skeet’ contest that was on at last year’s Murray Cup… and just ended up avoiding getting the wooden spoon”.

“I hear those are collectible these days. So, you coming?”

“Sure… not got anything else better to do”.

“Excellent. See you at 2000. Bring beer”.

“I don’t drink beer…”

The inspection took another two hours and found nothing untoward bar a couple of dead rats that had jumped on board the ship before taking off from Terra. These were duly placed in a sealed bag and sent off to be disposed of. The UEE troops thanked her for her assistance and offered precisely no apology for the disruption that they’d caused her.

The captain and sole crew member of ‘Robert Holmes’ headed out of the hangar and went through the usual entry checkpoints to make sure she wasn’t carrying anything dodgy either medically or weapon-wise. She wasn’t.

Sunita quickly and methodically arranged the delivery of cargo, ship resupply etc. then checked her bank accounts.

****

Sunita hired a buggy from the local hire shop for the drive down to the beach. On the whole, she hated beaches. While seeing the shirtless guys in their tight trunks was enjoyable, the sand that got between her toes and sometimes down her swimsuit generally wasn’t.

At least she didn’t burn easily, which helped.

Reaching the car park, she parked and removed her jacket, then her T-shirt and jeans to reveal a blue one-piece swimsuit; if she ended up going for a swim, at least she hoped the water wasn’t too cold.

As she stowed them securely in the trunk of the buggy, she turned around to see Mary and her husband Daniel walking over towards them. Mary was dressed in a blue T-shirt and bikini bottoms, looking pretty good for her age, while Daniel’s hairy chest was partly revealed by a Hawaiian shirt. She didn’t frankly like his moustache, but that was his choice.

Mary was carrying a crate with some soft drinks in it and offered one to Sunita, who took it with a soft ‘Thanks’ and then looked for a bin to stick the bottle top in.

“You’re the first one here”, Mary Grant said, “Others will be along shortly. We’re expecting about ten of us”.

They started to walk onto the sand and Sunita winced slightly as she felt the grittiness on her bare feet.

Another buggy was parked further down the beach itself, with three skeet guns lying next to it, a picnic spread and a tin full of some dark blue liquid.

“Er…” Sunita said, “What’s that?”

“The booby prize of course. A little concoction we call Vanduul Gore”, David said, “To be drunk by the loser”.

Sunita hoped she wouldn’t be drinking that… it smelt horrible.

“And what does the winner get?”

“A hundred credits”.

Sunita wondered who was going to show up and realised it was probably too late to back out now. She’d done the odd spot of weapon shooting in her time, but her accuracy had been mediocre at best and if some champion shooters ‘turned up’.

“Don’t worry too much”, Mary said, “There will probably be worse shots coming along”.

The sound of an Aurora flying over the beach above them distracted their attention for a few seconds.
“He shouldn’t be here, should he?” Sunita remarked. The others didn’t say anything; this area was restricted airspace and someone was going to be in trouble with the authorities that was for sure.

She sat on a nearby towel and started to sip at her soft drink; a bottle of orange and lime cordial. As she did, another buggy approached, with a woman clad in a light blue dress and a young man in just his shorts clambering out.

“You’ve not met Jack”, Mary said, “My son… and his wife Becky”.

Sunita got to her feet, putting down her drink on the sand and then shook their hands.

“Sunita Kumar”, she said, “Nice to meet you”.

“Indeed, we’ve going to have a lovely evening”, Becky replied. Becky looked distinctly homely; in fact, she hailed from the Pittsburgh Colony, a colony of what could be described as ‘Space Amish’, who shunned most modern technology unless it was really ‘necessary’ – farming with traditional implements, but perfectly willing to use ultrasound to check their unborn children were OK. Sunita thought, but could not be sure, that Becky was possibly pregnant herself. That or just had a bit of a belly on her. Space lifestyles could have strange effects on people.

Sunita filed this information and the key information about the others who showed up over the next thirty minutes. Soon they were ready to begin.

****

It was your fairly standard sort of trap shooting and they’d brought plenty of ammo for it; each shooter of the ten taking part would fire at 100 targets and the top three would fire at another 25 to determine the winner… as would the bottom two to determine the loser.

They would take turns shooting at ten targets a piece; Sunita had drawn the ball to go fourth. She sat on the beach watching Becky taking her first turn. Becky seemed to be doing very well indeed.

“Pull!” Mrs Rebecca Carrington yelled and a second later, an orange target shot out of the launcher towards the sea. She took aim and blew it apart with her first shot… before it had even reached the top of its trajectory.

“Where did she learn to shoot like that?” Sunita asked Mary, “I thought they didn’t have modern firearms on Pittsburgh?”

Mary nodded.

“They have muskets… which requires even more skill”, she replied, “Becky wouldn’t hurt a fly… unless she had to. If that day comes, I fear for fly kind”.

Sunita didn’t know what to do say to that… especially as Becky managed to hit nine targets out of ten; a professional level performance.

Now it was Sunita’s go. She strode up to her position and was offered the unloaded double-barrel shotgun. Get everyone clear, load the two rounds and place the weapon against her shoulder…

“Pull!” she called and a target shot out of the launcher. She swung the weapon to lead it, waited two seconds and pulled the trigger.

The disc exploded into orange powder and she smiled slightly; that was possibly beginner’s luck, she thought.

She missed the second and then managed to hit the third. As the fourth came along, she watched it fly and fired once.

Nothing.

She reached to fire again and just as her finger closed on the trigger, she felt something hot and sharp in her right shoulder. Then there was the sound of two explosions very close together and then raw pain.

Sunita dropped the weapon and began to fall to her knees as Mary raced towards her. She saw the sand coming up to meet her face and her vision begin to blur. 


“Call an ambulance!” she said Mary’s voice as she began to lose consciousness, “Find the…” 

That was the last thing Sunita experienced before blackness overcame her.

TO BE CONTINUED

****
(C) Silent Hunter 2016

Please note that this is a work of fan fiction, set in the Star Citizen universe. The marks and properties, 'Star Citizen', 'Squadron 42', 'Cloud Imperium Games', and 'Roberts Space Industries' are property of Cloud Imperium Games Corp. and Roberts Space Industries Corp ("RSI"). All rights in content, including places, characters, concepts, and ships produced and created by RSI relating to said marks and properties belong to RSI.

11 September 2016

Silent Hunter and the 100mph cupboard (Review of the Caledonian Sleeper and also the Jacobite)



At the beginning of July this year, I took the longest duration train journey that I have taken in my life; while I may well have gone further, that was on a faster train.

It's not as well known as it could be, which is one reason why I'm writing this post, but it's one of the few survivors of a once thriving sector of the rail industry; the sleeper train.

This is the Caledonian Sleeper.


****
Every evening, except for Saturday, at the 1960s concrete affair of London Euston station (which I actually happen to like, although it would have been nice to have retained the Doric Arch), two sixteen-coach trains leave, hauled by electric locomotives, making their way north. Travelling at up to 100 miles per hour, one train splits at Carstairs, portions ending up at Glasgow Central and Edinburgh Waverley.

The other, designated 1S25 in the working timetable, also goes to Edinburgh Waverley, where it splits into three portions, which are hauled by diesel locomotives to their final destinations; Inverness, Aberdeen and Fort William. These is what used to be known as 'through coaches'; now disappeared with multiple units and semi-permanent train sets.

****
There used to be a lot more sleepers in the UK. My 1967-68 British Rail Eastern Region timetable (bought from the second hand book store at the Great Central Railway), from the time when Beeching's axe was chopping up lines all over the country and the West Coast Main Line only had wires up as far as Crewe, has sleeper portions going all over the country to places like Holyhead, Milford Haven, Manchester and Penzance. To quote the timetable:

A conductor travels with every sleeping car and personally services each compartment. He will cally you in the morning and bring you tea (or minerals [I am taking that to mean mineral water]) and biscuits at a nominal charge.

Today there is only the sleeper services from Euston to the five destinations in Scotland and vice-versa, as well as GWR's 'Night Riveria' service from London Paddington to Penzance. The rest have gone, many being cut in the early 1980s when the Mark 1 sleepers were replaced by the Mark 3 version (indeed the last planned batch of the Mark 3 was changed from sleepers to day stock); a famous loss was the 'Night Ferry', which ran from London Victoria to Paris. On the continent, it's not much better; SNCF are cutting their services down to only three and Deutsche Bahn are eliminating all their CityNightLine services later this year; the Austrian state operator will take over some of these.

However, the British one does provide dinner and breakfast.

****
The Euston sleeper services are currently operated by Caledonian Sleeper, an independent train operating company that was split off from Scotrail in 2015 and is currently operated by Serco.



The company operates an array of electric and diesel traction. Primary duty for the electric part of the service is handled by Class 90 locomotives (late 80s built, top speed of 110mph and currently to be found in freight traffic or on Abellio Greater Anglia's London to Norwich expresses) or newer Class 92s. Empty Coaching Stock workings i.e. transporting the coaches back and forth from Euston to the depot at Willesden is typically done by a Class 86 or a Class 87, locomotives of a rather older vintage. Diesel traction is typically handled by Class 73/9s hired from, re-engineered versions of the Class 73 electro-diesel that is capable of running on both diesel and third rail power; it had much use in the Southern Region on boat trains i.e. trains that were scheduled to connect with ferry services, as well as on the Gatwick Express.

While many of these locomotives are painted in the dark blue Caledonian Sleeper livery, the company has often to hire in locomotives and rolling stock from elsewhere that doesn't feature that livery.

The company does not operate Driving Van Trailers that allow control of a locomotive from the other end of a train without the need to do any uncoupling; therefore you have one of the very rare service train examples of a pre-DVT practice in which one locomotive will pull in a service and another will couple onto the other end to pull it out.

****

You have to book in advance for a sleeper berth; the entire process can be completed through the Caledonian Sleeper website or you can buy a regular ticket and pay a sleeper supplement. Regular tickets are valid, but will necessitate you travelling in the seating coach, with those going to Fort William having to move coaches at Edinburgh as those coaches are detached and another two added for that section of the journey; there isn't the space at Euston for dedicated stock for the Fort William portion.



Aside from the seating section, you have two basic options; First Class or Standard class. First Class involves having a berth with a single bed, while Standard involves having two beds in a bunk bed style. The berths are in fact easily convertible from First Class to Standard Class. They come with a washbasin, adjustable heating (which I had to twiddle a few times to get a comfortable temperature) and some fixed hangars, but the toilet is at the end of the cabin. Disabled toilets are present in some carriages.



The cost varies depending on day and whether you want ticket flexibility; First Class costs more, but in Standard Class you may have to share with a stranger of the same gender. I chose First Class, because that's not my cup of tea. You also get a free breakfast, a complimentary Arran Aromatics amenity kit (body wash) shampoo and priority access to the lounge car.

Both of the sleeping berth types are contained in the aforementioned Mark 3 sleeper cars. These are made up of either twelve or thirteen berths; the former case there will either be a disabled toilet or a room for the attendant. The Mark 3 is a very common sight on British railways in some form due to its use on the High Speed Trains i.e. the InterCity 125; notable features include the need to lower the window and reach outside to push the handle when exiting the train.

As a railway enthusiast, I am well used to working those.

****
1S25 departs from London Euston at 2115 from Platform 1, but you can get into your cabin 45 minutes before departure. It arrives at Fort William at 0955 the following morning, a journey time of 12 hours and 40 minutes, which is not the longest possible journey in the UK - that is 1V60, the 0820 Aberdeen to Penzance service that takes 13 hours and 23 minutes.

The Fort William portion is at the far end of the train and my carriage (there were three sleeper cars for Fort William) was right next to the locomotive, itself a Class 90 bedecked in Freightliner Grey. The security fence stopped me from getting any better pictures.


You may notice a former '1' there; some of the locomotives were converted to freight working and had their top speed lowered to 75mph becoming Class 90/1; they have since been converted back to their original configuration.
The train departed about a minute late and soon got up to a decent lick of speed as it headed out of London. The service normally runs at 80 miles per hour, but can run at up to 100mph if it needs to make up time and the line speed allows it; this especially applies on the southbound service as it needs to run to time or it will cause delays to rush hour trains. The view from your berth is rather restricted once it gets dark; there's not much to see between towns. There's also a pretty poor mobile signal in many places...

I like to ride in the vestibule (that's the bit at the end of the carriages where the doors are) sometimes, standing by the open window - I don't stick my head out, I'm not stupid - and I can tell that there is quite a bit of wind force when a Pendolino goes past you in the opposite direction at full tilt; so basically at a relative speed of over 200mph.

As you can see below, the corridor at the side of the berths is pretty narrow; only wider enough to fit one person in; moving between the carriages, you frequently have to go into empty compartments to allow other people to pass.


With my gear stashed in my berth, I tried to go to the lounge car, only to find that it was full up and I would have to come back later. If you're not booked for dinner, it's turn up and see if there's room.

About the berth; I was swapped to another one from my originally booked choice and this one had some issues. Namely a faulty blind that took some effort to get to open and difficulty lifting the catch that holds the door open.

Also, it was fairly hard to get the door to close; I had to reach down and flick a catch at the bottom to unhook the door. You can lock the berth door for safety and security; however, you will need to find the attendant to let you back in if you lock it and leave. This person - in my case a lady with a Scottish accent (there are a lot of Scots on the service) - is not always the easiest person to find until you realise where the attendant's cabin actually is.

There is a lot that could be explained for people in a free leaflet. Like that you're not allowed to take photographs in the lounge car for privacy reasons; something there was no sign for, but which I was told by a member of staff.

I would point out that the leather sofas as depicted on the site were only present in the Inverness portion (at least on the journey back) and in my case, I was with an older format of the British Rail Mark 2E buffet car. In the absence of my own photo, this picture from another enthusiast will suffice. They're old, but remain very elegant.

The seats, which I believe are the IC70 design (but I may be wrong on that), can recline back, but are difficult to get comfortable with my proportions.

One area in which the sleeper can be truly recommended is in the quality of the food. Despite the fact that they only actually have a microwave in the 'galley', all of the food itself is of high quality, sourced locally and tastes very nice indeed. Portions are small, but very filling.

I can't, however, say that I got the best night's sleep of my life. The rocking motion of the train, combined with a constant squeaking noise, probably from the coupling to the locomotive ahead of me, made it difficult to drop off properly and I woke up on a number of occasions. Most notably at Edinburgh Waverley, where the locomotive was changed over and we reversed direction - I also had to sort out an issue with my phone. The three Fort William sleeper cars were detached being attached to another lounge car and seated car before heading away as service 1Y11.

Waking up fully the following morning, the scenery outside my window as we wound our way down the (single with passing loops) line from Helensburgh Upper to Fort William was truly spectacular.

It was like Westeros with more telephone wires and fewer battles.


I had breakfast in the lounge car, which is worth remarking on here. Due to problems with their own rolling stock, Serco have hired in two coaches from another company... which look rather old-fashioned. The lounge car was in the old Virgin Trains red and black livery (no longer used by them - image from this blog).

However, the seated car, used by day passengers as well, looks like this:


That's right... that's a British Rail livery.

The Class 73s, however - the train was double-headed - looked brand new-ish:


Fort William itself is a nice looking town with superb scenery but with very little to do for a tourist, not helped by the rather bad weather encountered while I was there.

I visited the West Highland Museum, which is an excellent detailing of the (at times rather bloody) history of the local area, which in the 'recent' past played host to training for the Special Operation Executive.


I also went over to nearby Corpach to visit a mediocre rock museum, which was really just an excuse to 'bash' a couple of Scotrail Class 156 Sprinters, getting off at this particular stop on the line that I was going to be traversing in full on the following day.

Loch Eil Outward Bound isn't a request stop - there are two on the West Highland Line, IIRC - but had only 632 passengers total in the 2014/15 financial year (the latest for which data was available). I added two to the 2016/17 total as I bought tickets to there and back from the guard on the train.


The station only has a single tiny platform; the four-car service could only fit one and a half carriages in it.

This was on the Tuesday. The following Wednesday, I went on this service.


The Jacobite, which is its current name, dates back to 1984, when British Rail introduced a steam-hauled tourist service in the summer months to boost income on what was otherwise a line that required a heavy subsidy; the section of the West Highland Line going from Fort William to Mallaig.

The regular service is patchy to put it mildly; there are three daily return services from Mallaig to Glasgow Queen Street (reversing at Fort William) run by the aforementioned Class 156s. Many of the stations, not just the aforementioned Corpach, see less than 10,000 passengers a year. A thought occurred to me that this is what many lines might have ended up as an alternative to being shut under the Beeching Axe - while Beeching did not in fact propose the closure of this line, he did propose eliminating the stopping service.

(I downloaded a copy of the two-volume report, which also proposed the closure of the Romford-Upminster line and the Gospel Oak-Barking lines in my local area; both survived and have since thrived)

Currently run by West Coast Railways (who have had their own safety issues lately and two network bans, since lifted), the Jacobite consists of one or two return services from Fort William to Mallaig. The morning service, which I went one, is hauled by a 'Black Five', more formally known as a Class 5 4-6-0. Designed by William Stanier for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, 842 of these mixed traffic locomotives were built between 1934 and 1951. 18 of these have survived into preservation; four currently having mainline clearance and being used to haul rail tours - or this service, which has two of them.

The morning service consists of British Rail Mark 1s, that ubiquitous feature of heritage railways (they were what happened to be available when many of them got started up). Developed after the war as a 'standard' coach for British Railways, they combined the features of pre-nationalisation stock and their all steel construction made them considerably safer then their predecessors, although they are not up to modern standards. Indeed many a multiple unit was also based on the design.

The afternoon service uses the 1960s Mark 2; distinguishable by their rounded ends as opposed to the flatter ones of the Mark 1s. West Coast Railways corporate livery is a maroon recreation of the original BR livery... which I think looks rather odd on a Mark 2, as they were nearly all painted Blue/Grey on first build. However, I am informed that the first batch was in maroon or Southern Region green.

It is highly recommended to buy your tickets in advance, which come with a seat reservation - there are limited numbers available on the day. First Class passengers are in compartments and standard class uses open saloons in refurbished form. Some personal pictures from elsewhere:



There is a buffet car, a trolley service and an on-board souvenir shop that sells a fair amount of Harry Potter related stuff, but be aware that it doesn't take credit or debit cards. A guidebook is available.

The journey goes through some truly spectacular landscape, but it is rather difficult to take pictures as there are a large number of trees next to the line; no sooner had I got my camera on to take a picture there was some foliage in the way. Here's the best of the shots.



On the outward leg, the train stops for about 20 minutes at Glenfinnan, partly to let a service train past on the passing loop; having a slight delay before fully pulling in to let the Sprinter come in to the other platform. The station has a camping coach, a small museum (which I didn't have time to visit) and an array of old posters.





The Black 5 gets up to a fair lick of speed; around 50 miles per hour. I really seeing these old locomotives in their native environment, doing what they were meant to do; they're only generally allowed to do 25 on heritage lines.

Mallaig itself is quite frankly a rather dull town.



The museum wasn't worth paying the price of admission to go on, the most exciting thing in town is the ferry out of there or the station and the mobile signal is non-existent. In the end, I found out the outcome of the Iraq War Inquiry via my MP3 player's radio.

The local places to eat filled up very quickly with people from the train and I eventually ended up eating takeaway chips in the station waiting area. I also had a can of Irn-Bru and am now a real fan of the drink, so that's one benefit of the trip.


The journey back is slightly quicker - no stop at Glenfinnan and the views are equally as great, but the weather was getting worse at this point.

Here's a video of the train in action that I recorded on the Tuesday in Corpach.


I caught the sleeper train back that evening, which leaves Fort William at 1950 and is designated 1B01 until it gets to Edinburgh, joining the other portions to become 1M16 arriving at Euston at 0747 the following morning - passengers may stay in their compartments for a further thirteen minutes. There is no First Class lounge in the station at Fort William, but there is free Wi-Fi for passengers in the waiting area.

I'd booked dinner for the train back and I have to say that this was superb. I even paid extra for dessert; the portions are somewhat small, but sumptuous.

The train was running half an hour late on its initial stage of the journey - I found out this was due to a brake issue. The sleeping wasn't particularly better the second time around; this is going to be something of an acquired skill... and I slept through the Great Storm of 1987 as a kid!

Due to a lack of space and time, my cooked breakfast was given to me by the attendant in my compartment - not easy to eat it on the bed, but the meal was again very nice. Next time, ask them to hold the black pudding - I had to scrape it out of the way.

The delay overnight was quickly made up once we switched to - it also seems that we arrived at Edinburgh second because our portion was in the middle of the train rather than the Scotland end. In fact, we arrived early at Euston!


Conclusion

The Caledonian Sleeper is a nice train fulfilling a necessary and useful function in the British railway system, but at the moment it's not as good as it could be. In particular, more information is needed for first-timers. The Mark 3 carriages are probably past it and while I would go on this again, I am planning to wait until the new CAF carriages are in service in 2018.

Mind you, the pillow spray I got for free has proved very useful, but it also appears to have given me weird dreams...

7/10

The Jacobite itself is well worth doing in itself and should definitely be on a rail enthusiast's 'bucket list'.


9/10

08 September 2016

Funky Mucus (Review: 'Star Trek' 1.29, "Operation -- Annihilate!")

 Remember folks - catch it, bin it, kill it!
I am posting this on 8 September 2016, the 50th anniversary of the transmission of the first episode of Star Trek, "The Man Trap". It is a testament to the creativity of the late Gene Roddenberry and all else involved that this anniversary is being marked with a cinematic movie currently in theatres and a new TV series in pre-production.

This show has indeed lived long and prospered. Happy Anniversary, Star Trek.

****

The remote colony world of Deneva has gone out of contact (this sort of thing seems to happen a lot) and the Enterprise finds it is in the path of a group of outbreaks of civilisation-destroying insanity, evidenced by a guy flying his ship into the sun... To make things harder for Kirk, the world is home to his brother and his family.

****

I'll start with the first thought that came to my head when the away party beamed down onto the planet - "That looks like a university campus". In fact, while there was an establishing shot done at UCLA, the outside filming was done at the TRW Space and Defense Park in Redondo Beach, home to major aerospace research work, including development of US ICBMs. The company was bought by Northrop Grumman in 2002. So, it is a campus, but of a different variety.

Kirk is arguably the weak link in this episode; possibly as some of his material was cut. He could have been hit harder by what was going on in the story (it's not a great day for him), but he goes back to rather high joviality by the end. Spock and McCoy get better material, with a big role (not to mention big hair) for Majel Barrett as Nurse Chapel.

There seems to have been done on the relative cheap; there's only a few non-regulars in the episode and many don't get lines. In particular, we get some rather bad over-acting from Joan Swift as Kirk's sister-in-law.

We had the huge space pizza a few weeks back and now we get flying giant lumps of snot. Unlike "Devil in the Dark", there is no attempt to communicate with this thing, the crew just decide it has to be wiped out, whatever the cost.

The solution to their problem, after some genuine peril involving Spock - attack with a giant hoop thing aside - is one of those things where the science has matched on; doing what they do is likely to cause a lot of cancer later on. Also the units of measurement have changed - McCoy uses 'candles' as a light unit, whereas we now use lumens as standard. That's lumens, not lupins, thank you.

Finally, we have a final scene on the bridge that is actually funny for a change.

Conclusion

A highly enjoyable episode, if it does seem to be done somewhat on the cheaper side and contains some fairly large flaws.

7/10 

07 September 2016

Mechanical Rice Picker for Sale, One Careless Owner (Review: 'Star Trek' 1.28, "The City at the Edge of Forever")



He's just watched "The Alternative Factor".

The penultimate episode of Season 1 of Star Trek is a lot better than the dog's breakfast of "The Alternative Factor". In fact, it won the show's second Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (the other nominees were all TOS episodes as well!) at a time when there was not a separate category for TV episodes and also a WGA award. Many consider it the best episode of the entire run... in fact of the entire franchise.

It probably has one of the most famous guest stars of the show's history as well.

****

A series of freak temporal disturbances leads to an Exploding Bridge Console (TM) going off in Sulu's face and McCoy giving himself an accidental overdose, going crazy. He beams down to the planet that is the source of the disturbances and after going through a talking time portal, ends up changing history... so the Enterprise no longer exists. Kirk and Spock have to go after him and reverse the damage...

****

We get a classic opening, involving the good old "Starship Acting" - with one extra rather out of time to everyone else - and Kelley getting a chance to chew on the scenery that hasn't already been munched by Shatner.

This is the second episode of Star Trek involving time travel and we get the tremendously fun sight of our two leads (DeForest Kelley not being in the title sequence at the time) having to go undercover in 1930 New York to await the arrival of McCoy so they can prevent him from changing history. This allows for a truly hilarious scene in which after stealing some clothes, Kirk and Spock are confronted by a policeman. Kirk passes Spock off as a Chinese man whose ears are the result of a childhood accident with a 'mechanical rice picker'. There are plenty of other great scenes, including one sad scene demonstrating why you shouldn't play with a phaser if you don't know what you're doing and Spock knocking Angus MacGyver into a cocked hat. Nimoy does great sarcasm as well.

Kirk (who brings out his Concerned Face a number of times) discovers the source of the problem, a social worker called Edith Keeler... and you guessed it, he falls in love with her. Keeler is played by Joan Collins (now 83 and Dame Joan Collins) who employs a sort of very clear American diction you don't really see with actresses from the US today.

This episode is another case of using your friendly neighbourhood back-lot - in this case, the final appearance of the 40 Acres set - signs from The Andy Griffith Show are apparently visible. It also had more money spent on it than any other episode of Season 1 and it shows.



The ending is reminiscent of the Doctor Who episode "Father's Day", but I have to admit I wasn't particularly moved by it, probably because it's been often imitated since. Another case of Trek writing the clichés and looking clichéd as a result.

Conclusion

A very strong episode of the show indeed with some vintage comedy, but I wasn't sold on all of it. I would personally consider other episodes better, but I can see the acclaim.

8/10