31 May 2018

Going or staying: US TV upfronts 2018-19

ABC
  • ABC's order of Take Two, essentially a female-led Castle by the same creative team, is a gamble I think won't pay off. That show really captured lightning in a bottle, but the way it ended means I'm reluctant to re-watch it.
  • Agents of SHIELD took a bold step in a new direction and the ratings held up just enough to get it renewed - as a 13-episode run in summer 2019. That may be the last season there, time will well.
  • Designated Survivor turned into a fairly generic political show with its Season 1 arc completed; Season 2 will be its last and it's hardly been must-watch TV this run.

CBS
  • All the shows I watch on this network were renewed in the bulk renewal - even some shows that seemed to have doubts over their future.
  • NCIS will likely go on until Mark Harmon, who looks way younger than his 66 years, decides to call it a day, and probably beyond that.
  • Scorpion was canned after four seasons. Not that I care in the slightest.
  • Criminal Minds got a 14th season. How many serial killers are there in that universe?

The CW
  • All the DC shows were renewed - Legends of Tomorrow has really hit its stride now.
  • An expansion to six nights a week of original programming means a lot more quality can come through. So can a lot more rubbish.
  • Is Charmed's sole appeal attractive female magic users?

FOX
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine's axe after five seasons wasn't a surprise. What did surprise me was the sheer outpouring of support for the show after the axe dropped... and the acquisition by NBC before breakfast on Saturday. Cue a lot of triumphant reactions and 'name of your sex tape' jokes on Reddit.
  • The Orville was renewed early due to the lead time needed to make Season 2. The 13 episode length proved just right for a show that turned out to have much more of a drama aspect than the initial trailer suggested. A funny and loving homage to Star Trek, Seth MacFarlane will likely be captaining the ship for a good while yet.
  • I'd never heard of Last Man Standing, so I don't really care about its revival.

HBO
  • While Westworld can most certainly be a very confusing show at times with all the jumping about of timelines, it looks spectacular and has some things worth saying about our society. Its early season three renewal was no surprise.
  • Veep will end after seven seasons, its finale delayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfuss getting breast cancer.
NBC
  • The Blacklist has taken an even darker turn as Liz Keen has started casually dissolving bodies in acid and luring crooks into lethal traps.
  • Timeless would have been better as a summer show. The fact it's still in limbo after May has ended suggests it's dead.

Showtime
  • Homeland, which at times found itself overtaken by reality in the crazy department (a common theme in the political shows this season), will get an eight and final season in late 2019 once the superlative Claire Danes comes back from maternity leave. It's probably best to end the show on its own terms.

Other
  • Syfy's cancellation of The Expanse, along with Dark Matter going earlier in the season, is probably a sign that their move into space shows hasn't worked out for them financially. Earth-bound works tend to be cheaper. Amazon has the money to make it work.

11 May 2018

'Mystery Science Theater 3000' 11.12, "Carnival Magic"

So, Kinga wants to marry Jonah as a ratings stunt... anyway, that's a lot better of an idea that Carnival Magic, which involves a magician trying to save a carnival with a talking monkey. Wacky hi-jinks ensue and they're not very good ones at that; the movie drags badly, the plot is unconvincing and the music is just bizarre. Also, there's a rather creepy subtext in places and what is supposed to be a family film has a lot of adult themes.

It's a source for some quality riffing, with some excellent skits (Mark Hamill's cameo tops the lot, but it's a close race), some lovely callbacks to past classics and great deconstruction of the relative lack of talking monkey in this. I enjoyed it a lot and it may in time become a fan favourite.

9/10

03 May 2018

'Mystery Science Theater 3000' 11.11, "Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II"

Yes, I know it's been a long while since I've done one of these...

****

A sequel in name only (the connection with the first movie is pretty much non-existent); this 1989 movie has a rating of 1.9 on IMDB, which says something. The movie tries to be funny with one-liners that wouldn't be out of place in Guardians of the Galaxy... but Guardians is a much better movie for any number of reasons. The fight choreography is atrocious, the characters pretty annoying from top to bottom of the bill and the plot would be rejected for even a campy Dungeons and Dragons movie. It's also pretty sexist as a film, even if the scantily-clad female leads (including the late Lana Clarkson, who was murdered by Phil Spector at the age of 40) actually get some of the better lines.

A steady stream of riffs provides a good deal of laughs and helps one get through the awful movie - which even the bots find is past their tolerance level. Also, the skits are all pretty good.

8/10


22 April 2018

Armchair Time Traveller #1: January 1958 ABC Railway Guide

In this series of posts that I'll doing over 2018, I'll be reviewing, so to speak, some of the old railway timetables that I have in my possession or have managed to locate online, giving a general view of how things have changed for better and worse. The plan is for a total of six of these posts, but that may well change... and drag on into 2019.

In this first post, I'm going to look at the January 1958 ABC Railway Guide.


Published monthly from 1853 to 2007 (the name has been revived for an enthusiast's guide to rolling stock and locomotives) and a rival to the Bradshaw's books that have featured in Michael Portillo's long running TV series, this book's main function is to provide an alphabetical list of all the railway stations in Great Britain and tell you how to get there from London, with timetables for the major routes at the back.

Costing 7 shillings and sixpence (37 and a half pence in new money), this tome can be considered pocket sized if you have a garment with large pockets; it's 21cm by 12.5cm by 3.7cm. Coming in at 918 pages counting the covers and weighing 682 grams (1lb 8.1 oz in old money) this is more an object one would keep in the study for reference rather than lug around on a commute.

The contents

This has adverts. Quite a lot of adverts. Firstly on the cover for the Motor Union Insurance Co. Ltd, (which I believe is now part of the AA) and also for Gestetner, whose duplicators were the predecessors of the modern photocopier - you would create a master copy something of a form or leaflet, then use this to make as many copies as you needed, at least until the master degraded.

The main adverts, however, are for hotels. 252 pages of them, arranged by town so you can be find what is available in your planned destination. Some of the things advertised for these hotels are things that one doesn't tend to see advertised in modern hotels because they're kind of taken for granted:
  • Central Heating
  • Private bathrooms, often for many of the rooms
    • You may mock, indeed you can mock, but the Orient Express and other luxury sleeper trains operated by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits didn't have en-suite toilets. Which means it was entirely possible for you to be waiting for Audrey Hepburn or Burt Lancaster to finish up, well, delivering a sit down performance, on Le Train Bleu or an American equivalent.
  • A lift
  • Gas fires
  • A television lounge - that is one television for the whole hotel
  • Interior sprung mattresses


    Also quite a few are quoting weekly rates. This was a time where holidays were much longer and care homes fewer; an old person of means might well move into a hotel as they'd be looked after. The Major in Fawlty Towers is one example.

    We then have four pages of tables for sleeper services and these were a lot more numerous back in 1958. Taking a typical Monday night, a Londoner could get:
    • 5 trains from Paddington (2 to Penzance, 1 to Plymouth with seating to Penzance, 1 to Carmarthen with seating to a station called Neyland in Pembrokeshire which would close in 1964)
    • 8 from King's Cross
    • 12 from Euston
    • 3 from St Pancras
    Some of those had multiple portions, a restaurant car and "improved type 2nd class accommodation". The last of these probably refers to the British Railways Mark 1 sleeper carriages that were being introduced at this time; these were replacing Grouping era sleepers with four-berth compartments that lacked a washbasin.. Not many of these survive; they had a lot of asbestos in them for one thing.

    The main section of the timetable provides an alphabetical list of stations in the mainland UK with listings ranging in detail from a list of all the trains from London for main stations (with departure and arrival) to times from a major hub for branch lines. For example, Ashton in Devon is 40 minutes from Exeter St. David's and served on weekdays only... although less than five months later, it lost its passenger service entirely.

    Each station has its distance from London (184 1/2 miles) and single fares for 2nd class or 1st class (30s 6d and 45s 9d) respectively at a time when railway fares were fixed per mile; 14s 7d for every 100 miles. Why this was abandoned, I don't know...

    Pages 416 to 652 contain 122 full timetables for the London suburban routes, the Underground and finally boat trains to mainland Europe.

    The historical context


    British Railways had just turned 10 at this point and was still building steam locomotives; while simultaneously constructing new diesel and electric traction, the last for lines that were about to be electrified or had already been. All this was going on under the aegis of the 'Modernisation Plan' published in December 1954, back when you didn't have a fancy title designed for Twitter hashtags for this sort of thing and social media was a group getting together to watch a television show.

    The Modernisation Plan would have decidedly mixed results in terms of traction; while it gave us much-loved units like the 4CEP and the burly beast of a locomotive that is the Class 47, many of the diesel classes were rushed into production by people with limited experience in building diesel locomotives, with a result that some didn't last much longer than steam locomotives. Ultimately, its goal to eliminate BR's operating deficit was a failure, mainly due to the plan being more 'replace steam' than 'update the railway for changing patterns of transport'. The next step was Beeching and all that entailed.

    Electrification therefore was decidedly limited at this point outside London, where all the Southern Region suburban lines had been done before the war, the Liverpool Street to Shenfield suburban service just after it and the long process of getting the wires along the West Coast Main Line was yet to start. Steam was still very much king at this point in time, with pre-war and wartime classes joined by the post-war 'Standards'. Some of those could reach 100mph on a good day with a highly competent crew and a decent run or downward gradient; they certainly could not sustain it.

    British Railways had started to introduce the frankly superlative Mark 1 coaches (in timber veneer and not laminate) from 1951 onwards, but they were by no means universal. Grouping era stock was still running until the early 1970s, such as the 4COR EMUs out of Waterloo and various non-corridor suburban stock. Some of the Mark 1s themselves were 'closed compartment', which wasn't the most pleasant of things on a late night.

    Many services were what was known as a 'through carriage'; a number of carriages attached to one particular train, detached along the way and connected to another service when they didn't form one of their own. Getting in the wrong coach was not a brilliant idea.

    Lines had been being closed for a while and would continue to be; the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway line in North Norfolk (now partly served by the heritage North Norfolk Railway) would be recommended for total closure in May 1958 and go the following year; in January it was served by a decent number of long distance trains running from King's Cross and Liverpool Street. However, Beeching had yet to arrive and swing the axe still further.


    One final thing is safety; the AWS system was finally being made mandatory across the network following the 1952 crash at Harrow and Wealdstone, although main lines had priority, which was too late to prevent another crash at Lewisham in 1957 that killed 90 people. Those fairly common events are one thing that enthusiasts definitely do not miss.

    The travel times 

    As mentioned, steam is a good deal slower than diesel or electric traction and this shows in the journey times:
    • London King's Cross to Edinburgh Waverley was generally at least 7 hours; the Flying Scotsman came in at two minutes under that mark. It was also possible to go from St Pancras, in which case, you'd be looking at 9 hours 37 on a 'through carriage'.
    • London Paddington to Cardiff Central was just under 3 hours; the average today is around 2 hours 4 minutes. It could be less, but the High Speed Train proved so successful, more stops are required for all the passengers.
    • London Euston to Manchester London Road (renamed to Manchester Piccadilly in 1960) is around 3 hours 45.
    • London Victoria to Brighton could regularly be done in an hour flat using electric multiple units; today this is doable in 54 minutes.
    • London to Shenfield: 37 minutes on a semi-fast. It's an average of 24 minute today.
    Conclusion

    Things were a lot slower under steam, but you might have wanted it that way...
     

    30 March 2018

    The world isn't great, but it could be a good deal worse

    It wasn't a particularly good Friday for Jesus or his followers and the only mercy is that he died relatively quickly - three hours as opposed to one or two days. However, the Easter story, where our Lord came back from the dead, our path to heaven secured, had a lot more positive impact.

    There's a lot of bad stuff going on in the world and with climate change, the return of authoritarian rule and an increasingly uncivil discourse, it's likely to be worse before it gets better. However, without the positive impact of the loving message of Jesus (when properly applied), things might well be even worse. Martin Luther King, William Wilberforce, William Booth and others (there were women, but I've forgotten their names) were inspired by their Christian beliefs to work for positive social change. If it hadn't been for Christianity, the world might well be a less caring place, with more rules-based religion excluding or killing those who were different. Sure, we've mucked up a lot over two millennia, but I think our system of freedom through Christ's blood has been a good thing for Earth.

    Have a good Easter everyone.

    14 March 2018

    Stephen Hawking 1942-2018

    The legendary scientist has died aged 76.

    Just surviving with Motor Neurone Disease for as long as he did was a remarkable achievement. Doing everything else and becoming a pop culture icon was as well. The combination makes him a legend. Not a perfect one of course (who is?) but he's contributed far more to humanity than most of those who went to Cambridge when he did.

    Rest in Peace.

    24 February 2018

    'Star Trek: Discovery' season review - Part Two

    Despite Yourself

    Knocking it right out of the park, or rather the Prime Universe, from pretty much the get go. This is dramatic, twisty and funny ("Captain Killy") with some great scenes starting a nice arc going.


    The Wolf Inside

    With a lovely call back to the original Mirror Universe episode i.e. Sarek with a goatee, this story contains further great revelations, a wonderful final scene and Burnham engaging in Kirk level chess moves.

    Vaulting Ambition

    Having Michelle Yeoh back is lovely in an episode filled with plenty of good horror... and that last revelation makes everything make sense. Some of us saw it coming, but still, a great twist...


    What's Past Is Prologue

    Jason Isaacs bows out as Gabriel Lorca in dramatic style, closing the arc that started way back in the third episode in great style. He'll be missed and one hopes the next Discovery captain, if it's not Saru, will live up to his memorability.


    The War Without, The War Within

    This is somewhat of a 'calm before the storm' episode as the ship comes to terms with events beforehand and what their current situation now involves. Again, another great ending.

    Will You Take My Hand?

    Now this is a superb season finale. It could have been a bit longer - it was a bit rushed - but it's a triumphant validation of Starfleet's ordeals. You know how the story will end, but the journey there is great with Tilly in particular serving as great comic relief and Burnham fully discovering the humanity she's at time lacked.


    Conclusion

    Definitely a stronger second half; with revelations here retroactively boosting the first half by making strange things clearer. This darker take on Trek remains true to the original spirit of the show, while delivering strong characters and humour; it compliments the more comic The Orville nicely.

    I look forward to seeing where this ship boldly goes next season, but please turn the lights up...

    9/10

    03 February 2018

    In which everyone commentates on a game being played in the dark

    The ongoing Trump situation is one where a lot of people are making guesses as to what they think is going to happen. There's an expression: "These who talk don't know and those who know don't talk".

    We don't know what exactly is going through the mind of the key players involved: Robert Mueller, Mike Pence, Trump himself, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell. The GOP's seeming complicity in what is going on is more often than not silence. Nunes is doing his own thing with his failure of a memo, but most Republicans aren't saying anything at all.

    We don't know what happens if Mueller suggests Trump gets impeached - or if he'll just indict him anyway. We don't know if Trump will fire him.

    And we don't even know what happens if Trump is removed from office. It could be months before he ends up behind bars, if at all. And if Trump's supporters are rabid now...

    It's a rather concerning situation, all told.

    07 January 2018

    Kumar Chameleon - A Star Citizen Story, Part Five: Location



    There was a sudden loud bang and the front of the Tevarin’s head exploded. As it slumped to the ground, Mary got up and saw Daniel standing behind her, holding a smoking pistol in his hand.

    “Well, the agreed call signal worked”, he said, “Who is this Chris Roberts guy anyway?”

    “He was a brainy kid I went to school with. I don’t know what happened to him though. Said he wanted to be a Wing Commander or something…”

    At that point, the door to the shop crashed open, revealing a very angry Donald Hood. He turned around and saw the dead Tevarin on the ground, then noticed Daniel’s weapon.

    “What did you just do with...” he started to say, then Daniel shot him in the head. Donald’s body collapsed to the ground, twitched a couple of times and was still.

    What did you do that for?!” Mary screamed, “He was completely unarmed!”

    Daniel holstered his weapon and looked down at the second person he had just killed in the space of a few minutes.

    “He knew that we’d stolen his client list and he’d have told everyone he could that he was blown. Including our assassin. Also, to be quite frank, the galaxy is better off without him and his garden gnomes. Now let’s get out of here”, he said, trying to sound as cold as possible and not entirely succeeding.

    He started to walk out of the alley, then stopped.

    “If Sunita asks at all, Donald shot first”.

    ****

    As soon as she’d heard the gun shot, Sunita Kumar had taken advantage of the distraction and ran out of the shop as per the previously agreed plan. She found a public toilet and gave her mouth a through rinse out. With soap.

    Her mind wasn’t entirely focussed on what was going on with the rinsing though. Having heard two gunshots in quick succession, she was naturally very concerned about Mary.

    She then made her way back to Tuskegee Airman, fearing the worst. Seeing Mary in the medical bay, being treated for her injuries by Becky (who had learnt a decent amount of medical knowledge growing up on a farm; she had helped cattle give birth after all), was a massive relief.

    It then became a case of working their way through the data to try and find who the likely candidates were. Having found the bullet casings on the beach gave them a clear and obvious product to look for, allowing them to eliminate the people who had, for example, only bought anti-tank missiles or items only suitable for use by spacecraft.

    They soon managed to get their list down to three people who had purchased the particular type of round.

    “Well...”, Mary said, “We can probably eliminate the mining corporation from the equation pretty quickly. So we’re down to some antique collector named Llewellyn and an independent concern by the name of Whoops A Daisy Trading. Fortunately, we’re got a security camera photograph of this guy stored with the records…”

    She pulled up the picture, which was of a bald African man with very bushy eyebrows and two missing teeth.

    “He shouldn’t be particularly hard to find… but we’ll need to locate him. Sunita, do you fancy going with me to hit up a few bars. Even if we ask around, we’ll probably draw him out even if we don’t find him usually”.

    ****

    Sunita and Mary found their way into a dive known as the Smelly Shack, which didn’t look like a shack but was most definitely smelly. Custom meant that they were going to need to have a few drinks and sources in bars were very wary of people who didn’t drink alcohol.

    After three strawberry beers (Sunita didn’t know this was a thing, but clearly it was), their drinking companion of choice, a Banu merchant, gave them what they needed.

    “He’s called Mr. Jones. He’s staying at the Kiddie World Convention. Strange that such a big man likes the things of infants…”

    “What’s the Kiddie World Convention?” Sunita asked.

    “Basically, a lot of adults decide to act like children for a weekend. There’s big slides, ball pits, swings, all that. Plus, there’s a lot of drinking involved, which is even stranger…”

    “Right…”

    Mary wrote this down on a pad of paper. She didn’t want to forget the information under the effects of alcohol.

    There was certainly a lot of that involved. Around drink number six, things become a bit hazy…

    ****

    The following morning, Sunita woke up with a pounding headache, a dry mouth and a general desire for the sweet embrace of death.

    She opened her eyes and took a look around. It was clear that she was not on her own ship, or indeed in the hotel. There was the distinct smell of spaceship around, so she figured that she was on Tuskegee Airman. Probably in one of the guest cabins.

    This was confirmed when the door to the cabin opened and Becky entered, holding a tray. The tray contained a cooked breakfast, a very strong cup of coffee and a fizzing glass of something that was almost certainly intended to aid with the intoxication of last night…

    She got up to a seated position and noticed a pile of dried vomit up against one wall of the cabin.
    “Was that me?” she asked Becky, “If so, I’m really sorry about that…”

    “It was, but you’re forgiven”, Becky said, placing the tray on the bed. Sunita started eating the meal. It tasted very good or as good as you could get when your mouth was like that.

    “Did we get the required information?”

    Becky shrugged slightly and handed over a notepad. The handwriting was barely legible.

    “Can you read this?” she said, “I think that’s a ‘n’, but I can’t be sure…”

    Sunita took a look at the paper and started to try to piece together Mary’s chicken scratch with her memory of the previous night.

    “Where’s Mary?” she asked Becky.

    “Sleeping it off… Apparently she used to be much more able to handle her liquor”.

    Was she writing this with her weak hand?

    It took a few painful minutes to piece the relevant information together.

    “His name is Abraham Jones. He’s nearly 2 metres tall, African in appearance and is built like a brick… something house…”

    “Well, he’ll probably not be that hard to find…”

    ****

    Having dealt with her hangover as best she could, Sunita had changed into another outfit, this one to go to the Kiddie World Convention. She was wearing dark blue shorts and a green football shirt, under which was a white bikini. A pair of strappy sandals complemented the look.

     “He’s got VIP access to the Convention and will probably be found in the VIP Lounge of this. You can get in with a VIP ticket, but you have to do something first”, Becky said.

    “What do I have to do?” Sunita asked.

    “Well… prepare to lose your dignity…”

    ****

    “Sunita Kumar, it’s karaoke time!”

    Karaoke? I don’t know who invented the idea, but I’d like to go back in time and punch him in the face. 

    Sunita got to her feet and walked over to the microphone, wondering what monstrosity she was going to have to sing. She looked down at the virtual screen in front of her as the music began to start.

    I know this tune… it’s rather a good one…

    She smiled and started to belt out the tune.

    Her name was Lola, she got Ebola

    With vomit in her hair and loads of real pain everywhere

    She would be nauseous and be real gross-us

    And while she fought the bad disease, her friends divvied up her cheese

    Across the iso-ward, the stiffs were turning cold…

    The diverse crowd weren’t exactly booing at this moment…


    His name was Davies, he got some rabies

    He’d been bitten by cavies in a pet store, said Mavis


    Someone started to clap.

    In the D-Ward, the Viral D-Ward…

    The hottest spot north of Wisconsin…

    In the D-Ward, the Viral D-Ward…

    Viral infections were spreading like presents

    More people started to clap.

    Her name was Asia, she was contagi-a
    With Marburg, measles yeah and salmonella, it’s not fair…

    There were increasing cheers as she finished…

    Don’t go to Maine!!!!!!!

    She took a bow and smiled as the crowd went wide. The MC walked over and shook her hand.

    “The ‘Maine War’ song is such a catchy tune for such an unpleasant event in our history and you really gave it a wonderful go. Can we all agree what she is?”

    “VIP! VIP! VIP! VIP!” the crowd chanted.

    Well, that’s one phase done.

    She stepped down, collected her ticket and then decided to go play in the ball pit for a bit before making her way to the VIP area.

    ****

    As Sunita clambered into the hot tub in the VIP area, a waiter came over holding a tray full of glasses of coloured liquid with umbrellas in them. She looked at them and picked the light green one. It tasted distinctly minty, more so once she had drunk it. She looked around discreetly, finding that a 2-metre high man was harder to spot than you might think, especially with some many other people around, many of them in limited attire and some of those pretty handsome…

    However, she wasn’t going to have to wait for long. Soon she got a glimpse of 160kg of pure muscle heading her way, dressed in a big pair of black shorts that wouldn’t be out of place in a boxing ring.

    He looked at her face and the waterproof plaster on her right shoulder, then moved over quickly to her.

    His large hand moved over to her head and shoved her face into the bubbly water…

    Plans for 2018

    Not a huge number this year, for various reasons. However, one thing I plan to do is a few posts examining a railway timetable I own for January 1958, comparing how things have improved. Or not as the case may be.

    Plus a few reviews of things, including hopefully resuming my Star Trek: The Original Series posts once Discovery has finished airing.