Sunday, April 22, 2012

Alien - The monster inside us

My Superman marathon is stalled while I wait for a copy of the Donner cut of Superman 2. It occurred to me that it might make more sense to embark on an Alien view-through as we wait for Prometheus, which will be with us soon. So here is the very first Alien film from 1979.

"In space no-one can hear you scream" but they can hear you blow up a huge oil refinery platform as my physics teacher pointed out at the time. My brothers and I were discussing the late 1970s on Facebook recently and, in particular, the movies and music concerts we went to see then. I remember going on a school organised outing to see Star Wars in 1977. I don't know how the teachers got that one by the Headteacher and parents but they did. Likewise in 1979 the physics and biology of Alien were the subject of much discussion with our A level tutors.

We also look back fondly on a time before internet spoilers and trailers freely available at the click of a button. Yet I remember that we all knew that something was going to come out of John Hurt's chest. Maybe it was word of mouth but it was common knowledge by the time I saw the film. Not that that detracted from the shock of the moment, it still caused quite a jump for myself and the young lady friend who was with me. Our box of Maltesers clattered their way down the rows of seats in front of us as they flew from our startled laps!

There are several more memorable moments in this film, not the least of which is Ripley's final confrontation with the Alien on the shuttle. Watching it again now just confirms how good Sigourney Weaver was right from the start. Her character seems to be the only one thinking clearly out of the whole crew. It now seems obvious that there was something weird about Ash right from the start.

The effects hold up very well, although the clunky computers with their bizarre methods of data input now seem very strange. Point and click was only a pipe-dream then I suppose. There is one rather strange shot of the larger Alien moving forwards which is clearly a model on a rail but apart from that everything looks great. I watched the more recent Director's cut which gives us the sequence of Ripley discovering Dallas and Brett in Alien cocoons. This was in the novelisation of the film which I read at the time, but in light of what the sequels told us about the Alien life cycle the scene doesn't make sense and it seems odd to have included it.

The film is still very shocking and watchable. I enjoyed it as much as I did the first time. Next up is Aliens with and those guns, lots of guns.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Big Finish - The Emerald Tiger

Big Finish release 159 - The Emerald Tiger, written and directed by Barnaby Edwards and starring Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor. With Janet Fielding, Mark Strickson and Sarah Sutton as Tegan, Turlough and Nyssa.

The Doctor and his companions show up in Calcutta for a 1926 cricket match but Barnaby Edwards is not going to allow them to sit in the sun and relax. Things rapidly go wrong, the Tardis goes missing, Nyssa is bitten and infected by something nasty, and soon they are all off on a desperate train and balloon chase!

This is the first Fifth Doctor adventure I have listened to since Spare Parts and, before that, Winter for the Adept. Likewise I have very little experience with him on television. I have watched his first story, Castrovalva, and his last story, The Caves of Androzani, but that's it. So it was fun to have a new Doctor to listen to after my recent runs with the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth incarnations. The story ticks along quite nicely with lots of little nods to classic pulp adventure serials. The extra features make it clear that Edwards was aiming for an Indiana Jones style adventure for the Fourth Doctor and I think he does a pretty good job.

The supporting cast do fine work and it is all done with Big Finish's usual style. There were a couple of strange moments when the voices are a bit muffled but I think that is supposed to represent the way one of the characters is hearing them, so it is probably a feature and not a bug.

All in in all a very good release from Big Finish which is going to get 3.5 out of a possible 5 stalks of Celery. Next up is The Four Doctors!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

2000AD Prog 1775 - A medical review

This week's 2000AD is Prog 1779 and there is no medicine to review other than to say that the prognosis for Mega-City One looks to be very poor indeed. Instead I'm going to turn back to Prog 1775 and consider something that the Chief Judge said.

Spoiler alert. This review includes mild spoilers for 2000AD Prog 1775 and the current Eve of Destruction story. You have been warned!

Judge Dan Francisco was the subject of a reality television series called The Streets of Dan Francisco. The Dredd stories have always been peppered with puns and in-jokes so having a show that is similarly named to a 1970s police drama is just par for the course for 2000AD. The Judge Francisco series was a big public relations hit for the Justice department and subsequently he was elected Chief Judge by his fellow Judges. His reign has not been straight-forward to say the least. He seems to be a decent Judge who tries to do the right things but events conspire against him, and now he is struggling to contain the escalating crisis that threatens to destroy Mega-City One. As so often in the past, Judge Dredd may be their only chance for salvation.

In Prog 1775 the Chief Judge and Dredd interview the widow of the scientist who engineered the chaos bug for the rogue Sov-Judges. She reveals that her husband ensured that the bug had an inbuilt weakness.

To recap what we have learned about the chaos bug from previous progs - Dr Yurges created an organism that is based on a protozoa called Toxoplasma Gondii but is much more infectious and deadly. The infection has already been released in Mega-City One and is spreading quickly. There has been some confusion about whether the bug is a protozoa or a virus. In the first panel Dredd plays it safe and refers to it as "the organism". Then Mrs Yurges drops her bombshell - the bug is unstable and will become weaker as it passes from person to person until it reverts to its previous, almost harmless form. "Like the common cold?" asks the Chief Judge but no-one answers him.

The common cold is caused by any one of several hundred different viruses. None of these viruses reduce in virulence as they pass from one person to another. What tends to happen is that people who are more susceptible to infection at any one time tend to pick up the infection first and often develop more symptoms than "fitter" people who get the infection later on. So people whose immune system is weakened by age, medications or another illness will tend to be infected earlier and be more unwell then their family, friends or work and school colleagues who catch the cold from them. Likewise children who have not come into contact with a particular virus before will often have more severe symptoms than their older siblings and parents who have probably developed some immunity already. This is probably where the idea that the Cold virus "burns itself out" comes from.

The Chief Judge may also be confused by something called the Trade-Off Hypothesis which suggested that evolution may have slowly selected infectious organisms that were less virulent because the bugs spread best when their hosts (i.e. us) were still able to be up and about and meeting other possible hosts. As you can read on the above Wikipedia page this doesn't altogether explain what is going on in the complex relationship between micro-organisms and their hosts, which is influenced by several other factors.

Chief Judge Franscisco stumbles slightly on the science stuff but, as always, Dredd is the Law and gets it right. This prog gets a cautiously optimistic 3 out of 5 medic-droids. However, if you are up to date with the current progs you will know that the Chaos bug may be the least of their worries. Writer John Wagner is turning the screws on Mega-City One in what seems set to be his Magnum opus.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

2000AD Prog 1778 - A medical review

Spoiler alert! Mild spoilers for the Judge Dredd story from Prog 1778 ahead. You have been warned.

In the current Judge Dredd storyline Day of Chaos: Eve of Destruction the Mega-City authorities are wrestling with the effects of the Chaos organism which has been released into the general population by infected Sov City agents. The Judges have introduced a curfew to prevent the bug from spreading, and are asking citizens to report any suspicious symptoms so that infected people can be identified, quarantined and treated. In this scene from prog 1778 a television reporter is following a Justice department medic team as they arrive at the home of a family who have noticed that Grannie is unwell.

The Judges have developed a quick test for the Chaos bug. Coming up with a screening test for a medical condition is harder than you might imagine, and every test has to be considered critically for two key points. Firstly, how many patients with the disease does the test miss out i.e. false negative tests, this is referred to as the test's Sensitivity. Secondly, how many patients without the disease test does the test say do have it i.e. false positives, this is referred to as the Specificity of a test. An ideal test would have 100% sensitivity and 100% specificity, so it wouldn't miss any patients who have the disease nor would it indicate someone had it when they actually didn't. In the real world it is quite hard to develop such a perfect test and this can be quite problematic when you are going to base treatment decisions on the results.

In Mega-City One the implications of a positive test are even more critical. The Judges know what the reporter does not, that there is no current treatment for the Chaos bug, and that it is almost universally fatal. And bearing in mind some of the plans for dealing with the infected that the Justice department are considering it is a good job that the mouth swab test is described as "highly specific and extremely accurate". I am assuming that accurate in this context means sensitive. I hope so. The young boy on this page is going to be a lot less excited if he turns out to be a false positive.

The confusion between a virus and a protozoa continues. The contents page in this prog calls the Chaos bug "a deadly virus". However let us be generous and assume that the Sov-Judges' captured scientist created a virus which has some of the properties of the Toxoplasma Gondii organism it is based on. It is far fetched but just about acceptable in the science fiction future of the 22nd century. Meanwhile John Wagner's use of convincing medical jargon continues to impress so this episode is going to get a highly specific 4.5 out of 5 medic-droids.

Despite all the talk of tests and fairly grim disposal methods for the infected there is no prospect of a successful treatment for the Chaos organism yet. I'm hoping that the microbiologist Professor Lucas Wyant reappears at some stage to help Dredd save the day but the Day of Chaos is almost upon Mega-City.

Superman - Two heads are better than one

Marching swiftly on to a swifter sequel. Superman II came out in 1980, written by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Tom Mankiewicz, and directed by Richard Lester.
All the main cast return except for Marlon Brando who was too expensive, so Susannah York as Superman's mother does much of the explaining of the back story. We get a complete recap of the first film during the title credits and then it's on to Luthor's escape from prison and Superman saving Lois from the Parisian terrorists and, in the process, throwing the nuclear bomb into deep space where its explosion releases the Kryptonian bad guys from the Phantom Zone.

Terence Stamp makes a suitably menacing General Zod, and the three Kryptonian baddies give Superman someone of his own power level to punch. Not that it does him any good as they are too evenly matched. Instead we get a display of new powers including throwing his S symbol as a sot of catch net (really?) and then it's on to the inevitable 'bait and switch' power removal chamber in the Fortress of Solitude.

Along the way we get Lois discovering Superman's secret identity, him renouncing his powers to be with her and answer the Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex conundrum. There's that strange bit where the human Clark Kent gets beaten up in a Diner before heading back to the Fortress of Solitude to power up in time for the final showdown. I always thought the moment when the re-energised Kent returns at the end to teach the bully a lesson was a bit odd. Like the Jedi Superman doesn't really do revenge. He should be above all that.

And then we end with yet another new Kryptonian super-power, the kiss of forgetfulness which completely restores the status quo. Having the perfect actor to play Superman and some pretty good special effects it is a pity they couldn't come up with better scripts for the first two films. Let us see whether the Donner cut of Superman 2 is any better.