Deep Space Nine: s04e07 – Starship Down


Unlikely heroes
Unlikely heroes

I’m no Star Trek expert but this latest DS9 episode struck me as curiously old-fashioned. It was a plain, little-adorned hard-SF story, more suited, I thought, to old-style conceptions of SF as spaceships and hardware, and after the succession of recent stories, I’m afraid I found it a little hollow.

The MacGuffin was that the Defiant, with everyone on board except Odo, was in the Gamma Quadrant for a secret trade negotiation with the Karemma, in the person of Minister Hanok. In order to avoid the Dominion wrath, the Karemma trade via Farengi intermediaries, i.e., Qusark, whose skimming and scamming isslowly bankrupting them.

That’s the set-up. The meeting is interrupted by two Jem’Hadar ships trying to destroy the Karemma vessel, the Defiant tries to protect it and everyopne ends up in the turbulent, high-velocity wind, radiation-heavy upper atmosphere on a gas giant planet. Instrumentation and electronics are badly disrupted, the Defiant crippled, and the two sides engage in a careful, slow-motion battle to see who wins.

Within the story, the cast break down into pairs, with the story cruising betwen one set and the other. On the dead Bridge, Sisko is concussed and Major Kira is trying to keep him awake by talking to him. Doctor Bashir and Jardzia Dax are sealed into a turbolift and cuddling up together to delay freezing to death. Quark and Hanok debate trade, morality and gambling in the Mess Hall before defusing an unexploded torpedo sticking through the hull. And Worf runs the ship’s defence from the Engine Room, with a little learning from Chief O’Brien about the difference between Bridge crew and Engineers.

The latter part was the only really significant part of the episode since it showed part of the process of Worf adjusting to the difference between a Starship and a Space Station (ironically whilst being on a Spaceship).

But in the end it didn’t seem to amount to much, with most of the character-beats being predictable and rather flat: Julian used to chase Jardzia but doesn’t any more (really? well I never!) Nor did much come out of Nerys’s discomfort around Sisko, over his being the Emissary, although in her disheveled, stressed state, she looked gorgeous, and the many close-ups on her face were not at all a hardship.

One real criticism I do have to make concerned Sarah Mornell, as Bridge Ensign Carson. The Ensign has quite a speaking role in the first half of the episode, until the Bridge is damaged by Jem’Hadar attack about halfway through, and Sisko is hurt. She goes to find medical assistance for him, and just vanishes from the episode without explanation, but for one, line-less appearance in the background after it’s all over.. It’s very sloppy writing, given how much screen-time she’s had so far for a traditional Star Trek red-shirt and a black mark for the story.

I don’t rate episodes, but if I did, ‘Starship Down’ would be something between a C+ and a B-, as neither having any long-term significance nor any great weight of itself. Which makes for a pretty perfunctory review, I’m sorry to say.

A Brief Speculation on Flashman’s career – Introduction


Taking a broad look at the Flashman Papers, it is easy to divide Sir Harry’s career into two unequal phases. In the first of these, from his expulsion from Rugby School in 1838 to his shanghaing to sea in the wake of the Pekin Expedition in 1860, we have a full account of his career, with three breaks, of varying length.
But from 1860 onwards, we have only three distinct and separate episodes, and nothing but hints and traces of where and what else Flashman was doing.
Naturally, the rest of Flashman’s career has been the subject of speculation and argument amongst his fans for literally decades. I’ve read several chronologies, at least one of which is still accessible on-line. Now I’m going to have my own attempt at constructing Flashman’s career, especially in those lost periods.
Given the length of that career – Flashman died in 1915, in circumstances unknown but presumably related to his age (he would be aged 92/93 that year) – this is not the subject of a single essay. At first, I propose to summarise Flashman’s known career, up to one of the notable gaps, and then speculate as to what he may have been doing then. In short, I’ll be trying to outguess George MacDonald Fraser, so nothing ambitious then.
In no particular order, we have to find times and, in some cases, places, for the following:
– A slew of references to the South Pacific: Gambling on a South Sea trader, the Australian Gold Rush, including a jailing in Botany Bay, witnessing dawn over the South China Sea, being a Lottery supervisor in Manila and a Trader and Missionary in the Solomon Islands and Fly River country.
– Service with the French Foreign Legion – either immediately prior to or at the start of Flashman’s involvement with Emperor Maximilian in Mexico, or in Algeria. Flashman sees moonlight over the Sahara
– Mexico: deserting from the Legion, being aide-de-camp to Maximilian, jail, being sent to the firing Squad and being reprieved. Jesus Montero’s bandits and Princess Aggie Salm-Salm.
– American Civil War: service for the Union in 1862, the Confederates in 1863. Various battlefields. Jefferson Davies’s lightning concuctor. Libby Prison. Blackmailed and pardoned by Lincoln. At Appomattox, apparently with Lee. In Washngton with Lincoln on the day of Ford’s Theatre
– Deputy Marshall to Wild Bill Hickock, facing John Wesley Hardin. Poker in a Dodge City livery stable
– February 1882 – watching John L Sullivan box in America
– 1846-7 – shot in side by pistol ball burrowing into back: recovery and recuperation before returning to London
– Affairs with Lily Langtry, Alice Keppel, Fanny Paget (Cardigan’s mistress)
– Meeting Garibaldi
– The Zulu War 1879, Isandlwhana, Rorke’s Drift, Little Hand. Meets and likes Keteshwayo
– Hearing Garryowen sung on the African veldt
– Pekin Embassy seige during the Boxer Rebellion 1900
– Cholera attack 1855 – 56
– Impersonating an Arab Sheikh
– Surviving in a lifeboat after shipwreck
– Hearing Jungle drums in South America
– Accompanying Chinese Gordon to the Sudan
– Khedive – Sudan 1896
– Shanghaing by Fanny Duberly
– The Franco-Prussian War 1870
– Receiving the Order of Maria Theresa, summer 1868
– Desert camel passage Alexandria to Cairo
– Iron Eyes
– Watching a battle from a hot air balloon
I don’t promise to get everything right, but I do promise to enjoy the guesswork.

The Infinite Jukebox: Pulp’s ‘Common People’


Traditionally, the biggest crime in UK Chart History has always supposed to be Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’ being denied a no. 1 by Joe Dolce Music Theatre’s ‘Shaddap Your Face’. Now, whilst I side with all right-thinking people in regarding ‘Shaddap Your Face’ as a musical abomination, it is a plain fact that have hated ‘Vienna’ and it’s air of super-serious self-importance ever since I first heard it, and thus I regard its frustration as less a case of High Crimes and Misdemeanours and more a splendidly ironic one of Poetic Justice.
But if such things are to be regarded as crimes, then to me there is a far more deserving example: ‘Common People’ by Pulp. A single – an absolute classic single – that crashed into the UK Chart at no 2, and which went no further,strangled out, in this case, by Robson and bloody Jerome and their awful of ‘Unchained Melody’. Come back, Joe Dolce!
Is it really twenty-two years ago? It is, and it isn’t. Great records, truly great records may be the product of a particular time, but they carry with them their own space and time, a pocket universe in which they are eternally new, eternally fresh, eternally as vivid and vital and alive as when you first heard them.
‘Common People’ may well be the Last Great Pop Single, I don’t know. I have gradually tuned my ears away from chart music over the years, and may have missed things of equal impact to this slice of fury and contempt, this picture of a knife none of us wants but far too many of us have to endure. But I doubt it.
Looking at it critically, ‘Common People’ doesn’t really have a tune, but that wasn’t Pulp’s style. What it has is a rhythm, a beat, a pulse that gathers momentum to match Jarvis Cocker’s growing disgust at the rich girl who wants to go slumming, who wants a taste of the experience, a bit of rough., an exciting glimpse of what it’s like to be poor, but who will never for a moment comprehend, because she can only mimic, not live, because she has a trap door, a back exit, out of which she can slip at any second. She’s not committed, and on behalf of everyone who lives this way because they’re condemned to it, for whom it isn’t an ‘experience’, Cocker lambastes the unaware girl, and by implication everyone else.
“Everybody hates a tourist,” he intones, and older ears flash back to a screeching sneer of “cheap holidays in other people’s misery”. And as the music is possessed, hurtling itself forward in a race towards light speed, we can sense that he’s not just excoriating an insensitive woman but, by implication, everyone who has made the Common People’s life what it is, who have squeezed and compressed and strangled and crushed it, who have left people with nothing else, literally nothing else, but to dance and drink and screw. It’s a condemnation of extraordinary power. The girl isn’t a tourist: we all are.
They don’t write songs like that any more, or if they do they play them in places I don’t hear them. They don’t write songs about things like this any more, or if they do they don’t hear them in places where Common People go. They don’t go in for having scales ripped from their eyes much these days.

The Lake District: A Wild Year


It’s a good week when there’s a programme on about the Lake District, but it’s an extraordinarily rich one when there are two. To add to Tuesday’s BBC4 presentation of Terry Abraham’s excellent Life of a Mountain: Blencathra, last night BBC2 gave us The Lake District: A Wild Year, produced and directed by Simon Blakeney and narrated by Bernard Cribbins.

This latter programme sold itself on its time-lapse photography aspect, a year in the life of the Lake District compressed into a single hour, not to mention some fantastic micro-photography of things that nature doesn’t usually allow us to see, and in one viewer’s case would actually have preferred not to see. Tiny, predatory jumping spiders joined shots of lambs emerging from ewes, baby slugs exuding from collapsing eggs, exploding seed pods blowing unwary caterpillars about like First World War troopers exiting trenches courtesy of their own side’s shells.

Though the programme did go some way to redeem itself over the slugs and spiders with wonderfully sharp photography of red squirrels, making my hear melt as always.

This aspect of the programme was applied to the flora and fauna, of which there was too much of a concentration for my personal preferences, with the frantic, yet smooth, time-lapse stuff being reserved for fell and valley scenes, all clouds boiling across skies of all colours, and shadows scurrying between flashes of concentrated sunlight. Oh, that that other native fauna of the Lakes, the everyday tourist, also got the time-lapse stuff, roiling into the Windermere waters for an annual swim, whose duration but not direction was specified, or flooding onto and off the Lake steamers with a jerky rapidity that suggested that any moment the soundtrack would cut to the Benny Hill theme.

No, the noisy musical soundtrack was not the highlight of the documentary, but that was part of the price of populism demanded by being shown on the more exoteric landscape of BBC2. As was Cribbins’ commentary, which was trailed in advance as sensitive but tended more to the banal, treating everything with an underlying levity that suggested it might not be entirely interesting without being mildly sent up. Or am I simply not sufficiently unspecialised (i.e., ignorant) an audience.

Cribbins was the only voice heard in the programme, aside from occasional hubbub from tourists. The locals featured – farmers, shepherds, dry-stone wallers – remained silent. This actually added to the atmosphere in the sequence where the shepherds in Langdale gathered to bring the sheep down from the fells for the shearing: all these strong, steady, silent, lean men, using their crooks as walking poles, making their unhurried and reliable way up the paths as they have done for centuries became iconic in their steadiness, their timeliness. Men doing their job, without fuss or bother.

Naturally, I could have done with far more of the fells, but then that’s me. There were cloud-chasing scenes in most of the major valleys, though with a concentration upon Windermere, Grasmere and Great Langdale. But there were shots of Derwentwater, Mardale and Haweswater, the Buttermere Valley: brief but glorious.

The programme’s year ran from April to April, from lambing to lambing, the traditional farming year, but its year of filming was the year of that terrible December, of rain, storm, flood, devastation, disaster. Though it opted for a decent brevity for that section, the programme was nevertheless serious and open. It tore my heart again to see it, to think of my beloved country being so cruelly treated: the worst was a private sequence, in a car in the rain, tearing along the road east of Thirlmere, faster than the conditions might warrant as safe, ploughing through flooded stretches that came up almost to the vehicle’s bonnet: until it stopped, for floods draining irresistably off the slopes to the right, spilling earth and rock and wall across the road in an unnegotiable collapse.

But lambing was the beginning and lambing was the end, though the repeated footage  of black-woolled Herdwick lambs bouncing up and down with uncontrollable energy was the same at start and end, suggesting that only one generation was filmed. And fittingly, the last word came from a dozy lamb, lying on the ground, moving only its head around, until it looks directly into the camera and emits one falsetto bleat.

No, there’ll never be an ideal Lake District documentary until I do one myself, assuming time, opportunity, finance and talent, the last of which being probably the most tendentious aspect, but A Wild Year did more than just do until the next one, however far off that is. I miss the Lake District. I miss it all the time. Things like this refresh my memories and that connection of spirit on which I subsist.

More, please, and soon.

 

Peter Skellern, R.I.P.


I hadn’t seen the news myself, but as I write, Graham Nortin has just informed me of the death,yesterday, of the singer and occasional actor, Peter Skellern. In tribute, he has just played Skellern’s delicately beautiful arrangement of the standard ‘The way you look tonight’. Skellern was 69, and had been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer four months ago.

Yes, that tribute track was beautiful, and as an occasional thing, I can enjoy such music, though it is my parents’ music. Typically of Skellern, the arrangement was a combination of his piano and a muted brass band, the style of his unexpected massive hit on 1972, the no. 3 single, ‘You’re a Lady’. It’s not my style, and it certainly wasn’t in 1972, though I absolutely loved his only other chart single, 1975’s ‘Hold on to Love’, a soul-tinged ballad that avoided being contemporary without sounding in the slightest archaic.

But Peter Skellern has a place in my estimation for his acting career. as Peter Tinniswood’s creation, Carter Brandon. He didn’t appear in any of the I Didn’t Know You Cared sitcoms, and the only credit as Carter in his Wikipedia entry is for the Radio 4 series, Uncle Mort’s North Country (which I have today learned was produced by Pete Atkin, the singer).

But Skellern went in to play the part on television in an odd, short, documentary series entitled Tinniswood’s North Country. This featured Peter Tinniswood himself, visiting various parts of the North and reminiscing about his connection with them. There was a one-off programme, which I think was simply called Tinniswood Country, that was primarily autobiographical, and then a series of three in which he toured the North, looking at how it had changed.

Tinniswood appeared on screen but never  spoke, except in voiceovers. But the series’ ‘gimmick’ was that on his tours, he took his creations with him, Carter and Pat Brandon, played by Skellern and Liz Fielding. Tinniswood would sit in the back seat on an open-topped touring car, his pipe in his mouth, his cravat blowing in the wind, forever silent whilst, in the front seats, Carter and Pat would argue, surreptitiously, about who he was, what he was doing there and what this was all about.

As Carter, Skellern was a bit blander, softer, smoother, but then again he was playing an older Carter, and his gentle Lancastrian tones seemed suited to the part. This was a Carter we never really got to see otherwise, without the shadow of his Uncle Mort, a bit settled, a bit staid, a bit more accepting of Pat’s obsessions with the better life she would never have fitted.

I videoed the series, and may still have the VHS tape somewhere. If I can find it – and there may be a couple of things on VHS that’ll never appear on commercially available DVDs that I want to see again, including that episode of The Home Front – I shall have it converted, and enjoy Peter Skellern’s performance once more.

Another good guy gone. For Carter Brandon, and forthis, I shall remember him.

SOTS: Just in time


I’m still a little bit suspicious about what’s happening to my only weekly radio programme Sounds of the Sixties. Tim Rice has thanked us all for our forebearance… no, actually kindness, in listening to him this last three months when he’s been sitting in for Brian Matthews, but it’s all over and our old chum will be back next Saturday.

Or will he? Next Saturday is going to be a compilation programme, made up of Brian’s favourite moments from his twenty-seven years on the show, so not actually a new episode, so we’re going to have to wait until at least a fortnight from now to see if things are going back to that Edenic state of yore.

I don’t know what the last three months have done to the show’s audience figures but, from the point of view of a sixteen year veteran, it’s come close to rocking my loyalty to SOTS. It’s not only been Rice’s jerky presentation, with the gaps between sentences coming every half dozen words or so, instead of only when the full stop appears on his script. A lot of it has been his insistence on describing everything as fantastic, brilliant, wonderful, indiscriminately and with no audible conviction to suggest that he actually believes what he’s saying.

There was a perfect example in the first half of the show, in the ‘Loose Connections’ feature, with Dusty Springfield, Gene Pitney and Petula Clark. All three were obscure songs, of which I’d only previously heard the Dusty track, and the connection was the clever and subtle one that each song was a commercial flop in the middle of a run of big hits. Such things always fascinate me: one of my ways of educating myself about Sixties music in the early Seventies were Simon Frith’s Rock Files books, listing chart successes act by act. These gave the impression of bands having unbroken success, but of course they presented a distorted picture by excluding the ones that didn’t chart at all.

But because these songs were, by definition, flops, Rice had to assure his listeners that they were great songs, absolutely wonderful, these artists never cut a track that wasn’t aural perfection, as if he was afraid that someone might get offended by the playing of a track that hadn’t been a hit. I mean, dammit, there’s only Pet still around to listen: Dusty and Gene won’t care.

So here’s hoping for a return to better things, but I remain unconvinced. Whilst I’ll relax and enjoy two hours of Brian’s warm tones, even that won’t set off the fact that this was yet another Sounds of that bit of the Early Sixties that Phil Swern is obsessed with only he denies it, ha ha. Even the newest feature drags the programme even further back: Fifties in the Sixties, covers of prominent Fifties tracks.

Still, no more Tim Rice. Saturdays will automatically improve. I hope.

The Secret History of Twin Peaks


Each week that goes by brings us nearer to the long-unexpected season 3 of Twin Peaks, details of which I have been avoiding much as I would UKIP Party Political meetings, leper colonies and football matches featuring the Bitters. However, just before Xmas, co-creator Mark Frost published The Secret History of Twin Peaks, a handsome, substantial hardback book with green binding and one of those annoying, Americanised half-dustjackets.

I bought it on impulse for myself for Xmas, but only made the time to read it this week (I am still only about a fifth of the way through Alan Moore’s Jerusalem). It was not until I took it up that I noticed that the dust-jacket described it as a novel.

This put a different perspective on the book, which I’d previously assumed was going to be more of a behind-the-scenes thing about the original two series. Wrong, very wrong. It’s a massive, wide-ranging, highly-detailed work that’s clearly intended as a direct lead-in to season 3, without giving away any spoilers, as such, as to what we’re all going to find out.

The book takes the form of an FBI Investigation, ordered up by Gordon Cole (David Lynch’s character in Twin Peaks) by an agent unnamed until literally the book’s last words, into a collection of documents assembled by someone known only as The Archivist (who, for a long time, seems most likely to be Dale Cooper but is instead a different, and entirely logical member of the Twin Peaks cast).

Agent TP is conducting an assessment of the Archivist’s materials, attempting to verify the truth and accuracy of the various materials it assembles, beginning with the Lewis and Clark expedition’s time in the Pacific North West and incorporating a lot of supposedly real history. Straight away, let me state that I am no specialist on American history in this depth, but the book is put together in a way that leads me to think that a great many real historical mysteries have been interwoven with the fictional history of Twin Peaks, the town, and its main families.

What the book does, over its many pages, is to build a history based around the spine of an unexpected minor character in the original series, one who was actually killed off in the show. The ostensible underlying story is the intriguing issue of Unidentified flying Objects, and the varied responses to sightings made by the American Army and authorities.

This does seem bafflingly tangential to the main thrust of the series, which concerned itself with more ‘magical’ elements, forces of Evil out of Indian beliefs: UFOs, Roswell, and similar incidents are more of a scientific theme, no matter what your opinion as to their validity and/or credibility.

But Frost manoeuvres his account round to merge the two ideas into something rather larger, lying behind everything that is happening, has happened, and is still waiting to happen in Twin Peaks, Washington State, 2017.

What he also manages to do is to successfully freeze the story at where it was last left, in 1991. We are reminded that the wrong Cooper came back from the Black Lodge, and that some time later he left Twin Peaks, never to return, but no more than that. The bomb in the Bank in the last episode did kill Pete Martell (RIP Jack Nance) and Andrew Packard, but only injured – critically – Audrey Horne.

Hank Jennings is also dead, Catherine Martell moved away, but otherwise we only get histories that amplify, and in one case completely re-orient, the backgrounds of the people we watched a quarter century ago (and in that one case, the character is confirmed as being dead, physically, but you, me and I know that she was last seen trapped in the knob of a chest of drawers, so I have my hopes).

So if you’re a Twin Peaks fan, go out and buy this book. I have no doubt that you won’t need it in order to understand season 3, assuming season 3 is an Understandable Thing, about which I am taking no bets whatsoever, but I rather expect you’ll find it incredibly useful.

Now, do I have time to rewatch the DVD box set before May?