Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

No Blog Posts This Week

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on June 29, 2010

I’m simultaneously trying to complete an assignment for my course (due in by Monday) and get through a release at work. Even *BEFORE* this I was practically dead from exhaustion.

Linkblogging For 25/06/10

Posted in comics, Doctor Who, linkblogging, politics by Andrew Hickey on June 25, 2010

Proper posts tomorrow (on Morrison Batman) and Sunday (on Doctor Who) if possible, but I’ve got a busy weekend ahead of me (got to work from home to keep to a deadline, and also going to a gig tomorrow night). Meanwhile, some links:

Zom at the Mindless Ones is doing an alphabetical look at all the Bat-villains, starting with Anarky. Worth looking at the comments for this one too, which revolve around just how wrong Alan Grant’s worldview really is, and whether or not John Wagner’s any good.

Colsmi at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and That Reminds Me Of This has been excelling himself again. Of his roughly 3000 recent great posts, this one on C.C. Beck’s Captain Marvel, this look at this week’s 2000AD and Megazine and this, part of his huge series on obscure Legion artist John Forte, are my personal favourites, but he’s averaging something like 3000 words a day of excellence at the moment between his two blogs.

On Saturday 3 July, Big Finish will be offering the first 50 of their Doctor Who audios for sale as CD or downloads for a fiver each for one day only. If, unlike me, you have any spare cash that day (I get paid on the 6th), I strongly urge you to buy The Holy Terror, Jubilee, Doctor Who And The Pirates and Davros.After that, don’t be surprised if Colin Baker is your new favourite Doctor.

Death To The Universe wonders who ‘tomorrow’s comics immortals’ will be.

And a few words on the budget:
I hate it, it’s a Tory budget, and while the Lib Dems made it better it’s still ultimately regressive and harmful. But it doesn’t yet change my overall view – that I still support the Liberal Democrats, I think we’re better off in the coalition than not, but I *don’t* support the government and hate the Tories. David Mathewman, Jennie, Mat and Millennium all have more on this.

And finally, not a link, but sorry to hear of the death of Alan Plater, one of the greatest TV dramatists of all time. His Beiderbecke trilogy may well be the best thing ever put on TV.

On DC’s Digital Comics

Posted in comics, computing by Andrew Hickey on June 23, 2010

I *was* going to write about Batman 700 today, but I’ll leave it til I review Return Of Bruce Wayne 3 this week, and deal with both simultaneously, because DC have announced that they’re releasing digital comics in partnership with Comixology. This has good and bad aspects:

The good:
Creators get royalties from the comics, unlike Marvel’s digital comics at the moment.
That they’re doing it at all
A proportion of money is going to help brick-and-mortar comic shops who might lose customers through this – comics retailing is such a marginal business that otherwise many smaller shops could easily go out of business.
Likewise, while old comics will be priced cheaply (good), new comics will be priced at cover price, so not giving any great incentive to move away from paper comics – I don’t want to see comic shops going out of business, as they’re mostly run by people who do it as much for love as money.

The bad:
The obsession with the sodding iPad. While this material will be available over the web, you wouldn’t know that from the press release, which just says iPad iPad iPhone iPhone iPad app app app app app. And I consider the iPhone/Pad model to be *INCREDIBLY* dangerous – anything that hypes this more is A Bad Thing. Remind me to explain why some time.
The user interface. I tried the free preview of Superman 700 at work at lunchtime and it’s just *horrible*. Rather than presenting a full page, it’s a horrible pan-and-scan thing that swoops down to different panels when you click it, without giving any option (as far as I could see) to see the page the way the artist intended. While that’s not such a problem with whoever drew Superman 700, given that comics drawn by people like Frank Quitely and Brian Bolland are available through this site I’d want to see them as they drew them.
But of course I can’t see them *at all*, because if you don’t have some iCrap you have to use a web-based viewer which requires Adobe’s proprietary Flash 10, and I’m not installing proprietary software that a lot of people go to huge efforts to *block* on my Free Software machine. (And of course any machine not running one of a handful of approved OSes, or not running on x86 architectures, can’t run Flash at all).
You also can’t, unless you’re running an iPad ‘app’ (or application for those of us who speak English rather than marketese, or computer program for those who like to be understood), save the comics you ‘buy’ to your computer, making it reliant on having a permanent internet connection and on comixology’s continued willingness to serve the files.

The annoying thing is that these limitations could be overcome – there is already an accepted file format among online comics readers, .cbr or .cbz (I prefer .cbz myself, as .cbr files require the use of .rar, which is problematic, but either is better than a Flash website). Software exists for every platform to read these, people are already used to them, and they allow people to download the comics to their own hard drives.

One can only presume that DC want to prevent ‘piracy’, but these methods actually make it more, not less, likely that someone like myself would ‘pirate’ their comics (although the only comics I’ve got on my hard drive at the moment are either those I have paper copies of or ones that as far as I’m aware are out of print). If the free-but-illegal copy is actually more convenient, easier to use, and more flexible than the legal-and-costly one, then they’re really not providing any incentive at all to buy the legal one, other than a sense of fair play.

Luckily, paper copies of new comics are even *more* convenient than torrents, so DC won’t be losing any of the money I spend on them any time soon, but I suspect they’re going to have to learn the lesson that the record companies learned a few years ago – if everyone already wants MP3s, then just sell them MP3s, not DRMd proprietary files or expensive streams.

So, substantially better than Marvel’s offering, in that they recognise that the people who write and draw their comics, and the people who sell them, are their business partners, but wake me up when they recognise that usability and freedom matter too. In the meantime, I’ll be at the comic shop, buying dead trees.

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RIP Chris Sievey/Frank Sidebottom

Posted in comics, computing, music by Andrew Hickey on June 22, 2010

A few years ago, my friend Tilt and I were, for reasons we shall not go into right now, watching an old episode of The Wheeltappers And Shunter’s Social Club, when Freddie Garrity of Freddie & The Dreamers came on. I mentioned how I’d been shocked that, when he died, a powerpop mailing list I was on had dozens of posts, mostly from Americans, about how upset people were – far more than I would have predicted, and far more than had been when plenty of more ‘important’ figures died. And Tilt replied “Yes, but remember that people *expect* tortured geniuses to die, and don’t really mind. But they get upset when a smiley man who makes them laugh with a silly dance dies.”

The musician, comedian, cartoonist, record company owner, animator and computer programmer Chris Sievey died on Monday night, and with him died his most famous creation Frank Sidebottom.

If you were a kid in the eighties, you knew Frank Sidebottom from his appearances on Number 73, but Sidebottom was far more than just a children’s entertainer. Along with his puppet sidekick/antagonist Little Frank, the man with the giant papier-mache head had dreams of pop stardom, mixing his own songs (“Space is ace”, “Christmas Is Really Fantastic”) with cover versions of classic hits given a new twist (“Panic! In The Streets Of Timperley”, “Anarchy In Timperley”, “Timperley Sunset”, “Born In Timperley”) and indie or ‘underground’ classics (the Beefheart cover Mirror Man, Mirror Puppet/Give Me That Harp Little Frank, or covers of The Fall).

While his act was more-or-less stolen by Graham Fellows for his character John Shuttleworth, and Caroline Aherne took a character he created as a Radio Timperley sidekick, Mrs Merton, to her own TV show, Frank Sidebottom was far more original than the low-rent Alan-Bennetisms of those two, combining that basic Northerner-trying-to-be-a-star-despite-lack-of-both-talent-and-self-awareness thing with an altogether more surreal worldview, especially in his interactions with Little Frank.

You can see this especially in his brief career as a comic character, in the children’s comic OINK!, in a strip written and drawn by Frank himself. The great Lew Stringer, one of the other OINK! contributors, writes about his work on the comic here.

Little Frank Goes On A Date

Little Frank Goes On A Date (Click For Fantastic Fullness)

I must admit to not having paid a *huge* amount of attention to Sidebottom’s work over the years – just being delighted when his big papier-mache head would turn up unexpectedly, whether it be on Channel M (the Manchester local TV channel) presenting his Proper Telly Show In Black & White (so you don’t have to turn the colour down) or as a presenter on local TV news.

I only discovered a few months ago, in fact, that Sidebottom was originally created as a side-project. He was meant to be the biggest fan of Chris Sievey’s band The Freshies, who did some genuinely fantastic punk-pop songs, of which probably the best was the minor hit I’m In Love With The Girl From The Virgin Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk (presented here in the slightly-rerecorded version with Virgin replaced with Certain):

I should have realised the link earlier, really – the combination of songs about mundane incidents and buying records ( I Can’t Get Bouncing Babies By The Teardrop Explodes) and spaceships (Let’s Go Space City) with lo-fi production values and simple three-chord melodies clearly points the way to Sidebottom’s later career.

And not only was Sievey/Sidebottom a musician and comedian, he was also a pioneer in multimedia. He wrote two computer games – The Biz (a game about becoming a rock star) and Flying Train (in which you have to put a train together before flying it to the moon to view a supernova) – for the ZX81, both of which were released on tape along with Freshies songs.They can be played online – flying train and The Biz – if you have a Java browser plugin.

Sievey also worked as a stop-motion animator, not only working a day job at HOT animation (who produce among other things Pingu and Bob The Builder) but making his own animated film, Franksworld:

Frank Sidebottom kept going right to the end – he was tweeting in character mere hours before Sievey died, and his Twitter stream was where we could hear about the progress of the bobbins cancer that he seemed convinced he was going to beat, though one of his last tweets was about how he was ‘still feeling very poorly’. Only last week he premiered his World Cup anthem Three Shirts On My Line.

I’ve heard from a couple of people that in real life Chris Sievey wasn’t a particularly nice man ‘in real life’ (whatever that is). Be that as it may, Frank Sidebottom was a silly man who made us laugh with his silly songs, and it is absolute bobbins that he’s dead. You know it is. It really is.

Doctor Who From The Beginning: The Edge Of Destruction

Posted in Doctor Who by Andrew Hickey on June 20, 2010

The Edge Of Destruction
Writer: David Whittaker
Directors: Richard Martin and Frank Cox
DVD Availability: As Disc 3 of The Beginnings Box Set
(Buy from Amazon)
Other Availability – legally viewable on YouTube for those with Flash – episode 1, episode 2

A review I read of last night’s Doctor Who (which I’ve not yet seen) says it was “like something from an Indiana Jones film which [sic] shows [Moffat's] heightened aspirations for what the show is capable of.”

Fun as the Indiana Jones films are, I don’t think that emulating them is a hugely worthwhile aspiration. To see what Doctor Who is *really* capable of, we should go back to early 1964, to the cheapest story they ever did.

Set entirely within the TARDIS (except for the cliffhanger going into the next story, Marco Polo), featuring only the four regular characters, and with the most threatening thing in the story being someone running with scissors, The Edge Of Destruction is very clearly a cheap story made because the budget for the earlier episodes had overrun. The plot, such as it is, is ludicrously simplistic (a switch has got stuck on the TARDIS console, causing the TARDIS to try to telepathically warn the characters – the first sign we’ve had that she’s more than just a machine).

But this plot is used as the basis for one of the most astonishing pieces of drama ever broadcast as children’s TV (and whatever designation it’s given now, in 1964 Doctor Who was explicitly aimed at relatively young children). Back in the 1960s (and even as late as the 1980s), British TV came from a theatrical rather than filmic tradition, and this story is an absurdist drama that has far more in common with Becket or Brecht than with Indiana Jones or Aliens.

Of course, this isn’t to say it has that much in common with either – the characters here don’t go giving long speeches about the superiority of socialism to fascism, or attempting suicide through sheer boredom – but what is clear is that not only was Whittaker (the show’s script editor, and therefore the go-to man for quick filler cheapy scripts) aware of these movements within the theatre, but he was influenced by them too. In particular, while the characters aren’t aware of their fictional nature, they *are* aware that something is manipulating their behaviour, and in many cases that they’re acting like puppets rather than like themselves.

In this sense the TARDIS is acting as a surrogate author here, manipulating the characters in dramatic ways, so they attack each other to add conflict to the story even when they have no prior motive for doing so.

Edge Of Destruction is known as a character-centred piece, but in fact the only actual ‘character’ here is the Doctor. While the other characters behave in out-of-character ways, the Doctor’s paranoia (at one stage he drugs Ian and Barbara because he believes them to have sabotaged the ship) and egocentrism are entirely in character for him up to this point. The others are all active – but their actions are not in their control. The Doctor, for the most part, is passive – merely griping from the sidelines – but he’s the only one who appears to remain more-or-less in control of his own actions.

This is one reason why his apology at the end of the story is so significant – he remained responsible for his actions, and so he has to *take* responsibility for them, even though those actions (mostly just making false accusations) were far less dangerous than, for example, Susan trying to stab Barbara or Ian trying to strangle the Doctor.

Because, in some ways, this is the end of Doctor Who as it originally started. By this time, the production team knew the series was going to continue past the initially-commissioned thirteen episodes (this two-parter would have otherwise made up the last two episodes) and so used the enforced cheap two-parter to rewrite the Doctor’s character from his previous curmudgeonly, anti-heroic status to a more conventionally sympathetic version.

Incidentally, a bit of thought about this makes the story make a lot more sense than people who focus on the MacGuffin of the ‘fast return switch’ realise. It’s very easy to argue that the whole story is actually about the TARDIS trying to teach the Doctor how to cope with other people – as he says at the end, “As we learn about others, so we learn about ourselves”. The Doctor has ended up learning what his ‘true character’ is, by being the only person *allowed* to act as he wishes.

Unfortunately, this story also marks the last time the character of Susan is remotely interesting. You can’t have everything.

The story also sees the start of David Whittaker’s most obvious influence on the series; the incorporation of a proto-New Agey mysticism. While the show, like the title character, has for the most part stood up for Enlightenment values of small-l liberalism, scientific enquiry and rationalism (sometimes with a big dollop of Buddhism thrown in), Whittaker himself seemed to have about as much comprehension of science as a border collie does of the 1912 England cricket team, being happier with a kind of pop-Platonism.

Here this is shown in a rather sexist manner, as Barbara uses her female intuition to decode the obvious Freudian clues the ship is leaving all over the place (melting clocks straight out of Dali, that sort of thing) which the Doctor’s ‘logic’ can’t cope with. But even here, we have a fantastic monologue (wonderfully performed by Hartnell) where the Doctor describes the formation of solar systems which is one of the best examples of scientific sensawunda you’ll find in the show. Shame it’s completely wrong.

Despite its crass imitators (as a rule of thumb, the inside of the TARDIS should never be shown), Edge Of Destruction remains, along with the first episode and The Aztecs, the definite highlight of Doctor Who‘s first year.

Though the next story might rise to those heights. It’s hard to tell though, as it’s been burned.

Next – Marco Polo (or what’s left of it).

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