You see this is all the fault of Anthony Hope. I suppose not many of you out there will remember this author, but he was mildly famous when I was growing up. Although, truth be told, his reputation did rather rest on just two books: The Prisoner of Zenda and its sequel Rupert of Hentzau. Notice the names of the fictitious countries. Authors then had the same problem as authors now. They had to set their stories in places that resonated with mystery, romance and excitement (although not necessarily in that order). To this end, they either invented countries like Ruritania or set their stories in countries that sounded like one of these supposedly exotic places sandwiched between the Europe we all knew and the Russian expanse of which we knew little. Today, to avoid upsetting allies, dangerous gangsters or terrorists come from North Korea or Dagestan or somewhere obscure. Anyway, when we come to a young author sitting down in the early 1920s, she would likely think her book had to involve people and intrigue over places like Herzoslovakia and feature characters with names like Prince Michael Obolovitch, Count Stylptitch, and so on. That’s where we more formally enter into the novel titled The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie, now adapted as Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010).
This young author did rather churn out potboiler thriller novels with more than a suggestion of romance about them. Some are, by any modern standards, diabolically bad. At the time, they were considered full of excitement, romance and mystery (although not necessarily in that order). If you were to take a measuring gauge with some moderately objective pretensions, you might conclude this novel is by no means the worst of this type of novel but, if you tried to put it on the screen as written, today’s audience would curl up and die. This revenant from 1925 must therefore be recast so that we may adsorb its substance without being bored to tears by its delight in the politics and social niceties of the day.
The first step, of course, is to abandon the redoubtable Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard and the amateur sleuth, Anthony Cade, in favour of Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) with an unusually silent sidekick called Inspector Finch (Stephen Dillane). The only redeeming feature about this latter character is that’s he’s forewarned about Miss Marple who’s been showing up his colleagues as barely competent. So he immediately sets out to avoid the same fate by first listening to her and then arresting the wrong man — a ploy guaranteed to energise the old biddy and get her into top gear to save the innocent one destined for the romantic ending. At this point we must sympathise with Paul Rutman who was paid to write a new mystery. Even at the best of times, it’s difficult to write something to appease the purists while entertaining those new to the title. This is particularly difficult and, under the circumstances, the simplification of the plot to centre on the titular country house is sensible. The opening sections are also moderately well handled but, as we advance through into the broader part of the mystery, the initial glamour is lost and what remains is stolid, confusing and unrealistic.
As an aside, if the production company ever gets around to adapting The Seven Dials Mystery, I hope they remember one of the characters in that later book is now the murderer in this screen adaptation. More judicious rewriting and renaming will be required to avoid confusion. Anyway, let’s not worry about what may never happen. What happens in this story? Well, a group of people come to Chimneys which, for the record, is filmed at Hatfield Hall and Knebworth House. This decaying pile with the leaking roof is owned by a disgraced Lord Caterham (Edward Fox) and hunted by the emergent National Trust which wants to save it for the nation. There’s a high-level political meeting with an Austrian Count who ends up dead in a secret passageway. There’s also a poisoning and other minor excitements, some historical. The identity of the murderer is obscured by changing the apparent time of the shooting. The method used is mildly ingenious and the clue in plain sight is not completely unfair. It’s just incredible. No-one would actually be able to see it. But if we ignore this fact and we have the kind of mind capable of making intuitive leaps to the truth, it’s obvious. There’s also a dire coincidence and one of these self-sacrificing people who decides to cover up the killer’s identity. And did I mention there’s a missing diamond but that’s not the only jewel hidden in Chimneys.
The upshot of all this is that Miss Marple unmasks the killer, finds the diamond, identifies the real jewel hidden in the wall, and sets true love on its rocky path to the future — and all in ninety minutes. No mean feat for our amateur sleuth. All I can say about Marple: The Secret of Chimneys is that it looked good and Jula McKenzie does her best to be Marple-like. Everything else about it is an otherwise competent cast being given increasingly silly things to say and do. As we move into 2010, this series shows no sign of lifting itself off the rock bottom it had reached in 2009.
For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)
This review discusses the plot so, if you have not already watched this pair of episodes, you may wish to delay reading this.
In discussing Elementary: Season 1, Episodes 23 & 24. The Woman and Heroine (2013), the question that must perforce occupy us for the next thousand or so words is a simple one. What do we expect from the final narrative contributions to conclude a twenty-four episode series? Note that I said series and not serial, i.e. that almost without exception, each episode has been a standalone and the average viewer’s enjoyment would not be affected by whether previous episodes had been viewed. Except, of course, this series insisted on showing the final two episodes in sequence on the same night. This signals a slightly greater level of ambition. Indeed, there are references back to the last two episodes (A Landmark Story and Risk Management) although, again, the average viewer might not even notice. So is this a success and so, to some extent, redeem the series?
I suppose the first part of the answer is that it reaches a climax and there’s quite a pleasing emotional pay-off in the naming of the bee. Whereas other series have chosen to leave cliffhangers with viewers supposedly left on the edge of their seats during the summer, desperate to discover which of the series characters have been killed off, this satisfies us with the identification of Moriarty (Natalie Dormer) and offers an explanation of why she staged her own death and now chose to reappear. Although it fails to tie up loose ends, e.g. whether Moran survived, it does rather neatly leave us poised to start the new season with a clean slate. As an aside, I note the obvious failure to end canonically with the death of Moriarty. Since a woman with her talents and connections is unlikely to spend too long in an American jail, I look forward to seeing more of Natalie Dormer in the role. I thought she made a very good villain (as she has to a slightly lesser extent in Game of Thrones). Resuming the game with Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and Dr Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) would be an interesting possibility in Season 2.
So to the crux of the matter: Holmes has “recovered” Irene Adler from the clutches of Moriarty. There she was calmly painting. The next minute, Sherlock is clutching her to his heaving bosom. This has come as a shock to our eponymous hero and he’s mentally AWOL for most of the first episode. This leaves Watson in the driving seat and she’s more than equal to the task. In the private consulting business, you never know what small piece of information may prove critical, so even though Watson plays fair by admitting the coincidence of recently studying paints, it does enable the police to track down a key New York hench-person who, to put it mildly, is upset by his unmasking. Meanwhile, Irene Adler is cycling between PTSD and a version of Stockholm Syndrome which serves the purpose of keeping Holmes off balance. However, the flashbacks to London show Holmes stopped thinking the moment he set eyes on Irene. From the outset, he correctly identified her as a master forger, but he never takes the further step of associating her with the commission of any other crime. I don’t care how besotted he is and how diligently he chases her, this is a woman worth pursuing for her intelligence. He should suspect her of further criminal behaviour. I confess I had rather been assuming this was a long-term relationship with the couple getting to know each other rather well. What we see here is lust at first sight and the abandonment of common sense by our hero in a relationship based on a two actual and one anticipated sexual encounters, one following an expedition into a Roman sewer to provide the requisite level of uniqueness. I can’t say I find the subsequent breakdown even remotely credible. He’s far too self-centred for a casual sexual relationship to destablise him to this extent and so quickly. Perhaps we’re supposed to attribute the breakdown to guilt. He thinks Moran killed her because of his interest in her. Surely that just makes him angry, motivating him to greater efforts?
Now let’s look at this from the other side of the coin. Here’s this man chasing her. Obviously they have a good time together sexually but he’s dangerous because he’s sitting up in bed beside her analysing the assassinations performed by Moran. It’s therefore entirely reasonable for her to decide to fake her own death and disappear so she can get on with being a criminal mastermind without having to worry about the man in her bed. But we’re supposed to believe she’s fallen in love with this emotionally shallow man who’s being led around by his penis. Worse, when he collapses into self-destructive addiction, she’s supposed to “love” him rather than feel contempt for the pathetic weakling. I don’t think so. In terms of intelligence and in personality terms, she’s obviously better than him, i.e. ignoring the fact she’s using this intelligence for criminal purposes. So why reappear? Ah well he’s rebuilding thanks to Watson and with a big crime set in motion in New York, there’s a risk Sherlock might get in the way. Since she’s set everything up, it’s credible for her to set out to distract him. That he’s immediately reduced to a quivering jelly is a further nail in the romance stakes. How can she feel anything but contempt for this embarrassing wreck?
I think the scriptwriters painted themselves into a corner and, having done so, failed to come up with the best solutions. I’m not saying it’s a complete failure. Indeed, I think it’s a very brave shot at something very difficult, if not impossible, given the way they planned for the narrative arc to work out. But I just don’t buy into the idea that Irene Adler loves this man and wants to rescue him from himself. To make that work, the backstory has to show a real relationship between equals stretching over a significant amount of time and not snatched moments based on uniqueness. As to the major crime underway, the Greek shipping magnate Christos Theophilus (Arnold Vosloo) is primed to assassinate the key Macedonian politician’s son so that Moriarty can collect on a massive currency deal. This is a very ingenious crime based on a good understanding of the regional politics. The device of having New York’s finest driving through traffic to prevent the assassination is a tiresome cliché but it does at least give an extra few minutes of screen time for Inspector Gregson (Aidan Quinn) and Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill). They have deserved better from this series. So we end up with Holmes and Watson in a more solid relationship, and Moriarty lives to fight another day, i.e. to order the assassination of both Holmes and Watson from her jail cell during the summer recess. That’s makes Elementary: The Woman and Heroine as good an ending as we could have expected to an indifferent season. One or two of the episodes were pleasing but the overall standard was poor to middling. If the television company had commissioned only ten episodes at ninety minutes including ads, we might have achieved a reasonable standard. As it is, we got no better than we deserved.
For the reviews of other episodes, see:
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 1. Pilot (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 2. While You Were Sleeping (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 3. Child Predator (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 4. The Rat Race (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 5. Lesser Evils (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 6. Flight Risk (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 7. One Way to Get Off (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 8. The Long Fuse (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 9. You Do It To Yourself (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 10. The Leviathan (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 11. Dirty Laundry (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 12. M (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 13. The Red Team (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 14. The Deductionist (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 15. A Giant Gun, Filled With Drugs (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 16. Details (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 17. Possibility Two. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 18. Déjà Vu All Over Again. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 19. Snow Angel. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 20. Dead Man’s Switch. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 21. A Landmark Story. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 22. Risk Management. (2013).
In the days of innocence, there used to be jokes that started, “An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman. . .” That was before we got all wrapped up in what might or might not be politically correct and worried such jokes might be a form of racism in mocking the idiosyncrasies of each nationality. Well, in Hot Blooded by Amanda Carlson (Orbit, 2013) Jessica McCain Book 2, some werewolves, two vampires and a human go into the woods together. . . Now those of you who, by accident, have encountered the Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer, will know that this combination is fairly combustible as romantic love triangles complicate interspecies politics. This pursues the same basic idea but just on the adult side of the young adult (YA) divide. In other words, this is not strictly speaking YA but rather the kind of book you encourage YA readers to try. Hopefully it weans them off YA and moves them into reading books with more adult sensibilities. The marketers then say, “Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?” or words to that effect and before you can say “Snap dragons are beautiful at this time of year!” these older readers have been moved on and are actually reading stuff meant for adults to read. To fill this interstitial role, this author has crafted a not quite “urban fantasy” because almost all the major action takes place in natural surroundings (forests and mountainous areas). But we have a youngish female heroine who’s just growing into her powers and her love interest who’s missing, held in captivity. Plus the mandatory human who’s just found out that all this supernatural shit is true. Ah, if only our heroine didn’t have a conscience, it would be so easy to kill off the human to protect the secret of her heritage. But fear of guilt makes werewolf people do foolish things. So they take him along on this campaign to kill Selene, the Lunar Goddess (and rescue the love interest).
Now as you probably know, Goddesses are pretty badass and damned difficult to kill. It’s going to take a lot of effort to drain enough of her immortality so she ceases to exist. Why take the human? Because the werewolves can’t leave him where he was being held captive and they can kill him if he gets in the way on their mission — assuming none of the assorted supernatural perils do for him on the way, of course. In the first book, our heroine made a deal with the Vampire Queen, so two vampire foot-soldiers who have some experience of the Goddess are sent along to help. That’s why this disparate group end up traipsing through the woods to get to the mountain and do battle. This would be relatively straightforward (insofar as anything ever is in fantasy novels), but then the Underworld decides to get involved and this upsets the natural order of things. And that brings us to the Prophesy. Yes, all books like this have to have a Prophesy and, in this instance, powers long ago predicted that population growth in the different supernatural species would lead to new tensions and conflict. In such a situation, there would have to be a peacekeeper, someone not directly involved who would see each side in the conflicts played fair. Yes, you guessed it. Our girl is the interspecies referee in the making.
So there you have it: this is a tag team contest between our heroine and her mixed cohorts against the Goddess and her backers from the Underworld. Everything happens at a good pace and there are twists and turns on the way to the set up for the next exciting instalment. It’s positive and upbeat with every challenge easily defeated as she explores and grows more confident in her powers (I suppose there will be some explanation of the source of these powers at some point but, for now, you just accept she can defeat all-comers without using anything like her full potential). In my opinion this makes the book suitable for the fourteen to sixteen age bracket in emotional development if not physical years. Those who are emotionally older will look for books which have protagonists face more real challenges without the assurance of success to keep their spirits up, i.e. books which deal with the uncertainties of life and death in the battle against “dark forces”. Parents can be reassured this book has no sex scenes. Just a tender clinch when the battle is over. All this makes Hot Blooded is a safe and unchallenging read.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Pain and Gain (2013) takes us back to 1995 in Miami-Dade and long before Lieutenant Horatio Caine made this a safe place to live. That means people like Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) roam free to work their mischief (as the film repeatedly tells us, this is based on a true story). Such men may enhance their bodies through hard work lifting weights and the occasional injection of steroids, but big muscles on the outside do not make big brains on the inside. The set-up shows us a man on the run from the police who obviously had a get-rich-quick scheme that went wrong. When we move back six months in time and hear his sales pitch for what makes America so great, we know why it went wrong. This body-building narcissist lives in a fantasy land where his heroes are drawn from the cinema and the associated mythology of successful criminals. He watches a lot of movies so has an infallible plan to kidnap Victor Kershsaw (Tony Shalhoub). To make this plan work, he recruits Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) who has a veneer of Christian values spread over the stinking pile of moral weakness underneath, and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) whose excessive investment in steroids has left him seriously challenged in the sex department.
From this brief introduction, you will understand this is probably intended as a comedy and may well have pretensions to social commentary. When I mention the director is Michael Bay you can express surprise at the lack of anything SFnal or supernatural. We even get to the end without any explosions (although there’s a reasonable amount of violence if that’s what gets you through the door of the cinema). It’s actually impressive to see a man who has made his money with big screen action films make something on a smaller scale. Unfortunately, with an idea this dumb, he should have been a don’ter not a doer.
To be honest, I don’t usually go to American comedies (assuming that’s what this is). As my age has advanced, I’ve been finding the cultural gap on transatlantic humour harder to cross. To say that my decision to watch this is an example of optimism prevailing over intelligence is therefore an understatement. After sitting through it, the question I’m left with is why we’re supposed to think kidnapping, robbery, and attempting to and actually murdering people is funny. Let’s pause for a moment and go back to Ruthless People (1986) in which two less than competent criminals kidnap Bette Midler to extort money from Danny DeVito. I recall this as mildly amusing and, at ninety-three minutes, it knew exactly how long a joke can be spun out before it loses its edge. At 129 minutes, this pile of amoral entertainment makes the case that it’s no big deal to rob Victor Kershaw because he’s a cruel and unsympathetic man. The police have no interest in his story. None of his neighbours missed seeing him around. His employees are relieved he no longer comes in to abuse them. Only retired private detective Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris) even vaguely believes Victor’s claims and, in the first instance, it’s only because he’s so bored, he will seize any excuse to get out of the house.
As to our “heroes”, they think they’re home free after their first team crime. Adrian Doorbal gets married — the drugs to restore his erections are now affordable, Daniel Lugo becomes a pillar of the local neighborhood watch, and Paul Doyle rediscovers cocaine and the high that comes from having cops shoot at you after a failed robbery. Then when the fact of one-man pursuit penetrates their thick heads, they decide to double down. Not for them the pussy way of running away. They’ll do it again. Hell, yeh! Well, we all know how that’s going to go. By this time, I’m beyond despair. The divergence from the plan proves significant and the jokes (if that’s what they’re intended to be) get progressively more sick — chainsaws and BBQs come into play. Frankly, I see nothing even remotely funny about any of this. To dignify it as “dark comedy” or a social commentary would be absurd. Are we really supposed to accept the ideal route to realising the American dream is through crime? I know there have been some spectacular examples of fraudsters hitting it rich and accept that, in a country where being rich excuses many minor and some major faults, it’s possible to tell an entertaining story about such people. But no-one here looks good (apart from the retired detective and his wife). It doesn’t matter whether it’s the girl on the complaints desk at a hardware store or the wealthy neighbours Daniel Lugo inherits, everyone is shown as massively indifferent to notions of social responsibility at best or actively into lust, drugs and anything else sinful or criminal they think they can get away with. What we see is a society in decline.
Under normal circumstances, I might look the other way. It’s just another of these offensive films about life in the decadent West. But here we’re repeatedly told this is based on real-world events: the exploits of the Sun Gym Gang in the 1990s as told by Pete Collins. So taking this as a true story of three bodybuilders and the incredible failures of the Metro-Dade police force, I’m left with one final question. Where’s the film-makers’ disapproval of these idiotically dangerous criminals and of the dangerously incompetent police officers? I might have come away with a better opinion of this film if I’d felt the director and scriptwriters were holding these people up as exemplars of what not to do. Instead we have deranged heroes in what’s intended to be a comedy running rings around brain dead police officers. We’re obviously intended to laugh at their pathetic efforts to kill Victor Kershaw. What message is that sending to the audience? When they later accidentally kill people, we’re intended to laugh at their efforts to dispose of the bodies. I find this implicit approval of their actions to be profoundly offensive. Matching the film, the fact that the real-world Daniel Lugo has still not been executed is a testament to the pathetic way the American justice system works. If you have the death penalty and you have a deserving candidate, you dismiss the appeals and carry out the sentence. If you don’t, what’s the point of having capital punishment? What message is this sending to other potential kidnappers and killers? Even if you do get caught, America can’t kill people when they deserve to die. At every level, both as fiction and as a reference to real-world events, Pain and Gain is not just film with a moral vacuum at its core. From the fact of its production and the way in which it’s marketed, we’re being inviting to see this story of out-of-control predators as entertaining. The failure of the film-makers to take a moral stance against the events being shown makes this worse than Arbitrage and I thought that was bad.
The Red Plague Affair by Lilith Saintcrow (Orbit, 2013) Bannon and Clare Case Book Two finds Archibald Clare, the mentath, continuing in pursuit of Dr Vance while Emma Bannon, Sorceress Prime, keeps this alternate history version of Britain safe from Spanish agents provocateurs. So what we have here is a variation on the theme of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. This man has deductive powers honed to almost supernatural levels and he’s partnered with a magician in this different version of Victorian Londinium with Alexandrina Victrix on the throne as Ruler of the Isles and Empress of Indus with Consort Prince Alberich by her side. It’s not quite steampunk. A missing limb can be replaced but the purely mechanical has to be enhanced by spells for painkilling and full mobility. Consequently, this particular world is experiencing a collision between magic and the scientific method which, amongst other things, is leading to advances in technology and medicine that do not depend on magic for their efficacy. In some respects, therefore, this world is experiencing a delayed renaissance.
The problem, such as it is, may be simply defined. Magic actually works but it is inherently limited to specific individuals who cannot be everywhere. Such is always the way. Only a few gifted people have the talent that can be nurtured and developed into the Prime status. This makes knowledge inherently more useful because once it is disseminated, anyone with the wit to understand it, can exploit it. So there’s a direct conflict of interest. Those whose power and influence in society depend on their innate abilities are hostile to those who would generate practical and more universal applications for their ideas. So, for now, the horse rules for transport across land and the air is reserved for magical creatures. Up to this point, there has been no need to develop steam power for transport purposes because the population level and culture remain more mediaeval than Victorian in the sense we would understand. But, from the point of view of those in leadership roles, there’s a real problem in having to rely on individuals. Loyalties are not always guaranteed to persist. This gives the magically challenged a direct incentive to find ways of managing the world without having to rely on magic.
This book focuses on research which discovers the existence of bacteria. It’s speculated this knowledge could be weaponised and so work is undertaken to culture the relevant strains of bacteria and create a mechanical system for releasing it. This is ingenious because the magicians will not detect the source of the problem and their powers will not be able to defeat what they cannot understand. We therefore have a plot developed which sees Emma Bannon’s talents manipulated to unwittingly bring the infection into the Court while Archibald Clare thinks about the problem and infers the existence of a bacteriophage as a cure.
This is an interesting book with an intriguing premise, but the author has made the strategic decision to focus on the narrative rather than the exploration of the ideas. As a result, we have a relatively simple tale told with great efficiency. It positively zips along as our romantically but platonically entangled couple fight for the Empire’s safety while dealing with matters of the heart obliquely when they have a chance to draw breath. The Red Plague Affair is an enjoyable romp.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) is, in part, an exercise in nostalgia for me since I watched the original run of the television show. To see the same space vehicle boldly going more than forty-five years later is somewhat remarkable given the obsolescence of culture. For the most part, what we found interesting and exciting back in the 1960s is dull and dreary today. Having a crew with the same names and adjacent accents still sitting on the bridge of a starship and commanding a worldwide audience puts the franchise into an elite group of long-life products. Only the comic book heroes like Batman and Superman who also had their television versions featuring Adam West and George Reeves respectively, have had longer runs. Indeed, Star Trek is one of a few original television shows to have maintained its reputation — matched by Doctor Who which was first screened in 1963.
My reason for starting this review in this way is because one of the two essential questions at the heart of this film rehearses the same argument we had been having since the end of World War II. In the 1960s, we were just finishing rebuilding after the devastation caused by the German bombing and my generation was all for peace by bringing people together in co-operative ventures. It was therefore heartening to see the message of the original Star Trek as a united Earth going off to explore and, wherever possible, make friends. We’d seen only too clearly what happened when petty nationalism got out of hand and militarism prevailed. Although the Enterprise had weaponry such as phasers and photon torpedoes, these were not often used and, for the most part, only in self-defence, The hand-held weapons had the virtue of being able to stun rather than kill. So this film encapsulates the debate by having two key ships on display. There’s the USS Enterprise in its Constitution Class form and the USS Vengeance which is a Dreadnought Class vessel developed by Khan Noonien Singh (Benedict Cumberbatch): a straight military vessel designed to fight the Klingon Empire. So here comes the question. When people sign up as recruits into the Starfleet Academy, are they going to learn the words of Kumbaya (a song associated with the notion of spiritual unity) and put the Prime Directive into action wherever possible, or are they going to boldly go with photon torpedoes at the ready and shoot down anything that stands in their way of conquest? The answer, of course, is the Federation that emerges in the unfolding television series would be impossible if everyone operated on a shoot first and ask questions afterward basis. Although the Klingons and the Romulans have warrior-based cultures, they both fight for the Federation in the Dominion Wars although the Romulans are resistant to the end.
The point of this film is that if Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) gets his way, Earth will follow the Romulan path of expansion through conquest, starting with the Klingons. This is not an unreasonable perspective. It would be naive to assume the space-going races we might meet will all be welcoming. In a competition for planets on which to seed colonies, any races that share the same environmental needs could elect to fight over the prime real estate. Only if there’s a balance of power is there an incentive to negotiate. Thus, on a precautionary basis, Earth should always have a strong military capacity so that we can demonstrate fighting capacity if diplomacy fails. The dividing line between offensive and defensive power is a narrow one and I suspect this film rather oversimplifies the debate. Scotty (Simon Pegg) is very quick to object to the new torpedoes. He’s apparently been quite happy with the old torpedoes and for him to get all high-and-mighty is nothing more than a plot device to get him off the Enterprise. The views of the other characters who comment on the issue are also superficial. I think this an opportunity missed to explore the issue with our “modern” sensibilities.
The second essential question featured is hypocrisy. This is at the heart of the relationship between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), and between the do-gooders of the Enterprise and the political machinery of Earth. Starting with the one-to-one relationship, Spock is only half Vulcan and therefore has some understanding of human psychology. Even if this were not the case, his logic could predict how Kirk will react in different situations. So when Kirk defies the Prime Directive and rescues Spock, it’s entirely foreseeable that Kirk will cover up his infraction. Spock is therefore magnificently stupid to put in a complete report. To claim an inability to lie as the excuse is the height of hypocrisy. He’s perfectly capable of lying if the needs of the many require it. The film therefore charts the emotional arc as Spock resolves an internal debate on the nature of friendship and the need for accommodating emotions. After all, his own father married a human and, with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) very much in play, he has a similar decision to make about that relationship.
This version of Kirk is interestingly monomaniacal and phenomenally lucky. In other circumstances, he would probably be locked up as a danger to himself and others around him. He can’t even remember who he’s slept with let alone how many other people he’s dealt with over the years. All you can say about him is that he’s fixated by the needs of command and loyal, in the abstract sense, to the crew of whichever ship he happens to be on. So even though it puts everyone else at risk of being caught in the exploding volcano, he rescues Spock. This is the musketeer approach to command, “All for one, and one for all.” Similarly in the relationship with the political and military structure of Earth’s government, Admiral Marcus can’t be acting alone. This scale of investment could only be sanctioned by a powerful subset of Earth’s command. The ending where that same Earth government sends Kirk and the Enterprise out of the way on a five year mission is also preparing the ground for continuing its own militarism without anyone high-profile and inconvenient around. All Kirk has done is kick the can down the road and he should not be looking so pleased with himself as he warps away from Earth at the end. He’s actually giving up the political fight and running away. When he gets back, he’ll find a fleet of Dreadnought Class vessels and the Klingons beaten into submission.
So where does this leave us? At two hours and twelve minutes, this is too long. There are endless examples of scenes inserted or dragged out to add in extra minutes when what we have is a potentially brilliant script if we left not less than twenty minutes on the cutting-room floor, e.g. cutting down the chase on Kronus, the transfer between the starships, the gratuitous sex scenes, kicking the warp engine, and the fight in San Francisco at the end. So this looks great with some genuinely impressive CGI. The ideas are good albeit not properly developed. Benedict Cumberbatch lights up the screen as the villain of the piece. Zachary Quinto is also impressive. The result is the second-best blockbuster in what has been, to date, a lackluster 2013. J J Abrams is to be congratulated. He got enough right to justify a third in the series. Star Trek Into Darkness is worth seeing.
In A Decent Interval by Simon Brett (Severn House, 2013) A Charles Paris Mystery, we join our hero in his lonely life as an almost consistently successful actor now arrived in the alcohol-fueled wilderness years better known as the late fifties. . . How wonderful it is when work does come in after an eight month hiatus even if he does briefly have to become a Roundhead. So he’s untimely ripped from the comfort of his chair in front of the television next to the bottle of Bell’s and sent on location with Tibor Pincus in deepest Newlands Corner (near Guildford) where he’s to re-enact the Battle of Naseby for a documentary. Fortunately, such is the amount of whisky consumed on the shoot, he has no problem in falling down in death many times, including some deaths in Cavalier costume. He’s not a one-man army, you see, but two armies for the price of one. Imagine his pleasurable surprise when there’s an immediate prospect of more work. This time from director Ned English who’s fronting for the entertainment mogul Tony Copeland. The plan is to bring high culture to the masses by transplanting two celebrities into a modern production of Hamlet as the titular Dane and Ophelia. Both have triumphed in television contests: one for singing and the other explicitly to cast a wannabe as Ophelia. The director needs everyone else to be reliable, biddable and prepared to work for the Equity minimum pay. This makes the rehearsals with two amateur actors interesting and, when part of the scenery falls on the young singer during the technical rehearsal, the understudy is quickly in his stride.
Sadly, understudies do not make for good box office. If the Twitter generation, which has the attention span of a gnat, is to be induced to part with money, there must be someone “they” want to see. A replacement with good looks and acting talent is drafted in. With the show now touring the provinces, the Twitterati’s attention is reignited by the mysterious death of the Ophelia. Appropriately, Charles Paris is the one to find her dead in a dressing room. This production is turning out to have the same potential for bad luck as The Scottish Play. With another understudy stepping into the role, business at the box office remains brisk as the ghoulish speculate on who will be next to be injured or die. With the police now interested in establishing the cause of Ophelia’s death (not drowning, you understand), our hero finally engages his brain and begins the process of analysis we readers know so well — this is the eighteenth Charles Paris investigation. So he listens to many, speaks to a few and soon has ideas about who might be responsible for what’s going on.
The pleasure in reading Simon Brett is twofold. What he writes is always drawn from the hard reality of the world. But to keep the mood on a lighter note, the text is littered with casual comments and asides that bring smiles to your lips. That said, the events on display here are essentially tragic. Relationships are fractured and broken, people’s hopes and dreams are shattered, despair abounds in many lives. Indeed, at every level, what we see is failure on an epic scale, broken only intermittently when individuals rise above the pack with a brilliant performance. Moments later, the light in the darkness is extinguished and the cast falls back into the reality of their mundane lives where compromise and forgiveness are the only ways to save people from themselves. As a matter of technique, Simon Brett makes it all flow so easily. Too often, authors who set out to leaven tragedy end up forcing situations to generate the humour. This is silky smooth with an elegance about it that few others can match. The result is a delight demonstrating two further truths: that knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to Heaven (although whether our hero considers the return to his lonely seat in front of the television heavenly is moot — a West End run would have been preferred) and that when a son gives to his father, both cry (although in this case, the father has such a monstrous ego, he won’t cry for long — probably only a few minutes in fact). A Decent Interval gives us food for thought while entertaining us. Charles Paris may not be Horatio holding the bridge, but he shows us he can be positively Nelsonian in the right circumstances. You can’t ask for more than that.
For a review of another book by Simon Brett, see Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.