11 April 2013

The Guardian | Thursday 11th April 2013

My Uncle Mick goes boldly where no Wolverson has ever gone before, making The Guardian’s letters page with his (more dignified than “Ding Dong!”) Maggie Thatcher indictment.

Well said R Mick.

04 April 2013

Book Review | Star Trek: Typhon Pact - Seize the Fire by Michael A Martin

The Typhon Pact miniseries’ second instalment is a Titan novel in all but name. Cut of the same cloth as the preceding six stand-alone Titan books and penned by one of its creators, Michael A Martin, this volume picks up right where Synthesis left off. The fact that its antagonists, the Gorn, are members of the Typhon Pact is the book’s only tie to what is starting to look very much like the loosest of story arcs.

Particularly when measured against the much more dynamic Zero Sum Game, Seize the Fire is a bloated, dawdling affair. Whereas David Mack’s Breen thriller borrowed elements from the James Bond series and repackaged them for the Star Trek universe, Martin’s Gorn gambit simply borrows elements from a few Star Trek movies (even the Titan crew have to point out that the ecosculptor co-opted by the Gorn is exactly like the Genesis Device, and that the fate of the Gorn warrior caste’s crècheworld is the same as that which befell the Klingon moon Praxis) and raises the stakes a little, as the Gorn plan to terraform an already-inhabited (but pre-first contact, “hands-off”) planet to use as a new hatchery for their moribund warriors. The plot is therefore carried as much by extensive deliberations on the interpretation of Starfleet’s Prime Directive as it is action or incident, which isn’t automatically a problem; the problem comes when the book is stretched to almost 500 pages. Even a neat plot twist around the half-way point wasn’t quite enough to keep me engaged.

What Martin does do very effectively though is provide an intriguing view of the Gorn Hegemony from the ground up; or, rather, the outside-in. Seize the Fire introduces us to the multi-caste society through its pirates and extremists lurking on the edge of their territory; even through one of its number who has been thrown overboard for showing conscience. Through this character, S’syrixx, Martin is able to convey just how similar to us the Gorn actually are, without losing sight of the innate, mutual fear and revulsion that both species struggle to overcome. Martin’s description of the terror and disgust inspired by the mammal Rry’kurr’s “fur” is almost worth the purchase price in itself. Almost.

Overall though, I think that most will find Seize the Fire too much work for too little reward. Unless you’re determined to follow every chapter of the Federrazsh’n vs Typhon Pact saga, no matter how remote or recycled, this is definitely one to skip over.

03 April 2013

Andrew Exley (1981-2013)

We liked to drink with Andy, ’cos Andy was our mate

We liked to drink with Andy, ’cos Andy was so great

Now the Old Boys will always be one short

And our old drinking song doesn’t rhyme anymore

01 April 2013

Blu-ray Review | WWE: The Attitude Era

For those who never experienced it, it’s hard to convey the significance of what’s come to be termed the “Attitude Era” of professional wrestling. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, pro wrestling was colourful, cartoon entertainment aimed squarely at kids and the relatives that they’d drag along to the arenas. The then-World Wrestling Federation’s family-friendly show would see virtuous superheroes the likes of Hulk Hogan and Bret “Hitman” Hart battling overblown villains either torn from the pages of a comic book or hastily contrived for a nation at war in the Gulf to rally against. Like a lot of lads born around the time that I was, I would sit rapt in front of the television for hours as these simple morality pantomimes played out before me, only for them to quickly lose their appeal as puberty hit. But then one night in 1999, something happened...

Arriving home in the early hours of the morning after a night of drunken debauchery, a mate of mine and I were channel-hopping when we came across a spectacle on Sky Sports 1 that kept us up long past 4am. The black-clad Big Boss Man, whom we had known only as a blue and yellow-sporting corrections officer caricature, had been hanged from a colossal steel structure that surrounded a wrestling ring in what looked very much like an impromptu execution. Gothic figures wearing baggy white shirts, fangs and sunglasses ascended to the rafters, clearly the perpetrators of the crime, and below stood the portentous figure of the Undertaker – once a haunting, quasi-supernatural mortician who said nothing but “Rest in peace”; by then a pointy-bearded, heavily-tattooed cult leader, who habitually rolled his eyes into the back of his head and talked in tongues as he presided over the atrocities wrought by his ‘Ministry of Darkness’. Times had certainly changed. This ‘Hell in a Cell Match’ quickly gave way to a contest for the WWF Championship between a bald-headed, beer-swilling redneck whom we quickly realised was the modern equivalent of the Hulkster – but somehow his very antithesis too. Vitamins had become cans of lager; saying one’s prayers had become flipping the bird. The WWF had gone and found itself an attitude, just as the children that had grown up glued to it in the ’80s had started to develop their own.

From there, RAW become a weekly fixture for us on a Friday night / Saturday morning, pushing every late-teen button. With the company locked in a bitter ratings war with its (in the USA) Monday night rival, the now-renegade Hogan-led WCW, every segment of the show was designed to be as appealing to the 18-34 male demographic as possible, abounding with everything from bloodbaths to breasts. Whereas in my childhood days, a wrestler’s gimmick would be something as clear-cut as being rich and ruthless (the Million Dollar Man); arrogant and affected (Ric Flair); perfect and proud of it (Curt “Mr Perfect” Hennig); or even just running to the ring really fast and spouting utter bollocks with terrifying conviction (the Ultimate Warrior), in this Attitude Era, a perfectly-acceptable gimmick would be, say, being an adult film star (Val Venis); a pimp (the Godfather); an almost-preposterously lewd degenerate (D-Generation X); or even having a predilection for arses (Billy Gunn, also known as ‘Mr Ass’, later of ‘Billy and Chuck’ fame). Back in the day, a special match would be something like a Casket Match, which could be won by shoving the other guy in a coffin; in this era, you’d have to set that coffin alight for anyone to blink an eye. Ladder Matches suddenly weren’t fantastic enough; Tables, Ladders and (Steel) Chairs Matches set a new standard. Count-outs become unfashionable, and more often than not main events would have their disqualification stipulation removed too, making them “Street Fights”; “No-Holds-Barred”; or just plain old “No DQ Matches”. Don’t ask me what the difference is, they were all just as bloody – not to mention just as bloody brilliant.

This collection was charged with the unenviable job of serving as a digest of this unforgettable epoch of sports entertainment – something that I was pleasantly surprised to see it do admirably, if not definitively (they’d have needed half a dozen discs at least for that). There are almost as many promos and skits to be enjoyed here as there are full-length matches, which certainly fits with my recollection of the programming, and the matches that have been chosen have mainly been lifted from RAW (and in a few cases later on, SmackDown!), which, whilst not really a fair representation of the quality of the matches, will please most of those who buy the Blu-ray as the pay-per-view matches have all seen commercial release at least once (and are still readily available in the UK without any post-lawsuit censorship, at least for now, as part of Silver Vision’s Tagged Classics range).

Amongst dead-cert segments such as Mike Tyson joining D-Generation X; the Corporation’s pre-WrestleMania XV beer bath; the arrival of Y2J; and, of course, the ill-fated Stephanie McMahon / Test wedding, I was particularly pleased to find little gems such as Steve Austin’s fourth WWF Championship victory (the night after King of the Ring ’99 on RAW); Triple H’s now-infamous “I am The Game!” interview with Jim Ross (from an early episode of Sunday Night Heat); and some really powerful Ministry of Darkness stuff, including the Undertaker’s late ’98 mock-crucifixion of Austin and his ‘unholy union’ with Stephanie (the night after Backlash ’99 on RAW). Even more interesting to me though was the stuff that I’d never seen, or had only caught the punchline of in a clip somewhere long after the event – material from RAW through ’97 and ’98, and segments from early episodes of SmackDown! that either weren’t broadcast in the UK at all, or were shown heavily-censored in an early morning slot on Sky 1.

For instance, there’s a brilliant teaser trailer (entitled “Soldier of Love”) for Val Venis’s impending arrival that sees him appear naked (save for a combat helmet) in a bush with none other than Jenna Jameson, one of the most popular pornstars in the world at that time, and a Buried Alive Match from SmackDown! that, for me, encapsulates the era entirely. It may be billed as the Rock and Mankind defending their World Tag Team Championships against the Undertaker and the Big Show, but inevitably Triple H sticks his sledgehammer in, and so Austin commandeers an ambulance... Ditto the full-blown Survivor Series-style elimination match that sees Austin, the Rock, Kane and Shane McMahon take on all four members of the recently-reformed D-Generation X. And happily none of the material is spoiled by censorship – save for on the cover art, where the ‘F’ in the WWF scratch logo is mischievously obscured by a blob of DX-green paint, none of the material has had the ‘F’ pixelated and the soundtrack is free from those incongruous silences that used to arise on post-2002 releases wherever the soundbite “WWF” had had to be excised.

The documentary that adorns the first disc is almost as impressive, though admittedly I was a little disappointed with its 57-minute running time – after all, there was easily enough fodder here for WWE to have produced a three-hour programme in The Rise and Fall of ECW mould, recounting all the most significant angles and off-screen developments. The practical upshot of this is that there is very little depth to the enquiry; the programme provides an overview of the era, and a level one at that. The exploits of Shawn Michaels; “Stone Cold” Steve Austin; the Rock; Mankind; Triple H; and the Undertaker are not examined in any more detail than those of the Oddities; “Head Cheese”; or Kaientai. However, the feature still complements the material presented well, affording it context and allowing it to be appraised from a modern perspective. Those looking for something more exhaustive will have to invest in the various Superstar-specific titles from this era to boot, such as The Bottom Line on the Most Popular Superstar of All Time and The Epic Story of Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson.

Ultimately there is a reason that this anthology comes clad in a Sergeant Pepper-style sleeve. Like the Beatles’ seminal work, the Attitude Era remains pro wrestling’s magnum opus, and like the fab 1967 LP, it truly broke the mould. Its long-running angles broke new ground in storytelling; its contentious tone and subject matter offended as many as it impressed despite the programmes’ clear ‘PG-13’ warnings. From the generally-accepted birth of Attitude in late 1997 all the way up to WWF owner Vince McMahon’s purchase of rival WCW in 2001, and I dare say a little beyond (in my view there was still plenty of Attitude left in the product even as late as the company “getting the ‘F’ out” and splitting the engorged roster in 2002), these Superstars set a new standard. Would I let my daughter watch this stuff? Hell no! But that it is, after all, its appeal.