31 December 2014

TV Review | Star Wars Rebels (2014)

It is a period of civil war. The Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of Lucasfilm was met with bewilderment and scepticism by many seditious Star Wars fans, who, despite the conglomerate’s deft handling of similar properties, struggled to envisage the franchise in the hands of a multimedia empire famed for its child-orientated “animated classics” and sing-along show tunes. Disney’s immediate abandonment of the groundbreaking Star Wars: The Clone Wars series did little to appease such worries; indeed, it wasn’t until JJ Abrams rocked the world with his electrifying teaser trailer for next year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars Rebels went live on Disney XD that some sense of consensus was restored to fandom, but the conflict is still far from being over.

I watched the first episode of Rebels somewhat cynically, still seething from having had to import the half-finished final “season” of The Clone Wars on Blu-ray into England, and even more furious that I’ll never get to see the series’ planned Sons of Dathomir and Dark Disciple quadrilogies. I was also annoyed at Disney’s kiddified commercial release of “Spark of Rebellion”, the series’ de facto pilot, which was released on DVD but not, รก la Mickey Mouse Clubhouse et al, on Blu-ray. 1080p digital copies were available from iTunes and other digital retailers, in fairness, but in the UK iTunes Store the episode was overpriced at £4.99 and devoid of bonus material, while the £2.99 DVD features all four of the series’ online prequels together with a five-minute look ahead at the first season proper.

But even in standard-definition, the show’s Ralph McQuarrie-inspired visuals are instantly staggering, particularly when complemented by Clone Wars composer Kevin Kiner’s take on classic – no, legendaryStar Wars themes and melodies. It’s astonishing what a difference using those original refrains makes to the series; how it instantly cements it as being Star Wars – proper, ’70s-style Star Wars – almost subliminally. Admittedly something is lost in the move away from the movie-like title sequences and fortune cookie-styled truisms, but this is more than made up for by the instant glut of star destroyers and TIE fighters that we see keeping the denizens of the outer rim down at heel.

I also welcome Rebels’ 16:9 presentation, which fills up every visible pixel on my television screen. Whilst there is certainly something to be said for The Clone Wars’ cinematic 2.35:1 aspect ratio (which I believe was often cropped to 16:9 for broadcast), on Blu-ray only around 816 of its 1080 lines contain the picture, which means that when it is being watched on zoom, as is my preference given the 16:9 shape of my telly, what Im watching isn’t much sharper than 720p.

As to the subject matter, Rebels’ setup is much more traditional than those who followed The Clone Wars might have expected. Rather than pepper stories from an entire war haphazardly over a hundred plus episodes (and one theatrically-released movie), this series starts at the beginning and moves forward from there, allowing us to watch the characters’ relationships develop as they share more and more adventures together. This was inevitably designed to better suit the young Disney XD demographic, but will be appealing to most adult viewers too as it allows the series to tell what is essentially one large arc rather than dozens of two to four-episode ones. A number of recurring characters have already been established and long-running plots appear to be building. 

I also really like the way that the series has been rooted in the outer rim so far – unlike in the Star Wars trilogy, we don’t get a mind-blowing, expansive view of the galaxy and the rebellion against the Empire. Instead, we see only through the eyes of a small group of insurgents in a relatively small area of space. As such we encounter the same Imperial senators and ministers, the same Imperial agents, even the same underworld scoundrels week after week, allowing the writers and voice artists to enlarge and embellish them. I hope though that the plan is to slowly open up the galaxy as the series progresses and the rebellion gathers steam. Already we’ve seen glimpses of Darth Vader (who I’d have held back for later, personally – a bit like a video game boss at the end of a level season); the droids; Bail Organa; and Obi-Wan Kenobi, with Yoda slated to appear in the first episode of 2015 and Lando Calrissian probably not long afterward. Additionally, we have new characters whose roles are destined to be significant: Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Brent Spiner has been set up as the voice of the rebellion, while Jason Isaacs’ Inquisitor is the week-to-week face of the evil Empire, double-bladed spin-a-roonie lightsaber and all.

The good guys are not entirely as I would have imagined – they are not members of the Rebel Alliance (which hasn’t been formally founded as yet, just fifteen years post-Revenge of the Sith), but are in fact a motley crew of waifs and strays loosely captained by Kanan Jarrus (Freddie Prinze, Junior), a Jedi Knight who escaped the Sith’s purges and now survives largely by robbing the Empire for profit. Their ship, the Ghost, is owned by the Twi’lek Hera Syndulla, whom we haven’t seen a great deal of in the eight episodes that I’ve seen to date, and is policed by Steve Blum’s Zeb Orellios – a hulking Lasat who looks like Chewbacca might have done were different stylistic choices made back in the day. Zeb is, for me, the standout character thus far – tough and bitterly funny on the outside, but even in just a handful of episodes we’ve started to scratch beneath his weathered veneer. Tiya Sircar completes the existing crew as Sabine Wren – the Mandalorian equivalent of Doctor Who’s Ace - an explosives artist in the truest sense of the phrase that I look forward to learning more about.

The story of Rebels begins when the crew of the Ghost become entangled with Ezra Bridger (Taylor Gray), a Force-sensitive orphan born on the day that the Galactic Empire was founded and who’s Lothal’s answer to the Artful Dodger. Reluctantly taken under Kanan’s wing, Ezra hopes to learn the ways of the Jedi, and in so doing strike back against the Empire that robbed him of his parents and subjugated his homeworld. Most of the episodes to date have focused on the budding relationship between master and apprentice, neither of which is ideally suited to their roles. Kanan is admittedly a poor teacher – as he confesses in one brilliant pre-title sequence, he doesn’t understand much of Yoda’s wisdom, “There is no try…” in particular – and Ezra is an even worse student. Vulnerable to fear and hate, he’s already had his first taste of the dark side, and given Vader’s comment in the original Star Wars movie, “There’ll be no-one to stop us this time!”, I can’t help but wonder what rueful fate awaits this rogue Force-wielder at the end of the series.

Eight episodes into Rebels, I’m far more hooked on it than I was on The Clone Wars at the same point, and The Clone Wars had the advantage of being able to use well-established principal characters and explore slightly more adult themes. So, as with The Force Awakens trailer, Disney has my vote of confidence – on screen, anyway. Off screen, I’ve little to no faith in Disney’s handling of the series’ home media releases. Thanks to James Earl Jones’ cameo in the so-called special edition of “Spark of Rebellion” that aired on ABC, since purchasing the DVD I’ve upgraded to the HD iTunes version, which now includes the Darth Vader / Inquisitor additional scene (the download was updated just after the ABC broadcast – delete and re-download the episode if you haven’t done so already), and shelled out £19.99 for a series pass worrying entitled Vol. 1 rather than Season 1. If I don’t get all sixteen episodes of the surprisingly short first season for that (which means that it would have been cheaper to buy the seven Vol. 1 episodes individually at £2.49 a pop), then I’ll be joining the ranks of the rebellion against Disney, never mind the Empire. 

Star Wars Rebels is available to download in 1080p from iTunes. Two series passes are currently available: Spark of Rebellion (which in the UK includes just the 44-minute “Spark of Rebellion” episode for £4.99) and Vol. 1 (which includes the first seven episodes of Season 1 so far. It is not yet clear whether the season’s remaining nine episodes will be included, but I am banking on this being the case given the pass’s £19.99 price tag).

27 December 2014

Book Review | The One Pound Challenge: The Ultimate Entrepreneurial Business Adventure by Alan Radbourne

I’m a crap listener. Even when I was paying him to paint the spare room - the spare room that he was crashing in for a few days - I didn’t fully fathom the magnitude of what Alan Radbourne was doing. He spoke of the “One-Pound Challenge” as if it were this well-established, age-old tradition; the business equivalent of walking the Yorkshire Three Peaks or running the London Marathon. In truth, he’d invented it himself; just dreamt it up one monotonous Monday as he ruminated on his post-graduation entry into the world of work and desperately tried to avoid revising for his final undergraduate exam.

So what is the One-Pound Challenge? In short, it’s taking a quid and grafting it into £20,000.00 over the course of a year. No set hours, no red tape and no grief from Da Man. Sound appealing? Well, before you hand in your notice, bear in mind that there’s no sick days; no annual leave; and, crucially, no safety net.

The first half of the book focuses on Radbourne’s enterprises over his challenge year. From his twee stumbling upon a pound coin on the floor of a church car park – an almost absurdly poetic beginning that, if I didn’t know him, I’d never have believed - to its investment (in a bottle of washing-up liquid), to bespoke wood-carving commissions and ambitious vehicular renovations, Radbourne provides an insightful and inspiring overview of his business endeavours. 

Beyond the glimpses offered into his thought processes, and his weighing of the competing considerations borne of marital and even parental expectations, I even enjoyed reading the chapter-opening summaries that keep track of his monthly profit and running totals. If anything, I’d have been interested to see him go a step further and really drill down into the ins and outs of his various contracts and transactions with greater detail. As it is, Radbourne gives you just enough to keep your interest piqued without losing those amongst his readership who care only for the story, and not the stats (or over-exposing himself to agents of HM Revenue & Customs…)

The only weakness in his account is that it’s unclear exactly what he’s living off as the challenge progresses. This really isn’t anyone’s business of course, but when it becomes plain that the running total is not being spent in a salary-like manner on mortgage and grub, the obvious question is begged, and even his wife’s telling chapter on “Being Married to the One-Pound Challenge” (which I found an especially lovely touch) doesn’t fully explain the situation.

Such paltry qualms are as nothing though when measured against the book’s, and indeed the challenge’s, greatest strength: its championing of hard work, perseverance and fair business practices – virtues too-often neglected in a world of celebrity, greed and ruthless aggression. Reading the book’s later chapters, in which Radbourne espouses his firm and frank views on everything from advertising to Apartheid (well, nearly...), I was reminded why my wife always whinges about how hard it is being his sister. He’s a first-class student whose excellence in athletics and world-class carpentry are second to only his good looks, charm and ineluctable likeability. Already a champion of church and charity, he’s now - despite his book’s humble claim to the contrary - effectively reinvented the business wheel for what he hopes will be a happier and more ethical generation, reminding us all in the process that self-determination can be as effective as employment. 

And damned good fun too.

The One-Pound Challenge is available to download from Amazon’s Kindle Store for £2.05, and is available for free to KindleUnlimited customers. The paperback edition of the book can be purchased from My One Pound Challenge for £5.00 (plus £2.00 postage and packing).

Alan Radbourne is a Loughborough University graduate in geography and sport science (“colouring-in and running”) with a passion for small business start-ups and encouraging good personal financial management. He is available to speak at business conferences / groups.

Follow Alan Radbourne on Twitter @Pound_Challenge, or drop him a line at onepoundchallenge@gmail.com.

13 December 2014

Book Review | Iris Wildthyme of Mars edited by Philip Purser-Hallard

Men are from Mars - which is probably why Iris Wildthyme has spent so much of her lives there (not that any of her adventures would fail the Bechdel test, mind). Indeed, it is the fourth Iris’s adventures on the planet “even bigger and even redder” than her beloved bus that are the focus of Obverse Books’ most recent anthology.

Under the stewardship of editor Philip Purser-Hallard, this volume concerns itself exclusively with the transtemporal adventuress’s Martian frolics back and forth across the aeons (and, of course, sideways too), from Seth’s verdant jungles of the early 20th century to the “real” and fusty Mars whose green-man legends prop up the multiverse. It’s even got a map.

And the perfect story to open such a collection is, surely, Ian Potter’s mercurial effort, “Wandering Stars”. Quirky, contentious prose delivers the book’s introduction to “meat and attitude” Iris and “stuffing and thwarted ambitions” Panda as they come face to face with the Greek Pantheon in a terribly clever and cheeky tale about science, mythology, UNIT dating and sexual submission. Daniel Tessier’s “Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Bad Weekend” begins in more Earthly surroundings, before quickly carrying its readers to the domain of the delightfully-named Hither and Thither-folk atop a Zalbreckian travelling mat. Worth reading alone for its author’s almost Arthur Conan Doyle-esque description of Iris’s beloved bus, Tessier’s wry homage to Edward Lester Arnold’s seminal Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation is a lyrical delight.

Narrated by its eponymous protagonist, the yarn allows us to see Iris through the eyes of an American soldier - one who’s instantly enamoured with this seldom-seen Barbarella incarnation’s beauty. Tessier has great fun highlighting the gulf between Gullivar’s romanticised views of this particular iteration of Iris, and the actual, “Oh, bloody hell!”, Blue Oblivion-imbibing harridan that we all know and begrudgingly admire. The story’s caustic comedy thrives on the juxtaposition of this upright, verbose adventurer and the common-as-muck, time-travelling adventuress - as does its heart. Beneath its laughs and its derring-do, Tessier’s tale captures perfectly the weekend dilemma of every red-blooded man: the conscience’s struggle against libido and wanderlust, both of which this particular Iris catalyses.

The story is also remarkable for Gullivar’s vivid description of the Martian jungle, which Tessier has crafted almost entirely from anachronistic simile. And you’ve got to give it to Dan, in his very first paid-for piece he even manages to squeeze in a sly nod to the Doctor Who novel that begat this “Jane Fonda” Iris, not to mention my favourite Panda line to date: “I say!” he cried. “Totty!”

Simon Bucher-Jones’s “Iris: Chess Mistress of Mars” is a much more sober outing than the first two, focusing less on sado-masochistic gods and human libido and more on chess; Martians; and the way that we view both. Selina Lock’s “Death on the Euphrates”, whilst a much livelier affair than Bucher-Jones’s, is perhaps the least Mars-y story in the collection. A whodunnit typified by some novel asides (the universe’s need for “Nobbys” and the hospitalised Iris’s longing for grapes “in fermented, liquid form” being my favourites) as well as the collection’s first female, modified-outfits-and-lipstick take on our heroine, the ship-bound tale feels a little at sea amongst so many heavily Mars-themed tales. Dale Smith’s subsequent story, “And a Dog to Walk”, focuses utterly on the Red Planet, however - more particularly, on humanity’s first manned mission to it. By turns hilarious and heartrending, Smith follows two married astronauts, Sue and Phil, as they bicker their way towards history and oblivion under the gaze of a toy panda’s cold glass eyes.

Juliet Kemp’s kooky offering, “Talking with Spores”, continues to expand Mars’ burgeoning population with her tale of its long-dead Fungal Empire and the slug that nearly put paid to its resurrection, while the ever-stellar Richard Wright chips in with probably the book’s most distinctive piece. Visceral present-tense prose sucks you right into the bowels of his unique Fenric / Lovecraft / Doom pastiche cum first-person shooter. There aren’t many short stories that make you want to reach for a joypad as you read, but “Doomed” is one of ’em. Wright segues effortlessly from cold, military fact to stoic regret (“...warm sheets and a lover’s limbs”) and on to pure, unadulterated Iris in the shape of rectum-rammed octopuses and “shooting stuff ’til it’s sorted,” all the while creeping towards an ending that never comes. It’s not a story about winning, it’s a story about playing. And, if she’s nothing else, our Miss Wildthyme is a player.

After a run of Iris and Panda-lite adventures, Rachel Churcher places our favourite double-act at centre stage once more in “The Last Martian” - a strange and fashion-conscious tale with an intriguing idea at its core. Next up is the album’s hit-single story, the whole goose-kinky “Lilac Mars”, courtesy of Doctor Who veterans Lance Parkin and Mark Clapham. A tale of sky-scraping phalluses and twitching loincloths, the authors’ piss-taking prose dazzles with its deliberate eschewing of plot to the profit of the irrelevant. There’s one wonderful scene where Panda’s waxing eloquent about the laziness of his kind while Iris progresses the narrative off-screen, as it were; another where an Egyptian god holds up a scene to play Angry Birds for a bit. Best of all though, the story is built around an Aresquake, which no matter how much of your life you’ve spent proof-reading, still looks like “Arsequake” every time. It’s Iris herself though who offers the most insightful view on “Lilac Mars”, which given her metafictional awareness makes the whole damn thing all the more droll: “It’s like a story with two authors, and both of them thought the other one was doing the story bit.” I couldn’t put it any better myself.

Charged with topping such “prepackaged postirony” is Aditya Bidikar and “City of Stars”, an altogether more sensible story - as sensible as Iris stories get, anyway - that, quite extraordinarily, tries to condense the structure and scope of a novel into a couple of chapters’ worth of words. Faction Paradox’s Blair Bidmead then contributes “The Calamari-Men of Mare Cimmerium”, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Following the classic all-inclusive holiday gone awry formula (as opposed to her namesake’s mathematical construct gets corrupted one), and furnished with a stunning Target-style illustration or three (see left), Bidmead’s tale of ray-guns; gods; and spaghetti-eating twats brings the lighter section of the volume to a suitably silly, yet duly perilous, close.

The editor then concludes the anthology himself with “Green Man Blues” - a surprisingly dry and Iris-lite exploit that beautifully encapsulates the spirit of the collection. Purser-Hallard’s Mars is deliberately stuffy and dull, choked by the all-too-Earthly bureaucracy and narrow beliefs of human Martians - colonists who’ve made the allegedly uninhabited orb their own. But one academic has made her life’s work the study of Martian folk tales, and by way of a lesbian love affair that turns oviparous, she finally finds out why.

And so Iris Wildthyme of Mars succeeds in its mission to fruitfully flesh out Iris’s catsuits and curls fourth incarnation, while bringing through some talented new young blood and still allowing the old guard the pleasure of letting rip with cripplingly ironic stories that couldn’t be told anywhere else. Most importantly though, it gives the readers another dozen adventures with Iris and Panda to snigger through beyond Big Finish; adventures that, iReckon, are amongst their most entertaining to date.

Iris Wildthyme of Mars is available in hardback from Obverse Books for £14.95 (reduced from £16.99!) or as an e-book for just £6.99. For that you get both an EPUB file (which can be imported into iTunes, tagged, and then synced to any Apple device) and a MOBI file (which I have tested on the Kindle app on an iPad).