Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant posterOne of the things that makes the original Alien so effective is how lean and sleek it is, plot-wise — what you might call its structural perfection. You can’t help but admire its purity. It’s a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality…

The original film’s one allusion to a backstory or mythology, the Space Jockey scene, is so brief yet mind-blowing that all it does is hint at what a vast, scary, and utterly unknowable Lovecraftian universe there is behind the xenomorph’s existence. It’s as if, with the Space Jockey scene, the film is saying, “All this stuff with one killer alien is merely scratching the surface of the horrors that are out there.”

Aliens knew what it was doing when it left any question of mythology alone. Like a need-to-know-only military briefing, it stuck to the xenomorph, and the xenomorph only. Anything beyond that was unnecessary to its story. Prometheus changed all that, but Prometheus was trying to be a different sort of film altogether, only tangentially related to the Alien franchise. That wasn’t what audiences wanted, though, so now, instead of a Prometheus sequel, we have Alien: Covenant, a DNA-fused hybrid that promises a return to the Alien franchise proper, but that also wants to keep things going on the Prometheus front. We know the xenomorph is endlessly adaptable, but I can’t help thinking of that pathetic human/xenomorph thing at the end of Alien: Resurrection, that seemed, to me, more unintentionally comic than evolutionarily impressive.

(And why ‘Covenant’? Aside from it being the name of the ship carrying human colonists to the distant planet Origae-6, there doesn’t seem to be any actual covenant involved.)

Alien: Covenant posterI enjoyed Alien: Covenant, but only in a so-so way. I think the trouble with it is that, by this time, the series has picked up so many story elements it feels the need to give the nod to, none of them can get the attention they deserve. There’s the xenomorphs; there’s the Engineers; there’s the synthetics; there’s David (from Prometheus) in particular; there’s the Weyland-Yutani Corporation; there’s its ageing founder… And somewhere amongst all that, there’s the new characters who must be introduced in each film, if only to give them some sort of story before they’re infected, impregnated, punctured, dissolved, burned, torn apart, experimented on, or whatever other gruesome fate awaits them. In a need to be both a prequel to Alien and a sequel to Prometheus, Alien: Covenant spends all its narrative energy running around ticking boxes, doing its best to add its own particular twists (yet more variations on the xenomorph and its ever-mutating gestation cycle, yet more new ways for characters to die), trying to at least hint it’s going to connect with the original film in a meaningful way, while all the time trying to provide some justification for its existence as a film in its own right.

All the scenes that made Alien and Aliens so great get stuffed into Alien: Covenant and hastily run through, but with none of the necessary build-up in character and tension that made them work in the first place. Who is that getting torn apart by the latest variety of xenomorph (a pale, fleshy creature more than a little resembling Pan’s Labyrinth’s eyeless Pale Man)? I don’t know. Which means I don’t care.

Michael Fassbender as David in PrometheusWhere Alien: Covenant does get to create some sort of unique identity as a film, it actually starts to work. The one thing it’s got going for it is the fact that it has two superficially identical synthetics, David and Walter, both played by Michael Fassbender (who is, I suppose, the prequel series’s Ripley, though an anti-Ripley). This is a new situation for the Alien films, and Alien: Covenant manages to do something with it. The trouble is, it only gets round to doing it in the last few minutes, once the film has finished dealing with all the other Alien/Aliens/Prometheus stuff it feels so contracted to deal with. (Perhaps that’s the covenant in Alien: Covenant? A contract between Ridley Scott and his audience who, he seems to feel, need, not a sleek, tense, killer of a film, but a series of ticks against an ever-increasing list of must-have scenes, twists, and backstory updates, however shoehorned-in.)

Prometheus left me reeling at how nihilistic it was. Alien: Covenant never gets round to making any sort of equivalent statement. And I think this is the curse of backstory, or mythology, or whatever you call it, generally. Backstory works as backstory, not as the main plot of a movie. That’s why the Star Wars prequels could never be as good as the originals. It’s great to have, in the original Star Wars trilogy, references to what went on before — the Clone Wars, the Old Republic, and so on — because those throwaway references gave the story-world a bit more dimension, and uncovering hidden past events and family secrets added some counterpoint to the main action of the plot. When Darth Vader said he was Luke’s father, it was a great, though crude, shock moment. But it certainly wasn’t the justification for three new films. (The Harry Potter books/films did it better, in terms of interweaving discovery of past events with present-time plot advancement.)

Star Wars Rogue One posterI really enjoyed Star Wars: Rogue One, and a good deal of that came from its being so free of the tangles of established backstory — certainly, of the ponderous, melodramatic, Gothic weight of the ‘Saga’ of the (let’s face it, majorly dysfunctional) Skywalker clan. Granted, Rogue One took as its kick-off point a detail from the original story — Rebel spies stealing the Death Star plans — but that, and its being set in the recognisable Star Wars universe, was all it took. And all it needed.

Alien: Covenant doesn’t actually add much to the Prometheus mythology, which makes it all the more annoying how weighed down it is by including so much of it. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but what I think the Alien series needs is to jettison this dead weight of trying to build a mythology, and get back to being the sleek, simple but mind-blowing killer beast it used to be, with only the occasional between-the-fingers glimpse of a wider, even more terrifying, cosmic reality behind it all.

Spacewreck

I have updated my science fiction concept album Spacewreck, which I originally released in 2005. This is something I’ve been meaning to do for some time. The 2017 version features a few minor improvements, most notable of which is a different sound montage at the end of the track ‘Space Will Freeze Your Memories’ (which previously made liberal and, I’m sure, illegal use of film clips).

The album is now available from Bandcamp.

I’ve also put up a trailer on YouTube:

The title derives from Spacewreck: Ghosts and Derelicts of Space, a collection of science fiction art issued by the Terran Trade Authority back in 1979, and which I recall spending many hours poring over. You can learn more about this book at terrantradeauthority.com.

 

Timeslip

timeslip_dvdBroadcast in 26 episodes from the end of September 1970 to March 1971 (only one of which survives in colour), Timeslip was intended as an ITV rival to Doctor Who. Its two mid-teen leads, Simon Randall (Spencer Banks) and Liz Skinner (Cheryl Burfield), discover the ability to slip through a time barrier they find by the fence of an old military base while on holiday. In the first adventure, it takes them back to the Second World War, when the base was in use as a research outfit. The kids arrive at the same time as some disguised German soldiers who are intent on nabbing some of the latest British technology. The bounders!

A few things made the series immediately different. Usually, kids’ time travel (or any time travel — The Time Tunnel, for instance, or Doctor Who) takes its heroes to the distant past or distant future, but Timeslip stuck to the 20th Century (including trips to a pair of alternative 1990s), with its final adventure being set in 1965, a mere five years in the show’s past. In addition, Liz & Simon are constantly meeting the same people in different adventures, or different future versions of them. In the first story, ‘The Wrong End of Time’, Liz meets her as-yet unmarried father (just before he has an amnesiac episode that explains why he doesn’t remember meeting her), while in the two 1990s adventures, Liz gets to meet two entirely different versions of herself, as well as a future version of her mother. The great thing is that Liz hates the first version of herself she meets, and Beth (as she’s come to be known) hates her back:

Beth: At a certain time in my life I had to take some important decisions. Break with the past, become a different kind of person.

Liz: But why? What’s the matter with me? I’m still as I always was. I don’t want to change.

Beth: My dear, I was a little idiot when I was you. I had to do something about forcing myself to grow up, finding a purpose to my existence. We can’t be fools all our lives, I’m afraid.

While, in the last episode of that adventure — ‘The Time of the Ice Box’ — Liz gets her own back:

Beth: (of Liz) She’s nothing to do with me.

Liz: But I am. I am you. Only you’re not me and that’s the trouble. You’ve changed too much.

Things get complicated once Liz & Simon realise they can change the futures they visit by going back to their own era and making sure certain things don’t happen. After ‘The Time of the Ice Box’, Liz & Simon take another trip to the 1990s, only to find it now ‘The Year of the Burn-Up’, a technocratic future where a sabotaged climate control is making a serious mess of things. (But at least, here, Liz likes her future self.)

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As if the protagonists meeting various versions of their future selves isn’t complicated enough, there are also a number of clones of various people. (The first one we meet is the Director of the ‘Ice Box’ research establishment. Played by John Barron, who I’ve only ever encountered before as CJ in The Fall and Rise of Reggie Perrin, he comes across as an unintentionally comic version of CJ, with an attempt at an American accent. I kept expecting him to say, ‘I didn’t get where I am today by slipping through time barriers…’) And, once it’s clear some of these futures are only possible futures, Simon starts talking about there being both clones and projected clones, who are only possible-future clones… And this in a final story appropriately titled ‘The Day of the Clone’.

‘The Day of the Clone’ is, I think, the best story of the lot. (It’s also the only one by Victor Pemberton, writer of the Doctor Who story ‘Fury from the Deep’; the other Timeslip stories are by Bruce Stewart, and can get a little repetitive with all their being captured/breaking free/getting recaptured loops.) If nothing else, this last story ties up the whole serial neatly, which is some feat, considering the number of different timelines, and different versions of people, we’ve encountered.

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By the time of ‘Day of the Clone’, Timeslip is taking a decidedly anti-technocratic stance. ‘The Time of the Ice Box’ takes place in a future research establishment trying to develop an immortality drug, HA57, under the command of an autocratic Director who believes his computer to be faultless, and so it can only be deliberate sabotage by his employees that’s making things go wrong. In ‘The Year of the Burn-up’, there is actual sabotage to the climate control computer, but all the technocrats are too busy hunting down the un-sociables and outcasts who refuse to be part of their Brave New World to realise the sabotage is happening, till it’s too late. In ‘The Day of the Clone’ the technocratic future is the present, with a secret government-funded research base, R1, being used to develop the same immortality drug, HA57, as appeared in ‘Time of the Ice Box’, only they’re testing it on student volunteers, and it’s having the opposite to its intended effect. To keep the volunteers quiet, they’re given ‘hypnotherapy’.

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It’s here you get a sense of the mood of the times. One of the young volunteers, a student who thought she’d do a bit of good for society in her university holidays, learns what’s been done to her, and reveals the growing feeling, by the start of the 1970s, that early-60s optimism, with its faith in paternalistic governments and the forward march of technology, was getting a little tarnished:

Maria: Trust you? Trust… That’s something I’m rapidly forgetting. I came to this place with hopes. We all did. Hopes we could help build a decent future. Now you tell us we’re only helping to destroy the future. Well I don’t know who to trust or believe anymore.

Key to all this is the often-ambiguous character of Commander Traynor, who encourages the children’s time-hopping in the hope of learning a few technological secrets from the future, and who becomes an increasingly darker figure as the series progresses.

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Timeslip stands on the border between being a fun kids’ SF-adventure series and the slightly weirder, more idealistic one-off productions of the 70s, like Children of the Stones, The Changes, and so on. Alistair D McGown and Mark J Docherty, in The Hill and Beyond: Children’s Television Drama, say Timeslip was ‘perhaps the most ambitious serial of the 70s in storytelling terms at least’. It backed its science fictional ideas with advice from Geoffrey Hoyle (son of, and collaborator with, SF author and astronomer Fred Hoyle), and managed to sidestep becoming a mere attempt at cloning Doctor Who by tying its stories up so tightly with the possible future and actual past selves of its key characters, something most SF (apart from Back to the Future, which shows how much fun can be got from the idea) does its utmost to avoid.

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

The Demolished Man, cover by Adrian Chesterman

The Demolished Man, cover by Adrian Chesterman

It’s 2301 A.D., and thanks to telepathic ‘peeper’ police, there hasn’t been a successful premeditated murder in seventy-nine years. Ben Reich, head of Monarch Industries, thinks the only way he can rid himself of nightmares in which he’s haunted by the ‘Man with No Face’ is by either merging with or taking over his only serious corporate rival, the D’Courtney Cartel. But when he decodes the ciphered reply to his offer of a merger and reads it as ‘refused’, his thoughts turn dangerously to his only remaining option: murder.

Published in 1953, The Demolished Man is a big-ideas book, fast-paced and full of invention, both in the small details (like Bester’s writing certain character names as @tkins, Duffy Wig&, and Jo ¼maine, or in his textual representations of interweaving telepathic conversations) and in the large (such as how you go about committing a murder in a world where even to contemplate the act is telegraphed to every ESPer you pass). Essentially a police-procedural, whose plot is divided equally between mega-personality Ben Reich’s grand and impossible murder plans, and head of the Police Psychotic Division Lincoln Powell’s efforts to nail him, it’s also a sort of on-the-verge-of-Utopia novel.

Bester_DemlishedThis is because The Demolished Man, as a book, believes in the dreams of psychoanalysis. Its peeper telepaths are, in a sense, future psychoanalysts, gifted with the ability to look beneath the workings of the persona, to layers with which the subject themselves might not be in conscious contact. And those layers — that structure of the subsurface mind — is, in Bester’s future, almost textbook Freudian.

For instance, the murder victim’s daughter, Barbara D’Courtney, is the perfect model of the psychoanalytic idea of trauma. Having witnessed the killing of her father, she goes insane, and relives (even reenacts) the originating episode whenever she’s triggered by the word ‘help’. To cure her, instead of lying her on a couch and asking her to recall her childhood, she’s mentally regressed to her childhood, and then rebuilt into sane adulthood from the ground up. (During which we get a firsthand peeper glimpse of the terrible power of the id: ‘the timeless reservoir of psychic energy, reasonless, remorseless, seething with the never-ending search for satisfaction.’ This was also the decade that gave us Forbidden Planet’s ‘monster from the Id’.) Most Freudian of all, as part of this rebuilding she mentally adopts peeper policeman Powell as her new father, and, true to Freudian prescription, falls in love with him. But, as he’s not really her father, and as she’s not really a child but a grown woman, this is a falling-in-love-with-the-father that has a happy ending — a science fictional Freudian fulfilment.

The_Demolished_Man_first_editionBen Reich (whose surname and company name both point to delusions of over-control) is, by contrast, a monster of the Ego, who in his ecstasy of victory shouts: ‘Want to look at God? Here I am!’ But this is moments before his final, devastating confrontation with the one enemy who has the power to destroy him, the ‘Man with No Face’. And who is the ‘Man with No Face’? The ego’s own, personally-tailored, perfectly-fit nemesis, the unconscious — undefeatable, because inseparable. (In response to Reich’s cry of ‘I don’t understand. I can’t understand’, the Man with No Face says: ‘My part of us understands, Ben. You could understand too if you hadn’t driven me from you.’)

The one part of the Freudian model where Bester’s future differs is in its replacement of the purely sexual libido with a more simplified ‘Life instinct’:

‘Every man is a balance of two opposed drives… The Life Instinct and the Death Instinct. Both drives have the identical purpose… to win Nirvana. The Life Instinct fights for Nirvana by smashing all opposition. The Death Instinct attempts to win Nirvana by destroying itself. Usually both instincts fuse in the adapted individual.’

Bester’s future hasn’t got the sexual hangups of Freud’s day — certainly not among the decadent rich and powerful whose company we’re mostly in, anyway — and Reich’s life-drive is far more Nietzschean than Freudian, with its urge to transcend conventional morality, ‘the make-believe rules some frightened little man wrote for the rest of the frightened little men’. (Powell at one point calls him ‘the deadly enemy of Galactic reason and reality’, implying there’s something blasphemous about his overweening lust for dominance.) Though, it has to be admitted, the terms Reich himself uses might make a Freudian stroke his beard knowingly:

‘My God! It’s lucky for the world I’m willing to stop at one murder. Together we could rape the universe.’

There’s something distinctly Jacobean about Reich, the way he strides the centre stage of Bester’s future like Marlowe’s Tamberlaine or Shakespeare’s Macbeth, chewing the scenery and breaking the props in search of some pure expression of his grand, monstrously human living essence. Despite the fact that policeman Powell is the ultimate victor — and the voice of safety, sanity, and reason — it’s Reich who’s king of this novel, and whose unnerving energy, and constant edge-of-the-moment invention drive the story, and threaten to take over its world:

‘He was one of those rare World-Shakers whose compulsions might have torn down our society and irrevocably committed us to his own psychotic pattern.’

Bester’s road to utopia lies not through technology, but through understanding the human soul, dark reaches and all:

‘Be grateful you’re not a peeper, sir. Be grateful that you only see the outward man. Be grateful that you never see the passions, the hatreds, the jealousies, the malice, the sickness… Be grateful you rarely see the frightening truth in people. The world will be a wonderful place when everyone’s a peeper and everyone’s adjusted…’

And it’s by throwing light into those dark, monstrous reaches that utopia will be gained:

‘You must learn how it is. You must tear the barriers down. You must tear the veils away. We see the truth you cannot see… That there is nothing in man but love and faith, courage and kindness, generosity and sacrifice. All else is only the barrier of your blindness. One day we’ll all be mind to mind and heart to heart…’

Yeah, baby — ‘we can make it if we’re heart to heart’.

The way to read this sort of old SF is to bask in the big ideas, not ask if it’s realistic, or even possible. Give yourself to the grandiloquence, the bluster, the wonder, the rush of invention — and to the sheer level of belief in utopias. That’s what this sort of SF is all about.