Friday, 18 October 2013

Not to specification: The crew of Star Trek: Voyager

So recently I have been re-watching Star Trek: Voyager.

There, I’ve said it. Let’s get past that. I needed something undemanding on the brain, OK? I didn’t set out to watch it – I was a victim of circumstance.

The trouble is I am a child of the Blockbuster Video age. I just can’t wrap my head around streaming. The infinite choice makes it impossible for me to take a chance on something (as I was forced to in the days of video rental) because the lure of some mysterious TV Eldorado urges me on, through a jungle of countless pages and options. The quest inevitably grows hopeless, whereupon I become disgusted with myself and fall back on old favourites from my teenage years:

Hence Voyager.

Watching it again I was struck by a couple of things: First was the memory of the shameful connotations the show has for me, more than any other scifi viewing. I think its because I got into it (aged 18ish) through my brother, who in turn discovered it through a chef at the hotel where we worked.

I seem to recall spending an evening with them both, "doing a Voyager-a-thon" in a disused hotel room the size of a broom cupboard. I remember eating crisps in shimmering blue TV light, choking on the scent of the chef’s sweat, listening to my viewing companions occasionally say something like: “Tuvak rocks”. I remember the chilling sense that I had fallen very far from the cool tree, and may never find a way back.

There's always an
exception to the rule
However, on this latest viewing what really hit me was the writing. I don’t mean the usual Star Trek complaints, like the way characters have to refer to space animals with irritating binomials: “You’re as stubborn as a Talaxian mule”, “as keen-eyed as a “Therbian Hawk”, "as greedy as a Bolian pig" etc. (to which I always wind up yelling at the telly: “Just say pig! I don't care where the pig's from!”)

I’m talking about the manner in which a tremendously promising ensemble of characters was almost immediately allowed to stagnate into a crew of un-relatable Mr Perfects.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some great stories in there, and one or two crew members - notably the Doctor, Seven and Tuvak - have their moments. But for the most part the Voyager writers have a perverse habit of refusing to write characters to their own specifications.

Here are just a few examples:


Specification: A half-Klingon member of the Maquis, the resistance fighters who have been waging a desperate war on the edge of space. Generally regards Starfleet as appeaser of an evil, occupying alien force. Thrown to the far end of the galaxy by “The Caretaker” and forced to join up with Starfleet Vessel Voyager. Proud, violent, impulsive, furious.

Ooh, she is stroppy
Sounds promising right? After all, Kirk himself told cadet Savik that “the Klingons don’t take prisoners” - as many Maquis of WW2 refused to do. She should clearly then be someone who has summarily executed her fair share of foes, and therefore a destabilising element on Voyager.

Yet the writers give her nothing to do but propose fixes (“it might be enough”) to the endless stream of remarkably unthreatening threats which the ship encounters. Oh, she has the occasional tetchy moment, but the writers don’t go close to exploring how the rebel hell-bitch they specified would act if forced to accept Starfleet orders - espcially from a Captain like Jinxed Janeway.

If she led a mutiny, or harboured a homicidal grudge, then maybe I’d believe she was a member of a warrior race. I might also be interested in her. Instead she is pretty much indoctrinated into Starfleet living death by halfway through season 1.

Meanwhile those warrior genes are only explored through jaw-splittingly tedious “coming to terms with my heritage” episodes, spent buggering about on the holodeck reenacting hunting rituals - which all has the feel of a "one-eighth Hopi" New York stockbroker spending a weekend in a tepee.

Speaking of which...


Specifications: Resigned from Starfleet on principle. Leader of a privateer-style Maquis group. Has spent years fighting a desperate war at the edge of reason. Presumably seen some serious sh*t and done some serious sh*t in order to survive/ fight his war. Domineering, ruthless, brave.

So why is he such a bloody bore? I have no trouble with him deciding to make the alliance with Voyager work, but he should maintain discipline among his people as a pirate captain would – tossing them in airlocks, slapping them about, employing a bit of a Kirk-style itchy trigger finger. He should be untidy and uncomfortable in that dumb uniform. Instead he is manicured and hair gelled, wearing that tattoo with all the authenticity of a Chinese character on the back of a student’s neck.

His personality is all wrong too. He should be gruff, instinctive, fatalistic. Instead he spends most of his time remembering everyone’s birthday and handing out pep talks. The writers also insist on exploring his bloody heritage again. Do we really want this guy to be moaning about how “I don’t understand the ancient language of my people?” Hell no. We want him slapping anyone who suggests he tries to grow. And as for dream quests, well…let’s not even go there.

It's a real shame, because if he did come across as more of a frontier gun-slinger it might, you know, make him likable. It might also create genuine sexual tension between him and Janeway, which would be interesting - and certainly more entertaining than the chaste tea-and-biscuits thing they have in the show.

Tom Paris

Specifications: Disgraced protégée from illustrious Starfleet family. Covered up his own mistakes in a crash that killed three colleagues – later, racked by guilt, he confessed. After being dumped by Starfleet he joined Maquis, but was captured on first mission. An opportunist convict who brings shame and disgrace wherever he goes. Cynical, reckless, gifted, insecure.

The writers obviously started out loving this guy. How do we know that? Because in the opening episode we have his fat back-story dropped in our laps. Compare him to Janeway, supposedly the lead character, of whom we learn nothing save that she’s a brassy lady with big hair. You’ll also notice that they cast a bloke with one of the sleaziest faces in TV history. You can tell the writers wanted to have fun with him.

Then, just as with the others, it’s all jettisoned like an overheating warp core. I can forgive Paris accepting his field commission on arrival in the Delta quadrant, because hey, he needs some time to
Deeply sleazy
figure his next move. But wouldn’t a guy like this plan to dump these losers the first opportunity he gets? Why doesn’t he pinch the Delta flyer and sneak off in the small hours, planning to camp on some secluded planet with nice beaches and gullible natives? Of course he would come back eventually - he could even rescue Voyager from some peril if they liked. But it would make him a little unpredictable.

But no. Nothing happens. From episode two his character is loyally entombed on the bridge, bleating “Yes maam” to every crazy Janeway order. Even during an episode like 30 days, during which he is demoted for disobeying orders, he does it all in the name of literally saving a world. He has no questionable intentions. Which makes him DULL.

Oh, the writers have the odd crack at livening him up. They give him gags - but they are rarely amusing, mostly lame references to Jeffries tubes and warp nacelles (rather than prejudice and wordplay). Eventually he's reduced to the Doctor’s straight man, which is almost sad.

In that respect, his romance with Torres makes sense. After all, if you refuse to let either personality play out, what’s left but sex? But even here the relationship is of zero interest. Paris should sleaze onto other women. That might engage one or two of those elusive female viewers (I’ve heard that some women, in rare cases, love a bastard?) and help make his character a little hot-blooded. Torres should slap him about in response. And shouldn’t they have amazing make-up sex?

No. Not a bit of it. It’s all being late for candle-lit dinners, because they're so darn dedicated they had to pull an extra shift. It's impossible to give a damn about them. Why? Because you don’t get chemistry between two inert substances.

After all that initial promise Paris is left a neutered pup, with nothing to fill his time but holodeck recreations of “20th century” science fiction - which look an awful lot more entertaining than his own adventures. And that can’t be right, can it?

Oh , I forgot. There is one more thing that defines Tom Paris. His friendship with…

Ensign Kim

Specifications: Er…he loves his folks?

OK, so this guy doesn’t really have specifications to live up to, but as the ultimate purveyor of the oblivious chirpiness that permeates the Voyager crew, Kim drives me nuts.

It wouldn’t be a problem if he was the only torch-bearer of that damned can-do optimism: that at least would have the potential to make him a funny foil for other character’s frustrations (“Kim, why don’t you take that picture of your folks and shove it right up your ****”). Instead the chirpiness infects everyone, giving the whole group the feel of the galaxy’s dullest cult.

I could only forgive a character as thin as Kim if one episode we saw him pick up a phaser and go on a glass-eyed rampage about those endless, identical corridors, executing everyone of his relentlessly up-beat ship-mates.

That I would believe.

I’ll have to leave it there for now. After all, what's worse: writing Voyager or complaining about it on your obscure blog? Suffice to say that I do still love the show, and I’m not blaming the writers entirely. They do seem shackled by the same Roddenberry-ordained moral code which prevents any post-TNG character becoming truly lovable. Besides, they do pull it out of the bag here and there - episodes like Equinox, Year of Hell and Scorpion have some great B-movie fun in them.

I just felt compelled to write because every time I revisit an episode I can’t help but think:

I wish this thing had more balls.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Blog featured on Gollancz!

Thrilled to say my recent blog on War of the Worlds featured on the Gollancz blog at the beginning of the month. Hopefully more to come soon, if I can just think of other cool stuff to write about...

Maybe a homage to an out of print master, like Mr Jack Womack? Suggestions on a stamped addressed telegram please.

British Fantasy Round Table

Here is the recent round table discussion I took part in to discuss the Salt British Fantasy 2013 collection. I acknowledge that I look like a miserable bugger in the still above, but actually I had a lot of fun.

It was brilliant to meet the blokes from SciFi London and especially EJ Swift (I'm reading her book Osiris now) and Lavie Tidhar (whose Central Station stories I know and admire from Interzone). They were a great deal more interesting than me and excellent to have a pint with after.

If you'd like to discover how little I know about British Fantasy, this is a great place to start.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Interview with Ham and High

Really pleased to have been interviewed by my local paper for the Best British Fantasy  2013 collection. You can read it below or read it online here

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Science and Fiction: why we need dystopia

Every now and then another article appears about a scientist, futurist or engineer who has a beef with gloomy scifi. The latest I’ve encountered appeared in Wired Magazine, where Professor Keith Hjelmstad lamented the “wet blanket” effect that dystopian science fiction apparently has on scientific innovation.

My instinctive reaction to such claims is part surprise, part fury. The first part finds it extraordinary that the advance of science might be so influenced by its practitioners’ scifi intake. The second wonders how these folk expect chirpy moon-shot optimism from the genre, when current news points to a future man who is not so much the pioneering star pilot as a carefully monitored data stream.

Then I relax and try to look at the criticism rationally. On reflection, it’s easy to understand where Hjelmstad and others are coming from – I have recently read Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs trilogy, Adam Roberts “By Light Alone” and “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, and while all were brilliant, they had little if anything positive to say about the way science will shape our future. The genre can be rather grinding in its relentless bleakness, and I certainly rarely read two pure scifi novels back to back.

I suppose the most optimistic imagination I have come across (in my admittedly limited reading) is found in the Iain M Banks novels. His Culture dominates space through a utopian society based on complete personal freedoms and benevolent artificial intelligence. I remember being delighted when I first encountered the cocky strut of the Culture’s people, especially enjoying the freedom they enjoy to do anything with their time, from death defying sport to changing sex. It was a refreshingly different setup, and a wonderful trick the great, much-mourned Banks pulled.

But even he couldn’t make much of a story out of that society - the majority of the action in his novels takes place outside the Culture, set among its imperfect and intolerant neighbours, be they Chelgrian or Idiran. Why? Because Banks needed an adversary with which his characters could grapple.

The same goes for Star Trek. Sure, all races and creeds work together in Roddenberry’s vision. But even devoted viewers of both the original and TNG series spend a lot of time half asleep, waiting for an episode where Kirk and Spock to fight to the death, or Ryker goes mad in a space asylum.

This is where moaning about miserable futures is really missing the point. To propel a story you need conflict. So when writers create new worlds they are naturally drawn to oppressive, cruel futures. These offer their characters restraints to struggle in, overlords to flee, injustice to fight and most of all, intrigue. All these elements are essential if you are to get your readers flipping pages.

So it does niggle when the suggestion creeps in that science fiction writers are just miseries who can’t see the benefits of science. That’s not the case at all, they are simply wondering how human drama might play out under different conditions. If the stories they created only took place in healthy, corruption-free meritocracies run on abundant clean energy, you’d quickly have your readers yawning.

And I’ll tell you now:

I want scientists to spend their days absorbed in dystopian fiction - those who do are far more likely to innovate for a better future. A scientist who is uncertain about the future is a cautious scientist.

It’s the confident ones you have to watch out for.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Best British Fantasy 2013

Thrilled to say that my story "Lips and Teeth" opens the new Best British Fantasy 2013 collection from Salt Books - smart little collection available here.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness: A Khan fan's review

I’ll start by coming right out and saying it: I am a big Wrath of Khan fan. For me it is the only completely satisfying Star Trek film before the 2009 JJ Abrams reboot.

There are other honourable efforts. The Undiscovered Country (Star Trek VI) has a great story, but the cast are so wrinkled and puffy it rather lacks vigour. First Contact, the only good Next Generation movie, is another favourite of mine - but the supporting cast’s performances are a wink away from panto standard and this often causes me to fast-forward entire sections.

So it was that when I saw the first Abrams Star Trek effort, I was rather pleased. It found a simple, elegant way to respect the legacy of the original cast, yet go on to tell its own stories with the same characters.

Of course the actors filling the roles had to be good to pull this off - and Chris Pine as Jim Kirk more than delivered, nodding to the best of Shatner’s outlandish style without descending into outright parody. I was genuinely shocked and delighted by his performance, having been certain that I would loathe any attempt to replicate or replace Shatner.

True, the other parts failed to achieve the same heights - Spock wasn’t quite there for me, while Scotty and Bones produced little more than misfiring impressions – but all in all I was stunned to have found the thing such a pleasant experience, and recognised that there was plenty of space to develop the other characters in future instalments.

The plot was slight, but I could forgive that because the film looked great, barrelled along (which Star Trek rarely achieves), and at least recognised the Kirk/ Spock dynamic as the heart of the piece. It was a decent start. I had big expectations for the next movie.

So it is that I feel a little crushed by Star Trek into Darkness. The movie’s defining image, of the Enterprise hurtling powerless back down to Earth, is an appropriate one. It’s an odd film, because it surrenders all the fresh, virgin territory it fought so hard to win in the first movie - in favour of a creatively bankrupt reheat job.

I had deliberately read nothing about the movie, or even watched more than the original trailer, so what Khan rumours I had heard didn’t concern me when I took my seat in the cinema.

I actually ran with the movie for the entire first half, delighted to see Peter Weller taking up an aggressive bad guy part and intrigued by the possibility of a really strong Klingon based story – perhaps some brilliantly conceived box of tricks that would build to the outbreak of war and set up a third movie.

Then Cummerbach said “Khan” and everything raced off into a shrieking muddle. Suddenly it was grasping at the coat-tails of an illustrious predecessor in a way that the first Abrams movie, whatever you think of it, had made entirely unnecessary.

A performance this big would always
hang over Cummerbach
There is, from a writer’s perspective, no need for the film to become such a deformed and inbred creature. No need at all. Even as it stands the plot is doable without the weird swerve into impersonation and leaden homage.  Cummerbach’s villain could have survived almost unchanged as an entirely new character without affecting the arc of the story.

So what is the purpose of stamping him with the name of a much loved figure from the past? It doesn’t help the story along, only pulls it in several directions – and I assume it can only have made those who know the original cringe.

At its worst, the film’s tribute act is plain embarrassing –witness the switcheroo re-enactment of the conclusion to Wrath of Khan. It plays like a drunken fan fiction experiment, then tosses any trace of impact via a resurrection device worse even than planet Genesis. At its best the film is merely laughable, like some wretched youtube tribute act – just watch Spock’s Shatner howl, if you dare.

The other problem is that the characters simply haven’t progressed. Pine’s Kirk is now so busy running around shouting that he really could be any character in any action movie. Scotty and Bones continue to provide nothing more than weak, weak comedy relief, and Ohura still does nothing but look good and emote – where what is required from the only female crew member is a bit of charisma, a touch of attitude.
I don’t think Abrams will make a third Star Trek, and critically at least he seems to have gotten away with this. And I suppose to someone who has never seen Wrath of Khan, Into Darkness might have played well. Perhaps a different director and a whole new set of writers will make a success of a third and we can put this unpleasantness behind us. I do think the cast have a genuinely good film in them.

Abrams belongs with Star Wars. There’s a franchise whose fans are well used to feeling dirty. Kirk, after all,  hasn’t yet trekked into the darkness of a Vodaphone ad campaign.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

All’s Well that ends Wells

The War of the Worlds, Invasion fantasies and Hollywood.

I spend a great deal of time youtube-ing away the small hours, typing in the names of my various heroes and seeing what marvels emerge from the ether. Recently I happened upon a radio broadcast from 1940, named “Orson Welles interviews HG Wells” - the occasion when the two met to discuss Orson’s infamous 1938 radio adaptation of "War of the Worlds".

It’s a remarkable recording.

First there is the simple pleasure of hearing the mutual admiration shared by two great men. It runs throughout their conversation as HG’s kindly, croaking voice contrasts with Orson’s refined, rumbling tones. More importantly there is the fascinating example it provides of fiction’s role as a mirror to powerful nations’ anxieties.

Wells’ 1898 original was part of a surge of British “invasion literature”, a string of works imagining the destruction of the British Empire which were produced during or shortly after the severe “Long Depression”. Wells’ book stood apart from the jingoistic malice of much of the genre, allowing it to be embraced and retold for a US audience, but it still echoes the genre’s uneasy sense of ebbing power, of imminent decline.

The 1940 interview was made during the realisation of those fears. At the time of the recording Great Britain, once a mighty empire, was on the verge of invasion by Nazi Germany. The US stood apart, widely sympathetic but unwilling to be embroiled.

Listening to it now, during similar troubled economic times, it’s hard not to note the remarkable surge of invasion narratives bursting out of today’s weakened giant, the United States.

Hollywood has never been so busy imagining attacks on the homeland, either from Earthly powers (White House Down, Olympus Has Fallen, Red Dawn), or from aliens (Battleship, Pacific Rim).

Perhaps these new invasion tales may herald a crisis of American power in 30 or 40 years time? More importantly, do any of them match up to Wells' work?

The Writing of the Wars

Having dug out my old copy of the novel and read it again, I would say the answer is no, they don’t.

The book is so accomplished it’s easy to see Wells as a kind of Nostradamus figure. There’s the spooky similarity of his Martians to the German invaders who would threaten British shores forty years later, their hearts hardened by the “pressure of necessity”, their dreadful technology reminiscent of perverted Nazi science.

Then there’s the novel’s environmental awareness. Wells’ Martians come to Earth because their planet is dying, made cruel conquerors by force of their hostile environment. Yet Wells is at pains to point out that humanity are hardly “apostles of mercy”, justifying the extinction of entire species by invoking divine or genetic destiny.

But it is the sheer quality of the storytelling that  sets the book apart from our modern alien invasions.

The pace of the Wells work is masterful. It is not until days after their arrival that the Martians leave their pit and begin spreading chaos and destruction. For a time there is some question as to their intentions.

This pause is hugely effective. Boys, maids and Woking locals linger by the capsule, half curious, half distracted by daily concerns, building tension wonderfully. Obviously it is a time before radio, cars, and aviation, and the speed of revelation is necessarily slower - but it is still an effective means of building tension.

That's something Hollywood productions rarely accomplish.The aliens of films like Cloverfield, Battle of LA and Skyline are clearly aggressive from the moment they arrive. Only 1996's Independence Day emulates Wells’ calm before the storm, when the vast alien vessels hang over landmarks of the world - and it was one of the more effective sections of the film.

That’s not to say the novel is a slow affair. When the Martians do finally let rip, the story accelerates magnificently, the action surprisingly exciting. In Steven Speilberg’s adaptation of the book (which is only very loosely faithful) the tripods have a shield that renders all human weapons ineffective. Why? The book is so much better.

In Wells’ battles the 19th century armies actually manage to damage a couple of tripods - at Shepperton Lock with artillery pieces, and in the English Channel with the heroic action of the Thunderchild. Again, this is considerably more effective at creating suspense and excitement, as the reader is allowed to cling to the possibility of a turn in human fortunes, no matter how slim.

The novel also has an emotional complexity that is entirely absent from Hollywood invasions. Wells’ narrator is a man of “exceptional moods”, who finds himself at turns unaccountably angry with the wife he presumes dead, captivated by the artilleryman’s Facist fantasies, and homicidal in the company of a weak-minded curate. This makes him all the more human - a very far cry from the cut-out protagonists of Hollywood invasions, who are rarely more than flag-kissing soldiers, protective fathers, devoted scientists or speechifying leaders (“Today we cancel the apocalypse!” booms the Pacific Rim trailer - surely one of the weakest lines yet conceived in film history).

Above all, it is the conclusion to Wells’ invasion tale that has yet to be matched. One of the things I have found most frustrating about the recent alien movies is their complete failure to create interesting solutions to the implied technical supremacy of alien invaders.

Each of the recent movies has either lazily chosen to have sheer brute force triumph (Battle of LA) or doesn’t bother to explain how the invasion ends at all (Cloverfield). Independence Day at least makes an attempt to do something more interesting, with the infamous computer virus solution, but as well as being crippled by sheer implausibility it cannot hope to match the elegance of Wells’ solution - where instead of humanity saving the planet, the planet saves humanity.

This is not to say that Wells is perfect, or above the flaws of Hollywood productions. The novel has an amusingly isolationist viewpoint, with the rest of the world barely mentioned. It is simply taken as read that the Martians would open their invasion in Britain, (which is the best country after all), and go from there. Even if Wells had written the entire globe to be under simultaneous attack, you can imagine him referring to other nations with a dismissive, Hollywood-style line like: “Paris has been destroyed” - and then move on without shedding a tear.

But that doesn’t excuse Hollywood from attempting more thoughtful and inventive storytelling. The Wells novel illustrates that it’s possible to write an alien invasion narrative which sees contemplative scenes complement and even enhance spectacular action sequences.

Now obviously the screenplay is a different kind of writing to the novel, and obviously Hollywood is something of a soft target here. Wells wrote at a different time, when as he slyly notes, “even philosophical writers had many little luxuries”.

But the fact remains that Hollywood has yet to conjure a solution to alien invaders as magnificent as Wells' microbial infection. It seems more and more reliant on a rather facist notion of triumphant will for humanity to survive.

That begs a question:

Was Wells blessed to write during a unique period of discovery? Could early science fire the imagination in a way it cannot now, offering tantalising glimpses rather than high resolution images of the lifeless reality? Has our imagination become as stagnant as manned spaceflight?

Or is it just damn hard to write a good ending?

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Holy Drokk on Toast! Dredd is good!

When I was around 14, I drew my own 2000AD comic. It was called Falk Point, and it was about a group of rebellious British Judges based on the Falkland Islands. In my story the lead character did a “Long Walk’, just like in the comics. Only whereas in 2000AD Judges walk across an entire continent, my judge walked across... a small island. With some argentinian death robots thrown in. It was ludicrous of course, but at the time I thought it was ace.

Still, I think it shows how much 2000AD meant to me. When people at school teased me for reading scifi comics, I was quite content to dismiss them as hopeless fools. Nothing would drag me away from entertainment that good. I was an addict. I lost myself in the boundless worlds and future histories the comics created. They meant infinitely more to me than any of the Marvel or DC titles. They were more believable, more brutal and more fun. 2000AD characters weren’t heroes, they were killers and mutants. They didn’t moan about relationships or morality, they lived and breathed the worlds of their stories. I had my favourites: Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, ABC Warriors and Maniac 5 spring to mind - but I also loved the more outlandish stuff.

Harke & Burr by Dean Ormston
Harke and Burr was a brilliantly drawn curiosity by Dean Ormston, my favourite comic artist alongside Carlos Ezquerra. Calhab Justice was a gothic, creepy tale of judges in Scotland. Devlin Waugh “Swimming in Blood” was a stand alone comic that was quite, quite brilliant. And at the centre of it all, of course, was Judge Dredd. There seemed no limit to the inventive fun the writers and artists had.

I was always bewildered that nobody was making movies based on these extraordinary stories. When Stallone’s abysmal Judge Dredd movie came along in 1995, I was certain that its hideous failure would simply mean that a good Director would take over, dump Stallone and create an amazing second film. If they didn’t, I would do it for them. (My brother thought when I did I should cast Dolph Lundgren, as he was the only one out there with the requisite chin). Then, over time, it became clear no movie was coming. Furthermore, I wasn’t a famous director. I put my comics to one side and forgot about it.

Then, last year, came the new movie. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t go and see it. Perhaps I was worried about it stamping on my childhood the way its predeccesor had. Or maybe I was just too lazy. Whatever the case, I think my 15 year old self would have been quite disgusted if he found out I hadn’t gone to see it several times in the cinema. It was, after all, up to fanatics like me to ensure it got the audience it deserved. Now I learn that while it topped the UK Box Office, it tanked in the States.

And I feel terrible. I should have been there for the film. I have friends in the States and I should have hassled them all to go, and take five friends too. Because from what I read online, the outlook for a second installment doesn’t look good.

That’s a shame. It stands up really well. Penned by Alex Garland and directed by Pete Travis, it does just about everything right that the Stallone abomination did wrong, and proves that actually, it ain’t that hard to make a decent 2000AD movie.

Devlin Waugh, swimming in blood
First off, it doesn’t try to do too much - it puts Dredd in a kind of day-in-the-life-of-a-judge situation, introducing the character, without trying to cram in ten different stories at the same time. It has a good strong support cast as well. Olivia Thirlby is great as the psychic Judge Anderson, which is quite an achievement. Psychics are not easy to play - witness Diana Troy, by far the most irritating character in Star Trek TNG. Lena Hedley, of whom I am not normally a fan, also turns in a good performance as the crime boss, Mama. It even has The Wire’s Wood Harris in a major role.

Secondly it evidently has too small a budget to splash CGI all over the shop. When I saw the way the film presented Mega City One I could have kissed the screen. Instead of drowning everything in a mess of swirling CGI noise, Travis adds a dash of effects to augment very recognisable urban settings. He takes great pleasure in panning over an East Coast city, before revealing a huge Mega Block looming massively over everything around it. Dredd’s opening line has the feel the film is going for: “800 million people living in the ruin of the old world, and the mega structures of the new one”. Even when the perps are driving knackered VW vans it helps to ground the story, and give you the sense, just like 2000AD did, that this kind of lawless dystopia might not be too far away.

Thirdly, it takes itself seriously. It’s not garish or cartoonish, recognising that any Dredd film shouldn’t try to replicate the comic look but interpret it. Stallone’s Dredd wore an outfit so shiny he might have been a circus act. This Dredd wears body armour, with the eagle realistically moulded onto a shoulder pad.

Dredd also went to the States with an R rating, being true to the brutality of the comic books. That’s not just brutality in terms of bodycount, but of society in general. Judges order the mangled bodies of the just murdered to be recycled. A homeless man sits outside a mega block with a sign on his lap reading: “Will debase self for credits”. Mega City One is a terrible, frightening place. As one character says: “this city is a meat grinder. All we do is turn the handle.” Unfortunately the commitment to making an R Rated movie evidently helped to sink Dredd’s opening weekend in the US.

Finally, and most importantly, Karl Urban does a great job as Dredd. He has a few killer lines (“It’s all a deep end”) moulds his chin into a suitably preposterous appendage, wields the famous Lawgiver pistol expertly, and plays it with a certain ruthless cool that genuinely surprised me.

I could watch twenty more of these films, just like I read the comics. There is simply a limitless seam of stories waiting to be mined. Yes it’s not groundbreaking, yes it’s a bit like “the Raid”, but it tells an exciting story well, and lays the groundwork brilliantly for what could be an extended franchise. But after doing some reading, I’m afraid it seems that might well be it for Dredd.

And that’s a shame. Because the greatest accolade I can give it is that it made me remember my long lost love for 2000AD, that old friend that I somehow forgot.

If you haven’t seen it, buy the DVD or Blu-Ray and maybe it will help push through a second movie. Garland apparently started with a storyline about Judge Death, one of the spookiest and far-out ideas there ever was. Lets help him make that happen.

Now where have I put those comics?