11 May 2018

'Mystery Science Theater 3000' 11.12, "Carnival Magic"

So, Kinga wants to marry Jonah as a ratings stunt... anyway, that's a lot better of an idea that Carnival Magic, which involves a magician trying to save a carnival with a talking monkey. Wacky hi-jinks ensue and they're not very good ones at that; the movie drags badly, the plot is unconvincing and the music is just bizarre. Also, there's a rather creepy subtext in places and what is supposed to be a family film has a lot of adult themes.

It's a source for some quality riffing, with some excellent skits (Mark Hamill's cameo tops the lot, but it's a close race), some lovely callbacks to past classics and great deconstruction of the relative lack of talking monkey in this. I enjoyed it a lot and it may in time become a fan favourite.

9/10

03 May 2018

'Mystery Science Theater 3000' 11.11, "Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II"

Yes, I know it's been a long while since I've done one of these...

****

A sequel in name only (the connection with the first movie is pretty much non-existent); this 1989 movie has a rating of 1.9 on IMDB, which says something. The movie tries to be funny with one-liners that wouldn't be out of place in Guardians of the Galaxy... but Guardians is a much better movie for any number of reasons. The fight choreography is atrocious, the characters pretty annoying from top to bottom of the bill and the plot would be rejected for even a campy Dungeons and Dragons movie. It's also pretty sexist as a film, even if the scantily-clad female leads (including the late Lana Clarkson, who was murdered by Phil Spector at the age of 40) actually get some of the better lines.

A steady stream of riffs provides a good deal of laughs and helps one get through the awful movie - which even the bots find is past their tolerance level. Also, the skits are all pretty good.

8/10


22 April 2018

Armchair Time Traveller #1: January 1958 ABC Railway Guide

In this series of posts that I'll doing over 2018, I'll be reviewing, so to speak, some of the old railway timetables that I have in my possession or have managed to locate online, giving a general view of how things have changed for better and worse. The plan is for a total of six of these posts, but that may well change... and drag on into 2019.

In this first post, I'm going to look at the January 1958 ABC Railway Guide.


Published monthly from 1853 to 2007 (the name has been revived for an enthusiast's guide to rolling stock and locomotives) and a rival to the Bradshaw's books that have featured in Michael Portillo's long running TV series, this book's main function is to provide an alphabetical list of all the railway stations in Great Britain and tell you how to get there from London, with timetables for the major routes at the back.

Costing 7 shillings and sixpence (37 and a half pence in new money), this tome can be considered pocket sized if you have a garment with large pockets; it's 21cm by 12.5cm by 3.7cm. Coming in at 918 pages counting the covers and weighing 682 grams (1lb 8.1 oz in old money) this is more an object one would keep in the study for reference rather than lug around on a commute.

The contents

This has adverts. Quite a lot of adverts. Firstly on the cover for the Motor Union Insurance Co. Ltd, (which I believe is now part of the AA) and also for Gestetner, whose duplicators were the predecessors of the modern photocopier - you would create a master copy something of a form or leaflet, then use this to make as many copies as you needed, at least until the master degraded.

The main adverts, however, are for hotels. 252 pages of them, arranged by town so you can be find what is available in your planned destination. Some of the things advertised for these hotels are things that one doesn't tend to see advertised in modern hotels because they're kind of taken for granted:
  • Central Heating
  • Private bathrooms, often for many of the rooms
    • You may mock, indeed you can mock, but the Orient Express and other luxury sleeper trains operated by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits didn't have en-suite toilets. Which means it was entirely possible for you to be waiting for Audrey Hepburn or Burt Lancaster to finish up, well, delivering a sit down performance, on Le Train Bleu or an American equivalent.
  • A lift
  • Gas fires
  • A television lounge - that is one television for the whole hotel
  • Interior sprung mattresses


    Also quite a few are quoting weekly rates. This was a time where holidays were much longer and care homes fewer; an old person of means might well move into a hotel as they'd be looked after. The Major in Fawlty Towers is one example.

    We then have four pages of tables for sleeper services and these were a lot more numerous back in 1958. Taking a typical Monday night, a Londoner could get:
    • 5 trains from Paddington (2 to Penzance, 1 to Plymouth with seating to Penzance, 1 to Carmarthen with seating to a station called Neyland in Pembrokeshire which would close in 1964)
    • 8 from King's Cross
    • 12 from Euston
    • 3 from St Pancras
    Some of those had multiple portions, a restaurant car and "improved type 2nd class accommodation". The last of these probably refers to the British Railways Mark 1 sleeper carriages that were being introduced at this time; these were replacing Grouping era sleepers with four-berth compartments that lacked a washbasin.. Not many of these survive; they had a lot of asbestos in them for one thing.

    The main section of the timetable provides an alphabetical list of stations in the mainland UK with listings ranging in detail from a list of all the trains from London for main stations (with departure and arrival) to times from a major hub for branch lines. For example, Ashton in Devon is 40 minutes from Exeter St. David's and served on weekdays only... although less than five months later, it lost its passenger service entirely.

    Each station has its distance from London (184 1/2 miles) and single fares for 2nd class or 1st class (30s 6d and 45s 9d) respectively at a time when railway fares were fixed per mile; 14s 7d for every 100 miles. Why this was abandoned, I don't know...

    Pages 416 to 652 contain 122 full timetables for the London suburban routes, the Underground and finally boat trains to mainland Europe.

    The historical context


    British Railways had just turned 10 at this point and was still building steam locomotives; while simultaneously constructing new diesel and electric traction, the last for lines that were about to be electrified or had already been. All this was going on under the aegis of the 'Modernisation Plan' published in December 1954, back when you didn't have a fancy title designed for Twitter hashtags for this sort of thing and social media was a group getting together to watch a television show.

    The Modernisation Plan would have decidedly mixed results in terms of traction; while it gave us much-loved units like the 4CEP and the burly beast of a locomotive that is the Class 47, many of the diesel classes were rushed into production by people with limited experience in building diesel locomotives, with a result that some didn't last much longer than steam locomotives. Ultimately, its goal to eliminate BR's operating deficit was a failure, mainly due to the plan being more 'replace steam' than 'update the railway for changing patterns of transport'. The next step was Beeching and all that entailed.

    Electrification therefore was decidedly limited at this point outside London, where all the Southern Region suburban lines had been done before the war, the Liverpool Street to Shenfield suburban service just after it and the long process of getting the wires along the West Coast Main Line was yet to start. Steam was still very much king at this point in time, with pre-war and wartime classes joined by the post-war 'Standards'. Some of those could reach 100mph on a good day with a highly competent crew and a decent run or downward gradient; they certainly could not sustain it.

    British Railways had started to introduce the frankly superlative Mark 1 coaches (in timber veneer and not laminate) from 1951 onwards, but they were by no means universal. Grouping era stock was still running until the early 1970s, such as the 4COR EMUs out of Waterloo and various non-corridor suburban stock. Some of the Mark 1s themselves were 'closed compartment', which wasn't the most pleasant of things on a late night.

    Many services were what was known as a 'through carriage'; a number of carriages attached to one particular train, detached along the way and connected to another service when they didn't form one of their own. Getting in the wrong coach was not a brilliant idea.

    Lines had been being closed for a while and would continue to be; the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway line in North Norfolk (now partly served by the heritage North Norfolk Railway) would be recommended for total closure in May 1958 and go the following year; in January it was served by a decent number of long distance trains running from King's Cross and Liverpool Street. However, Beeching had yet to arrive and swing the axe still further.


    One final thing is safety; the AWS system was finally being made mandatory across the network following the 1952 crash at Harrow and Wealdstone, although main lines had priority, which was too late to prevent another crash at Lewisham in 1957 that killed 90 people. Those fairly common events are one thing that enthusiasts definitely do not miss.

    The travel times 

    As mentioned, steam is a good deal slower than diesel or electric traction and this shows in the journey times:
    • London King's Cross to Edinburgh Waverley was generally at least 7 hours; the Flying Scotsman came in at two minutes under that mark. It was also possible to go from St Pancras, in which case, you'd be looking at 9 hours 37 on a 'through carriage'.
    • London Paddington to Cardiff Central was just under 3 hours; the average today is around 2 hours 4 minutes. It could be less, but the High Speed Train proved so successful, more stops are required for all the passengers.
    • London Euston to Manchester London Road (renamed to Manchester Piccadilly in 1960) is around 3 hours 45.
    • London Victoria to Brighton could regularly be done in an hour flat using electric multiple units; today this is doable in 54 minutes.
    • London to Shenfield: 37 minutes on a semi-fast. It's an average of 24 minute today.
    Conclusion

    Things were a lot slower under steam, but you might have wanted it that way...
     

    30 March 2018

    The world isn't great, but it could be a good deal worse

    It wasn't a particularly good Friday for Jesus or his followers and the only mercy is that he died relatively quickly - three hours as opposed to one or two days. However, the Easter story, where our Lord came back from the dead, our path to heaven secured, had a lot more positive impact.

    There's a lot of bad stuff going on in the world and with climate change, the return of authoritarian rule and an increasingly uncivil discourse, it's likely to be worse before it gets better. However, without the positive impact of the loving message of Jesus (when properly applied), things might well be even worse. Martin Luther King, William Wilberforce, William Booth and others (there were women, but I've forgotten their names) were inspired by their Christian beliefs to work for positive social change. If it hadn't been for Christianity, the world might well be a less caring place, with more rules-based religion excluding or killing those who were different. Sure, we've mucked up a lot over two millennia, but I think our system of freedom through Christ's blood has been a good thing for Earth.

    Have a good Easter everyone.

    14 March 2018

    Stephen Hawking 1942-2018

    The legendary scientist has died aged 76.

    Just surviving with Motor Neurone Disease for as long as he did was a remarkable achievement. Doing everything else and becoming a pop culture icon was as well. The combination makes him a legend. Not a perfect one of course (who is?) but he's contributed far more to humanity than most of those who went to Cambridge when he did.

    Rest in Peace.

    24 February 2018

    'Star Trek: Discovery' season review - Part Two

    Despite Yourself

    Knocking it right out of the park, or rather the Prime Universe, from pretty much the get go. This is dramatic, twisty and funny ("Captain Killy") with some great scenes starting a nice arc going.


    The Wolf Inside

    With a lovely call back to the original Mirror Universe episode i.e. Sarek with a goatee, this story contains further great revelations, a wonderful final scene and Burnham engaging in Kirk level chess moves.

    Vaulting Ambition

    Having Michelle Yeoh back is lovely in an episode filled with plenty of good horror... and that last revelation makes everything make sense. Some of us saw it coming, but still, a great twist...


    What's Past Is Prologue

    Jason Isaacs bows out as Gabriel Lorca in dramatic style, closing the arc that started way back in the third episode in great style. He'll be missed and one hopes the next Discovery captain, if it's not Saru, will live up to his memorability.


    The War Without, The War Within

    This is somewhat of a 'calm before the storm' episode as the ship comes to terms with events beforehand and what their current situation now involves. Again, another great ending.

    Will You Take My Hand?

    Now this is a superb season finale. It could have been a bit longer - it was a bit rushed - but it's a triumphant validation of Starfleet's ordeals. You know how the story will end, but the journey there is great with Tilly in particular serving as great comic relief and Burnham fully discovering the humanity she's at time lacked.


    Conclusion

    Definitely a stronger second half; with revelations here retroactively boosting the first half by making strange things clearer. This darker take on Trek remains true to the original spirit of the show, while delivering strong characters and humour; it compliments the more comic The Orville nicely.

    I look forward to seeing where this ship boldly goes next season, but please turn the lights up...

    9/10

    03 February 2018

    In which everyone commentates on a game being played in the dark

    The ongoing Trump situation is one where a lot of people are making guesses as to what they think is going to happen. There's an expression: "These who talk don't know and those who know don't talk".

    We don't know what exactly is going through the mind of the key players involved: Robert Mueller, Mike Pence, Trump himself, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell. The GOP's seeming complicity in what is going on is more often than not silence. Nunes is doing his own thing with his failure of a memo, but most Republicans aren't saying anything at all.

    We don't know what happens if Mueller suggests Trump gets impeached - or if he'll just indict him anyway. We don't know if Trump will fire him.

    And we don't even know what happens if Trump is removed from office. It could be months before he ends up behind bars, if at all. And if Trump's supporters are rabid now...

    It's a rather concerning situation, all told.