Friday, August 9, 2019

Alien Isolation - NovelReview (2019)

Originally published on

Release date: July 2019
Writer: Keith R. A. DeCandido

The Promise

One of the saddest things about Alien isn't that Ellen Ripley lost her crew-mates aboard the Nostromo at the hands - or jaws - of a vicious killing machine, it is the heartbreaking fact that she never returned home to Earth in time for her daughter's Eleventh birthday, and that she never got to see Amanda "Amy" Ripley EVER again! In Aliens DIRECTOR'S CUT we get to view the moment when Carter J. Burke, junior executive for the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, reveals that Amanda Ripley-McClaren died at the age of 66, two years prior to Ellen being found in deep space. She had died of cancer. However, what we as viewers never got to see was Amanda's own personal journey. Until now...

"Dallas wants me on the Nostromo, and they just took on a big contract to bring cargo back from Thedus."

Titan Books have published some terrific titles in the Alien catalogue, my favourite being Alien: River of Pain. However, there had yet to be a title covering Ellen Ripley's lost years, those being her 57 years absent in hypersleep aboard the Narcissus.

November 2137, the crew of the salvage ship Anesidora discover the flight recorder of the commercial space tug Nostromo, which had now been missing for 15 years. Altering course, the Anesidora goes to LV-426, the last known location of the missing ship. Those familiar with Alien won't be too surprised when things turn sour and one of the Anesidora crew gets attacked by a facehugger. With no time to lose, they leave the planet and head to Sevastopol Station where they hope to find help.

"Sevastopol's a supply depot in the region. It's a permanent freeport facility."

While repairing a Lagdamen X34 land buggy, engineer Amanda Ripley is told of the fortunate black box discovery by Christopher Samuels, a Weyland-Yutani Corporation employee. At first sceptical that the information could lead to yet another dead end, she eventually agrees to board the USCSS Torrens and head for Sevastopol. This being Alien, nothing goes to plan and Amanda finds herself trapped on board the space station among armed civilians and a deadly monster stalking the corridors and ventilation system. Her single goal: to locate the flight recorder and find out just what happened to her mother all those years ago.

As the book proudly states on the cover, Alien Isolation is an "original novel based on the hit video game" of the same name from 20th Century Fox. The game was a 2014 first-person survival console experience developed by Creative Assembly, it was published by SEGA for various gaming platforms such as PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and PC. Once it was announced that a book would be released based on Alien Isolation, however, you can just imagine my excitement. Author Keith DeCandido, who has written a plethora of sci-fi works including media tie-in books such as Star Trek as well as his own fiction, was tasked to adapt the game. Titan Books couldn't have chosen a better writer. What you get with Alien Isolation the novel is a lot more than just a mirror image of someone else's work, he literally adds depth to the back story of Amanda Ripley. We get to see her childhood, and the moment when she had to say goodbye to Ellen before that ill-fated trip aboard the Nostromo. DeCandido also includes a scene one month before her eleventh birthday when her stepfather Paul gets the news that the Nostromo is being declared "missing in action".

There are other inclusions that I will leave for you to discover.

Celebration and the Xenomorph

Titan Books couldn't have chosen a better time to release Alien Isolation. It is now 40 years since director Ridley Scott gave us the Xenomorph in Alien (1979). The franchise has exploded like a Chestburster, impacting on every media from movies to novels, comics and video games. And collector's merchandise. Though the movies first focused on warrant officer Ellen Ripley, played so perfectly by Sigourney Weaver, follow-up titles such as Alien vs. Predator (2004) and Prometheus (2012) have opened the door for other characters to confront the nasty saliva-dripping creatures.

Considering this is an official canonical expansion of both the game and Alien universe in general, what is there not to love? Published 30th July 2019, you'd be crazy not to board the Torrens with Ripley and explore Sevastopol.

Just pick up your motion tracker, and watch out for bugs.

You can pick this up, as well as other great titles, direct from Titan Books.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Critters (1986) - FilmReview

Brad (Scott Grimes) hiding from the terror

Gremlins From Outer Space

You could easily accuse screenplay writer Domonic Muir of copying the success of another creature feature movie released in 1984: Gremlins! However, a screenplay for an early version of Critters had already been around a few years earlier than Joe Dante's own masterpiece. If anything, because Gremlins reached audiences first, the script for Critters had to undergo some changes to reduce similarities between the two movies. They are different enough to enjoy.

What I really liked about Critters is that it sets the scene perfectly by introducing an asteroid prison in deep space where the last eight of a vicious carnivorous species called Crites are waiting to be transferred. Unfortunately the mischievous monsters escape from the facility in a hijacked spacecraft and flee. Two shape-shifting bounty hunters are assigned to track them down. The destination: Earth!

I had watched this as a teenager, so decided a new viewing was needed. It made for a fantastic trip down memory lane. Firstly, I realised that actress Dee Wallace (Mary in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial) was playing the role of Helen Brown; wife to Jay (Billy "Green" Bush), and mother to Brad (Scott Grimes) and April (Nadine van der Velde). They're a normal family living on a Kansas farm. That is, until something lands nearby and Critters begin eating cattle and attacking local residents. For the rest of the time this becomes a siege movie, as the Brown family tries to keep the alien beings outside of the farmhouse. The father is badly bitten at the beginning but manages to stay alive. In addition to this, a second extraterrestrial ship arrives and two strangers search for the escaped Crites. of my absolute favourite movie memories...

It's certainly a fun movie, with excellent practical effects and a team of puppeteers to bring the Critters to life. They also look different enough from Gremlins to work well. One critic at the time said of the film, "Critters isn't a memorable or even very slick movie, but it is good fun. What it lacks in substance it makes up for with a perverse kind of charm". I disagree. Critters remained one of my absolute favourite movie memories from years past, a delightful low-budget sci-fi and horror flick that shouldn't be taken too seriously but will leave a smile.

Another face that I recognised during my fresh viewing was that of actor Ethan Phillips, known to many as Neelix in Star Trek: Voyager, playing a police officer. His role in this was a short one, but still a very nice surprise.


Out of the two bounty hunters, actor Terrence Mann played the lead as Ug, the one who takes on the appearance of a rock star called Johnny Steele. During the space flight, Ug had studied television signals, latched onto a rock concert and copied the eighties singer to make mingling in with Human society a lot less suspicious. Too bad, then, that his companion, Lee, blew up everything in sight and caused panic in the town of Grover's Bend. After reading Critters Wiki I've learned that these bounty hunters are known as Nothing-Face until selecting a "species facial identification". While Ug had no problem in assimilating an appearance, fellow hunter Lee didn't seem to find anything suitable, thus copying three different Humans during the story.

"They eat so fast, you don't have time to scream"

The Critters themselves have a Porcupines look about them, with the ability to shoot poison barbs as projectile weapons that can stun a victim. They also have razor-sharp teeth, and enjoy munching into an arm or two - or worse! Like the Gremlins, they are intelligent, though the level of that intellect varies from creature to creature.

There are some lovely nods to other movies: in one scene a Critter encounters an E.T. vinyl plush toy (in acknowledgement of leading lady Dee Wallace's 1982 role), the logo on the back of bowling uniforms will clearly be noticed by fans of Ghostbusters, and a toilet scene is reminiscent of Ghoulies (1985).

Charlie McFadden, portrayed perfectly by Don Keith Opper, is the local joke, a mechanic and drunk who receives information of alien abductions through his fillings; he will eventually become a familiar character within the franchise. Critters also features an early appearance by Billy Zane as Steve Elliot, April's boyfriend, who will regret wanting to have sex with her in the barn.

Critters spawned a number of sequels, and a web television series called Critters: A New Binge. The latest movie, Critters Attacks! (2019) sees Dee Wallace return in a different role to the one she plays in the first chapter. We do have to wonder why they keep churning out new versions/sequels/reboots, but... if something can be milked dry...

Thankfully, this first one is an absolute dream.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Dilation (2019) - AudioReview

Release date: 2019
Writer: Max Hochrad. Director: Max Hochrad

"Sometimes it doesn't matter how clever you are at running away..."

One of the things I've always admired is the way British sci-fi of old wasn't afraid to give us a harsh future where life is ruled by one extreme corporation or power; in Dilation it is the Forman Corporation. It's also the first time that b7 Media have teamed up with Par-sec Productions to bring us something different and intriguing.

"Calling Eagle, this is Dove..."

Scientist Amanda Higgs (Sioned Jones) has a secret. While trying to sell some jewellery, she meets young shop assistant Marnie (Rebecca Ross), who recommends the woman to Frank; he offers a grand for each ring. From this moment on the two women are connected, as Marnie recommends accommodation and even sells her own car to the mysterious stranger. What we discover is that Amanda is trying to reconnect with someone from her past: boyfriend Tom Stanley. She uses radio to try and make contact, using their code names of "Eagle" and "Dove". Sadly there is no response...

While listening to Dilation I do get a sense of just how possible this bleak future could be, think the awful mess the UK is in presently. It's a grey world where everyone is just trying their best to exist. There are regular power cuts, and so electric generators are sold to the public, whether they work efficiently or are just a bit dodgy. Those who sell them and profit from them don't really care.

I like Marnie very much, she's bored with the norm and simply wants to help someone, anyone. In this case it happens to be Amanda. Gradually a picture of this stranger's life forms. She has travelled 40 years in time from the past, it wasn't meant to be a solo journey but fate decided otherwise. This is why she is now trying to locate Tom, who was left behind.

Where there is money to be made...

The Forman Corporation is interested in Amanda's work. Where there is genius and something worth selling, there will always be unscrupulous people who will rub their hands together. We are taken to an abandoned building in Wales that contains a laboratory. This is where Amanda used to work before she fled from the past. Her work would benefit the whole population, it is said. In such unpromising times, anything could be an improvement.

It's just a matter of staying one step ahead of others...

"I set out to create a mysterious piece that uses layers of sound..."

For Max Hochrad, of Par-sec Productions, Dilation was a step in a new direction. Talking about this original 90-minute sci-fi thriller, "I’ve never been a fan of time travel, always thought it brought up too many conundrums: problems with accidentally killing off your entire family, that sort of thing. However, time dilation theories and their variants do allow time travel of a sort, albeit only into the future. And borrowing from these ideas, I went on a strange journey, wondering what it would be like for someone to escape into the future, trying to escape their past".

Even Andrew Mark Sewell, Executive Producer of B7 Media, knew Dilation was a perfect fit, "For us Dilation reflected the production values that have become the hallmark of B7 Media’s audio dramas. Immersive drama, creating environments that sound real and lived-in".

A future that is just around the corner?

Dilation is frighteningly relatable and it makes for a grounded environment. Who knows what the future will be like in another 40 years? Or even sooner? There are times when we all want to escape from the realities of life. But as we also know, life has a way of following you all the way, no matter how far or fast you run.

And who is to say that where you end up is actually any better?

Monday, July 22, 2019

Doctor Who: The Sirens of Time (1999) - AudioReview

Release date: July 1999
Writer: Nicholas Briggs. Director: Nicholas Briggs

The Doctor's back, and it's about time...

In 1989, the longest running science fiction show came to an abrupt end. No farewell story to thank the fans for their loyalty, no handshake for the cast and crew who had worked so passionately. Instead, actor Sylvester McCoy was required to add closing dialogue to the final serial, "Survival" - "There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea's asleep, and the rivers dream; people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice, and somewhere else the tea's getting cold. Come on, Ace. We've got work to do." 

Of course, those weren't the last ever lines spoken for the series... in 1996 a television movie was produced, starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor and featuring a guest appearance by McCoy. But, seeing as no further production followed writer Matthew Jacobs's attempt, the "Classic" era was over.

Big Finish will always have a special place in my heart, for they did something quite remarkable: resurrected the Doctor, and persuaded actors Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy to reprise their most famous of roles. I can still remember how it felt to own "The Sirens of Time" on CD. It was a magnificent feeling, knowing that I was about to embark on a new adventure with a Time Lord. 1999 was 1989 all over again, with the past ten years seeming as if they had never happened at all...

The plot: Gallifrey, and time itself, is being threatened by the presence of an alien race, whose technologically-advanced warships have surrounded the Time Lords' home planet. And it seems that the Doctor is somehow involved... Written and directed by the legendary Nicholas Briggs (should I mention that he was also responsible for the music and sound design?), this first step for Big Finish into official Doctor Who territory simply cannot be faulted. As with the majority of the early audios produced, "Sirens" is a four-part story, with the first three focusing on each Doctor - Seventh, Fifth and Sixth - and the final part bringing them all together to face the villains of the piece. And it is a welcome decision not to include Daleks in this debut outing...

No Ace up the Doctor's sleeve

Part One reintroduces us to the Seventh Doctor (portrayed by McCoy) as he is drawn to a planet where spacecraft are crashing; a mysterious old woman called Ruthley looks after an equally mysterious gentleman, Sancroft; and a young girl named Elenya (Sarah Mowat) needs rescuing. Out of the three, Ruthley is a very unpleasant creature indeed, with her prime focus being on her own survival above all else - those familiar with this audio range might be interested to know that Ruthley is played by Maggie Stables, who later goes on to portray the role of Evelyn Smythe, companion to the Sixth Doctor in the first "original" pairing for Big Finish. There is much to dislike about Ruthley, and her own feelings mirror similar dislike towards those who are unfortunate enough to be within her company.

Companionless in this one, McCoy easily fits back into the role he had briefly revisited during the 1996 TV movie. We are also introduced to The Knights of Velyshaa.

"The Time Lords really do want me dead!"

Part Two focuses on the Fifth Doctor, and his encounter with the crew of a German U-boat. He is also joined by Helen (Mowat), the only other survivor of a British freighter torpedoed moments earlier. Though rescued by the German crew, it is clear that the danger is far from over. Determined to recover his TARDIS, the Doctor finds himself at the hands of his own people when they use a crewmember, Schmidt, to try and kill him following time distortion. This is the work of Coordinator Vansell (Anthony Keetch), a member of the Celestial Intervention Agency. The situation is a desperate one as Vansell believes the Doctor is somehow responsible for history to be altered - preventing him from reaching his TARDIS is a priority in saving the Time Lords and restoring the course of history!

"Would you please keep the noise down, old chap?"

Part Three brings us a Sixth Doctor who finds himself at some conference on a spacecraft, the Edifice, in the Kurgon system. They are present to investigate the Kurgon Wonder, a spatial anomaly. Things turn bad when more time distortion affects the ship, killing everyone except for the Doctor, a waitress named Ellie (Mowat), and an android. One of the threads through all parts of the story is the young woman that the Doctor encounters in his three incarnations. Just who is she? Mowat certainly delivers a strong performance with each character. She would later go on to play Susan Mendes in Big Finish's Dalek Empire series.

"Beware the Sirens of Time..."

And so to Gallifrey, and the Doctors are brought together in the final fourth part. In television history we've only ever seen multiple Doctor adventures three times: The Three Doctors (1973), The Five Doctors (1983) and The Two Doctors (1985). We could include Dimensions in Time (1993) though it is not official canon as it was a charity event crossover with a British soap, Eastenders.

It is rather lovely hearing Peter, Colin and Sylvester meet up, it's definitely a reunion with old friends. As the plot evolves we learn that beyond the Doctor, the Time Lords, and even the Knights of Velyshaa, there is a menacing threat that feeds on the energies of chaos, and that it is these creatures who have been pulling the strings and manipulating since the start.

It is difficult to think of a better beginning than The Sirens of Time, it sets a nice standard that Big Finish absolutely builds on and improves over the following years. It seems unbelievable that, at time of writing this article, Sirens of Time is 20 years old! Just where has that time gone? I'm sure the Doctor knows...

Beyond the Sirens...

Co-ordinator Vansell will return in several audios including The Apocalypse Element, Neverland, and the spin-off Gallifrey range.