Captain Eager and the Mark of Voth (Simon Davison UK 2008)

1245944274441Curiously, this low-budget movie has all the hallmarks of many a major sf blockbuster. Based on a pre-sold property, it is greenscreen- and CGI-heavy. It assumes that individual shots are more important than narrative or character arcs, and that the incoherence of its plot not only does not matter but is actually something to boast about. It trades in nostalgia for a lost patriarchal and imperialist order misrepresented as an age of certainty and fairness, while gently chiding, with no real conviction, neo-liberal globalisation. It is dull-witted and charmless, and it thinks it is funny. All at a fraction of the cost.

Square-jawed space hero Captain Eager (James Vaughan) is summoned out of retirement by middle management at Macrospace, the interstellar corporation that has taken over everything (they provide ‘infrastructure and marketing’ and thus have turned every conceivable location into a ‘sterile retail opportunity’). Eager’s mission – whatever it actually is; the film is deliberately obscure – almost fails to get off the ground because Shiobhan in Personnel (Laura Clarke) casts doubts on the suitability of the balding, greying, paunchy protagonist and his old-fashioned rocketship-shaped rocketship, the Victory. Further complicating matters is the vengeful Colonel Regamun (Richard Leaf), who has concocted an absurdly elaborate scheme to: 1) drain the lifeforce from the minds of the alien Panvolkians so as to make himself immortal; 2) turn the now-mindless Panvolkians into slave labour; and 3) kill Eager, who he blames for the deaths of his family in a long-ago war. Various poorly-paced shenanigans ensue. Limply. For a seemingly endless ninety-five minutes. Which may, or may not, be deliberate.

Captain Eager is conceived as a parody or pastiche of – or perhaps even a satire on – 1950s and 1960s sf film, television and comics, particularly Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare, created for the Eagle comic in 1950 and set in the late 1990s. However, the film falters because it is either not familiar enough with this source or fears that its potential audience would not be (for example, The Victory looks nothing like the Anastasia or any of Dan Dare’s other spacecraft, more closely resembling a cross between Thunderbird 3 from Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds (1965–6) and the rocket that took Hergé’s Tintin to the moon a decade earlier in Objectif Lune (1953) and On a marché sur la Lune (1954)). Consequently, Captain Eager flounders around rather indiscriminately, looking for other things to parody/pastiche/satirise: sliding spaceship doors, clearly made of wood and painted to look like metal, do not open properly; sets made out of painted flats get knocked over; and so on. The film even boasts that it is shot in ‘Card-o-Scope’ and that CGI stands for ‘Cardboard and Gum Imagery’. This not-exactly-nostalgia does lead to the film’s several quite good jokes: Regamun’s Ming-the-Merciless-inspired collar gets in the way every time he turns his head; when Eager and Jenny enter the darkened Victory, Eager turns on the light to the sound of a pull-cord switch echoing in a bathroom. There is also a wry pleasure to be derived from the design of certain vehicles: Eager’s eventual triumph depends upon him flying a battered old Mark 1 spacecraft, which resembles an Avro Vulcan bomber, a triumph of 1950s British aeronautical engineering, and then a glider that recalls the Colditz Cock, a home-made glider constructed by British POWs and featured in Colditz (1972–4). Such amusing moments, however, are also indicative of the film’s conceptual and tonal uncertainty, caught between recalling a 1950s vision of the future and a folk memory of the actual 1950s (and 1960s and 1970s, and 1940s).

Other revisions of Dan Dare have likewise struggled with how to update its upright protagonist. For his intermittent, downbeat and punkish appearance in 2000 AD in the late 1970s, he was thrown, via suspended animation, 200 years further into the future, where he bore no real resemblance to Hampson’s character other than a tendency to answer to the same name. When Eagle was relaunched in the early 1980s, it featured the adventures of one of Dare’s descendants (and quite bizarrely retconned the original Eagle’s stories, recreating that Dan Dare as a World War II veteran timeslipped into the 1990s, so as to explain the survival of his peculiarly mid-century Britishness at the turn of the millennium). About halfway through its run, the strip became more violent, with Dare recast as a space marine. Garth Ennis and Gary Erskine’s Dan Dare (2008) is the most successful attempt to visualise a plausible-seeming future in which, after a Sino-American nuclear war, Britain is once more the leading world power, with its navy dominating the solar system. This seven-issue miniseries introduces an older, traumatised and largely forgotten Dare (he inhabits a virtual-reality reconstruction of an idyllic village, and in reality apparently ‘sees’ the delta-wing Starfires as more Spitfire-like spaceships) to inject elements of the mythical 1950s which shaped Hampson’s fictional 1990s, while also incorporating the violent space marine adventures of the hero’s later iterations. It also contains political satire (nothing so pointed or scurrilous as Grant Morrison’s Dare (1990), though), with a Blair-like Prime Minister betraying humanity to the Mekon – fairly mild stuff until compared to Captain Eager’s toothless whining about megacorporations, the metric system and all this other new-fangled stuff, including digital technology. The latter is, of course, rather ironic, given Captain Eager’s own dependence on such technology, sometimes deploying it, humorously I’m sure, to create images of analogue technology. But Captain Eager is not the kind of film to think things through (for example, Eager’s communicator rings – hilariously – like an old-fashioned dial telephone, but the joke is rather undercut by the existence of real-world cell-phone ringtones that make the same noise).

The performances are rather a mixed bag, too. Lindsay Carr brings some life to Carmina, a caricature vamp with a heart of gold. As Scrutty Baker, Mark Heap, familiar from such offbeat sitcoms and comedy shows as Brass Eye (1997–2001), Big Train (1998–2002), Spaced (1999–2001), Jam (2000) and Green Wing (2004–6), adds a Gollum-like twist to his contorted, constrained, socially awkward persona, but has no room to do anything interesting with it. The suggestion that Scrutty’s repeated betrayals stem from consciously suppressing his sexual desire for Eager is merely an ambiguous throwaway line that fails even to work as commentary on Digby’s homosocial attachment to Dare in Hampson’s comic; consequently, Scrutty becomes just another mildly offensive depiction of homosexual-as-dishonest-misfit. Tamsin Grieg, however, gives a pitch-perfect, subtle and sure performance, and is really the only reason to keep watching the film. Those familiar with Grieg from the sitcoms Black Books (2000–4) and Green Wing will immediately recognise and relish her bright, brittle Jenny, brimming with deep emotions she cannot quite express. Although clearly smarter than everyone around her, she is not exactly Hampson’s Professor Jocelyn Peabody. Jenny displays ‘tremendous pluck’ and, when it comes to a scrap, she is extremely handy with her fists (and unexpectedly good at headbutting). But she also always carries a hanky in her cardigan pocket. She alone is worth the price of admission (especially as the film is now available free via http://www.captaineager.com).

A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Film and Television 5.2 (2012), 315–7.

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British soft imperialism conquers the Moon, the stars! At last!

the-quatermass-xperiment-crashed-rocketHave you ever wondered why the British Experimental Rocket Group never got us to the Moon?

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Sid James points Brian Donlevy in the direction of the bar

Nigel Kneale, authorised biographer of (and chief propagandist for) Professor Bernard Quatermass, was always quick to blame it on the militarisation of the British Space Programme, while American analysts tend to pin it on the UK’s lack of frontier spirit and yankee know-how (and there is certainly evidence that Britain tried to recruit some of that – though they ended up with a washed-up alcoholic who spoke so quickly you always had the sense that he was impatient for any conversation to end so he could get to the bar).

The truth, however, is revealed in Stephen Baxter’s Moonseed (1998).

Moonseed_Stephen_BaxterOn p.451 of a 534-page novel, we read that a US astronaut, who has landed on the Moon in a jerry-rigged emergency mission to save the Earth,

sipped her … tea. Even freshly made, it did not seem hot enough. One of the old clichés of lunar travel, she thought: water boils at lower temperature in low pressure.

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And, as this model and the Winnerton Flats prototype reveal, the lunar domes Quatermass intended to build would not have solved the problem.

That’s right.

Basic physics robbed us of the Dan Dare future we were promised. Once it became clear quite how rare a nice cup of tea would be in space, we as a nation – an entire nation – just lost the will to go there ourselves. 8069053883_6ae139b878_z

However, the story does not end there.

A careful reading of Baxter shows that it was Britons who unleashed the planet-destroying Moonseed, thus forcing the US and Russia to co-operate in the mission that would ultimately lead to the rapid terraforming of the Moon (and then, it is implied, human expansion across and beyond the Solar System). And should anyone doubt that this is ultimately a British triumph, observe what happens on pp.489-90. Henry, the American responsible for setting the lunar expedition in motion and for sneaking along the equipment necessary to make the Moon habitable at the speed (if not quite the absurdity) of Total Recall­, knows that his crazy plan has worked the moment it starts to rain on the Moon.