According to this news, the BBC and a couple of other TV channels have stepped in to make sure that the next two seasons of Primeval get made, even though ITV had previously decided it couldn't afford to make real television shows anymore.

Colour me happy.


Monday Movie: The Straight Story

In his seventies, Alvin Straight walks with two canes, can't see well enough to drive, and hates relying on others.  So when his estranged brother has a stroke, he decides he has no option but to drive over three hundred miles to visit him... on his ride-on lawnmower.

The Straight Story is an unusual film for director David Lynch in that it's a delightfully ordinary tale for the rest of us - a gently paced and inspiring true story of everyday humanity.


Master of Unlocking

Woooosh! THAKA-BOOM! R.I.P. grotesque final boss. Now we shall ride into the sunrise on our rescue helicopter.

I really want to write about the ending to Resident Evil 5, but I guess I shouldn't spoil anything for anyone. One of the things I liked about it and can share was that it did move the story forwards. After all the time the RE series spent stagnated in Raccoon City (the likes of Resident Evil Outbreak File 4: Zombie Zoo Escape) it's great to see that Capcom are now quite happy to keep things moving. A rather significant part of the story comes to an end here, and that ties in nicely with the broader "monsters are a part of life now" perspective the RE universe has reached.

At the same time, I suppose some might worry that there's a danger that cutting too many ties to the Umbrella/Raccoon City thread that started the series won't leave enough meat for subsequent developments. But the thing I liked best about RE5 - in fact, the whole reason I was so keen to buy the game, after finding out the spoilerific specifics of this - is the way it's firmly rooted in characters and relationships from previous games.

My absolute favourite part of the game involves a fun, action-packed boss fight, and then a protracted, gruelling ordeal of melee attacks and quick-time events that lasts precisely TOO LONG minutes. What are you doing in this bit? I'm not telling you. But the fact that I found it so difficult and it took me so long and the 'F' key on my keyboard is probably never going to be the same again, well it only made the emotional payoff of success all the sweeter. It's a great technique I think: torturing the player not because the game has arbitrarily decided to make you jump through cruel hoops, but as a way of conveying the lengths one character is prepared to go through for another.

In other news, completing the game unlocks the exclusive PC version costumes, including this number for Sheva:

It's like they saw me coming.


Shadows touching in the outer solar system

Image source with more information
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

With Saturn at equinox in this Cassini image, a thin line with a blip on it marks the conjoined shadows of Enceladus and the rings.


A Postcard from Saturn at Equinox

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Cassini has assembled a great, high resolution mosaic of Saturn as it appeared during its recent equinox. Grab a larger version and read the details here.

One of the most notable features of the Saturnian equinox is that its rings are edge on to the sun, which means that as well as this being the only time you won't see their shadows strewn across the gas giant's cloudtops, it's also a time when the rings become pretty much invisible. This image has therefore obviously been tweaked slightly to afford us a better view.


You Make Irving Look Bad

I'm seriously digging the supporting cast in Resident Evil 5. One of the reasons I love the second Resident Evil game so much is because of its varied and interesting minor characters, something which I don't think any subsequent RE game quite achieved again - until this one. So here - for example - is squeaky-voiced Ricardo Irving, an arms dealer who, following the events of the previous games, now sells the likes of giant, black-shelled crab monsters to despotic regimes and guerilla fighters.

Speaking of which, while RE4 seemed mostly concerned with taking the storyline somewhere completely different and finally moving on from Raccoon City, RE5 takes a broader perspective, looking backwards to tie events and relationships into the new bigger picture. By creating an alternate history where zombies and monsters have proliferated as weapons of mass destruction, far from seeming like it's been tenuously strung out, the Resident Evil series now feels like it's opened up a whole new range of possibilities for where it can take its characters.


Oh Right, THAT One

So I'm too much of a Resident Evil fanboy not to snap up Resident Evil 5 now that it's out on the PC. That doesn't mean that I don't still think the racial imagery deserves serious criticism. It's not just the depiction of Africans as gibbering, rabid savages. There's a prominent visual theme of light and dark, with you moving between the sun-bleached outdoors and black, underlit rooms, and this theme extends to the characters. Sure, the fair skinned characters are good guys and bad guys and in between, but the people with the darkest skin tones are all violent monsters.

And my first bit of 'gameplay' was jumping through Microsoft's hoops. The game won't let you save until you log into Windows Live. Oh, but you have to create a gamertag first. Oh, and then you have to update Windows Games Live. Oh, and your firewall's blocking that? Guess you'll have to do it manually. I recently got the ten year old PC version of Resident Evil 2 working on my current computer. Will I be saying the same for RE5 in ten years time?

But aside from all that, I'm impressed by a lot of the things I've seen so far. I never understood why, in RE4, Leon never gave his simpering female sidekick a gun. This is the man who gave Claire Redfield a gun within two minutes of meeting her (and within five minutes of discovering that Raccoon City was infested with zombies). So the fact that Sheva is a capable combatant who you fight alongside and co-operate with is a vast improvement in my eyes, even if it's probably the main thing that tips the scales from horror to action. And given the ridiculous wardrobes sported by the heroines of RE3 and RE4, it's actually quite refreshing to see that the designers have done a great job of giving Sheva a pretty face.

I'm also loving how well this HD generation console port is working on my PC. I've had to crank the resolution way down, but the fancy effects are working happily. I mentioned the light/dark symbolism above, and it pleases me no end that my humble video card is handling the shadows perfectly. Moving from shade to sun - even just standing under a palm tree, it's all great to look at.

From the visuals to the audio: I'm very fond of the way RE4's music consists largely of drums and ambient noise, but from what I've heard so far of the music in RE5, it seems they've thrown some more orchestral stuff back into the mix, which suits the greater focus on action, I think. And while we're on the subject of sound, it's been a long time coming, but I'm glad to see that this is the first in the main series of Resident Evil games to include subtitles.

So positive first impressions so far. It's just a shame that, with stronger female characters and greater inclusiveness for the deaf and hard of hearing, Capcom had to go and shoot themselves in the foot with a take on the African continent that might have been pretty progressive in the Victorian Age.


Thursday Book

Slaughterhouse 5 - Kurt Vonnegut

Billy Pilgrim is unstuck in time, yo-yoing up and down the length of his life from birth to death. He's a prisoner of war who sees the bombing of Dresden, an optometrist who survives a plane crash, an alien abductee. This is his story, and his unique take on time and war.

I suppose I was expecting something a bit like Catch-22 with this one, but while Catch-22 made me laugh and cry, Slaughterhouse 5 made me laugh and made me think, but I didn't really empathise with any of the characters as much as I'd have liked to - although there are quite a few poignant moments.


Comics and Stuff

Dawn of Time is a webcomic about a Victorian time traveller, a cave girl and a triceratops who all have hijinks together. I think it's great, so you should probably read it too, on account of my superior taste.

Scary Go Round, one of the most prolific, funny, imaginative and well characterised webcomics has also come to its conclusion this month, making me feel extra bad for always being stuck in the archives and never caught up to date.

Actually, my comic reading is hopelessly behind in general at the moment. There's a stack by my bedside yea high. Maybe I'll catch up a bit while I'm reading the next couple of non-graphic novels on my pile, thick bricks of prose that they are.


Monday Movie: A Tale of Two Sisters

The name Kim Ji-woon (also written Kim Jee Woon along with other variations) should be at least vaguely familiar to regular readers - I've previously exalted his languid, existential gangster story A Bittersweet Life and his explosive action-adventure The Good, The Bad, The Weird. Cementing Kim as a director who can turn his hand to anything, his earlier A Tale of Two Sisters is an eerie psychological horror film, brimming with atmosphere and tension.

But while a lot of directors can churn out self-effacing genre films, what I really like about Kim is his ability to create vastly different movies and still add his own touch to them - perfectly framed static shots, bold and confident camera movement, an eclectic score, powerful emotions underplayed...

Okay, obviously I'm a fan, and all you really need to know is that this a very clever, very nicely formed horror in the typical East Asian style. The scariest scenes carefully layer dread over ordinary household moments, building and building, until suddenly changing gear and confronting you expertly with what you had hoped would remain unseen.


Mars Rovers - What are they up to?

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University

Opportunity pulled a bit of a U-turn back in August, when her controllers realised they'd rolled on past 'the largest meteorite yet found on Mars'. Large enough, in fact, that it would have shattered on impact unless slowed down by the friction of a thicker atmosphere.

The idea that Mars once had a thicker atmosphere (presumed to have been lost because of the planet's relatively low gravity) is not especially controversial, but this meteorite offers us evidence on the kind of time scales we may be looking at. Has it lain on the surface of Mars for billions of years? Or was the Martian atmosphere thicker more recently than we thought? Read more in the official news article.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University

Spirit, meanwhile, is still stuck, while her friends on Earth continue to experiment with rovers (one equivalent in mass to Spirit, another lightened to mimic her weight on Mars) in their sand pit. While sitting waiting for orders (and weathering a dust storm), she's snapped this panorama of her surroundings.  (Click the thumbnail above to turn on the makebigenator).



The most important thing we can learn from the suggested searches on Google is that wherever you're going, people have been there before.


DVD Review: Ergo Proxy (The Complete Series)

In the domed city of Romdo, strong emotions are frowned upon, waste is encouraged and everyone is accompanied - and monitored - by android 'autoreivs'. Simmering beneath the surface are countless threats to the pervading peace - the Cogito virus is spreading free will among the autoreivs, and the powers that be are keen to blame these rogues for a spate of mysterious killings.  

Re-L, an inspector in the Intelligence bureau and granddaughter of the city's regent, is not so sure that Cogito is responsible. Neither is Vincent, an immigrant hoping to become a Model Citizen as he works to hunt down infected autoreivs. Their attempts to investigate see them thrown together - much to Re-L's displeasure - eventually pushing them beyond the city and outside its dome.

On the way, they encounter Pino, a childlike autoreiv designed for those citizens who can't get a permit for a human child - now orphaned, infected with Cogito and following Vincent like a lost lamb. Pino's so impossibly cute that she should be annoying, but there's also a creepy edge to her character - in part actually due to her irrepressible good nature in the face of any event, however terrible.

And while these three journey through the ruins and failed societies of an eerie wasteland - a deserted dome where robots keep everything meticulously clean for their absent masters, a city where generations of cloned soldiers fight endlessly against an implacable enemy - intrigue continues in their wake back at Romdo. Daedalus - a perpetually pre-pubescent scientist with an unhealthy crush on Re-L - and Raul Creed - the increasingly unbalanced director of the Security Bureau - vie with and against one another to advance their aims, trying to subvert and further the society of Romdo while always under the watchful eye of the autoreivs created to maintain it.

Two words that I think perfectly describe Ergo Proxy are 'atmospheric' and 'thoughtful'. The unique art design, gentle pace and ambient music drew me into a world inhabited by ambiguous and compelling characters, and stalked by haunting, post-apocalyptic mysteries. The plotting is perhaps rather weak, but I think the best thing about Ergo Proxy is that it isn't really trying to be too weighty and meaningful. Certainly there are big themes and references to philosophy, but these are an embellishment to - rather than a distraction from or perversion of - the depiction of these characters in their carefully realised world.

In that sense I suppose the show is arguably admirably restrained, but it's also prepared to be quite bold in terms of where it takes the story. This extends as far as changing the entire format of the show - one episode begins as a Who Wants to be a Millionaire style game show where Vincent is bombarded with questions and answers whose relevance he doesn't yet understand. Another episode even mixes in a separate style of animation, when Pino finds herself lost in a bizarre amusement park where the staff look and behave exactly like characters from an old Disney cartoon.

The show has a nice knack for sketching out its minor characters, and pretty much everyone manages to seem likeable, flawed, admirable or sinister at some point in the series. One of my favourite characters was Raul's entourage autoreiv, Kristeva. At first she's little more than an elegant sounding-board for her master, but she goes on to show a noble investment in maintaining the society of Romdo, while always threatening to lean towards either malevolent loyalty to Raul or disobedient compassion.

The characters in Ergo Proxy definitely change and grow as events progress - and not always in a positive direction. By the end I definitely felt as though, even if the story could have been tied together and parcelled out better, I had been on a journey with characters I cared about, through a world that felt both very real and very strange.


Rusty Anchor

From the classic adventure game Grim Fandango... Take it away, Glottis!

(If the voice of the skeleton sounds familiar, it's because it's Tony Plana, Betty's dad in Ugly Betty.)


Cloud Depths

Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Image source

Cassini used a wavelength of infrared light that passes easily through methane to obtain this image of the turbulent depths beneath the serene pastel cloud-tops of Saturn.

On another note, I've often wondered just how much fuel Cassini has left after all these years of steadily adjusting its orbit. Todd Barber, the mission's lead propulsion engineer, discusses the probe's fuel gauge here.


Thursday Book

The Resurrectionist - James Bradley

I was hooked from the first page of this tale of a medical student in early 19th century London who becomes more involved in grave robbing than he'd care to and falls in love with a lady of ill repute. In no time I was two thirds of the way into the story. At which point I increasingly had to force myself to get through the rest.

Around the midpoint of the book, all the relationships and characters that drew me into it were destroyed by the narrator's descent into immorality. It is, I suppose, a fantastic literary device, but it had the unfortunate outcome of removing all those elements I liked best. Personally, I'd have preferred it as a more low key, less destructive story. In particular, I - perhaps pathologically - found myself rather touched by the reserved and bittersweet romance in the book's first half.