Review: “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Sins Of Commission” By Susan Wright (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for novelisations and/or spin-off novels, so I thought that I’d take a look through my collection of second-hand “Star Trek” novels for books that I didn’t get round to reading when I went through a “Star Trek” phase in 2011-13. Out of the unread books, the novel I chose was Susan Wright’s 1994 novel “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Sins Of Commission”.

Although this novel tells a new self-contained “Star Trek: TNG” story, it is clearly aimed at people who are fairly knowledgeable about the TV series and it contains quite a few references, characters and background events that will only really make sense if you’ve seen episodes like “The Drumhead” and “The Nth Degree” and have a general knowledge of the lore/backstory of the series. In other words, unlike some of the spin-off novels, you pretty much have to be a Trekkie to get the most of out of this one.

So, let’s take a look at “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Sins Of Commission”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1994 Pocket Books (US) paperback edition of “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Sins Of Commission” that I read.

The novel begins with Picard watching a production of “Cyrano De Bergerac” in the holodeck before he is joined by Troi, who is worried about both Worf and a part-Romulan medical technician called Simon Tarses. Both are experiencing emotional problems related to being torn between two cultures.

The USS Enterprise is on a mission to the planet Lessenar in order to provide disaster relief and to begin efforts to clean up the planet’s heavily-polluted atmosphere. However, before they can land on the planet, an old cruise ship called the Prospector shows up in order to take a look at Lessenar’s beautiful green atmosphere. Although Picard wants to shoo the ship away, the Prospector‘s captain is a charismatic man who also knows Worf’s foster parents. So, reluctantly, Picard allows the ship to stay.

However, sometime later, there is an explosion along the Prospector‘s hull. Although Picard’s crew manage to save almost everyone on board, one of a group of five squid/jellyfish-like emotion-broadcasting creatures called Sli is killed in the explosion. The Sli are on the Prospector as entertainment and are managed by a Ferengi called Mon Hartag, who demands a full and urgent investigation into the explosion….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it took a little while to get going and was a little different to what I’d expected, it is a really atmospheric and compelling story that manages to achieve more detail, depth and drama than an episode of the TV show could ever dream of achieving. In other words, although this book is on the slow-paced side of things and might seem a little “boring” at first, it gets a lot better if you stick with it.

Interestingly, despite the story’s familiar sci-fi trappings, it is actually more of a mixture between a detective story and a psychological drama than a traditional “Star Trek” story. Yes, there is a lot of futuristic technology, lots of Star Trek stuff and a sub-plot about communicating with a mysterious alien species, but the sci-fi stuff here is more to add depth, flavour and intensity to the story’s detective and drama elements – and it does this really well.

In other words, this is a very character-focused novel that also relies heavily on suspense and mystery. In addition to the detective elements, which are handled fairly well (with, for example, several people having possible motives, Troi conducting empathic investigations etc…), the emotions broadcast by the Sli also affect the crew in all sorts of ways, leading to lots of tense moments and a real atmosphere of paranoia during some moments of the story. Needless to say, this really helps to keep the story compelling whilst also making it refreshingly different from a typical “Star Trek: TNG” novel.

And, whilst this novel is still in keeping with the style and tone of the TV series, the increased focus on the personal and psychological lives of several crew members in addition to the fact that they express emotions a bit more freely also makes parts of this novel reminiscent of something like “Babylon 5“, which really adds extra drama, depth, realism and creativty to the story. Even so, if you were expecting a more “traditional” spin-off novel, then this might catch you by surprise. But, if you stick with it, then you’ll be rewarded with something like an enhanced version of the original TV series.

Thematically, this novel is as complex as you’d expect. The novel’s themes include things like being stuck between two cultures, communications, psychology, economic inequality, the environment and repressed emotions. Not only is it cool to see a “Star Trek” novel where the characters aren’t quite as repressed as usual, but the novel also manages to make it’s points about the environment without descending too far into preaching at the reader. In fact, there’s this brilliant moment where Picard actually orders Riker not to deliver a self-righteous lecture to the people on Lessenar. So, it’s good to see a novel that respects the reader’s intelligence.

In terms of the characters, this novel is absolutely stellar. This novel devotes a lot of time to characterisation and, although this does slow the story down quite a bit, it really adds a lot of extra atmosphere, drama and realism to the story. Not only that, because of the novel’s detailed focus on psychology, emotions etc… it can also tell a rich and complex story that probably wouldn’t work on TV (seriously, it’s so good to see a spin-off novel that plays to the unique strengths of the written word).

Although the main characters of this novel are probably Worf and Troi, pretty much every character here gets a level of characterisation that makes them feel like real, complex people. The cumulative effect of this is that you actually feel like you’re there on the Enterprise, seeing the everyday lives of the characters in a way that other sci-fi shows, like “Babylon 5”, do so well. Although the plot is fairly compelling and well-planned, this is one of those novels where the characters are the most important part of the story.

Even so, one slight criticism of the novel’s characters is that Worf comes across as slightly too aggressive during the earlier parts of the story. However, given the various personal stresses he is facing at the time and the novel’s theme of repressed emotions, this change in his character sort of makes sense. Even so, it’s a little surprising if you’re used to the TV series version of Worf.

As for the writing, this novel’s third-person narration uses a very slightly more descriptive and formal (but still reasonably “matter of fact”) writing style. Although this slows down the pace of the story a bit, it also allows for a lot more atmosphere, depth etc.. to the story too. Given that this is a slightly more complex, character-based novel, this writing style works really well here.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. At a reasonably efficient 277 pages in length, this novel doesn’t look too long. However, as mentioned earlier, this novel is slightly more on the slower-paced side of things and takes a little while to really get going. Even so, as the story progresses, it becomes more and more compelling. Not only that, the slower-paced storytelling also gives the novel time to build atmosphere, suspense etc… that pays off later in the story.

As for how this twenty-five year old novel has aged, it has aged really well. Although it might be a little slow-paced or formal by modern standards, the character-based focus of the story, the futuristic setting and the emphasis on things like psychology and emotions mean that this story is pretty much timeless.

All in all, although this novel is a bit more slow-paced than I’d expected and is a little different to a typical TNG spin-off novel, it is really brilliant 🙂 Not only does it leverage the strengths of the written word to tell a story that the TV show would probably have difficulty handling well, but it also contains stellar characterisation, a brilliantly immersive atmosphere and a rather compelling plot too. Even so, this is very much a novel for die-hard fans of the show (and it may be a little confusing if you’ve only seen a few episodes).

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

Review: “The Laughing Corpse” By Laurell K. Hamilton (Novel)

Well, although I had mixed feelings about Laurell K. Hamilton’s 1993 novel “Guilty Pleasures“, I thought that I’d check out the next one in the series – “The Laughing Corpse” (1994).

This is mostly because not only did I realise that it was a zombie novel (and I haven’t read one of these in a while), but also because I bought three of Hamilton’s “Anita Blake” novels in a charity shop last year and I’ve been meaning to read more of them.

Although this is the second novel in a series, it is pretty much a stand-alone novel. Yes, there are some background details and sub-plots that will make very slightly more sense if you’ve read “Guilty Pleasures”, but the main story is a stand-alone story and the background details are explained via recaps.

So, let’s take a look at “The Laughing Corpse”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2009 Headline (UK) paperback edition of “The Laughing Corpse” that I read.

Set in St.Louis, Missouri – the story follows professional necromancer, police consultant and part-time vampire hunter Anita Blake. Anita and her boss, Bert, have been summoned to the house of a multi-millionaire called Harold Gaynor. Gaynor is willing to pay Anita a million dollars if she raises a two-hunrded and eighty-three year old corpse from the dead.

However, the older a body is the larger the sacrifice needed to raise it becomes. For a body that old, only a human sacrifice will be sufficient. Needless to say, Anita refuses the job. But, although she and Bert walk out of the house in one piece, it’s clear that Gaynor will not take no for an answer.

Not only that, Anita gets a call from the police a while later. They need her help with an especially grisly murder case. It doesn’t take Anita long to work out that the crime has been carried out by something undead. Not only that, it also seems to be part of a series of murders….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s certainly an improvement on the previous novel in the series 🙂 Not only is it a reasonably gripping detective/ action thriller novel, but it’s also a pretty decent horror novel too. It’s also a little bit more focused and confidently written than the previous novel too.

I should probably start by talking about the horror elements of the story. Not only does this novel contain some reasonably creepy paranormal horror, suspenseful horror, implied horror, moral horror, criminal horror, character-based horror and body horror, but it also includes a decent amount of gory horror too.

Whilst this isn’t quite a splatterpunk novel, it certainly comes close to one during a few gruesome moments. Plus, although most of these grisly moments are played fairly seriously, there is also some absolutely hilarious dark comedy (eg: detectives throwing body parts around a crime scene etc..) during one of them which really helps to lighten the mood a bit.

The novel also has a rather inventive take on the zombie genre too. Whilst the zombies in this story are of the traditional Voodoo variety, they can also act a bit like more traditional horror movie zombies when ordered to do so (or if angered). Likewise, the zombies in this story also run the gamut from intelligently articulate former humans to shambling undead horrors, which helps to keep things unpredictable.

This variety also allows the story to use multiple types of zombie horror too. In addition to allowing for lots of moral horror (eg: evil experiments involving zombies, people using zombies as slave labour etc..), this also allows the story to include some wonderfully grotesque and suspenseful “horror movie”-like scenes involving the undead too.

In terms of the story’s detective/thriller elements, they’re really good too. In a lot of ways, this story has more of a “modern film noir” kind of atmosphere to it with Anita finding herself in the middle of a dangerous web of criminal intrigue where multiple groups of criminals are out to get her.

Not only does this keep the story thrillingly suspenseful and fast-paced, but it also allows for a slightly more “noir” style plot too. Plus, although this story is slightly more of a thriller novel than a traditional detective story, the murder mystery at the heart of the story is still intrguingly mysterious.

The writing in this novel is reasonably good too. Like with “Guilty Pleasures”, the novel is narrated by Anita and – as you would expect in a noir-influenced detective thriller novel – the story is told in a reasonably fast-paced, informal and “matter of fact” kind of way. In addition to this, the story is also peppered with cynical and sarcastic comments and observations from Anita too. Although most of these are fairly amusing and/or dramatic, at least a couple of them come across as annoyingly self-righteous, mean-spirited and/or judgemental.

In terms of the characters, they’re reasonably good. Whilst you shouldn’t expect ultra-complex characterisation, the characters are certainly a reasonably interesting bunch of people. Not only are the villains all suitably creepy, evil and generally disturbing – but there are also a few interesting background characters too.

Likewise, although Anita is pretty much the same character she was in “Guilty Pleasures”, she gets a bit of character development too. Not only does her obsession with carrying guns everywhere make a bit more sense in the context of this story, but there’s also a little bit of focus on how she tries to reconcile her supernatural powers with her religious beliefs (and, a couple of moments aside, she also comes across as a little bit less self-righteous/preachy in this story too). Plus, the story also devotes a little bit of time to Anita’s complicated relationship with Jean-Claude (from the previous novel) too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. At about 340 pages in length, this novel never really feels too long and, as you would expect from a thriller novel, the story travels along at a reasonably fast pace too 🙂

As for how this twenty-five year old novel has aged, it’s aged reasonably well. Yes, a few moments of this story seem a bit dated and/or “politically incorrect” by modern standards – but, for the most part, this is the kind of story that could very easily be set in the present day. Plus, the story’s thriller elements still remain suitably gripping and the story’s horror elements still remain suitably macabre and disturbing too.

All in all, this story is a definite improvement on “Guilty Pleasures” 🙂 Not only are the horror elements a bit more gruesome and creepy, but the story’s detective/thriller elements feel a bit more focused, compelling and suspenseful too. Plus, it’s a zombie novel too 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would probably get four and a half.

Review: “Piercing” By Ryu Murakami (Novel)

Well, it has been way too long since I read a Ryu Murakami novel. After discovering Murakami’s excellent 1997 horror novel “In The Miso Soup” in a Waterstone’s during my early twenties, I ended up reading translations of several of his books (“Audition”, “Almost Transparent Blue” and possibly “Coin-Locker Babies”, if I remember rightly) over the next year or two.

At the time, I must also have bought a copy of his 1994 horror/thriller novel “Piercing” (translated by Ralph McCarthy) but, for some reason, I didn’t get round to reading it.

So, when I was working out which book to read next, I happened to spot “Piercing” in one of my book piles. And, since it was both a refreshingly short novel and it was a Murakami novel I hadn’t read, I thought that I’d check it out.

[Edit: Interestingly, in the months between when I first prepared this review and the time of posting it, an American film adaptation of this book (also called “Piercing”) was announced and released. Since I haven’t seen it at the time of writing, I can’t really compare the two things.]

So, let’s take a look at “Piercing”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2008 Bloomsbury (UK) paperback edition of “Piercing” that I read.

Set in Tokyo, the story begins with family man Kawashima Masayuki standing over his baby daughter’s crib one night. For reasons he doesn’t quite understand, he has stood over the crib for ten nights in a row. Every night, he holds an ice pick and wills himself not to harm the baby. Every night, the baby is left unharmed. And, thankfully, this night is no different.

When he tries to work out what is wrong with himself, Kawashima is racked by traumatic memories of his childhood. Overwhelmed by the furious intense rage within him, he decides to act upon it in the hope that this will cause it to go away. So, coming up with an excuse, he leaves home for a few days and stays in a hotel in another part of Tokyo – where he begins to plan a grisly murder…..

One of the first things that I will say about “Piercing” is that it is an incredibly gripping horror thriller that isn’t for the easily shocked. However, by the high standards of Murakami’s other horror novels, it falls short somewhat.

If you’ve read “In The Miso Soup” or “Audition”, then you’ll know that Murakami is famous for gradually building suspense over the course of a novel, only to finally release it in a truly shocking moment of extreme horror. Well, this novel does the literal opposite of this.

In other words, a lot of the really shocking, creepy, dark and horrific stuff happens in the earlier parts of the novel, and although the novel still works reasonably well as a fast-paced and gripping thriller, all of the novel’s chilling suspense eventually descends into something of a grim farce (like a “romantic comedy from hell” or something like that) that ends in a rather random, abrupt and ambiguous way which is about a million miles away from the usual jaw-droppingly shocking Murakami ending.

Likewise, the almost unrelenting barrage of horror means that some of it comes across as a bit “over the top” in a corny late-night movie style way or as an immature attempt at being “edgy”. Although there is a small amount of contrast between the horrific and the mundane, there really isn’t enough of this to make the novel’s scenes of horror really stand out in the way they do in Murakami’s other horror novels.

Still, as a horror novel, it works incredibly well. This novel contains a disturbing plethora of different types of horror including violent horror, character-based horror, psychological horror, sexual horror, criminal horror, poverty horror, suspenseful horror and some hints of paranormal horror. And, yes, this is a very grim and disturbing novel too – with lots of bleak background details, traumatic flashback scenes and creepy psychological moments.

So, yes, this really isn’t a novel for the easily shocked. Still, the novel includes some moments of dark comedy (like Kawashima ranting at himself in his notes, some quirky background details etc..) that help to lighten the bleak tone somewhat.

As for the characters, they’re reasonably well-written and are the source of a lot of the novel’s horror. Most of the novel focuses on both Kawashima (who is disturbed by traumatic memories, fairly misogynistic and a serial-killer-in-the-making) and a sex worker called Chiaki who, unknown to Kawashima, also suffers from traumatic memories and violent impulses (and also has a hatred of men that rivals Kawashima’s hatred of women).

The characters in this novel are disturbingly compelling and the story devotes quite a bit of time to characterisation.

Interestingly, this novel also seems to be the literal opposite of another extreme horror novel I read in my early twenties called “Exquisite Corpse” by Poppy Z. Brite.

In Brite’s “Exquisite Corpse”, two serial killers end up having a beautiful romance that is filled with stomach-churning horror. Whereas, in Murakami’s “Piercing”, the fact that Kawashima and Chiaki are kindred spirits makes their meetings fairly awkward and eventually ends up cancelling out the horror of the story (since they both try, and fail, to kill each other before having a rather bizarre and ambiguous moment together the following morning).

In terms of the writing style, whilst I can’t comment on the original Japanese text, Ralph McCarthy’s translation is incredibly readable. It reads a lot like a classic pulp novel (a bit like a more modern version of Mickey Spillane, Jim Thompson or Dashiell Hammett), with some more descriptive and poetic flourishes. In other words, this is a fast-paced, gripping thriller novel.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a lean and efficient 185 pages in length, this novel remains streamlined and morbidly compelling throughout. However, the pacing is definitely better in the first half of the novel than the second, although both halves are still reasonably suspenseful.

As for how this twenty-five year old novel has aged, it has aged reasonably well. Not only does the story remain grippingly compelling, but the story’s many moments of horror are still as disturbing as ever. Likewise, although there are some brief mentions of 1990s technology, the story has a timeless quality to it (and could easily take place in the present day or the 1970s or whenever). Still, there are a few elements of the story (eg: how Kawashima and Chiaki both despise the opposite sex) which, although integral to the story’s suspenseful drama, irony and dark comedy, would probably be considered “politically incorrect” these days.

All in all, whilst this novel doesn’t quite reach the horrific heights of some of Murakami’s other horror novels (“In The Miso Soup” and “Audition”), it is still a grimly gripping and deeply disturbing read. If you want a story with creepy characters, a grim atmosphere and a fast-paced plot, then this one might be worth checking out.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a four.

Review: “Séance For A Vampire” By Fred Saberhagen (Novel)

For my next book review, I thought that I’d look at a rather interesting novel from 1994 called “Séance For A Vampire” By Fred Saberhagen, which was a gift from a relative who saw it in a charity shop and thought that it was my kind of thing. After all, it’s a Sherlock Holmes novel involving vampires. Needless to say, I was curious.

So, let’s take a look at “Séance For A Vampire”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2010 Titan Books (UK/US ?) paperback reprint of Séance For A Vampire” (1994) that I read.

The novel begins in 1765, where Dracula (yes, that Dracula!) relays an interesting little tale about a hanged pirate in London who mysteriously escapes the gibbet in order to enact violent revenge upon a wealthy man called Altamont who betrayed him and stole his treasure.

Then we flash forward to 221b Baker Street in 1903. Sherlock Holmes has recently been hired by a man called Ambrose Altamont in to investigate and debunk a séance. After the tragic drowning of Ambrose’s daughter Louisa, his wife Madeline has sought comfort from two Scottish spiritualists that Ambrose believes to be charlatans. Needless to say, the case seems pretty open-and-shut…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it’s great to read a Sherlock Holmes story again, this one is slightly more of a thriller novel than a detective story. Yes, the story is wonderfully atmospheric. And, yes, there are a few scenes where Holmes makes a deduction or investigates something – but, for the most part, this is a vintage-style thriller novel, with some detective/mystery novel elements.

Even though this novel isn’t particularly scary, it also naturally includes some horror elements too. For the most part, these consist of brilliantly gothic set pieces involving vampires. These are all suitably dramatic, and they really help to add a wonderfully gothic atmosphere to some parts of the story.

The novel’s treatment of vampirism is, as you would expect, in the tradition of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (after all, he’s a character). The vampires can turn into bats and/or mist, they drink blood occasionally, they can’t be seen in mirrors, they require the soil of their homeland to be kept close at all times and they can also walk around during the day…. most of the time. This novel is somewhat inconsistent about this at times.

However, one break from tradition in this novel is that Dracula isn’t the villain. This novel seems to be a sequel to another novel (the title “The Dracula Tape” is name-dropped a couple of times) and there are some brief references to Holmes and Watson’s previous encounters with vampires, and the entwined histories of the Holmes and Dracula families. Bizarrely, Sherlock Holmes and Dracula are cousins, and they both work together to deal with the vampiric events at the heart of the story. Which is kind of cool, if somewhat bizarre.

The characters in this novel are all reasonably good, and are on a par with what you would expect from a Conan Doyle or Bram Stoker novel. Although Holmes and Watson are pretty much what you’d expect, Dracula is pretty interesting. In essence, he’s shown to be a younger-looking man who is mostly an honourable and polite fellow, who is also Holmes’ intellectual equal.

The novel’s background characters are also fairly interesting, and they receive a moderate amount of characterisation too. Plus, the fact that Saberhagen uses a name from the canon (“Altamont” is the false name that Holmes uses in “His Last Bow) is kind of cool too. The only slight fault with the characters is Saberhagen’s insistence on representing Scottish accents phonetically, which can be a bit awkward to read at times.

Plus, being a relatively modern novel that is set in the past, expect at least a few interesting historical references and cameos too. No doubt that if you are well-versed in Russian history, then one of the novel’s plot twists will be obvious from a mile away. But, although I studied parts of Russian history during my A-levels (and noticed a few other references, such as to the Okhrana etc..), this plot twist still caught me by surprise.

And, talking of the novel’s plot, it is reasonably good. I’ve already mentioned that it’s more of a thriller novel than a detective novel, the plot still moves at a reasonable pace (by the standards of early 20th century-style thriller stories), although it will seem a little slow-paced if you’re used to more modern thriller novels. The story’s dramatic events are all connected to each other in a logical fashion and there don’t seem to be any major plot holes. Plus, at about 280 pages in length (in the edition I read), this novel doesn’t really outstay it’s welcome either.

In terms of the narration, it is something of a mixed bag though. For the most part, the early 20th century-style narration seems reasonably authentic and, if you’ve read Conan Doyle’s original Holmes stories, then you’ll have no problem reading it at a reasonable pace. Although there is the occasional infrequent Americanism (eg: Watson talks about an “automobile” at one point), the style and tone of the narration are really good.

However, this novel uses the dreaded rotating first-person narration – with alternating segments of the novel being narrated by Watson and Dracula. But, thankfully, this annoying narrative technique is mitigated by several factors. For starters, the original “Dracula” novel technically contains multiple narrators and, like in that novel, the presence of multiple narrators is explained by the novel being a collection of several historical documents (which also allows for a few “breaking the fourth wall” moments too).

In more practical terms, the changes between narrators are thankfully clearly announced/signposted most of the time. Likewise, apart from the later parts of the story, each narrator is usually given a reasonable amount of time between changes. Plus, Watson and Dracula have slightly different narrative voices (with Dracula’s narration being a little bit more modern) that help to set them apart from each other. And, finally, they’re Watson and Dracula! With narration by these characters, even I am willing to at least partially overlook the use of rotating first-person narration.

In terms of how this 25 year old novel has aged, it has aged really well. The historical setting and style of the novel mean that it is pretty much timeless. Plus, the few modern-style asides in the narration are still generic enough to seem current (eg: the most modern thing mentioned is a “database”).

All in all, this novel is fairly good. Yes, I’d have preferred it if there had only been one narrator and if it had been more of a detective novel than a thriller novel. But, even so, it was still a reasonably enjoyable read, and is possibly worth taking a look at if you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes, Dracula and/or the gothic horror genre.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and three-quarters.

Review: “Speed” (Film)

Well, since “Speed” happened to be on TV the night before I prepared this review, I thought that I’d set up the DVR.

Although I’d vaguely thought about looking at this film during my “1990s films” review series a month or two ago, I decided against it at the time (partly due to the cost of second-hand DVD copies and partly due to the film’s running time).

Plus, since it’s a film that I haven’t seen since I watched it on VHS sometimes during the early-mid 2000s, I thought that it was about time that I took another look at it. Yes, everyone’s probably already seen this film at least once. But, well, nostalgia.

So, let’s take a look at “Speed”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

“Speed” is an action/thriller film from 1994 starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. It begins in an office building in California, where a criminal (played by Dennis Hopper) threatens to crash a sabotaged lift full of people if he isn’t paid $3 million.

When the police arrive, bomb squad officers Jack (Keanu Reeves) and Harry (Jeff Daniels) decide to attempt a daring rescue. However, after eventually managing to free the passengers from the lift before it plummets into oblivion, Jack realises that the criminal must still be in the building. In fact, he’s in the lift beside the one he sabotaged.

With a shotgun too! The fiend!

After a tense stand-off, in which Harry is wounded, the criminal manages to get away. But, given that the passengers were saved, the cops decide to call it a day and celebrate.

Well, that was a short film. Huh? There’s more…

The next morning, Jack is nursing a hangover and getting ready to go back to work when a nearby bus explodes in a spectacular fashion. After realising that he can’t save the driver, he notices that a nearby payphone is ringing. Picking it up, he suddenly realises that he’s talking to the criminal from the office – who is absolutely furious that he didn’t get his three million dollars.

Yay! Payphones! This is wonderfully ’90s 🙂

The criminal tells Jack that he’s planted another bomb on the 2525 bus and that, once the bus goes above 50mph, the mechanism will be activated. However, if the bus then goes less than 50mph, it will detonate. Needless to say, Jack has to find that bus….

I mean, it’d be a pretty short, dull and depressing film if he didn’t

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that it is a textbook example of an action thriller movie done right. This film is like a carefully-orchestrated symphony, with a defined three-act structure (involving a lift, a bus and a train) and expertly-controlled suspense.

Every few minutes, something will happen that helps to ramp up the tension. For example, the bus’s fuel tank will spring a leak, there will be a traffic jam etc… Seriously, this film is a testament to the power of creativity and inventiveness. Not only is the premise of keeping a bus travelling more than 50mph a fairly inventive one, but the fact that the film is able to keep what is essentially a one-hour bus journey thrillingly suspenseful is quite an achievement.

Yes, the film actually manages to make THIS thrilling!

The film’s three-act structure is also handled really well too. The first segment of the film, involving a lift, helps to introduce the premise of the film in a thrilling way. The second act, set on the bus, is pretty much a self-contained thriller film in it’s own right. Then the final segment of the film, set on a train, allows for a dramatic resolution to the few plot points that were left unresolved in the second act.

Yes, the remaining plot points are resolved… with a vengeance!

In addition to making the film seem like “three films in one”, this structure also helps to counterbalance the film’s relatively long (by 1990s standards) running time. Although I was initially wary about the fact that the film is nearly two hours long, it never feels bloated. If anything, it almost feels like they’ve managed to cram three hours worth of storytelling into those two hours. In other words, this is a rare example of a relatively long film that actually justifies it’s length.

Another inventive thing about this film is that, for a thriller movie, it is relatively non-violent.

Yes, there are a few explosions and several scenes involving guns. But, the main “action” in the film revolves around the film’s main characters using both teamwork and their brains in order to save lives and outwit the criminal. Although Jack is the film’s main “hero”, he’s nothing without other characters such as Harry, a passenger called Annie (played by Sandra Bullock) and the other police officers.

This focus on teamwork helps to add a small amount of “realism” to the film too.

This focus on realistic teamwork and intelligent fast-paced problem-solving also helps to lend the film a warm “feel-good” emotional tone that you don’t really get in “lone hero” action movies or more modern superhero-based action movies. This focus on teamwork in the thriller genre is something from the 1990s (which can also be seen in movies like “Broken Arrow” and games like the original “Resident Evil) which you don’t really see quite as often today. And, well, I really miss when films used to be like this.

In addition to this, the film also contains a small amount of social commentary too. The main motivation behind the villain’s actions (apart from extreme greed) is the fact that he’s a retired man with a meagre pension and a feeling that there’s no purpose to his life.

Likewise, the rear end of the bus has a sarcastic advertising poster that reads “Money isn’t everything (yeah, right.)“. Given that the film’s villain is obsessed with money, to the point of being willing to kill for it, this small detail really adds something to the film.

The film’s special effects and action sequences still stand up extremely well to this day. Since the film uses timeless practical effects and has a fairly large budget, the effects still look pretty spectacular. These include everything from lots of extremely well-choreographed vehicle stunts, a couple of relatively understated combat scenes to a number of melodramatic explosions.

Like this one.

Plus, although the film is mostly set during the day and within bright, summery locations- there is at least a small amount of the kind of really cool ultra-gloomy lighting and inventive set design that is so characteristic of films from the 1980s/1990s (which can mostly be found within the final third of the film):

Such as this mildly futuristic-looking underground train track.

Or this vaguely “Blade Runner”-esque train station concourse.

Or this wonderfully gloomy lighting in the villain’s secret lair.

The film’s acting and characterisation is fairly good too. Although Keanu Reeves plays the kind of stoic character that you would expect him to play, he is contrasted brilliantly by Sandra Bullock’s expert performance as a more reluctant hero. Her character’s courage is emphasised by the fact that she reacts to a lot of the film’s events in a more realistic way (eg: shock, sarcasm, nervousness etc..). Seriously, this is one of Bullock’s best performances.

Plus, she also gets many of the best lines in the film too.

In addition to this, Dennis Hopper’s performance as the film’s villain is really good too. Whilst he comes across as slightly maniacal, he tends to be a slightly more understated evil character who bears a grudge and is willing to sink to any sociopathic depth in order to get the money he feels is owed to him.

The only slight flaw in the film is probably the dialogue. Since the emphasis is on the thrilling and suspenseful events of the film, the dialogue often tends to take a back seat. Yes, there are some fairly good lines of dialogue in the film but most of the dialogue is just “functional” realistic dialogue that fits in well with the events of the film. It’s ok, but nothing spectacular.

All in all, this is the kind of fun, thrilling “feel-good” popcorn movie that shows why the cinema of the 1990s is still highly-regarded to this day. It has an inventive premise, a well-designed structure, almost constant suspense and an emphasis on both teamwork and intelligent problem-solving. There’s a good reason why this film is regarded as a classic. It’s a timeless example of a well-made thriller movie.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get five.

Mini Review: “HighWire (Rocket Jones Vol. II)” [WAD For “Ultimate Doom”]

Well, although I plan to review a game called “Deus Ex: Invisible War” at some point in the future, I realised that it had been a while since I last reviewed any “Doom” WADs. So, not sure what to review, I ended up using the “Random File” feature on the “/idgames archive” until I found a WAD from 1994 called “HighWire (Rocket Jones Vol. II)“.

Note: This WAD will only work with “Ultimate Doom” or possibly old copies of the original three-episode version of “Doom”. Since it takes up the E1M1 level slot, it is NOT compatible with “Doom II” or “Final Doom”. However, given the age of the WAD, it is not only compatible with literally any source port [I used “ZDoom”] but also probably the original DOS version of “Doom” too.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “HighWire”:

“HighWire” consists of a single short level. Although this vintage level doesn’t feature any new textures, weapons, monsters or music, the level has a couple of interesting features that help to prevent it from becoming monotonous or boring.

The main gameplay innovation in this level is that, for the most part, the only weapon available to you is the rocket launcher. Not only that, large portions of the level take place on narrow catwalks above pits of radioactive sludge.

Yes, it’s a 90s level for a 90s FPS game, so expect some inventiveness and creativity 🙂

Although this might sound like a cheap trick, it actually makes the level surprisingly enjoyable. Since you also still have a pistol (with fifty bullets, plus the ten in the backpack at the beginning of the level), this makes some parts of the level a little bit more forgiving – especially given that you often have barely any room to run away from monsters if they get too close. But, the limited ammo supply for the pistol also helps to prevent players from relying on it too often. However, this is a level which requires perseverance and strategy in order to beat.

Basically, when you enter an area, you have to start firing rockets almost immediately. Not only that, you also have to work out which monsters you need to shoot first, lest any get too close to you. This allows a short level with a relatively low number of weak to medium strength monsters (eg: imps, lost souls and cacodemons) to include the kind of challenging, strategy-based gameplay that is only usually found in modern “slaughtermap” levels (that contain hundreds or thousands of more powerful monsters). The strict rationing and relative scarcity of health pickups also helps in this regard too.

This is perhaps the first time in the history of “Doom” that a small number of lost souls on the other side of a room is actually a serious challenge to the player!

As for the level design, it’s surprisingly good. Even though this tiny level is basically a progression through about 4-5 rooms of varying sizes, there are a few clever tricks that help to prevent the level design from appearing too linear.

For example, after beating the first series of catwalks, you enter a room with a narrow path surrounded by lava. This helps to provide a little bit of variety to the room design. But, after you’ve fought all of the monsters in this room and pressed the switch, you actually have to go back across the previous room (via a different path) to get to the next room.

Aside from the very beginning and very end of the level, this is the only room without platforms. Yet, the path-based design helps to keep the room thematically consistent, whilst also providing some variety for the player.

Likewise, the next room (a large area with catwalks) is also fairly innovative for the simple reason that you have to fight two “waves” of monsters.

First of all, you have to defeat several lost souls with a rocket launcher. Then ,after you’ve pressed a button, some raised platforms lower and a number of cacodemons appear. This requires a change in strategy, since you can’t really fight all of them. So, you actually have to fight a couple and work out a way to grab two keys before they swarm you.

As I said, in some ways, this level is similar to a modern-style “slaughtermap” level in terms of strategic gameplay – even though it contains relatively few monsters.

Although the level doesn’t contain any new music, one cool feature is that – because it takes up the E1M1 level slot – it features the classic “E1M1” background music. Given that this is an absolutely epic piece of music which is pretty much symbolic of the classic “Doom” games, it really helps to add some extra drama to the level.

All in all, for a tiny level made in 1994, this is actually surprisingly good! Even with a relatively small number of weaker monsters, the clever level and gameplay design here helps to ensure that even experienced players will find it enjoyably challenging.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would probably get at least four.

Mini Review: “Xmas/ Doom” (WAD For “Doom II”/ “Final Doom”)

2016 Artwork XMAS DOOM WAD review sketch

Well, you didn’t think that I’d forgotten about “Doom II”, did you? Seriously though, it has been way too long since I reviewed some levels for this game – so, since Christmas draws ever closer, I thought that I’d check out a festive WAD from 1994 called “Xmas/ Doom“.

As usual, I used one of the more modern versions of the “ZDoom” source port whilst playing this WAD, although – given it’s age- it’ll work with pretty much any source port. Plus, although this WAD comes with several DOS-based installers, you can just use the “XD1” and “SPRITES” files with your source port (in “ZDoom” or “GZDoom”, just highlight these two files and drag-and-drop them onto the “ZDoom”/”GZDoom” icon)

So, let’s take a look at “Xmas/ Doom”:

Screenshot_Doom_20160528_154810

“Xmas/Doom” is a short Christmas-themed WAD that contains three short Christmas-themed levels, as well as new textures and new music. Each of these three levels has a Christmas theme and, for something made in 1994, there are some surprisingly cool effects here:

Like this animated falling snow at the beginning of level three.

Like this animated falling snow at the beginning of level three.

I got through this WAD in about half an hour and I’d say that the difficulty level is mildly to moderately challenging. It might just be because I was slightly out of practice, but I found the first level to be the most difficult of the three since it contains a fair number of narrow corridors and mid-high level monsters. Including, of course, the obligatory arch-vile:

Yay! Even in 1994, modders knew that a "Doom II" WAD should contain at least one of THESE.

Yay! Even in 1994, modders knew that a “Doom II” WAD should contain at least one of THESE.

Most of the challenge in the first level comes from the fact that there isn’t quite enough shotgun ammo to deal with all of the monsters near the start of the level. Yes, if you explore, you’ll find both a rocket launcher and a BFG about halfway through the level, but you’ll probably be too busy dodging and/or running away from monsters to look for these until you realise that you have no other option.

The levels in this WAD are designed to be short and fast levels, with lots of combat (by 1994 standards anyway) and a good mixture of expansive and claustrophobic areas. The atmosphere of each level is enhanced with various snow-covered textures, a few Christmas decorations and a few creative alterations to the familiar UAC logo:

 SANTA Inc.? I think that someone's made a spelling mistake, given the number of demonic creatures I've run into so far in this level...

SANTA Inc.? I think that someone’s made a spelling mistake, given the number of demonic creatures I’ve run into so far in this level…

And skeletal greetings to you too :)

And skeletal greetings to you too 🙂

One surprisingly original touch is the final boss battle. Instead of the usual Cyberdemon or Spider Demon battle, you are pitted against a version of the Icon Of Sin that sits in the middle of a very festive-looking pyramid of skulls.

Although you are given lots of health and ammo in this part of the level, the real challenge is to work out how to get rid of the pyramid, so that you can press the tower in the centre of it and finish the level.

Believe it or not, this boss battle is actually a puzzle! God, I miss imaginative 1990s game design :)

Believe it or not, this boss battle is actually a puzzle! God, I miss imaginative 1990s game design 🙂

The puzzle is relatively simple once you work out what you’re supposed to do, but it might take a bit of trial and error – although experienced 1990s FPS gamers should have no trouble with it.

But, although level design is reasonably good, it it isn’t without it’s flaws. One problem in level three was that an automatically-opening door (that gives you the yellow key… and two revenants) failed to open when I walked into the room in front of it.

In the end, I had to both find and access this room using cheat codes. It’s possible that I missed a hidden switch or something, but I made a fairly careful search of the surrounding area beforehand and couldn’t find anything.

Likewise, there’s one room in the second level that you only seem to get one chance to access. Yes, it’s possible that there’s a hidden switch, or you have to travel back and forwards far enough to trigger the sliding wall that blocks off the room (neither of these things could be found or seemed to work when I first encountered this room), but be sure to save often in the second level.

As for the music, it’s the usual collection of Christmas-themed MIDIs that you would expect in a WAD like this. I’ve heard the music from the first level used in a more modern WAD before, but the second level contains a very interesting rendition of “The Twelve Days Of Christmas”. This music is fairly good and it really helps to add to the festive atmosphere of this WAD.

All in all, this is a fun little WAD – with fast, enjoyable and slightly challenging gameplay. Yes, it has a couple of small design flaws but it looks really impressive for something that is 22 years old! Likewise, the final boss battle contains more originality than the boss battles in many WADs that I’ve played.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least three and a half.